Plato and Saint Augustine: Philosophical Contrast and Coalition – Philosophy Essay
The Philosophers Plato and Saint Augustine are virtual shadows of each other, both striving for similar aspirations and longing for perfection. Although they both desire to live in a “just” society, their
individual objectives in the pursuit of justice differed greatly. The writings of St. Augustine, Confessions and The City of God, exemplified the disagreement that he had with Plato regarding politics and the use of religion. Through the examination of their individual terms, one can see parallelism in definition, but only when paired with a prodigious divergence in individual focus; Plato focused on Politics, Augustine on personal excellence and self-delectation. Both Philosophers attempted to do what was “good” and “just”, but because they had different definitions of the basic concepts, they used opposing strategies.
In order to understand the difference between the political ideals of Plato and Saint Augustine, one needs an explanation of each individual’s concept of politics. Through out The Republic, Plato emphasized his belief that
The perfect society would be that in which each class and each unit would be doing the work to which its nature and aptitude best adapted it; in which no class or individual would interfere with others, but all would cooperate in difference to produce an efficient and harmonious whole. That would be a just state. (433-4)
Plato wanted to create a rigid system of education, in which the “ruling Guardians” would be discovered (Bluck 103). These Guardians would become true philosophers through education, which would cultivate the recollection of their pre-destined knowledge (Bluck 90). Plato’s creation of society would consist of many citizens who lacked this pre-destined knowledge, making them unfit for ruling. These people, according to Plato, would be “happy” to conform to the ideals of the Guardians, and therefore, to create justice (Bluck 107). Plato knew that the citizens needed God or a religion in their lives in order for them to subordinate self-interest and satisfy the system (Pradeau 74). The Platonic attitude towards God was not one of reverence or responsibility, but rather a notion of ultimate and unchanging perfection which all ideas and laws were derived from (Plato 510-511). By having a higher power, the citizens of his Republic would feel a responsibility not only to the state, but also to God, and therefore would consider themselves obligated to perform the work assigned (416).
The attitude which Plato encompassed in his Republic, regarding a higher power, differed greatly from that which St. Augustine so tightly embraced. In Confessions, Augustine attempted to be pure and win the approval of God (Augustine 175). Augustine’s use of God was simply for himself, as he did not want to use God for the governing of a nation, but in attempt to quench his thirst for happiness and to belittle his selfishness and ego (Augustine 33).
At the root of the fact that Plato and St. Augustine differed in their uses of religion, one finds that the two Philosophers had opposing definitions to the key terms which were closely tied to their logic. According to Plato, evil embodied ignorance and lack of education (Plato 71-72). Without evil, a society obtains justice and morality, which he defined as effective harmony of the whole. Justice, according to Plato, depended solely upon the correlation and balance of the correct roles among citizens in his “city”.
A united city. This city constitutes a community of distinct virtues, an entity composed of a combination of excellent functions, which Plato calls ‘Justice’. Justice is not a type of action related to a norm, nor is it any particular criterion of excellence; nor is it really a virtue. Rather, it is a sign, an indication of a combination of all the virtues. And, Plato insists, that applies to both the soul and to the city since each, being ‘formed of several’, needs ‘to become entirely one’. (Pradeau 62)
Plato, from his definition of justice, explained that evil was everything not according to the state, and any destruction of justice (Plato 434).
Saint Augustine had an entirely different definition of evil and linked it to the realm of God and obedience to him alone. Evil, to Augustine, was anything which was ignorant of God and his importance (Augustine 35). Augustine’s God was the epitome of justice and innocence, the only being that was truly free of evil (37). Both Augustine and Plato correlated the two definitions, justice and evil, as opposites, but defined them differently.
Though both Plato and Saint Augustine are widely-known and their works have stood the test of time, they did not possess the same ideals. They did, however, strive for similar objectives: justice and goodness.