Plato and Aristotle: What Is Evil?

From the Lecture Series: Why Evil Exists

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Plato, in his earlier writings, talks about evil as lack of information. Later, his views become more complicated when he introduces Thrasymachus in the first book of the Republic. How do his views change? Why does Thrasymachus influence his relatively simple views on what evil is?

A photo of a scary man in the dark.
Plato and Aristotle has different views on what they perceived to be evil. (Image: Dundanim/ Shutterstock)

Thrasymachus is a sophist—someone who teaches people the arts of political rhetoric. He is portrayed as a bully and an irrational person. He can’t really be engaged in an intellectually serious manner. He represents, for Plato, a crucial problem for social order.

Plato’s Fundamental Questions on Evil

So, Plato goes on to ask what we should do about that. That is, in some ways, after the first book of the dialogue, the fundamental question of the rest of the Republic: How should we live in a world governed by people who are not really on the way to being intelligible creatures? And, if we can’t finally bring this alogon into the realm of logos, how can we improve our world so that there are fewer Thrasymachuses in the future?

Questions such as these prompted Plato to explore the nature of human malice and malady in a new way.

Evil as a Political Fact

Illustration of Plato.
Plato viewed evil as a political fact and as a revolt against nature. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

For Plato, evil is seen as an importantly ‘political’ fact; a reality whose continued flourishing or tolerance by us humans is due to the way the human world is organized.

Evil, for Plato, is a cultural and political fact; but it’s also, he comes to see, a kind of quasi-theological fact. It’s a failure to be properly aligned with the moral order, and thus with the god, for Plato. Here’s the first time we begin to see develop outside of the Hebrew Bible the idea that evil is not simply a moral violation, but it’s a kind of a metaphysical revolt.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Evil as a Metaphysical Revolt

By the end of the Republic, Plato has given us an abstract philosophical description of the sort of person whom Thrasymachus is meant to represent: a person caught in a kind of tyrannical soul. A tyrant is, for Plato, first and foremost a disordered soul, one who tyrannizes himself before anyone else. Why? Because the tyrant is revolting against the conditions of his own creation.

That’s the mature picture of evil that Plato offers; one where evil is far more radically a form of revolt against the conditions of our own creation, and one that spreads that evil through human society by infecting other people with a misorientation to the good through giving them bad cultural standards to try to live up to.

Evil As Per Aristotle

In contrast, Aristotle, explores the nature of evil in a more worldly way through the discussion of a term: akrasia, or weakness of will. It’s too simple, and inaccurate and misleading, to say that evil is a matter of sheer ignorance. Why? Because sometimes you know the good but you do the bad anyway.

Illustration of Aristotle.
Aristotle’s views on evil were not as radical as Plato’s. (Image: A.Sych/Shutterstock)

He also thinks that the later Plato remained both in a way too rationalist and too theological about the nature of evil. People can be wrongly habituated for Aristotle, but neither good nor bad habits are rational. Humans are not simply aligned just to the god as Plato thought they would be, and evil is not a rupture of that relationship; humans are as much flesh as they are mind, and the flesh part of humans shapes a good deal of human behavior in fundamental ways.

Plato seemed to think that our bodies would eventually become wholly subservient to our minds; that in they would become offshoots of the mind.

Aristotle had no patience for Plato’s idea that humans could radically revolt against their natural makeup. Plato’s picture of evil was far more dramatic and radical than Aristotle’s, but that’s also because Plato had a far more elevated picture of what humans should be.

Learn more about the Greek philosophy of human evil and malice.

Evil as an Unfortunate Pathology

For Aristotle, humans existed by and large on a continuum between roughly coherent people and people for whom moral integrity of any sort is a pipe-dream; people such as addicts, or certain kinds of psychopaths. This meant that not all people could be made better; much like the representation of Thrasymachus, Aristotle had a picture where some people are just not really worth saving.

Aristotle, then, can be seen to be offering a kind of ‘medicalizing’ evil, treating it not in very dramatic terms, but rather as seeing it as a certain kind of unfortunate pathology, toward which individuals in certain circumstances are prone. It also asks us to see in evil a certain set of clinical symptoms that we, with proper philosophical detachment, may be able to address. Aristotle’s is a much more moderate and hopeful picture of evil than Plato’s.

Learn more about the nature and origins of evil.

Can Human Nature Change?

But both Plato and Aristotle are united in one thing that makes them different from some of the other thinkers.They are very skeptical of the possibility of radical human change after childhood.

Aristotle and Plato are not hopeful about human abilities to change. Is it really possible for people, once they are more or less properly morally formed. That’s a deep question, and one that’s worth pondering about.

Common Questions about Plato and Aristotle’s Views on Evil

Q: Thrasymachus challenged Plato’s simple belief about evil. What were these beliefs and how did they change?

Plato saw Thrasymachus as an irrational person. He challenged Plato’s beliefs that evil was not simply ignorance, but a political fact and a metaphysical revolt.

Q How does Plato perceive Thrasymachus at the end of the Republic?

Plato viewed Thrasymachus as a person caught in a kind of tyrannical soul, a disordered soul, one who tyrannizes himself before anyone else.

Q How does Aristotle view evil?

Aristotle explores the nature of evil through the discussion of a term: akrasia, or weakness of will. He thought that it’s too simple, and inaccurate, and misleading, to say that evil is a matter of sheer ignorance.

Q Aristotle and Plato have different views on what is evil. What do both of them agree on?

Both Aristotle and Plato are skeptical of the possibility of radical human change after childhood. They are not hopeful about human abilities to change.

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