Who are Aristotle Plato and Socrates

Greek Philosophers: Everything Thought Out

Greek philosophers wanted to explore the world and the principles to which it is subject. Men like Aristotle were looking for the meaning of being and the right way of life. The questions they raised still preoccupy thinkers today

The pre-Socratics

Of course, people thought long before the Hellenes - about nature, the world around them. The Greeks, however, were the first to view them philosophically rather than mythologically. However, they were not philosophers in the narrow sense of today, but were interested in all sorts of scientific, including natural-scientific questions.

As the first well-known "lover of wisdom" in this sense Thales. It is said to have existed from around 625 to 547 BC. Lived in the Ionian port city of Miletus, were a genius in mathematics and astronomy and postulated water as the primal principle of everything material. Above all, he is celebrated as the author of the knowledge that there are interdependencies between variables in nature, that there are, as it were, laws of nature.

Amazingly, many questions that still move philosophers today were asked more than 2500 years ago. Above all, the question of being. For Anaximander (approx. 610-547 BC) for example, also from Miletus, water was not the primary material, but that apeiron, an indefinite, limitless substrate from which everything develops in an interplay of warm and cold, of dry and damp - in a development process in which, for example, people emerged from fish.

The thinker originally treated the subject in an equally materialistic way Pythagoras (approx. 570-480 BC), who came from the island of Samos. According to his school, numerical relationships determine the order of all things and keep the world in harmony. Later, however, Pythagoras and his disciples changed his teaching into the esoteric - with which they gained enormous, also political influence. Pythagoras is typical for the love of Greek philosophers for mathematics and for their admiration for the logical and timeless.

Heraclitus (approx. 540-480 BC) from the Ionic Ephesus was convinced of the tendency towards harmony of all opposites. In balancing the opposites, in battle or war, all things arise whose differences and changes are brought about by the power of fire. They are also never constant, but always in motion: Panta Rhei - everything flows.

It looked quite different Parmenides (approx. 515-450 BC) from Elea - the Italian Velia south of Naples. In principle, nothing changed for him. Rather, everything "individual", however diverse it may appear, is the expression of a single indivisible being and everything that is perceptible is a subjective illusion in that one only recognizes an appearance, but not the unchangeable substance concealed by it.

Democritus again, born around 460 in the Thracian Abdera, reduced the primordial material to indestructible, moving particles - to atoms from which all things were put together in nothing, in otherwise empty space. This happens according to natural laws, but purposeless. Sensory perception cannot grasp the truth of things, but is the starting point for all knowledge.

With the Athenian Socrates (approx. 469-399 BC) the classical period of Greek philosophy finally began. However, there can be no talk of a continuous evolution of the concepts up to then - or even afterwards. They remained an offer that every thinker made use of.

Socrates: The questioner

"It is time for us to go: I to die and you to live. Whoever of us goes to the better business is hidden from everyone except the gods." So the 70-year-old Socrates ended his comment on the death sentence that the court in Athens had just given him.

The father of philosophical midwifery

Only a few things in the early works of his pupil Plato - especially in the "Apology", the defensive speech of Socrates in court handed down by Plato - the experts now consider to be a reasonably authentic reproduction of what and how Socrates thought. And: How he sought knowledge.

This is what Socrates made a model for posterity in particular: the clever further questioning with which he unmasked apparent knowledge and forced the discussion partner to understand that in reality he did not know anything. Because this, according to the philosopher, is the prerequisite for the search for the true knowledge that is inherent in every human being. This "elenkik", this exposure of ignorance, is what is meant when the "Socratic method" is mentioned. And "Mäeutik", the art of midwifery, is called the successful production of truths in a person.

What is good?

But what Socrates was evidently all about was the knowledge of the truly good. While Greek philosophers had previously taught the personal happiness attained or attainable with it as a measure of moral behavior and understood good action rather than "the evil that one lets", Socrates wanted that arete, the "bestness", use as a moral authority. But the problem was that Socrates could not define this absolutely good and therefore confessed that he knew nothing - and even claimed that if he, the supposedly wisest man of his time, could not recognize the good as a prerequisite for human action, then he could nobody.

And it is very much a question of whether the city-state of Athens (which, like every community, was dependent on the acceptance of certain basic values) could accept that the highly respected citizen Socrates incessantly maintained that the standards of decent behavior are indiscernible. Whether the condemnation of the philosopher as an enemy of the state was not even justified in the end.

Plato: The idealist

"If either the philosophers do not become kings or those who are now called kings, genuine and thorough philosophers, and so power and philosophy in the state coincide, there is no redemption from evil for the states, I do not believe for mankind either."

Plato drew this conclusion of his great, but also problematic utopia of a just state in the 5th book of "Politeia". Shaped by a deep mistrust of Attic democracy, he propagated a hierarchical social system that should ensure a just and happy coexistence of people with collective education, censorship and other constraints.

Prominent teacher

Plato was apprenticed to Socrates for nine years and was apparently so committed to the in 399 BC. Chr. Sentenced to death that he had to emigrate temporarily - to Megara, to a former fellow student. He later traveled to Egypt, southern Italy and the court of the tyrants of Syracuse in Sicily, where he returned twice afterwards. In the meantime Plato had developed into a "genuine and thorough philosopher" and developed the concept of his theory of ideas, in which he made the ideal figure Socrates the engine of his cognitive processes.

The theory of ideas

According to this doctrine, every thing that can be perceived by the senses only exists through participation in an eternal idea, an unchangeable original form. For example, every individual person is the image of the eternal idea of ​​man. And that is why people, no matter how different they may be, are nonetheless perceived as an appearance of the archetype of human beings.

According to Plato, individual differences result from the fact that imitations of subordinate ideas are added - for example those of the "brown-eyed" idea or the "blonde" idea. This makes it clear that there is a hierarchy of ideas. They are all linked to one another and, in the idea of ​​the good, the sum of all ideas, ultimately form the transcendent - otherworldly - unity of being. This world of ideas is recognizable through the gradual acquisition of knowledge about it in the anamnesis, the memory preserved in the immortal soul.

Enormous influence on posterity

According to Platonic ethics, the spirit's journey to the idea of ​​the good is also a prerequisite for a happy life. In order to achieve this happy life and the highest of all Greek virtues - justice - reason should rule over arbitrariness and desire.

The effect of Plato on philosophical posterity was enormous. Not only was the educated elite of the Roman Empire trained in its philosophy in the Athens Academy, not only did it have a significant influence on Christianity, either directly or in the form of Plotinus (approx. 205-270 AD) - in the 19th century it became Plato was also highly topical for German idealism and later for the so-called philosophy of values.

Aristotle: The systematic

Died the 384 BC Aristotle, born in the Thracian town of Stageira, was an emigrant - which was due to his close ties to the Macedonian ruling house: his father was the personal physician of King Amyntas III. and whose heir Philip II engaged Aristotle in 343 as the tutor of his then 13-year-old son Alexander, who was later called the Great. Before that, Aristotle had studied with Plato for 20 years at his Athens Academy, where he had finally announced his own philosophical theses.

Traces of Plato's teaching

Here he concentrated on the things of everyday life. Their goal-oriented development - teleology - is brought about by ideas as a moving force. Aristotle, however, brought them down to earth from the Platonic transcendence and saw in them the "substantial forms" of things that - unlike Plato - lay in them themselves and made up their essence. Strength and movement, energeia and dynamis, form a very modern-looking continuum in this concept. The creative power of movement, however, has its origin in the metaphysical - in the "unmoved mover": in God as pure form, first act and perfect being, as self-thinking thinking.

Great aftermath

Above all through his talent and his love for systematics, Aristotle became the almost undisputed preceptor of all science in the West (after his rediscovery in the 12th century thanks to Arabic translators and interpreters). Because he had not only his philosophy, but the entire empirical knowledge of his time - whether astronomy, biology, physics, geology or poetics - organized according to formal principles. In doing so, he always relied on strictly rationally explainable logical connections.

Only partially outdated knowledge

It was only modern science that made numerous ideas of this universal genius, who thinks in orderly categories, obsolete, for example that bodies fall at different speeds according to their weight. Other findings of Aristotle, on the other hand, turned out to be timeless - according to the universal insight that there must be a cause for every change. Or the well-founded fact that confuses accountants of all origins to this day: that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Diogenes: The anti-authoritarian

Plato was the most prominent, but by no means the only admirer of Socrates. Two of them stood out for their particularly frank opinions: Antisthenes (approx. 445-365 BC) and Diogenes of Sinope. One was a pioneer, the other the founder of a special school of thought. Why these "lovers of wisdom" called themselves Cynics has not yet been established. Perhaps they chose their name after the gymnasium Kynosarges near Athens, where they often performed. Or because they wanted to live as needlessly - and so viciously - like a stray kynos, a dog.

Antisthenes preached the return to nature and damned religion, government, and all luxuries for preventing man from becoming virtuous. Virtue, however, is not an abstract quality, but lies in what one does. For him, only what existed was what he could perceive with the senses; he considered conceptual constructs such as the ideas of his colleague Plato to be empty talk. "Wealth is not a material good, but a state of mind", Antisthenes is said to have said. "Otherwise some who own a lot would not take the risk and trouble to accumulate more. I, on the other hand, sleep, eat and drink where I like and I have the feeling that the whole world is mine."

"Get out of the sun"

His pupil appeared in Athens even more independently than Antisthenes Diogenes who also did not believe in conventions at all. He begged for the bare essentials and, according to tradition, used to live in a large barrel (which the Athenian citizens respectfully replaced for him after someone had smashed it). Because it made unfree, he despised all pleasure - which is why he should have masturbated in public. Even more radically than his teacher, Diogenes rejected the state and the law and kept his distance from the powerful: when, according to legend, Alexander the Great, who is said to have admired him, met him and asked what he could do for him, the philosopher replied with arrogant modesty: "Get out of the sun."

Epicurus: The friend of the senses

The hedonists, the fortune hunters at any price, have always claimed the philosopher Epicurus as the advocate of individual pleasure and thus as the actual inventor of the fun society. But in truth it is around 340 BC. Son of a teacher, born on Samos in BC, probably the most misunderstood moral theorist. On the other hand: there is no doubt that Epicurus valued the senses to the highest degree, but not so much as instruments of physical pleasure, but primarily of spiritual pleasure - as a means of knowing reality. While for Plato the sensory phenomena conveyed no valid knowledge, for Epicurus they were the only ones with the help of which this succeeds.

Freedom from physical urges

Epicurus also taught that only those can become happy who are not tormented by physical urges. But Epicurus did not want to erase such constraints by quickly satisfying them, but rather by reducing them as much as possible. Although he welcomed physical pleasure: "I do not know what to imagine by the good if I think away from the joys of the palate and love and the pleasure of hearing and seeing. Even wisdom and culture have to be traced back to it. "

"Sexual intercourse is still not good for anyone"

By pleasure, however, he primarily understood the absence of suffering and pain - such as hunger, which he himself liked to satisfy with bread and water. On the other hand, according to Epicurus, wealth makes people restless and dissatisfied. And by the joys of love he by no means meant sex, because "Sexual intercourse is never good for anyone, and everyone can consider themselves happy who has not harmed them". For him, love and happiness are realized in friendship, the "safest of all social joys". And so he founded in Athens, where he had been since about 307 BC. BC lived and taught a commune in a garden in order to follow its rules with its followers in all modesty.

Supporters of Democritus

He was suspicious anyway because he did not deny the existence of the gods, but put their influence in everyday life equal to zero. As a strictly materialistic follower of Democritus' theory of nature, for him man was also a thoroughly earthly being, in which there is nothing immortal. Religion and a fear of death related to it were his source of fear, which, like pain, was contrary to an ideal existence in balance and contentment - and a life in a friendly community.

Zeno: The conscientious one

No ancient school of thought has so long left formative traces in the Europeans' code of values ​​as those whose main features Zeno von Kition wrote in the stoa poikile - the "colorful", painted portico on the Athens market square - and which has therefore become known as the Stoa. Zenon was born in Cyprus, which is why some researchers discovered oriental influences in his worldview. On the other hand, it also contains the ideal of poverty of the Cynics - the Cynic Krates was one of the teachers of the Stoic. Zenon's pupil Chrysippus stands for another specialty of this school of thought: It has been established several times over the years, so that today we are talking about older, middle and younger Stoa.

Everything is matter

Chrysippus taught a few decades after Zeno, and it was he who systematized his philosophy. Since then it has been divided into logic, physics - at that time the doctrine of the essence of things, of being - and ethics. While the logic of the Stoics remained in the memory of posterity because it owes it to rules that are still valid today, the Stoics' doctrine of being and ethics had a far greater influence on the thinking of posterity. According to this, everything in the world, including soul and God, consists of matter, albeit one of different quality and divided into two fundamentally different forms of being: an active one (namely the logos, the acting reason) and a passive one (everything else). The passive is determined by the Logos, but is subject to a random, predetermined fate.

Humanity comes into play

God, all nature and world reason, permeates all of reality - the first pantheistic conception of God in European intellectual history. Based on this worldview, the Stoics developed a complex ethic. According to her, the universal law of world reason commands that man must live in harmony with its manifestation, nature. This harmony can only be achieved by someone who controls all passion, lust and desire and who practices justice, bravery, self-control and (for the first time in an ancient concept) humanity. For such a free person, health and property are of little importance, and neither happiness nor unhappiness, neither joy nor pain can shake him.

Am I responsible for my actions?

Stoic principles often shaped early Christianity. The greatest problem of this Athens school of thought - namely how its doctrine of the fatefulness of all things fits together with the freedom of man that it also propagates - is still an unresolved issue in Christian theology as the conflict between divine providence and human free will. And this is currently the subject of heated discussions between some neuroscientists and proponents of the fundamental ethical principle that everyone is responsible for their actions.

Zeno and his disciples went to great lengths to teach people a decent coexistence. Even if their success in this area is certainly controversial, the proverbial stoic calm and serenity (which, according to British ideas, make a true gentleman) are still a widespread ideal today.