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Reason vs Passion: Comparing Aristotle and Plato
It must be well known among all students and scholars of philosophy that both Plato and Aristotle have a high regard for reason. But what is their view on passion? It might be surprising to learn that neither philosopher holds a negative view of passion in and of itself—what both do, however, point out is that passion should be subservient to reason. Passion that is governed by reason is certainly not a bad thing, for either philosopher, and what is more important is that some passions or emotions should be promoted over others (Urmson; Taylor).
The problem that most moderns have when it comes to understanding what passion means is that they are defining the term according to all-or-nothing terms, applying a kind of either/or approach to the issue of whether one should live one’s life by using the head or the heart. Both Plato and Aristotle supported some degree of combination of usage—i.e., that head and heart should be in alignment in order for happiness to be achieved, and that both head and heart should be oriented towards the good. For moderns, influenced by the philosophy of the Romantic Era, the meaning of passion is associated with unrestrained feeling or with feeling (the heart) being the soul guide and arbiter of action. Understanding the ways in which Aristotle and Plato understood passion and emotion and how they associated it with reason is important then to understanding the nature of the relationship between reason and passion.
What Should Rule, the Head or Heart?
The conflict between whether the head or the heart should be the governing voice of action is one that has been particularly of concern in the modern era, as it was the Romantic Age that gave such support to the heart in response to the Enlightenment Age which advocated solely for Reason. It was the French Revolution, after all, that enshrined Reason and deified in a show of total submission to the concept that man need nothing more than logic. It is not surprising that humanity, sympathy, empathy and compassion were utterly absent during the Reign of Terror that followed. The Revolution showed that when man gives himself over wholly to Reason, neglecting the impulses of the heart, there can be an absolute horror that follows. The bloodletting that transpired during the Reign of Terror in Paris substantially bears this out.
At the same time, the Romantic Age went in the opposite direction, essentially deifying feeling and emotion as that which should guide life. Feelings so long as they were passionately felt, were all that mattered—and this in turn led to its own set of problems and horrors for the individuals who followed this line of thinking. Percy Bysshe Shelley, for example, left a string of deaths in his wake as he pursued the grand feelings and emotions he identified in his poetry. His wife, Mary Shelley, turned Percy’s pursuit of feeling into the basis of her gothic horror novel Frankenstein, which told of a man consumed by a passion, which in turn begets a monster who destroys the life and work of the man.
In both ages—the Enlightenment Age in which Reason was upheld above all else, and in the Romantic Age in which Passion was upheld above all else as the guiding force for life—unspeakable horrors resulted, indicating that the all-or-nothing approach to whether the head or heart should rule was too extreme. Neither Plato nor Aristotle advocated such an extreme approach to the question of what should rule, the head or the heart, reason or passion. On the contrary, each in his own way advocated for a balance, or at least an alignment between the two in which both were oriented towards the higher ideal of goodness. Though each philosopher differed in his approach to this balance in terms of how reason should be viewed (as an end in itself or as a tool to be applied to daily life), the essence of their perspectives was that reason should govern passion or that passion, at least, should be oriented towards reason.
The Importance of the Soul
To understand Plato’s approach to this question, it is necessary to understand his view of human nature. Plato believed that man had a soul and that the soul was what animated man in his entirety. The soul possessed qualities that were manifested in the man’s approach to life. The soul had knowledge written upon it, had impulses that could be driven by base desires, and had a spirit that could be described as good or bad depending on how close in proximity it was towards the Good.
John Cooper points out Plato’s depiction of the soul by explaining that the soul’s three, basic characteristics: “reason, spirit and appetite” (3). According to Plato, these three distinct parts may be independent of one another but they are actually meant to act harmoniously—“that is to say, there are desires of reason as well as bodily appetites and impulses of a spirited nature” (Cooper 5). By identifying the aspects of the soul in this way, Plato is not meaning to draw them into competition with one another but rather to show how they are all sides of human life—aspects of the human will and motivating force of life.
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Reason and passion (whether spiritual or physical) are not to be thought of as conflicting or contradictory because the point for Plato is that they can be mutually reinforcing. In other words, they can and should work together, and when they do just that, the human life achieves a harmonious balance—the type of balance that people are meant to enjoy.
With that said, the opposite can also occur if one let’s feeling dominate or run amok. Plato gives some energy in describing the meaning of these two aspects of the soul and juxtaposing them with reason in order…
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…a good example, like Odysseus, in that he is ultimately a good man, has a noble bearing and quality, is loved by all, and wants to do the Good. However, there is a problem that Oedipus must confront: he has a weakness within his character, which is wrath. It is this wrath that prompted him to lose his temper and kill a stranger at a crossroads. The stranger it turns out happened to be the Theban king and in fact Oedipus’s own biological father (Oedipus had been given up by his parents as a baby and had never known them).
Following the murder of the king, Oedipus solves the riddle of the sphinx and is rewarded by the Thebans (who were oppressed by the Sphinx) with the empty throne. He marries Jocasta (who happens to be his mother—the mother he never knew) and has children with her. But the gods are angry that Oedipus has committed regicide, and Thebes is plagued by them with sickness. Oedipus vows to find out the cause of the plague and ultimately uncovers the truth—that he is the cause for he is the one who killed the king, his father. He blinds himself in an act of humiliation and leaves the city with his daughter Antigone to help guide him on his way since he can no longer see.
Aristotle’s point in identifying Oedipus as the ultimate tragic hero capable of filling one with fear and pity is that the more that people realize how everyone is really in the same boat, all subject to the same divine force, all possessing the same common characteristics, the more likely they are to demonstrate the type of resolve needed to be good and to desire the Good with all their heart.
Head and Heart United
For both Plato and Aristotle, therefore, it can been seen that reason is essential— in terms of forming the character and in terms of restraining the appetite. The head is needed—but so too is the heart. This was the mistake that the Revolutionaries made in Paris during the Reign of Terror. It was also the mistake that the Rationalists made during the Era that preceded them. Head and heart are both part of the human personality and neither is to be ignored. Rather each is to be aware of the other so that they can work together towards the Good.
The aim of Plato was to show that the use of reason in pursuit of the highest ideal was mankind’s greatest challenge and noblest task. Plato loved to use his intellect to consider all things, to know truth and to know himself. Aristotle saw reason as having a more pragmatic or practical application: he wanted to show that people could use reason to know good from bad, right from wrong and then form their characters so that their likes and dislikes conformed to what their head knew was good and bad. Aristotle saw head and heart….....