2 minute read


Aristotle, Platonism, And Christianity

We may notice how Aristotle's conception of the good partakes of both elements of this dichotomy between objective and subject conceptions. For Aristotle, the good is identified in the first instance as what one "aims at" in any given activity—in a word, "the end" (telos) of that activity. Thus the end of running might be health or winning races. Ultimately, though, we arrive at the aforementioned "happiness" (eudaimonia) as the final good (end) for human beings. This end, however, is not a mere subjective preference. It depends, in Aristotle's account, ultimately on our natural purpose or function as rational creatures. At the same time, however, it is not a Platonic object, existing separate and apart from humanity or human tendencies.


Ancient Greek philosophy—especially in the "Hellenistic" period following Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.)—aimed to provide not merely accounts of such abstractions from life as "the good" or the "virtuous" but more concrete guidance as to how the good life was to be achieved. In this regard, two schools stand out. The Stoics taught a rigorous adherence to virtue, duty, and honor. These, they reasoned, were subject to our control and attainable through correct discipline of the will; thus attained, they would be a source of happiness regardless of one's external circumstances. The followers of Epicurus (341–270 B.C.E.), like the Stoics, warned against such emotional attachments as could easily threaten one's peace of mind but, unlike the Stoics, identified the goal of life (and the purpose for avoiding such attachments) as pleasure—not the extremes of sensual pleasure, but pleasures moderate in intensity and apt to endure (to be attained through self-sufficiency, simplicity of life, and friendship).

This difference between Aristotle's "teleological" and Plato's more "metaphysical" conception of the good is important in understanding the good as it figures in Western religious thought. One important strain in Christian thought draws on a Platonic conception of the good as residing in a distinct object accessible to human knowledge yet quite remote from ordinary, this-worldly experiences. A more "Aristotelian" strain of Christianity, most clearly represented in the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), accepts Aristotle's conception of the good as happiness but construes this "final end" as including our spiritual as well as our physical, social, and intellectual ends as humans. So in this conception more than in the Platonic, secular and otherworldly goods are seen as complementary; the spiritual is seen as completing or "perfecting" nature—rather than as standing in stark Platonic opposition to it.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Glucagon to HabitatGood - Moral Versus Nonmoral Good, Intrinsic And Merely Instrumental Good, Teleological Versus Consequentialist Views Of The Good