Philosophical Contributions of Greece:
Socrates (c. 469-399 BCE)
Born in Athens around 469 BCE, Socrates lived during the period
of the city's greatest cultural expansion. Son of a midwife and
sculptor, he was acquainted with the intellectual elite at the court
of Pericles, ruler of Athens, despite his plebian origins. As a young
man, Socrates studied philosophy, establishing a familiarity with
the work of earlier Greek philosophers. Heraclitus and Parmenides
are thought to have been particularly influential in his education.
During the Peloponnesian War, he fought in several battles and
received commendation for his actions.
By 423 BCE, Socrates was well-known in Athens, not so much for
military distinction as for his non-traditional teaching methods. He
did not keep a formal school, nor did he charge for his services. He
was a popular guest at social gatherings, and could often be seen
arguing against illogical reasoning and prejudice wherever people
congregated. Socrates did not sympathize with the ascetics -- he
believed in enjoying life. He found fault with the Sophists,
contemporary teachers who were willing to argue either side of
any controversy and with whom he was often wrongly associated.
Socrates believed that truth, beauty, and justice have objective
content, and that we are born with an innate understanding of their
existence. He taught his students to use their rational
understanding to rediscover knowledge they already had. He also
believed that a moral life brought men happiness, and that this
morality was something that could be transmitted through
education. He himself was fond of claiming that he knew nothing,
which was his way of stating that he had no fixed doctrine.
Socrates alleged ignorance was called by the Greeks eironeia,
Socratic irony.
His willingness to criticize arguments that he found unsound,
regardless of subject, challenged and threatened some prominent
Athenians. Socrates made powerful political enemies when he
spoke against Athens' new democratic governmental system,
which he considered ineffectual and corrupt. During this time, the
Peloponnesian War dragged on, and the city of Athens suffered
plague, treason, and finally total defeat. Socrates and his
outspoken opinions became increasingly aggravating to the ruling
elite. It was thought that his influence over the youth of Athens
was dangerous, particularly his association with Critias, a former
student and a powerful figure in the Rule of Thirty, a tyrannic
government that came to power in Athens after the period of
political flux in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War.
While some of the members of this oligarchy had indeed been
followers of Socrates, Socrates remained an outspoken critic of the
new government. When the Democrats regained power, however,
Socrates' association with the oligarchy, particularly with Critias
and Alcibiades, gave his enemies reason to bring him to trial. He
was charged with corrupting the youth of Athens and with impiety.
Despite his eloquent defense, Socrates was found guilty and
sentenced to death. Plato records Socrates's last month of life in
jail in the Apology, the Phaedo, and the Crito. Socrates remained
staunchly true to his beliefs, refused to recant any of his
statements, and also refused to accept exile over death. He took a
cup of hemlock surrounded by his friends, and, comforting them,
drank the poison that would end his life.
Socrates is considered to be among the most influential Western
philosophers. Although he never wrote a word himself, the many
works of his student, Plato, provides a window into Socratic
philosophy. His major contribution to the study of philosophy was
to redirect inquiries away from the natural sciences and toward the
contemplation of systems of ethics and questions of ethical
conduct.
Plato (c. 427-347 BCE)
Plato was Socrates' student and one
of the most influential philosophers
in Western civilization. Born to a
politically active and wealthy noble
Athenian family, (Plato's mother
was descended from Solon, the
famous lawgiver credited with
major democratic reforms that
paved the way for Athen's Golden
Age) Plato grew up during the
Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE),
a conflict that arose among Athens,
Sparta, and their allies. This civil war
was the beginning of the end of the
Athenian Golden Age, and created
an opening for later conquest by Philip of Macedon. The principles of
democracy in Athens were lost, as was much of the cultural wealth of
both city states.
During this general shift away from democracy, Plato was a young man,
and probably served in the military around 409-404 BCE. The Rule of the
Thirty, a period of tyrannical government, replaced the last vestiges of
democracy before Plato reached adulthood. Though Sparta emerged
victorious in battle, the balance of power between the two city states
remained uncertain, with neither state gaining a clear economic or
political advantage.
His relatives Critias and Charmides introduced Plato to Socrates and his
radical and vibrant philosophical group. Socrates became Plato's
teacher from 469-399 BCE. Plato was deeply influenced by Socrates'
emphasis on ethics and politics, and would later commemorate
Socrates as the wise and central speaker in his philosophical
writings.When Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, Critias and
Charmides, the same relatives who had established Plato in Athens,
became part of the despotic Rule of Thirty, also known as the Thirty
Tyrants. When the government of the Rule of Thirty crumbled in 403
BCE, Critias and Charmides were executed. Socrates was then put to
death in 399 BCE, not by the Rule of Thirty, but by the newly reinstated
and corrupt Athenian democratic system. Plato gave up all political
aspirations after this tragedy, and pursued instead a career of travel
and philosophy.
He travelled to the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily around 387 BCE, ruled
by the despotic Dionysius, where he tutored and befriended Dion, a
relative of the king. During his journeying in Italy Plato encountered
followers of Pythagoras, an early philosopher whose views on the soul
and the afterlife seem to have greatly influenced Plato. Plato would also
have been intrigued by tales of a Pythagorean class of philosopherelites who had ruled over some of the Greek cities in Italy, an idea that
would resurface in his Republic . Plato's visit to Syracuse, however,
ended abruptly -- one legend suggests that Dionysius was annoyed by
Plato's critical comments and tried to sell him as a slave -- and Plato
came back to Athens in 386 BCE to found his school in a place dedicated
to Academus, a mythical hero. The Academy among the first organized
institutions of higher education in the Western world.
He remained at the Academy for the next twenty years until drawn
away from his work there in 367 BCE by a request from Dion, his old
friend from Syracuse, to return to Sicily. Plato probably made the
voyage with the expectation that he could be instrumental in forming a
new state in Syracuse, one dedicated to philosophical ideals. In 361
BCE, however, he returned to Athens, feeling that Sicily's problems
were too great for one man to overcome. His return to Athens was
marked by the arrival of a brilliant student to the Academy named
Aristotle, whom Plato taught for the next twenty years until his death in
347 BCE, according to legend, with his pen still in his hand.
Plato composed over twenty dialogues, (the dialogue itself was
then a revolutionary prose form) as well as a series of
philosophical letters. Although most of the letters are thought to be
forged, the "Seventh Letter" contains information about Plato's life
that most scholars believe to be accurate. Almost all of Plato's
works were lost during the Middle Ages, except for the first third
of the Timaeus. His writings were not recovered until the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when Italian humanists
gradually rediscovered and translated his works into Latin. From
this point forward, Plato's texts, and his magnum opus The
Republic , in particular, have had an impact on European history
second only to the works of Aristotle. Particularly influential was
his theory of Forms, in which Plato suggested that the reality of
corporeal and materials things is based on a metaphysical reality of
ideas that exists in an eternal world of Forms. Plato's idea of a an
absolute Form of the Good was close to the Christian monotheistic
God; Neoplatonism in the Christianizing Roman Empire (100-400
CE) revived Plato as an early precursor of Christian doctrine.
Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE)
Aristotle, or Aristoteles, (c.384-322 BCE) was born in Stagirus in the
Greek colony of Chalcidice, which
lies to the north of Greece near
Macedon. Aristotle was never an
Athenian citizen, despite having
spent most of his life in Athens.
Nicomachus, Aristotle's father, was
court physician to King Amyntas III
of Macedon.
Aristotle came to Athens to study
and joined Plato's Academy in 367
BCE. Aristotle became Plato's best
student and was generally felt to
be Plato's successor. He remained
at the Academy until Plato's death
in 347 BCE, when, bypassed in the
election of the Academy's next president, Aristotle left Athens with a
few students and friends.
He journeyed to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor, where he
established a school at Assos at the behest of the ruling Persian vassal,
Hermias. Aristotle married Pythias, Hermia's adopted daughter. When
Hermias fell out of favor with the Persian authorities and was executed,
Aristotle and his followers fled to the Greek island of Lesbos. Here,
Aristotle met Theophrastus, his successor. It was also at Lesbos that
Aristotle made some of his most famous zoological observations and
marine experiments in biology. In 343 BCE, Aristotle returned to
Macedon at the invitation of King Philip.For three years he became the
tutor of the adolescent Alexander the Great.
Aristotle returned to Athens to found his own school, the Lyceum, in
355 BCE, after Alexander had assumed the throne. The Lyceum had a
special status. Alexander had made a large donation to his former
tutor's new enterprise, and additionally the Lyceum was under
Macedonian protection. At the Lyceum, Aristotle had the freedom to
pursue a vast number of scientific and philosophic interests. He
developed a course of study that in many ways resembles the modern
Western university system. In fact, many of Aristotle's surviving works
were probably intended as notes for his advanced courses. He also gave
lectures to the general public. His philosophical school was known as
"Peripatetic," either because Aristotle had a habit of walking around
while addressing his audience, or because the roofed courtyard at the
Lyceum was called a peripatos .
Aristotle's good years in Athens did not last. Alexander died during his
great Eastern campaign in 323 BCE, and the withdrawal of Macedonian
power and protection from Aristotle's Athenian school gave his enemies
the opportunity to charge him with impiety. Aristotle fled to Chalcis,
explaining, according to legend, that he would not give the Athenians a
chance to commit another sin against philosophy (referring to the
execution of Socrates on a similar charge in 399 BCE). He died the
following year at the age of sixty-two.
Despite the fact that only around thirty Aristotelean treatises remained
extant, Aristotle's work has directed academic pursuits in the West
since the middle ages. Among his most influential works are Politics,
Physics, Metaphysics, Generation of Animals , History of Animals,
Nicomachean Ethics (named after his son, Nicomachus, who is thought
to have edited his father's work), Rhetoric , Poetics , On the Heavens,
Meteorology, and Prior Analytics . Aristotle's work might be viewed as
an attempt to reconcile naturalism, as posited by the pre-Socratics, with
the metaphysical world described by his teacher, Plato.Ultimately,
Aristotle would repudiate Plato's metaphysical understanding of the
world. Aristotle preferred (and indeed developed) the processes of
scientific observation and experimentation in the material world. He is
credited with establishing systems and categories of scholarly research
that have survived to the present day. Aristotle's work has been critical
in the development of much of Western philosophic thought through to
the nineteenth century.
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Philosophical Contributions of Greece