Tuesday, 24 November 2015

After Socrates

Bust of Plato: Roman copy

This is an unavoidably sketchy and superficial discussion of two huge topics! If you want to investigate further, you could go to the magnificent Stanford online Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Go here for Plato and here for Aristotle.


Socrates’ most famous pupil was Plato (427-348), probably the most influential European thinker.  Certainly he was the most copied-out philosopher of the ancient world. Unlike his mentor, Socrates, he clearly had great faith in the written word. He was born into an aristocratic family and some of his relatives became prominent politicians, notably the oligarchs Critias and Charmides. He was a philosopher and a mathematician, who introduced the dialogue method of argument. This allows a variety of points of view to be expressed and the reader does not have to agree with the author’s line. Dialogues were not exclusive to Plato. They were written by a number of followers of Socrates, probably because they were imitating his method.

The Academy: Plato founded his Academy to the north of Athens c. 387 near an area where he had bought property, and taught there for the rest of his life.  It was originally a sacred grove of olive trees dedicated to Athena called Akademia (‘the groves of academe’).  The meaning of the name is disputed: was it the name of an ancient hero or the property of a citizen named Academus? The site was so sacred that the Spartans left it alone, though the Roman general Sulla cut down the trees to use as siege engines.

The archaeological site of
Plato's Academy

It was probably not a school in the modern sense as there was no clear distinction between teachers and students, though there was a distinction made between senior and junior members. There is evidence that lectures were given, but the most common teaching method was question-and-answer.  Unusually, there were two female students, Axiothea of Phlius and Lasthenia of Mantinea. Aristotle was a member of the Academy for many years but never became its head.

In the Symposium and in a later work, the Phaedrus, Plato introduced his theory of eros (love). It is from these writings that we derive the term ‘Platonic love’ though its subtlety is not well understood in the modern world. He saw this type of love as the ‘heavenly Aphrodite’ that may begin with admiration of physical beauty but proceeds to the much higher love – the love of the Good. 

Plato’s philosophy was founded on a radical contrast between the worlds of appearance and true reality, known only to a philosopher.  In the Republic, written a year after the founding of the Academy, Plato (speaking through Socrates) sets out the myth of the Cave.  The human condition is likened to people living in a cave who never see the outside world but can only view shadows flickering on the wall. This is part of his theory of Forms or Ideas – the material world is only an image or copy of the real world, which is the world of universal forms.  The Form of Beauty is perfect beauty, the Form of Justice perfect justice.  This raised the question: how to construct a state that embodies the Form of this perfect Justice.

The Republic is an attack on the Athenian democracy.  Pericles had praised its ‘happy versatility’; Plato condemned it for amateurishness. He wrote that a democracy is a 
‘charming, anarchic and many-sided constitution’, 
which bestows a 
‘sort of equality on the equal and unequal alike’. 
He believed that most men were not fit to govern the state. This should be left to the best and wisest: 
‘There will be no end to the troubles of states or indeed…of humanity itself till philosophers become kings in this world, or those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers.’ 
The ideal polis should be ruled by ‘the best’, literally ‘aristocracy’, philosopher kings, men (and sometimes women) who trained as Guardians.  The Guardians are to have no property and no family ties. They assess couples for breeding purposes and the resulting children are brought up communally so that parents will not know which are their own children. There is to be no private property. 


Aristotle (384-322) was not an Athenian. He was born in the town of Stagira in the northeast of Greece and his father, Nicomachus, was a physician attached to the court of Philip of Macedon. He moved to Athens in 367 and quickly became associated with Plato’s Academic circle.  He left Athens when Plato died and at Mitylene in the eastern Aegean he undertook a series of zoological and botanical studies that showed his extraordinary powers of observation. In 343 he was summoned by Philip to take up the post of tutor to his son, Alexander.  In 335 he returned to Athens. He set up his own school at the Lyceum, named after Apollo Lyceus (the wolf-god), where he had a staff of lecturers to aid him. On hearing of the death of Alexander at Babylon in 323, he moved to Chalcis on the island of Euboea, where he died a few months later. The Lyceum, continued for some time after his death though it is not known for how long.

Aristotle is the best-known example of the pupil who comes to disagree with his master. He disagreed with Plato’s doctrine of Forms and criticized his ideal state as set out in the Republic as unworkable. While Plato was an idealist, he was an empiricist, interested above all in what worked or had practical application.  He rejected extremes and sought what he called the ‘golden mean’. 

An early Islamic representation
of Aristotle
His influence has been second only to Plato’s.  Between the sixth and the twelfth centuries, he was little known in the west, but he was so well known in the Byzantine and Arabic worlds that he was simply referred to as the ‘First Teacher’.  But from the thirteenth century his writings became known in the west through Arabic translations into Latin.  The Summa Theologica of the philosopher Thomas Aquinas was a synthesis of Aristotle and Christianity.  His views on natural history remained dominant in the both the Christian and Muslim worlds until superseded from the seventeenth century by modern science. His prescriptions for comedy and tragedy remained the rules of the theatre until the eighteenth century (with Shakespeare as the great breaker of these rules!). His views on the inferiority of women and the naturalness of slavery, though influential for centuries, are no longer acceptable, but his theory of the good life (eudaimonia) is still relevant today. Modern philosophers continue to study his ‘virtue ethics’, a branch of ethics that emphasizes moral character rather than duties or rules.