Posts Tagged ‘Socrates’

Aristotle was never one to ignore a challenge.  His curiosity about the world was unbounded.  His thinking laid the foundations for what we should call scientific thought.  When we insist on making accurate and detailed observations ; and close and controlled reasoning ; we are borrowing the words and thoughts of Aristotle.  His calm and rigorous thinking is, in large part, what has made our modern world.  If he had never lived, we should all be the poorer for it.  He lived to be just sixty-two.  What else might he have bequeathed us if he had lived another twenty years?

His principal teacher was Plato, an Athenian aristocrat who rejected the easy (and corrupt) life followed by his contemporaries so that he might follow his curiosity about the qualities of life and the world.  In fact among many ideas, he invented a new and important word, poiotes – the ‘whatness’ of a thing or ‘of-what-kind-ness’.  Cicero translated this as ‘qualitas’ ; we know it as ‘quality’.  It is strange to realise that, before Plato, nobody had a word for the ‘whatness’ of anything.  And, if there is no word for a thing, it cannot be properly examined.  When we pass a shop window where we see a sign telling us of the ‘best quality’ of some item for sale there, our minds are at once connected, by an invisible thread, to a man who lived nearly twenty-five centuries ago.  And, if we follow that thread to its source, we discover much, much more.  Plato founded his Academy, the first institute of higher education in the Western world.

And now, moving backwards in time again and still feeling the thread, we come to Socrates, the jobbing sculptor (or maybe stonemason) who had been a soldier (heavy infantry) and who was the teacher of Plato the aristocrat.  Perhaps he was the most peaceable man in pagan Europe.  But he wrote nothing.  Almost all we know of him comes from his pupil, Plato.  He was sentenced to death by a corrupt democratic court – ironically on a charge of corruption.  He was afforded the chance to escape into exile but refused it, for he preferred to die in his beloved Athens.  So he drank the prescribed chalice poisoned with hemlock and went without a fuss.

We owe so much to so many for the good that we enjoy here in the West ; but for our understanding of worldly things and of philosophy, we come close to owing the most to these three pagans.  Without these three pagans, our arts and sciences would be very much the poorer ; perhaps they would not exist.

It was quite a long time after the lives of these three that their philosophies took a practical form.  Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that their ideas should pop up in the last place on earth we should expect – in a place where for long centuries the native philosophy had been hard and severe ; in a place where long lived a hard and warlike nation ; in a place called Nazareth.


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It’s strange how we seem to spend so much time either looking forward to the future or else remembering the past.  How often are we in the here-and-now?  Aristotle recommended that we take up the art of contemplation to remedy matters.  And who better to make that suggestion?

How to begin?  First, ensure that you will not be disturbed for the next fifteen minutes or so.  Then make yourself comfortable.  Close your eyes.

Contemplating, Aristotle said, is simply paying regard to a series of statements or ideas which are infallibly true.  They must be so, because if there is any doubt about the truth of a statement, then you will start thinking about it – and contemplation must involve no thinking.  It is just regarding, or ‘looking’ at ideas that come to mind.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Well, try it and see.  Aristotle himself found that there are not very many of our notions that are truly infallible.  Like his masters, Socrates and Plato, he concluded that, while we have lots of opinions about the world, not much of what we know is truly true.

He began his exploration of contemplating something like this.

“I am a man.”  (Well, that’s not a bad start.)
“My name is Aristotle.”  (No!  The name my creator gave me is unknown to me.)
“People call me Aristotle.”  (That’s sort of OK)
“I live in Athens.”  (No.  Has this place always been known as Athens?  Will it for ever be called Athens?)
“I live in a city people now call Athens”  (OK)
“I am fifty years of age.”  (No.  I have no proof of my exact age ; I have only the opinions of others.)

…. and so on ….

And so he indeed went on.  And, as he went, he had to amend almost all his ideas about himself and the world ; he had to compromise on the exact truth ; he had to admit opinions under the guise of truths.

It’s awfully hard to live fully in the here-and-now.  Maybe that’s why my own thoughts turned back to school-days while I have been writing.  I remembered a puzzle that Mr Fryer set us all those years ago.  “You think that one plus one equals two, do you?”

“Of course!”  we replied.
“Well, arithmetic is a language,” he said, “And its meanings all depend on how you use it.”

To the blackboard ….. (and I hope I remember this right!) :

a = b
a+a = a+b
2a = a+b
2a-2b = a+b-2b
2(a-b) = a-b
2 = 1

Well, it took us a bit to work that one out (we were young and thought we knew everything).

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The tale is told of how Socrates was confronted by a citizen of Athens who posed a question for him.  “Socrates,” the man asked, “Why does the Oracle at Delphi describe you as the wisest man in the world?”

The answer he got was something of a surprise : “I can only think that it is because I know nothing.”  Then Socrates added, “But I have opinions on nearly everything.”

Clearly Socrates was attaching what we would take as a special meaning to the word ‘knowledge’ ; he took knowledge to be something that was infallible and incontrovertible.  It seems that , for him, to have knowledge of a thing was to apprehend its reality ; knowledge was not a matter of opinion, it was not a matter of truth or falsity ; nor was it a matter for partiality.  This view opens up many possibilities for discussion.

Socrates was one of those very rare people who did not merely invent some new mathematical technique or some new machine ; he proposed a whole new way of thinking about ourselves and the world we live in.  The consequences were tremendous, and we live with them to this day.

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