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Socrates & Plato Now & Then
by Grant Bartley
Socrates (470-399 BC) was an Athenian soldier turned stonemason who was inspired to do philosophy. Socrates taught the young aristocrat Plato (428-348 BC). Plato taught the doctor’s son Aristotle (384-322 BC). And Aristotle taught Alexander (356-323 BC), son of Philip, King of Macedon, just north of the Greek heartland. One thing that Aristotle taught Alexander was the superiority of Greek rationalism and culture. This belief inspired Alexander to go forth and conquer most of the known, and some of the unknown, world, in the name of its Hellenisation (the Ancient Greeks didn’t call themselves ‘the Ancient Greeks’: they knew themselves as ‘Hellenes’). In conquering a swathe of the world, Alexander became known as ‘the Great’. So we can see the sort of influence doing philosophy can occasionally have.
What’s the background to this trajectory? The focus of the earliest Western philosophers for whom we have any written evidence, from Thales of Miletus about 600 BC onwards, was to find the principle of things, or as we might say, to understand the unchanging nature ultimately responsible for the changes we perceive in the world around us; of things coming into being and going out of being. The word ‘philosopher’, meaning ‘lover of wisdom’, was first coined by one of their number, Pythagoras, to describe their truth-seeking attitude. However, all the Greek philosophers before Socrates are now called ‘the PreSocratics’, and for a good reason known as ‘the Socratic turn’. Socrates turned away from metaphysics towards ethics – away from thinking about what makes up the world towards what goes to make up a good life. In the words of the Roman orator Cicero, “Socrates was the first who called philosophy down from heaven, and placed it in cities, and introduced it even in homes, and drove it to inquire about life and customs and things good and evil.” Plato, for his part, then turned back to metaphysics, by gradually piecing together a set of thoughts now known as the theory of Forms or Ideas (‘eidos’ in Greek). He sought to explain the source of the changing world in terms of eternal unchanging Ideas – abstract concepts such as justice, beauty, good(ness) – which exist in a space beyond the changeable world of matter. Material things partake of or copy these perfect, pure Forms, but in an imperfect, mixed-up way, which is how we get our imperfect, mixed-up world.
Socrates didn’t trust writing, partly because you can’t probe a book’s ideas by provoking it to answer questions, which is basically how Socrates did philosophy to people. Plato fell under Socrates’ inspiration; but he liked writing so much that he penned up to thirty-five dialogues featuring Socrates. Plato’s real name was Aristocles, but he spent some time competing as a wrestler, which is how he got his pen-name: Platon means ‘broad’, as in ‘broad shoulders’.
In Plato’s dialogues Socrates quizzes mostly the Athenian aristocracy, but others too, on their understanding of such important concepts as justice, virtue, beauty, love and knowledge. By his insistent, probing questions, he tried to bring his interlocutors to a point where they admitted that they didn’t know what they thought they knew about their topic of conversation. Socrates thought that only when they realised they were ignorant would they recognise that they still need to seek better answers and firmer knowledge.
His proclivity for philosophising got him killed. Eventually (and among other reasons), Socrates’ irritating habit of humiliating high-ranking Athenians by revealing their ignorance resulted in some of them falsely accusing him of inventing new gods and of corrupting the young through his example of questioning. He was executed by being made to drink the paralysing poison hemlock; and such was his belief in setting a good example in obeying the law that he drank it.
But that’s ancient history. Can their antique ideas say anything to us today? The collection of articles in this issue’s theme shows that they can, either as an inspiration, or as a foil.
When thinking about the ideas of Classical thinkers, we should remember that their culture nurtured in them radically different assumptions than those we’re happy with. Major assumptions Plato made include one common to Classical culture (and modern mainstream film directors), of equating physical beauty with goodness. Lillian Wilde criticises this idea in her article, which contrasts Plato’s understanding of love to the less perfectionist version championed by contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Jenni Jenkins’ article explores what Plato might have thought about Facebook and other social media judging by the arguments in his manifesto for an ideal society, the Republic. Unfortunately, Plato was an elitist rather than a democrat, and thought some men are naturally meant to be masters. Subsequently his description of the ideal society is to modern eyes deeply flawed, being not just discriminatory but authoritarian.
Our contributors show how Socrates’ philosophical method can inform many of today’s debates, from critiquing some of the philosophical assumptions disingenuously promoted as science (see ‘The Reverse Solipsist’), to thinking about the effect the internet is having on our minds (‘Socrates, Memory and the Internet’), to the whole very topical question of truth, relativism and ‘alternative facts’ (‘Socrates & Pre-Truth Politics’). But first, in ‘Rediscovering Plato’s Vision’, Mark Vernon explains how Plato could remedy our current overenthusiasm for trying to explain everything by reducing it to its simplest elements. I hope you enjoy this issue, and that in the best Socratic tradition, it provokes you to disagreement and further thought!