Plato and Aristotle Ancient Philosophy in Modern Times

Platos Theory of Ethics
    Platos theory of ethics is similar to other ancient philosophers in that he focuses on virtue based thought and conduct in support of human well being.  In describing his theory, Plato undermines the mainstream ways in which people behave towards one another as he makes known his own conception of how people should act.  Plato considers happiness to be a state of perfection through the solving of problems and difficulties.  In several regards, Platos idea of ethics is somewhat severe and self deprecating, as he believes that the soul is above the body and that the community is above the individual, lending to a hierarchical model of human interaction (Frede, 2009).  Although much of the philosophy of Plato is grounded in the human realm, in his later writings, he does branch into the idea of a transcendental good.  In this metaphysical philosophy, the true nature of all things, the form of the universal good, is the basis for moral values.  These moral values give rise to Platos belief that the most suitable political order can be maintained only by leaders with a thorough and accurate scientific training.

Aristotles Theory of Ethics
    Like other ancient philosophers, Aristotles theory of ethics is based in the idea of virtuous thought and conduct in support of human well being.  Aristotle believes that ethical virtues of the individual, such as justice, courage, and temperance, are necessary rational, emotional, and social skills (Kraut, 2007).  However, unlike Plato, Aristotle rejects the idea that training in science and metaphysics is absolutely necessary for a full understanding of what is good.  The basis of well being and good living, from Aristotles perspective, is fully appreciating the ways in which goods such as friendship, honor, and pleasure work together as part of a holistic system.  Based on a moral upbringing, the individual is then able to make clear judgments about the correct courses of action to take.  Mental, behavioral, and social skills are learned in a variety of ways so that the individual is able to make deliberate choices towards living a fully good and ethical life.

Elia Kazan
    Elia Kazan was one of the most significant American film directors of the 1950s and 60s and was also a member of the American Communist Party during the 1930s.  In the early 1950s, the US House of Representatives had a focused committee which was rooted in the desire to eliminate Communists from prominent positions in all industries.  Kazan made the decision to testify against other filmmakers, because people who had not cooperated with the House were being blacklisted from the film industry.  By offering the names of eight friends in the film industry, other writers and directors who had also been members of the American Communist Party, Kazan was able to save himself from political backlash.  Many people are torn about the ethical decision made by Kazan, as he contributed to the ruin of the careers of eight other people yet was strongly pressured to cooperate with the US authorities who suspected Communist infiltration.  Today, Kazan has yet to be honored for his fine work in the film industry.

Platos Evaluation of Kazan
    In considering the ethical perspective of Plato in regard to the case of Kazan, it is probable that Plato would not be supportive of the actions taken.  Plato made it clear that he believed in a hierarchical structure of the community over the individual, so believing in the ideology of Communism was probably not a remote notion for Plato.  Hierarchy in the sense that government has a more powerful and intelligent positioning over individuals was a part of Platos philosophy, therefore the actions taken by a supremely individualistic government would have been counter to his beliefs.  The fact that Kazan participated with the individualistic US government would have demonstrated to Plato that Kazan undermined the need for a certain amount of community and government control over individuals.  Although it is probable that Plato would have supported Kazan in his early years as a member of the Communist party, it is unlikely that he would have supported Kazans turn towards supporting the individualistic government.  Perhaps if Kazan had been informing on friends who had been a part of the Republican or Libertarian party, then Plato would have been more sympathetic.   

Aristotles Evaluation of Kazan
    In considering the ethical perspective of Aristotle in regard to the case of Kazan, it is probable that Aristotle would not be supportive of the actions taken.  Aristotle was a proponent of the individual making virtuous decisions based on the practice of moral behaviors.  When Kazan was placed under pressure by the authorities, it is probable that Aristotle would have been encouraging of Kazan doing what he thought was right in regard to which, if any, information was shared with the investigating committee.  However, the information shared by Kazan should have only been personal in nature and not casting blame on other people.  By deriding his friends, Kazan would have shown Aristotle that he was not brave enough to face the decision of the committee based on revealing solely his own personal actions.  Pointing the guilty finger at his friends would have seemed to Aristotle as if Kazan was not able to face his own personal decisions alone.  Aristotle believed that the individual himself was responsible for his own happiness and success, resulting from personal choices made and actions taken.  In dragging down his friends, Aristotle would have been offended by Kazans inability to face the outcomes of his own choices.

Interpretation of Platos Theory and Evaluation
    It is safe to say that I do agree with Platos theory of ethics to a certain extent, although not fully.  While I do believe that the community has a certain relationship with the individual and that the soul has a certain relationship with the body, I do not believe that these relationships are hierarchical, but rather horizontal.  The community or government body has a certain relationship with the individual, but this does not mean that the community or government is over the individual.  The community or government is responsible for serving the needs of the individual, and vice versa.  There is a cooperative and harmonious effort involved in this dynamic.  Where Plato would be willing for the community and government to assume an authoritative tone over individuals, I would not be willing for the government to completely take over, such as is displayed in Communism.  I believe that there has to be a certain balance between the needs of the community and the needs of the individual, so that both entities are served as best as possible in relation to one another.  While I would agree that Kazan had a certain responsibility to his government and community, I would not agree that he should have been involved in the extremist Communist party.

Interpretation of Aristotles Theory and Evaluation
    Aristotles theory of the well being of the individual resulting from the practice of virtuous thought and moral behavior is very much aligned with my own personal philosophy.  I truly believe that the actions an individual takes are able to have repercussions in the lives of other people, yet the individual remains solely responsible for the choices one makes.  It is not necessary for a person to be a government official or a highly educated scientist to know what is right from what is wrong.  I agree with Aristotle that correct moral formation which leads to good decision making is a skill which can be picked up by any person in any family.  The individual is naturally inclined to be kind, to serve the needs of oneself and others in a spirit of good will, yet is it possible for the individual to make mistakes which can negatively affect one and others.  While every person is responsible for ones own benevolent actions, every person is also responsible for ones own malevolent actions.  I would agree with Aristotle that Kazan did not fully honor the individuality and personal responsibility of his friends by informing on them to the authorities.


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