Great Philosophers  


There has long been a need for a very brief but reasonably accurate introduction to the works of the great philosophers. The following synopses are intended to serve this purpose. Hopefully, they will not only provide a brief frame of reference, but will motivate you to examine the lives and works of the philosophers at greater length. The brief paragraphs here are drawn in part from The Great Philosophers by Jeremy Stangroom and James Garvey.

Socrates greatness lies in part because he was the first philosopher to deal with how we should live our lives. Philosophers who came before him, the pre-Socratics such as Parmenides, Heraclitus and, Anaximander, were concerned with the cosmos, attempting to understand and explain the heavens. Socrates brought it all down to earth.
Socrates loved to question the citizens of Athens about various aspects of virtue, such as what is justice, what is piety, what is courage or what is temperance. This questioning technique is called "elenchus” in Greek, but we Westerners just call it the Socratic Technique.
The so-called "Socratic Problem" is that we are not sure what Socrates meant when he claimed that he knew nothing. Chaerephon asked the Oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates, and the Oracle replied that no one was. Socrates was puzzled by this answer but ultimately came to agree with the Oracle's observation that he was wise because he, Socrates, knew that he knew nothing while others were unwise because they thought that they did know.
Socrates promoted the pursuit of definitions with those whom he engaged in discourse. By doing so, he urged them to examine their own life. Socrates observed, near his death, that the unexamined life was not worth living.
It may have been that Socrates had a deeper purpose than simply arriving at a definition of important words (justice, pity, courage, temperance), since he never arrived at definitions himself. Nevertheless, the pursuit of truth, that is, searching for it through civil discourse, was more important than finding it.
Finally, Socrates' concept of good and evil is worth considering. He felt that what is good is beneficial and what is evil is harmful. Further, no one does what is harmful unless he fails to recognize it as such. Therefore, all evil stems from ignorance.
Socrates got in trouble for "corrupting the youth of Athens", possibly by encouraging them to think for themselves rather than blindly accepting the statements of authority. He chose to drink a cup of hemlock and die rather than renounce his love of philosophy.
Since Socrates left nothing in writing, most of what we know about him comes from that left to us by Plato, whose writings are arguably the most important ever pinned.

A. N. Whitehead made the astute observation that all Western thought "consists of a series of footnotes to Plato". This is not too much of an exaggeration when you consider the astounding breadth of Plato's writings. He wrote that the soul is immortal, that learning is a matter of recollection, he formulated a complex epistemology, a theory of mathematics, an objectivist ethics, a concrete political philosophy, made astute observations about society and devised a theory of mind. To say that he was a prolific writer is itself an understatement. Plato, Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper, contains 1,676 pages.
Plato's dialogues, of course, constitute the bulk of what we know about Socrates. There is no clear-cut distinction in the dialogues between a representation of Socrates own thinking and the concepts original to Plato that he chose to put in the form of a Socratic dialogue.
Plato's Theory of Forms maintains that there is an ultimate and perfect essence of any concept, but this Form can never be observed in the real world. For instance, we can conceive of a perfect triangle, but we cannot observe or demonstrate one in the real world.
One of Plato's outstanding lessons concerns perception versus reality. This is his famous Allegory of the Cave. Here, men were chained in a cave in such a way that they could see only their shadows cast on the wall in front of them from the light of a fire behind them. The shadows were their perception of reality, and they could not, or would not, change this viewpoint even after one of their number escaped into the sunlight and returned to tell them that there was an entirely different world outside the cave. What a powerful reminder that there can be a vast difference between our perceptions and objective truth.
An interesting but trivial side note is that "Plato" is only a nickname, meaning, in Greek, "broad" or "wide", perhaps a reference to the shape of his shoulders. it would be pleasing to think that the reference, even in his day, was to his mind. Actually, the philosopher’s name was Aristolces

Aristotle was first a student and then a teacher at Plato's Academy in Athens, a period that covered some 20 years. When Plato died (347 BCE), he left, perhaps disappointed at not being selected to head the Academy, or for what was perhaps a greater opportunity: to tutor to the 13-year-old future Alexander the Great. He later returned to Athens to found the Lyceum where he remained until 323 BCE. when he, like Socrates, was accused of impiety. But unlike Socrates, he fled Athens vowing that he would not allow the city to sin twice against philosophy. He died the following year.
Aristotle was an intellectual tour de force. He was the first to begin a methodical examination of evidence gathered by observations as a foundation for making deductions. In in essence, this was the beginning of science. To outdo himself, he wrote significantly on ethics, politics, metaphysics, physics, mathematics, psychology, poetry, rhetoric, aesthetics, meteorology, geology, methodology, cosmology, philosophy of mind, theology, memory and dreams. He outlined the parameters by which a subject could be considered a separate discipline.
Aristotle taught that in order to know something, we must ask ourselves four questions:
      1) What is it made of? (Its material cause.) A statue may be made of marble.
      2) What sort of thing is it? (Its formal cause.) In Aristotle's example, this item is a statue.
      3) What brought it into being? (Its efficient cause.) In this case, a sculptor.
      4) What is it used for? (Its final cause.) Statues are for decoration.
It would have been intensely interesting to have witnessed Plato and Aristotle discussing the relative merits of "forms" and "causes" since they are so divergent in their views on the nature of things. There is no evidence that master and pupil ever had such a discussion, but it is within the realm of possibility.
For Aristotle, the "soul" is the unique function of the object in question. The soul of a plant is vegetative and consists simply of growing and reproducing. An animal's soul consists, in addition to those possessed by plants, of movement, an appetite and a limited consciousness. A human's soul consists of all of these plus the ability to think and reason.
Among Aristotle's major works are Nicomachean Ethics, a profound look at morality, human happiness and virtue; Politics, his concept of the ideal state and Physics, where he even looked at the concepts of space and time.
Great philosopher that he was, Aristotle knew that there was much more to learn. He wrote, "Come, let us get on with the inquiry."