A Stream of Prophets – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

 

Socrates

Born in Athens, Greece, in 469 BC, Socrates would live his whole life there, dying in 339 BC. His parent’s names were Sophroniscus and Phaenarete. He married a woman named Xanthippe at a young age and would take part in three military campaigns: Potidaea (432-29 BC.), Delium (424 BC.) and Amphipolis (422 BC.), where he distinguished himself for bravery, remarkable endurance, and indifference to fatigue, climate and alcohol.

He did not participate in politics but instead felt guided by his “inner voice” which led him to the study of philosophy and to the examination of moral attitudes and assumptions with his fellow citizens, notable politicians, poets and gurus of that time. He once called himself simply the midwife for the opinion of others.

Socrates, as well as other Greek philosophers, lived in a time of continuous warfare, paranoia and tyranny. Though the city-states of Greece began to embrace democracy, every aspect of one’s life was believed to have been controlled by dozens of different gods.

Leading up to Socrates time, Athens and Sparta had joined forces in 479 BC, to bring an end to the Persian Wars and over the next 50 years Athens grew the stronger. But after the Peloponnesian War, which ended in 404 BC, Sparta emerged as the foremost power in Greece. Sparta reigned supreme until 371 BC when they were destroyed by the army of the Greek city-state, Thebes, led by Epaminondas. King Phillip II (359-336 BC) defeated the alliance of Athens and Thebes in 338 BC.  The whole of Greece was then under Macedonian rule. King Phillip’s son, Alexander the Great (336-323 BC) invaded Persia with campaigns that spread Greek culture and philosophies to Egypt, Afghanistan, India, and the Persian Gulf.

Although Socrates himself never wrote anything down, founded no schools and had no disciples per se, he would become one of the great figures in ancient philosophy. He may not have written down his ideas, but did develop them through dialogues and discussions in Athens streets. He argued that one must pursue the truth through rational enquiry. But as Plato and Aristotle after him, the pupils were mostly young aristocratic men. Their discussions, lessons and teachings would forever change the Western world’s beliefs.

Socrates is responsible for the shift of philosophical interest from speculations about the natural world and cosmology, to ethics and conceptual analysis. This shift away from the religious view that society expressed God’s will, to where people began to see society as the product of natural forces, would accumulate over the years and by the end of the Medieval era in Europe, seventeen hundred years later, would evolve into positivism, the path of understanding based on science. What is known about Socrates came from three very different sources. Aristophanes a playwright, Xenophon, a soldier and by far his most brilliant associate and pupil, and who was the best and main source, Plato.

Socrates’ discussions and the arguments he used became the “Socratic method”, which was to ask for definitions of familiar concepts such as justice, courage, and piety and to elicit contradictions in the responses of those of whom he discussed these issues and thus demonstrate their ignorance, which he agreed that he too shared. He taught that man should always feel the need for a deeper and more honest analysis of their everyday lives.

Rather than upholding a status quo and accepting the development of immorality within his region, Socrates worked to undermine the collective notion of “might makes right”, so common to Greece and elsewhere during this time. In solving a problem, the particulars would be broken down into a series of questions. Finding the answers would gradually give you what you were seeking.

Socrates often admitted his wisdom was limited to the awareness of his own ignorance. Socrates believed wrongdoing was a consequence of ignorance and those who did wrong knew no better. He believed the best way for people to live was to focus on self-development rather than the pursuit of material wealth. He always invited others to try to concentrate more on friendships and a sense of true community, for Socrates felt this was the best way for people to grow together as a populace. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is Socrates’ reliance on his inner voice, which the Greeks called his “daemonic sign” and that he would know only when he was about to make a mistake. It was this sign that prevented Socrates from entering into politics. In Plato’s dialogue, “Phaedrus”, we are told Socrates considered this inner voice to be a form of “divine madness”, the sort of insanity that is a gift from the gods and gives us poetry, mysticism, love, and even philosophy itself. He believed this internal guide’s good opinion was worth having and should be heeded, and that the conscience is what makes us behave when nobody is looking.

Another curious trait of Socrates was that he absolutely refused to say anything that he was not morally sure about. In conversations he would often suddenly stop talking half way through a sentence. He also brought up the idea that knowledge might just be a matter of recollection and not of learning, observation or study.

The two most important points of his teachings were firstly that conscience is innate, and that our inner sense of what is right or wrong, good or evil originates from our intellect, our mind, rather than through experience and is inherent in our essential character. It lies within our soul. Secondly, the opinions, principles and beliefs of the faithful can easily be out pointed and satirized by those who at the onset will take their preaching at face value.

Despite claiming death defying loyalty to his city, Socrates’ pursuit of virtue and his strict adherence to truth clashed with the current course of Athenian politics and society. The city officials did not agree with him teaching the youth and aristocratic young men of Athens, his “troublesome speculations,” and discussing theology and philosophy. This unpopular activity contributed greatly to demands for his conviction for crimes against the state.

In many ways, Socrates’ beliefs were a paradox. He had no dogma and believed in the soul’s immortality, yet at the same time accepted the possibility that death may bring the annihilation of the consciousness. And although he bestowed and admitted ignorance, he also taught wisdom and cared for the soul. He would argue relentlessly. Someone would assert their position and Socrates would refute it; forever questioning.

Though much progress was made in the conquest for knowledge, including the physical and human challenges of man, in Athens, during these days of the first democracy, the situation began to turn and sour with the military overthrow of Athens in 404 BC.

Socrates’ position as a social and moral prophet began to offend the courts. Eventually he was charged for “godlessness”. The court considered him to be unsound because of his advocacy of free thought and unrestricted inquiry, and for his refusal to give assent to any dogma. If he affirmed the charges, the judges told him he would face lesser charges. But Socrates knew his life to be forfeit so he replied that death did not scare him. If death was either perpetual rest or the chance at immortality or to finally be in communion with the people that had gone before, he was fine with that. This insulted and angered the judges, as Socrates had somehow used their own beliefs against them. They quickly condemned Socrates to death, for “spreading unwholesome scepticism, impiety and corrupting the youth.” Found guilty, he turned down an opportunity to be smuggled out and escape, and at seventy years of age he was sentenced to die by drinking hemlock. The trial of Socrates and his judicial murder would be seen by many as representing the greatest moral defeat which the restored Athenian democracy inflicted upon itself. Much like biting off one’s nose and thinking you are saving your face.

Plato

Plato was one of the most important philosophers and mathematicians of all time. He was born in Athens, Greece, in 428 BC and would die peacefully in his sleep 80 years later, in 348 BC. His father was Ariston and mother Perictione. As a boy he was praised for his quickness of mind and modesty, with his youth a mix of hard work and love of study. Plato was instructed in grammar, music, wrestling and gymnastics, by the most distinguished teachers of his time. He also attended courses in philosophy, and before meeting Socrates, he became acquainted with Cratylus (a disciple of Heraclitus, a prominent pre-Socratic Greek philosopher) and the Heraclitean doctrines, which surmised that all objects are in harmony between two units of energy, an ebbing and flowing, which Plato did not agree with.

Plato was a pupil and associate of Socrates and would one day be the teacher of Aristotle. Any political aspirations he may have had withered when his friend and mentor Socrates was condemned to death in 339 BC. Plato recorded many of Socrates teachings and philosophies in three dialogues; the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo.

After Socrates’ execution, Plato and other philosophers, including Euclides, took temporary refuge at Megara. From there, Plato travelled widely in Greece, Egypt and the Greek cities in southern Italy and Sicily. He returned to Athens in 387 BC and founded the Academy at Athens, the first of, soon to be, many philosophical schools. It was here that Aristotle would later study and which would become a famous centre for philosophical, mathematical, and scientific research. Plato would preside over the Academy for the rest of his life.

Thirty-five dialogues and thirteen letters have traditionally been ascribed to Plato, and what became most prominent in the middle dialogues was the idea that knowledge is recollection, the immortality of the soul. Specific doctrines about justice, truth, and beauty immerged in his Theory of Forms, which refers to his belief that the material world, as it seems to us, is not the real world, but only a shadow of the real world. Ideas about the differences in the material world, the particular objects of perception, opinion, belief and the timeless, unchanging world of universals are the realities of the world and should be the true objects of knowledge. The debated theories of universals lie within the realm of metaphysics and are the characteristics and qualities that particular things have in common. The three different types of universals are; the types or kinds of a thing, the shared properties of certain things and the relationships of each particular thing. As to the belief of a divine, universal God, Plato opined that a universe abandoned by God would feel like the disorderly motion of a boat upon the sea.

Also included in Plato’s middle dialogues, through the words of Socrates, were his ideas of a political utopia ruled by philosopher kings, a visionary state with societies having a tripartite class structure which corresponded to the appetite, spirit, and reason. He saw it as the structure of the individual soul. Each part of society stood for different parts of the body, symbolizing the castes of society; the Productive, the abdomen, represented the Workers – labourers, carpenters, plumbers, masons, merchants, farmers, ranchers, etc. This corresponded to the “appetite” of the soul.

The Protective, the chest, represented the Warriors or Guardians; individuals who were adventurous, strong and brave, especially those in the army. This corresponded to the “spirit” of the soul. The Governing, the head, represented the rulers or philosopher kings; those who were intelligent, rational, self-controlled, in love with wisdom and who were well suited to making decisions for the community. The Governing corresponded to the “reason” part of the soul but whose numbers were very few. Plato used this model to conclude that the principles of Athenian democracy, as it existed in his day, should be rejected, as only a few were seen as fit to rule. Instead of rhetoric and persuasion, Plato believed reason and wisdom should govern. As he put it:

“Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophise, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils,… nor, I think, will the human race.”

Plato described these “philosopher kings” as “those who love the sight of truth” and supported his idea with the analogy of a captain and his ship or a doctor and his medicine, because both sailing and healing are not things that everyone is qualified to practice by nature. He believed that the Republic (Athens) needed to address how the educational system should be set up within the Republic, and how it should be structured in order for it to produce these philosopher kings. The philosophic soul, according to Socrates had reason and will and desired unity for virtuous harmony. A philosopher king needed a moderate love for wisdom and the courage to act accordingly; for wisdom is knowledge of the good of humanity and the right relations between which all exists. Interestingly, Plato’s “philosopher kings” were seen as living communally, sharing everything and owning nothing.

Concerning states and rulers, Plato had many interesting arguments. For instance he asks which is better ‑ a bad democracy or a country reigned by a tyrant? He argued that it would be better to be ruled by a tyrant, as there would be only one person committing bad deeds, than exist within a bad democracy, where all the people would be responsible for such actions. According to Plato, a state which is made up of different kinds of souls would progressively decline from an aristocracy (ruled by the best) to a timocracy (rule by the honourable), then to an oligarchy (rule by the few), then into a democracy (rule by the people), and finally to tyranny (rule by one despotic person), and then start all over again.

Plato’s influence was especially strong in mathematics and the sciences. For instance, he helped to distinguish the difference between pure and applied mathematics by widening the gap between arithmetic, now known as number theory and logistics.

As a whole, Plato’s philosophy has had an incalculable influence on every period in subsequent history and tradition, and alongside his greatest pupil, Aristotle, he affected thought and belief through the Hellenistic period, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Plato died in his sleep at the age of 80, after spending a lifetime asking what lay beyond the deity-ruled world he lived in, and seeking the possible realities within the spiritually of man.

 

 Plato (left) and Aristotle

Aristotle

A Greek Philosopher and scientist who lived from 384 to 322 BC, Aristotle is known as one of most important and influential figures in the history of Western thought. Born at Stagira, a Greek colony on the peninsula of Chalcidice, Aristotle was a son to a court physician to the third king of Macedon, father of Phillip II and grandfather to Alexander the Great. After his father died, Aristotle was moved to Atarneus, in present day Turkey, where he was taken care of and schooled by a relative, Proxenus.

In 367 BC he moved to Athens, where he became a student and eventually became a teacher at Plato’s Academy. Here he stayed for 20 years until Plato’s death in 347, after which he began a 12 year journey that took him to Asia Minor, including Atarneus, where he would marry a friend’s niece, Pythias.

In 342 BC he was appointed by Phillip of Macedon, to act as a tutor to his son Alexander. For seven years Aristotle taught the thirteen year old Alexander all the disciplines, from mathematics to philosophy. When Alexander went on to become known as Alexander the Great, Aristotle returned to Athens. It was now 335 and near the temple of the Greek god, Apollo Lyceius, Aristotle opened a school for the children of the elite, which he called the Lyceum. There he would teach for twelve years.

His students and followers would become known as the “peripatetic”, from the Greek word for the columns of Greek architecture fronting the school and because whenever Aristotle would teach a class he had a restless habit of pacing back and forth and up and down, which a similar Greek word means “walking all about”.

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC there was a strong anti-Macedonian reaction in Athens and Aristotle was accused of lacking reverence to the gods. Not wanting to end up like Socrates before him, he moved to the Greek island of Euboea and within a year died of natural causes at the age of 62.

His writings represented an enormous encyclopaedic output covering every field of knowledge; including logic, rhetoric, and psychology. His thinking and studies covered man and his environment as they existed, rather than what they were thought to be.

Aristotle’s terminology, “natural philosophy”, was a branch of philosophy which examined the phenomena of the natural world, and included fields that would be regarded today as physics, biology and other natural sciences. For Aristotle, “all science is either, practical, poetical or theoretical.” By practical science, he meant ethics and politics; by poetical science, he meant the study of poetry and the other fine arts; by theoretical science, he meant physics, mathematics and metaphysics. Most of Aristotle’s life was devoted to the study of the objects of natural science. Aristotle’s metaphysics contains observations on the nature of numbers but he made no original contributions to mathematics. He performed original research in the natural sciences including biology, botany, zoology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, meteorology, and several other sciences.

Everyone during this period believed the world to be flat, except for Aristotle, who came to the conclusion, by simply looking up during an eclipse and seeing that as the earth’s shadow began to appear on the moon, that the shadow of the earth was curved and since a sphere is the only shape that casts a circular shadow from any angle, Aristotle argued, the earth must be a sphere. One hundred years later, followers of Aristotle, began to calculate the earth’s size, with one of them, Eratosthenes, calculating the circumference of the earth to be about 42,000 km or 26,000 miles. Todays accepted circumference is 40,075 km or 24,901 miles.

In the study of physics, he defined the five elements: as fire- hot and dry; earth- cold and dry; air- hot and wet; water- cold and wet; and Aether- the divine substance that made up the stars and planets. Each of the four earthly elements had its natural place; the earth was at the centre of the universe, with water, air and fire lying in their respective places beyond that which was believed to be the center. With disharmony in the natural order of the elements there was a self-righting shift- requiring no external cause. This shift saw bodies sink in water, air bubbles rise, rains fall and flames rise in air. The heavenly element Aether had a perpetual circular motion.

Aristotle believed spontaneity and chance related to causes from effects different from other types of cause. That chance is of accidental things and creates things that are spontaneous. But spontaneous does not come from chance. Aristotle’s conception of “chance” is related to “coincidence”. If one’s intent is to go out to do something expecting a certain result but another result takes its place, it is by chance, and is rare. It was an incredible concept for that time; that when things that continuingly keep happening, with the same result each time, it is not by chance.

Another and more specific kind of chance, which Aristotle called “luck”, can only be applied to humans, as it lies within the sphere of moral actions. According to Aristotle, luck could only involve choice, and as only humans are capable of deliberation and choice, his theory was; for what is not capable of action, cannot do anything by chance.

Further to causes and effects, Aristotle theorized there to be four main reasons for anything happening. The four causes were; material cause- the material that something is made of; formal cause- its form; efficient cause- what sets something in motion, and final cause- the purpose for which anything exists, including everything that gives purpose to human behaviour.

As to the human psyche, Aristotle thought every human has three souls. The vegetative soul is shared by all living things, the sensitive soul we share with all animals, while the rational soul is only inherent in humans.

His work as one of the earliest natural historians, has survived in some detail, and reflects on his research in his books, History of Animals, Generation of Animals, and Parts of Animals. These observations and interpretations placed the rational soul in the heart, rather than the brain.

Aristotle taught that the virtue of an entity is related to its role and purpose in life. An eye is only a good eye in so much as it can see, as the proper function of an eye is sight. As Aristotle reasoned that a human must have a function, possessed by no other animal, he concluded that this function was the activity of the soul. He identified the highest level of the soul as Eudaimonia, the contentment and happiness felt living a good life. To achieve this, one must live a balanced life and avoid excess. Aristotle believed that to have balance, one must exist between the two vices- excess and deficiency. To follow this middle path one needed ethics. With ethics based on, virtue informed on reason, which he called the Golden Mean. He felt them to be the highest good in which humans could attain, with reason being a human’s prime faculty. Aristotle also believed politics should be a branch of ethics.

Aristotle considered epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, unrestrained poetry and music to be imitative, each different based on appearance, form, and manner. He felt music imitates rhythm and harmony, whereas dance imitates rhythm alone, and poetry uses language. These forms also differ in their object of imitation. Comedy, for instance, is most often a dramatic imitation of humans in trouble somehow, while tragedy usually emulates great people. They also differ in their manner of imitation ‑ through narrative or character; through change or not, and through drama or no drama.

Twenty-three hundred years after his death, Aristotle remains one of the most influential people who ever lived. He invented classical logic, pioneered the study of zoology, and left every future scientist and philosopher in his debt through his contributions to the Scientific Method, which stressed that the approach to scientific investigation must be through direct observations and that theory must follow from fact.

Similar to the other Greek thinkers, Plato and Socrates, both the seat of government and the priests did not agree with Aristotle’s teachings and for years attempted to oppress him. But he saw the end game and thus, in his final year Aristotle headed for the island of Euboea, taking refuge in the town of Calcis.

In the 1st century BC, Andronicus of Rhodes edited the bulk of Aristotle’s unpublished material, including lecture notes and student’s textbooks and published Aristotle’s far ranging original systemized and sophisticated work. These works had an enormous influence on medieval philosophy, Islamic philosophy and the whole Western intellectual and scientific tradition, and most specifically on humanity’s consciousness. The philosophies and studies of the great Aristotle, Plato and Socrates make them true prophets of humanity and nature, with each one simply asking how and why.

 

 

 

Socrates – “Image Editor”

http://www.flickr.com/photos/11304375@N07/

Plato/Aristotle – Ben Crowe

http://www.flickr.com/photos/croweb/2836992031/

 

“The School of Athens” or “Scuola di Atene” is a painting by the Italian High Renaissance artist Raphael Sanzio and painted between 1510 and 1511, in Vatican City, Apostolic Palace. More than 1800 years after their deaths, Plato (left) is holding the “Timaeus” (Leonardo da Vinci) and Aristotle holding the “Ethics”.

 

 

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