Greek philosophy held a preeminent place in the middle ages among scholastics like Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica was an attempt to reconcile faith and reason. The faith aspect was supplied by the Church, but the reason came from classical (pagan) ecclesiology -- notably from Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. The latter was the pupil of the former, and the former was the pupil of the first great Greek philosopher, Socrates. Socrates, like Christ, left behind no written work of his own. In fact, all of his words come down to us now, as recorded by Plato, who carried on and elaborated upon the teachings of Socrates. This paper will give an overview of the life and teachings of both Socrates and Plato.
Socrates: Life and Teaching
Socrates (469 BC) was an Athenian by birth. His father was a sculptor, from whom Socrates, as a boy, learned the craft. Ironically, while he made beautiful statues, the soon-to-be philosopher was actually one of the ugliest men in all of Greece. According to John Haaren and A.B. Poland, "His nose was flat, his lips were thick, his eyes were bulging, and his face was like a comic mask; yet he is thought by many to have been one of the best and wisest men that ever lived" (95).
At the time, Athens was embroiled in a bitter war with another Greek city-state, Sparta. Earlier that century, both city-states had fought against the invading Persian army, repelling various attacks and preserving the autonomy of the Greece. Athens, in celebration of the great victory over the mighty Persian nation, flooded itself with wealth and brought all of the best poets, artists, and architects into the city to rebuild itself in a great display of power and splendor. The effort caused its rival, Sparta, to bridle, and soon the two cities were fighting in what became known as the Peloponnesian War.
When Spartan invaded neighboring Attica and other cities that were allies of Athens, many young men of Athens, including Socrates, went off to help fight Sparta. Socrates abandoned his chisel and hammer for a spear and shield and his reputation as a soldier and good man of character was exceeded by none. He fought as far away as Thrace, and spent the winter camping out doors, barefoot and in the same loose clothing as he wore in the summer. However, of all these hardships he never complained and, in fact, bore them all cheerfully.
Socrates fought for several years before finally returning to his home in Athens. But he did not return to his job as sculptor. He had acquired a love for a new profession -- teaching. Oddly enough, however, he had no formal school:
His school was wherever he met persons who were willing to listen to him. It might be in the marketplace or at the street corners. On a hot summer day he would go to the harbor of Athens and chat with people who were sitting there in the shade…He talked to the young as well as the old, and often he might be seen with a crowd of children around him. (Haaren & Poland 95)
His talks were always geared toward attaining a higher wisdom and they were centered on how to live as well as possible. Socrates taught philosophy -- a word that means love of wisdom. His students ranged from the heroic, such as Xenophon, whose fame would come from leading an army of Greeks out from enemy territory in a botched mercenary expedition; to the rebellious but popular Alcibiades, whose wildness was tempered only by his talks with Socrates, "who was very fond of him" (Haaren & Poland 90).
One feature that distinguished Socrates from nearly every other teacher in Athens was that he charged nothing for his lessons -- a fact which made him very poor and caused much bitterness in his wife, Xanthippe. Xanthippe often accused her husband of being idle, harangued him horribly, and, it is reported, even launched a pitcher of water at his head as he departed one day for his daily excursions. Socrates, however, kept his mildness of temper and simply stated, "I have often noticed, Xanthippe, that rain comes after thunder" (Haaren & Poland 96).
Xanthippe was not the only person in Athens who disliked Socrates. Though he had many friends who considered him to be a very good man, Socrates also had bitter enemies -- and these were people who were usually led to admit that the life they were living was not good. These enemies were to Socrates very much like what the Pharisees were to Christ: they plotted how they could rid themselves of his presence. One popular playwright of the time was Aristophanes, and he wrote some very comic plays that ridiculed Socrates, most notoriously in a play called, "The Clouds." Aristophanes was convinced that Socrates was like the other philosophers of the time -- con men and pedants, who played games with words and actually had no common sense or decency. The charge was Socrates was corrupting the youth of Athens -- and Socrates faced it himself in court, defending himself brilliantly as recorded by his pupil Plato.
The other charge against Socrates was that he was teaching against the gods of Athens. In truth, as Hugh Tredennick says, Plato -- Socrates student (and the carrier of the flame of Socrates teaching) -- was "certainly feeling his way towards monotheism" (8). No less, then, can one presume that Socrates "regarded the various gods less as separate beings than as different aspects of a single Godhead" (Tredennick 8). Such would surely have ruffled the feathers of the councilmen (whose vices were uncovered by Socrates' teaching and whose public worship of the gods gave them another platform from which to crush their rival).
The pride of the tribunal, in fact, contrasts sharply with the humility and humanity of Socrates. One popular story has it that one of his friends approached the oracle at Delphi to inquire whether anyone "was wiser than Socrates, and received the answer No" (Tredennick 9). Greatly disturbed by this news, Socrates claimed in his teachings only to be trying to show how the oracle was wrong -- that he was, in fact, not smart at all. It is to Socrates that the world owes the maxim, "All I know is that I know nothing." Yet, as Tredennick states, "His wisdom lay in recognition of his own ignorance…[and] it was the oracle's intention that he should convince others of their ignorance too, and so help them on the way to knowledge and goodness" (9-10).
Plato: Life and Teaching
Socrates certainly did so, as Plato shows, in the various dialogues written (much like scripts) in which Socrates discourses with any number of Athenian characters. Most famous of Plato's Socratic dialogues are the ones delivered by Socrates prior to his death -- his defense at his trial, his conviction, and his teaching before his death sentence was carried out by drinking hemlock juice.
Plato was nearly half a century younger than his teacher Socrates and was an aristocrat introduced to the philosopher at an early age through his uncles (Hooker). As Tredennick states, "The death of Socrates seems to have filled Plato with a passionate desire to preserve and protect his memory" (11). Plato's dialogues, therefore, constitute not no so much Plato's own teachings as Socrates' doctrine conveyed in a poetic and artistic manner -- which would come to be known as the Socratic method -- a teaching approach that communicates knowledge by questioning.
One of the great works of Plato's in the Phaedo, which helps illustrate the doctrine that made so many Athenian youths love Socrates. In the Phaedo, Plato shows how Socrates is able to argue that "man is made up of two parts, physical and psychical, body and soul; and the latter must be cultivated at the expense of the former" (Tredennick 15). The ascetic remarks of the Phaedo contrasted sharply with the corrupt selfishness that would soon reduce Athens' strength and vigor -- and these remarks would serve as the basis for Plato's own work, The Republic -- a work that would express his own teachings on how to build the best possible state and form of governance.
Plato's works would be read widely through the middle ages, and even in his own time his popularity would be great. One his students, Aristotle, would go on to produce even more popular works -- and Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics would rely heavily upon the reasoning of both philosophers. Aristotle would even serve as tutor for one of the greatest conquers of all time: Alexander the Great.
However, none of that would have been possible without Plato, and Plato would not have been possible without Socrates. Plato, after all, founded the Academy at Athens and preserved the lessons that Socrates had taught, essentially laying the foundation for Western Civilization. Plato's Republic sought to unite the lessons of…