In this forum I have posted some of the 'big ideas' of those thinkers that have most influenced the way we think today. From the various postings you will see, notwithstanding the esteem in which their 'philosophies' are held, that these thinkers do not always hold corresponding views. It is important to realise that the philosophy does not ask you to surrender your beliefs:your own 'worldviews', only to ensure that those you hold so dear are worthy of esteem in which you hold them.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
The Presocratics, The Sophists, Socrates and Plato
By Tony Fahey
Philosophy, A. R. Lacey’s A Dictionary of Philosophy informs us means “Love of wisdom” 1976, p.176). Chambers Dictionary broadens this definition to include: “investigation of the nature of being; [and] knowledge of the causes of things” (1992, p. 803). These definitions reflect the desire of mankind to make sense of the world in which they live. Before the Presocractics (and many would argue that it is still the case), people found answers to philosophical questions in religious myths which were handed down from generation to generation. Gods were given human forms and attributes, and in order to appease these gods, and to ensure a sense of permanence – that the sun would rise each day, and Spring and Summer would return each year, and so on – sacrifices and homage were paid to these gods. So we can see that even before, what Aristotle would later call, the “natural philosophers”, people were concerned with the notion of stability in an ever-changing world.
Sometimes it is possible to look at the natural world and become aware of an unseen energy, a dynamic that animates physical phenomena. Some people see this dynamic as evidence of a divine force; that each phenomenon is created by God for a particular end or purpose, and that this purpose belongs to a greater harmonious system. This view is described as a teleological approach. Others, while they may agree that in the natural world events may appear to occur in regular sequence, are reluctant to ascribe to these events the intervention of divine providence, whilst others again argue that there is no evidence that there is a teleological dimension to natural events.
The early Greeks looked at how this energy or force manifested itself in various natural phenomena and attributed to these manifestations anthropomorphic characterisations. Thus, Zeus, or Jupiter, was seen as the supreme god, whose anger, at what was perceived as wrongful behaviour by the early Greeks, was expressed by the roar of thunder, whilst Poseidon was seen as the god of earthquakes and the sea, and Bacchus as the god of wine and vegetation. In other words, these gods were seen as whimsical or capricious entities that possessed all the virtues and frailties of mortal beings. The myths that evolved from the belief in the power of these gods formed the basis of the early Greeks worldview. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, turned away from this form of belief system and looked to the natural world for evidence of the source or first principal of things.
The Milesian philosophers (the natural philosophers):
Around the beginning of the sixth century BC, the city of Miletus, on the western coast of Asia Minor, became a thriving centre of trade between Greece and the Middle East. Thales (pronounced Thay-leez), a native of that city, travelled extensively and came into contact with many different cultures, especially those of Egypt and Babylon. Being an Ionian Greek by birth, Thales would have been indoctrinated with values of his native place – values, that is, drawn from the myths and legends of the narrow Greek society in which he was reared. However, because of its trade with the world beyond Miletus as well as colonisation, Thales began to question the legitimacy of the worldview that had been handed down to him. Thus, while others were prepared to accept the “truth” as handed down by tradition, Thales began to ask new questions about the causes of things. That is, he began to ask questions about the first principle of things. And by asking about the nature of the first principle itself, he departed from the tradition and introduced a new form of inquiry – one could say his approach gave birth to philosophical inquiry.
Thales (c. 620 BC):
As with the other Milesians (Anaximander and Anaximenes) all we know of Thales is what we learn from a few fragments given by later thinkers who interpreted his ideas in their own way. And it is from these fragments that we are forced to construct some notion of this early thinker’s contribution to philosophy. According to Aristotle, Thales made water the principle of all things, and he believed that just as a log floats on a pond, so too does the earth float on a greater expanse of water (mind you, he also held that since magnets move iron they must have souls – he also said that all things are full of gods; that the mind of the world is god, and that god is intermingled with all things). He also held that earthquakes were caused by subterranean waves rocking the earth – in the same way that a ship may be rocked by the sea. While to our minds these observations seem trite, Thales’ willingness to move away from tradition represents a dramatic and significant shift in humans would hereafter, look at their world.
As well as being the first thinker to try to account for the nature of the world without appealing to the whims and wills of anthropomorphic, Homerian gods, Thales is also credited with correctly predicting that there would be a solar eclipse in 585 BC during a battle between the Medes and the Lydians. As such, Thales qualifies as the first natural scientist and analytical philosopher in Western intellectual history.
Anaximander was also from Miletus and lived around the same time as Thales (6th c BC). Anaximander also believed that there was a single primal substance, however, unlike Thales’ water, he believed in something called the “Indefinite” or ‘a peiron’: boundless. That is, for Anaximander, the source of all things was not some determinate element, but something that was without limits.
By proposing the Indefinite as the primal substance, Anaximander could account for the emergence of things and the elements which are quite different in character to water, and from each other. He believed that the first principle could not be water, as Thales had proposed, because if it were, it would conquer all others. Aristotle reports him as saying that these known elements are in opposition to one another. Air is cold, water is moist, and fire is hot. “And therefore, if any one of these were infinite, the rest would have ceased to be by this time” (The Presocratics, edited by Philip Wheelwright, 1966. T3, p.55, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York and London). Thus, since the world is constantly changing, the primal substance must be indefinite.
According to Aristotle, Anaximander proposed the Indefinite as the first principle of the universe, and argued that it “has neither come into being nor can it pass away”. He says that the Indefinite “encompasses all things and governs all things”, and that it is immortal and indestructible. Instead of the anthropomorphic (god with human attributes) figure of Zeus whom Hesiod had said was the ruler of the universe, Anaximander proposed an abstract entity which is given the traditional attributes of the divine. By creating a neuter noun – a noun which is neither masculine nor feminine – from an adjective – a word that would normally describe a quality or modify a noun – Anaximander introduces the notion of a single divine entity that is identified with the Indefinite as first principle. This simple move, at one fell swoop, made possible the subsequent philosophical speculation about the divine.
The third Milesian philosopher was Anaximenes (c 580-500 BC). Anaximenes believed that both Thales and Anaximander were mistaken. The source of all things, he believed, was air – or “vapour”. The soul is air; fire is rarefied air; when condensed, air changes into water, and if further condensed it becomes earth, and ultimately stone. Anaximenes held that air was the origin of earth, water, and fire. Like Thales, he also thought that there must be some underlying primal substance that is the source of all change. Like the Indefinite of Anaximander, he thought this primal substance was the divine and all encompassing source of generation for all visible objects in both heaven and earth – even though he had identified it as air, which is an element. In the same way that Thales held that the world floats on water, Anaximenes held that the world rides on a cushion of air. He also held that heavenly bodies were fiery because they evaporated, and that they ride upon air because they are flat. Although Anaximenes was a younger contemporary of Anaximander he appears to be a more primitive thinker.
The first attempts at philosophy, then, are occupied with the only world which men can present clearly to themselves – the world of nature. In general, these attempts take the shape of a search for some unitary principle or primal substance for explaining the world, some one kind of real existence out of which the diversity of the universe has arisen, some underlying permanence in this never ending process of change. The first decisive steps in this search were taken by the Milesian philosophers.
Before moving on, let us recap on developments so far. We have seen how Thales, in search of permanence in a world of constant change, introduced the concept of a single substance, which he believed was water. Then we encountered Anaximander, who proposed the idea of the Indefinite as the first principle. After Anaximander came Anximenes, who believed that the underlying principle was air. While each held that there must be a single basic substance from which all things originate, the substance each proposed was different. Thus, allowing that there was a primal substance, the problem was to explain how this substance transformed into other things. This dilemma brings us to one of the most important of a group of philosophers known as the Eleatics, from Elea in Southern Italy.
The Eleatic School
The reputed founder of the Eleatic school was Xenophanes (570-480BC), a wandering poet who left his native Colophon as a consequence of the Persian conquest of Ionia, and finally settled down in Elea, where he died at an advanced age. Originally philosophy was not the work of individuals, but had grown from schools, or guilds, which had religious, or at least semi-religious, connections. However, when the change to a more scientific approach to philosophy came about, there was a decided move away from religious dogma. The whole philosophical movement became, from a religious perspective, sceptical. Within the schools the long held polytheistic mythology, which was now considered only suitable for the masses, was replaced with more naturalistic explanations. However, Xenophanes was not content that these explanations should remain the privilege of the elite. He called for men to abandon the paltry notion of gods in the likeness of men, and subject to the same base passions of men. “Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among men, thefts and adulteries and deceptions of one another… [M]ortals think that the gods are born as they are, and have perception like theirs, and a voice and form” (Rogers. A.K. A Student’s History of Philosophy. 1925, p. 21). But these ideas or concepts are creations of the human imagination, says Xenophanes. Although he admits that by developing our knowledge and changing our ideas as we learn, we may move ever nearer to truth, we can never reach truth itself, our ideas of truth are always made by men. As he says:
As for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor shall he know it, neither of the gods
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak,
For even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would himself not know it:
For all is but a woven web of guesses.
He also said:
The Ethiops say that their gods are flat-nosed and black.
While the Thracians say that theirs have blue eyes and red hair.
Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw
And could sculpture like men, then the horses would draw their gods
Like horses, and cattle like cattle, and each would then shape
Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of its own.
(see Magee. B. The Story of Philosophy. 1998, p.16)
“There is One God”, says Xenophanes, “the greatest among gods and men, comparable to mortals neither in thought or form” (Rogers. Ibid.). It should be noted that this is not a statement in the monotheistic religious sense, for the God of Xenophanes is expressly said to exclude all anthropomorphic elements. It should also be noted that Xenophanes God is said to be “greatest among gods”, so it seems that other gods are deemed to have a certain reality. What Xenophanes is trying to assert is not that the reality of the universe is God in a religious sense, rather that which we call God is the world nature, regarded as absolutely one, eternal and unchanging.
Parmenides (c515-c445 BC):
Parmenides belonged to the Eleatic School of philosophy. His surviving writings are fragments of a narrative poem which was written in response to early pre-Socratic philosophers. In these fragments he opposes the philosophical explanations that argue that the world arose from some substance or set of opposites, and instead holds that there is no change in the world.
In his poem the narrator is a charioteer who drives the chariot beyond the gates of night and day, to a place where a goddess expounds certain philosophical doctrines. However, instead of invoking her divine authority, she asks the narrator to use the faculty of reason to judge her arguments. In this way the poem is said to constitute the first philosophical argument in Western philosophy.
The poem falls into two parts: a critical argument and a constructive cosmology, which is known as the Way of Truth and the Way of Opinion. In the first part, the Way of Truth, the goddess distinguishes two paths of enquiry: the path of ‘Is’ and the path of ‘Is not’. The latter is rejected on the grounds that one cannot know or express what-is-not. She goes on to warn against the path followed by ignorant mortals that confounds being with non-being; sense experience cannot justify this path. The path of ‘Is’ is marked with signposts declaring that ‘what is’ is (i) not generated or destroyed (it is changeless), (ii) all alike, (iii) unmoved, and (iv) complete. She then goes on, in a series of interconnected arguments, to show that generation, differentiation, and motion involve non-being, which is unknowable. For example, generation infers coming to be from not-being, while differentiation presupposes having more or less being. The goddess argues that all change is ruled out by this argument, and that changes and differences are just names conjured up by mere mortals who have taken the path to the Way of Opinion.
Parmenides, then, thought that everything that existed had always existed. “What makes Parmenides important”, says Bertrand Russell, “is that he invented the form of metaphysical argument that, in one form or another, is found in most subsequent metaphysicians down to and including Hegel” (The History of Western Philosophy. 1991.p.66). Nothing came out of nothing, said Parmenides, and nothing that exists can become nothing. According to Parmenides, there is no such thing as change for nothing can become other than it is. He believed the senses to be deceptive, and argued that everything perceived through the senses is illusory. The only true being is the “One”, he said, which is infinite and indivisible. Parmenides conceded that nature is constantly changing, his senses told him so, but his reason told him otherwise. Rather than rely on sensory perception, Parmenides chose to trust his reason. The senses, he believed, give an erroneous view of the world which does not correspond with our reason. Such a profound faith in reason is called rationalism. This brings us to Heraclitus, who, unlike his contemporary Parmenides, held that nothing is constant and that “everything is flux”.
But first Zeno.
Zeno of Elea:
Amongst those who supported Parmenides’ theory by arguing against motion and against motion was his student Zeno of Elea. Zeno set out to strengthen his master’s argument by showing, on the negative side, that the difficulties which it involves in the eyes of common sense, are matched by difficulties quite as great in the views of those who assert the reality of change and motion. Amongst his most famous arguments are the flying arrow and Achilles and the Tortoise. In order that an arrow flying through space should reach its destination, it must occupy a series of positions. However, at any moment we choose, it is in a particular place, and therefore it is always at rest. Achilles, the fleetest of men, races against a tortoise, the slowest of quadrupeds. He allows the tortoise a head start, but can never overtake it, because, while he is reaching what at any time is the starting point of the tortoise, the animal will have gained a certain amount of ground. Since Achilles must always first reach the position previously occupied by the tortoise, the tortoise will always be just that bit ahead. Whilst, of course, the character of the Eleatic conclusions rendered it impossible that they should ever produce any great advance in substantial knowledge, indirectly the polemical interests of Zeno inspired others (such as the Sophists) to direct their attention to the process of argument and refutation: the practise arguing both sides of a case; and in this way a beginning was made of what was to become one of the special divisions in philosophy, that is, Logic.
Heraclitus (c 500 BC) :
Heraclitus was from Ephesus in Asia Minor. Unlike his contemporary Parmenides, who believed that our senses are unreliable, Heraclitus believed that everything changes and that our sensory perceptions are reliable. He believed that constant change was the most basic characteristic of nature, hence the famous remark that we cannot step into the same river twice.
Heraclitus wrote in riddling prose epigrams - an epigram is a concise and pointed, often sarcastic, saying. In these epigrams he declared that he would set out the nature of things according to the Logos, and the objective principle of the world. While the Logos is available to all, most people ignore it and live as sleepwalkers in a dream world of their own. The role of philosophy is to express everyday truths so that their underlying meaning becomes clearly understood – just as one might do with a riddle. It was in this way that he presented his paradoxical truths: his theory of opposites. The way up and the way down are one and the same; justice and strife, waking and sleeping, life and death, young and old are all opposite sides of the same thing.
“Everything is flux”:
According to Heraclitus, nothing is this world is permanent. Things come into existence in their different ways, and, as long as they exist they are constantly changing. Everything in the universe follows this order, even human beings. What we think of as objects are not stable things at all but things that are in a perpetual state of transition. Heraclitus compared objects to the flames of fire which, while they appear to be objects, they are not so much objects as processes.
The unity of opposites:
Heraclitus believed that there is unity and stability in the world, but, he argued, it is a unity formed by a combination of opposites. The path up a mountainside and the path down the mountainside are not two different paths running in opposite directions, but the same path. The young Heraclitus and the old Heraclitus are not two different individuals, but the same Heraclitus. Everything, he said, arises from conflict or strife that occurs between opposites. Thus, strife or conflict is necessary for change. To eliminate strife is to eliminate progress – and reality; which means that reality is inherently in a state of flux. Without this constant interplay of opposites the world would cease to exist. To Heraclitus even God was something that was in a constant state of transformation. “God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, hunger and satiety”, he said. For “God”, Heraclitus used the Greek word “Logos” which means, amongst other things, reason. He believed in a universal reason which was responsible for everything that happens in nature. This universal reason is common to all men, and is something that guides all men. Yet, he says, most live by individual reason. “The opinions of most people”, he says, “are the playthings of infants” (Presocratics T.34, p. 88). So, in the midst of this ever-flowing river which is constantly changing, Heraclitus sees something that is both permanent and changing. This “something”, which is the source of everything, is called “Logos”, or “divine reason”.
Although Heraclitus stresses that wisdom is, or should be, attainable to all people, he says that most live in accordance with their own opinions. As Plato would later argue, he says that they live in a dreamlike state of sleepfulness. Only those who are awake fully appreciate the real world. However, this real world is not the world of opinions, but the world of truth which is shared only by those who have awoken to the reality of the Logos.
Notwithstanding his view that everything is in a state of constant change, there is, Heraclitus maintains, that which is eternal: the Logos. As mentioned above logos can mean many things: speech, discourse, statement, report, account, explanation, reason, principle, reputation, collection, ratio, and proportion. However, it seems that it was chosen by Heraclitus to infer his view that underpinning this constant state of flux is a rational principle at work throughout the universe.
Behind the appearance of sensible and ever changing things, there is a hidden harmony – a “fitting together”, which is only recognised by wise men who look beyond the flow of change to that which holds all things together – the Logos. This process takes place between the continuing tensions of opposites, fire and water. For Heraclitus the original substance, fire, is transformed into other substances in a cyclical process that maintains the world as we know it. Fire changes into water and water into earth. The proportions of each resulting substance are equivalent to the corresponding amount of fire. It seems that fire acts as a regulating measure which keeps all things in check. Moreover, while fire is the dominant principle its activity is constrained, or kept from destroying the cosmos completely, by its interaction with water. Thus, when fire threatens to consume the cosmos it is quenched by water. However, since fire is the first principle, it rises again to overwhelm water, and so the process continues.
For Heraclitus this eternal conflict – this tension between opposites, is the hidden structure of the universe and of human affairs. Conflict, he says, is justice (Dike), and all things come into being and pass away in accordance to it. The continuing conflict of opposites is essential for the ordering of cosmos and for justice in human affairs. Thus, it can be said that for Heraclitus the doctrine of flux is not so much that ultimate reality is change, but that change is the manner in which reality, Logos, reveals itself.
Heraclitus maintains that the same conflict of opposites that exist in the physical universe, show a similar conflict in human affairs. That is, that “human affairs are a microcosm of the physical world – a concept that gave rise to the tradition of natural law that was developed by the Stoics and later taken up by Christian thinkers.
Heraclitus calls on his fellow citizens to awaken from their private dreamlike states and by listening to the Logos, enter into the common, waking world of the wise who have insight into the unity of opposites, which is the hidden harmony behind the diversity of appearance.
At one level Heraclitus presents a physical theory similar to those of the Milesian philosophers, Thales, Anaximander and Anaximines: that there is an original or primary substance. In Heraclitus’ case this substance is fire, which is transformed into other substances in a cyclical process that maintains the world as we know it. However, there is an implicit critique of the tradition in Heraclitus’ version. His original substance is the least substantial substance of all things. Moreover, rather than emphasising its priority to other substances, Heraclitus points out its unity with other substances of the cycle of transformations. Hot becomes cold, dry becomes wet, and thus all opposites are one. The opposites would not exist without each other, and thus strife is responsible for the existence of the world; but opposites are held together in a unity which is more fundamental than the surface manifestations of difference. Also, there is a single process of transformation; the way up and the way down are one and the same. Thus, the several substances of cosmic cycle are related as opposites to one another. For Heraclitus the ultimate reality is not permanence; but the process of change, the law of transformation, which is perhaps to be identified with the Logos itself. For Heraclitus, the world order did not come out of chaos, as his predecessors held, but is an everlasting process of fiery transformation.
In summa, in an attempt to understand the basic structure of the universe, Heraclitus came to believe that the three principal elements of nature were fire, water and earth. However, he also held that, of these, fire was the primary element, controlling and modifying the other two. The cosmic fire has its counterpart in the human soul, which in weak men is tainted by the ‘watery’ elements of sleep, stupidity and vice. The virtuous soul can survive the death of the body and eventually rejoin the cosmic fire. However, the process of separation and unity is ongoing. For Heraclitus, the dynamism between opposites was the driving force and eternal condition of the universe. “Men do not understand that being at variance it also agrees with itself, there is harmony, as with the bow and the lyre” (fragment 51). Strife and opposition are both necessary and good, for the concept of universal tension ensures that while opposites may enjoy periods of alternating dominance, none shall ever completely extinguish or vanquish the other. This universal tension ensures that change is continual, that everything is in a state of flux.
Permanence does not exist in the universe, only the permanent condition of change as a result of the transformations of Fire. Thus, while nothing remains changeless within the universe, the universe itself is eternal.
Empedocles (c.490-430 BC) was from Acrazas in Sicily, and lived most of his life in Magna Graecia. Legend has it that he worked miracles, sometimes by magic, sometimes by means of his scientific knowledge. Empedocles argued that the notion of a single basic substance could not be sustained. Instead, he argued, nature is made up of four different elements: earth, fire, air, and water. All natural processes are due to the combining and separating of these four “roots”. All things, said Empedocles, are a mixture of these four roots, but in varying quantities. Although the thing itself changes, and can be seen to change by the naked eye, earth, air, fire, and water do not change. Therefore, it is not correct to say that everything changes: nothing changes. What happens is that the four elements combine and separate, only to combine again in different forms. This interaction is possible, Empedocles held, by the work of two forces which he called Love and Strife.
According to Empedocles, there are two different forces at work in nature: Love and Strife. Love binds things together, and Strife breaks them apart. Love and Strife are, for Empedocles, the primitive substances on a level with earth, air, fire, and water. There are times when Love is stronger, while at other times Strife is in the ascendant. The changes in the world are due only to Chance and Necessity, rather than being governed by purpose. There is a cycle – Love dominates but is gradually separated by Strife, only to be reunited by Love, and so on, but there is no final end towards this cyclical process is moving. Only the elements of earth, air, fire, and water are everlasting. In this way we can see that Empedocles brings the arguments of Parmenides and Heraclitus together. That is, while on the surface, everything changes, underneath everything remains the same. In Empedocles’ scheme of things permanence and change have been accommodated by taking the view that there is more than one basic substance.
Anaxagoras (500-429 B.C.):
With Anaxagoras we come to the first time to a connection with the city of Athens. Anaxagoras was a native of Clazomenae in Ionia, but moved to Athens about the middle of the fifth century. Empedocles had thought that by the admission of four distinct elements, earth, air, fire and water, the infinite variety of the world could be explained. He does not seem, however, to have attempted seriously the task of showing how this could be in detail. And it appeared to Anaxagoras that the task was impossible.
Since the qualities revealed in the world are infinite in number, instead of four elements, there must be an unlimited multitude of them, as many s there are distinct qualities. reality consists of a countless number of things, or qualitatively simple elements, representing every distinguishable aspect of the world. These elements are infinitely divisible, and are everywhere diffused in the universe; so that in each individual particle of matter all elements whatsoever are represented – everything is in everything else, - and objects are nit separated from one another. Nonetheless, the varying proportions in which the elements appear, and the fact that in any particular object some of them are present in such infinitesimal quantities as to be unrecognisable, render possible the apparent differences that meet the eye. The only change is that of spatial position, by which the qualities are intermingled in varying proportions.
Along with this atomistic hypothesis, Anaxagoras is known as the originator of another important development in philosophy. Like most of his contemporaries, he attempted to describe the origin and nature of the universe. Impressed by the fact that the movement of the elements had not taken place in a haphazardly way, but yielded an ordered and harmonious world, he concluded that besides a mixture of substances there was Mind (Nous or Reason), which, though extended in space, does not mix with anything else. According to Anaxagoras, Mind orders all things, whether past, present, or future. In this way a dualism is set up. On the one hand there are elements, entirely inert; whilst over against them stands Nous, or Reason, which alone is self-moved, and which is the cause of everything else. This is the first conscious separation of the rational life of the mind from the rest of the universe; and as such marks an important step. it gives an intimation of that view of the world which subordinates material processes to a conscious rational purpose, and which, under the name of teleology, has ever since been contesting with the mechanical theories of science of the right to the supreme place in the interpretation of the universe. (see A.K. Rogers. Student’s History of Philosophy. 1925, pp. 29/30)
Democritus (c.460-371 B.C.):
Democritus was a Greek philosopher from Abdera, who developed atomism as a major philosophical theory. Indeed, he is to be classed, not with the earlier philosophers, but with Plato and Aristotle, whose contemporary he was. Democritus accepted Parmenides’ theory that there is no generation or destruction, but rejected the argument that there is no motion. Motion, he says, is made possible by a void, which is a kind of non-being, but it is not nothing at all. In the infinite void an infinite number of everlasting microscopic particles, the atoms, move about. The atoms are solid and internally unchanging, possessing infinitely various shapes and perhaps having the property of weight. There motion is everlasting and uncaused. These atoms combine to form macroscopic objects, and the changes of macroscopic objects result from rearrangement of their component atoms. In the same way that many different words are composed of a small amount of letters so many kinds of substances can be composed of a relatively small variety of atoms.
In Democritus’ cosmology, a chance concentration of atoms in an empty space begins a circular motion impelled by collisions. The motion becomes a vortex surrounded by a spherical membrane, within which a cosmos, or world, is formed. Our cosmos consists of a flat Earth surrounded by heavenly bodies. There are innumerable worlds, each with its own arrangement, but we cannot see them because our own vision is limited by the membrane of our own cosmos, within which the stars of our own cosmos are located. In our cosmos, life arose from the seas and spread to the land, where the human race arose and developed cultures and civilisations. Eventually our cosmos will perish like all other combinations of atoms.
Democritus’ whole theory compels him to insist upon a difference between our ordinary perception, which gives us the unreal appearance of things as qualitatively distinct, and thought, which discloses their true atomic structure; and it is only in thought terms that science deals. On the other hand, his materialism forces him to explain knowledge in terms of contact, and so to reduce it ultimately to the form of touch. He does this through the theory of effluxes, or images, a theory which remained influential even down to the time of Locke (who we shall meet later on). According to Democritus even the soul is a compound of atoms, in particular of fine, spherical atoms. External objects shed minute copies or images of themselves in the form of films of atoms. These enter the sense organs which are fitted to receive them, and by setting in motion the soul atoms, give rise to perception. How, then, does false knowledge differ from true, sensation from thought? This question, which earlier philosophers were unable to answer, Democritus seems to have solved without admitting the difference between them. Thought is caused by those finer images which copy the atomic structure of things, and which, as they give rise to a gentler motion of the soul, are able to affect us only as more violent disturbances are prevented. Sensation, on the contrary, being due to the larger and coarser images, which aggregates of atoms are given off, throws the soul into the violent commotion which results in confused perceptions. Thus, immoderate experiences cause imbalance in the soul, resulting in misery. Thus, we should seek euthymia (equanimity, cheerfulness) by cultivating contentment and avoiding envy and emulation. For this reason Democritus became known as ‘the laughing philosopher’. The person who has equanimity will live in a law-like manner and have a harmonious life in the state.
Of the little we know of the community founded by Pythagoras (c. the middle of the 6 century BC), it appears to have been a religious brotherhood with strict rules which banned the eating of certain foods (beans and the vital organs -hearts and wombs - of animals), and demanded a specific dress code as well strong codes of behaviour. The motto of the Pythagoreans was “Among friends all things are common”, and in keeping with this principle all property was given over to the rulers (politikoi) who kept accounts and returned the property with interest to anyone who chose to leave the community. It was also a unique amongst ancient secret communities in that it admitted women members – despite the fact that the Greeks generally looked on women to be both physically and intellectually inferior.
The Pythagoreans fell into two distinct groups: the simple initiates or “hearers” (akousmatikoi) and the more advanced “students” (mathematikoi), who were privileged with some explanations of the central dogmas. In this secret society, maxims were communicated orally to the “hearers” as symbols to be interpreted for the conduct of life. One of these maxims “go not beyond the balance” is understood to be a command not transgress justice, since the balance, or “weighing scales, is an ancient symbol of justice in both trade and life itself.
Pythagorean doctrine held that rule of the wise king (monarchy) was better than rule of the many (democracy). In the Pythagorean table of opposites, the One is good, and the many is bad. Thus, Pythagoreans were counselled to worship the one divine ruler of the universe, as well as the one wise ruler of the city.
Pythagoreans believed in the transmigration of the soul that is found in Orphism, a Greek mystery religion whose central myth tells of the descent of Orpheus into Hades. The Greek historian Herodotus reports that the Egyptians were the first to hold that the soul is immortal and that, when the body dies, the soul enters into the body that is born into another animal at the same time. He infers that Pythagoras shared this belief, and this is supported by Xenophanes who tells the story of Pythagoras believing that he recognised the voice of a dead friend in the yelp of a pup that was being punished. Pythagoras himself believed that he was the reincarnation of the hero Euphorus.
According to Pythagorean doctrine, although the soul is immortal, it descends into the realm of flesh and remains in a cycle of reincarnation until it is released from the body through purification rites and regains its true nature as a divine being. The divine status of the soul is based on the belief that all life is akin and that God is One. The doctrine of metempsychosis – the transmigration of souls – implies a strong sense of guilt about the body and its passions.
The Pythagorean way of life was based on the conviction that reason is superior to passion in the soul, so that the best human life is one of ritual observance and intellectual discipline. The ultimate goal of the philosophic way of life was to imitate the divine by withdrawing from the body and thereby escaping the cycle of transmigration which the soul is forced to undergo either as a test or in atonement for sin. The escape route for the human soul lies in ritual purification of the body and in the sort of intellectual contemplation provided by mathematical disciplines such as geometry, music, and astronomy. It was this promise of salvation of the soul which motivated those who joined the Pythagorean movement to submit themselves and their families to the stringiest rules of the order. What drove them was the perennial hope of finding a better way to live.
Bryan Magee (in his The Story of Philosophy 1998. p. 15) informs us that Pythagoras was the first person to have the idea that all the workings of the material universe are expressible in terms of mathematics. Most of us today learn Pythagoras’ Theorem at school. It was he who introduced the idea of the “square” and the “cube” of a number, thus applying geometrical concepts to arithmetic. Through his teachings the word “theory” acquired its now familiar meaning; he is also believed to be the person who invented the term “philosophy”, and who first applied the word “cosmos” to the universe.
In the 5th century a movement of itinerant professional lecturers flourished in Greece. These men were known as Sophists - nomadic educators who sold their expertise to the highest bidder. For a young man of aristocratic birth, the natural, and only, career option was to enter into the political life of his city. And to qualify for this role it was imperative that he should be expert in the art of rhetoric – the art of speaking eloquently and persuasively. In the small city states of Greece, where each citizen – that is, each male over eighteen years of age, had a say in determining public policy, public preferment, and public security stratagem against enemies of the state, it was vital that this citizen should be skilled in that art that was best suited to carry his audience with him. Those judged best to impart this skill were the Sophists.
Since there were no established seats of learning at that time, these teachers roamed from city to city, finding students, mostly sons of the rich, wherever they could, and supporting themselves by the fees they received. Whilst the basis of their work focused on the rhetorical, the more skilled amongst them broadened their range to cover any knowledge available of the workings of the human mind, of literature, history, language, grammar, of the nature of virtue and justice, and the principles underlying the dialectic of argument. In short, all that was deemed necessary to provide the budding politician with skills needed to speak well, convincingly and, generally, to succeed. Their underlying theory is probably best revealed in two remarks of its leading protagonists: Protagoras, considered the greatest of the Sophists, declared “Man is the measure of all things”, and Gorgias who proclaimed, “Nothing exists, and it did, no one would know it, and if they knew it, they could not communicate it”. From these statements the Sophists developed the view that certain knowledge was unattainable and, therefore, man should not trouble himself to seek that which he can never find. Instead, following Protagoras’s dictum, he should “measure” matters according to his nature and his needs, since man is the measure of all things.
The habit of unrestricted enquiry and discussion which was crystallised by the Sophistic movement, the free play of the mind over all subjects that interest men, meant the overthrow of much that was sacred in the existing civilisation. However, the Greeks, in the main, did not respond well to having the foundations of their lives shaken; not even when these foundations were shown never to have been rationalised, never to have been examined critically, and to have arisen principally from unthinking custom. Thus, the term “Sophist” and associated with it became one that was treated with a great deal of circumspection. One of those who registered his concern with teachers whose methods were concerned with instructing students how to win an argument at any cost was Socrates.
Socrates was the first great Greek philosopher to be actually born in Athens. Socrates shared with the Sophists a concern for practical issues and particularly for education; but he questioned the extravagant claims of some Sophists that they could teach virtue. He himself was concerned with questions of moral education and moral character, and he seems to have held that the pursuit of moral improvement was the most important human task. How he lived hardly anybody knew. He never worked, and he is said to have never been concerned about the future. He ate only when requested by his disciples to share their food; but they must have found him agreeable company, for there is no account of him having gone without food. At home, however, it was a different story. He neglected his wife Xanthippe and children; and his wife considered him a good-for-nothing idler who brought his family more notoriety than food. In spite of all this she loved him. This portrayal of Socrates has led some people to take the view that he was quite unsophisticated. However, in his paper entitled ‘Wittgenstein, Plato, and the Historical Socrates’ (The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, Vol. 82, No. 319 Jan 2007), M.W. Rowe tells us that this may not be the case. It seems that Socrates’ father was a well-known stone mason at a time of great extensive public building e in Athens, and that it is probable that Socrates followed him in this profession. It is also thought that Socrates was married twice. First to Myrto, daughter of Aristides the Just, and secondly to Xanthippe. The ‘ipp’ of which identifies it as an aristocratic name. Moreover, many other names in his family were of aristocratic origin. This suggests that Socrates, like his father, was a member of the bourgeoisie, and his private means were sufficient to attract the attention of aristocratic fathers on the lookout for potential spouses for their daughters.
Socrates was modest about his wisdom. In fact he did not claim to have wisdom, only to seek it lovingly. The Oracle of Delphi had pronounced him the wisest of Greeks; and Socrates had taken this as approval of his agnosticism which was the starting point of his philosophy: ‘One thing only I know’, he said, ‘and that is that I know nothing’. Philosophy begins when one begins to doubt – when one begins to question the accepted wisdom of tradition. Particularly the one’s cherished beliefs, one’s dogmas and one’s axioms. Puzzled by the priestess of Delphi’s statement, Socrates felt obliged to seek the meaning of her remark. By questioning others who had a reputation for wisdom, he came to see that he was wiser than they, because unlike them he did not claim to know what he did not know. The life of Socrates is known mostly through the Plato’s dialogues. Possibly through Plato’s’ Meno we come to understand something of Socrates philosophical method, elenchus, and its primary purpose. And through we learn of his moral character and fortitude through Apology and Phaedo.
Theory of Recollection and the World of Ideal Forms:
The theory of recollection is first mooted in Meno. According to Socrates, because the soul (mind) is immortal and has been born often and seen all things in the underworld, there is nothing that it has not learned, about virtue and other things. Thus, there is nothing to prevent one from recalling that which one already knows. What is needed is a process, a method, which allows one to reconnect with knowledge that one already possesses. Thus, for Socrates, there is no learning, only recollection (see Meno 81 c,d). This theory is not without its difficulties. One is what I call the ‘chicken or egg’ dilemma. That is, if, as is argued, for the soul (mind) there is constant movement between life and death, how do we know which came first: the soul/mind in a pre-corporeal state during which it has access to ideal forms which it brings into the material world at birth, or the soul/mind in the body that brings certain ideas gleaned from sensory experience with it into the underworld when the body dies. Surely, it can be argued, if it is the case that the soul/mind experiences perfection a pre-corporeal state it would have no desire or reason to surrender such a state to enter into the imperfect world of the body. Another difficulty is the concept that there is an altogether too sharp contrast or distinction between the two realms: between the ideas and particular things. For Plato, the only way that the soul/mind can experience real truth or real knowledge is by detaching itself completely from sensory experience. Whilst he acknowledges that freedom and separation of the soul from the body can only occur in death (see Phaedo, 67, b), Plato himself, whilst still in the alive, claims not only to know that an ideal world exists, but also to know all that it contains. Thus, he presents us with a concept in which there appears to be a hiatus that is impassable. Not only when one turns to true knowledge does one get no assistance from the senses, but the senses are an actual impediment to the attainment of true knowledge. To behold the ideal, one must eliminate, as far as one can, any knowledge gleaned through the senses, and depend only on the pure light of the mind. As he says,
…the body is the source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food, and is also liable to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search for truth, and by filling us so full of loves, and fears, and fancies, and idols, and ever having, as people say, so much as a thought. From whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? Whence but from the body, and the lust of the body (Phaedo 66).
For Plato, it is whilst the soul is imprisoned in the body it can catch only the faintest glimpse of the perfect world which it desires so much. It is this very marked dualism, between the world of ideas and the world of things, which presents the greatest difficulty with Plato’s system. If the senses are such a burden, if the prevent us from attaining our true destiny, why are we cursed with them? Moreover, if the world of Ideas alone is the rue reality, why should anything else exist? Finally, although it may be some grounds for accepting the view that the soul/mind precedes physical existence, it does not follow that it survives the demise of the body.
The Apology professes to be the speech made by Socrates in his own defence at his trial – or rather it is an account of Plato’s recollection of Socrates’ defence given some time after his trial. In a typical Athenian trial of that period the defendant was given a limited time (measured by a water-clock) to answer the charges and, although he had to defend himself, he could, if he so desired, buy a suitable speech from a professional speech writer – a Sophist. Socrates, of course, rejects this approach and declares that he will speak plain and unvarnished truth. It can be argued, of course, that his disavowal of any knowledge of rhetoric (rhetoric is the art of speaking eloquently and persuasively) and that his ambition is to tell nothing but the truth, is itself a form of rhetoric in that it implies that his statements can be trusted implicitly.
Socrates had been accused of being an “evil – doer and a curious person, searching into things under the earth and in the sky, and of making the worse seem the better cause, and of teaching all this to others”. He was found guilty by a majority and was, in accordance with Athenian law of that time, to propose an alternative penalty to death. The judges had to choose, if they found the accused guilty, between the penalty of demanded by the prosecution and that suggested by the defence. Therefore, it was in Socrates interest to suggest a penalty that would be accepted as a reasonable alternative to death. However, he chose the sum of 30 minas. While this was much more than Socrates could possibly afford (the sum was guaranteed by Plato, Crito, Critoboulus and Apollodorus) it was considered insufficient by the court and he was sentenced to death. From this we can conclude that Socrates actively sought this verdict, since, to suggest an alternative penalty that would be acceptable to the court was tantamount to admitting that he was guilty of the charges against him – this of course he could not do for central to the charges made against him were that he was guilty of not worshipping the gods that the State worshipped, but of introducing new divinities, and of corrupting the minds of the young by instructing them accordingly.
The Apology, then, is, according to Plato, Socrates’ answer to these charges. Socrates opens his defence by accusing his prosecutors of eloquence (what he means by this is rhetoric– the art off speaking persuasively), and rebutting the same charge which was made against him. The only eloquence he admits to, he says, is that of the truth. If this approach offends the court, he says, the court must forgive him for, not being familiar with the ways of the court, he is not familiar with its un-forensic way of speaking. Socrates goes on to relate the incidence where the Oracle of Delphi was once asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, to which the Oracle answered that there was not. Socrates claims to have been bemused by this statement, since he always claimed that he knew nothing. However, he also accepts that the god cannot lie so he set out to see if he could find someone wiser than himself. This sequence is central to the Apology because it is from here that Socrates infers his raison d’etre derives. That is, he regards the Oracle’s reply as a puzzle that has to be resolved. Therefore he sees it as his life’s mission to expose false knowledge. The first person he goes to is a politician, who is thought to be wise by many people, and even wiser by himself. He soon discovers that the man was not wise at all, and as a consequence is hated by the politician for exposing his ignorance. Next he visits to the poets, and asks them to explain passages of their writings. When they were unable to do so, Socrates concludes that it is not in virtue off being wise that they write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration. Then he tries his luck with craftsmen, but he finds them to be equally unwise. They think they are wise, he discovers, because they know their own trade, but in reality that is all they know. Finally he concludes that only God is wise, and that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing.
Question: do you see any contradiction in Socrates’ claim that his mission in life stems from the Oracles’s statement?
According to Socrates, his mission arose from the sense of obligation he felt to discover the truth behind the oracle’s statement that he was the wisest. In fact, it must have been the case that he was had already embarked on his philosophical mission, why else would the question have been out to the oracle (it was put, by the way, by Socrates’ friend, Chaerephon). It should be said that it was traditional for the oracle to respond to questions in an obscure fashion, and it was accepted that her answers always required interpretation. It is worth mentioning that the Socratic method of enquiry, by its nature, had the effect of undermining the basic assumption of ancient democracy – that is, that all men had the knowledge necessary for the conduct of public affairs. Therefore, by exposing the ignorance of those who were most powerful in Athenian society, not only to themselves, but, since these investigations were carried out in public, to all and sundry – particularly the young aristocrats who had nothing else to do but follow Socrates around all day.
The second part of Socrates’ Apology concentrates on charges made against him by Meletus, that he was guilty of corrupting the minds of the young, and that he did not acknowledge the gods of the city, and even introduces new divinities. Since Meletus is in court, Socrates can question his charges directly – which is legally entitled to do. With regard to the first charge, Meletus is forced into the absurd position of claiming that every Athenian citizen improves the minds of the young and only Socrates corrupts them. The conclusions to this premise are self-explanatory. That is, the outlandish claim by Meletus shows that he had never thought seriously about the education of the young, that his charge against Socrates is not based on any concern for their welfare, and that even Socrates, regardless of his wisdom, was no match for the collective wisdom of the entire community.
The charge of introducing new divinities must be understood against the background of the official religion of the state. In contrast to monotheistic religions (one god religions), Greek religions were polytheistic (they had many gods) and undogmatic in the sense that they had no bible or set of orthodox beliefs that the faithful were obliged to accept. The only written account of the Greek gods were found in the poetry of Homer and Hesiod, but these stories did not have to be believed by those who performed the prescribed rituals to appease these deities. However, while there was no set of orthodox beliefs, each city had its own pantheon of divinities – its own group of gods and goddesses- that had been gradually accepted over the ages. Athens, for example, was named after the warrior goddess Athena, who was born out of the head of Zeus. Many of the public buildings on the Acropolis were dedicated to her; the temple of Athena Nike was built to celebrate the defeat of the Persians, and her festivals would have been the most important in the Athenian official calendar. All these public rituals had a profound significance, and Greek religion may be regarded as a kind of worship of their native city by its citizens. There was an officially sanctioned set of gods in each city, and their festivals were carefully regulated, since that was part of the political order. There was also a strict ban on blaspheming against the accepted divinities, and the introduction of new gods was strictly forbidden.. This was the legal basis for the charge of impiety brought against Socrates who had often spoken in public about his personal daimon, describing it as it was a warning sign against any kind of wrongdoing. When Meletus is forced by Socrates to clarify the charge of introducing new divinities, he goes to the extreme of accusing him of not acknowledging any gods. Socrates is able to point out that he is being confused with Anaxagoras (one of the natural philosophers) whose book denied that the sun and the moon were gods. Furthermore, Meletus contradicts himself because he also accuses Socrates of introducing new gods (like his daimon) which implies that he does believe in some deities.
Question: What lies behind the apparently contradictory charge that Socrates is an atheist and that he is introducing new gods?
Answer: This charge refers to the Socratic talk of a personal daimon which did not belong to the official pantheon (hence the charge of the introduction of new gods), and which led him to challenge traditional pieties on the basis of reason (hence the charge of atheism).
The “unexamined life”
According to Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living because it does not prepare us for the next life, nor does it allow us to see things as they really are. It is only when the mind is free from bodily passions that we can see and know the truth. Rather than blindly accepting what tradition tells us, we should search for the truth ourselves.
What, in Apology, is Socrates’ view of life after death?
Towards the end of Apology, Socrates says that there is a good hope that death is one of two things: either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything or death is a change and relocating of the soul to another place. If it is a complete lack of perception, he says, like a dreamless sleep, then death is a great advantage, for who does not wake from a dreamless sleep feeling refreshed. If it is a change to another place, as tradition has it, he reckons that it would be wonderful to spend his time testing and examining those there in order to see which of them were wise.
Does this suggest that Socrates has an open mind to the question of life after death?
Why, you may wonder, did Socrates chose this particular mission when there were more than likely many other types of political activities that he could have become involved with? The answer is that he was warned by his daimon against participating in democratic politics because he would be destroyed, and so be of no benefit to the city (in the light of subsequent events, one is forced to question the wisdom of Socrates’ daimon). In short, Socrates refused to be corrupted by politics and pursued his own personal mission of urging his fellow-citizens to care for their own souls – to examine their own lives - rather than being concerned with wealth and power.
The Phaedo is a record of the conversation between Socrates and the friends who have come to visit him in prison on the day of his execution and deals with the reason why Socrates is not afraid of dying.
In Phaedo, Cebes expresses doubt as to the survival of he body after death, and urges Socrates to offer arguments, which he proceeds to do. The first argument is that all things have opposites and that the opposite of anything is generated from the thing itself: life and death are opposites and therefore each must generate the other – to have life, you must first be dead, and vice versa. Hence, it follows that souls of the dead must exist somewhere, and come back to earth in due course. The second argument is that knowledge is recollection, and therefore the soul must have existed prior to its involvement with the body. This argument is supported by the fact that we have ideas, such as equality, which cannot be derived from experience. We have experience of approximate equality, but absolute equality is never found amongst sensible objects. (In the same way as there is no such thing in real life as an absolute straight line or a complete circle, yet we can conceive of both in our mind). He extends the same argument to other ideas. Thus, the existence of essences, and of our capacity to apprehend them, proves the pre-existence of the soul (or mind) has certain knowledge before it is attached to the body.
To behold the Ideal, argues Socrates/Plato, the individual must disassociate him/herself with the senses and rely solely on the pure light of the mind. The body, he says, which requires food and warm, and is subject to all sorts of diseases, obstructs us in our search for truth, and, by filling our heads with loves, fears, and other fancies, prevents us from having so much as a thought. Only philosophy, says Plato/Socrates, can free us from bodily passion. For it is only through reflection that the soul re-connects with the realm of purity, and eternity, and changelessness. To pass into the Realm of Ideas the soul must be purged completely from the taint of the earth – and the only way the soul fully achieves this is when the body dies. It is for this reason that Socrates has no fear of death.
The central theme of Phaedo is that philosophers should not be concerned with the body, but with the soul, which should be freed from the body as much as possible. (It should be noted that by “soul” Plato, and the Greeks in general, meant the mind). The body, says Plato, as an obstacle to obtaining knowledge, since we may be led astray by what we see hear, touch or taste. Reality, for Plato, is more accessible to the mind (soul) through reason than through sensory experience, since reason is undisturbed by sense perception or by the sensations of pleasure or pain. The philosopher should turn away from the body towards Realm of Ideal Forms such as Justice, Beauty and Truth which can only be grasped by reason.
In short, Socrates argues that if we are ever to attain pure knowledge or wisdom, we must free ourselves from the body and observe things in themselves with the mind (soul) itself. This is what he means by saying that the unexamined life is not worth living – it is not worth living because it does not prepare us for the next life, and it does not allow us to see things as they really are. It is only when the mind is detached from the body that it can have true knowledge. While it is in the body it must purify itself as much as possible.
Convinced profoundly that knowledge alone is salvation, Socrates saw that the first and most important step toward getting rid of the confused mass of opinions going by the name of knowledge, was to make its inadequacy apparent. Socrates saw himself as the divinely appointed gadfly given to the state. The state, or polis, he said, was “a great and noble steed who was tardy – lazy – in his motions owing to his size, and requires to be stirred to life”.
In spite of his insistence upon his own ignorance, Socrates was convinced that no one can be more convinced that there exists an absolute truth, and that realisation of this truth is possible to man (see Apology 29b), and it was in his awareness of the existence of this truth and his belief in its availability that Socrates saw himself as superior or wiser than other men: “Whereas I know but a little of the world below”, he said, “I do not suppose I know. But I do know that injustice and disobedience to a superior, whether God or man, is evil and dishonourable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil” (ibid.). It is here, in this notion of a truth which transcends that which we glean from human experience, that we get a hint of a theme that is central to development of Platonic thought found in Phaedo and, in even greater detail, in Republic. That is, the notion of the Realm of Ideal Forms.
In Phaedo, we see this theme continued, and developed, where Socrates discusses the doctrine of recollection. (72e-78b). In this argument, Plato, through the auspices of Socrates, combines the doctrine of recollection with the doctrine of Forms. Starting with Justice, Beauty, Goodness, he maintains that there are eternally existing entities which are distinct from ordinary things in the perceptible world, and which the mind (of the philosopher, at least) can grasp by a kind of pure thought. When one does grasp one of these forms, says Plato, one attained true knowledge of an absolute value. (Note the shift from the Apology, where Socrates moves from the view that knowledge of truth is possible to the view that knowledge of these truths is actual). The theory of Forms leads Plato deep into metaphysics, and the theory of knowledge (epistemology), and compel him to consider how the human mind (psychology) can have a nature which allows it to know the eternal Forms – he thinks of the human mind as being in some way related to the forms – and how such knowledge can be made to guide the community.
In the Recollection Argument in Phaedo, Socrates uses another “absolute form” in the examples of Equality or the Equal Self when he argues that absolute Equality (or equality with a “big E”) is distinct from any notion of equality that we derive from worldly experience: like the equality of stones, trees, and so on. When we see two objects which appear to be equal, he says, we are reminded of a distinct ideal form which we do not perceive, but that we recollect. This recollection does not come from prior experience, but from knowledge of Forms which predates our birth.
At this stage it is important to recognise another shift in Platonic thought between Apology and Phaedo. In Apology Socrates says that death is either a dreamless sleep or an opportunity to spend eternity fulfilling his philosophic mission in Hades. Implicit in this statement is the view that Socrates does not know what awaits the soul after the death of the body. In Phaedo, however, Plato introduces the argument that the soul is distinct from the body: that it exists separately from the body, and that, after death, it awaits rebirth. In this theory of opposites he claims that all things arise from their opposite. For example, good is the opposite of evil and arises out of evil, and vice versa. Life and death are also opposites – to die you must first be born, and conversely, he argues, to be born, first you must be dead. And it is in the realm before the life of the body that we acquire knowledge of true Forms.
The Development of Platonic thought in Apology/Phaedo:
Convinced that knowledge alone is salvation, Socrates saw that the first and, most important step towards getting rid of the confused mass of opinions going by the name of knowledge, was to make its inadequacy apparent. Socrates saw himself as being the divinely appointed gadfly given to the state. The state, or polis, he said, was “a great and noble steed which was tardy – lazy –in its motions owing to its size, and required to be stirred to life”.
Socrates’ mission, his raison d’être, is to expose false knowledge. Hence, we can conclude that he believes that true knowledge is attainable. So, in spite of his insistence of his own ignorance, Socrates was convinced that there exits an absolute truth, and that this truth is possible to man (see Apology 29b). It was his awareness of the existence of this truth and his belief in its attainability that Socrates acknowledged that he may be wiser than other men: “Whereas I know but little of the world below”, he said, “I do not suppose I know. But I do know that injustice and disobedience to a superior, whether God. or man, is evil and dishonourable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil” . This statement by Socrates is central to his concept of truth: while he says that injustice or disobedience to one’s superior, God or man, is evil, it should be noted that he has already determined that there is no-one wiser than himself, therefore, in the world of men, he has no superior. However, we have also seen that the god that directs him is his own personal daimon which is not of this world; thus, the truth to which he aspires must be of that same world. It is here, then, in this notion of a truth that transcends that which we glean from human experience, that we get a hint of a theme that is central to the development of Platonic thought which is continued in Phaedo, and developed in greater detail, in Republic. That is, the notion of the Realm of Ideal Forms.
In Phaedo, we see this theme continued, and developed, where Socrates discusses the Doctrine of Recollection (72e-78b). In this argument, Plato, through the auspices of Socrates, combines the doctrine of recollection with the doctrine of forms. Starting with Justice, Beauty, and Goodness, Socrates maintains that there are eternally existing entities which are distinct from ordinary things in the perceptible world, and which the mind (of the philosopher at least) can grasp by a kind of pure thought. When one succeeds in grasping one of these forms, says Socrates, one has attained true knowledge of an absolute value. This is a significant shift where Socrates moves from the view advanced in, that knowledge of truth is possible, to the view that it is actual. It also marks a shift from the view that only God is wise, and that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing.
Another significant development or shift in Platonic thought is found where, in the Doctrine of Recollection, Socrates uses another absolute form in the example of Equality or the Equal Self when he argues that absolute Equality (equality with a Big E) is distinct from any notion of equality that we derive from human experience. When we see two objects that appear to be equal, he says, we are reminded of a distinct ideal form which we do not perceive, but that we recollect. This recollection does not come from prior experience, as Hume would later argue, but from knowledge of true forms which predates our birth. If you recall, in Apology, Socrates says that death is either a dreamless sleep or an opportunity to spend eternity fulfilling his philosophic mission in Hades. Implicit in this statement is the view that Socrates does not know what awaits the soul after the death of the body. In Phaedo, however, Plato asserts positively that the soul is distinct from the body: that it exists separately from the body and that, after death, it resides in the world of forms, where, in accordance with his “theory of opposites”, it awaits rebirth. In the theory of opposites Plato maintains that all things arise from their opposite. For example, good is the opposite of evil and arises out of evil, and vice versa: to become good, first you must be evil, and to become evil you must first have been good. Life and death are also opposites – to die you must first be alive, and to be born you must first have been dead. It is in the realm before life of the body that we acquire knowledge of true forms. Concepts like Justice, Beauty, Goodness, Equality, and Truth, says Plato, are already in the mind when we are born. All it takes to remind us of these absolute forms is to experience their imperfect representations in the physical world.