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Aristotle's Ethics and Plato's Republic: A Structural Comparison

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 May 2010

Francis Sparshott
University of Toronto


The architectonic of the Nicomachean Ethics, as that has come down to us, corresponds closely to that of Plato's Republic. That the substance of the Aristotelian ethic, both in its main orientations and in the texture of its argumentation, is Platonic through and through, is of course not in dispute. What appears not to have been noticed is the correspondence between the ways in which the two works are organized. The correspondence is so extensive that it seems hard to doubt that Aristotle (or whoever put the Ethics together) hung his work on Plato's armature. If that is the case, much light should be shed on the later project by divergences between the tactics of the two works at the main points of coincidence. On the assumption that the Republic is a highly structured work and the Ethics is not evidently so, the procedure followed is analogous to that recommended and followed by Socrates in the Republic (368D): confronted by two apparently similar messages, one hard and one easy to read, we should read the easy one first and then look to see if the hard one says the same.

Copyright © Canadian Philosophical Association 1982

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1 The present study is, in fact, ancillary to an extended examination of the overall argument of the Nicomachean Ethics. The main features of the correspondence between the two works are noted in my Socrates and Thrasymachus”, Monist 50 (1966), 421459, 454, note 46CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Since the corresponding passages are jointly designated by labels applicable to both, the designations cannot be ideally apt descriptions of either. It would only have been possible to make them so if the works had been virtually identical; and it would not then have been necessary to write this paper.

3 Paul Moraux argues that Aristotle's lost dialogue On Justice responded point by point to Plato's argument in the Republic. EN V abandons the arrangement of On Justice, but retains some of its material (A la recherche de I'Aristote perdu [Louvain: Publications universitaires de Louvain, 1957])Google Scholar.

4 This treatment reflects the recognition that the text of the EN as we have it does look like a scissors-and-paste job. The question is only who wielded the blades and pot, and in what circumstances.

5 EN VII, like Republic IX, ends with a note on the division of allegiance between mundane and spiritual concerns, though the notes vary greatly in tone.

6 For a detailed exposition of this theme, see my Plato and Thrasymachus”, University of Toronto Quarterly 27 (1957), 5461CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 This is not in fact the first point at which Socrates uses the concept of function. At 335D-E he gets Polemarchus to agree that it cannot be the function of heat to chill, or of dryness to moisten, and then urges that harming is not the function of the just. But no emphasis is there laid on the concept of function. In the present passage (352D-E) the word is introduced as familiar, but it is made the focus of attention: Socrates offers his definition, which is greeted by “I do not understand”. (The concept of function is not the only thing that passes without comment in the earlier passage: even more striking to the reader with hindsight is the way Socrates exploits the fact that the genitives of ho dikaios “the just man” and to dikaion “justice” are the same, so that by interpolating the remark that “the good man is just” in a discussion couched in terms of abstract nouns he can proceed to equivocate between “the function of justice” and “the business of a just man”.)

8 Aristotle does not go into the matter here, but one reason he speaks of the function of “man” and not of “soul” is that he thinks the word “soul” is systematically misleading. It is a blanket word covering all the vital functions of any living thing (at least, that is true of the word as Plato used it in philosophical contexts), but the functions classified as vital vary enormously as between the basic different kinds of things classified as “living”. When Plato says the soul's function is best described as “life”, he is using an ambiguous term to gloss an obscure one. We cannot specify the characteristics of souls or of living things in general; what we can do is say what is characteristic of the basic kinds of living things—plants, sessile animals, mobile animals, symbol-using animals.

9 The scandal can be defused by pointing out that, since the word “well” (eu) can in fact be used in all of these ways, the word has no clear meaning unless all the ways do somehow converge; and that, if the word “well” has no clear meaning, the word “good” has no clear meaning either, so that no rational discussion of “the good life” will be possible.

10 For the unscientific character of the distinction between the rational and the irrational, see Aristotle, De Anima 432a22ff.; for the soul as a collection of capacities, ibid. 414a29ff. Plato's thesis on the differentiation of psychic capacities is in Republic V, 477B-D; Aristotle's succinct statement at EN 1122bl–2 of how habits are differentiated makes essentially the same point in different terminology.

11 On the relation between Plato's and Aristotle's systems of the virtues, see my Five Virtues in Plato and Aristotle”, Monist 54 (1970), 4065CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 See Kenny, Anthony, The Aristotelian Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13 Socrates uses the phrase “deliberation and all that sort of thing” (boulenesthai kai ta toiauta panta, 353D): it is not clear what “all that sort of thing” is meant to include. It might be all kinds of mental operation, or only all kinds of practical thinking.

14 There is a similar eduction in the first chapter of Metaphysics A, in which scientific reasoning is said to arise from the quest for ever more deeply underlying causes, a quest prompted by the need to make practice ever more reliable.

15 Aristotle complicates the discussion by taking account of temperamental characteristics affecting resistance to strain (“toughness” and “softness”), to which he allows little systematic importance. They take the place of what Plato had called “courage”, which according to Aristotle is not a virtue at all. See the article cited in note 11.

16 This is a recurrent theme in Plato; see for instance Crito 48A.

17 “Not to learn something but to experience something” is what is required of those initiated into a mystery (On Philosophy, frag. 15 Ross). In the Poetics, the task of the tragic poet is said to be to make his readers, as well as his spectators, phrittein kai eleein (“shudder and be sorry”, 1453b5); that the objective is to produce a certain kind of pleasure is made clear at 1453blO–14.

18 In the case of fear, this is obvious enough; that it applies to pity as well is explained in Rhetoric II.8, 1385b13–16Google Scholar.

19 Hardie, W. F. R. objects that we cannot share each other's experience “in the sense which the argument requires” (Aristotle's Ethical Theory [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968], 324).Google Scholar But he does not explain why the argument requires his sense, which would involve a fusion of experiences (ibid., 332).

20 The abruptness of the opening of EN VIII seems to have disconcerted some early editor. As the text stands, the book begins by saying that friendship comes next because it is or implies virtue—which reflects a version of EN without books V to VII, or at least without VII—but then launches straight into a conventional encomium on friendship as an external good, which presupposes an entirely different context of discussion and is compatible with the whole EN as we have it.

21 See note 3 above.

22 Fr. Dirlmeier points out that both Plato and Aristotle use reminiscences to suggest that their tenth books come round full circle to their opening discussions. Plato's conclusion with a myth of the underworld (614B) brings us back to Cephalus' concern with such myths (330D); Aristotle's mention of Solon in EN X, ix, recalls his earlier mention in EN I, xi (Aristoteles: Nikomachische Ethik [Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1956], 596)Google Scholar.

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