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What Could you Learn From Socrates, Plato and Aristotle?

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Posted 03 February 2015 by Chris FarmerChris Farmer

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What Could You Learn from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle?

I am guessing that you have heard the names Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. You probably know that they are the three most famous philosophers in history. But unless you have made it a special study, you may not know much about what they said nor why they are still considered to be the founding fathers of our western culture.

Since these three Greek Geeks are so important, I thought I'd offer you a crash course in philosophy, by giving you a brief rundown on what these three chirpy chappies had to say.

Socrates is the first of our big three thinkers. Socrates later became Plato's teacher. Then, Plato who was the second of the three, became Aristotle's teacher, and then Aristotle went on to become Alexander the Great's teacher.

We will take them in order. This week I will focus on Socrates. In the next newsletter, I will cover Plato and then later, I will cover Aristotle. (When I say, "cover Plato", and "cover Aristotle" I mean, I will do what I can, in one page).

Let us talk about Socrates

Socrates was born in 470 BC in Greece, and is famous for two things: Being the first real philosopher and being the teacher of Plato.

Socrates never wrote anything down. Most of what we know about what he said comes from his student Plato, who later wrote accounts of what Socrates had to say.

(This is reminiscent of Jesus. He did not write his philosophy down either. Jesus delegated that task to Mathew, Mark, Luke and John whilst he concentrated on working the crowd.)

Socrates' great idea is that you need to give a tight definition to all your important ideas

Socrates made the point that we all use words to denote states of emotion and moral principle that have no one, single, definite and agreed meaning.

And that lack of definition makes fools of us all.

For example, we all say we believe in fairness, and we believe in justice and honesty and truth. But what do we mean when we say these words?

If we are all agreed on the fact that we should treat people fairly, then how come "fairness" causes so many arguments?

Socrates' legacy was to urge us to ponder the meaning of the ideas we say we believe in. He asked us to avoid simply saying, "I believe in fairness" without really understanding what we mean by that word.

  • Does fairness mean, "Treating everyone the same?" or
  • Does fairness mean, "Treating everyone, not the same, but according to their individual MERIT"? or
  • Does fairness mean, "Treating everyone, not according to their individual merit, but rather according to their individual NEED?" or
  • Does fairness mean, "Treating people according to how I would like to be treated myself?" or
  • Does it mean something else?
  • And if so, what?

Socrates claim to fame was that he would specialise in cornering some famous unsuspecting Athenian politician, in the public marketplace, and, in front of an eager, gathering crowd, publicly ask him questions about his personal ethics or public policies.

The poor politician would answer and Socrates would question the meaning of his first answer, and the politician would answer again, and Socrates would then show how the second answer contradicted the politician's first answer. The politician was rendered speechless and was made to look foolish in front of the gathered crowd.

Every day, Socrates would draw large crowds as he cornered another poor, unsuspecting government official, engage him in a public debate and would then make conversational mincemeat of his replies.

The point Socrates was trying to make is that, to be wise, it is not enough to parrot words such as justice, fairness and truth.

You must be able to define them, and be able to defend your definitions against an attack.

Socrates point was: If you cannot define fairness, then how can you be fair?

If you cannot define justice then how can you be just?

If you cannot define truth, then how would you recognise it when you saw it?

He summed this point up in one sentence: "The unexamined life is not worth living".

Just like Jesus, Socrates annoyed the hell out of the government authorities; and for the same reason. He caused the people to question the authority of the authorities.

Socrates was arrested and put on trial for his life. He was charged with the crime of "corrupting the youth of Athens".

Socrates was sentenced to death and was made to drink poison.

Again like Jesus, when Socrates died, his life inspired others to continue on without him. Plato had been one of Socrates most avid followers and Plato continued to think in terms set out by Socrates. As a result of Plato's musings, he became a great philosopher in his own right.

Plato's philosophy, especially his ideas about how we gain knowledge and his theory on how a government should rule, still influences us today.

We will study Plato in our next newsletter.

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