Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle: The Big Three in Greek Philosophy

Much of Western philosophy finds its basis in the thoughts and teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. You can't begin a study of world philosophy without talking about these guys: the Big Three ancient Greek philosophers.

Socrates: Athens' street-corner philosopher

Socrates was the big-city philosopher in ancient Athens. Accused and convicted of corrupting the youth, his only real crime was embarrassing and irritating a number of important people. His punishment was death.

Famous quote: "The unexamined life is not worth living."

Socrates didn't write books; he just liked to ask probing and sometimes humiliating questions, which gave rise to the famous Socratic Method of Teaching. This street-corner philosopher made a career of deflating pompous windbags.

Plato: The philosopher who would be king

An aristocratic man with plenty of money and a superb physique, Plato at one time won two prizes as a championship wrestler. Actually, the man's real (and little known) name was Aristocles; Plato was just a nickname given to him by his friends, whose original connotation made reference to his broad shoulders.

Plato became an enthusiastic and talented student of Socrates and wrote famous dialogues featuring his teacher verbally grappling with opponents. Our wrestler believed in the pre-existence and immortality of the soul, holding that life is nothing more than the imprisonment of the soul in a body. In addition to the physical world, there is a heavenly realm of greater reality consisting in Forms, Ideals, or Ideas (such as Equality, Justice, Humanity, and so on).

As his crowning achievement: He wrote a famous treatise (The Republic) on the ideal society, in which he expressed the thought that a philosopher, of all people, who should be king (big surprise!).

Aristotle: A long walk to the Golden Mean

Aristotle was Plato's best student. He went on to become the very well-paid tutor of Alexander the Great — probably the highest paid philosopher in history. Aristotle started his own philosophical school when he was 50 years old. Although he lived only ten more years, he produced nearly a thousand books and pamphlets, only a few of which have survived.

This great thinker was called a peripatetic philosopher (peripateo = "to walk around") because he liked to lecture to his students while taking a walk. Another group of philosophers were called stoics because they preferred sitting around on porches (stoa) when they shot the breeze.

A key theme in Aristotle's thought is that happiness is the goal of life. Aristotle was a good deal less other-worldly than Plato. He voluntarily went into exile from Athens when conditions became a bit politically dangerous for him, in his words, "lest Athens sin twice against philosophy."

The founder of logical theory, Aristotle believed that the greatest human endeavor is the use of reason in theoretical activity. One of his best known ideas was his conception of "The Golden Mean" — "avoid extremes," the counsel of moderation in all things.

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