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.

Written and Spoken Word

In a famous passage of the Phaedrus (274c-276b), Plato argues that the spoken word is superior to the written word. There, Plato asserts that writing is an “elixir not of memory, but of reminding” (275a), which, by is very nature, is inferior to the spoken word and a pale image thereof. There is, however, an obvious tension in Plato’s thought as this very condemnation of writing survives for us to consider today precisely because Plato wrote it down. As Alan Jacobs has pointed out, Plato “condemns what he does; he does what he condemns.” Through a Christian interpretation of Plato, there is a bridge over this apparent gap in the communal reading of Scripture, an ancient and central aspect of Christian worship.

Scripture seems on some points to agree with Plato’s assessment that the written word is not for memory, but for reminding. In Deuteronomy 11:18, for example, God orders the Hebrews to use the law he has revealed to them as a constant reminder to cling to righteousness, saying “lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes” (KJV). In the Psalms (119:97), Scripture rejects Plato’s overall negative assessment of the written word but agrees with his assertion concerning its use as a reminder rather than memory: “O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day.”

There are passages in Scripture, however, which point out clearly the insufficiency of the written word. Jeremiah 31:33, for example, looks forward to a time when the covenant of the written law which God made with the Hebrew people through Moses will be surpassed by another covenant in which God “will put [his] law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.” In other words, the textual reminders will no longer be necessary as real memory will totally replace it. According Jacobs, Plato “has understood the problem of writing quite exactly: it is a copy, an imitation, one step away from the real. The spoken word, on the other hand, is fully present in the soul and for this reason is a guarantee of ‘legitimate’ and certain meaning.” The choice of the Apostle John to describe Christ as the Logos of God, a Greek word primarily associated with the word spoken by a living voice, indicates that Scripture has similarly recognized this problem. In the Incarnation, the Word of God became man, a living voice has supplanted the written word for God’s people.

The communal reading of Scripture in the Christian community is an ancient tradition that may present a bridge between the written and spoken word. In one of the earliest accounts of the Sunday morning Christian worship service, written in the middle of the second century, St. Justin Martyr writes that “all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.” Matthew 18:20 records Christ’s promise that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” In this gathering together of Christians for the communal reading of Scripture, then, which was followed immediately, according to Justin, by the Eucharistic rite, an act of communion with Christ and one’s fellow Christians, is the answer to Plato’s concerns. Both the written and the human spoken word are present, but both are transcended by a third voice, that of God, and a third mode of communication, the mystical communion of believers and God in love and faith.

1 Alan Jacobs, “Deconstruction,” in Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken, eds., Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 180.
2 Ibid.
3 St. Justin Martyr, First Apology, 67.

Plato and Aristotle on Drama and Poetry

Plato and Aristotle differ from each other in some important ways in their views of poetry and drama. The primary difference between the ideas of Plato and Aristotle on the subject is in what each considers the function of these arts. It is from this point of departure that the rest of their disagreements on the subject arise.

Plato sees the primary function of poetry as the presentation of examples which the viewer is intended to, or inevitably does, imitate. Plato believes that the viewer is seduced into entering into a state of empathy and even identification with the characters witnessed on the stage or told about in the story. As a result, the viewer comes to sympathize with subjects for which he should rather feel “disgust” than “enjoyment and admiration.”1  This delight in entering into the fiction being portrayed, says Plato, leads us to imitate such behavior because “what we feel for other people must infect what we feel for ourselves.”2  According to Plato, then, “bad taste in the theatre may insensibly lead you into becoming a buffoon at home.”3  In other words, one comes through the fictions of poetry and drama to identify with the bad behavior of bad characters and so to behave badly and to become bad oneself.

As a remedy to this potentially insidious influence of poetry, Plato recommends banning many of the great classics of Greek theater from his ideal state, including even those written by Homer. He orders instead that “the only poetry that should be allowed in a state is hymns to the gods and paeans in praise of good men.”4  In other words, Plato believes that, because the hearers of poetry naturally imitate what they hear, they should only be allowed to hear poems which incite them to piety and to the imitation of the great deeds of good men.

Aristotle views the function of poetry and drama quite differently. According to Aristotle, the primary function of these arts is katharsis. Through viewing a tragedy, says Aristotle, the viewer is “accomplishing by means of pity and fear the cleansing [katharsis] of these [negative] states and feelings.”5  For Aristotle as for Plato, drama is imitation, but Aristotle’s ideas concerning who is doing the imitating and who is being imitated are very different from those of Plato. Whereas Plato believed that viewers imitate the characters they see on the stage, Aristotle instead sees the actors as the imitators of plausible but ultimately fictional events. The viewers share in this imitation and, as a result, are cleansed through the “pity and fear” they feel for and with the characters. The viewers, then, vicariously participate in the tragedy and are, in fact, motivated to the opposite course of action from imitating what they have seen. This view led Aristotle to declare that “poetry is a more philosophical and more serious thing than history.”6  Rather than merely recounting the facts of a matter, says Aristotle, poetry purifies the viewer and prepares him to choose the right course of action.

For this reason, Aristotle believed that the persons portrayed in drama should be neither of an especially good character nor of an especially bad character, but somewhere in between these two extremes. The individual portrayed should be, according to Aristotle, “the sort of person who is not surpassing in virtue and justice, but does not change into misfortune through bad character and vice.”7  In other words, he should be normal, relatable, and sympathetic. He should be someone with whom the average viewer of the drama can easily identify. And his “misfortune” should result from “some missing of the mark,” a single error, rather than from some connatural or ineradicable defect of character. For similar reasons, he also expressed an apparent disdain for biography, recommending that poets tell the story of a single part of a person’s life rather than the whole of it at once.

All of this stands in stark contrast to Plato’s view. Whereas Plato preferred the biographies of great men of history in order to inspire others to imitate their great deeds, Aristotle recommends instead the recounting of particular incidents involving errors committed by fairly average men in order to allow the viewer to participate vicariously in these errors and so avoid them in the future. Where Plato and Aristotle do agree, however, is in one basic but rather important assumption; they agree that the arts of poetry and drama have a significant effect on those who view them and on the societies of which they are a part. Although they disagree on what this effect is and how this effect is accomplished, the starting point for both is essentially identical. As such, each sees the issue of poetry as of great importance. In spite of this common beginning, however, their respective views diverge significantly from each other.

1 Plato, “Poets Banned from the Ideal State,” from The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee, 203.

2 Ibid., 203-204.

3 Ibid., 204.

4 Ibid., 204.

5 Aristotle, Poetics, ch. 6, trans. Joe Sachs (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2006), 26.

6 Ibid., ch. 9, 32.

7 Ibid., ch. 13, 37.