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.

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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: 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.

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.’

That one question…

We always ask ourselves how we should live, how we should act and what we should do with our time. Rarely, if ever, do we find a right answer. It’s one of those questions which we can’t just look up online or find in a book. Yes, other people can tell us how to live, but that doesn’t mean that’s how we should live. Is there, then, any way of finding a right answer?

Many things can be used as examples which tell us how to live: advertising, the Bible, various philosophies of life. Yet are they correct? In some places we may find right answers, but not the right answer. The external may be able to help us recognise the truth about how to treat others and act in certain situations, but the fundamental thing is that each recognition comes from within you. It has to be you who accepts what you read or watch, and as soon as you do, it has become part of your way of life. It is part of your theory of ‘how to live’. As we constantly go through life from one second to the next, we are not only living but also simultaneously acting out how we believe we should live. The answers do not come from the external, they come from the internal, and from the reflection of our own life as we have lived it so far. Sartre is right in the sense that one cannot say to another ‘this is how to live’, yet I believe that how we should live has been figured out, by ourselves, for ourselves and for ourselves only. Only you yourself can truly figure out how you should live. Christopher Hitchens used the example of Socrates’ inner daemon– a guiding, internal voice. Perhaps the only way we can ever know we should live is to listen to this daemon, and to review how we act in certain situations. How we act in a certain situation reflects our thoughts on what we should have done in that certain situation. There are no variables here, and what we do is what we think we should do at that moment, even if in retrospect we realise we should have done something different. To figure out how to live, first, we must live. It is up to yourself, nobody else. There is no right answer, only right answers, and as long as we truly listen to ourselves, to our inner voice, we will know how to live.