from Socrates to Aristotle (explained by someone else)
When I was a nineteen-year-old would-be philosopher I was among many students that went through Martin Zinman’s introductory course on western political philosophy. I hope it was Dr Zinman’s course; otherwise my memory betrays me.
I any case it was how James Madison College presented the descendent nature of western political philosophy that informed one of my own dogmas: that each line of thought or system of thought, or thinker, is descended intellectually from a specific influence or certain influences, as those were from another. In other words, one idea led to another and then another. These ideas were either derived from their prior philosophers’ or made in response to those philosophies. Unfortunately the course did not, according to memory, give further memetic links from Aristotle to the present day. Likely such a task would have been impossible given such a short time.
Although it is this approach to tracking the history of a given a track of philosophy that attracts me to Russell Kirk, as he studied and explained the history of Conservative thought in his The Conservative Mind, and Jonah Goldberg for his Liberal Fascism. Mr Goldberg’s work appealed to me as he constructed a compelling argument that modern American leftist thought was directly influenced by European fascism and that Conservative philosophers and philosophies lacked the corresponding links.
In either case I leave it to Steven Kreis’s The History Guide to explain how Socrates leads to Aristotle.
From the ranks of the Sophists came
SOCRATES (c.469-399 B.C.), perhaps the most noble and
wisest Athenian to have ever lived. He was born sometime in 469, we don’t know for sure.
What we do know is that his father was Sophroniscus, a stone cutter, and his mother,
Phaenarete, was a midwife. Sophroniscus was a close friend of the son of
Aristides the Just (c.550-468 B.C.), and the young Socrates was familiar
with members of the circle of Pericles. In his
youth he fought as a hoplite at Potidaea (432-429), Delium (424) and
Amphipolis (422) during the Peloponnesian Wars. To be sure, his later
absorption in philosophy made him neglect his private affairs and he
eventually fell to a level of comparative poverty. He was perhaps more in
love with the study of philosophy than with his family — that his wife
Xanthippe was shrew is a later tale. In Plato’s dialogue, the Crito,
we meet a Socrates concerned with the future of his three sons. Just the
same, his entire life was subordinated to “the supreme art of
philosophy.” He was a good citizen but held political office only
once – he was elected to the Council of Five Hundred in 406 B.C. In
Plato’s Apology, Socrates remarks that:
The true champion if justice, if he intends to survive even for a
short time, must necessarily confine himself to private life and leave
What we can be sure about Socrates was that he was remarkable for living
the life he preached. Taking no fees, Socrates started and dominated an
argument wherever the young and intelligent would listen, and people asked
his advice on matters of practical conduct and educational problems.
Socrates was not an attractive man — he was snub-nosed,
prematurely bald, and overweight. But, he was strong in body and the
intellectual master of every one with
whom he came into contact. The Athenian youth flocked to his side as
he walked the paths
of the agora. They clung to his every word and gesture. He was not a Sophist himself, but
a philosopher, a lover of wisdom.
In 399 B.C., Socrates was charged with impiety by a jury of five hundred of his fellow
citizens. His most famous student, Plato, tells us, that he was charged “as an
evil-doer and curious person, searching into things under the earth and above the heavens;
and making the worse appear the better cause, and teaching all this to others.” He
was convicted to death by a margin of six votes. Oddly enough, the jury offered Socrates
the chance to pay a small fine for his impiety. He rejected it. He also rejected the pleas
of Plato and other students who had a boat waiting for him at Piraeus that would take him
to freedom. But Socrates refused to break the law. What kind of citizen would he be if he
refused to accept the judgment of the jury? No citizen at all. He spent his last days
with his friends before he drank the fatal dose of hemlock.
The charge made against Socrates — disbelief in the state’s gods —
implied un-Athenian activities which would corrupt the young and the state
if preached publicly. Meletus, the citizen who brought the indictment,
sought precedents in the impiety trials of Pericles’ friends. Although
Socrates was neither a heretic nor an agnostic, there was prejudice
against him. He also managed to provoke hostility. For instance, the
Delphic oracle is said to have told Chaerephon that no man was wiser than
Socrates. During his trial Socrates had the audacity to use this as a
justification of his examination of the conduct of all Athenians, claiming
that in exposing their falsehoods, he had proved the god right — he at least
knew that he knew nothing. Although this episode smacks of Socrates’
well-known irony, he clearly did believe that his mission was divinely
Socrates has been described as a gadfly — a first-class pain. The reason why this
charge is somewhat justified is that he challenged his students to think for themselves
– to use their minds to answer questions. He did not reveal answers. He did not
reveal truth. Many of his questions were, on the surface, quite simple: what is courage?
what is virtue? what is duty? But what Socrates discovered, and what he taught his
students to discover, was that most people could not answer these fundamental questions to
his satisfaction, yet all of them claimed to be courageous, virtuous and dutiful. So, what
Socrates knew, was that he knew nothing, upon this sole fact lay the source of his wisdom.
Socrates was not necessarily an intelligent man – but he was a wise man. And there is
a difference between the two.
Socrates wrote nothing himself. What we know of him comes from the writings of two of
his closest friends, Xenophon and Plato. Although Xenophon (c.430-c.354
B.C.) did write four short portraits
of Socrates, it is almost to Plato alone that we know anything of Socrates. PLATO
(c.427-347 B.C.) came from a family of aristoi, served in the Peloponnesian War, and
was perhaps Socrates’ most famous student. He was twenty-eight years old when Socrates was
put to death. At the age of forty, Plato established a school at Athens for the education
of Athenian youth. The Academy, as it was called, remained in existence from
387 B.C. to A.D. 529, when it was closed by Justinian, the Byzantine emperor.
Our knowledge of Socrates comes to us from numerous dialogues which Plato wrote after
399. In nearly every dialogue – and there are more than thirty that we know about
– Socrates is the main speaker. The style of the Plato’s dialogue is important –
it is the Socratic style that he employs throughout. A Socratic dialogue takes the form of
question-answer, question-answer, question-answer. It is a dialectical style as well.
Socrates would argue both sides of a question in order to arrive at a conclusion. Then
that conclusion is argued against another assumption and so on. Perhaps it is not that
difficult to understand why Socrates was considered a gadfly!
There is a reason why Socrates employed this style, as well as why Plato recorded his
experience with Socrates in the form of a dialogue. Socrates taught Plato a great many
things, but one of the things Plato more or less discovered on his own was that mankind is
born with knowledge. That is, knowledge is present in the human mind at birth. It is not
so much that we “learn” things in our daily experience, but that we
“recollect” them. In other words, this knowledge is already there. This may
explain why Socrates did not give his students answers, but only questions. His job was
not to teach truth but to show his students how they could “pull” truth out of
their own minds (it is for this reason that Socrates often considered
himself a midwife in the labor of knowledge). And this is the point of the dialogues. For only in conversation, only in
dialogue, can truth and wisdom come to the surface.
Plato’s greatest and most enduring work was his lengthy dialogue, The Republic.
This dialogue has often been regarded as Plato’s blueprint for a future society of
perfection. I do not accept this opinion. Instead, I would like to suggest that The
Republic is not a blueprint for a future society, but rather, is a dialogue which
discusses the education necessary to produce such a society. It is an education of a
strange sort – he called it paideia. Nearly impossible to translate into
modern idiom, paideia refers to the process whereby the physical, mental and
spiritual development of the individual is of paramount importance. It is the education of
the total individual.
The Republic discusses a number of topics including the nature of justice,
statesmanship, ethics and the nature of politics. It is in The Republic that Plato
suggests that democracy was little more than a “charming form of government.”
And this he is writing less than one hundred years after the brilliant age of Periclean
democracy. So much for democracy. After all, it was Athenian democracy that convicted
Socrates. For Plato, the citizens are the least desirable participants in government.
Instead, a philosopher-king or guardian should hold the reigns of power. An aristocracy if
you will – an aristocracy of the very best – the best of the aristoi.
Plato’s Republic also embodies one of the clearest expressions of his theory of
knowledge. In The Republic, Plato asks what is knowledge? what is illusion? what is
reality? how do we know? what makes a thing, a thing? what can we know? These are
epistemological questions – that is, they are questions about knowledge itself. He
distinguishes between the reality presented to us by our senses – sight, touch,
taste, sound and smell – and the essence or Form of that reality. In other words,
reality is always changing – knowledge of reality is individual, it is particular, it
is knowledge only to the individual knower, it is not universal.
Building upon the wisdom of Socrates and Parmenides, Plato argued that
reality is known only through the mind. There is a higher world, independent
of the world we may experience through our senses. Because the senses may
deceive us, it is necessary that this higher world exist, a world of Ideas
or Forms — of what is unchanging, absolute and universal. In other words,
although there may be something from the phenomenal world which we consider
beautiful or good or just, Plato postulates that there is a higher
unchanging reality of the beautiful, goodness or justice. To live in
accordance with these universal standards is the good life — to grasp the
Forms is to grasp ultimate truth.
The unphilosophical man – that is, all of us – is at the mercy of sense
impressions and unfortunately, our sense impressions oftentimes fail us. Our senses deceive us. But because we trust our
senses, we are like prisoners in a cave – we mistake shadows on a wall for reality.
This is the central argument of Plato’s ALLEGORY
OF THE CAVE which appears in
Book VII of The Republic.
Plato realized that the Athenian state, and along with it, Athenian
direct democracy, had failed to realize its lofty ideals. Instead, the
citizens sent Socrates to his death and direct democracy had failed. The
purpose of The Republic was something of a warning to all Athenians
that without respect for law, leadership and a sound education for the
young, their city would continue to decay. Plato wanted to rescue Athens
from degeneration by reviving that sense of community that had at one time
made the polis great. The only way to do this, Plato argued, was to give
control over to the Philosopher-Kings, men who had philosophical knowledge,
and to give little more than “noble lies” to everyone else. The
problem as Plato saw it was that power and wisdom had traveled divergent
paths — his solution was to unite them in the guise of the
Plato’s most famous student was
ARISTOTLE (384-322 B.C.). His father was the personal
physician to Philip of Macedon and Aristotle was, for a time at least, the personal tutor
of Alexander the Great. Aristotle styled himself a biologist – he is said to have
spent his honeymoon collecting specimens at the seashore. He too was charged with impiety,
but fled rather than face the charges – I suppose that tells you something about
At the age of eighteen, Aristotle became the student at the Academy of Plato (who was
then sixty years of age). Aristotle also started his own school, the Lyceum in
335 B.C. It
too was closed by Justinian in A.D. 529. Aristotle was a “polymath” – he knew
a great deal about nearly everything. Very little of Aristotle’s writings
remain extant. But his students
recorded nearly everything he discussed at the Lyceum. In fact, the books to which
Aristotle’s name is attributed are really little more than student notebooks. This may
account for the fact that Aristotle’s philosophy is one of the more difficult to digest.
Regardless, Aristotle lectured on astronomy, physics, logic, aesthetics, music, drama,
tragedy, poetry, zoology, ethics and politics. The one field in which he did not excel was
mathematics. Plato, on the other hand, was a master of geometry.
As a scientist, Aristotle’s epistemology is perhaps closer to our
own. For Aristotle did not agree with Plato that there is an essence or
Absolute behind every object in the phenomenal world. I suppose you
could argue that
Aristotle came from the Jack Webb school of epistemology – “nothing
facts, Mam.” Or, as one historian has put it: “The point is, that an
when present, is noticed.” In other words, whereas Plato suggested
that man was born
with knowledge, Aristotle argued that knowledge comes from
experience. And there, in the
space of just a few decades, we have the essence of those two
which have occupied the western intellectual tradition for the past
Rationalism – knowledge is a priori (comes before experience) and Empiricism
– knowledge is a posteriori (comes after experience).
It is almost fitting that one of Plato’s greatest students ought to have
also been his greatest critics. Like Democritus, Aristotle had confidence in
sense perception. As a result, he had little patience with Plato’s higher
world of the Forms. However, Aristotle argued that there were universal
principles but that they are derived from experience. He could not accept,
as had Plato, that there was a world of Forms beyond space and time.
Aristotle argued that that there were Forms and Absolutes, but that they
resided in the thing itself. From our experience with horses, for instance,
we can deduce the essence of “horseness.” This universal, as it
had been for Plato, was the true object of human knowledge.
It perhaps goes without saying that the western intellectual tradition,
as well as the history of western philosophy, must begin with an
investigation of ancient Greek thought. From Thales and the matter
philosophers to the empiricism of Aristotle, the Greeks passed on to the
west a spirit of rational inquiry that is very much our own intellectual
property. And while we may never think of Plato or Aristotle as we carry on
in our daily lives, it was their inquiry into knowledge that has served as
the foundation for all subsequent inquiries. Indeed, many have argued with W. H. Auden that “had Greek
civilization never existed we would never have become fully conscious, which
is to say that we would never have become, for better or worse, fully