The Big Three of Greek Philosophy: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle
Adopting a bird's-eye view of the terrain that we will be covering,and setting many details aside for the moment, we can describe it asfollows. From comparatively humble Homeric beginnings, the word‘soul’ undergoes quite remarkable semantic expansion insixth and fifth century usage. By the end of the fifth century— the time of Socrates' death — soul is standardly thoughtand spoken of, for instance, as the distinguishing mark of livingthings, as something that is the subject of emotional states and thatis responsible for planning and practical thinking, and also as thebearer of such virtues as courage and justice. Coming to philosophicaltheory, we first trace a development towards comprehensivearticulation of a very broad conception of soul, according to whichthe soul is not only responsible for mental or psychological functionslike thought, perception and desire, and is the bearer of moralqualities, but in some way or other accounts for all the vitalfunctions that any living organism performs. This broad conception,which is clearly in close contact with ordinary Greek usage by thattime, finds its fullest articulation in Aristotle's theory. Thetheories of the Hellenistic period, by contrast, are interested morenarrowly in the soul as something that is responsible specifically formental or psychological functions. They either de-emphasize or severthe ordinary-language connection between soul and life in all itsfunctions and aspects.
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As we mentioned, Plato was a student of Socrates and wrote down most of the records we now have of his master. With that said, it’s very difficult to discern which philosophies are merely the repetitions of his teacher, or if they are Plato’s own ideas and opinions. Whichever the case, Plato made significant impacts on many areas of philosophy. He founded the Athens Academy, which was the first institution of higher learning in the western world. He explored math, nature, politics, science, and morals.
This brings us to the spring and summer of 399, to Socrates’s trialand execution. Twice in Plato’s dialogues (Symposium 173b,Theaetetus 142c–143a), fact-checking with Socrates took placeas his friends sought to commit his conversations to writing before hewas executed. [spring 399 Theaetetus] Prior to theaction in the Theaetetus, a young poet named Meletus hadcomposed a document charging Socrates with the capital crime ofirreverence (asebeia): failure to show due piety toward thegods of Athens. This he delivered to Socrates in the presence ofwitnesses, instructing Socrates to present himself before the kingarchon within four days for a preliminary hearing (the same magistratewould later preside at the pre-trial examination and the trial). Atthe end of theTheaetetus, Socrates was on his way to that preliminaryhearing. As a citizen, he had the right to countersue, the right toforgo the hearing, allowing the suit to proceed uncontested, and theright to exile himself voluntarily, as the personified laws laterremind him (Crito 52c). Socrates availed himself of none ofthese rights of citizenship. Rather, he set out to enter a plea andstopped at a gymnasium to talk to some youngsters about mathematicsand knowledge.
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Ancient philosophical theories of soul are in many respects sensitiveto ways of speaking and thinking about the soul that are not specifically philosophical or theoretical. We thereforebegin with what the word ‘soul’ meant to speakers ofClassical Greek, and what it would have been natural to think aboutand associate with the soul. We then turn to various Presocraticthinkers, and to the philosophical theories that are our primaryconcern, those of Plato (first in the , then in the), Aristotle (in the or ), Epicurus, and the Stoics. These are by far the mostcarefully worked out theories of soul in ancient philosophy. Latertheoretical developments — for instance, in the writings ofPlotinus and other Platonists, as well as the Church Fathers —are best studied against the background of the classical theories,from which, in large part, they derive.
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In the late fifth century B.C.E., it was more or less taken forgranted that any self-respecting Athenian male would prefer fame,wealth, honors, and political power to a life of labor. Although manycitizens lived by their labor in a wide variety of occupations, theywere expected to spend much of their leisure time, if they had any,busying themselves with the affairs of the city. Men regularlyparticipated in the governing Assembly and in the city’s many courts;and those who could afford it prepared themselves for success atpublic life by studying with rhetoricians and sophists from abroad whocould themselves become wealthy and famous by teaching the young menof Athens to use words to their advantage. Other forms of highereducation were also known in Athens: mathematics, astronomy, geometry,music, ancient history, and linguistics. One of the things that seemed strange aboutSocrates is that he neither labored to earn a living, nor participatedvoluntarily in affairs of state. Rather, he embraced poverty and,although youths of the city kept company with him and imitated him,Socrates adamantly insisted he was not a teacher(Plato, Apology 33a–b) and refused all his life to take moneyfor what he did. The strangeness of this behavior is mitigated by theimage then current of teachers and students: teachers were viewed aspitchers pouring their contents into the empty cups that were thestudents. Because Socrates was no transmitter of information thatothers were passively to receive, he resists the comparison toteachers. Rather, he helped others recognize on their own what isreal, true, and good (Plato, Meno,Theaetetus)—a new, and thus suspect, approach toeducation. He was known for confusing, stinging and stunning hisconversation partners into the unpleasant experience of realizingtheir own ignorance, a state sometimes superseded by genuineintellectual curiosity.
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Our earliest extant source—and the only one who can claim tohave known Socrates in his early years—is the playwrightAristophanes. His comedy, Clouds, was produced in 423 whenthe other two writers of our extant sources, Xenophon and Plato, were infants. In theplay, the character Socrates heads a Think-o-Rama in which young menstudy the natural world, from insects to stars, and study slickargumentative techniques as well, lacking all respect for the Atheniansense of propriety. The actor wearing the mask of Socrates makes funof the traditional gods of Athens (lines 247–48, 367, 423–24),mimicked later by the young protagonist, and gives naturalisticexplanations of phenomena Athenians viewed as divinely directed (lines227–33; cf. Theaetetus 152e, 153c–d, 173e–174a;Phaedo 96a–100a). Worst of all, he teaches dishonesttechniques for avoiding repayment of debt (lines 1214–1302) andencourages young men to beat their parents into submission (lines1408–46).