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Category Archives: Philosophers

Plato’s “Apology” And The Wisdom Of Socrates
“The Apology” recounts the speech Socrates delivers to the court of Athens that means to put him to death for
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The Wholly Spirit of Aristotle
by Ben Potter When considering the origins of Western philosophy there is a clear, almost indisputable holy trinity which gave
Read more.
Epicurus: The Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life
Early philosophy in ancient Greece sought to explain the nature of the universe. For instance, there was Thales of Miletus,
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Aristotle The Philosopher who Knew it All
It has been said that he was a man who knew everything. In fact, he was considered the last man
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The Death of Socrates…and the State that Killed Him
by Anya Leonard According to the Oracle at Delphi, Socrates was the wisest of them all. It is usually considered
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The Probing Philosopher Kings
by Anya Leonard One might wonder why Socrates never wrote anything down. Such a brilliant philosopher… wouldn’t he want to
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Five Reasons Why Socrates Was A Terrible Husband
By. Van Bryan Socrates is often credited with the quote, “By all means, marry. If you get a good wife,
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Aristippus and the Pursuit of Pleasure
As is common with many of the more obscure ancient philosophers, the majority of our knowledge comes from Diogenes Laertius’
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Pyrrho Of Elis (360-270 BCE)
Branch: Epistemology Approach: Pyrrhonism “He lead a life consistent with his doctrine, going out of his way for nothing, taking
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Musonius: The Roman Socrates
Musonius Rufus was born sometime before 30 A.D. to an Etruscan family in the town of Volsinii. Considered one of
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Plato’s “Apology” And The Wisdom Of Socrates

by September 26, 2018

“The Apology” recounts the speech Socrates delivers to the court of Athens that means to put him to death for his odd practices. He is charged with “corrupting the youth and believing in strange gods” a crime that was punishable by death in ancient Athens. Socrates would have had some choice words for the man who had all the answers. Only a fool would truly believe that he had solved, absolutely, the mysteries of life.
So let us examine the wisdom of Socrates. Let us consider the true nature of wisdom. Let us consider what convictions are worth clinging to, even in the face of death. And for once, let us all concede that we do not have all the answers.
As a general disclaimer, before we delve head first into this, we must first recognize that “Apology” was not written by Socrates himself. It was put to paper by his disciple Plato. We must be careful of accepting everything Plato wrote without hesitation. Plato wrote his philosophical essays in the form of dialogues, where Socrates would often be used as a puppet to explain the ideas of Plato. It is difficult to decipher where Socrates ends and Plato begins.
Saying that, “Apology” by Plato, although being rather dramatic, is generally accepted as an accurate representation of Socrates and his ideas on wisdom and the prospect of death.
1. Socrates On Wisdom
At the opening of “Apology”, Socrates stands before a court of Athens as he faces his accusers who wish to see him put to death. His accusers are Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon, all prominent Athenians who were prompted by politicians, poets and craftsmen to pursue the death of Socrates. Socrates addresses the crowd witnessing his trial and assures them that the charges against him are “false” and “slanderous”. He claims that these charges were brought against him because he possessed a wisdom that was “peculiarly human”. What wisdom does Socrates speak of?
Socrates had recently been informed by the oracle at Delphi that he, of all men in Athens, was wisest. Socrates is very skeptical of this claim. How is it that he could be wisest when Athens possesses so many notable politicians, artists and poets? Surely there must be some mistake. So Socrates describes how he first would visit with the politicians of Athens. Surely if he were to converse with these notable men of government, he would find that they possessed great wisdom.
Socrates learned that the politicians, as is common with politicians, believed themselves to be very wise and the people as well thought them to be knowledgeable of all good things. Yet, they were not wise men. Socrates would try to show this to them, to shake them from their undeserved sense of superiority, and they would refuse him. The politicians would become angry at Socrates, and they would denounce him and send him away.
Socrates again spoke with poets and craftsmen of Athens. They all appeared to have some knowledge of things, yet they too believed themselves superior and unduly wise. They would also become angry with Socrates for his insistence that they really knew nothing. Socrates would then come to form his conclusions about true wisdom and the nature of being wise.
Wisdom is humility, accepting that we know very little or nothing at all. Socrates describes this conclusion when he states “I am wiser than that man. Neither of us probably knows anything worthwhile; but he thinks he does when he does not, and I do not and do not think I do”. Socrates is considered the wisest man in Athens by the Oracle, because instead of assuming he possesses wisdom, he accepts that wisdom is often unattainable and that we should instead continuously purse new and truer knowledge.
2. Socrates On Politics
So if Socrates is the wisest man in Athens, why does he not use this wisdom for the benefit of the city? He should enter politics and become influential within Athens, right? Socrates briefly tried his hand at politics. The philosopher, for a time, was the senator representing the tribe Antiochis. He oversaw the trial of several Athenian generals who were accused of failing to collect the bodies of fallen soldiers after a decisive naval battle. The generals were tried together, which was illegal, and they were threatened with death for their mistake. It was then that Socrates discovered a fatal flaw within democracy.
The crowd, as well as the city, overwhelmingly opposed the generals. In response, the other judges of the trial went to great lengths to ensure the deaths of the accused. In this way they would gain great favor with the citizens of Athens. Socrates found this behavior disgraceful. Although these generals had not upheld their duties, justice as well as Athenian law should declare that they were undeserving of death. Socrates cast his vote to save the generals and was met with political backlash. The citizens hated him, threatened his life and demanded his impeachment. Socrates stood firm in his commitment to justice. He declares, “I cared not a straw for death. My only fear was the fear of doing an unrighteous or unholy thing”.
Quote by Socrates/Plato
Despite Socrates’ attempts, the generals would be put to death. Socrates himself would quietly slip away from politics. Shortly after, Athens would encounter a brief political revolution and democracy would be replaced with an oligarchical rule. Socrates considers himself to have been saved by the oligarchical leaders who were not slaves to the desires of the people. From these experiences, Socrates has grown to distrust politics. It is a system that denies justice and virtue, and instead produces evil, greedy men who look to control the throngs of foolish voters. Socrates insists that he is better off lecturing in the streets, showing the citizens the path to wisdom and revealing true virtue in the process.
We must be careful at this point. Plato deeply hated democracy. “Apology” would have been written after the death of Socrates, who very much was killed through a democratic process. It is understandable that Plato would despise democracy for it’s role in killing his mentor and friend. It is possible that the dangers of democracy described here are actually Plato’s ideas filtered through the character of Socrates. We may never know for sure.
3. Socrates On Death And The Immortal Soul
During the course of the trial, Socrates begins to discuss the notion of death. His life very much is on the line, yet he seems to be unrepentant. He insists that if he were acquitted, he would continue his lectures, he would never denounce philosophy. Socrates shall not abandon his integrity and admit to these false crimes. He does not fear death. How can this be?
Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

Socrates concludes that death is either a state of permanent unconsciousness, like a dreamless sleep, or death is a moving on of the spirit to another realm. Either would be taken as a blessing. If death is like a dreamless sleep, then it would be a great gain according to Socrates. Peace for the man and the soul, eternally and without interruption, would be something that even a king could not denounce.
And if death is a pilgrimage of the soul, then Socrates would gladly make that journey. He would look forward to meeting with the deceased who have gained fame for their great deeds. Would it not be magnificent to converse with the likes of Homer or Odysseus? Socrates could spend his time conversing with Agamemnon and Ajax from the Trojan war. In this new immortal realm, Socrates could continue his pursuit of wisdom and true knowledge. He could interview the ancient heroes and learn which of them are wise and which are fools. Death, perhaps, would be a welcome reprieve from life.
4. Socrates On The Purpose Of His Life
Socrates, by now, has been sentenced to die by a narrow majority. Instead of begging for his life, he recounts the purpose of his existence, standing beside his convictions until the very end.
Socrates tells us that it was not through chance that he lived the way he did. He was chosen by the Gods to stir Athens from it’s laziness and self assured contentment. Like a gadfly might urge a lazy horse, Socrates attempted to shake Athenians from their slumber. He has been divinely guided to pursue knowledge and to help others find true wisdom. All through his trial he has been given no sign from God to repent, to beg for his life. So he now concludes that it is a far better thing for him to be relieved from this mortal world. Socrates tells us that death is a noble and inevitable end for all men; living unrighteous lives, however, is a sin that will truly haunt the soul.
Quote by Plato
Socrates speaks to the audience and claims that “they will not easily find another like me”. And that Athens, for all it’s supposed wisdom, will ironically be remembered as the city that killed the wisest man of all. He remarks that even if he were given the chance to live, on the condition that he denounces his lectures and philosophy, he would still rather die. For the greatest life is the life that continuously discusses virtue, and explores the bounds of true wisdom. And the life that is unexamined, is not worth living. Socrates says his goodbyes to the crowd. He tells them that they must now depart. He must go to die, they must go to live. And only God will know which course is better.
As “Apology” comes to a close, I can not help but feel a sense of loss for a man I never met who lived in a time that I will never know. The first intellectual martyr of Western civilization, Socrates’ legacy would be long remembered and deeply loved. As I imagine Socrates saying goodbye to his friends in Athens, turning to face his death, I am reminded of the words of Charles Dickens from his classic novel “A Tale Of Two Cities”.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done
It is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known

The Wholly Spirit of Aristotle

by July 18, 2018

by Ben Potter
When considering the origins of Western philosophy there is a clear, almost indisputable holy trinity which gave birth to a dynasty of thought that is still with us to this day.
Whilst Socrates was certainly the father and Plato undeniably the son, it was Aristotle who exuded a ‘wholly’ spirit.
He was complete and comprehensive in the sense that, unlike his forerunners, he was no mere philosopher, but also wrote extensively on physics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, biology and zoology.
He was, more than any other individual, responsible for shaping the European mind; and by extension, the minds of those in the Americas and Antipodes.
Indeed, it is impossible to deny that Aristotle gave the world an academic cornucopia that was so varied and detailed that some of his assertions were only finally being corroborated, or in fact refuted, in the 19th century, over 2000 years after his death.
Of the trinity only Aristotle, unlike Socrates and Plato, was not an Athenian. His association with Athens only began in his 18th year when he enrolled as a student at Plato’s Academy.
However, it is difficult to accurately speculate about his education prior to this.
His father was a physician at the court of King Amyntas II of Macedonia, making it likely that Aristotle, between his birth in 384 BC and his migration to Athens in 367 BC, would have spent some part of his childhood in these auspicious circles.
Also, it’s hard to imagine he was quite so precocious that he would have been able to slot so neatly into life at Plato’s Academy without at least some degree of formal education.
Regardless of his level of ignorance or brilliance when he entered the Academy, over the next 20 years he managed to establish himself as Plato’s protégée; learning from, but by no means kowtowing to, the elder thinker.
Much has been made of Aristotle’s departure from Plato, with some saying that the younger man rebelled against or even betrayed his tutor with the evolution of his philosophy. However, there is too much consensus and similarity between them to be quite so dramatic; evolution is a far more appropriate term than rebellion.
Indeed, Aristotle only left the Academy when its founder died in 347 BC and the reins of power were transferred to Plato’s nephew, Speusippus.
But why did Aristotle leave?
Was he unhappy at the direction in which Speusippus was taking the Academy? Was he irked by being overlooked for the top job? Or was his concern the amount of anti-Macedonian sentiment rising up in the city which was lazily misdirected toward him, despite the fact that there was nothing to suggest that Aristotle was anything other than a loyal Athenian citizen?
Whatever the reason, Aristotle decided that, for now, a hiatus from Athens would serve his interests best.
And so he made his way to Assos, due south of the traditional site of Troy. There, under the protection of a former Academy classmate, the slave-turned-tyrant Hermias, he established his own school and married Hermias’ (presumably dentally challenged) daughter.
However if Assos was where Aristotle cut his teeth as an educator, it was on Lesbos, where he moved in 345 BC, that he had the opportunity to examine and chronicle the flora and fauna of the island and surrounding sea; pioneering classification by genus and specie, and attempting to explain the very nature of each organism.
Aristotle's life on a map

Map of Aristotle’s Life

He did this in an impressively academic manner; not content merely to observe, but also to understand the benefit of logging changes.
Aristotle was not quite ready for a return to Athens when he opted to terminate his studies in natural history with the Lesbians. Instead he took a more circuitous route and retrod the ground he walked as a child; following in his father’s footsteps as an employee at the Macedonian court.
Though not like his father as a medic, but a tutor and, as chaos theorists would have us believe, one that may have seriously altered the course of history… as the pupil he taught was none other than Alexander the Great.
However, some questioned Aristotle’s motives for taking up the post.
Aristotle Teaching Alexander
Was he tempted by the glamour of the position? By the riches it must surely have brought? Was it because Alexander’s father, King Philip II had the power to liberate and rebuild Aristotle’s home town of Stageira?
Well… we could potentially answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions. However, if he was following the teachings of his mentor Plato, then Aristotle would have had no choice but to tutor the young prince. He would have seen it as his duty to make Alexander not merely Great, but a great philosopher king.
Aristotle did what he could with Alexander, but perhaps did not have sufficient classroom time as the young man was actively involved in his father’s government from the age of 16. Thus, when Alexander came to the throne in earnest (still at the tender age of 20), Aristotle had long since become superfluous.
With his globe-trotting days behind him, and his attempts to philosophise with the soon-to-be most famous man in the world not wholly successful, Aristotle decided that the centre of the cultural world, Athens, was in need of fresh intellectual guidance.
However, an absence of 13 years and open collusion with Athens’ subjugators, Macedonia, hadn’t given Aristotle, described in one source as a dandy with rings on his fingers and a fashionable hair cut, the authority to walk brazenly back into the Academy and expect to be welcomed with open arms (though his flash appearance did manage to bag him a second wife).
So instead he opted to establish his own school, the Lyceum.
The school and its followers were often referred to as Peripatetics, a term derived from the Greek word ‘to walk’ and apocryphally thought to reflect Aristotle’s penchant for teaching while wandering the grounds.
Aristotles' school

The Peripatetics

Incongruously, it is quite possible there was very little altruism in Aristotle’s desire to teach. He openly admitted that knowledge and teaching were intertwined to the extent that a man could never truly understand something unless he could then impart that knowledge to another. Thus to teach was for Aristotle, first and foremost, beneficial to himself.
It’s hard to know if the Lyceum was more important as a college of research or one of individual enlightenment, but it was certainly during this period that Aristotle and his acolytes seem to have done much of the work for which he is now famous.
In addition to those texts (Poetics, Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, etc), he (or his ‘interns’) also collected maps, codified the Athenian constitution, added a 5th element to those established by Empedocles, attempted to link good grammar practices to logic, and revealed the scientific principles behind the camera obscura.
Bust of Aristotle

Bust of Aristotle

Significantly, though often overlooked, the school also drudged through the archives at Delphi to log the athletes who had competed in the sporting events held there whilst additionally cross-referencing them with those who had participated in Athenian dramatic festivals.
This was done not merely for the love of bureaucracy, but in an attempt to establish an accepted chronology. After all, it’s easy for us to forget that the ancient world didn’t have the luxury of a quick and easy ‘Before Christ’ or ‘Anno Domini’ way of looking at things.
And so life continued in this vein for Aristotle right up until 323 BC when Alexander the Great, fresh from conquering most of the known world decided at the age of 32 to, rather selfishly, drop dead of a tropical disease (though many prominent figures were rumoured to have poisoned him – Aristotle among them!)
The end of the Great life was the end of a chance for a worthwhile life for Aristotle, as it now became very difficult to live in Athens if one had, or was perceived to have, Macedonian sympathies. While Alexander was alive the Athenians knew that there was no chance of fighting for independence, but with his death, there was instability and a chance of revolt.
Consequently, Aristotle fled to Chalcis in the following year as, in his own words, he “would not allow Athenians to sin twice against philosophy”; a reference to the public trial and execution of Socrates in 399 BC.
For whatever reason, life on Chalcis was not sympathetic to Aristotle. After only one year he died of natural causes, aged 62.
Aristotle’s legacy flourished with barely an interruption in the AD period, but from his own time until the first century BC, Peripatetics were severely marginalized in the Greek world. A story that Aristotle’s texts were lost, hidden in a basement for centuries, before being taken to Rome in 86 BC accounts well for this gap, but is more than slightly fanciful.
There is no satisfactory explanation for Aristotle’s temporary wane in popularity, but we can say with some authority that when it waxed again it did so with dramatic virulence.
Dante dubbed him ‘the master of those that know’, whilst Thomas Aquinas simply called him ‘the philosopher’.
Painting of Aristotle

Aristotle and the bust of Homer by Rembrant

His influence was not restricted to the Latin world, he was also respected by Jewish scholars of the middle-ages while their Islamic counterparts referred to him as ‘the first teacher’.
He is said to have had a mind which was “ordered, balanced and stunningly capacious”. Indeed, some suspect that he may have been the last man in existence who knew all the information that it was possible (in his own time) to learn.
There is almost limitless choice from which to choose some fine words of Aristotle’s to leave you to mull over. However, as he was a lecturer far more than he was a writer, his words should ideally be heard and not read. So read the following inspirational thoughts aloud (unless you’re on a crowded train or alone in a cafe – Aristotle didn’t directly advocate looking like a loony) and try to hear, through the echoes of time, the buzzing thought processes of a man who was limitless in his own ability to think:
“We must not listen to those who urge us to think human thoughts since we are human, and mortal thoughts since we are mortal; rather, we should as far as possible immortalize ourselves and do all we can to live by the finest element in us – for if it is small in bulk, it is far greater than anything else in power and worth”.

Epicurus: The Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life

by April 17, 2018

Early philosophy in ancient Greece sought to explain the nature of the universe. For instance, there was Thales of Miletus, who held the rather bold belief that the entire universe is made of water in one form or the other. This dramatic delve into the study of metaphysics was very popular with early philosophers and was inevitably built upon and reproduced in various forms.
Ancient SamosBy the time Epicurus was born in 341 BCE on the Aegean island of Samos, popular philosophy was shifting emphasis from metaphysics (determining the nature of the universe) to personal ethics. It was a change that was prompted by Socrates some hundred years beforehand. Socrates, through his teachings and lectures, forced individuals to examine basic human values and ethics.
And because of this, people began asking themselves some very profound and fundamental questions. What does it mean to be moral? What is the true nature of human ethics? How should one live their life?
Epicurus sought to answer these questions. His teachings would gain attention for their dramatic departure from commonly held religious beliefs. He was determined to help others comprehend the true purpose of life and come closer to understanding the nature of death.
Epicurus was taught philosophy as a boy by a disciple of Plato on the island of Samos. As a man, he diligently studied the teachings of the atomist philosophers Democritus and Leucippus. Epicurus would eventually adopt the view that the entire universe is composed only of atoms and empty space, which is a line of thought that we are more accustomed to.
Epicurus BustEpicurus believed that the universe was logical and behaved with predictable tendencies. Because of this, he was a strong proponent of finding true knowledge through observable, objectively verifiable phenomenon. In this regard his thinking was very similar to the modern scientific method. His beliefs ran counter to the commonly held idea that knowledge can be found through mythology and religion.
This stance was not one that was accepted by much of ancient Greece. It would appear that Epicurus was denying the existence of the gods in favor for a reliance on scientific thought. And indeed, Epicurus is said to have stated, “It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to attain by himself”.
Needless to say, this made him rather unpopular.
Keeping in line with his belief that the gods did not determine the course of one’s life, he was also a strong proponent of the idea of free will. To Epicurus, each human was the captain of his or her own ship. You may choose to be virtuous or you may choose to be evil. It is your decision.
But if we are the author of our own stories, then that might seem to put a lot of pressure on an individual. If I am the sole force determining the course of my life, then how should I best lead my life?! Epicurus had an answer for this as well.
What is the goal of life? To Epicurus the goal of living was to find happiness through friendship, living humbly and avoiding pain and anxiety. He believed very strongly that by living peacefully and avoiding fear and pain, we could live fully. To Epicurus, living a virtuous life and a peaceful life were one in the same. This is seen when he states…
Epicurus qupte“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely, honorably, and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely, honorably and justly without living pleasantly.”
A common, and incorrect, assumption of Epicurus was that he promoted finding happiness through material wealth and superficial excess.
Epicurus preached quite the opposite. He believed that the rich man was not the man who has the most, but rather the man who needs the least. He advised us, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you have now was once among the things you only hoped for.”
According to Epicurus, we should all seek a life of knowledge and temperance, surrounded by friends and free from fear and pain. And to Epicurus, there was one obstacle that plagued the hearts of men; it was this one thing that kept us from living a happy and fulfilled life.
Epicurus believed that finding a life of peaceful contentment devoid of pain or fear should be the goal of every life. Epicurus believed that the one thing that was holding people back from truly accomplishing this feat was the fear of death.
The inhabitants of ancient Greece lived in constant fear of the wrath of the Gods. They viewed their mortal life as a temporary condition. Their sins and wrongdoings would be judged harshly by temperamental, vengeful gods. The expectation of pain and torment for eternity at the hands of Thanatos, the terrifying personification of death, was commonplace in ancient Greece.
Epicurus believed that the main obstacle to a fulfilled life was the irrational fear of incurring the wrath of the gods and suffering for eternity in the lair of Hades. We are so preoccupied with fearing death that we refuse to acknowledge life.
Epicurus sought to remedy this. And he did so by explaining the nature of death.
To Epicurus, the entire world was constructed entirely of atoms and empty space. Epicurus reasoned that the human soul could not be constructed of empty space. The consciousness (the soul) interacted very closely, very dynamically with the body. This would mean that the soul was made of atoms, presumably dispersed throughout the body. However these atoms would be fragile. Epicurus taught that at the time of our death, the soul would evaporate entirely.
Death marks the end of consciousness and sensation. This would mean that we would be unable to feel any emotional or physical pain. If we are no longer capable of feeling fear or pain when we decease, then it is foolish to be preoccupied with the notion of death. Epicurus believed that this fear was an obstacle to true happiness in this lifetime. If we could accept death, not ignore it or mystify it, but truly accept it as the end of being, then we could find happiness in this life.

As Epicurus said himself,
Epicurus quote death“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.”

Epicurus was viewed as dismissive of religion and therefore disliked by much of Greece. He did however gain a small but very loyal following. He founded a school of philosophy in Athens named “The Garden”, after a garden he enjoyed as a child on the island of Samos.
A stone’s throw from Plato’s Academy, The Garden was one of the first philosophical establishments that welcomed both women and slaves.
Epicureanism, the name for the teachings of Epicurus, would be revisited by contemporary ethical philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. The teachings of Epicurus can be heard resounding from the United States’ Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Epicurus lived his life free from a fear of death. He tried to teach others to pursue similar goals. He was a man who knew that he was the master of his own life, the sole captain of his ship. He inspired others to pursue scientific knowledge and to live freely.
True to his teachings, Epicurus described the last day of his life in 270 BCE as ‘a truly happy day.’
“Epicurus: The Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life” was written by Van Bryan

Aristotle The Philosopher who Knew it All

by October 16, 2017

It has been said that he was a man who knew everything. In fact, he was considered the last man who did know everything. Was he born with a supernatural Rainman-like memory? Did the Gods imbue him with the divine gift of wisdom? Maybe, but probably not.
Bust of AristotleIn all likelihood, he did know everything of his own time because, frankly, most of what was known, was written by him anyway. You could not have found a more prolific, in depth and innovative thinker than Aristotle. He inscribed over 200 works (though only 31 remain), founded numerous fields of study and observation, as well as a prominent school to propel those new areas of interest.
Really, no one short column can do anything even in the remote vicinity of justice to the man’s life, contributions and influence. That doesn’t mean we won’t try, however.
For instance, if we wished to briefly review the major mental tasked achieved by Aristotle, we would be stuck with a drab list; a copy and paste of accomplishments.
It’s, unfortunately, a mistake we can’t avoid. Our suggestion would be to not actually read the whole thing (unless in a Rodgers and Hammerstein-like tune), but rather see it for the mountain that it is and skip to the next paragraph.
So, without further adieu:

In physical science, Aristotle studied: anatomy, astronomy, embryology, geography, geology, meteorology, physics and zoology.
In philosophy, he wrote on: aesthetics, ethics, government, metaphysics, politics, economics, psychology, rhetoric and theology.
He also studied: education, foreign customs, literature and poetry.

This is the moment when everyone asks, with burning jealousy in their eyes, how did he have the time in one short life? Where did he get the inexhaustible energy or the German-like discipline? We don’t know, of course. A brief overview of the ebbs and flows of his life might shed some light… we can only hope.
From the very beginning Aristotle was not like the other Athenian philosophers, for he wasn’t even Athenian. This small detail, one in which he had no choice, resulted in innumerable favorable and unfortunate occurrences in his life. It meant he was often a ‘foreigner’ because he was born in Northern Greece (more precisely, in Stageira, Chalcidice, in 384 BC, about 34 miles east of modern-day Thessaloniki). Essentially… Macedonia, the land of Alexander the Great.
Aristotle’s father, Nicomachus, was the personal physician to Alexander’s grandfather, King Amyntas of Macedon. This would have been young Aristotle’s first influence in the realm of scientific thinking. It also contributed to his vast understanding of the anatomy. In addition, it was his initial connection to the Macedonian court.
Once Aristotle’s papa passed away, his new guardian shipped him off to Athens so he could get a real education. There in the big city, he studied under Plato himself in his renowned Academy. No one would doubt that this period was extremely influential for Aristotle. After 20 odd years, in 348/47 BC, he quit the Acropolis, though no one knows for sure why he left town. One theory is that the philosopher’s ego was hurt when Plato died. He did not pass the baton to Aristotle, but named another successor instead. The other order of events is that Aristotle feared anti-Macedonian sentiments and in fact, left before Plato gave up the ghost.
Either way, Aristotle then traveled with a fellow thinker, Xenocrates, to the court of his friend Hermias of Atarneus in Asia Minor. There he jotted around, had inspired thoughts about octopus, married Hermias’ daughter and had a baby. His excursions around Lebos were instrumental in his observations on marine life, with a description of the cephalopods’ phallus that was about two thousand years ahead of its time. Indeed it was widely disbelieved until its rediscovery in the 19th century.
Aristotle Teaching AlexanderWhen his father-in-law died, Aristotle was called back to his homeland in order to teach the king’s son. The one and only Alexander the Great, albeit at a rowdy 13 years of age. Aristotle didn’t drop everything, however, and come running to his highness. He agreed to the position only if his hometown was restored after the king had razed it. Not only that, but the city had to be repopulated, which meant its former ex-citizens were freed from slavery or pardoned from exile.
Much myth making has been done over Alexander and Aristotle’s relationship during those three years of study. The latter encouraged expansion in the east, unabashedly advising despotism to subdue barbarians. Maybe, though, the former also influenced his older mentor? Was it a reminder of age, energy and the role in history, perhaps? We, of course, have no idea.
All we do know, is that Aristotle returned to Athens, but this time to set up his own academy, the Lyceum. There he wrote the vast majority of his works, taught the next generation, and remarried after his wife’s death. It was during this 12 year stretch that his most important treatises were created, including Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, De Anima (On the Soul) and Poetics.
Then Alexander died and Athens and Greece changed forever. Aristotle’s profound thoughts and benefits for the scholars could not save him from the flare up of anti-Macedonian sentiments. It took the form of ‘impiety’ accusations. Rather than face a sham trial, Aristotle fled to Chalcis, where his mother had an estate, explaining, “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy.” This was a shout-out to his former teacher’s teacher, Socrates. Eventually Aristotle died of natural causes in 322 BC.
His legacy, however, lived on. His works were actually lost to the west for many centuries, preserved in Arabia and only rediscovered in Europe during the middle Ages. In that time period, Aristotle’s’ writings carried an authority second only to the bible. Many of his works were not improved upon until the nineteenth century.
But most importantly Aristotle proposed a new way of thinking; a method for arriving at a conclusion. We are talking about his contributions to logic. This is how he knew everything. He didn’t know anything! What he comprehended was how to look at the world rationally and learn something.
“Aristotle The Philosopher who Knew it All” was written by Anya Leonard

The Death of Socrates…and the State that Killed Him

by July 25, 2017

According to the Oracle at Delphi, Socrates was the wisest of them all. It is usually considered unwise, however, to publicly attack the political class and humiliate their intellect, capability and righteousness. This is particularly true when the government is in a weakened and, therefore, volatile position. Why then would Socrates, nobel pillar of wisdom, stand up to a system that would eventually, inevitably, murder him?
The old philosopher was not the first to provoke the hostilities of the state at the wrong time…nor would he be the last.
One only has to think of the modern day dissenters, the infamous ‘whistleblowers’, to know the powers that be do not like to be exposed. If an individual has the gumption to reveal undesired truths, uncomfortable realities, the state will react…swiftly and with its own brand of “justice.” In the case of our contemporaries, that may mean being indefinitely detained without trial or cooped up in the ecuadorian embassy. For Socrates, it resulted in a sham indictment and a death sentence for a 70 year old man.
Like our modern examples, Socrates committed an error of inconvenient honesty in a declining empire. For this, he would pay the ultimate price.
Socrates portrait

Bust of Socrates

The trial of Socrates took place in the year 399 B.C. – a mere 5 years after the fall of Attica by Spartan spear and pluck. The Golden Age of Athens came to a brutal and disappointing end. Socrates himself had been unpopular for a substantial amount of time already, and yet no one saw him as a legitimate threat until after the Peloponnesian war had done its damage.
In 423 B.C., for instance, Aristophanes authored his famous satirical play, The Clouds. It was produced a full 24 years before the trial of Socrates. Here the playwright unfairly characterized Socrates as a despised Sophist, one charging a fee for his services. He also drew the philosopher as, ironically, a pre-socratic thinker, questioning the earth below him and the sky above. But no one threw Socrates in jail then. The poet, politicians and craftsmen had been humiliated but, critically, the state’s safety was not yet at stake. It is the failing empires, self-conscious at their weakening power, that happily suspend justice to muffle dissenting voices.
Which makes us ask once more, why would Socrates, or anyone, speak against such a crumbling authority?
Bradley Manning, who was accused of releasing damning and dishonorable pictures and videos of his own government, may have furnished a response to a similar question in an online chat:1
“If you had free reign over classified networks…” he is said to have written, “and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington, DC … what would you do?
“God knows what happens now. Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms… I want people to see the truth…because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”
Julian Assange, the controversial figure behind online transparency activist group, Wikileaks, identified a similar goal:
“You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way that we can get anywhere. Because any decision-making that is based upon lies or ignorance can’t lead to a good conclusion”. 2
It appears the pursuit of truth, the desire to follow what one believes is good, is nothing new.
We can’t know for sure, of course, but it seems that Socrates was spurred on by similar feelings, at least according to Plato’s description of the final trial. In Plato’s earliest dialogue, The Apology, written shortly after Socrates’ execution, the student rises to his mentor’s defense. He ensured that Socrates’ attackers look petty and capricious, while the philosopher king appears noble, defiant and unwavering.
The piece begins with Socrates pledging to speak clearly, truthfully and without the high flown speech, for which his opposition is famous. Importantly, he does not apologize, though the name of the text would suggest as much. The title actually derives from the Greek word “apologia,” which translates as a defense, or a speech made in defense. The dialogue concerns Socrates attempt to defend himself and his conduct, not to say sorry.
The philosopher sets himself apart immediately and without compromise. He then proceeds to explain the root of the situation: The Delphic oracle had essentially crowned him the smartest man. In disbelief, Socrates set out to prove this wrong by finding men more intelligent than himself. What he found, however, were pompous busybodies who enjoyed speaking at length on things they did not know. Socrates found that through a series of questions, he could easily reveal their ignorance, something no one’s pride takes easily. Eventually he concluded that yes, he could be the wisest man, simply due to the fact that he knows that he knows nothing.
Socrates then address the charges against him – that he had corrupted the youth and acted impiously. With albeit imperfect logic, he proceeds with the elenchus, or cross-examination, against Meletus, the man primarily responsible for bringing Socrates before the jury. If the youth have been corrupted, then why are his pupils here on his side, along with their relatives? Importantly, he references Plato as one of his pupils.
Socrates then makes the analogy that he is a gadfly and the state is a fat and lazy horse. A bloated thoroughbred that has enjoyed too many comforts and would sleep forever, if the gadfly did not do its duty the keep the horse awake.
At no time does Socrates plead for mercy, ask for forgiveness or beg the judges for leniency. Eventually the ballot is cast and, by a close margin, Socrates is found guilty. After a little deliberation the sentence is set: death.
Still, even now, Socrates stays true to his position, defiant in his apologia and sure of his virtue. When asked why he should follow any pursuit that may result in death, Socrates responded:
“You do not speak well, Sir, if you think a man in whom there is even a little merit ought to consider danger of life or death, and not rather regard this only, when he does things, whether the things he does are right or wrong and the acts of a good or a bad man.” 3
But if one were to imagine that Socrates was unwise by confronting a goliath much larger than him, they would prove to be the foolish one. The truth is that Socrates never wanted to face the political body. That is why he didn’t join the public life. Instead, he always spoke to individuals. Facing the government would only mean death.
“…for you may be quite sure, men of Athens, that if I had undertaken to go into politics, I should have been put to death long ago and should have done no good to you or to myself. And do not be angry with me for speaking the truth; the fact is that no man will save his life who nobly opposes you or any other populace and prevents many unjust and illegal things from happening in the state.”4
And so, Socrates chose to address the individual rather than purposefully face the state…until, of course, the state found him. Maybe this is why Socrates reached the ripe old age of 70. As for Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, it’s too early to tell.
Socrates did, ultimately, accept the punishment of death. There is no reason to fear what we do not know, he argued. A point that might have comforted him as he marched into the great unknown beyond this life. Perhaps, reflecting on the years he had already lived, Socrates welcomed a memorable end.
Maybe it is the death of socrates that makes his life, his search for truth, so well known…the sort of pursuit that can inspire individuals thousands of years on.
2. “Julian Assange, monk of the online age who thrives on intellectual battle”. The Guardian. ( 2010-08-01. Retrieved on 2010-08-01.
3. 28b, The Apology by Plato
4. 31d – 31e, , The Apology by Plato
The Death of Socrates … and the State that Killed Him was written by Anya Leonard

The Probing Philosopher Kings

by July 6, 2017

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

One might wonder why Socrates never wrote anything down. Such a brilliant philosopher… wouldn’t he want to impart his wisdom to future generations? Surely he would aspire to inspire others who weren’t necessarily within ear shot? But no. He didn’t author a single word. He wanted people to think for themselves, rather than just mimic his ideas. For Socrates it was all about the method. It was about being able to arrive at one’s own ideas independently.

Plato, however, did write, and he recorded both his and Socrates’ thoughts. He didn’t forget his teacher’s lesson though, and so often composed dialogues that demonstrate the critical process of thinking and questioning, rather than present a definitive, conclusive answer. In this way, Plato encourages us to keep thinking.
As a child, Plato probably would not have envisioned the life he was going to lead. His family’s lot, steeped in aristocracy and influence, was of the political class. His father Ariston supposedly could trace his ancestry to the King of Athens and the King of Messenia. Not to be outshone by her husband, Plato’s mother, Perictione, rubbed shoulders with the likes of Solon, a famous lawyer and lyric poet. In addition, her brother and uncle we part of the thirty tyrants that ruled over Athens after the deafening defeat at the hands of Sparta. Plato was very proud of his distinguished family tree, and often glowingly referred to them in his dialogues.
Considering his family’s affluence and prestige, it is not surprising that Plato received the best education, instructed by the most distinguished teachers at the time. His most influential mentor, of course, was Socrates himself. He met him when he was but a youth. Socrates was considered an ugly man who did not possess much wealth or prominence. He might have been seen as a strange intellectual bedfellow for the well-to-do Plato. However, the old man had a remarkable power of discourse and an ability to bring down the most grandiose of gentlemen.
The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Socrates was Plato’s mentor and became his protagonist. His execution in 399 would have certainly affected the budding boy and shake his confidence in a political system that allowed such a tragedy. The fall of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian war also would have been a momentous episode in Plato’s life. As well as the ensuing dictatorship which failed miserably due to the inevitable corruption of the 30 chosen oligarchs. It’s no wonder then the quick thinking Plato abandoned the family trade and choose philosopher over politics. It was Socrates, the probing philosopher, who changed Plato’s course to the world of debate, dialogues and discovery.

Bust of Plato

Bust of Plato

His career, once selected, was very successful. He wrote, traveled, set up an academy dedicated to thinking and questioning. He even tried to shape a dictator in Syracuse to become one of the Philosopher kings. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. And then, as all mortal men do, he died, at the ripe old age of 80. Recognised at the brilliant man he was, forever imparting not only wisdom, but a way of trying to understand the world.

We’ll never know exactly where Socrates ended and Plato began. What ideas, ultimately, belonged to the teacher or to the student? All we can know and be grateful for, is that Plato had the audacity to write them down, so that even now we can continue to question.
Check in in next week for a look at Plato’s Apology. You can view the whole text here beforehand for free: