Parmenides of Elea (c. 515 – 450 B.C.)


Parmenides of Elea (c. 515 – 450 B.C.) was an early Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and founder and chief representative of the Eleatic School of ancient Greek philosophy.

He is one of the most significant and influential (as well as the most difficult and obscure) of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, and he is sometimes referred to as the father of Metaphysics. He particularly influenced Plato (and, through him, the whole of Western Philosophy), who always spoke of him with veneration. Perhaps his greatest contribution to philosophy was his method of reasoned proof for assertions.

In denying the reality (or even the possibility) of change as part of his Monist philosophy, Parmenides presented a turning point in the history of Western Philosophy, and sparked a philosophical challenge that determined the course of enquiries of subsequent philosophers such as Empedocles, Anaxagoras and Democritus, and an intellectual revolution that still echoes today.


Parmenides (pronounced par-MEN-i-dees) was born in the Greek colony of Elea (southern Italy). His birth date is uncertain and the evidence of Diogenes Laërtius and Plato is contradictory, but it is likely that he was born some time between 540 and 510 B.C., with 515 B.C. as a “best guess”.

He is said to have been a student of Xenophanes of Colophon (570 – 480 B.C.), and what we know of Xenophanes’ philosophy seems to be an influence on Parmenides. Diogenes Laërtius also describes Parmenides as a disciple of the Pythagorean philosopher Aminias, although there are few Pythagorean elements in his thought.

He was the founder of the School of Elea, which also included Melissus of Samos and the young Zeno of Elea (who was about 25 years younger than Parmenides and may also have been his eromenos or adolescent lover, a common tradition of ancient Greece).

He was held in high esteem by his fellow-citizens for his excellent legislation, to which they ascribed the prosperity and wealth of the town, and it is suggested that he had written the laws of the city, which had been founded shortly before 535 B.C. He was also admired for his exemplary life (a “Parmenidean life” was proverbialamong the Greeks).

Little more is known of his biography than that he stopped at Athens on a journey in his sixty-fifth year (around the middle of the 5th Century B.C.) and there became acquainted with the youthful Socrates (SocratesPlato and Aristotle were all strongly inspired by Parmenides). His death is assumed to have taken place around 440 or 450 B.C.


Parmenides’ only known work, a poem written in hexameter verse around 475 B.C.and entitled “On Nature”, has only survived in fragmentary form, with approximately 150 of the original 3,000 lines of text remaining today. It is divided into two main sections, describing the two ways or two views of reality, “The Way of Truth” (which accounts for most of the surviving lines) and “The Way of Appearance/Opinion”, along with an introduction. Parmenides argued in favour of the Way of Truth and against The Way of Appearance.

In the poem, Parmenides argued that the every-day perception of the reality of the physical world is mistaken, and that the reality of the world is “the One”, an unchanging, ungenerated, indestructible whole. Likewise, the phenomena of movement and change are simply appearances of the real static, eternal reality. He further asserted that the truth cannot be known through sensory perception, only through pure reason (“Logos”).

Parmenides set out the heart of his case in a worldview that (even by the standards of philosophy) is, according to Aristotle, “near to madness”. He argued as follows: “What-is-not” does not exist. Since anything that comes into being must arise out of “what-is-not”, objects cannot come into being. Likewise, they cannot pass away, because in order to do so they would have to enter the realm of “what-is-not”. Since it does not exist, “what-is-not” cannot be the womb of generation, or the tomb of that which perishes. The “no-longer” and the “not-yet” are therefore variants of “what-is-not”, and so the past and future do not exist either. Change, then, is impossible.

Equally, his argument continued, multiplicity is unreal, because the empty spacenecessary to separate one object from another would be another example of “what-is-not”. And since things cannot be anything to a greater or lesser degree (which would require “what-is” to be mixed with the diluting effect of “what-is-not”), the universe must be homogeneous, a single, undifferentiated, unchanging unity. Also, it must be finite and spherical, for it cannot be in one direction any more than in another (and the sphere is the only figure of which this can be said).

Thus, by a strictly deductive argument, Parmenides asserted that change is impossible, and that coming-into-existence or ceasing-to-exist are likewise impossible, so that everything that exists is permanent, ungenerated, indestructible and unchanging. His argument refutes all accounts of the origin of the world, and represents an early type of Monism.

Parmenides therefore made the ontological argument against nothingness, essentially denying the possible existence of a void, which led Leucippus and Democritus to propose their theory of Atomism (that everything in the universe is either atoms or voids) specifically to contradict his argument.


Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 – 475 B.C.)


Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 – 475 B.C.) was a Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher from Ephesus, on the Ionian coast of modern-day Turkey. He is sometimes mentioned in connection with the Ephesian School of philosophy, although he was really the only prominent member of that school (which, along with the Milesian School, is often considered part of the Ionian School).

He was perhaps the first Western philosopher to go beyond physical theory in search of metaphysical foundations and moral applications, and some consider him, along with Parmenides, the most significant of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. His idea of a universe in constant change but with an underlying order or reason (which he called Logos) forms the essential foundation of the European worldview.

Many subsequent philosophers, from Plato to Aristotle, from the Stoics to the Church Fathers, from Georg Hegel to Alfred North Whitehead, have claimed to have been influenced by the ideas of Heraclitus.



According to the “Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers” of Diogenes Laërtius (the 3rd Century historian of the ancient Greek philsophers), Heraclitus flourished in the 69th Olympiad (which would be 504 – 501 B.C.), but the dates of his birth and death are just guesswork based on that. So, all we can say it is it is likely that he was born around 535 B.C. We do know that he was born to an aristocratic family in Ephesus, an important city on the Ionian coast of modern-day Turkey.

His father was named either Bloson or Herakon, and was a powerful figure in the city. But, according to Diogenes Laërtius, Heraclitus abdicated the kingship(probably just an honorific title) in favour of his brother, and had no interest in politics or power. As a youth, he was a prodigious intellect, and he claimed to have taught himself everything he knew by a process of self-questioning. Some sources also say that he was a pupil of Xenophanes (570 – 480 B.C.), but that is disputed.

He was sometimes known as “the Obscure” (or “the Dark”) for the deliberate difficulty and unclearness of his teachings. He was also known as the “Weeping Philosopher”, and it is speculated that he was prone to melancholia or depression, which prevented him from finishing some of his works. There is no record of his having travelled, even as far as the nearby learning centre of Miletus, although he seems to have been familiar with the ideas of the Milesian School.

He was apparently something of a misanthrope and a loner, and he cultivated an aristocratic disdain for the masses and favoured the rule of a few wise men. He was not afraid to scorn and denigrate (in no uncertain terms, and in a characteristic shrill voice) almost everyone from the Ephesians to the Athenians to the Persian leader, Darius. He believed that the poet Hesiod and Pythagoras “lacked understanding”, and claimed that Homer and Archilochus deserved to be beaten. Diogenes Laërtius reported that, later in life, he wandered the mountains, eating only grass and herbs.

His years of wandering in the wilderness, resulted in an oedema (dropsy) and impairment of vision. After 24 hours of his own idiosyncratic treatment (a liniment of cow manure and baking in the sun), he died and was interred in the marketplace of Ephesus.


Heraclitus is recorded as having written a single book, “On Nature”, divided into three discourses, one on the universe, another on politics and a third on theology. The book was deposited or stored in the great Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (as were many other treasures and books of the time) and made available to visitors for several centuries after Heraclitus’ death. However, his writings only survive today in fragments quoted by other later authors.

In his work, he used puns, paradoxes, antitheses, parallels and various rhetorical and literary devices to construct expressions that have meanings beyond the obvious. The reader must therefore solve verbal puzzles (he was also nicknamed “The Riddler”), and, by so doing, learn to read the signs of the world. In fact, he deliberately made his philosophical work obscure, so that none but the already competent would be able to understand it.

Unlike many of the other Pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus believed that the world is not to be identified with any particular substance, but rather consists of a law-like interchange of elements, an ongoing process governed by a law of perpetual change, or Logos, which he symbolized by fire. According to Heraclitus, fire provides a kind of standard of value for other stuffs, but it is not identical to them, and is not the unique source of all things, because all stuffs are equivalentand one thing is transformed into another in a cycle of changes.

According to Heraclitus, the world is in an eternal state of “becoming”, and all changes arise from the dynamic and cyclic interplay of opposites. Opposites are necessary for life, he believed, but they are unified in a system of balanced exchanges, with pairs of opposites making up a unity. Thus, one road carries some travellers out of a city, while it brings others back in; the way up is also the way down; earth changes to fire and fire changes to earth, etc. In this, he posits an equal and opposite reaction to every change and, in his theory of the equivalence of matter, a primitive law of conservation.

The most famous aphorism often attributed to Heraclitus, that “everything is in a state of flux”, probably comes in reality from the much later Neo-Platonist Simplicius of Cilicia (490 – 560 A.D.), although other similar quotes are attributable to him, and it remains a pithy summary of his views on the recurrent Pre-Socratic problem of change. Similarly, he is often quoted as saying that one cannot step twice into the same river, although this is based on a simplistic paraphrasing of Plato’s. What he was really suggesting is that rivers can stay the same over time even though (or indeed because) the waters in it change.

Thus, contrary to the contentions of both Plato and Aristotle, Heraclitus did not hold the extreme (and logically incoherent) views that everything is constantly changing, that opposite things are identical, and that everything is and is notat the same time. But he did recognize a lawlike flux of elements, with fire changing into water and then into earth, and earth changing into water and then into fire. While parts of the world are being consumed by fire at any given time, the whole remains. Heraclitus does, to be sure, make paradoxical statements, but his views are no more self-contradictory than some of the claims of Socrates.

Heraclitus saw the theory of nature and the human condition as intimately connected, and he was one of the first philosophers to make human values a central concern. He viewed the soul as fiery in nature, generated out of other substances, just as fire is, but limitless in dimension. Thus, drunkenness, for example, damages the soul by causing it to be moist, while a virtuous life keeps the soul dry and intelligent.

He further believed that the laws of a city-state are an important principle of order, and that they derive their force from a divine law. In this way, he introduced the notion of a law of nature that informs human society as well as nature, and this idea of an inherent moral law greatly influenced the later Stoicism movement.

He saw Divinity as present in the world, but not as a conventional anthropomorphic being such as the Greeks worshipped. For Heraclitus, the world itself either is God, or is a manifestation of the activity of God, which is somehow to be identified with the underlying order of things.


Pythagoras (c. 570 – 490 B.C.)


Pythagoras of Samos (c. 570 – 490 B.C.) was an early Greek Pre-Socratic philosopher and mathematician from the Greek island of Samos.

He was the founder of the influential philosophical and religious movement or cult called Pythagoreanism, and he was probably the first man to actually call himself a philosopher (or lover of wisdom). Pythagoras (or in a broader sense the Pythagoreans), allegedly exercised an important influence on the work of Plato.

As a mathematician, he is known as the “father of numbers” or as the first pure mathematician, and is best known for his Pythagorean Theorem on the relation between the sides of a right triangle, the concept of square numbers and square roots, and the discovery of the golden ratio.

Unfortunately, little is known for sure about him, (none of his original writings have survived, and his followers usually published their own works in his name) and he remains something of a mysterious figure. His secret society or brotherhood had a great effect on later esoteric traditions such as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry.


Pythagoras was born on the Greek island of Samos, in the eastern Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey, some time between 580 and 572 B.C. His father was Mnesarchus, a Phoenician merchant from Tyre; his mother was Pythais, a native of Samos. He spent his early years in Samos, but also travelled widely with his father.

According to some reports, as a young man he met Thales , who was impressed with his abilities and advised him to head to Memphis in Egypt and study mathematics and astronomy with the priests there, which he soon had the opportunity of. He also travelled to study at the temples of Tyre and Byblos in Phoenicia, as well as in Babylon. At some point he was also a student of Pherecydes of Syros and of Anaximander (who himself had been a student of Thales).While still quite a young man, he left his native city for Croton in southern Italy in order to escape the tyrannical government of Polycrates, the Tyrant of Samos (or possibly to escape political problems related to an Egyptian-style school called the “semicircle”which he had founded on Samos).

In Croton, Pythagoras established a secret religious society very similar to (and possibly influenced by) the earlier Orphic cult, in an attempt to reform the cultural life of Croton. He formed an elite circle of followers around himself, called Pythagoreans or the Mathematikoi (“learners”), subject to very strict rules of conduct, owning no personal possessions and assuming a largely vegetarian diet. They followed a structured life of religious teaching, common meals, exercise, music, poetry recitations, reading and philosophical study (very similar to later monastic life). The school (unusually for the time) was open to both male and female students uniformly (women were held to be different from men, but not necessarily inferior). The Mathematikoi extended and developed the more mathematical and scientific work Pythagoras began.

Other students, who lived in neighbouring areas, were also permitted to attend some of Pythagoras’ lectures, although they were not taught the inner secrets of the cult. They were known as the Akousmatikoi (“listeners”), and they focused on the more religious and ritualistic aspects of Pythagoras’ teachings (and were permitted to eat meat and own personal belongings).

Among his more prominent students were the philosopher Empedocles, Brontinus (who may have been Pythagoras’ successor as head of the school), Philolaus (c. 480 – 385 B.C., who has been credited with originating the theory that the earth was not the center of the universe), Lysis of Taras (who is sometimes credited with many of the works usually attributed to Pythagoras himself), Cercops(an Orphic poet), Hippasus of Metapontum (who is sometimes attributed with the discovery of irrational numbers), Zamolxis (who later amassed great wealth and a cult following as a god among the Thracian Dacians) and Theano (born c. 546 B.C., a mathematician, student, and possibly wife or daughter, of Pythagoras).

Towards the end of his life, Pythagoras fled to Metapontum (further north in the Gulf of Tarentum) because of a plot against him and his followers by a noble of Croton named Cylon. He died in Metapontum from unknown causes some time between 500 and 490 B.C., between 80 and 90 years old.



Because of the secretive nature of his school and the custom of its students to attribute everything to Pythagoras himself, it is difficult today to determine who actually did which work. To further confuse matters, some forgeries under his name (a few of which still exist) circulated in antiquity. Some of his biographers clearly aimed to present him as a god-like figure, and he became the subject of elaborate legends surrounding his historical persona.

The school that Pythagoras established at Croton was in some ways more of a secret brotherhood or monastery. It was based on his religious teachings and was highly concerned with the morality of society. Members were required to live ethically, love one another, share political beliefs, practice pacifism, and devote themselves to the mathematics of nature. They also abstained from meat, abjured personal property and observed a rule of silence (called “echemythia”), the breaking of which was punishable by death, based on the belief that if someone was in any doubt as to what to say, they should remain silent.

Pythagoras saw his religious and scientific views as inseparably interconnected. He believed in the theory of metempsychosis or the transmigration of the soul and its reincarnation again and again after death into the bodies of humans, animals or vegetables until it became moral (a belief he may have learned from his one-time teacher Pherecydes of Syros, who is usually credited as the first Greek to teach the transmigration of souls). He was one of the first to propose that the thought processes and the soul were located in the brain and not the heart.

Another of Pythagoras’ central beliefs was that the essence of being (and the stability of all things that create the universe) can be found in the form of numbers, and that it can be encountered through the study of mathematics. For instance, he believed that things like health relied on a stable proportion of elements, with too much or too little of one thing causing an imbalance that makes a person unhealthy.

In mathematics, Pythagoras is commonly given credit for discovering what is now know as the Pythagorean Theorem (or Pythagoras’ Theorem), a theorem in geometry that states that, in a right-angled triangle, the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Although this had been known and utilized previously by the Babylonians and Indians, he (or perhaps one of his students) is thought to have constructed the first proof.

He believed that the number system (and therefore the universe system) was based on the sum of the numbers one to four (i.e. ten), and that odd numbers were masculine and even numbers were feminine. He discovered the theory of mathematical proportions, constructed from three to five geometrical solids, and also discovered square numbers and square roots. The discovery of the golden ratio (referring to the ratio of two quantities such that the sum of those quantities and the larger one is the same as the ratio between the larger one and the smaller, approximately 1.618) is also usually attributed to Pythagoras, or possibly to his student, Theano.

He was one of the first to think that the Earth was round, that all planets have an axis, and that all the planets travel around one central point (which he originally identified as the Earth, but later renounced it for the idea that the planets revolve around a central “fire”, although he never identified it as the Sun). He also believed that the Moon was another planet that he called a “counter-Earth”.

Pythagoras was also very interested in music, and wanted to improve the music of his day, which he believed was not harmonious enough and was too hectic. According to legend, he discovered that musical notes could be translated into mathematical equations by listening to blacksmiths at work. “Pythagorean tuning” is a system of musical tuning in which the frequency relationships of all intervals are based on the ratio 3:2 (a stack of perfect fifths), a system which has been documented as long ago as 3500 B.C. in Babylonian texts, but which is nevertheless often attributed to Pythagoras. He also believed in the “musica universalis” (or the “harmony of the spheres”), the idea that the planets and stars moved according to mathematical equations, which corresponded to musical notes and thus produced a kind of symphony.

Anaximenes (c. 585 – 525 B.C)


Anaximenes (c. 585 – 525 B.C.) was an early Pre-Socratic philosopher from the Greek city of Miletus in Ionia(modern-day Turkey). He was a key figure in the Milesian School, a friend and pupil of Anaximander and he continued the Milesians’ philosophical inquiries into the “archê” or first principle of the universe (which Anaximenes deemed to be air), and sought to give a quasi-scientific explanation of the world.

In the physical sciences, Anaximenes was the first Greek to distinguish clearly between planets and stars, and he used his principles to account for various natural phenomena, such as thunder and lightning, rainbows, earthquakes, etc.


Nothing is known of his life of Anaximenes (pronounced an-ax-IM-en-ees), other than that he was the son of Eurystratos of Miletus, and was the pupil or companion of Anaximander. Some say that he was also a pupil of Parmenides of Elea, although this seems unlikely. He lived for at least part of his life under Persian rule, and so he may have witnessed the Ionian rebellion against Greek occupation. There is some evidence from letters that he was in communication with Pythagoras, although any influence on Pythagoras’ philosophical development was probably minor (other than the desire to explain the world in non-mythological terms).


According to Diogenes Laërtius (a biographer of the Greek philosophers, who lived in the 2nd or 3rd Century A.D.), Anaximenes wrote his philosophical views in a book, which survived well into the Hellenistic period, although nothing now remains of this.

Like the other Milesian philosophers before him, Anaximenes’ main concern was to indentify the single source of all things in the universe (Monism). Thales, the earliest Milesian, had taken this to be water. His pupil Anaximander refined this somewhat, arguing that no single element could adequately explain all of the opposites found in nature, and propounded the solution of an endless, unlimited primordial mass which he called “apeiron”.

Anaximenes arguably took a step backwards by revisiting the notion that a single element was indeed the source of all things, and that element he deemed to be air(actually the Greek word “aer” also denotes “mist” or “vapour” as well as the normal air we breathe). He held that, at one time, everything was air, and that, even now, everything is air at different degrees of density. Since air is infinite and perpetually in motion, it can produce all things without being actually produced by anything.

Under the influence of heat (which expands it) and of cold (which contracts it), and the associated processes of rarefaction (air separating) and condensation (air coming together), air gradually gives rise to the several phases of existence and all the materials of the organized world. Anaximenes believed that air came in threadswhich came together by a process called “felting”, analogous to the process by which wool is compressed to make felt. Thus, very close air was a solid, less close a liquid, etc.

In this way, therefore, Anaximenes used natural processes familiar from everyday experience to account for material change and, in this respect at least, his theory was an advance over those of Thales and Anaximander.

According to Anaximenes, the earth is a broad disk, floating on the circumambient air. The sun and stars, he held, were formed by the same processes of condensation and rarefaction, and the flaming nature of these bodies is merely due to the velocity of their motions. He also used his principles to account for various natural phenomena: thunder and lightning result from wind breaking out of clouds; rainbows are the result of the rays of the sun falling on clouds; earthquakesare caused by the cracking of the earth when it dries out after being moistened by rains; hail is a result of frozen rainwater; etc.

Anaximenes also equated the first material principle with the divine, so that effectively “air is God”, both being infinite and eternal. Thus, the pantheon of Greek gods were merely derivations of the truly divine, air. Similarly, the souls of individuals were also composed of air (or breath), and hold us together in the same way as air encompasses the entire world.

Anaximander (c. 610 – 546 B.C)


Anaximander (c. 610 – 546 B.C.) was an early Pre-Socratic philosopher from the Greek city of Miletus in Ionia (modern-day Turkey). He was a key figure in the Milesian School, as a student of Thales and teacher of Anaximenes and Pythagoras.

He was an early proponent of science, and is sometimes considered to be the first true scientist, and to have conducted the earliest recorded scientific experiment. He is often considered the founder of astronomy, and he tried to observe and explain different aspects of the universe and its origins, and to describe the mechanics of celestial bodies in relation to the Earth. He made important contributions to cosmology, physics, geometry, meteorology and geography as well as to Metaphysics.


Anaximander was born in the Greek city of Miletus (on the Ionian coast of modern-day Turkey) in about 610 B.C., the son of Praxiades, but little else is known of his life.

According to Diogenes Laërtius (a biographer of the Greek philosophers, who lived in the 2nd or 3rd Century A.D.), he was a pupil of Thales (founder of the Milesian School of philosophy, and possibly also Anaximander’s uncle), and succeeded him as master of the school, where his work influenced Anaximenes and Pythagoras


Although he was among the earliest philosophers in the Western world to have actually written down his studies, only one fragment of his work remains and, by the time of Plato, his philosophy was apparently almost forgotten.

At a time when the Pre-Socratics were pursuing various forms of Monism and searching for the one element that constitutes all things (each had a different solution to the identity of this element: water for Thalesair for Anaximenes, firefor Heraclitus), Anaximander argued that neither water nor any of the other candidates can embrace all of the opposites found in nature (e.g. water can only be wet, never dry) and therefore cannot be the one primary substance or first principle of the universe.

He judged that, although not directly perceptible to us, the only substance which could explain all the opposites he saw around him, is what he called “apeiron”(variously translated as “the infinite”, “the boundless”, etc), an endless, unlimited primordial mass, subject to neither old age nor decay, that perpetually yielded fresh materials from which everything we perceive is derived. The Universe originates in the separation of opposites in this primordial matter, and dying things are merely returning to the boundless element from which they came. He saw the universe as a kind of organism, supported by “pneuma” (cosmic breath).

Anaximander is sometimes called the “Father of Cosmology” and the founder of astronomy for his bold use of non-mythological explanations of physical processes. He was the first to conceive a mechanical model of the world, in which the Earth floats very still in the centre of the infinite, not supported by anything. He envisioned the Earth as a cylinder with a height one-third of its diameter, the flat top forming the inhabited world, surrounded by a circular oceanic mass. This theory allowed for the concept that celestial bodies could pass under or around it, and provided a better explanation than Thales’ claim of a world floating on water (what would contain this ocean?).

Anaximander was the first astronomer to consider the Sun as a huge mass (and therefore to realize how far from Earth it might be), and the first to present a system where the celestial bodies turned at different distances. He built a celestial sphere, and his work on astronomy shows that he must have observed the inclination of the celestial sphere in relation to the plane of the Earth to explain the seasons. Anaximander also speculated on the plurality of worlds, which places him close to the Atomists and the Epicureans who, more than a century later, also claimed that an infinity of worlds appeared and disappeared.

Some consider Anaximander the earliest proponent of evolution (even though he had no theory of natural selection). Noting the existence of fossils, he claimed that animals sprang out of the sea long ago, and he put forward the idea that humans had to spend part of this transition inside the mouths of big fish to protect themselves from the Earth’s climate, until they had time to adapt to the emergence of dry land.

His other interests were in mathematics (he explained some basic notions of geometry and introduced the sundial gnomon to Greece), meteorology (he attributed some phenomena, such as thunder and lightning, to the intervention of elements, rather than to divine causes, and he explained rain as a product of the humidity pumped up from Earth by the sun) and geography (he was probably the first to publish a map of the world, i.e. the entire inhabited land known to the ancient Greeks, rather than the local maps which had been produced in ancient times).

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.