Truth and Morality in Ancient Greece: Plato vs. Aristotle

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Does art deceive our eyes and corrupt our minds? Plato believed that it did. Image by jojo22

The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, (384 BC – 322 BC) advocated studying philosophy through empiricism, which is the idea that it’s only possible to determine any truth through actual experience.

For both Aristotle and his teacher, Plato (427 BC – 347 BC), there are two themes essential to their concept of truth in art – morality and reality.

Plato and Aristotle: Truth and Falsity in Art

The following definitions of the theory upheld by both Plato and his pupil, Aristotle, appear in Rosalind Hursthouse’s essay, “Truth and Representation.” 

  1. Can art be morally educative or formative by conveying moral truths, or by aiding our grasp and understanding of moral truths, and hence give us moral knowledge?
  2. Can art truly represent reality, and, in particular, can it represent moral reality (and hence convey moral truths and yield moral knowledge)?

Hursthouse points out that both definitions emphasise art in terms of mimesis, which means “imitation.” Sometimes this means, literally, to copy – while in other cases it may mean “representation,” “impersonation” or “mimicry.”

The Greeks lumped all these together, whereas today we would be specific about which kind of imitation we mean.

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What Did Plato, Aristotle’s Teacher, Believe About Representation?

In the chapter: “Plato,” in his book, 100 Great Thinkers, Jeremy Harwood points out that Plato is the first philosopher in the Western tradition whose work is still available to us intact, so we know exactly what he believed.

Plato (c. 427 BC – c. 347 BC) had plenty to say on the subject of representation. He is famous for his assertion that art is a third remove from the throne of truth. He reaches this conclusion through claiming that man-made objects must have an original form that God created. Therefore, life is just an imitation of this original form from God’s eternal plan.

This assumes that life is not a reality, but a representation. Therefore, art is an imitation of an imitation. These three removes are considered inclusively in Plato’s thinking.

Plato believed that the artist has the intention to deceive us because paintings deceive the eye. He also went to great pains to restrict the form that poetry could take.

In his book, The Republic, Plato set out his ideas of a Utopian society in which the society trained the rulers from birth for their role in controlling the state and attending to its good, and who were known as “guardians.” The rest of society were soldiers and the common people.

What Did Plato Believe About Censorship for the Moral Good?

Plato upholds arguments against art that invoke religious as well as moral and psychological aspects. To represent the gods as deceitful, or less than good in any respect, is wrong and false.

These representations corrupt the young and influence both their character and their behaviour, as Rosalind Hursthouse explains: “Plato argues that the only sort of character whose ‘representation’ can play a proper part in the education of the Guardians is that of a good man…”

In the society that Plato proposed, the above comment seems justifiable. However, for Plato, poetry is actually dangerous! According to Hursthouse, “… [H]e concludes, all dramatic poetry (whose recitation would necessarily involve impersonating or representing all sorts of undesirable characters) must be banned; and epic poetry must be written in such a way that ‘the proportion of representation will be small – limited to the direct speeches of good men,’ especially when the good man ‘is behaving with steadiness and determination, and only failing in a few respects and to a limited degree, owing to illness or love or drink, or some other misfortune.'”  

It’s clear that Plato was no democrat, and this restriction of the content of poetry and drama as an exercise to educate the young in moral values seem draconian to us today; but, in fact, Plato claims he is merely censoring what is false about what is important. In other words, the poems are untrue. Not only are they false, but they are also wicked and sinful and may corrupt the young.


Pleasure or pain is a thought accompanied by joy or grief. But several different emotions can cause the same feeling. Image by pedrojperez.

In short, The Republic is a political treatise and its central purpose is in educating and moralising to the young.

Plato Considers the Corruption of the Young and Impressionable

Hursthouse’s analysis of Plato concedes that sometimes children do not grasp the differences between play and reality, and that it is quite possible that in their play, they might form negative attitudes about killing, violence and gender-roles.

She points out, “Children cannot distinguish between what is allegory and what isn’t, and opinions formed at that age are usually difficult to eradicate or change.”

We know from experience that there have been many copycat killers or acts of extreme violence committed as a result of viewing a film or a news item. Impersonating bad behaviour is a common human failing and has been throughout history.

However, it is possible to produce emotional and literal interpretations in poetry, drama and other art disciplines which are not untruthful, yet evoke the imagination of the artist and the audience and from which learning can be achieved.

Aristotle Argues Against Plato about Emotion, Poetry and Universal Truth

Aristotle, however, believed that universal truths could be conveyed through poetry, truth that could be of benefit to human beings and to society. An emotion is, simply, a thought experienced with either pleasure or with pain, but different emotions can give rise to the same feeling. We might ask whether the sinking feeling in our stomach is jealousy or sorrow and to find out, we need to examine our thoughts.

While pity is discomfort at another’s misfortune, envy might invoke a very different emotion, that of pleasure at another’s misfortune. This is known today as “Schadenfreude” as explained by B. Rose Huber in the Princeton Journal Watch of Princeton University. Schadenfreude comes from the German language. “Schaden” means “harm” and “freude” means “joy.”

It seems we are biologically programmed to feel this way, so Aristotle was being most incisive about human nature when he wrote about emotions and how different emotions can produce similar feelings within us.

As Rosalind Hursthouse summarises: “The most significant background disagreements between them (Plato and Aristotle) concern the Theory of Forms and the role of emotion in moral education.”  

Another way of thinking about it would be to say that Plato’s approach is theoretical, rational, and upholds a suppression of our animal desires, while Aristotle’s empirical thought is less rigid and supports the correct training of those same appetites and emotions.

Aristotle: an Influential Moral Thinker and Philosopher

Jeremy Harwood says that Aristotle’s “advocacy of empiricism as the only reliable philosophical method  profoundly influenced medieval and later scholars.”

Aristotle also acknowledged that no one can devise a single, philosophical principle, as claimed by Socrates and his own teacher, Plato, claimed. As a result of this insight, he denied that the laws of nature could ever be exact. “…although he maintained that certain metaphysical categories, quantity, quality substance and relation, for example – could be used in devising descriptions of natural phenomena,” explains Harwood.

Harwood sets out the Four Moral Causes devised by Aristotle to help people to understand how to analyse empirically:

“…the Material Cause (what is it made of) the Formal Cause (what is it), the Efficient Cause (how it came to be) and the Final Cause (what is it for).” 

Aristotle was also the philosopher who posited “The Golden Mean” which means the “middle way between two extremes,” explains Harwood. We need to reason and to reason well, Aristotle believed, to attain our full potential.

Courage is the golden mean between being a crazy risk-taker and yet not being cowardly when action is required – while if we are truthful, we will avoid boasting and yet not employ inappropriate modesty.

Aristotle: One of the Greatest Moral Philosophers

From the careful and empathetic reasoning described above, it is clear that Aristotle was one of the greatest moral philosophers of all time.

Aristotle was not overly influenced by the arguments of his teacher, Plato, although both men agreed on certain metaphysical arguments, for example, that the soul was divided into two parts, the rational and the irrational. However, both men were, to a large extent, products of their own time and place.

Bertrand Russell says, in his Chapter, “Aristotle’s Ethics” in History of Western Philosophy:

“The views of Aristotle on ethics represent, in the main, the prevailing opinions of educated and experienced men of his day. They are not, like Plato’s, impregnated with mystical religion, nor do they countenance such unorthodox theories as are to be found in The Republic, concerning property and the family.”

Russell says that any person with any depth of feeling would find Plato’s philosophy as set out in The Republic, “repulsive.” On the other hand, Aristotle’s beliefs about morality were entirely conventional and in agreement with the ideological systems of his day.

These beliefs were still a long way from how we think about morality today, with our concern for human rights and equality.

“Aristotle thinks that justice involves not equality, but right proportion which is only sometimes equality,” says Russell. These so-called proportions of equality account for differences between, say, a master and a slave, or a father and a son. A master could never take a slave to be his friend. Chillingly, Russell quotes Aristotle:

“There is nothing in common between the two parties; the slave is the living tool.”

Aristotle and Plato: Influence, Accusations, and Obscurity

Aristotle studied under the tutelage of Plato, and he remained at the Academy, first as a pupil and later as a teacher, for twenty years. After the death of Plato, Aristotle was engaged to teach Alexander the Great. When his teaching engagement with Alexander the Great came to an end some years later, Aristotle returned to Athens and set up his own philosophy school, The Lyceum.

On Alexander’s death in 323 BC, Aristotle fled into exile and died a year later.

Aristotle’s work fell into obscurity in Europe during the Dark Ages, although it was still prevalent in the Muslim world. In the Middle Ages, Aristotle became, once again, an influence in Europe and remains so to this day.

Plato, on the other hand is frequently accused of advocating totalitarianism, although some philosophers present arguments that dispute this. However, Plato too, had enormous influence on Western philosophical ideas and on the later development of Christian thought.

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© Copyright 2015 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past


  1. says

    Hi Janet,

    Thank you for the excellent article.

    You pointed out that Aristotle was by and large an empiricist. I think it is interesting to note that in Aristotle’s syllogisms, he takes empirical observations as a premise or premises and then derives through deduction conclusions. I think it is interesting because he shows that empiricism and deduction go together, as presented in his book the Prior Analytics. He also shows how observation in induction is used in his book Posterior Analytics. While largely an empiricist, it seems to me that in some cases Aristotle has it both ways bringing empiricism and rational thought together in a very unique way.

    Thanks Again!

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