The Freshman from Hell

At a Philosophy Lecture Series address, philosophy professor Daniel Graham tackled the age long debate concerning the relationship between Aristotle and his teacher, Plato. PROVO, Utah (Jan. 17, 2019) — We’ve all recognized the one person that can turn a smooth lecture into a debate. So maybe the term “freshman from Hell” isn’t all that odd. Maybe you know a person like this or maybe you even have the opportunity of teaching one; but having a “freshman from Hell” isn’t a recent turn in history. It was going on in 365 BC, between Aristotle and Plato – some of the most well known philosophers in history. Aristotle came to Plato’s Academy in 367 BC. You might envision sparks flying when the two met, but Plato was actually in Syracuse advising Dionysus II until about 365 BC. The two didn’t even meet until Aristotle was a teenager. Aristotle eventually stayed at the Academy until after Plato died (a whole twenty years).

So what was the relationship like between Aristotle and Plato? Some theorists declare that Aristotle was a devoted Platonist until he died; but almost paradoxically it has also been said that Aristotle was an Anti-Platonist when he started school but later became more Platonic. Dr. Daniel Graham, a professor in the Philosophy department, commented that with Aristotle, “I see him as kind as of a freshman from Hell who sits in the front row and raises his hand all the time. ‘Sir, sir, I have three objections to your theory and here they are.’” One of the most famous arguments used by Aristotle is The Third Man Argument. He used Plato’s theory of forms against itself to show the absurdities that lie within. Interestingly, Plato does not defend his theory nor refute the Third Man Argument.  Yet, in Plato’s dialogue Parmenides, Plato created a story on how the mature philosopher Parmenides defeated the young Socrates. In the second half of Plato’s dialogue, Parmenides is teaching a kind of course in theory construction to the youngest member of the group; who just happens to also be named Aristotle. Is it a coincidence that Parmenides teaches “Aristotle” a lesson in the dialogue? Perhaps Plato was telling Aristotle that he too could teach him a thing or two.

Even though it may seem like Aristotle and Plato didn’t get along, there is evidence to suggest that there was a lot of mutual respect for one another. It has been recorded that while Aristotle was at the academy, if he was not present in the audience, then Plato would say “The mind is away,” or “The philosopher is far from the truth,” or even “The audience is a deaf one.” (Vita Syraca 1, 5) Plato also never gave Aristotle over to be instructed by Xenocrates, something that was common among his other disciples. Aristotle must have made a great impression on Plato because whenever he was about to start a discussion he used to say “Not till everyone is present.” When Aristotle finally arrived, he would say, “Begin now the recitation; the audience is complete.” Aristotle even wrote an elegy to Plato in which he echoes some of the main themes in Plato’s Republic. Overall, Aristotle and Plato both proved remarkable philosophers, and although they may have debated and disagreed on certain things, there was still much respect between the two. Relationships like this aren’t dead; instead maybe they should be something that we strive to have more. To be able to question, learn, and grow together in such a way that you become someone to respect; someone who can be a friend. —Jessica Mellor (English ’19)