Both these changes come to fruition with Socrates, about whom we know almost nothing. Contemporaries generally considered him just another Sophist. Plato, his student, considered him entirely different. Who is right cannot be known. In any case, Socrates is one of the greatest figures of philosophy, however misguided our perception of him may be.
Socrates’ method, is an obvious extension of sophist practice: he went around asking people what they thought, accepted that they were right, and then asked questions about the details. Inevitably, they were unable to extend their views without falling into contradiction. He would thus lead people step by step toward the contradictions in their own views, forcing them into a state of confusion.
This is significant because it is accounted the beginnings of dialectic reasoning. All the previous developments outlined above also occurred, in parallel forms, in India and in China, but later Ancient (and now Modern) thought became dominated by the dialectic method, which was less developed in India, and almost absent in China. The dialectic method, or ‘cross-examination’, is a method of reason through dialogue, in which the participants each challenge the views of the other by attempting to find self-contradictions in the opposing views. The view to be accepted is not necessarily proven, but has not been destroyed in this process. An advantage of dialectic is that it does not, theoretically, require agreement on first principles (hence fitting the multiethnic, multiclass, religiously complex society of Athens) – but it does require some agreement. What must be agreed is a system by which argument can progress – ‘logic’. Beginning with first principles, consequences are produced via logical steps, and if these steps lead to a contradiction it is clear that the first principles were incorrect. Dialectic is thus threefold: axioms, logic, contradictions.
An example of this process is Plato’s Euthyphro. This begins with exactly the same scenario that Confucius addresses in one of the Analects, regarding filial and religious piety. Confucius resolves it through appeal to a consensus definition of piety that seems to be best for society; Socrates (in Plato’s depiction) resolves it through a series of logical dilemmas (most famously, “if the gods love the good, do they love it because it is good, or is it good because they love it?”) that ultimately produce contradictions in the views of his opponents.
Perhaps the most immediately important aspect of the Socratic revolution, however, was the scope of enquiry – for Socrates, even simple, everyday, concepts were to be questioned. Previously, philosophers had inquired after causes – from now on, they would have to explore the concept of causation itself. Previously, they had talked of one or another thing being pious – now, they had to say what piety was. The conversation turns from the physical world to the inhabited, lived world.
Socrates had many disciples, but the two most important – at least for modern civilisation – were Plato (Socrates’ pupil) and Aristotle (Plato’s pupil). It would not be unfair to describe the two men as the fathers of all subsequent philosophy; Whitehead, in a Platonic phase, famously said that all Western philosophy was simply a set of footnotes to Plato, and while it may have been an exaggeration it was not unjustified. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, for instance, is happy in saying that although he was not the first ‘philosopher’, the entire subject of philosophy as now conceived was his invention.
Plato’s central concept is the Theory of Forms (also called ‘Ideas’). This explains imperfect regularity in the observable world by juxtaposing it with a perfectly regular world of Forms. For example, we may observe that two mountain ranges are parallel, and hence do not cross – yet they are not exactly parallel, nor even exactly lines. When we say, then ‘parallel lines do not cross’, we are not talking about mountain chains. Rather, we have an abstract concept of parallel lines, which we know do not cross, and when we observe mountain chains we see that they are an expression of, or an instance of, that abstract concept. Or when we say that one thing is pious, and then that another thing is pious, there may be nothing physically in common between them, but both of them display or express or instance an abstract concept of Piety. For Plato, the World of Forms is the real world, perfect and regular and unchanging, while the world we observe is an imperfect projection of it. In this he harks back to Parmenides’ belief in a real Unity that we perceive as a plurality. Plato uses the example of the shadows cast onto a wall – the apparent world are the shadows, the Forms are the light.
Because we are able to perceive not only the material world but also the World of Forms (as when we do mathematics, for instance, or philosophy), Plato believes that we must have something in us that is immaterial and itself part of the World of Forms (it was then believed that to think of a thing meant giving the mind the same shape as the thing, and a physical mind could not be given the shape of something abstract – hence we have an abstract mind as well as a physical one) – the Soul. The Soul is not equal in all people – some have higher and more developed souls than others. Virtue (excellence of the soul) is therefore innate, and cannot be taught – accordingly, democracy is to be avoided.
Much of Plato’s work is concerned with practical ethics and politics. Given in the form of dialogues between (almost all historical) characters, his work is often difficult to interpret, as it is unclear which views are Plato’s and which belong to his characters, or to their historical namesakes – in particular, which views belong to Plato and which to Socrates. What’s more, his views often seem to change over time – and even when we can see what his views are, he often seems to express doubt about them himself. Although Plato was a systematic philosopher in the sense of having a system, he retained a degree of Socratic humility, and clearly saw his works as assays toward solutions, rather than a completed and coherent doctrine that he was disseminating.
However, throughout the work (except, perhaps, in the last handful of dialogues) the same ideology is seen: to know about things that are x, we must learn about X, the abstract form. This is not itself an abstract knowledge – it is the basis for our ethical and political decisions. So, in the Lysis we discuss the nature of friendship; in the Laches, the nature of courage; in the Euthyphro, piety; in the Crito, justice. Some are rather specifically practical: the Ion, for instance, discusses the nature of rhapsody, and whether the rhapsodist performs through divine possession or simply by virtue of skill. Later dialogues, like the Republic or the Phaedrus conform less strictly to this model, often dealing with multiple topics.
In any case, the core assumption flowing from the Theory of Forms is that knowledge derived from the mutable world of perception is mutable and unreliable, while knowledge derived from the unchanging world of Forms is unchanging and firm. In this, we might consider that Plato resolved the argument between Parmenides and Heraclitus by saying that both were right: the unchanging perfection of Parmenides is the model for the world of Forms, while the changing, chaotic world of Heraclitus is the model for the apparent world. This, apparently, comes more clearly into focus in the so-called Unwritten Teachings, an esoteric philosophy that Plato taught only verbally to his disciples, and did not publish. From those disciples (chiefly Aristotle and Speusippus), we learn that Plato believed in a fundamental unity, the One, which even the Forms were only emanations of.
Plato’s student, Aristotle, who wrote on every subject from shark embryology to the manufacture of pinhole cameras, accepted Plato’s Forms, but reversed them. Where Plato had believed in transcendent forms, Aristotle believed in forms that were immanent – instantiated in, and only in, the material world. For Aristotle, the difference between Material and Ideal was not that one was changing and the other not, but that one was potential and the other actual. This seems Platonist, in that Plato too insisted that the world of Forms was the ‘actual’ world – but the meaning is different. Aristotle does not mean that the forms are actual because they are enduring and rational, but rather because they fulfil the potential of the material.
Aristotle says that matter is pure potential. If, for instance, we take some stones, they have the potential to shelter us from wind and rain, but they do not. Even if we stack them together to look like a house, they still only have potential. It is only when the stack of stones actually IS a house that that particular potential is made actual. Likewise, a sharp piece of metal has the potential to cut wood – but it only does so if it has the form of a saw. This is not limited to human tools, either. A race horse can only run quickly because of some potential in its limbs and sinews – but the same sinews, if in a different form, (such as the form of a dead horse) do nothing at all. Ultimately, matter can do anything – if it has the correct form. A particular form will make some potentialities actual, and not others.
In the realm of science, Aristotle’s central commitment may be to the idea of four-fold causation – the realisation that when we ask ‘why’, we are not always asking the same thing. He outlined four ‘causes’ of a thing:
1. Material cause – the substance a thing is made out of. A pillar supporting a roof would not be a pillar if it were made of sand – the stone is the material cause of the pillar.
2. Formal cause – the pattern or arrangement that a thing has. In this example, a pillar would not be a pillar if it were not vertical, straight, and of a certain thickness.
3. Immediate cause – the event or agent that caused the thing to be as it is. The architect, or the builder himself, may be identified as an immediate cause of the pillar.
4. Final cause – the ‘telos’, or ‘end’, for which the thing exists. In other words, its function. The final cause of the pillar is that it supports the roof. Or when we ask why a man goes for long walks, he may give the final cause, “because it’s good for my health”.
It is important to realise that the telos does not presume the existence of somebody with an intention. Just as the telos of a pillar is holding up a roof, the telos of the long beak of a hummingbird is to extract nectar. The telos of the rain is to water the flowers. It is hard to talk about telos in modern terms – words like ‘purpose’, ‘design’, ‘intent’, ‘aim’, and even ‘function’ have all been given connotations of an agent that stands behind them. This is probably the result of a millennium of monotheism, in which the ultimate final cause of everything was held to be God – the telos and the deity became so closely interwoven that once the deity is removed it seems hard to imagine the telos remaining. The association is so great it has been used as proof of the existence of God – the watchmaker argument holds that great order is evidence of design, and that design implies a designer. For Aristotle, however, ‘design’ in this sense does not require a designer – only with Christianity did that become decreed. Indeed, the designer would be an altogether different cause – the immediate cause, not the final cause.
This fourfold scheme, applied to the whole natural and social world, helped Aristotle become pre-eminent in science for more than a thousand years (in particular, teleological explanations prefigured the sort of explanations given by evolutionary scientists, which may be why biology was the last field in which his influence was still felt). It’s been said that no advancement in any area of science has occurred without first overturning some doctrine of Aristotle’s – which merely shows how dominant and foundational his influence was.
The same scheme, he applied to ethics. All things have a telos – and it is clear from observation that for each form, it is more excellent if it fulfils its telos more excellently. An excellent lute does not merely produce noise, but produces sounds of good volume in the harmonious ratios. An excellent lute-player plays the lute with great skill, feeling and dexterity. An excellent lute-maker makes excellent lutes. His tools are excellent if they carve the wood exactly as he wills. The wood is excellent wood if it is strong and reliable yet can be carved finely and easily. Bad wood breaks; bad tools carve inadequately; and both make bad lutes, which are out of tune and soon are broken. A bad race-horse wins nothing; a bad pillar brings down the building. Because excellence is judged by success, a lack of excellence means a lack of success.
Success in life we call eudaimonia – often translated happiness, but not in the psychological or subjective sense that word has now aquired. Better translations may be ‘flourishing’, ‘good living’, or ‘living well’. Eudaimonia, according to Aristotle, is the ultimate good that people in fact aim at – all the day-to-day objectives we have are merely means to achieving eudaimonia. And, because eudaimonia is a kind of success, it is achieved when our actions are excellent with regard to our telos.
The question, then, is twofold: what is the human telos, and what excellence is required for it? To answer the first question, Aristotle categorises all lifeforms according to the faculties they have – from the lowest plants, through the animals, up to women, and finally to man, the pinnacle of creation. Our telos must come from our form, and our form is a matter of the actualisation of potential. So, what are the characteristic potentials of a human form – what can we (both men and women) do that other animals can’t? Aristotle’s answer is that we are capable of reason. This is our function. To excel, we must excel at reasoning. Two clarifications are required: firstly, reason is not solely a mental faculty, but is displayed primarily in reasoned action; secondly, reason is not so simple as observing transcendent Forms.
Aristotle’s stated philosophical method is to examine the credible beliefs of other philosophers (and the public), and see how well they compare to the evidence of experience – which for Aristotle, unlike Plato, is a reliable arbiter, even if it is not always unimpeachable. So, in the field of ethics, he does not set out to reason abstractly about reason, but rather to examine credible beliefs about ethics, compare them to the evidence, and seek to find what lies behind them. His starting point is the observation that when a thing is NOT excellent, it can usually fail in one of two different ways – when we try to sing a note, we may be too high or too low, just as a cart may be so sturdy and substantial that it becomes too heavy to move, or else it may be so flimsy that it breaks. In ethics, likewise, we should categorise the various vices, and we will find that they occur, usually, in pairs. Virtue (arête, usually translated ‘virtue’, but in fact used with a wider, less moral, scope than virtue has today – closer to our word ‘excellence’, or perhaps ‘fineness’) therefore consists of navigating between these two negative extremes – a course of moderation which Aristotle refers to as ‘the Golden Mean’.
In example: a man should not be a coward, it is clear – but neither should he be foolhardy. He should not be a miser – yet nor should he be a spendthrift. He should be generous with his time and effort on behalf of his friends, yet should not lack the prudence that safeguards his own interests. Aristotle categorises many of these oppositions, and the virtuous middle ground between them. His advice on ethics is far more practical than Plato’s – perhaps because unlike Plato Aristotle believes that virtue can be taught, and taught to anybody (perhaps his own lower birth influenced this egalitarianism). Remarkably, although he naturally believes women to be metaphysically and physically inferior (and that, for instance, they have no role in reproduction, all qualities coming from the father, who acts like the seed while the woman acts like the nourishing earth), he nonetheless believed that their happiness was just as important as that of men, and that no society could be happy unless its women were happy. Happiness (true, reliable happiness) comes from a flourishing life, which in turn comes from virtue. In other words, his ethics are a more codified form of the sage advice on virtue and prudence often found in such societies.
Plato’s public works consist primarily of his dialogues, although a few other sources survive. These were lauded for their prose in ancient times – but as they focus on particular issues much of his underlying theory has to be deduced by comparing multiple sources. The most famous of his dialogues today is probably the Republic, dealing with politics and other things (a topic revisited in the later Laws), but the greatest praise is probably for the Theaetetus, on the subject of knowledge. In ancient times, his chief work was held to be the Timaeus, on the creation of the universe, which is today mostly ignored as semi-religious superstition (except by scholars of Gnosticism and early Christianity, for whom it remains a central text). The Symposium is also often quoted, on the subjects of love, friendship and beauty. Of his private, verbal teaching, nothing survives.
For Aristotle, the reverse situation holds. Although his writing was said to be among the greatest of the Ancients (Cicero himself, the master orator, called his prose ‘a river of gold’) it was entirely lost during the Dark Ages. Instead, we have mostly what seem to be lecture notes taken by students, supplemented by some early drafts, often pieced together as single documents even when it is clear there were multiple sources. As a result, “his” prose is dry and unembellished – yet many find it eminently readable regardless, as he reasons in a straightforward way, and in a commonplace, unpretentious style. His most relevant work in the modern age is the Nichomachean Ethics (along with the Eudemian Ethics, which may well be an alternative set of notes from the same lecture). More than thirty other books survive, on all manner of subjects, but most have been superseded by more recent work.
[Hmm. Guess that should have been two posts, at least...]
But the river tripped on her by and by, lapping
as though her heart was brook: Why, why, why! Weh, O weh
I'se so silly to be flowing but I no canna stay!