Ari Santas’ Notes on:

Background for Plato and Aristotle

I. The Pre Socratics


A.  Controversy in Cosmology

·         ­What is the archē?  The Milesians?

·         Thales (585 BC) – water (he fell into well while looking up at the sky!)

·         Anaximander (570BC) – unlimited

·         Anaximenes (546 BC) – (unlimited) air

·         Permanence or Flux?

·         Heraclitus (501 BC) – complete flux (archē is fire) – “can’t step in the same river twice” (he died in dung heap!)

·         Parmenides (475 BC) – complete permanence and monism – “being is one, unchanging, eternal”

·         Zeno of Elea (464 BC) – motion (change in position) is impossible

·         paradoxes of motion

·         the Achilles (the fastest cannot overtake the slowest)

·         the Arrow (will never reach its target)

·         Democritus (435 BC) – atomism and pluralism – individual indivisible particles of matter at the basis of everything


Shortly after the birth of reason, it seems that there are limitations to the mere appeal to reasons in justification


B.  Cultural Clashes – More Controversy

·         Along with the controversies over cosmology came a crisis in morals

·         Traditions came into question as the Greeks encountered other cultures

·         Example:  the Greeks and Callatians at the court of King Darius of Persia

·         differing funerary practices – burning vs. eating

·         Such experiences give rise to an early version of Cultural Relativism

·         Asked: “Are our ways natural, or are they merely cultural, hence accidental to our circumstances?

·         They even gave rise to outright skepticism: there is no truth at all


C.  The Sophists

·         About that time (5th century BC) a group of people who called themselves the Sophists came to Athens

·         They were critical of both the theoretical speculations of the Pre-Socratics and the social traditions of Greece

·         all this searching for Absolute Truth is useless!

·         Truth is illusory

·         there is no reason, only reasoning and persuasion

·         there is no Absolute Right, right and wrong are relative

·         In light of this, the goals of education should be rhetorical skills

·         more practical: win debates, gain power

·         Protagoras (c. 490-c. 420BC) for instance claimed: “Man is the measure of all things”

·         Thrasymachus (c. 459- c. 400) goes one step further: “Might makes right”

·         Gorgias (c. 483- c.  375 BC) goes too far (?):

1.      Nothing exists;

2.      If it did, we couldn’t know it:

3.      If we could know it, we couldn’t communicate it


II.  Socrates (470-399)


A. Skeptical Method

·         Socrates, in some ways, was like the Sophists (some say the best of them all), but in other ways unlike them

·         He was like them in that:

1.      he had great rhetorical skills which allowed him to defeat verbal opponents readily (including sophists);

2.      he too was skeptical about claims to knowledge of absolute truth

·         He was unlike them in that:

1.      he was not a total skeptic – he believed we could know about practical things – right and wrong

2.      he did not use the skills for personal gain (didn’t take pay) or to establish anyone’s pet doctrines

·         His dialectical skills were used to show two sorts of things:

·         that most people don’t know as much as they thought they did

·         later gets him into trouble

·         that we can reach agreement and find truth on some matters through discussion and debate (so long as we begin with our common ground)

·         His primary legacy is arguably the Socratic Method of dialogue


B.  The Socratic Problem

·         Socrates wandered around the streets of Athens philosophizing but never wrote anything

·         The only way we know of his thought is through Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes

·         He appears in all (except one – the Laws) of Plato’s dialogues, be we cannot be sure how much of the portrait Plato paints is Socrates and how much is Plato

·         This difficulty is often called the Socratic Problem

·         Most scholars believe, however, that the most accurate reflection of Socrates is in Plato’s early dialogues (esp. the Apology), where we get some of Socrates’ ethical views


III. Plato (428 – 347 BC)


A. Three Periods

Plato’s work is generally divided into three periods:

1)  Early – definition dialogues – closely reflect the views of Socrates, his teacher; e.g.:

·         Euthyphro

·         Apology

·         Meno

2)  Middle – Socrates is used to mouth Plato’s own views (theory of Forms and political theory); e.g.:

·         Republic

·         Crito

·         Phaedo

3)  Late – Plato still using Socrates, comes to question his own views

·         Parmenides

·         Philebus

·         Theaetetus

·         Sophist


B.  Plato’s Dualism

  Plato was less skeptical than Socrates, and tried to make sense of the conflict between Heraclitus and Parmenides by sticking the two universes on top of each other (anticipating Descartes), giving Parmenides top billing

  Also answered the question – what are the causes of things?     


The Divided Line



C.  Plato’s Theory of Forms

·         Searching for definitions, essences, then forms

·         Plato believed that the highest realities, which gave everything else its reality, were ideal objects called Forms (or Ideas)

·         These cannot be perceived by the senses, but are those entities by virtue of which ordinary things have their properties

·         They are the answers to the questions:

·         what makes things…red?





…hot or cold?

·         Where Socrates fit in is that his method of questioning people – dialectic – could be used to ferret out our implicit knowledge of the Forms

·         Plato gave Socratic Method a positive content

·         Plato’s Academy was a training ground for answering the great questions through Socratic dialectic


III. Aristotle (384 -322 BC)


A. Biography

·         Born in Stagira near Macedonia

·         Father was a physician (hence the interest in biology)

·         doctor of Alexander the Great’s great-grandfather

·         367 BC went to Athens to study with Plato

·         347 BC Plato died and Aristotle left Athens, founded school in Mytilene or Lesbos

·         343-2 BC began tutoring young Alexander the Great

·         335-4 BC returned to Athens and founded the Lyceum

·         Became a rival school

·         emphasized description of nature (empirical)

·         the peripatetic school

·         323 BC Alexander dies and anti-Macedonian sentiments lead to accusation of Aristotle as impious

·         Aristotle flees to Chalcis (studied tides)

·         it is said that this is one reason why so many of his works are lost

·         322 BC Dies one year later


B.  Disagreement with Plato

·         Aristotle rejected Plato’s theory of Forms

·         He believed that whatever it is that makes things the way they are, they are not outside of them

·         Aristotle had a theory of substantial forms and essences

·         An essence is what makes something what it is (“the what it is to be”)

·         The property which, if you took it away, the thing would change

1.      the essence of bachelorhood – unmarried

2.      the essence of chair includes – for sitting

·         Aristotle’s dualism was more modest

1.      essences and accidents are both in the things

·         Because of this, Aristotle was more concerned with things in this world


C.  Reading Aristotle

·         Aristotle is often difficult to read

·         There are several reasons:

1.      subject matter is often tough

2.      texts have been lost or corrupted through the centuries, and editors want to preserve what they have so they don’t change it too much

3.      all of his “popular” works (dialogues) are lost; what are left are his “lecture notes”

·         To overcome the difficulty:

1.      read carefully, and more than once

2.      look out for definitions, note them and keep them in mind as you proceed