Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.10)

Because of the excellent education they received and the freedom they had to develop and share their own ideas, the Athenians produced some of the greatest thinkers in all of human history. Among these thinkers are three men, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, whose ideas have influenced nearly everyone since then. All three of these men were philosophers. The word “philosophy” means “love of wisdom” in Greek. Philosophers are people who use reason to search for the truth about important things like human life, God, and nature.

While there were many philosophers before Socrates, Socrates is almost always considered the greatest of philosophers and so the Greek who was most important in beginning the Greek tradition of philosophy. Within his lifetime, Socrates became very well known for wandering around the agora, the marketplace in the center of Athens where all of the men went to meet. There, he would ask people questions about what they believed. He would try to figure out what people believed and why they believed those things. Through his questions, many people discovered that they could not explain their beliefs well or did not have good reasons for believing those things. It was asking too many questions that got Socrates in trouble.

Socrates was put on trial in Athens in 399 BC. He was charged with two crimes. His first crime, they said, was introducing new gods. By this, they meant that Socrates was encouraging people to question the existence of the traditional gods of the Greeks, the gods of Mount Olympus, and was encouraging them instead to worship other gods. His second crime, his accusers claimed, was corrupting the youth. By this they meant that Socrates was encouraging young people to question their parents and other authorities. They believed that by asking so many questions and making people look bad Socrates was leading the young men of Athens to disrespect for their elders.

At his trial, Socrates defended himself by claiming that he had committed neither of these crimes. Instead, he said that he had been led by God to do what he did. Years ago, said Socrates, a man had gone to the Oracle of Apollo, a temple where people went to ask for advice and wisdom from the god Apollo, in the Greek city of Delphi. The man had asked the god there who was the wisest man in the world. The god had told him that Socrates was the wisest man in the world.

When Socrates was told of Apollo’s answer, he could not believe that he was the wisest man in the world. He set out to prove the god wrong. He went to various people he thought must be wiser than himself and asked them questions to find out if they were indeed wise. After questioning many people, Socrates concluded that most people believe they are wise but really are not. Socrates understood that he was the wisest man in the world because he was the only man who knew he was not wise. He said that since that time God had made him continue to question people in his search for wisdom.

Of course, the jury at his trial was not happy with this. They found Socrates guilty of both charges and sentenced him to death. Socrates was executed a few days later. He was forced to drink a poison called hemlock. Socrates was 70 years old when he died.

One of Socrates’s young students, a boy named Plato, grew up to write many books about Socrates and his ideas. Plato also founded a school called the Academy where he taught young men about Socrates and Socrates’s ideas. In his books, Plato continued the tradition that Socrates’s had started of questioning everything in a search for perfect wisdom.

One of Plato’s most important ideas is his theory of the forms. Plato believed that we can know what something is only because we already have, in our souls, a perfect idea of that thing. For example, even though all apples look different when we look at each one of them closely, we can recognize any apple as an apple because we know, somewhere inside of us, what a perfect apple looks like. This is also how we judge whether an apple is a good apple or a bad apple. The more similar to the perfect apple (the form) it is, the closer it is to being a good apple. The further it is from looking like the perfect apple (the form), the closer it is to being a bad apple or perhaps not even being an apple at all.

If there are perfect apples, Plato said, there must also be perfect human beings. Plato believed that human souls are made of three parts: desire, will, and reason. Desire is what makes us want things. Will is how we control our wants. And reason is what helps us decide which desires to follow and which ones not to. If these three are not properly balanced, a person becomes bad. A person who lets their desires rule them, for example, might steal whatever they want or hit people just because they get mad. Instead, said Plato, we have to learn how to bring all three of these parts of our souls into harmony. The reason should help us decide which desires are good and which are bad and the will should help direct us to the right things. If someone balances the three parts of their soul, they will become a virtuous person. A virtuous person, says Plato, is the perfect kind of person.

Plato had many students at his Academy. One of them was Aristotle, who went on to found his own school called the Lyceum. Aristotle developed a philosophy that was both very similar to Plato’s and also different in some important ways.

Aristotle believed that the one thing that all people want is happiness. He said that everything else we do we do for some other purpose. For example, people like money, but we like money because we can buy things with it. We buy these things because they make us happy. Therefore, everything we do we do for happiness.

Aristotle went on to explain that each thing functions best when it does what it was made to do. The hammer functions best when it is used to hammer in nails. The tree functions best when it is allowed to grow large and bear fruit. Human beings, then, will function best if they do what they were made to do. And, if they are allowed to function best, they will be happiest.

He then explained that the function of human beings is in the virtues. Human beings were made to behave virtuously. Humans must, then, be virtuous in order to be truly happy.

In addition to his ideas about virtue and happiness, Aristotle is also famous for his scientific research. He wrote some of the earliest books on topics in science, including zoology and biology. He used to spend much of his time walking up and down the shore of the Aegean Sea near his home, looking for new plant and animal specimens that washed up.

Although Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were different from each other in some of their ideas, they did have some important things in common. First, all three of them knew that virtue is very important. They recognized that without virtue a person can never be completely happy and fulfilled. All three of them were also very curious about people and about the world around them. The ideas of these three men continue to influence us in many ways even today.


Review Questions

 1. What were the two crimes for which Socrates was executed?

2. What was the name of the school founded by Plato?

3. In a paragraph, describe what Aristotle believed people had to do in order to be happy.


Vocabulary Words

Philosophy – in Greek, “philosophy” means “love of wisdom;” philosophers are people who use reason to search for the truth about important things like human life, God, and nature.

Reason – the ability of the human mind to think, understand, and form judgments.


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