Thales of Miletus (c. 624 – 546 B.C)

Thales of miletus


Thales of Miletus (c. 624 – 546 B.C.) was an early Pre-Socratic philosopher, mathematician and astronomer from the Greek city of Miletus in Ionia (modern-day Turkey). He was one of the so-called Seven Sages of Greece, and many regard him as the first philosopher in the Western tradition.

He was the founder of the Milesian School of natural philosophy, and the teacher of Anaximander. He was perhaps the first subscriber to Materialist and Naturalism in trying to define the substance or substances of which all material objects were composed, which he identified as water.

His innovative search for a universality in the disciplines of mathematics, astronomy and philosophy have earned him the label the “first scientist”.


Thales (pronounced THAY-lees) was born in the Greek city of Miletus (on the Ionian coast of modern-day Turkey) in about 624 or 625 B.C. (an estimate based on his age at death). The 3rd Century A.D. historian Diogenes Laërtius reported that his parents were Examyas and Cleobulina of the noble Milesian family of Thelidae (and descended from Agenor and Cadmus of ancient Thebes, Greece), although other sources suggest that his parents may have been Phoenician (from the modern-day region of Lebanon, Israel and Syria).

Details of his life are sketchy and often contradictory. Some reports suggest that he married and had a son, Cybisthus (or Cybisthon) or possibly adopted a nephew of the same name, while other reports suggest that he never married. Some say that he left no writings; others that he wrote at least two works, “On the Solstice” and “On the Equinox” (neither have survived). Some anecdotes suggest that Thales was involved in business and politics, and at one point bought up all the olive pressesin Miletus after predicting a good harvest for a particular year (either to make money or merely to demonstrate that he could use his intelligence to enrich himself if he had wanted to).

His involvement in local politics is also rather anecdotal in nature, but Thales apparently impressed both sides of the ongoing conflict between the LydiansMedesand Persians over the fate of the region of Ionia, when he predicted an eclipse of the sun which brought fighting to a standstill. He was also reportedly involved in the negotiations which followed the hostilities, and managed to obtain favourable terms for Miletus.

Thales is said to have died of dehydration while watching a gymnastics contest in 546 or 547 B.C., at the age of 78 (although other reports have him living to the age of 90).


In retrospect is is difficult to separate history from legend, but he is usually considered one of the Seven Sages or Seven Wise Men of ancient Greece, a group of 7th and early 6th Century B.C. philosophers, statesmen and law-givers who became renowned in the following centuries for their wisdom. The aphorism “Know thyself” has been attributed to Thales (as well as to at least six other ancient Greek sages). Much of what we known of Thales’ philosophy has come down to us from Aristotle and so may be somewhat distorted by Aristotle‘s own views. Some sources say that he left no writings; others that he wrote at least two works, “On the Solstice” and “On the Equinox” (neither of which have survived).

The early Pre-Socratic philosophers (of which Thales was one of the very first) tried to define the substance or substances of which all material objects were composed (as do modern scientists even today, hence Thales is sometimes described as the first scientist). He searched for the “physis” (or nature) of objects that cause them to behave in their characteristic way. He was one of the first Western philosophers who attempted to find naturalistic explanations of the world (Naturalism or Materialism) without reference to supernatural or mythological explanations, such as the Greek anthropomorphic gods and heroes. He explained earthquakes, for example, by hypothesizing that the Earth floats on water and that earthquakes occur when the Earth is rocked by waves.

His most famous belief was his cosmological doctrine that water was the first principle (roughly equivalent to Anaximenes’ later idea that everything in the world was composed of air). He claimed that water was the origin of all things, that from which all things emerge and to which they return, and moreover that all things ultimately are water. He probably drew this conclusion from seeing moist substances turn into air, slime and earth, and he clearly viewed the Earth as solidifying from the water on which it floated and which surrounded it.

While considering the effects of magnetism and static electricity, he concluded that the power to move other things without the mover itself changing was a characteristic of “life”, so that a magnet and amber must therefore be alive in some way (in that they have animation or the power to act). If so, he argued, there is no difference between the living and the dead. If all things were alive, they must also have souls or divinities (a natural belief of his time), and the end result of this argument was an almost total removal of mind from substance, opening the door to an innovative non-divine principle of action.

Thales recognized a single transcendental God (Monism), who has neither beginning nor end, but who expresses himself through other gods (Polytheism). His idea of justice included both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law (e.g. adultery and perjury about it in court are equally bad). He had some common sense moral advice: that we should expect the same support from our children that we give to our parents; that we should not let talk influence us against those we have come to trust; and that we should not do ourselves that for which we blame others. He believed that a happy man was one who was “healthy in body, resourceful in soul and of a readily teachable nature”.

His political views were generally in favour of a benign tyranny, rather than democracy (which most thinkers of his time distrusted as an inefficient and unreliable system). He believed that men were naturally better than women, and that Greeks were better than barbarians (non-Greeks).

Thales was known for his theoretical and practical understanding (and innovative use) of geometry, especially triangles. He established what has become known as Thales’ Theorem, whereby if a triangle is drawn within a circle with the long side as a diameter of the circle then the opposite angle will always be a right angle (as well as some other related properties derived from this).

He was also an important innovator in astronomy, and he had an effective theory of the path of the sun from solstice to solstice and supposedly correctly predicted a solar eclipse. Some sources have attributed him with the “discovery” of the seasons of the year and the 365-day year (consistent with his determination of the solstices). While this may be an exaggeration, his questioning approach to the understanding of heavenly phenomena arguably marked the real beginning of Greek astronomy.


Three Questions | Leo Tolstoy


hermitIt once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid; and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.

And this thought having occurred to him, he had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to any one who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do.

And learned men came to the King, but they all answered his questions differently.

In reply to the first question, some said that to know the right time for every action, one must draw up in advance, a table of days, months and years, and must live strictly according to it. Only thus, said they, could everything be done at its proper time. Others declared that it was impossible to decide beforehand the right time for every action; but that, not letting oneself be absorbed in idle pastimes, one should always attend to all that was going on, and then do what was most needful. Others, again, said that however attentive the King might be to what was going on, it was impossible for one man to decide correctly the right time for every action, but that he should have a Council of wise men, who would help him to fix the proper time for everything.

But then again others said there were some things which could not wait to be laid before a Council, but about which one had at once to decide whether to undertake them or not. But in order to decide that, one must know beforehand what was going to happen. It is only magicians who know that; and, therefore, in order to know the right time for every action, one must consult magicians.

Equally various were the answers to the second question. Some said, the people the King most needed were his councillors; others, the priests; others, the doctors; while some said the warriors were the most necessary.

To the third question, as to what was the most important occupation: some replied that the most important thing in the world was science. Others said it was skill in warfare; and others, again, that it was religious worship.

All the answers being different, the King agreed with none of them, and gave the reward to none. But still wishing to find the right answers to his questions, he decided to consult a hermit, widely renowned for his wisdom.

The hermit lived in a wood which he never quitted, and he received none but common folk. So the King put on simple clothes, and before reaching the hermit’s cell dismounted from his horse, and, leaving his body-guard behind, went on alone.

When the King approached, the hermit was digging the ground in front of his hut. Seeing the King, he greeted him and went on digging. The hermit was frail and weak, and each time he stuck his spade into the ground and turned a little earth, he breathed heavily.

The King went up to him and said: “I have come to you, wise hermit, to ask you to answer three questions: How can I learn to do the right thing at the right time? Who are the people I most need, and to whom should I, therefore, pay more attention than to the rest? And, what affairs are the most important, and need my first attention?”

The hermit listened to the King, but answered nothing. He just spat on his hand and recommenced digging.

“You are tired,” said the King, “let me take the spade and work awhile for you.”

“Thanks!” said the hermit, and, giving the spade to the King, he sat down on the ground.

When he had dug two beds, the King stopped and repeated his questions. The hermit again gave no answer, but rose, stretched out his hand for the spade, and said:

“Now rest awhile-and let me work a bit.”

But the King did not give him the spade, and continued to dig. One hour passed, and another. The sun began to sink behind the trees, and the King at last stuck the spade into the ground, and said:

“I came to you, wise man, for an answer to my questions. If you can give me none, tell me so, and I will return home.”

“Here comes some one running,” said the hermit, “let us see who it is.”

The King turned round, and saw a bearded man come running out of the wood. The man held his hands pressed against his stomach, and blood was flowing from under them. When he reached the King, he fell fainting on the ground moaning feebly. The King and the hermit unfastened the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his stomach. The King washed it as best he could, and bandaged it with his handkerchief and with a towel the hermit had. But the blood would not stop flowing, and the King again and again removed the bandage soaked with warm blood, and washed and rebandaged the wound. When at last the blood ceased flowing, the man revived and asked for something to drink. The King brought fresh water and gave it to him. Meanwhile the sun had set, and it had become cool. So the King, with the hermit’s help, carried the wounded man into the hut and laid him on the bed. Lying on the bed the man closed his eyes and was quiet; but the King was so tired with his walk and with the work he had done, that he crouched down on the threshold, and also fell asleep–so soundly that he slept all through the short summer night. When he awoke in the morning, it was long before he could remember where he was, or who was the strange bearded man lying on the bed and gazing intently at him with shining eyes.

“Forgive me!” said the bearded man in a weak voice, when he saw that the King was awake and was looking at him.

“I do not know you, and have nothing to forgive you for,” said the King.

“You do not know me, but I know you. I am that enemy of yours who swore to revenge himself on you, because you executed his brother and seized his property. I knew you had gone alone to see the hermit, and I resolved to kill you on your way back. But the day passed and you did not return. So I came out from my ambush to find you, and I came upon your bodyguard, and they recognized me, and wounded me. I escaped from them, but should have bled to death had you not dressed my wound. I wished to kill you, and you have saved my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful slave, and will bid my sons do the same. Forgive me!”

The King was very glad to have made peace with his enemy so easily, and to have gained him for a friend, and he not only forgave him, but said he would send his servants and his own physician to attend him, and promised to restore his property.

Having taken leave of the wounded man, the King went out into the porch and looked around for the hermit. Before going away he wished once more to beg an answer to the questions he had put. The hermit was outside, on his knees, sowing seeds in the beds that had been dug the day before.

The King approached him, and said:

“For the last time, I pray you to answer my questions, wise man.”

“You have already been answered!” said the hermit, still crouching on his thin legs, and looking up at the King, who stood before him.

“How answered? What do you mean?” asked the King.

“Do you not see,” replied the hermit. “If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug those beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important man; and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business. Remember then: there is only one time that is important– Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!”

Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855)


kierkegaardSøren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) was a 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian. Although relatively isolated during his life, he became extremely influential once his works were translated into German after his death.

Sometimes dubbed “the father of Existentialism”, his works represent a reaction against the dominant Hegelian philosophy of the day (and against the state church in Denmark), and set the stage for modern Existentialism. Early Existentialist thinkers like Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969) and Martin Heidegger and, later, Jean-Paul Sartre, drew extensively on Kierkegaard’s analysis of despair and freedom.

However, a wide range of other philosophers, from Karl Marx to Theodor Adorno(1903 – 1969) to Ludwig Wittgenstein, also expressed great respect for the Danish master’s thought.

He was a lifelong committed Lutheran and a prominent supporter of the doctrine of Fideism, the view that religious belief depends on faith or revelation, rather than reason, intellect or natural theology.


Søren Kierkegaard (pronounced KEER-ka-gard in its Anglicized pronunciation) was born into an affluent family on 5 May 1813 in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark.

His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a wealthy hosier and self-made man, fiercely intelligent but melancholic, anxious and deeply pious, convinced that he had earned God’s wrath through the personal sins of his youth; his mother, Ane Sørensdatter Lund, had served as a maid in the household before marrying Michael on the death of his first wife, and she was a quiet, plain and unassuming figure, with little formal education.

Søren was the seventh and last child: five of the seven children died young (which their father saw as just punishment for his sins), although Søren and his elder brother, Peter Christian Kierkegaard (who was to become an influential Lutheran bishop), disproved their father’s gloomy predictions. Despite his father’s occasional religious melancholy and the heavy burden of guilt which he imposed on his children, Kierkegaard shared a close bond with his father, whose brooding presence can be discerned throughout his works.

Kierkegaard was brought up rather stringently, despite the family’s wealth, in a strict Lutheran household. He received a classical education at the well-regarded School of Civic Virtue in Copenhagen, where he excelled in Latin and history, before going on to study theology at the University of Copenhagen in 1830. At university, however, he was drawn more towards philosophy and literature, and his philosophical writings were always rather self-consciously literary and wordy. After a relatively dissolute time in his early years at university, up until his father’s death in 1838, he graduated in 1841 with the equivalent of a Ph.D, funding his education, his subsequent living, and the publication of his early works through his father’s inheritance.

In 1837, Kierkegaard met and fell violently in love with Regine Olsen, the daughter of a member of the Danish parliament. He proposed to her in 1940, but mysteriously broke off the engagement less than a year later during a period of melancholy and depression. Regine later married and left Denmark, but she remained Kierkegaard’s muse and the love of his life.

Arguably his greatest work, “Either/Or”, was written in 1842 during one of Kierkegaard’s brief stays in Berlin, (his only trips abroad apart from a brief trip to Sweden), and published in 1843. It was immediately understood to be a major literary event, although it also had its critics. “Fear and Trembling” was published in late 1843, followed by a series of papers critiquing the popular philosophy of Georg Hegel. His rather intemperate reaction to some poor reviews in the Danish satirical paper “The Corsair” led to verbal assaults, social exclusion and even to ridicule on the street of Copenhagen.

From 1846 onwards, Kierkegaard’s focus moved from criticism of Hegel to criticism of the hypocrisy of Christendom (by which he meant the institution of the church and the applied religion of his society, rather than Christianity itself) and of modernity and its shallow and passionless view of the world in general. In Kierkegaard’s final years, from 1848, he began a sustained literary attack on the Danish State Church through scholarly works, newspaper articles and a series of self-published pamphlets.

Kierkegaard died on 11 November 1855 in Frederik’s Hospital, Copenhagen, possibly from complications from a fall from a tree when he was a boy.


Kierkegaard’s peculiar authorship and literary style employed irony, satire, parody, humour, polemic and a dialectical method of “indirect communication” in order to deepen the reader’s passionate subjective engagement with ultimate existential issues. He elaborated on a host of philosophical, psychological, literary and theological categories (including anxiety, despair, melancholy, repetition, inwardness, irony, existential stages, inherited sin, teleological suspension of the ethical, Christian paradox, the absurd, reduplication, universal/exception, sacrifice, love as a duty, seduction, the demonic and indirect communication). Throughout his work, he took Socrates and Jesus Christ as his role models, and saw how one lives one’s life as the prime criterion of being in the truth.

Kierkegaard’s early works, his university thesis “On the Concept of Irony” of 1841 and “Either/Or” of 1843, both critiqued major figures in Western philosophic thought (Socrates in the former, and Georg Hegel in the latter), and showcased Kierkegaard’s unique style of writing.

In “Either/Or”, he wrote that there were two ways of life, the “aesthetic” (based on temporal, sensory pleasures, whether intellectual or physical) and the “ethical”(based on moral codes and the infinite or the eternal). He provided an extended contrast between the aesthetic and ethical ways of life, concluding that the radical human freedom of the aesthetic inevitably leads to “angst” (dread), the call of the infinite, and eventually to despair. Once this is realized, the individual may enterthe ethical sphere.

Later in 1843, he published “Fear and Trembling”, which, together with “Either/Or”, is perhaps his best known book. Focusing on the Biblical story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, this work (as well as “Repetition” of the same year), moves beyond the aesthetic and the ethical, and introduces a higher stage on the dialectical ladder, the religious. It describes a third way of life, the possibility of living by faith in the modern world, emphasizing the importance of the individual and developing a conception of subjective truth. These works discuss fundamental issues in Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion, such as the nature of God and faith, faith’s relationship with Ethics and morality, and the difficulty of being authentically religious.

His works from 1844 to 1846 (written using a pseudonym), including “Philosophical Fragments” (1844), “The Concept of Dread” (1844), “Stages on Life’s Way” (1845) and, especially, the massive “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments” (1846), focus even more on the perceived shortcomings of the philosophy of Hegel and form the basis for existential psychology.

His second period of authorship, including works such as “Two Ages: A Literary Review” (1846), “The Book on Adler” (published posthumously in 1872), “Christian Discourses” (1848), “Works of Love” (1847), “Edifying Discourses in Diverse Spirits” (1847) and “The Sickness Unto Death” (1849), is focused more on the perceived hypocrisy and shallowness of Christendom and modern society in general. He attempted to present Christianity as he thought it should be, and encouraged embracing Christ as the absolute paradox.

From around 1848 until his death, Kierkegaard carried on a sustained literary attack on the Danish State Church, with books such as “Practice in Christianity”(1850, which he himself considered his most important book), “For Self-Examination” (1851) and “Judge for Yourselves!” (published posthumously in 1876) and a series of self-published pamphlets called “The Moment”, which attempted to expound the true nature of Christianity, with Jesus as its role model, and to re-introduce Christianity into Christendom.




Nihilism is the philosophical position which argues that Being, especially past and current human existence, is without objective meaningpurpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. It asserts that there is no reasonable proof of the existence of a higher ruler or creator, that a “true morality” does not exist, and that objective secular ethics are impossible. Therefore life has, in a sense, no truth and no action is objectively preferable to any other.

The term “nihilism” was first popularized by the novelist Ivan Turgenev (1818 – 1883). Art movements such as Dada and Futurism, and philosophical movements like Existentialism, Post-Modernism, Post-Structuralism and Deconstructionism have all been identified by commentators as “nihilistic” at various times in various contexts. Nihilism differs from Skepticism in that Skepticism does not reject claims to truth outright, it only rejects these claims if there is insufficient empirical evidence to support them.

Nihilism is most often associated with the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, although he never actually advocated Nihilism as a practical mode of living and was typically quite critical of it. He was, however, one of the first philosophers to study nihilism extensively. Nietzsche’s criticism of nihilism was mainly on that grounds that it can become a false belief, and lead individuals to discard any hope of meaning in the world and thus to invent some compensatory alternative measure of significance. He also asserts that Nihilism is a result of valuing “higher”, “divine” or “meta-physical” things (such as God), that do not in turn value “base”, “human” or “earthly” things, and that any form of Idealism, after being rejected by the idealist, leads to Nihilism. According to Nietzsche, it is only once nihilism is overcome that a culture can have a true foundation upon which to thrive.

Similarly, Jacques Derrida, whose Deconstructionism movement is commonly labelled nihilistic, did not himself make the claims often attributed to him. In fact, Deconstructionism can be seen not as a denial of truth, but as a denial of our ability to know truth (i.e. it makes an epistemological claim as opposed to Nihilism’s ontological or metaphysical claim).

Nihilism is one of the few branches of philosophy that allows for the possibility of absolute nothingness. By making three apparently plausible assumptions – that there are a finite number of objects in the world; that each of these objects are contingent (i.e. that although they exist, they might not have existed); and that the objects are independent (i.e. the non-existence of one thing does not necessitate the existence of anything else – then the “subtraction argument” runs that each contingent object can be subtracted from the world, one by one, until absolutely nothing is left. However, it is not clear that the independence assumption is justifiable, and in practice (whether it be in an imaginative thought experiment, or in the hard scientific world of particle physics) subtracting an object from a particular scenario actually does have repercussions, however small, for the world as a whole. Rather, nothingness appears to be a limit or asymptote that can be approached but never quite reached.

Types of Nihilism

Metaphysical Nihilism (or Blob Theory):

This is the theory that there are no objects or that objects do not exist, and therefore empirical reality is an illusion, or, more commonly, the theory that there might have been no objects at all (i.e. that there is a possible world in which there are no objects at all). An object, here, is a thing, an entity or a being that can have properties and bear relations to other objects. This position has been variously attributed to philosophers such as Parmenides, BuddhaHindu Advaita Vedantins and Immanuel Kant.


Mereological Nihilism (or Compositional Nihilism):

This is the position that objects with proper parts do not exist, (and, by corollory, objects existing in time do not have any temporal parts), and only basic building blocks (e.g. electrons, quarks) exist. (Mereology is the theory of the relations of part to whole, and the relations of part to part within a whole). These smallest building blocks are individual and separate items that do not ever unify or come together into being non-individual. If the building blocks of reality never compose any whole items, then all of realitydoes not involve any whole items, even though we may think it does. Thus, the world we see and experience, which appears to be full of objects with parts, is a product of human misperception. One philosopher who has argued for something close to pure mereological nihilism is Peter Unger (1942 – ), in his papers “There Are No Ordinary Things” and “I Do Not Exist”.


Partial Nihilism:

Some philosophers argue that only objects of a certain kind have parts. One such position is Organicism, the view that living beings are composites(i.e. objects that have parts) and therefore exist, but there are no other objects with parts, and all other objects that we believe to be composite (e.g. chairs, planets, etc) therefore do not exist. However, Organicists such as Peter van Inwagen (1942 – ) assert that, even if there is no such things as a table, there are simples (basic building blocks) “arranged table-wise”.


Moral Nihilism:

is the meta-ethical view that ethical claims are generally false. It holds that there are no objective moral facts or true propositions – that nothing is morally good, bad, wrong, right, etc – because there are no moral truths (e.g. a moral nihilist would say that murder is not wrong, but neither is it right). The philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli is sometimes presented as a model of Moral Nihilism, but that is highly questionable as he was largely silent on moral matters and, if anything, he presented an alternative to the ethical theories of his day, rather than an all-out rejection of all morality.





Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existencefreedom and choice. It is the view that humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. It focuses on the question of human existence, and the feeling that there is no purpose or explanation at the core of existence. It holds that, as there is no God or any other transcendent force, the only way to counter this nothingness (and hence to find meaning in life) is by embracing existence.

Thus, Existentialism believes that individuals are entirely free and must take personal responsibility for themselves (although with this responsibility comes angst, a profound anguish or dread). It therefore emphasizes actionfreedom and decision as fundamental, and holds that the only way to rise above the essentially absurd condition of humanity (which is characterized by suffering and inevitable death) is by exercising our personal freedom and choice (a complete rejection of Determinism).

Often, Existentialism as a movement is used to describe those who refuse to belong to any school of thought, repudiating of the adequacy of any body of beliefs or systems, claiming them to be superficial, academic and remote from life. Although it has much in common with Nihilism, Existentialism is more a reaction against traditional philosophies, such as Rationalism, Empiricism and Positivism, that seek to discover an ultimate order and universal meaning in metaphysical principles or in the structure of the observed world. It asserts that people actually make decisions based on what has meaning to them, rather than what is rational.

Existentialism originated with the 19th Century philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, although neither used the term in their work. In the 1940s and 1950s, French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus (1913 – 1960), and Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986) wrote scholarly and fictional works that popularized existential themes, such as dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment and nothingness.

Main Idea

Unlike René Descartes, who believed in the primacy of conciousness, Existentialists assert that a human being is “thrown into” into a concrete, inveterate universe that cannot be “thought away”, and therefore existence (“being in the world”) precedes consciousness, and is the ultimate reality. Existence, then, is prior to essence(essence is the meaning that may be ascribed to life), contrary to traditional philosophical views dating back to the ancient Greeks. As Sartre put it: “At first [Man] is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be.”

Kierkegaard saw rationality as a mechanism humans use to counter their existential anxiety, their fear of being in the world. Sartre saw rationality as a form of “bad faith”, an attempt by the self to impose structure on a fundamentally irrational and random world of phenomena (“the other”). This bad faith hinders us from finding meaning in freedom, and confines us within everyday experience.

Kierkegaard also stressed that individuals must choose their own way without the aid of universal, objective standardsFriedrich Nietzsche further contended that the individual must decide which situations are to count as moral situations. Thus, most Existentialists believe that personal experience and acting on one’s own convictions are essential in arriving at the truth, and that the understanding of a situation by someone involved in that situation is superior to that of a detached, objective observer (similar to the concept of Subjectivism).

According to Camus, when an individual’s longing for order collides with the real world’s lack of order, the result is absurdity. Human beings are therefore subjects in an indifferent, ambiguous and absurd universe, in which meaning is not provided by the natural order, but rather can be created (however provisionally and unstably) by human actions and interpretations.

Existentialism can be atheistic, theological (or theistic) or agnostic. Some Existentialists, like Nietzsche, proclaimed that “God is dead” and that the concept of God is obsolete. Others, like Kierkegaard, were intensely religious, even if they did not feel able to justify it. The important factor for Existentialists is the freedom of choice to believe or not to believe.

History of Existentialism

Existentialist-type themes appear in early Buddhist and Christian writings (including those of St. Augustine and St.Thomas Aquinas). In the 17th Century, Blaise Pascal suggested that, without a God, life would be meaningless, boring and miserable, much as later Existentialists believed, although, unlike them, Pascal saw this as a reason for the existence of a God. His near-contemporary, John Locke, advocated individual autonomy and self-determination, but in the positive pursuit of Liberalism and Individualism rather than in response to an Existentialist experience.

Existentialism in its currently recognizable form was inspired by the 19th Century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969) and Edmund Husserl, and writers like the Russian Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881) and the Czech Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924). It can be argued that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer were also important influences on the development of Existentialism, because the philosophies of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were written in response or in opposition to them.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, like Pascal before them, were interested in people’s concealment of the meaninglessness of life and their use of diversion to escape from boredom. However, unlike Pascal, they considered the role of making free choices on fundamental values and beliefs to be essential in the attempt to change the nature and identity of the chooser. In Kierkegaard’s case, this results in the “knight of faith”, who puts complete faith in himself and in God, as described in his 1843 work “Fear and Trembling”. In Nietzsche’s case, the much maligned “Übermensch” (or “Superman”) attains superiority and transcendence without resorting to the “other-worldliness” of Christianity, in his books “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (1885) and “Beyond Good and Evil” (1887).

Martin Heidegger was an important early philosopher in the movement, particularly his influential 1927 work “Being and Time”, although he himself vehemently denied being an existentialist in the Sartrean sense. His discussion of ontology is rooted in an analysis of the mode of existence of individual human beings, and his analysis of authenticity and anxiety in modern culture make him very much an Existentialist in the usual modern usage.

Existentialism came of age in the mid-20th Century, largely through the scholarly and fictional works of the French existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus(1913 – 1960) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986). Maurice Merleau-Ponty(1908 – 1961) is another influential and often overlooked French Existentialist of the period.

Sartre is perhaps the most well-known, as well as one of the few to have actually accepted being called an “existentialist”. “Being and Nothingness” (1943) is his most important work, and his novels and plays, including “Nausea” (1938) and “No Exit (1944), helped to popularize the movement.

In “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942), Albert Camus uses the analogy of the Greek myth of Sisyphus (who is condemned for eternity to roll a rock up a hill, only to have it roll to the bottom again each time) to exemplify the pointlessness of existence, but shows that Sisyphus ultimately finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying himself to it.

Simone de Beauvoir, an important existentialist who spent much of her life alongside Sartre, wrote about feminist and existential ethics in her works, including “The Second Sex” (1949) and “The Ethics of Ambiguity” (1947).

Although Sartre is considered by most to be the pre-eminent Existentialist, and by many to be an important and innovative philosopher in his own right, others are much less impressed by his contributions. Heidegger himself thought that Sartre had merely taken his own work and regressed it back to the subject-object orientated philosophy of Descartes and Husser, which is exactly what Heidegger had been trying to free philosophy from. Some see Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 – 1961) as a better Existentialist philosopher, particular for his incorporation of the body as our way of being in the world, and for his more complete analysis of perception (two areas in which Heidegger’s work is often seen as deficient).


Herbert Marcuse (1898 – 1979) has criticized Existentialism, especially Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness”, for projecting some features of living in a modern oppressive society (features such as anxiety and meaninglessness) onto the nature of existence itself.

Roger Scruton (1944 – ) has claimed that both Heidegger’s concept of inauthenticity and Sartre’s concept of bad faith are both self-inconsistent, in that they deny any universal moral creed, yet speak of these concepts as if everyone is bound to abide by them.

Logical Positivists, such as A. J. Ayer and Rudolf Carnap (1891 – 1970), claim that existentialists frequently become confused over the verb “to be” (which is meaningless if used without a predicate) and by the word “nothing” (which is the negation of existence and therefore cannot be assummed to refer to something).

Marxists, especially in post-War France, found Existentialism to run counter to their emphasis on the solidarity of human beings and their theory of economic determinism. They further argued that Existentialism’s emphasis on individual choice leads to contemplation rather than to action, and that only the bourgeoisie has the luxury to make themselves what they are through their choices, so they considered Existentialism to be a bourgeois philosophy.

Christian critics complain that Existentialism portrays humanity in the worst possible light, overlooking the dignity and grace that comes from being made in the image of God. Also, according to Christian critics, Existentialists are unable to account for the moral dimension of human life, and have no basis for an ethical theory if they deny that humans are bound by the commands of God. On the other hand, some commentators have objected to Kierkegaard’s continued espousal of Christianity, despite his inability to effectively justify it.

In more general terms, the common use of pseudonymous characters in existentialist writing can make it seem like the authors are unwilling to own their insights, and are confusing philosophy with literature.

Famous Existentialist Philosophers

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)

Albert Camus (1913-1960)




Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.)


AristotleAristotle (384 – 322 B.C.) was an important Greek philosopher from the Classical period, mainly based in Athens. He is one of the most important founding figures in Western Philosophy, and the first to create a comprehensive system of philosophy, encompassing Ethics, Aesthetics, Politics, Metaphysics, Logic and science.

His own school of philosophy, known as Aristotelianism or the Peripatetic School, influenced almost all later philosophical thinking, particularly the Medieval movements such as Scholasticism, Averroism and Avicennism.


Aristotle was born to an aristocratic family in Stageira on the Chalcidice Peninsula of Macedonia (a region of northern Greece) in 384 B.C. His father, Nicomachus, was the personal physician to King Amyntas of Macedon, and Aristotle was trained and educated as a member of the aristocracy. Aristotle’s mother, Phaestis, came from Chalcis on the island of Euboea, and her family owned property there.

When he was just a boy of the age of 10, Aristotle’s father died (which meant that Aristotle could not now follow in his father’s profession of doctor) and his mother seems also to have died young, so he was taken under the care of a man named Proxenus. At the age of 18, he moved to Athens to compete his education at Plato‘s famous Academy, where he remained for nearly twenty years (first as a star student and then as a teacher and a philosophical force to be reckoned with in his own right) until after Plato‘s death in 347 B.C.

Plato‘s nephew Speusippus (407 – 339 B.C.) was chosen to succeed him as head of the Academy (partly because Aristotle’s ideas had diverged too far from Plato’s) and Aristotle left the Academy. He travelled for some time in Asia Minor with Xenocrates (396 – 314 B.C.) and Theophrastus (371 – 287 B.C.). While staying at the court of Hermias of Atarneus, an ex-student of Plato, he met and marriedHermias’ daughter, Pythias, and together they had a daughter also called Pythias. After Hermias’ death, Aristotle was invited by Philip of Macedon to tutor to the young Alexander the Great, which he did for several years before returning to Athens. His wife Pythias died soon after, and Aristotle became involved with Herpyllis from his home town of Stageira, and they had a son named after Aristotle’s father, Nicomachus.

In 335 B.C., Aristotle established his own school just outside the walls of Athens, known as the Lyceum, in competition with Plato‘s long-established Academy, and he conducted courses at the school for the next thirteen years. His immediate followers were known as the Peripatetics (meaning “itinerant” or “walking about”, for their habit of walking the covered walkways of the Lyceum). The Lyceum had a broader curriculum than the Academy, and a stronger emphasis on natural philosophy. Artistotle’s most famous students were Theophrastus (371 – 287 B.C.), who followed Artistotle as head of the Lyceum, and Strato of Lampsacus (225 – 269 B.C.) who succeeded him.

It is during this period in Athens that Aristotle is believed to have composed many of his major works, although only fragments of his many dialogues have survived, and those mainly in treatise form, generally thought to be lecture aids for his students. His most important treatises include the six books of the “Organon”“Physics”“Metaphysics”“Nicomachean Ethics”“Politics”“De Anima”(“On the Soul”), “Rhetoric” and “Poetics”.

On the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens flared once again, and Aristotle fled the city to his mother’s family estate in Chalcis, explaining “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy” (a reference to the trial and execution of Socrates). He soon died of natural causes there, at the age of 62, and was eventually buried next to his wife.


Aristotle wrote extensively, but only about one-fifth of his works have survived (although even that fills about 12 volumes, and touches on the whole range of what was available knowledge at his time).

Aristotle himself divided his writings into the “exoteric” (intended for publication) and the “esoteric” (compiled from his lecture notes, and intended for the narrower audience of his students and other philosophers familiar with the jargon and issues typical of the Platonic and Aristotelian schools). Unfortunately, none of the exoteric works he produced for publication (which were praised throughout antiquity for their great beauty of style) seem to have survived, not even fragments, and so we have no examples of his literary art, as we have of Plato’s writing.

Even some of his esoteric works may well have been altered or “repaired” after the original manuscripts were left to languish in a cellar in Asia Minor before being rediscovered by some Roman scholars of dubious reputation in the 1st Century B.C.(although this account of their history is disputed). It was not until the Scholasticism and Averroism of the Middle Ages (when he was known simply as “The Philosopher”) that Latin translations became widely available again, stimulating a revival of Aristotelianism in Europe, and ultimately revitalizing European thought through Muslim influence in Spain to fan the embers of the Renaissance.

What we today call Aristotelian Logic, Aristotle himself would have labelled “analytics”, and he used the term “logic” to mean dialectics (the exchange of arguments and counter-arguments in search of a synthesis or resolution). Aristotle’s ground-breaking work on Logic were collected together into the six books of the “Organon” in the early 1st Century A.D., and it constitutes the earliest formal study of Logic. His conception of Logic has had an unparalleled influence on the history of Western thought, and was the dominant form of Logic until 19th Century advances in mathematical logic and predicate logic. As recently as the late 18th Century, no less a philosopher than Immanuel Kant claimed that Aristotle had said all there was to say on the subject of Logic.

His aim was to develop a universal method of reasoning by means of which it would be possible to learn everything there is to know about reality. Aristotle defined logic as “new and necessary reasoning”, “new” because it allows us to learn what we do not know, and “necessary” because its conclusions are inescapable.

At the heart of Aristotelian Logic is the syllogism (or deductive logic or term logic), which he developed in his “Prior Analytics”, the third book of the “Organon”. In a syllogism, one proposition (the conclusion) is inferred from two others (the premises), each of which has one term in common with the conclusion. A proposition in this context is an assertion which consists of two terms (the subject and the predicate), and which is capable of truth or falsity. He enumerated ten categories to describe all the possible kinds of thing which can be the subject or the predicate of a proposition: Substance, Quantity, Quality, Relation, Place, Time, Position, State, Action and Affection. In other books of the “Organon”, Aristotle considers issues in constructing valid argumentsprobable inferences(as opposed to certain ones) and logical fallacies, among other topics.

Aristotle also popularized the use of axioms (self-evident principles requiring no proof), claiming that nothing can be deduced if nothing is assumed, as well as the hugely important Principle of Non-Contradiction, which held that a particular attribute can not both apply and not apply to the same subject at the same time (e.g. 2 + 2 = 4 and 2 + 2 = 5 cannot both apply). The use of axioms was important in other areas of Aristotle’s philosophy, not least in his Metaphysics.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics (the very word “metaphysics” dates back to Aristotle, originally having the rather mundane meaning of those books which come after his work on physics) revolves around the concept of substance, which is a combination of both matter (the substratum or “stuff” of which a thing is composed) and form (the actual thing itself). Things have both potentiality (what it is capable of doing or becoming, if not prevented by something else) and actuality (the fulfillment or the end of the potentiality). Thus, the matter of a thing is its potentiality, and the form is its actuality. Essence is what provides the shape or form or purpose to matter, and the movement from formless stuff to complete being results from four causesmaterial cause (what something is made of, the coming together of it parts), efficient cause(the motion or energy that changes matter), formal cause (a thing’s shape, form, essence or definition) and final cause (a thing’s reason or purpose or the intention behind it).

Aristotle tried to pin down what it is that persists in a thing that gives it its continuity as a single thing, even while its properties and attributes change (e.g. a leaf starts as a bud, grows and turns green, and then withers and dies, but it remains throughout incontestably the same leaf). He also asked what are the fundamental properties of a thing which give it its identity as a particular thing, and without which it would cease to be the same thing. He saw these two questions as inextricably entwined.

Aristotle broke irrevocably with his teacher Plato and the Platonists over the problem of universals and his conception of hylomorphism (the idea that substances are forms inhering in matter). Aristotle’s conception of hylomorphism differed from that of Plato in that he held that Form and Matter are inseparable, and that matter and form do not exist apart from each other, but only together. Just as the word hylomorphism itself is composed of the Greek hyle (matter or stuff) and morphe (form or structure), Aristotle’s classic answer to the question of what reality really consists of was that reality = stuff + structure. Stuff without structure was mere chaos, while structure without stuff was no more than the ghost of being.

Plato believed that ideal Forms exist, separate and apart from particular things, for which they are prototypes or exemplars. Aristotle, on the other hand, held that universals exist only where they are instantiated, and then only “in things”, never apart from them (i.e. the universals are “inside” the particulars). Where Plato had located ultimate reality in ideas or eternal Forms, knowable only through reflectionand reason, Aristotle saw ultimate reality in physical objects, knowable through experience. Indeeed, he considered it meaningless to discuss something which has not been encountered or experienced in real life. For Plato, the philosophic method means the descent from a knowledge of universal Forms (or ideas) to a contemplation of particular imitations of these, while for Aristotle the philosophic method implies the ascent from the study of particular phenomena to the knowledge of essences.

Aristotle made some highly influential constributions to the field of Ethics. He considered Ethics to be a practical science (i.e. mastered by doing rather than merely reasoning) but also a general, rather than a certain, knowledge. Unlike some other moral philosophers before him, Aristotle started by posing the very general question of what it actually means to lead a good human life. He was also very aware that morality is a complex concept and so cannot be measured in any one simple way (in the way that Utilitarianism, for example, measures morality on a simple scale of happiness created). Also (again, unlike some other philosophers such as the Stoics and the Epicureans, for example), Aristotle firmly believed that we are not self-contained moral entities and that we cannot control our own moral environment.

His several treatises on Ethics, most notably the “Nichomachean Ethics”, outline what is commonly called Virtue Ethics or Eudaimonism. He argued that Man must have a specific or proper function, which is uncommon to anything else, and which is an activity of the soul. The best activity of the soul is eudaimonia (happiness or joy or the good life), which can be achieved by living a balanced life and avoiding excess by pursuing a golden mean in everything between the two vices of excess and deficiency.

In Politics, Aristotle was the first to conceive of an organic city or natural community, and indeed conceived of Politics as a whole as organic, as a collection of parts that cannot exist without the others. For Aristotle, a city (the political unit with which he was familiar, the concept of the state as we know it still being then unknown) was a political partnership which existed for the sake of “noble actions”, not merely for the sake of living together, nor as a social contract to avoid injustice or economic instability. In comparison with some other political commentators of the time (such as Plato), though, Aristotle’s had a rather narrow-minded view of just who should be allowed to be a citizen of such a city, and his attitude to women and foreigners in general was quite chauvinistic. His formula for political stability was a strong middle class in order to achieve the middle ground between tyranny and democracy. He may also have been the author of a model constitution of Athens, in which the abstract notion of constitutional government is applied to the concrete life of a particular society.

Aristotle’s philosophical endeavours encompassed virtually all facets of intellectual inquiry, including “natural philosophy”, the branch of philosophy examining the phenomena of the natural world (what would be regarded today as physicsbiology and other natural sciences). In fact, he spent much of his time performing original research in the natural sciences, in areas such as botany, zoology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, meteorology and several other sciences, and to a large extent Aristotle was responsible for establishing these sciences as individual fields of enquiry and study. He was endlessly fascinated with nature, and went a long way towards classifying the plants and animals of Greece through observation and anatomical dissection.

In Aristotle’s physics there are five elements, all of which naturally move towards their default natural place: fire (hot and dry), earth (cold and dry), air (hot and wet); water (cold and wet) and aether (the divine substance that makes up the stars and planets). In his treatise “Meteorology” (then a broader term than its use today), he discussed the nature of the earth and the oceans, including the hydrologic cycle and natural occurences like winds, earthquakes, thunder, lightning, rainbows, and meteors, comets and the Milky Way. His “De Anima” (“On the Soul”) is perhaps the first ever book on psychology. In it, he argued that the mind is essentially the purposeful functioning of the nervous system, and he described the struggle of the id and ego (desire and reason).

Unlike Plato, Aristotle took observation to be crucial, but (in the absence of concepts like mass, velocity, force and temperature, and given his insistence on deriving “laws of the universe” from simple observation and over-stretched reason, rather than strict scientific method, and his largely qualitative rather than quantitative approach) his scientific observations are a mixture of precocious accuracy and curious errors, and have long been deemed hopelessly inadequate. However, his project of a systematic investigation into natural phenomena in the living world arguably marks the birth of empirical science.

Aristotle was interested in more than a strictly scientific exploration of human nature, though, as testified by works like the “Poetics” and “Rhetoric”. Aristotle considered literature (e.g. epic poetry, tragedy, comedy), music and dance to be essentially imitative, although he considered such imitiation to be natural to mankind and one of mankind’s major advantages over animals.


The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

by Ursula Le guin (1973)


With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The rigging of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved. Some were decorous: old people in long stiff robes of mauve and grey, grave master workmen, quiet, merry women carrying their babies and chatting as they walked. In other streets the music beat faster, a shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the procession was a dance. Children dodged in and out, their high calls rising like the swallows’ crossing flights, over the music and the singing. All the processions wound towards the north side of the city, where on the great water-meadow called the Green’ Fields boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mudstained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race. The horses wore no gear at all but a halter without bit. Their manes were braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green. They flared their nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another; they were vastly excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own. Far off to the north and west the mountains stood up half encircling Omelas on her bay. The air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky. There was just enough wind to make the banners that marked the racecourse snap and flutter now and then. In the silence of the broad green meadows one could hear the music winding through the city streets, farther and nearer and ever approaching, a cheerful faint sweetness of the air that from time to time trembled and gathered together and broke out into the great joyous clanging of the bells.

Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?

They were not simple folk, you see, though they were happy. But we do not say the words of cheer much any more. All smiles have become archaic. Given a description such as this one tends to make certain assumptions. Given a description such as this one tends to look next for the King, mounted on a splendid stallion and surrounded by his noble knights, or perhaps in a golden litter borne by great-muscled slaves. But there was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians. I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few. As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb. Yet I repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. They were not less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy. How can I tell you about the people of Omelas? They were not naive and happy children – though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you. Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all. For instance, how about technology? I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive. In the middle category, however – that of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc. — they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains,. washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter. As you like it. I incline to think that people from towns up and down the coast have been coming in to Omelas during the last days before the Festival on very fast little trains and double-decked trams, and that the train station of Omelas is actually the handsomest building in town, though plainer than the magnificent Farmers’ Market. But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas – at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine souffles to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh. Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the glory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all. One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt. But what else should there be? I thought at first there were no drugs, but that is puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very arcana and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond all belief; and it is not habit-forming. For more modest tastes I think there ought to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of victory, surely, the celebration of courage. But as we did without clergy, let us do without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial. A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer; this is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life. I really don’t think many of them need to take drooz.

Most of the processions have reached the Green Fields by now. A marvelous smell of cooking goes forth from the red and blue tents of the provisioners. The faces of small children are amiably sticky; in the benign grey beard of a man a couple of crumbs of rich pastry are entangled. The youths and girls have mounted their horses and are beginning to group around the starting line of the course. An old woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men, wear her flowers in their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute. People pause to listen, and they smile, but they do not speak to him, for he never ceases playing and never sees them, his dark eyes wholly rapt in the sweet, thin magic of the tune.

He finishes, and slowly lowers his hands holding the wooden flute.

As if that little private silence were the signal, all at once a trumpet sounds from the pavilion near the starting line: imperious, melancholy, piercing. The horses rear on their slender legs, and some of them neigh in answer. Sober-faced, the young riders stroke the horses’ necks and soothe them, whispering, “Quiet, quiet, there my beauty, my hope. . . .” They begin to form in rank along the starting line. The crowds along the racecourse are like a field of grass and flowers in the wind. The Festival of Summer has begun.

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits haunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes-the child has no understanding of time or interval – sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually. They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there.

They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see the child are young people, though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.

The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there snivelling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.

Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible? But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Plato (c. 428 – 348 B.C.)


PlatoPlato (c. 428 – 348 B.C.) was a hugely important Greek philosopher and mathematician from the Socratic (or Classical) period.

He is perhaps the best known, most widely studied and most influential philosopher of all time. Together with his mentorSocrates, and his student, Aristotle, he provided the main opposition to the Materialist view of the world represented by Democritus and Epicurus, and he helped to lay the foundations of the whole of Western Philosophy.

Plato was the founder of the famous Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the western world. The philosophical school which he developed at the Academy was known as Platonism (and its later off-shoot, Neo-Platonism).


Plato was born in Athens (or possibly in Aegina, according to some sources) some time between 429 and 423 B.C. (most modern scholars use estimate of 428 or 427 B.C.) He was possibly originally named Aristocles after his grandfather, and only later dubbed “Plato” or “Platon” (meaning “broad”) on account of the breadth of his eloquence, or of his wide forehead, or possibly on account of his generally robust figure.

His father was Ariston (who may have traced his descent from Codrus, the last of the legendary kings of Athens); his mother was Perictione (who was descended from the famous Athenian lawmaker and poet Solon, and whose family also boasted prominent figures of the oligarchic regime of Athens known as the Thirty Tyrants). He had two brothers, Adeimantus and Glaucon, and a sister, Potone. Plato later introduced several of his distinguished relatives into his dialogues, indicating considerable family pride.

When Ariston died early in Plato’s childhood, his mother married her own uncle, Pyrilampes, who was also a friend of Pericles (the leader of the democratic faction in Athens), and who had served many times as an ambassador to the Persian court. Together, they had another son, Antiphon, who was therefore Plato’s half-brother.

Coming as he did from one of the wealthiest and most politically active families in Athens, Plato must have been instructed in grammarmusic and gymnastics by the most distinguished teachers of his time, and certainly his quickness of mind and modesty were widely praised. He had also attended courses of philosophy and was acquainted with Cratylus, a disciple of Heraclitus, before meeting Socrates. This life-changing event occurred when Plato was about twenty years old, and the intercourse between master and pupil probably lasted eight or ten years. As a youth he had loved to write poetry and tragedies, but burnt them all after he became a student of Socrates and turned to philosophy in earnest. It is plain that no influence on Plato was greater than that of Socrates.

Plato was in military service from 409 to 404 B.C. and, for a time, he imagined a life in public affairs for himself. He was even invited to join the administration of the regime of the Thirty Tyrants (through the connection with his uncle, Charmides, who was himself a member), but he was soon repelled by their violent acts and backed out. In 403 B.C.democracy was restored to Athens, and Plato had renewed hopes of entering politics again, although the excesses of Athenian political life in general persuaded him to hold back. The execution of Socrates in 399 B.C. had a profound effect on him, and he decided to have nothing further to do with politics in Athens.

After Socrates‘ death, he joined a group of Socratic disciples who had gathered in the Greek city of Megara under the leadership of Euclid of Megara, before leaving and travelling quite widely in ItalySicilyEgypt and Cyrene. During his time in Italy, he also studied with students of Pythagoras and came to appreciate the value of mathematics.

When he returned to Athens in about 385 or 387 B.C., Plato founded the Academy(or Akademia), one of the earliest and most famous organized schools in western civilization and the protoype for later universities, on a plot of land containing a sacred grove just outside the city walls of ancient Athens, which had once belonged to the Athenian hero Akademos. Plato had been bitterly disappointed with the standards displayed by those in public office, and his intention was to train young men in philosophy and the sciences in order to create better statesmen, as well as to continue the work of his former teacher, Socrates. Among Plato’s more noteworthy students at the Academy were Aristotle, Xenocrates (396 – 314 B.C.), Speusippus(407 – 339 B.C.) and Theophrastus (c. 371 – 287 B.C.).

Except for two more rather ill-advised and ill-fated trips to Syracuse in Sicily in 367 B.C. and 361 B.C. to tutor the young ruler Dionysius II, Plato presided over his Academy from 387 B.C. until his death in 347 B.C., aged about 80. He was supposedly buried in the school grounds, although his grave has never been discovered.

On Plato’s death, his nephew Speusippus succeeded him as head of the school (perhaps because his star pupil Aristotle’s ideas had by that time diverged too far from Plato’s). The school continued to operate for almost 900 years, until A.D. 529, when it was closed by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, who saw it as a threat to the propagation of Christianity.


Plato is perhaps the first philosopher whose complete works are still available to us. He wrote no systematic treatises giving his views, but rather he wrote a number (about 35, although the authenticity of at least some of these remains in doubt) of superb dialogues, written in the form of conversations, a form which permitted him to develop the Socratic method of question and answer. In his dialogues, Plato discussed every kind of philosophical idea, including Ethics (with discussion of the nature of virtue), Metaphysics (where topics include immortality, man, mind, and Realism), Political Philosophy (where topics such as censorship and the ideal state are discussed), Philosophy of Religion (considering topics such as Atheism, Dualism and Pantheism), Epistemology (where he looked at ideas such as a priori knowledge and Rationalism), the Philosophy of Mathematics and the Theory of Art(especially dance, music, poetry, architecture and drama).

We have no material evidence about exactly when Plato wrote each of his dialogues, nor the extent to which some might have been later revised or rewritten, nor even whether all or part of them were ever “published” or made widely available. In addition to the ideas they contained, though, his writings are also considered superb pieces of literature in their own right, in terms of the mastery of language, the power of indicating character, the sense of situation, and the keen eye for both tragic and comic aspects.

None of the dialogues contain Plato himself as a character, and so he does not actually declare that anything asserted in them are specifically his own views. The characters in the dialogues are generally historical, with Socrates usually as the protagonist (particularly in the early dialogues). It is generally thought that the views expressed by the character of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues were views that Socrates himself actually held, and the works had the effect of gradually rehabilitating Socrates‘s rather tarnished image among Athenians in the wake of his death. As time went on, though, the dialogues began to deal more with subjects that interested Plato himself, rather than merely providing a vehicle for the ideas of Socrates. It seems likely that Plato’s main intention in his dialogues was more to teach his students to think for themselves and to find their own answers to the big questions, rather than to blindly follow his own opinions (or those of Socrates).

Central to Plato’s Metaphysics is his theory of Platonic Realism, which inverts the common sense intuition about what is knowable and what is real. Confusingly, this is also known as Platonic Idealism, and indeed Idealism may be a better description. Plato believed that universals (those properties of an object which can exist in more than one place at the same time e.g. the quality of “redness”) do in fact exist and are real. However, they exist in a different way than ordinary physical objects exist, in a sort of ghostly mode of existence, unseen and unfelt, outside of space and time, but not at any spatial or temporal distance from people’s bodies (a type of Dualism).

Part and parcel of Plato’s Platonic Realism is his theory of Forms or Ideas, which refers to his belief that the material world as it seems to us is not the real world, but only a shadow or a poor copy of the real world. This is based on Plato’s concept (or Socrates’ through Plato) of hylomorphism, the idea that substances are forms inhering in matter. He held that substance is composed of matter and form, although not as any kind of a mixture or amalgam, but composed homogeneously together such that no matter can exist without form (or form without matter). Thus, pure matter and pure form can never be perceived, only comprehended abstractly by the intellect.

Forms, roughly speaking, are the pure and unchanging archetypes or abstract representations of universals and of all the things we see around us, and they are in fact the true basis of reality. These ideal Forms are instantiated by one or many different particulars, which are essentially material copies of the Forms, and make up the world we perceive around us. Plato was therefore one of the first Essentialists in that he believed that all things have essences or attributes that make an object or substance what it fundamentally is. According to Plato, true knowledge or intelligence is the ability to grasp the world of Forms with one’s mind, even though his evidence for the existence of Forms is intuitive only.

This idea was most famously captured and illustrated in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, from his best-known work, “The Republic”. He represented man’s condition as being chained in the darkness of a cave, with only the false light of a fire behind him. He can perceive the outside world solely by watching the shadows on the wall in front of him, not realizing that this view of existence is limited, wrong or in any way lacking (after all, it is all he knows). Plato imagined what would occur if some of the chained men were suddenly released from this bondage and let out into the world, to encounter the divine light of the sun and perceive “true” reality. He described how some people would immediately be frightened and want to return to the familiar dark existence of the cave, while the more enlightened would look at the sun and finally see the world as it truly is. If they were then to return to the cave and try to explain what they had seen, they would be mocked mercilessly and called fanciful, even mad. In the allegory, Plato saw the outside world, which the cave’s inhabitants glimpsed only in a second-hand way, as the timeless realm of Forms, where genuine reality resides. The shadows on the wall represent the world we see around us, which we assume to be real, but which in fact is a mere imitation of the real thing.

Plato’s theory of Forms was essentially an attempt to solve the dichotomy between Parmenides’ view (that there is no real change or multiplicity in the world, and that reality is one) and that of Heraclitus (that motion and multiplicity are real, and that permanence is only apparent) by means of a metaphysical compromise. Plato himself, though, was well aware of the limitations of his theory, and in particular he later concocted the “Third Man Argument” against his own theory: if a Form and a particular are alike, then there must be another (third) thing by possession of which they are alike, leading to an infinite regression. In a later (rather unsatisfactory) version of the theory, he tried to circumvent this objection by positing that particulars do not actually exist as such: rather, they “mime” the Forms, merely appearing to be particulars.

In the “Timaeus”, Plato gave his account of the natural sciences (physics, astronomy, chemistry and biology) and the creation of the universe by the Demiurge. Unlike the creation by the God of medieval theologians, Plato’s Demiurge did not create out of nothing, but rather ordered the cosmos out of already-existing chaotic elemental matter, imitating the eternal Forms. Plato took the four elements (fire, air, water and earth), which he proclaimed to be composed of various aggregates of triangles, and made various compounds of these into what he called the Body of the Universe.

In recent years, more emphasis has been placed on Plato’s unwritten teachings, which were passed on orally to his students and not included in the dialogues (on several occasions, Plato stressed that the written transmission of knowledge was faulty and inferior to the spoken logos). We have at least some idea of this from reports by his students, Aristotle and others, and from the continuity between his teachings and the interpretations of Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists. One recurring theme is that the first principle of everything, including the causation of good and of evil and of the Forms themselves, is the One (the cause of the essence of the Forms). It can be argued, then, that Plato’s concept of God affirms Monotheism, although he also talked of an Indefinite Duality (which he also called Large and Small).

In Epistemology, although some have imputed to Plato the remarkably modern analytic view that knowledge is justified true belief, Plato more often associated knowledge with the apprehension of unchanging Forms and their relationships to one another. He argued that knowledge is always proportionate to the realm from which it is gained, so that, if one derives an account of something experientially then (because the world of sense is always in flux) the views attained will be mere opinions. On the other hand, if one derives an account of something by way of the non-sensible Forms, then the views attained will be pure and unchanging (because the Forms are unchanging too). In several dialogues, Plato also floated the idea that knowledge is a matter of recollection (“anamnesis”), and not of learning, observation or study. Thus, knowledge is not empirical, but essentially comes from divine insight.

To a large extent, it is Plato who is responsible for the modern view of the Sophist as a greedy and power-seeking instructor who uses rhetorical sleight-of-hand and ambiguities of language in order to deceive, or to support fallacious reasoning. He was at great pains in his dialogues to exonerate Socrates from accusations of Sophism. Plato, and Aristotle after him, also believed in a kind of Moral Universalism(or Moral Absolutism), opposing the Moral Relativism of the Sophists.

In Ethics, Plato had a teleological or goal-orientated worldview, and the aim of his Ethics was therefore to outline the conditions under which a society might function harmoniously. He considered virtue to be an excellence of the soul, and, insofar as the soul has several components (e.g. reason, passions, spirit), there will be several components of its excellence: the excellence of reason is wisdom; the excellence of the passions are attributes such as courage; and the excellence of the spirit is temperance. Finally, justice is that excellence which consists in a harmonious relation of the other three parts. He believed, then, that virtue was a sort of knowledge (the knowledge of good and evil) that is required to reach the ultimate good (or eudaimonia), which is what all human desires and actions aim to achieve, and as such he was an early proponent of Eudaimonism or Virtue Ethics.

Plato’s philosophical views had many societal and political implications, especially on the idea of an ideal state or government (much influenced by the model of the severe society of Sparta), although there is some discrepancy between his early and later views on Political Philosophy. Some of his most famous doctrines are contained in the “Republic” (the earliest example of a Utopia, dating from his middle period), as well as in the later “Statesman” and the “Laws”.

In general terms, Plato drew parallels between the tripartite structure of the individual soul and body (“appetite-stomach”, “spirit-chest” and “reason-head”) and the tripartite class structure of societies. He divided human beings up, based on their innate intelligence, strength and courage, into: the Productive (Workers), labourers, farmers, merchants, etc, which corresponds to the “appetite-stomach”; the Protective (Warriors), the adventurous, strong and brave of the armed forces, which corresponds to the “spirit-chest”; and the Governing (Rulers or Philosopher Kings), the intelligent, rational, self-controlled and wise, who are well suited to make decisions for the community, which corresponds to the “reason-head”. The Philosophers and the Warriors together are thus the Guardians of Plato’s ideal state.

Plato concluded that reason and wisdom (rather than rhetoric and persuasion) should govern, thus effectively rejecting the principles of Athenian democracy (as it existed in his day) as only a few are fit to rule. A large part of the “Republic” then addresses how the educational system should be set up (his important contribution to the Philosophy of Education) to produce these Philosopher Kings, who should have their reason, will and desires united in virtuous harmony (a moderate love for wisdom, and the courage to act according to that wisdom). The Philosopher King image has been used by many after Plato to justify their personal political beliefs.

He also made some interesting arguments about states and rulers. He argued that it is better to be ruled by a tyrant (since then there is only one person committing bad deeds) than by a bad democracy (since all the people are now responsible for the bad actions). He predicted that a state which is made up of different kinds of souls will tend to decline from an aristocracy (rule by the best) to a timocracy (rule by the honourable), then to an oligarchy (rule by the few), then to a democracy (rule by the people) and finally to tyranny (rule by a single tyrant).

In the “Laws”, probably Plato’s last work and a work of enormous length and complexity, he concerned himself with designing a genuinely practicable (if admittedly not ideal) form of government, rather than with what a best possible state might be like. He discussed the empirical details of statecraft, fashioning rules to meet the multitude of contingencies that are apt to arise in the “real world” of human affairs, and it marks a rather grim and terrifying culmination of the totalitarian tendencies in his earlier political thought.

Plato’s views on Aesthetics were somewhat compromised and he had something of a love-hate relationship with the arts. He believed that aesthetically appealing objects were beautiful in and of themselves, and that they should incorporate proportionharmony and unity among their parts. As a youth he had been a poet, and he remained a fine literary stylist and a great story-teller. However, he found the arts threatening in that they are powerful shapers of character. Therefore, to trainand protect ideal citizens for an ideal society, he believed that the arts must be strictly controlled, and he proposed excluding poets, playwrights and musicians from his ideal Republic, or at least severely censoring what they produced. He also argued that art is merely imitation of the objects and events of ordinary life, effectively a copy of a copy of an ideal Form. Art is therefore even more of an illusion than is ordinary experience, and so should be considered at best entertainment, and at worst a dangerous delusion.

.Plato’s consideration of epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, comes mainly in the “Theaetetus”. In it, he (through the person of Socrates) considers three different theses – that knowledge is perception, that knowledge is true judgement, and that knowledge is true judgement together with an account – refuting each of them in turn, without leaving us with any definitive conclusion or solution. One is left, though, with the impression that Plato’s own view is probably that what constitutes knowledge is actually a combination or synthesis of all these separate theses.

Although the study of Plato’s thought continued with the Neo-Platonists, his reputation was completely eclipsed during Medieval times by that of his most famous student, Aristotle. This is mainly because Plato’s original writings were essentially lostto Western civilization until they were brought from Constantinople in the century before its fall by the Greek Neo-Platonist George Gemistos Plethon (c. 1355 – 1452). The Medieval Scholastic philosophers, therefore, did not have access to the works of Plato, nor the knowledge of Greek needed to read them. Only during the Renaissance, with the general resurgence of interest in classical civilization, did knowledge of Plato’s philosophy become widespread again in the West, and many of the greatest early modern scientists and artists who broke with Scholasticism saw Plato’s philosophy as the basis for progress in the arts and sciences. By the 19th Century, Plato’s reputation was restored, and at least on par with Aristotle’s.

Plato’s influence has been especially strong in mathematics and the sciences. Although he made no important mathematical discoveries himself, his belief that mathematics provides the finest training for the mind was extremely important in the development of the subject (over the door of the Academy was written, “Let no one unversed in geometry enter here”). He concentrated on the idea of “proof”, insisting on accurate definitions and clear hypotheses, all of which laid the foundations for the systematic approach to mathematics of Euclid (who flourished around 300 B.C.)

However, Plato also helped to distinguish between pure and applied mathematics by widening the gap between “arithmetic” (now called Number Theory) and “logistic” (now called Arithmetic). Plato’s resurgence in the Modern era further inspired some of the greatest advances in Logic since Aristotle, primarily through Gottlob Frege and his followers Kurt Gödel (1906 – 1978), Alonzo Church (1903 – 1995) and Alfred Tarski (1901 – 1983).

Plato’s name is also attached to the “Platonic solids” (convex regular polyhedrons), especially in the “Timaeus”, in which the cube, tetrahedron, octahedron, and icosahedron are given as the shapes of the atoms of earth, fire, air and water, with the fifth Platonic solid, the dodecahedron, being his model for the whole universe. Plato’s beliefs as regards the universe were that the stars, planets, Sun and Moon all move round the Earth in crystalline spheres. The sphere of the Moon was closestto the Earth, then the sphere of the Sun, then Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and furthest away was the sphere of the stars. He believed that the Moon shines by reflected sunlight.

Dante and the Lobster | Samuel Beckett



It was morning and Belacqua was stuck in the first of the canti in the moon. He was so bogged that he could move neither backward nor forward. Blissful Beatrice was there, Dante also, and she explained the spots on the moon to him. She shewed him in the first place where he was at fault, then she put up her own explanation. She had it from God, therefore he could rely on its being accurate in every particular. All he had to do was to follow her step by step. Part one, the refutation, was plain sailing. She made her point clearly, she said what she had to say without fuss or loss of time. But part two, the demonstration, was so dense that Belacqua could not make head or tail of it. The disproof, the reproof, that was patent. But then came the proof, a rapid shorthand of the real facts, and Belacqua was bogged indeed. Bored also, impatient to get on to Piccarda. Still he pored over the enigma, he would not concede himself conquered, he would understand at least the meanings of the words, the order in which they were spoken and the nature of the satisfaction that they conferred on the misinformed poet, so that when they were ended he was refreshed and could raise his heavy head, intending to return thanks and make formal retraction of his old opinion.

   He was still running his brain against this impenetrable passage when he heard midday strike. At once he switched his mind off its task. He scooped his fingers under the book and shovelled it back till it lay wholly on his palms. The Divine Comedy face upward on the lectern of his palms. Thus disposed he raised it under his nose and there he slammed it shut. He held it aloft for a time, squinting at it angrily, pressing the boards inwards with the heels of his hands. Then he laid it aside.

   He leaned back in his chair to feel his mind subside and the itch of this mean quodlibet die down. Nothing could be done until his mind got better and was still, which gradually it did and was. Then he ventured to consider what he had to do next. There was always something that one had to do next. Three large obligations presented themselves. First lunch, then the lobster, then the Italian lesson. That would do to be going on with. After the Italian lesson he had no very clear idea. No doubt some niggling curriculum had been drawn up by someone for the late afternoon and evening, but he did not know what. In any case it did not matter. What did matter was: one, lunch; two, the lobster; three, the Italian lesson. That was more than enough to be going on with.

   Lunch, to come off at all, was a very nice affair. If his lunch was to be enjoyable, and it could be very enjoyable indeed, he must be left in absolute tranquillity to prepare it. But if he were disturbed now, if some brisk tattler were to come bouncing in now big with a big idea or a petition, he might just as well not eat at all, for the food would turn to bitterness on his palate, or, worse again, taste of nothing. He must be left strictly alone, he must have complete quiet and privacy, to prepare the food for his lunch.

   The first thing to do was to lock the door. Now nobody could come at him. He deployed an old Herald and smoothed it out on the table. The rather handsome face of McCabe the assassin stared up at him. Then he lit the gas-ring and unhooked the square flat toaster, asbestos grill, from its nail and set it precisely on the flame. He found he had to lower the flame. Toast must not on any account be done too rapidly. For bread to be toasted as it ought, through and through, it must be done on a mild steady flame. Otherwise you only charred the outside and left the pith as sodden as before. If there was one thing he abominated more than another it was to feel his teeth meet in a bathos of pith and dough. And it was so easy to do the thing properly. So, he thought, having regulated the flow and adjusted the grill, by the time I have the bread cut that will be just right. Now the long barrel-loaf came out of its biscuit-tin and had its end evened off on the face of McCabe. Two inexorable drives with the breadsaw and a pair of neat rounds of raw bread, the main elements of his meal, lay before him, awaiting his pleasure. The stump of the loaf went back into prison, the crumbs, as though there were no such thing as a sparrow in the wide world, were swept in a fever away, and the slices snatched up and carried to the grill. All these preliminaries were very hasty and impersonal.

   It was now that real skill began to be required, it was at this point that the average person began to make a hash of the entire proceedings. He laid his cheek against the soft of the bread, it was spongy and warm, alive. But he would very soon take that plush feel off it, by God but he would very quickly take that fat white look off its face. He lowered the gas a suspicion and plaqued one flabby slab plump down on the glowing fabric, but very pat and precise, so that the whole resembled the Japanese flag. Then on top, there not being room for the two to do evenly side by side, and if you did not do them evenly you might just as well save yourself the trouble of doing them at all, the other round was set to warm. When the first candidate was done, which was only when it was black through and through, it changed places with its comrade, so that now it in its turn lay on top, done to a dead end, black and smoking, waiting till as much could be said of the other.

   For the tiller of the field the thing was simple, he had it from his mother. The spots were Cain with his truss of thorns, dispossessed, cursed from the earth, fugitive and vagabond. The moon was that countenance fallen and branded, seared with the first stigma of God’s pity, that an outcast might not die quickly. It was a mix-up in the mind of the tiller, but that did not matter. It had been good enough for his mother, it was good enough for him.

   Belacqua on his knees before the flame, poring over the grill, controlled every phase of the broiling. It took time, but if a thing was worth doing at all it was worth doing well, that was a true saying. Long before the end the room was full of smoke and the reek of burning. He switched off the gas, when all that human care and skill could do had been done, and restored the toaster to its nail. This was an act of dilapidation, for it seared a great weal in the paper. This was hooliganism pure and simple. What the hell did he care? Was it his wall? The same hopeless paper had been there fifty years. It was livid with age. It could not be disimproved.

   Next a thick paste of Savora, salt and Cayenne on each round, well worked in while the pores were still open with the heat. No butter, God forbid, just a good foment of mustard and salt and pepper on each round. Butter was a blunder, it made the toast soggy. Buttered toast was all right for Senior Fellows and Salvationists, for such as had nothing but false teeth in their heads. It was no good at all to a fairly strong young rose like Belacqua. This meal that he was at such pains to make ready, he would devour it with a sense of rapture and victory, it would be like smiting the sledded Polacks on the ice. He would snap at it with closed eyes, he would gnash it into a pulp, he would vanquish it utterly with his fangs. Then the anguish of pungency, the pang of the spices, as each mouthful died, scorching his palate, bringing tears.

   But he was not yet all set, there was yet much to be done. He had burnt his offering, he had not fully dressed it. Yes, he had put the horse behind the tumbrel.

   He clapped the toasted rounds together, he brought them smartly together like cymbals, they clave the one to the other on the viscid salve of Savora. Then he wrapped them up for the time being in any old sheet of paper. Then he made himself ready for the road.

   Now the great thing was to avoid being accosted. To be stopped at this stage and have conversational nuisance committed all over him would be a disaster. His whole being was straining forward towards the joy in store. If he were accosted now he might just as well fling his lunch into the gutter and walk straight back home. Sometimes his hunger, more of mind, I need scarcely say, than of body, for this meal amounted to such a frenzy that he would not have hesitated to strike any man rash enough to buttonhole and baulk him, he would have shouldered him out of his path without ceremony. Woe betide the meddler who crossed him when his mind was really set on this meal.

   He threaded his way rapidly, his head bowed, through a familiar labyrinth of lanes and suddenly dived into a little family grocery. In the shop they were not surprised. Most days, about this hour, he shot in off the street in this way.

   The slab of cheese was prepared. Separated since morning from the piece, it was only waiting for Belacqua to call and take it. Gorgonzola cheese. He knew a man who came from Gorgonzola, his name was Angelo. He had been born in Nice but all his youth had been spent in Gorgonzola. He knew where to look for it. Every day it was there, in the same corner, waiting to be called for. They were very decent obliging people.

   He looked sceptically at the cut of cheese. He turned it over on its back to see was the other side any better. The other side was worse. They had laid it better side up, they had practised that little deception. Who shall blame them? He rubbed it. It was sweating. That was something. He stooped and smelt it. A faint fragrance of corruption. What good was that? He didn’t want fragrance, he wasn’t a bloody gourmet, he wanted a good stench. What he wanted was a good green stenching rotten lump of Gorgonzola cheese, alive, and by God he would have it.

   He looked fiercely at the grocer.

   “What’s that?” he demanded.

   The grocer writhed.

   “Well?” demanded Belacqua, he was without fear when roused, “is that the best you can do?”

   “In the length and breadth of Dublin” said the grocer “you won’t find a rottener bit this minute.”

   Belacqua was furious. The impudent dogsbody, for two pins he would assault him.

   “It won’t do” he cried “do you hear me, it won’t do at all. I won’t have it.” He ground his teeth.

   The grocer, instead of simply washing his hands like Pilate, flung out his arms in a wild crucified gesture of supplication. Sullenly Belacqua undid his packet and slipped the cadaverous tablet of cheese between the hard cold black boards of the toast. He stumped to the door where he whirled round however.

   “You heard me?” he cried.

   “Sir” said the grocer. This was not a question, nor yet an expression of acquiescence. The tone in which it was let fall made it quite impossible to know what was in the man’s mind. It was a most ingenious riposte.

   “I tell you” said Belacqua with great heat “this won’t do at all. If you can’t do better than this” he raised the hand that held the packet “I shall be obliged to go for my cheese elsewhere. Do you mark me?”

   “Sir” said the grocer.

   He came to the threshold of his store and watched the indignant customer hobble away. Belacqua had a spavined gait, his feet were in ruins, he suffered with them almost continuously. Even in the night they took no rest, or next to none. For then the cramps took over from the corns and hammer-toes, and carried on. So that he would press the fringes of his feet desperately against the end-rail of the bed or, better again, reach down with his hand and drag them up and back towards the instep. Skill and patience could disperse the pain, but there it was, complicating his night’s rest.

   The grocer, without closing his eyes or taking them off the receding figure, blew his nose in the skirt of his apron. Being a warm-hearted human man he felt sympathy and pity for this queer customer who always looked ill and dejected. But at the same time he was a small tradesman, don’t forget that, with a small tradesman’s sense of personal dignity and what was what. Thruppence, he cast it up, thruppence worth of cheese per day, one and a tanner per week. No, he would fawn on no man for that, no, not on the best in the land. He had his pride.

   Stumbling along by devious ways towards the lowly public where he was expected, in the sense that the entry of his grotesque person would provoke no comment or laughter, Belacqua gradually got the upper hand of his choler. Now that lunch was as good as a fait accompli, because the incontinent bosthoons of his own class, itching to pass on a big idea or inflict an appointment, were seldom at large in this shabby quarter of the city, he was free to consider items two and three, the lobster and the lesson, in closer detail.

   At a quarter to three he was due at the school. Say five to three. The public closed, the fishmonger reopened, at half-past two. Assuming then that his lousy old bitch of an aunt had given her order in good time that morning, with strict injunctions that it should be ready and waiting so that her blackguard boy should on no account be delayed when he called for it first thing in the afternoon, it would be time enough if he left the public as it closed, he could remain on till the last moment. Benissimo. He had half-a-crown. That was two pints of draught anyway and perhaps a bottle to wind up with. Their bottled stout was particularly excellent and well up. And he would still be left with enough coppers to buy a Herald and take a tram if he felt tired or was pinched for time. Always assuming, of course, that the lobster was all ready to be handed over. God damn these tradesmen, he thought, you can never rely on them. He had not done an exercise but that did not matter. His Professoressa was so charming and remarkable. Signorina Adriana Ottolenghi! He did not believe it possible for a woman to be more intelligent or better informed than the little Ottolenghi. So he had set her on a pedestal in his mind, apart from other women. She had said last day that they would read Il Cinque Maggio together. But she would not mind if he told her, as he proposed to, in Italian, he would frame a shining phrase on his way from the public, that he would prefer to postpone the Cinque Maggio to another occasion. Manzoni was an old woman, Napoleon was another. Napoleone di mezza calzetta, fa l’amore a Giacominetta. Why did he think of Manzoni as an old woman? Why did he do him that injustice? Pellico was another. They were all old maids, suffragettes. He must ask his Signorina where he could have received that impression, that the 19th century in Italy was full of old hens trying to cluck like Pindar. Carducci was another. Also about the spots on the moon. If she could not tell him there and then she would make it up, only too gladly, against the next time. Everything was all set now and in order. Bating, of course, the lobster, which had to remain an incalculable factor. He must just hope for the best. And expect the worst, he thought gaily, diving into the public, as usual.

   Belacqua drew near to the school, quite happy, for all had gone swimmingly. The lunch had been a notable success, it would abide as a standard in his mind. Indeed he could not imagine its ever being superseded. And such a pale soapy piece of cheese to prove so strong! He must only conclude that he had been abusing himself all these years in relating the strength of cheese directly to its greenness. We live and learn, that was a true saying. Also his teeth and jaws had been in heaven, splinters of vanquished toast spraying forth at each gnash. It was like eating glass. His mouth burned and ached with the exploit. Then the food had been further spiced by the intelligence, transmitted in a low tragic voice across the counter by Oliver the improver, that the Malahide murderer’s petition for mercy, signed by half the land, having been rejected, the man must swing at dawn in Mountjoy and nothing could save him. Ellis the hangman was even now on his way. Belacqua, tearing at the sandwich and swilling the precious stout, pondered on McCabe in his cell.

   The lobster was ready after all, the man handed it over instanter, and with such a pleasant smile. Really a little bit of courtesy and goodwill went a long way in this world. A smile and a cheerful word from a common working-man and the face of the world was brightened. And it was so easy, a mere question of muscular control.

   “Lepping” he said cheerfully, handing it over.

   “Lepping?” said Belacqua. What on earth was that?

   “Lepping fresh, sir” said the man, “fresh in this morning.”

   Now Belacqua, on the analogy of mackerel and other fish that he had heard described as lepping fresh when they had been taken but an hour or two previously, supposed the man to mean that the lobster had very recently been killed.

   Signorina Adriana Ottolenghi was waiting in the little front room off the hall, which Belacqua was naturally inclined to think of rather as the vestibule. That was her room, the Italian room. On the same side, but at the back, was the French room. God knows where the German room was. Who cared about the German room anyway?

   He hung up his coat and hat, laid the long knobby brown-paper parcel on the hall-table, and went presently in to the Ottolenghi.

   After about half-an-hour of this and that obiter, she complimented him on his grasp of the language.

   “You make rapid progress” she said in her ruined voice.

   There subsisted as much of the Ottolenghi as might be expected to of the person of a lady of a certain age who had found being young and beautiful and pure more of a bore than anything else.

   Belacqua, dissembling his great pleasure, laid open the moon enigma.

   “Yes” she said “I know the passage. It is a famous teaser. Off-hand I cannot tell you, but I will look it up when I get home.”

   The sweet creature! She would look it up in her big Dante when she got home. What a woman!

   “It occurred to me” she said “apropos of I don’t know what, that you might do worse than make up Dante’s rare movements of compassion in Hell. That used to be” — her past tenses were always sorrowful — “a favourite question.”

   He assumed an expression of profundity.

   “In that connexion” he said “I recall one superb pun anyway:

          ‘qui vive la pietà quando è ben morta. . .’ ”

   She said nothing.

   “Is it not a great phrase?” he gushed.

   She said nothing.

   “Now” he said like a fool “I wonder how you could translate that?”

   Still she said nothing. Then:

   “Do you think” she murmured “it is absolutely necessary to translate it?”

   Sounds as of conflict were borne in from the hall. Then silence. A knuckle tambourined on the door, it flew open and lo it was Mlle Glain, the French instructress, clutching her cat, her eyes out on stalks, in a state of the greatest agitation.

   “Oh” she gasped “forgive me. I intrude, but what was in the bag?”

   “The bag?” said the Ottolenghi.

   Mlle Glain took a French step forward.

   “The parcel” she buried her face in the cat “the parcel in the hall.”

   Belacqua spoke up composedly.

   “Mine” he said, “a fish.”

   He did not know the French for lobster. Fish would do very well. Fish had been good enough for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. It was good enough for Mlle Glain.

   “Oh” said Mlle Glain, inexpressibly relieved, “I caught him in the nick of time.” She administered a tap to the cat. “He would have tore it to flitters.”

   Belacqua began to feel a little anxious.

   “Did he actually get at it?” he said.

   “No no” said Mlle Glain “I caught him just in time. But I did not know” with a blue-stocking snigger “what it might be, so I thought I had better come and ask.”

   Base prying bitch.

   The Ottolenghi was faintly amused.

   “Puisqu’il n’y a pas de mal . . .” she said with great fatigue and elegance.

   “Heureusement” it was clear at once that Mlle Glain was devout “heureusement.”

   Chastening the cat with little skelps she took herself off. The grey hairs of her maidenhead screamed at Belacqua. A devout, virginal blue-stocking, honing after a penny’s worth of scandal.

   “Where were we?” said Belacqua.

   But Neapolitan patience has its limits.

   “Where are we ever?” cried the Ottolenghi “where we were, as we were.”

   Belacqua drew near to the house of his aunt. Let us call it Winter, that dusk may fall now and a moon rise. At the corner of the street a horse was down and a man sat on its head. I know, thought Belacqua, that that is considered the right thing to do. But why? A lamplighter flew by on his bike, tilting with his pole at the standards, jousting a little yellow light into the evening. A poorly dressed couple stood in the bay of a pretentious gateway, she sagging against the railings, her head lowered, he standing facing her. He stood up close to her, his hands dangled by his sides. Where we were, thought Belacqua, as we were. He walked on gripping his parcel. Why not piety and pity both, even down below? Why not mercy and Godliness together? A little mercy in the stress of sacrifice, a little mercy to rejoice against judgment. He thought of Jonah and the gourd and the pity of a jealous God on Nineveh. And poor McCabe, he would get it in the neck at dawn. What was he doing now, how was he feeling? He would relish one more meal, one more night.

   His aunt was in the garden, tending whatever flowers die at that time of year. She embraced him and together they went down into the bowels of the earth, into the kitchen in the basement. She took the parcel and undid it and abruptly the lobster was on the table, on the oilcloth, discovered.

   “They assured me it was fresh” said Belacqua.

   Suddenly he saw the creature move, this neuter creature. Definitely it changed its position. His hand flew to his mouth.

   “Christ!” he said “it’s alive.”

   His aunt looked at the lobster. It moved again. It made a faint nervous act of life on the oilcloth. They stood above it, looking down on it, exposed cruciform on the oilcloth. It shuddered again. Belacqua felt he would be sick.

   “My God” he whined “it’s alive, what’ll we do?” The aunt simply had to laugh. She bustled off to the pantry to fetch her smart apron, leaving him goggling down at the lobster, and came back with it on and her sleeves rolled up, all business.

   “Well” she said “it is to be hoped so, indeed.”

   “All this time” muttered Belacqua. Then, suddenly aware of her hideous equipment: “What are you going to do?” he cried.

   “Boil the beast” she said, “what else?”

   “But it’s not dead” protested Belacqua “you can’t boil it like that.”

   She looked at him in astonishment. Had he taken leave of his senses?

   “Have sense” she said sharply, “lobsters are always boiled alive. They must be.” She caught up the lobster and laid it on its back. It trembled. “They feel nothing” she said.

   In the depths of the sea it had crept into the cruel pot. For hours, in the midst of its enemies, it had breathed secretly. It had survived the Frenchwoman’s cat and his witless clutch. Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath.

   Belacqua looked at the old parchment of her face, grey in the dim kitchen.

   “You make a fuss” she said angrily “and upset me and then lash into it for your dinner.”

   She lifted the lobster clear of the table. It had about thirty seconds to live.

   Well, thought Belacqua, it’s a quick death, God help us all.

   It is not.

Socrates (464 – 399 B.C.)


socratesSocrates (c. 469 – 399 B.C.) was a hugely important Greek philosopher from the Classical period (often known as the Socratic period in his honour). Unlike most of the Pre-Socratic philosophers who came before him, who were much more interested in establishing how the world works, Socrates was more concerned with how people should behave, and so was perhaps the first major philosopher of Ethics.



Socrates was born, as far as we know, in Athens around 469 B.C. Our knowledge of his life is sketchy and derives mainly from three contemporary sources, the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon (c. 431 – 355 B.C.), and the plays of Aristophanes (c. 456 – 386 B.C.). According to Plato, Socrates’ father was Sophroniscus (a sculptor and stonemason) and his mother was Phaenarete (a midwife). His family was respectable in descent, but humble in means. He appears to have had no more than an ordinary Greek education (reading, writing, gymnastics and music, and, later, geometry and astronomy) before devoting his time almost completely to intellectual interests.

He is usually described as unattractive in appearance and short in stature, and he apparently rarely washed or changed his clothes. But he did nevertheless marry Xanthippe, a woman much younger than he and renowned for her shrewishness(Socrates justified his marriage on the grounds that a horse-trainer needs to hone his skills on the most spirited animals). She bore for him three sons, LamproclesSophroniscus and Menexenus, who were all were quite young children at the time of their father’s trial and death and, according to Aristotle, they turned out unremarkable, silly and dull.

It is not known for sure who his teachers were, but he seems to have been acquainted with the doctrines of Parmenides, Heraclitus and Anaxagoras. Plato recorded the fact that Socrates met Zeno of Elea and Parmenides on their trip to Athens, probably in about 450 B.C. Other influences which have been mentioned include a rhetorician named Prodicus, a student of Anaxagoras called Archelaus, and two women (besides his mother): Diotima (a witch and priestess from Mantinea who taught him all about “eros” or love), and Aspasia (the mistress of the Greek statesman Pericles, who taught him the art of funeral orations).

It is not clear how Socrates earned a living. Some sources suggest that he continued the profession of stonemasonry from his father. He apparently served for a time as a member of the senate of Athens, and he served (and reportedly distinguished himself) in the Athenian army during three campaigns at PotidaeaAmphipolis and Delium. However, most texts seem to indicate that Socrates did not work, devoting himself solely to discussing philosophy in the squares of Athens. Using a method now known as the Socratic Method (or Socratic dialogue or dialectic), he grew famous for drawing forth knowledge from his students by pursuing a series of questions and examining the implications of their answers. Often he would question people’s unwarranted confidence in the truth of popular opinions, but usually without offering them any clear alternative teaching. Aristophanes portrayed Socrates as running a Sophist school and accepting payment for teaching, but other sources explicitly deny this.

The best known part of Socrates’ life is his trial and execution. Despite claiming complete loyalty to his city, Socrates’ pursuit of virtue and his strict adherence to truth clashed with the course of Athenian politics and society (particularly in the aftermath of Athens’ embarrassing defeats in the Peloponnesian War with Sparta). Socrates raised questions about Athenian religion, but also about Athenian democracy and, in particular, he praised Athens’ arch-rival Sparta, causing some scholars to interpret his trial as an expression of political infighting. However, it more likely resulted from his self-appointed position as Athens’ social and moral critic, and his insistence on trying to improve the Athenians’ sense of justice (rather than upholding the status quo and accepting the development of immorality). His “crime” was probably merely that his paradoxical wisdom made several prominent Athenians look foolish in public.

Whatever the motivation, he was found guilty (by a narrow margin of 30 votes out of the 501 jurors) of impiety and corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens, and he was sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing poison hemlock in 399 B.C., at the age of 70. Although he apparently had an opportunity to escape, he chose not to, believing that a true philosopher should have no fear of death, that it would be against his principles to break his social contract with the state by evading its justice, and that he would probably fare no better elsewhere even if he were to escape into exile.



As has been mentioned, Socrates himself did not write any philosophical texts, and our knowledge of the man and his philosophy is based on writings by his students and contemporaries, particularly Plato’s dialogues, but also the writings of Aristotle, Xenophon and Aristophanes. As these are either the partisan philosophical texts of his supporters, or works of dramatic rather than historically accurate intent, it is difficult to find the “real” Socrates (often referred to as the “Socratic problem”). In Plato’s Socratic Dialogues in particular, it is well-nigh impossible to tell which of the views attributed to Socrates are actually his and which Plato’s own.

Perhaps Socrates’ most important and enduring single contribution to Western thought is his dialectical method of inquiry, which he referred to as “elenchus”(roughly, “cross-examination”) but which has become known as the Socratic Method or Socratic Debate (although some commentators have argued that Protagoras actually invented the “Socratic” method). It has been called a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those which lead to contradictions. Even today, the Socratic Method is still used in classrooms and law schools as a way of discussing complex topics in order to expose the underlying issues in both the subject and the speaker. Its influence is perhaps most strongly felt today in the use of the Scientific Method, in which the hypothesis is just the first stage towards a proof.

At its simplest, the Socratic Method is used to solve a problem by breaking the problem down into a series of questions, the answers to which gradually distill better and better solutions. Both the questioner and the questioned explore the implications of the other’s positions, in order to stimulate rational thinking and illuminate ideas. Thus, Socrates would counter any assertion with a counterexample which disproves the assertion (or at least shows it to be inadequate). This would lead to a modified assertion, which Socrates would then test again with another counterexample. Through several iterations of this kind, the original assertion is continually adjusted and becomes more and more difficult to refute, which Socrates held meant that it was closer and closer to the truth.

Socrates believed fervently in the immortality of the soul, and he was convinced that the gods had singled him out as a kind of divine emissary to persuade the people of Athens that their moral values were wrong-headed, and that, instead of being so concerned with their families, careers, and political responsibilities, they ought to be worried about the “welfare of their souls”. However, he also questioned whether “arete” (or “virtue”) can actually be taught as the Sophists believed. He observed that many successful fathers (such as the prominent military general Pericles, for example) did not produce sons of their own quality, which suggested to him that moral excellence was more a matter of divine bequest than parental nurture.

He often claimed that his wisdom was limited to an awareness of his own ignorance, (although he did claim to have knowledge of “the art of love“). Thus, he never actually claimed to be wise, only to understand the path a lover of wisdom must take in pursuing it. His claim that he knew one and only one thing, that he knew nothing, may have influenced the later school of Skepticism. He saw his role, not as a teacher or a theorist, but as analogous to a midwife who could bring the theories of others to life, although to do so he would of course need to have experience and knowledge of that of which he talked. He believed that anyone could be a philosopher, not just those who were highly trained and educated, and indeed that everyone had a duty to ask philosophical questions (he is famously quoted as claiming that “the unexamined life is not worth living“).

Many of the beliefs traditionally attributed to the historical Socrates have been characterized as “paradoxical” because they seem to conflict with common sense, such as: no-one desires evil, no-one errs or does wrong willingly or knowingly; all virtue is knowledge; virtue is sufficient for happiness. He believed that wrongdoing was a consequence of ignorance and those who did wrong knew no better (sometimes referred to as Ethical Intellectualism). He believed the best way for people to live was to focus on self-development rather than the pursuit of material wealth, and he always invited others to try to concentrate more on friendships and a sense of true community. He was convinced that humans possessed certain virtues(particularly the important philosophical or intellectual virtues), and that virtue was the most valuable of all possessions, and the ideal life should be spent in search of the Good (an early statement of Eudaimonism or Virtue Ethics).

Socrates’ political views, as represented in Plato’s dialogue “The Republic”, were strongly against the democracy that had so recently been restored in the Athens of his day, and indeed against any form of government that did not conform to his ideal of a perfect republic led by philosophers, who he claimed were the only type of person suitable to govern others. He believed that the will of the majority was not necessarily a good method of decision-making, but that it was much more important that decisions be logical and defensible. However, these may be more Plato’s own views than those of Socrates, “The Republic” being a “middle period” work often considered to be not representative of the views of the historical Socrates.

In Plato’s “early” dialogue, “Apology of Socrates”, Socrates refused to pursue conventional politics, on the grounds that he could not look into the matters of others(or tell people how to live their lives) when he did not yet understand how to live his own. Some have argued that he considered the rule of the “Thirty Tyrants” (who came to power briefly during his life, led by Critias, a relative of Plato and a one-time student of Socrates himself) even less legitimate than the democratic senate that sentenced him to death.

Likewise, in the dialogues of Plato, Socrates often appears to support a mystical side, discussing reincarnation and the mystery religions (popular religious cults of the time, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries, restricted to those who had gone through certain secret initiation rites), but how much of this is attributable to Socrates or to Plato himself is not (and never will be) clear. Socrates often referred to what the Greeks called a “daemonic sign”, a kind of inner voice he heard only when he was about to make a mistake (such as the sign that he claimed prevented him from entering into politics). Although we would consider this to be intuition today, Socrates thought of it as a form of “divine madness”, the sort of insanity that is a gift from the gods and gives us poetrymysticismlove and even philosophy itself.

Socrates’ views were instrumental in the development of many of the major philosophical movements and schools which came after him, particularly the Platonism of his principle student Plato, (and the Neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism it gave rise to). His idea of a life of austerity combined with piety and morality (largely ignored by Plato and Aristotle) was essential to the core beliefs of later schools like Cynicism and Stoicism. Socrates’ stature in Western Philosophy returned in full force with the Renaissance and the Age of Reason in Europe when political theory began to resurface under such philosophers as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Aristippus of Cyrene (c. 435 – 360 B.C.), the founder of the school of Hedonism was also a pupil of Socrates, although he rather skewed Socrates’ teaching.