Out of nothing other than interest, I wanted to write an overview of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, arguably the three most influential philosophers in history.

Pre-Socrates

There were a number of pre-Socratic philosophers that provided food for thought for those that followed, most notably:

  • Thales (624-546 BC) was known as the father of Greek philosophy and he declared water to be the source of all things.
  • Anaximander (610-546 BC), who was the first philosophical writer. He liked the idea of primary opposites: hot and cold, wet and dry etc.
  • Pythagoras (582-496 BC) is probably most remembered for his contributions to mathematics but he was also a philosopher of note. He believed in an immortal soul that reincarnated and, perhaps understandably given his love of maths, believed numerology was foundational to life and harmony.
  • Heraclitus (535-475 BC) and Xenophenes (570-475 BC) were interested in the way the natural world was ordered and mankind’s place in the universe.
  • Democritus (460-370 BC) who first proposed that everything was made from atoms.

Then there were the sophists who were a bunch of travelling philosophers who liked to sell their knowledge, offering wisdom for a price. They taught many subjects alongside philosophy and didn’t really represent a single school of philosophical thought, although many believed in the importance of subjective opinions rather than absolute truths.

A lot of what the sophists taught was grammar, public speaking and how to debate in a persuasive way. They in turn persuaded many people to part with their money to learn these skills.

This is the background into which Socrates came.

Socrates

Socrates bust.
Credit: By Sting, CC BY-SA 2.5.

Socrates was born in Athens in 470 BC and it’s quite hard to determine his specific views on philosophy because he never wrote anything down. Most of what we know about Socrates comes from his contemporaries, specifically Xenophon, a historian, and Plato, Socrates’ most famous student.

The thing is, although Plato wrote much about Socrates, it’s felt he conflated many of his own philosophical views with those of Socrates and it’s sometimes hard to separate them.

Socrates was the son of a sculptor and midwife and probably trained as a stonemason. He served in the military, fighting for Athens against Sparta in the Peloponnesian war, a war which Athens lost.

He disliked the sophists with their cash-based teaching and imparted his own wisdom for free, discoursing from the streets to anyone who would listen. Such people would irritate us these days but they were surprisingly popular in Ancient Greece.

Socrates was a rationalist, believing that truth comes from thought alone and that the senses can be deceptive. He believed in the value of dialectics, that reasoned debate between two people can lead to a consensus about knowledge.

Socrates’ friend, Chaerephon, consulted the Oracle at Delphi to ask if there was anyone wiser than Socrates and the Oracle said there wasn’t. Socrates himself didn’t accept the Orcale’s statement to begin with but later interpreted it to mean that he was only wise because he was aware of his own ignorance. He was quoted as saying: “I know that I know nothing”.

Socrates believed ethics was a matter of thought rather than relying on the scriptures of the Gods. He thought we arrive at the idea of a ‘moral life’ via much contemplation, from which we’d eventually arrive at universal truths about ethical behaviour. Furthermore, these truths would ultimately coincide with things that make us better and happier. He believed that nobody did bad things on purpose and they only did these things due to ignorance.

He wasn’t a fan of democracy, believing that only philosophers are suitable to govern. He also claimed to be a divine emissary and was critical of the morals of the state. This got him into hot water with the authorities and they eventually arrested and tried him for impiety and corrupting the minds of young Athenians.

He lost at his trial and the judge asked him what punishment he thought he should get. Socrates suggested he should be paid for his wisdom and the state should supply him with free lunches forever more.

Such sarcasm didn’t go down at all well with the judge and he was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. In the end it was essentially suicide because he was given a chance to escape but refused it and drank the hemlock willingly.

He died in 399 BC and his last words were allegedly to request a friend pay a debt on his behalf that he owed for the acquisition of a rooster, so you could say he literally chickened out.

Plato

Plato bust.
Credit: Silanion

Plato’s work has survived well, so we know quite a lot about what he thought. As previously mentioned, though, Socrates was often the subject of his Dialogues so it’s hard to tell whether some things are entirely his view, Socrates’ view or a combination of both.

Plato was born to an aristocratic family in Athens in 425 BC. He studied under Socrates and eventually went on to form his own school, The Academy. Such has been Plato’s influence that the whole of European philosophy has been called mere “footnotes to Plato”.

He was a rationalist like Socrates, believing that universal truths could be discovered by thought alone. He believed the senses alone are misleading and classed knowledge as justified true belief, a point where truths and beliefs overlap in harmony.

Plato was a pluralist in the sense that he believed the physical world was just a shadow of a world of timeless, universal, unchangeable ideas. This was sometimes called his world of forms. Any circle you draw, for example, is merely a rough depiction of the “universal and perfect circle” that exists in the world of forms. The same applies to all physical qualities.

He used a particular analogy to describe this world of forms. Imagine you lived in a cave and always looked at the back wall. You see the world outside the cave entrance as shadows on the back wall. These shadows are the physical world, but if you could turn around and look outside the cave entrance you’d be peeking into the world of forms.

Plato was also a political philosopher, suggesting a division of society that corresponds to appetite, spirit and reason, which he thought of as the three parts of the soul.

Society, he said, should be divided into parts reflecting this tripartite soul. The productive part of society, corresponding to the appetite, contains the labourers and craftsmen; the protective part of society consists of the military and corresponds to the spirit; the governing part of society corresponds to the reason.

Although his views were similar to those of Socrates, he avoided rattling the authorities. Maybe that's why he used Socrates as the subject of many of his discourses. A kind of "It wasn't me, it was him" excuse.

Plato died in 347 or 348 BC.

Aristotle

Aristotle bust.
Credit: Lysippos - Jastrow (2006)

Aristotle was born in 384 BC and studied under Plato at The Academy. His philosophical views were, however, quite different to those of Plato and Socrates.

He rejected the dualism of Plato’s world of forms and believed that forms are real things that exist in a kind of potential. For example, a pile of bricks, wood and fixings is a potential house that is actualised by the assembly of components.

This all seems rather obvious but he went further and explained that things reach their potential due to four causes: material cause, formal cause, efficient cause and final cause.

An example of this would be the construction of a table. A table’s material cause would be the wood used to build it, its formal cause would be the design one builds it to, its efficient cause would be the tools and techniques used to build it and its final cause would be its decorative or practical purpose.

Analysing a table in this manner seems like overkill but these philosophers were looking for universal truths and Aristotle believed everything came about as result of these four causes.

Aristotle believed that the world could be figured out by looking at it and analysing it. He believed you should trust your senses, albeit tempered with rational thought. This made him a realist, in many ways taking almost the opposite view to Plato and Socrates.

Aristotle was a polymath of some repute. As well as being a philosopher he was also a physicist, astronomer, geologist, biologist, psychologist and mathematician.

Aristotle did a lot to formalise logic, which is a sub-branch of philosophy as well as mathematics. He defined various types of syllogism that could be used as sound logical arguments, an example of which would be as follows:

  • all apes are primates (this is called the major premise),
  • all men are apes (this is called the minor premise),
  • therefore all men are primates (this is called the conclusion).

He divided such syllogisms into parts and in the above example ‘primates’ are the predicate of the syllogism, ‘apes’ are the middle of the syllogism and ‘men’ are the subject of the syllogism.

Formal logic is a huge influence on rational thinking and Aristotle’s deconstruction of it allowed one to identify ‘good’ logical arguments during discourse.

Aristotle died in 322 BC.

Their legacy

The influence Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had on Western thinking was massive. Many elements of Western thinking, culture, politics and even religion can be traced back in a 2,500 year lineage that leads to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.