The Big Three of Greek Philosophy: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Ancient Greek philosophy arose in the 6th century BC and lasted through the Hellenistic period (323 BC-30 BC). Greek philosophy covers an absolutely enormous amount of topics including: political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, ontology (the study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality), logic, biology, rhetoric, and aesthetics (branch of philosophy dealing with art, beauty, and taste). Greek philosophy is known for its undeniable influence on Western thought. Although there were Greek philosophers before their respective births, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are the only three worth focusing on during this period.

Socrates, born in Athens in 470 BC, is often credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy. The cloud of mystery surrounding his life and philosophical viewpoints propose a problem; a problem so large that it’s given a name itself: The Socratic Problem. Since he did not write philosophical texts, all knowledge related to him is entirely dependent on the writings of other people of the time period. Works by Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, and Aristophanes contain all of the knowledge known about this enigmatic figure. His largest contribution to philosophy is the Socratic method. The Socratic method is defined as a form of inquiry and discussion between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to illuminate ideas. This method is performed by asking question after question with the purpose of seeking to expose contradictions in one’s thoughts, guiding him/her to arrive at a solid, tenable conclusion. The principle underlying the Socratic Method is that humans learn through the use of reasoning and logic; ultimately finding holes in their own theories and then patching them up.

Plato, student of Socrates, also has mystery surrounding him. His birth day is estimated to fall between 428 BC and 423 BC. He’s known for being the founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. My favorite of Plato’s contributions to philosophy, and the one I’m going to focus on, is the Theory of Forms. This theory was created to solve two problems, one of ethics and one of permanence and change. The ethical problem is: how can humans live a fulfilling life in an ever changing world if everything that they hold close to them can be easily taken away? The problem dealing with permanence and change is: How can the world appear to be both permanent and changing? The world we perceive through senses seems to be always changing–which is a pretty clear observation. The world that we perceive through the mind, seems to be permanent and unchanging. Which world perceived is more real? Why are we seen two different worlds?

To find a solution to these problems, Plato split the world into two: the material, or phyiscal, realm and the transcendent, or mental, realm of forms. We have access to the realm of forms through the mind, allowing us access to an unchanging world. This particular world is invulnerable to the pains and changes of the material world. By detaching our souls from the material world and our bodies and developing our ability to concern ourselves with the forms, Plato believes this will lead to us finding a value which is not open to change. This solves the ethical problem. Splitting existence up into two realms also leads us to a solution to the problem of permanence and change. Our mind perceives a different world, with different objects, than our senses do. It is the material world, perceived through the senses, that is changing. It is the realm of forms, perceived through the mind, that is permanent.

Aristotle, student of Plato, lived from 384 BC-322 BC. At eighteen, he joined Plato’s Academy in Athens and remained there until the age of thirty-seven. There, he honed his talents of understanding the world. In his understanding of the world, he wrote his theory of the universals–which I find to be extremely intriguing. The problem of the universals is the question of whether properties exist, and if so, what exactly are they. To avoid confusion, a universal is a metaphysical term describing what particular things have in common, focusing strictly characteristics or qualities. His theory states that universals exist only where they are instantiated (the concept that it is impossible for a property to exist which is not had by some object). In simpler terms, he believes universals exist only in things, never apart from things–differing from his teacher, Plato, on this. Aristotle believes that a universal is identical in each of its instances. All round things are similar in that there is the same universal, characteristic, throughout.

These three laid the foundations of many of the believes of the rest of the Western world. Philosophers such as John Locker and Descartes use the theories these brilliant minds brought forth in their own works. I’m very interested to read your opinions, specifically on the Plato theory.


2 thoughts on “The Big Three of Greek Philosophy: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.”

  1. These viewpoints are tough to wrap your head around. Plato makes an interesting stand. I think it’s important to be able to separate yourself from the physical world. The universe will always change. Materials will wither away and loved ones will pass, but it’s how you control your reaction and keep a stable mind that will determine how happy and fulfilling your life is. You need to let the world change and accept it. Great post! I find it interesting how each philosopher influences one another, but all of their viewpoints are different. It just goes to show how everyone’s reality is different.

  2. I found all these philosophers to be interesting, especially Plato. It’s neat that they all had a student-teacher relationship with one another. I wish I had more time to reflect before commenting. There are hours of debate in this blog post alone! I wonder if Plato is suggesting that we pick one world or the other or if we need to find a balance between the two. I agree that our minds try to make things stay the same, but the world insists upon change. Our minds are the more comforting place for us as people, but if we lived in that realm forever, wouldn’t we go mad?

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