Plato and Aristotle

By David Snyder

The School of Athens by Raphael

There’s an idea being kicked around the academic world, by men and women who know of such things, that the civilization we Westerners inhabit is the product of a long-ago rift: that of Plato and Aristotle. Plato, the dreamer, the mystic, the man who dreamed of things that never were and asked: why not? And Aristotle, the empiricist, the man of ethics, the voice of pragmatism. These two half of the same dime are where each and every one us of cast our lot, and the argument goes that it’s a binary thing: one’s either a Plato man or an Aristotle man.

I find the idea that I’m one thing or the other rather unpalatable, as I’m sure many of my compatriots do. I’m on the side of strong brew and long conversations, not of one or another philosopher. Round these parts we don’t like being told who we side with or who we owe it all to: we like to tell you who we side with.

If I had a gun to my head, I’d throw my lot in with Aristotle for no reason other than I’m sure I couldn’t stomach all of Plato’s talk of philosopher kings and the Cave and all the rest. Old Ari was no stranger to ego, but surely the man was more tepid, and if there’s one thing I admire in a man it’s a good dose of tepid.

Uncomforted with being told who I’m for aside, there’s something to the idea that we’re all either a Plato or an Aristotle. Let’s look at our own politicians hanging about the national scene lately. Bernie Sanders, a classic Plato man. Pie in the sky, yearning for what’s just and what’s fair; he’s all over that. And then there’s Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama, two by the book Aristotelians. Pragmatic to a fault but principled, those two demand reason, calm, and rocking the boat as little as possible. Sure, there’s talk of Hope and Change now and then, but with qualifications.

I see this rift of worldview’s in my professors, peers, and family. It’s clear as day who sides with whom, no more so than with the academics. Just this past semester I had a professor who was asked why he’s voting for Mrs Clinton come this fall, and he answered that he was for those who “believe in science.” Another said she’d be voting for Senator Sanders because he “dreams big” when the rest talk of the “same old compromises of principle.” There’s an Aristotelian if I’ve ever seen one.

However, this binary idea doesn’t hold water at a certain point; we’re all both of Plato and Aristotle, just at different times of our lives. Yesterday, one could’ve shouted for Plato and I would’ve answered as though one called my own name. Today, I couldn’t stomach another second of that Platonic feel-goodery. No, today I was all about proof and caution. This holds true on a more macro scale as well, taking a look at the broad scope of one’s entire life. When one is young, nothing tops reason and cold, hard answers and truth. When one goes through school and college, surrounded by all sorts and liberal frenzy, one tilts toward the Platonic. When one moves into middle age and hair starts falling out of some spots and starts growing in strange other ones, one bunkers down, invests in gold, and shuns the foolhardy Platonics. Finally, in old age, the same one throws it all to the wind, embracing life’s great beauties and unknowns, leaving it up to art, imagination, and what might one day be.

We may all be either a Plato or an Aristotle at one point or another, but the beauty of life is in the ability to be both during the same day, changing our minds when new facts are presented and new whims are indulged.

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