Ideas of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle
In our third HCJ lecture I was delighted to be learning about someone I had previously studied during my A-level in Classical Civilisations. After studying Aristophanes’ plays and the basic structure of Athenian democracy I recognised Socrates from one of Aristophanes’ best-known plays, The Clouds. However, Aristophanes’ projection of Socrates was not a flattering one – to say the least!
Socrates was best known for what is now considered the ‘Socratic method’. This method consists of a series of questions designed to show that the principal question raised is one to which the interlocutor has no adequate answer. Arguably, the most controversial topic Socrates raised during his lifetime was ‘what is piety?’
Socrates challenged people’s beliefs in the society they lived in (which turned out to be a very dangerous thing to do), and many disapproved of his ideas. In 423 BC, two separate Athenian comedies picked on Socrates. One of which was Aristophanes’ The Clouds. Aristophanes satirises Socrates as a sophist who runs a ‘Thinking Shop’ – teaching fee-paying pupils how to make unjust arguments prevail over just ones. His pupils learn amoral behavior and even beat up their elderly fathers. However, these attacks had a wider context as the democracy did not tolerate atheism, and in the 430s an Athenian decree appears to have been passed which made impiety a criminal offence for ‘those who do not acknowledge the divine’ and who (perhaps) ‘teach about things on high’.
In spring 399 BC the case against Socrates was ‘impiety’ and the charges against him related to his appeal to what he believed was a guiding ‘inner divinity’. To the Athenian jury in 399 BC what mattered most was Socrates’ moral effect on his pupils. The prosecution proposed death, and if Socrates had proposed exile, he would have saved himself. However, he did not because he knew the trial was unjust and a mockery to his life.
During his lifetime Socrates didn’t write anything down as he is said to have believed that he knew nothing (a modest approach but perhaps not fully true). However, his ideas survived through Plato’s Crito – Plato’s dialogue about the trial of Socrates (written when he was aged around 25). Crito, Socrates’ friend, tries to persuade him to escape prison but Socrates argues on the Kantian principle that if he should break the law then everyone else might do the same. He introduces the idea of a covenant or contract between him as a citizen and the state and reinforces the importance of protecting it.
Plato is considered as a ‘pupil’ of Socrates as he is believed to have been a great influence on him. However, Plato’s ideas on the state were arguably more extreme.
Plato’s most important dialogue was the Republic and this includes an ideal commonwealth – the earliest of Utopias. Plato believed in a distinct perfect world, which he referred to as the ‘world of forms’. He believed people to be like prisoners in a cave unaware of true reality and thus the world of everyday perception as constantly changing and imperfect and the ‘world of forms’ as perfect. This ‘perfect’ world could not be perceived with the five senses (Empiricism) and only philosophers could access it.
Plato believed that the soul was organised into three parts:
(2) Spirit, and
These ideas are best represented in ‘Plato’s Chariot Allegory’ in which the soul is portrayed as the charioteer (driving Reason), and then there are the two winged steeds: one white (Spirit) and one black (Desire). The goal is ultimately to ascend to divine heights but the black horse (Desire) poses problems.
Plato also believed in a division of labour in the form of status. He created, what has been termed as, ‘one royal lie’. This “lie” is set forth in considerable detail. The most important part of it is the dogma that God has created men of three kinds; the best made of gold/ the second best of silver, and the common herd of brass and iron.
Those made of gold are:
– The philosopher kings – guardians who held political power.
Those made of silver are:
– Soldiers: Auxiliaries who help the rulers and provide defence.
Finally, those made from brass and iron are:
– Workers who provide necessities of life for citizens.
According to Plato, children would usually belong to the same grade as their parents; however in some cases they could be promoted or degraded according to their natural abilities. Bertrand Russell thought that Plato was right in thinking that belief in this myth could be generated in two generations but said that the compulsory acceptance of such myths was incompatible with philosophy, and involved a kind of education which stunted intelligence. In Plato’s Utopia, all children were to be taken away from their parents at birth, so that no parents would know who their children were, and no children would know who their parents were. Deformed children, and children of inferior parents, were to be “put away in some mysterious unknown place, as they ought to be” – in other words exiled or, more likely, killed.
Plato’s plans to abolish family were such as to encourage a greater loyalty to the state; his Republic often described as a recipe for totalitarianism. This idea of chosen people as the ‘super race’, his plan for eugenics and outlawing of family creating a world where the state controls of all aspects of life is well represented in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984).
Aristotle attacked Plato’s Republic as he believed such ‘unity’ destroyed the polis and diversity of individuals.
According to Aristotle’s politics an individual cannot fulfill his purpose unless he is part of a state. He who founded the state, Aristotle says, was the greatest of benefactors; for without law man is the worst of animals, and law depends for its existence on the state.
He states that from birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule; the man who is by nature not his own but another man’s is by nature a slave. However slaves should not be Greeks, but of an inferior race with less spirit (barbarians).
Aristotle and Plato both believed in eugenics as a driving force in their states however, Aristotle disagreed with Plato that if “sons” were common to many “fathers” they would be neglected in common; therefore it is better to be a cousin in reality than a “son” in Plato’s sense. Russell summarises this to explain that Plato’s plan would make love ‘watery’. On the other hand, both philosophers agreed that best of humanity could not be realised outside a community/ state (contrast with Hobbes and the Romantics – ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ – Wordsworth, 1804).
Plato was arguably more freethinking than Aristotle on the subject of women. Aristotle didn’t believe that women had the mental capacity to make decisions in the state; whereas Plato wanted them to be treated as equals.
All Greek society – including Aristotle and Plato – were considered authoritarian. Both believed that society was the most important thing for humanity and the idea of liberalism – of the importance of the individual – didn’t emerge until the Renaissance.
Both Aristotle and Plato followed the idea that ‘man is the measure of all things’ – an idea produced by Protagoras, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, and considerable influence on Plato. Russell points out that it was the French Revolution and the idea of ‘the people’ and industrialisation which finished the idea off.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
We rounded off our lecture by watching Michael Radford’s harrowing film adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984). This film re-creates ideals, recognisable from Plato and Aristotle, of a totalitarian future society in which a man’s daily work is rewriting history. Any curiosity I had, certainly surrounding the possible success of Plato’s Utopia, was dashed in those two hours by the poor conditions and quality of life that humanity had been subjected to. It was even scarier to consider that such an existence occurred in places such as Sparta, in Ancient Greece.