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.

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: 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?

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.’

Eudaimonia: Aristotle and happiness

The Greek word eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία) is usually translated as ‘flourishing’ or ‘welfare’. This was, to Aristotle, the highest good (summum bonum). But how, especially today, can we reach this highest good?

Aristotle linked eudaimonia with virtue (here meaning ‘excellence’) and reason. For him, eudaimonia entailed virtue and activity, particularly intellectually stimulating activity, since Aristotle believed that reason (logos) is unique to humankind. Of course, however, activity can be mental or physical, since there is practical reason as well as mental reason. Virtue is, for Aristotle, necessary to attain eudaimonia, yet is not enough, since activity of some kind must be involved which attains success by virtuous means. There are, however, other things that appear to be depended on if one desires to achieve eudaimonia. These are goods external to oneself, such as friendship and beauty, and Aristotle would doubt that eudaimonia could truly be achieved without these kinds of external goods, which means that attainment of ‘flourishing’ seems to involve, to some extent, an element of luck.

How can we apply this to our life today? C. D. Ryff defined eudaimonia with six parts:

  1. Self acceptance
  2. Personal growth
  3. Purpose in life
  4. Autonomy
  5. Environmental mastery
  6. Positive relations with others

Not only must be at one with ourselves, we must have good relationships with others. Of course, a definite purpose is necessary, otherwise we will find ourselves wandering around aimlessly as if in a dark room. It is no doubt the case that although we rely on personal circumstances, it is up to us to attain eudaimonia. If we want it, we must concentrate on what we must do to get it, and discover for ourselves what we must implement and what we must remove from our lives.

Aristotle and Friendship

In book VIII of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses friendship.

Friendship, Aristotle writes, is ‘one of the most indispensable requirements of life.’ We would not, he goes on to say, choose to live a life without friendship, even if we had everything else that was good. Friendship, then, is for Aristotle, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, resources for mankind.

Aristotle defines friendship and divides it into three separate groups: friendship of utility, friendship of pleasure, and friendship of virtue.

Friendship of utility is defined as a friendship in which the two people are involved in the friendship due to the benefits they receive from it. Friendship of pleasure is defined as a friendship in which the two people are friends because of the pleasure one accrues for oneself. Aristotle would say that these two friendships are not ideal friendships, and that they seem to be fundamentally selfish.

Friendship of virtue, however, which is for Aristotle the ‘perfect form of friendship’, is ‘that between the good, and those who resemble each other in virtue.’ This kind of friendship, in contrast to the other two, lasts longer because it is not selfish, but because the people ‘wish the good of their friends for their friends’ sake.’

There is so much that could be said about this subject, but there are perhaps some key things to take from a book worth reading:

Friendship is an act of giving, rather than an act of taking, as is also viewed today, but it appears that friendship is much more important to Aristotle than we might first think. Friendships are for Aristotle equal, and just. In an individualist society today, we tend to pursue our own interests and goals, and we allow others to chase their own interests also, even though we may at times feel that they may not be making the right choices. For Aristotle, the emphasis is community, and rather than working for oneself, we should be working for each other. This may be much easier said than done, but, if we try, with Aristotle’s view on the ‘true’ form of friendship (friendship of virtue), we may become more of a giver, rather than a taker, and may eventually find more satisfaction because not only might we form deeper, more meaningful relationships with others, we may find ourselves reaching a greater understanding of both ourselves and of others.