The Ancient Greek Philosophers: Aristotle

Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, the teacher of Alexander the Great, and he wrote extensively on many various subjects, including logic, biology, music and rhetoric. Aristotle’s work on logic was a great foundation for human logic, and the work he recorded was the work used by philosophers who lived thousands of years on, such as Immanuel Kant. Aristotle’s logic is based on the syllogism, which is, at its simplest, one conclusion from two premises:

P1 All men are mortal.

P2 Socrates is a man.

C Socrates is mortal.

This is deductive logic, and if one accepts both the premises, then one must accept the conclusion that follows. To therefore attack the conclusion, one must attack the premises. There is so much that one could potentially say about Aristotle, so I will mention only a couple of his key ideas.

Aristotle believed that everything has a nature and a ‘telos‘ (end or goal) to fulfil. His idea was that ‘essence precedes existence’-something’s nature is defined before it exists. He argued that, like all other beings, humans also have a nature and a telos. For Aristotle this was eudaimonia, or flourishing, and this is attained by using all one’s talents and becoming balanced through the golden mean, avoiding excess and deficiency. To attain this, we should enhance our practical reasoning as well as our intellect. ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Aristotle asked himself, to which he answered, ‘To do good and serve others.’

Aristotle had a certain idea of excellence, and it was that it is attained through training and habituation. Like all virtues, Aristotle believed that to become excellent took time, and required consistency and balance-we cannot hope to be something if we only act in that way rarely. Rather, we should act that way as much as we can, and through this repetition we will train ourselves to become what that virtue is.

The influence of Aristotle is magnanimous. He influenced many, including Thomas Aquinas, Martin Heidegger and Immanuel Kant. To the foundations of logic and to the influential ethical and political theory we owe Aristotle a great deal.

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The Ancient Greek Philosophers: Plato

Plato was a student of Socrates, and is notorious for his work, which features Socrates discussing ideas with friends, politicians and various other people in the form of Socratic dialogue. Although many of Plato’s dialogues contain the ideas of Socrates, it is believed that the later works of Plato, such as the Republic, express Plato’s own ideas.

Perhaps the most unique idea of Plato’s is that of the theory of Ideas, explained best by the allegory of the cave. This is the idea that the world which we experience through the senses is not the ‘real’ world, and it is in fact the body which restricts us from this greater world which is immaterial. This material world is only a ‘copy’, and the world of concepts is ‘genuine’; the former is changing, the latter is permanent. Moreover, the allegory of the cave is used to describe Plato’s idea that only ‘philosopher-kings’ are fit to rule, since there are only few people who have come out of the cave and have seen the world as it really is-only the people who have exited the cave are fit to rule. There is no doubt that Plato has had a huge impact on western philosophy, and was the first person to set up a school of philosophy-the Academy. We owe Plato, and a long line of philosophers from him, a great deal.

The Ancient Greek Philosophers: Socrates

What we know of Socrates comes not from himself, since he never (or at least we do not think) wrote his ideas down. Socrates’ main ideas, person and life is brought to us by two of his students: Plato and Xenophon. Other certain aspects are told from the perspective of Aristotle and Aristophanes.

Socrates is notorious for many things, but perhaps his most distinguishing feature is how he walked around towns and began to talk to people in different positions of life about what they thought they knew, and Socrates would always show the person he was speaking to that what the person thought he knew wasn’t actually correct or right. For this Socrates became hated, and it was this showing up of people in supposed positions of authority that eventually caused him to be on trial and then executed. Socrates is most probably the father of philosophy, and his ideas, as well as his tool of Socratic dialogue, are still hugely influential today.

There are so many different ideas which Socrates put forward and discussed, brought to us mainly in the numerous dialogues of Plato, but only a couple will be talked about here. Firstly, Socrates did not believe in democracy, and used the analogy of a ship which was about to sail off with a crew. Who would we want to run the sailing of the ship? Would we want somebody trained in sailing the ship, or would we want everybody on the ship to have a say in running it, regardless of whether they had any knowledge of sailing or not? Socrates argued that we would want the former, and likewise we should want this for the running of our country-somebody who knows what they’re doing, a ‘philosopher-king.’ Secondly, Socrates’ idea of wisdom is a very different one to the general understanding of wisdom. Rather than being full of knowledge and experience, wisdom for Socrates was the recognition: ‘I know that I know nothing.’ It was, for Socrates, acknowledgement of his own ignorance which made him wise.

Socrates was hugely influential on his pupils and on the city of Athens, and without his ideas, philosophy today might be quite different.

The Ancient Greek Philosophers: The Sophists

The Sophists were a group of ‘wise’ men, teachers and intellectuals, who taught people for money in the second half of the fifth century B.C. The Sophists are widely known for their ability to make ‘the weaker speech the stronger’, and their philosophy was ‘speculative rather than practical.’ Moreover, the Sophists supported scepticism, and as time passed, the Greeks began to dislike the Sophists and the label of a Sophist was a degrading one. The Sophists were associated with the wealthy and powerful, since they demanded money for their services, and their focus was to teach people skills which would enable them to gain success in matters of the state, focusing their teaching on rhetoric, literature and grammar.

Protagoras, perhaps the most notorious Sophist, said that ‘man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not’. This is a matter of subjectivity. For one man something may be true, while for another it is false-to me something may look blue, to you it may look yellow. Protagoras is stating that whatever I experience is right, and so is what everybody else experiences-everyone is right and nobody is wrong. This also reveals his idea of scepticism-the only reality we can be sure of is our own, and objective reality seems to be, according to the Sophists, something which, if it exists, cannot be proven or found. The question of morality then arises from this idea of subjectivity-is nothing absolutely right or wrong? The Sophists taught that morality is indeed subjective and that what is viewed as right or wrong is culturally influenced and decided, as well as being based on one’s own opinions and feelings. According to Thucydides, this cynicism, and perhaps moral nihilism, meant that Greek civilization began to fall into disarray. Despite this, the Sophists had a huge influence on Roman rhetoric, especially on the likes of the great orator Cicero.

The Ancient Greek Philosophers: Zeno’s Paradoxes

Zeno of Elea was a pupil of Parmenides, and undertook his teacher’s belief that change is an illusion by proposing arguments known as paradoxes, his most famous being Achilles and the Tortoise. In this paradox, it is said that Achilles and the tortoise are racing, but the tortoise has a head start of say, 50 metres. Even though Achilles is running much faster than the tortoise, once Achilles reaches the 50 metre mark, the tortoise would have covered another say, 10 metres, and so will be ahead. Once Achilles reaches this point, the tortoise would have covered more ground, ad infinitum, and Zeno argued that this proves that Achilles could never actually overtake the tortoise because Achilles must always reach where the tortoise has already been, at which point the tortoise will have moved ahead. Another paradox is the Dichotomy paradox, a paradox which says that if you want to walk to a certain point, you must first get halfway there, and before this a quarter of the way, and before this an eighth of the way, ad infinitum, and so one cannot actually reach any point whatsoever-change is an illusion. Many philosophers have attempted to solve these paradoxes. Hans Reichenbach argued that the paradox arises from believing time and space to be separate entities. Diogenes the Cynic simply got up and walked to a certain point instead of trying to refute the paradoxes through words. Herman Weyll proposed that there are only a finite number of distances between two points, rather than an infinite number, and so the paradox is resolved.

The Ancient Greek Philosophers: Parmenides

Parmenides of Elea was born in around 515BC, and he proposed that change is an illusion. He said that everything which exists is a being and that the one common thing between all things that exist is that they are-they are all being. So if something is not being, it does not exist, and therefore is nothing. So you have being and nothing. Parmenides held that for change to come about, being has to come together with something other than being (which is nothing), and therefore change is impossible and an illusion. Parmenides also held the view that fundamentally reality is one, unchanging being. This is because, he argued, everything is being, whether it is a chair or a cat or a person, it is all being and so reality is one. Change is merely an appearance, then, and Parmenides thought that it is our senses that deceive and trick us into thinking that things change. He wrote about this idea in his poem, On Nature, and wrote about what is real in the part called the ‘way of truth’ and appearances in the ‘way of opinion’. Parmenides influenced many, including the atomist Democritus and Plato.

The Ancient Greek Philosophers: Pythagoras

Pythagoras lived from c. 570—c. 495 B.C., and is perhaps most famously known for his theorem (a2+b2=c2). He was originally from Samos but moved to Croton to avoid being ruled by a tyrant. There he set up a school of people dedicated to scholarship.  He posited that there are three types of men (he used the example of the Olympics)-those who buy and sell, those who compete, and those who look on, and Pythagoras believed that those who look on are the best type of man. The Pythagoreans spent a lot of time studying numbers, and came to conclude that the world is made from numbers, and that reality was founded and based upon numbers. A famous comparison was made that the body is like a musical instrument. Just as a properly tuned and looked-after instrument produces good music, a properly cared for and healthy body produces the means for a good life. Moreover, our bodies, like instruments, can easily become out of tune, and so we should tune ourselves regularly. Moreover, it was a Pythagorean idea that music is a medicine that can heal the soul. Such was the power of music for Pythagoras. As Pythagoras’ ideas developed, two schools developed, the mathēmatikoi (μαθηματικοί meaning “teachers”) and the akousmatikoi (ἀκουσματικοί, meaning “listeners”). The former emphasised mathematical and scientific development, whereas the latter honed in on the religious aspects. Overall, it seems that Pythagorean thought was dominated by mathematics, and it was maths which the Pythagoreans based their outlook and their ideas about the world. We are indebted to Pythagoras for his work on numbers, as well as his ideas about man-ideas which influenced Socrates and Plato.

The Ancient Greek Philosophers: Thales

Thales is the first recorded philosopher of all time. He lived from c.624 BC to c.526BC, and his primary idea was that everything comes from water and believed (according to Aristotle) water to be the grounding of everything that existed. He was the first to try and explain the natural world through natural causes rather than turning to the supernatural as an explanation as to why the world is as it is. A lot of what we know about Thales comes from Aristotle, who said that what Thales was trying to do was find out what material grounded the composition of everything, and he thought that this was water, saying that the earth was floating on water and he used this theory to explain earthquakes. Thales was a hylozoist (literally ‘living matter’) and thought that the world’s matter is alive, making the earth a kind of living animal or machine. He was also a materialist and sensist-he believed that everything is material and founded on the material (today this would be atoms), and also believed that all we can take into account is what we can experience through our senses.

Thales is known as the father of philosophy, and his work was foundational in starting a long line of philosophers who attempted to discover natural explanations for why the world is as it is, rather than using the supernatural, and without Thales who knows what would have happened?

Control your judgements and opinions

The Stoics are notorious for their ideas about perspective of mind, as well as their emphasis on the internal and external. According to Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, we do not indeed need much to be ‘happy’. Particularly in today’s society where more is seen as necessary and having very much is seen as equal to happiness-more stuff equals more happiness. The Stoics would resent this deeply. Rather than more, it is in fact less which leads to greater serenity and peace of mind. Seneca wrote about being satisfied with little, as did the poet Tibullus, and it is a Stoic idea to place little value on the external while placing great value on the internal since, according to the Stoics, it is the internal, and only the internal, which can make us happy. The Stoics encourage us to ask ourselves: why do you spend so much time looking for peace of mind outside, in possessions, status, and wealth, when the very thing you are looking out for is in fact inside your own mind?

I will be developing on Stoic ideas in the next post which will discuss further the ideas of Epictetus.

Thoughts of Epictetus

Epictetus was a Greek philosopher of Stoicism who lived from 50-135AD. Born a slave, Epictetus was taught by Musonius Rufus, another Stoic philosopher. He was set free at some point in his life and from there became a teacher of philosophy, first in Rome, then in Greece. Like Socrates, Epictetus wrote little, if anything, in his lifetime and so the majority of Epictetus’ teachings are from his pupil Arrian.

In the Discourses, Epictetus focuses on the things which are in our control and the things which are not. Distinguishing between these two is crucial, and it is this distinction which is the first step to serenity. Epictetus prioritises the mind over the body (‘why do you attach yourself to what is mortal?’), and inherits the Platonic idea that the body is a hindrance to the mind (‘these chains attached to us-the body and its possessions’). Furthermore, the influence of Aristotle can be seen when Epictetus writes of one’s ‘proper end’ and of acting according the human nature-Epictetus seems to use natural law as an argument for how to act (through reasoning-phronesis).

A key idea of Epictetus is of the external and the internal. Most fundamentally, it is our own internal judgement and opinion which causes our acts and our world view, rather than the circumstances around us-he believes we have control over how we view the world and life in general (a main Stoic idea). He says that tragedy is the portrayal,, in tragic verse, of men who have ‘attached high value to external things’. We must not attach ourselves too greatly to the external, but rather focus on what is inside us. Moreover, he emphasises that rather than discussing principles and discussing certain actions, we should act and put our principles into action, as well as aiming to solve problems rather than to complain about them. The human good, Epictetus says, ‘lies in a certain quality of choice.’