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Plato (427347 BCE)

Plato is one of the worlds best known and most widely read and
studied philosophers. He was the student of Socrates and the teacher ofAristotle, and he wrote in the
middle of the fourth century B.C.E. in ancient Greece. Though influenced primarily by Socrates, to the
extent that Socrates is usually the main character in many of Platos writings, he was also influenced
by Heraclitus, Parmenides, and thePythagoreans.
There are varying degrees of controversy over which of Platos works are authentic, and in what order
they were written, due to their antiquity and the manner of their preservation through time.
Nonetheless, his earliest works are generally regarded as the most reliable of the ancient sources on
Socrates, and the character Socrates that we know through these writings is considered to be one of
the greatest of the ancient philosophers.
Platos middle to later works, including his most famous work, the Republic, are generally regarded as
providing Platos own philosophy, where the main character in effect speaks for Plato himself. These
works blend ethics, political philosophy, moral psychology, epistemology, and metaphysics into an
interconnected and systematic philosophy. It is most of all from Plato that we get the theory of Forms,
according to which the world we know through the senses is only an imitation of the pure, eternal, and
unchanging world of the Forms. Platos works also contain the origins of the familiar complaint that
the arts work by inflaming the passions, and are mere illusions. We also are introduced to the ideal of
Platonic love: Plato saw love as motivated by a longing for the highest Form of beautyThe Beautiful
Itself, and love as the motivational power through which the highest of achievements are possible.
Because they tended to distract us into accepting less than our highest potentials, however, Plato
mistrusted and generally advised against physical expressions of love.
Table of Contents
1. Biography
a. Birth
b. Family
c. Early Travels and the Founding of the Academy
d. Later Trips to Sicily and Death
2. Influences on Plato
. Heraclitus
a. Parmenides and Zeno
b. The Pythagoreans
c. Socrates
3. Platos Writings
. Platos Dialogues and the Historical Socrates
a. Dating Platos Dialogues
b. Transmission of Platos Works
4. Other Works Attributed to Plato
. Spuria
a. Epigrams
b. Dubia
5. The Early Dialogues
. Historical Accuracy
a. Platos Characterization of Socrates
b. Ethical Positions in the Early Dialogues
c. Psychological Positions in the Early Dialogues
d. Religious Positions in the Early Dialogues
e. Methodological and Epistemological Positions in the Early Dialogues
6. The Middle Dialogues
. Differences between the Early and Middle Dialogues
a. The Theory of Forms
b. Immortality and Reincarnation
c. Moral Psychology
d. Critique of the Arts
e. Platonic Love
7. Late Transitional and Late Dialogues
. Philosophical Methodology
a. Critique of the Earlier Theory of Forms
b. The Myth of Atlantis
c. The Creation of the Universe
d. The Laws
8. References and Further Reading
. Greek Texts
a. Translations Into English
b. Platos Socrates and the Historical Socrates
c. Socrates and Platos Early Period Dialogues
d. General Books on Plato
1. Biography
a. Birth
It is widely accepted that Plato, the Athenian philosopher, was born in 428-7 B.C.E and died at the age
of eighty or eighty-one at 348-7 B.C.E. These dates, however, are not entirely certain, for according
toDiogenes Laertius (D.L.), following Apollodorus chronology, Plato was born the year Pericles died,
was six years younger than Isocrates, and died at the age of eighty-four (D.L. 3.2-3.3). If Platos date
of death is correct in Apollodorus version, Plato would have been born in 430 or 431. Diogenes claim
that Plato was born the year Pericles died would put his birth in 429. Later (at 3.6), Diogenes says that
Plato was twenty-eight when Socrates was put to death (in 399), which would, again, put his year of
birth at 427. In spite of the confusion, the dates of Platos life we gave above, which are based upon
Eratosthenes calculations, have traditionally been accepted as accurate.
b. Family
Little can be known about Platos early life. According to Diogenes, whose testimony is notoriously
unreliable, Platos parents were Ariston and Perictione (or Potonesee D. L. 3.1). Both sides of the
family claimed to trace their ancestry back to Poseidon (D.L. 3.1). Diogenes report that Platos birth
was the result of Aristons rape of Perictione (D.L. 3.1) is a good example of the unconfirmed gossip in
which Diogenes so often indulges. We can be confident that Plato also had two older brothers, Glaucon
and Adeimantus, and a sister, Potone, by the same parents (see D.L. 3.4). (W. K. C. Guthrie, A History
of Greek Philosophy, vol. 4, 10 n. 4 argues plausibly that Glaucon and Adeimantus were Platos older
siblings.) After Aristons death, Platos mother married her uncle, Pyrilampes (in
Platos Charmides, we are told that Pyrilampes was Charmides uncle, and Charmides was Platos
mothers brother), with whom she had another son, Antiphon, Platos half-brother (see
Plato, Parmenides 126a-b).
Plato came from one of the wealthiest and most politically active families in Athens. Their political
activities, however, are not seen as laudable ones by historians. One of Platos uncles (Charmides) was
a member of the notorious Thirty Tyrants, who overthrew the Athenian democracy in 404 B.C.E.
Charmides own uncle, Critias, was the leader of the Thirty. Platos relatives were not exclusively
associated with the oligarchic faction in Athens, however. His stepfather Pyrilampes was said to have
been a close associate of Pericles, when he was the leader of the democratic faction.
Platos actual given name was apparently Aristocles, after his grandfather. Plato seems to have
started as a nickname (for platos, or broad), perhaps first given to him by his wrestling teacher for
his physique, or for the breadth of his style, or even the breadth of his forehead (all given in D.L. 3.4).
Although the name Aristocles was still given as Platos name on one of the two epitaphs on his tomb
(see D.L. 3.43), history knows him as Plato.
c. Early Travels and the Founding of the Academy
When Socrates died, Plato left Athens, staying first in Megara, but then going on to several other
places, including perhaps Cyrene, Italy, Sicily, and even Egypt. Strabo (17.29) claims that he was shown
where Plato lived when he visited Heliopolis in Egypt. Plato occasionally mentions Egypt in his works,
but not in ways that reveal much of any consequence (see, for examples, Phaedrus 274c-
275b; Philebus 19b).
Better evidence may be found for his visits to Italy and Sicily, especially in the Seventh
Letter. According to the account given there, Plato first went to Italy and Sicily when he was about
forty (324a). While he stayed in Syracuse, he became the instructor to Dion, brother-in-law of the
tyrant Dionysius I. According to doubtful stories from later antiquity, Dionysius became annoyed with
Plato at some point during this visit, and arranged to have the philosopher sold into slavery (Diod.
15.7; Plut. Dion 5; D.L. 3.19-21).
In any event, Plato returned to Athens and founded a school, known as the Academy. (This is where
we get our word, academic. The Academy got its name from its location, a grove of trees sacred to
the hero Academusor Hecademus [see D.L. 3.7]a mile or so outside the Athenian walls; the site
can still be visited in modern Athens, but visitors will find it depressingly void of interesting
monuments or features.) Except for two more trips to Sicily, the Academy seems to have been Platos
home base for the remainder of his life.
d. Later Trips to Sicily and Death
The first of Platos remaining two Sicilian adventures came after Dionysius I died and his young son,
Dionysius II, ascended to the throne. His uncle/brother-in-law Dion persuaded the young tyrant to
invite Plato to come to help him become a philosopher-ruler of the sort described in
the Republic. Although the philosopher (now in his sixties) was not entirely persuaded of this
possibility (Seventh Letter 328b-c), he agreed to go. This trip, like the last one, however, did not go
well at all. Within months, the younger Dionysius had Dion sent into exile for sedition (Seventh
Letter 329c, Third Letter 316c-d), and Plato became effectively under house arrest as the personal
guest of the dictator (Seventh Letter 329c-330b).
Plato eventually managed to gain the tyrants permission to return to Athens (Seventh Letter 338a),
and he and Dion were reunited at the Academy (Plut. Dion 17). Dionysius agreed that after the war
(Seventh Letter 338a; perhaps the Lucanian War in 365 B.C.E.), he would invite Plato and Dion back
to Syracuse (Third Letter 316e-317a, Seventh Letter 338a-b). Dion and Plato stayed in Athens for the
next four years (c. 365-361 B.C.E.). Dionysius then summoned Plato, but wished for Dion to wait a
while longer. Dion accepted the condition and encouraged Plato to go immediately anyway (Third
Letter 317a-b, Seventh Letter 338b-c), but Plato refused the invitation, much to the consternation of
both Syracusans (Third Letter 317a, Seventh Letter 338c). Hardly a year had passed, however, before
Dionysius sent a ship, with one of Platos Pythagorean friends (Archedemus, an associate of Archytas
see Seventh Letter 339a-b and next section) on board begging Plato to return to Syracuse. Partly
because of his friend Dions enthusiasm for the plan, Plato departed one more time to Syracuse. Once
again, however, things in Syracuse were not at all to Platos liking. Dionysius once again effectively
imprisoned Plato in Syracuse, and the latter was only able to escape again with help from his Tarentine
friends ( Seventh Letter 350a-b).
Dion subsequently gathered an army of mercenaries and invaded his own homeland. But his success
was short-lived: he was assassinated and Sicily was reduced to chaos. Plato, perhaps now completely
disgusted with politics, returned to his beloved Academy, where he lived out the last thirteen years of
his life. According to Diogenes, Plato was buried at the school he founded (D.L. 3.41). His grave,
however, has not yet been discovered by archeological investigations.
2. Influences on Plato
a. Heraclitus
Aristotle and Diogenes agree that Plato had some early association with either the philosophy
ofHeraclitus of Ephesus, or with one or more of that philosophers followers (see Aristotle Metaph.
987a32, D.L. 3.4-3.5). The effects of this influence can perhaps be seen in the mature Platos
conception of the sensible world as ceaselessly changing.
b. Parmenides and Zeno
There can be no doubt that Plato was also strongly influenced by Parmenides and Zeno (both of Elea),
in Platos theory of the Forms, which are plainly intended to satisfy the Parmenidean requirement of
metaphysical unity and stability in knowable reality. Parmenides and Zeno also appear as characters
in his dialogue, the Parmenides. Diogenes Laertius also notes other important influences:
He mixed together in his works the arguments of Heracleitus, the Pythagoreans, and Socrates. Regarding
the sensibles, he borrows from Heraclitus; regarding the intelligibles, from Pythagoras; and regarding
politics, from Socrates. (D.L. 3.8)
A little later, Diogenes makes a series of comparisons intended to show how much Plato owed to the
comic poet, Epicharmus (3.9-3.17).
c. The Pythagoreans
Diogenes Laertius (3.6) claims that Plato visited several Pythagoreans in Southern Italy (one of whom,
Theodorus, is also mentioned as a friend to Socrates in Platos Theaetetus). In the Seventh Letter, we
learn that Plato was a friend of Archytas of Tarentum, a well-known Pythagorean statesman and
thinker (see 339d-e), and in the Phaedo, Plato has Echecrates, another Pythagorean, in the group
around Socrates on his final day in prison. Platos Pythagorean influences seem especially evident in
his fascination with mathematics, and in some of his political ideals (see Platos political philosophy),
expressed in various ways in several dialogues.
d. Socrates
Nonetheless, it is plain that no influence on Plato was greater than that of Socrates. This is evident not
only in many of the doctrines and arguments we find in Platos dialogues, but perhaps most obviously
in Platos choice of Socrates as the main character in most of his works. According to the Seventh
Letter,Plato counted Socrates the justest man alive (324e). According to Diogenes Laertius, the
respect was mutual (3.5).
3. Platos Writings
a. Platos Dialogues and the Historical Socrates
Supposedly possessed of outstanding intellectual and artistic ability even from his youth, according to
Diogenes, Plato began his career as a writer of tragedies, but hearing Socrates talk, he wholly
abandoned that path, and even burned a tragedy he had hoped to enter in a dramatic competition (D.L.
3.5). Whether or not any of these stories is true, there can be no question of Platos mastery of dialogue,
characterization, and dramatic context. He may, indeed, have written some epigrams; of the surviving
epigrams attributed to him in antiquity, some may be genuine.
Plato was not the only writer of dialogues in which Socrates appears as a principal character and
speaker. Others, including Alexamenos of Teos (Aristotle Poetics 1447b11; De Poetis fr. 3 Ross
72]), Aeschines (D.L. 2.60-63, 3.36, Plato Apology 33e), Antisthenes (D.L. 3.35, 6;
Plato, Phaedo 59b;Xenophon, Memorabilia 2.4.5, 3.2.17), Aristippus (D.L. 2.65-104, 3.36,
Plato Phaedo 59c), Eucleides (D.L. 2.106-112), Phaedo (D.L. 2.105; Plato, Phaedo passim), Simon
(D.L. 122-124), and especially Xenophon (see D.L. 2.48-59, 3.34), were also well-known Socratics
who composed such works. A recent study of these, by Charles H. Kahn (1996, 1-35), concludes that
the very existence of the genreand all of the conflicting images of Socrates we find given by the
various authorsshows that we cannot trust as historically reliable any of the accounts of Socrates
given in antiquity, including those given by Plato.
But it is one thing to claim that Plato was not the only one to write Socratic dialogues, and quite another
to hold that Plato was only following the rules of some genre of writings in his own work. Such a claim,
at any rate, is hardly established simply by the existence of these other writers and their writings. We
may still wish to ask whether Platos own use of Socrates as his main character has anything at all to
do with the historical Socrates. The question has led to a number of seemingly irresolvable scholarly
disputes. At least one important ancient source, Aristotle, suggests that at least some of the doctrines
Plato puts into the mouth of the Socrates of the early or Socrates dialogues are the very ones
espoused by the historical Socrates. Because Aristotle has no reason not to be truthful about this issue,
many scholars believe that his testimony provides a solid basis for distinguishing the Socrates of the
early dialogues from the character by that name in Platos supposedly later works, whose views and
arguments Aristotle suggests are Platos own.
b. Dating Platos Dialogues
One way to approach this issue has been to find some way to arrange the dialogues into at least relative
dates. It has frequently been assumed that if we can establish a relative chronology for when Plato
wrote each of the dialogues, we can provide some objective test for the claim that Plato represented
Socrates more accurately in the earlier dialogues, and less accurately in the later dialogues.
In antiquity, the ordering of Platos dialogues was given entirely along thematic lines. The best reports
of these orderings (see Diogenes Laertius discussion at 3.56-62) included many works whose
authenticity is now either disputed or unanimously rejected. The uncontroversial internal and external
historical evidence for a chronological ordering is relatively slight. Aristotle (Politics 2.6.1264b24-27),
Diogenes Laertius (3.37), and Olympiodorus (Prol. 6.24) state that Plato wrote the Laws after
the Republic.Internal references in the Sophist (217a) and the Statesman (also known as
the Politicus; 257a, 258b) show the Statesman to come after the Sophist. The Timaeus (17b-19b) may
refer to Republic as coming before it, and more clearly mentions the Critias as following it (27a).
Similarly, internal references in theSophist (216a, 217c) and the Theaetetus (183e) may be thought to
show the intended order of three dialogues: Parmenides, Theaetetus, and Sophist. Even so, it does not
follow that these dialogues were actually written in that order. At Theaetetus 143c, Plato announces
through his characters that he will abandon the somewhat cumbersome dialogue form that is
employed in his other writings. Since the form does not appear in a number of other writings, it is
reasonable to infer that those in which it does not appear were written after the Theaetetus.
Scholars have sought to augment this fairly scant evidence by employing different methods of ordering
the remaining dialogues. One such method is that of stylometry, by which various aspects of Platos
diction in each dialogue are measured against their uses and frequencies in other dialogues. Originally
done by laborious study by individuals, stylometry can now be done more efficiently with assistance
by computers. Another, even more popular, way to sort and group the dialogues is what is called
content analysis, which works by finding and enumerating apparent commonalities or differences in
the philosophical style and content of the various dialogues. Neither of these general approaches has
commanded unanimous assent among scholars, and it is unlikely that debates about this topic can
ever be put entirely to rest. Nonetheless, most recent scholarship seems to assume that Platos
dialogues can be sorted into different groups, and it is not unusual for books and articles on the
philosophy of Socrates to state that by Socrates they mean to refer to the character in Platos early
or Socratic dialogues, as if this Socrates was as close to the historical Socrates as we are likely to get.
(We have more to say on this subject in the next section.) Perhaps the most thorough examination of
this sort can be found in Gregory Vlastoss, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Cambridge and
Cornell, 1991, chapters 2-4), where ten significant differences between the Socrates of Platos early
dialogues and the character by that name in the later dialogues are noted. Our own view of the probable
dates and groups of dialogues, which to some extent combine the results of stylometry and content
analysis, is as follows (all lists but the last in alphabetical order):
(All after the death of Socrates, but before Platos first trip to Sicily in 387 B.C.E.):
Apology, Charmides, Crito, Euthydemus, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Ion,
Laches, Lysis, Protagoras, Republic Bk. I.
(Either at the end of the early group or at the beginning of the middle group, c. 387-380 B.C.E.):
Cratylus, Menexenus, Meno
(c. 380-360 B.C.E.)
Phaedo, Republic Bks. II-X, Symposium
(Either at the end of the middle group, or the beginning of the late group, c. 360-355 B.C.E.)
Parmenides, Theaetetus, Phaedrus
(c. 355-347 B.C.E.; possibly in chronological order)
Sophist, Statesman, Philebus, Timaeus, Critias, Laws
c. Transmission of Platos Works
Except for the Timaeus, all of Platos works were lost to the Western world until medieval times,
preserved only by Moslem scholars in the Middle East. In 1578 Henri Estienne (whose Latinized name
was Stephanus) published an edition of the dialogues in which each page of the text is separated into
five sections (labeled a, b, c, d, and e). The standard style of citation for Platonic texts includes the
name of the text, followed by Stephanus page and section numbers (e.g. Republic 511d). Scholars
sometimes also add numbers after the Stephanus section letters, which refer to line numbers within
the Stephanus sections in the standard Greek edition of the dialogues, the Oxford Classical texts.
4. Other Works Attributed to Plato
a. Spuria
Several other works, including thirteen letters and eighteen epigrams, have been attributed to Plato.
These other works are generally called the spuria and the dubia. The spuria were collected among the
works of Plato but suspected as frauds even in antiquity. The dubia are those presumed authentic in
later antiquity, but which have more recently been doubted.
Ten of the spuria are mentioned by Diogenes Laertius at 3.62. Five of these are no longer extant:
theMidon or Horse-breeder, Phaeacians, Chelidon, Seventh Day, and Epimenides. Five others do
exist: theHalcyon, Axiochus, Demodocus, Eryxias, and Sisyphus. To the ten Diogenes Laertius lists,
we may uncontroversially add On Justice, On Virtue, and the Definitions, which was included in the
medieval manuscripts of Platos work, but not mentioned in antiquity.
Works whose authenticity was also doubted in antiquity include the Second
Alcibiades (or Alcibiades II),Epinomis, Hipparchus, and Rival Lovers (also known as
either Rivals or Lovers), and these are sometimes defended as authentic today. If any are of these are
authentic, the Epinomis would be in the late group, and the others would go with the early or early
transitional groups.
b. Epigrams
Seventeen or eighteen epigrams (poems appropriate to funerary monuments or other dedications) are
also attributed to Plato by various ancient authors. Most of these are almost certainly not by Plato, but
some few may be authentic. Of the ones that could be authentic (Cooper 1997, 1742 names 1, 2, 7, and
especially 3 as possibly authentic), one (1) is a love poem dedicated to a student of astronomy, perhaps
at the Academy, another (2) appears to be a funerary inscription for that same student, another (3) is
a funerary inscription for Platos Syracusan friend, Dion (in which the author confesses that Dion
maddened my heart with ers), and the last (7) is a love poem to a young woman or girl. None appear
to provide anything of great philosophical interest.
c. Dubia
The dubia present special risks to scholars: On the one hand, any decision not to include them among
the authentic dialogues creates the risk of losing valuable evidence for Platos (or perhaps Socrates)
philosophy; on the other hand, any decision to include them creates the risk of obfuscating the correct
view of Platos (or Socrates) philosophy, by including non-Platonic (or non-Socratic) elements within
that philosophy. The dubia include the First Alcibiades (or Alcibiades I), Minos, and Theages, all of
which, if authentic, would probably go with the early or early transitional groups,
the Cleitophon, which might be early, early transitional, or middle, and the letters, of which
the Seventh seems the best candidate for authenticity. Some scholars have also suggested the
possibility that the Third may also be genuine. If any are authentic, the letters would appear to be
works of the late period, with the possible exception of the Thirteenth Letter, which could be from the
middle period.
Nearly all of the dialogues now accepted as genuine have been challenged as inauthentic by some
scholar or another. In the 19th Century in particular, scholars often considered arguments for and
against the authenticity of dialogues whose authenticity is now only rarely doubted. Of those we listed
as authentic, above (in the early group), only the Hippias Major continues occasionally to be listed as
inauthentic. The strongest evidence against the authenticity of the Hippias Major is the fact that it is
never mentioned in any of the ancient sources. However, relative to how much was actually written in
antiquity, so little now remains that our lack of ancient references to this dialogue does not seem to be
an adequate reason to doubt its authenticity. In style and content, it seems to most contemporary
scholars to fit well with the other Platonic dialogues.
5. The Early Dialogues
a. Historical Accuracy
Although no one thinks that Plato simply recorded the actual words or speeches of Socrates verbatim,
the argument has been made that there is nothing in the speeches Socrates makes in the Apology that
he could have not uttered at the historical trial. At any rate, it is fairly common for scholars to treat
PlatosApology as the most reliable of the ancient sources on the historical Socrates. The other early
dialogues are certainly Platos own creations. But as we have said, most scholars treat these as
representing more or less accurately the philosophy and behavior of the historical Socrateseven if
they do not provide literal historical records of actual Socratic conversations. Some of the early
dialogues include anachronisms that prove their historical inaccuracy.
It is possible, of course, that the dialogues are all wholly Platos inventions and have nothing at all to
do with the historical Socrates. Contemporary scholars generally endorse one of the following four
views about the dialogues and their representation of Socrates:
1. The Unitarian View:
This view, more popular early in the 20th Century than it is now, holds that there is but a single
philosophy to be found in all of Platos works (of any period, if such periods can even be identified
reliably). There is no reason, according to the Unitarian scholar, ever to talk about Socratic
philosophy (at least from anything to be found in Platoeverything in Platos dialogues
is Platonicphilosophy, according to the Unitarian). One recent version of this view has been argued
by Charles H. Kahn (1996). Most later, but still ancient, interpretations of Plato were essentially
Unitarian in their approach. Aristotle, however, was a notable exception.
2. The Literary Atomist View:
We call this approach the literary atomist view, because those who propose this view treat each
dialogue as a complete literary whole, whose proper interpretation must be achieved without
reference to any of Platos other works. Those who endorse this view reject completely any relevance
or validity of sorting or grouping the dialogues into groups, on the ground that any such sorting is of
no value to the proper interpretation of any given dialogue. In this view, too, there is no reason to
make any distinction between Socratic philosophy and Platonic philosophy. According to the
literary atomist, all philosophy to be found in the works of Plato should be attributed only to Plato.
3. The Developmentalist View:
According to this view, the most widely held of all of the interpretative approaches, the differences
between the early and later dialogues represent developments in Platos own philosophical and
literary career. These may or may not be related to his attempting in any of the dialogues to preserve
the memory of the historical Socrates (see approach 4); such differences may only represent changes
in Platos own philosophical views. Developmentalists may generally identify the earlier positions or
works as Socratic and the later ones Platonic, but may be agnostic about the relationship of the
Socratic views and works to the actual historical Socrates.
4. The Historicist View:
Perhaps the most common of the Developmentalist positions is the view that the development
noticeable between the early and later dialogues may be attributed to Platos attempt, in the early
dialogues, to represent the historical Socrates more or less accurately. Later on, however (perhaps
because of the development of the genre of Socratic writings, within which other authors were
making no attempt at historical fidelity), Plato began more freely to put his own views into the mouth
of the character, Socrates, in his works. Platos own student, Aristotle, seems to have understood
the dialogues in this way.
Now, some scholars who are skeptical about the entire program of dating the dialogues into
chronological groups, and who are thus strictly speaking not historicists (see, for example, Cooper
1997, xii-xvii) nonetheless accept the view that the early works are Socratic in tone and content.
With few exceptions, however, scholars agreed that if we are unable to distinguish any group of
dialogues as early or Socratic, or even if we can distinguish a separate set of Socratic works but
cannot identify a coherent philosophy within those works, it makes little sense to talk about the
philosophy of historical Socrates at all. There is just too little (and too little that is at all interesting)
to be found that could reliably be attributed to Socrates from any other ancient authors. Any serious
philosophical interest in Socrates, then, must be pursued through study of Platos early or Socratic
b. Platos Characterization of Socrates
In the dialogues generally accepted as early (or Socratic), the main character is always Socrates.
Socrates is represented as extremely agile in question-and-answer, which has come to be known as
the Socratic method of teaching, or the elenchus (or elenchos, from the Greek term for refutation),
with Socrates nearly always playing the role as questioner, for he claimed to have no wisdom of his
own to share with others. Platos Socrates, in this period, was adept at reducing even the most difficult
and recalcitrant interlocutors to confusion and self-contradiction. In the Apology, Socrates explains
that the embarrassment he has thus caused to so many of his contemporaries is the result of a Delphic
oracle given to Socrates friend Chaerephon (Apology 21a-23b), according to which no one was wiser
than Socrates. As a result of his attempt to discern the true meaning of this oracle, Socrates gained a
divinely ordained mission in Athens to expose the false conceit of wisdom. The embarrassment his
investigations have caused to so many of his contemporarieswhich Socrates claims was the root
cause of his being brought up on charges (Apology 23c-24b)is thus no ones fault but his victims,
for having chosen to live the unexamined life (see 38a).
The way that Platos represents Socrates going about his mission in Athens provides a plausible
explanation both of why the Athenians would have brought him to trial and convicted him in the
troubled years after the end of the Peloponnesian War, and also of why Socrates was not really guilty
of the charges he faced. Even more importantly, however, Platos early dialogues provide intriguing
arguments and refutations of proposed philosophical positions that interest and challenge
philosophical readers. Platonic dialogues continue to be included among the required readings in
introductory and advanced philosophy classes, not only for their ready accessibility, but also because
they raise many of the most basic problems of philosophy. Unlike most other philosophical works,
moreover, Plato frames the discussions he represents in dramatic settings that make the content of
these discussions especially compelling. So, for example, in the Crito, we find Socrates discussing the
citizens duty to obey the laws of the state as he awaits his own legally mandated execution in jail,
condemned by what he and Crito both agree was a terribly wrong verdict, the result of the most
egregious misapplication of the very laws they are discussing. The dramatic features of Platos works
have earned attention even from literary scholars relatively uninterested in philosophy as such.
Whatever their value for specifically historical research, therefore, Platos dialogues will continue to
be read and debated by students and scholars, and the Socrates we find in the early or Socratic
dialogues will continue to be counted among the greatest Western philosophers.
c. Ethical Positions in the Early Dialogues
The philosophical positions most scholars agree can be found directly endorsed or at least suggested
in the early or Socratic dialogues include the following moral or ethical views:
A rejection of retaliation, or the return of harm for harm or evil for evil (Crito 48b-c, 49c-
d;Republic I.335a-e);
The claim that doing injustice harms ones soul, the thing that is most precious to one, and, hence,
that it is better to suffer injustice than to do it (Crito 47d-48a; Gorgias 478c-e, 511c-
512b; RepublicI.353d-354a);
Some form of what is called eudaimonism, that is, that goodness is to be understood in terms of
conduciveness to human happiness, well-being, or flourishing, which may also be understood as
living well, or doing well (Crito 48b; Euthydemus 278e, 282a; Republic I. 354a);
The view that only virtue is good just by itself; anything else that is good is good only insofar as it
serves or is used for or by virtue (Apology 30b; Euthydemus 281d-e);
The view that there is some kind of unity among the virtues: In some sense, all of the virtues are the
same (Protagoras 329b-333b, 361a-b);
The view that the citizen who has agreed to live in a state must always obey the laws of that state, or
else persuade the state to change its laws, or leave the state (Crito 51b-c, 52a-d).
d. Psychological Positions in the Early Dialogues
Socrates also appears to argue for, or directly makes a number of related psychological views:
All wrongdoing is done in ignorance, for everyone desires only what is good (Protagoras 352a-
c;Gorgias 468b; Meno 77e-78b);
In some sense, everyone actually believes certain moral principles, even though some may think they
do not have such beliefs, and may disavow them in argument (Gorgias 472b, 475e-476a).
e. Religious Positions in the Early Dialogues
In these dialogues, we also find Socrates represented as holding certain religious beliefs, such as:
The gods are completely wise and good (Apology 28a; Euthyphro 6a, 15a; Meno 99b-100b);
Ever since his childhood (see Apology 31d) Socrates has experienced a certain divine something
(Apology 31c-d; 40a; Euthyphro 3b; see also Phaedrus 242b), which consists in a voice
(Apology31d; see also Phaedrus 242c), or sign (Apology 40c, 41d; Euthydemus 272e; see
also RepublicVI.496c; Phaedrus 242b) that opposes him when he is about to do something wrong
(Apology 40a, 40c);
Various forms of divination can allow human beings to come to recognize the will of the gods
(Apology 21a-23b, 33c);
Poets and rhapsodes are able to write and do the wonderful things they write and do, not from
knowledge or expertise, but from some kind of divine inspiration. The same canbe said of diviners
and seers, although they do seem to have some kind of expertiseperhaps only some technique by
which to put them in a state of appropriate receptivity to the divine (Apology 22b-c; Laches 198e-
199a; Ion 533d-536a, 538d-e; Meno 99c);
No one really knows what happens after death, but it is reasonable to think that death is not an evil;
there may be an afterlife, in which the souls of the good are rewarded, and the souls of the wicked are
punished (Apology 40c-41c; Crito 54b-c; Gorgias 523a-527a).
f. Methodological and Epistemological Positions in the
Early Dialogues
In addition, Platos Socrates in the early dialogues may plausibly be regarded as having certain
methodological or epistemological convictions, including:
Definitional knowledge of ethical terms is at least a necessary condition of reliable judging of specific
instances of the values they name (Euthyphro 4e-5d, 6e; Laches 189e-190b; Lysis 223b;Greater
Hippias 304d-e; Meno 71a-b, 100b; Republic I.354b-c);
A mere list of examples of some ethical valueeven if all are authentic cases of that valuewould
never provide an adequate analysis of what the value is, nor would it provide an adequate definition
of the value term that refers to the value. Proper definitions must state what is common to all
examples of the value (Euthyphro 6d-e; Meno 72c-d);
Those with expert knowledge or wisdom on a given subject do not err in their judgments on that
subject (Euthyphro 4e-5a; Euthydemus 279d-280b), go about their business in their area of
expertise in a rational and regular way (Gorgias 503e-504b), and can teach and explain their subject
(Gorgias 465a, 500e-501b, 514a-b; Laches 185b, 185e, 1889e-190b); Protagoras 319b-c).
6. The Middle Dialogues
a. Differences between the Early and Middle Dialogues
Scholarly attempts to provide relative chronological orderings of the early transitional and middle
dialogues are problematical because all agree that the main dialogue of the middle period,
the Republic,has several features that make dating it precisely especially difficult. As we have already
said, many scholars count the first book of the Republic as among the early group of dialogues. But
those who read the entire Republic will also see that the first book also provides a natural and effective
introduction to the remaining books of the work. A recent study by Debra Nails (The Dramatic Date
of PlatosRepublic, The Classical Journal 93.4, 1998, 383-396) notes several anachronisms that
suggest that the process of writing (and perhaps re-editing) the work may have continued over a very
long period. If this central work of the period is difficult to place into a specific context, there can be
no great assurance in positioning any other works relative to this one.
Nonetheless, it does not take especially careful study of the transitional and middle period dialogues
to notice clear differences in style and philosophical content from the early dialogues. The most
obvious change is the way in which Plato seems to characterize Socrates: In the early dialogues, we
find Socrates simply asking questions, exposing his interlocutors confusions, all the while professing
his own inability to shed any positive light on the subject, whereas in the middle period dialogues,
Socrates suddenly emerges as a kind of positive expert, willing to affirm and defend his own theories
about many important subjects. In the early dialogues, moreover, Socrates discusses mainly ethical
subjects with his interlocutorswith some related religious, methodological, and epistemological
views scattered within the primarily ethical discussions. In the middle period, Platos Socrates
interests expand outward into nearly every area of inquiry known to humankind. The philosophical
positions Socrates advances in these dialogues are vastly more systematical, including broad
theoretical inquiries into the connections between language and reality (in the Cratylus), knowledge
and explanation (in the Phaedo and Republic,Books V-VII). Unlike the Socrates of the early period,
who was the wisest of men only because he recognized the full extent of his own ignorance, the
Socrates of the middle period acknowledges the possibility of infallible human knowledge (especially
in the famous similes of light, the simile of the sun and good and the simile of the divided line in Book
VI and the parable of the cave in Book VII of theRepublic), and this becomes possible in virtue of a
special sort of cognitive contact with the Forms or Ideas (eid ), which exist in a supra-sensible realm
available only to thought. This theory of Forms, introduced and explained in various contexts in each
of the middle period dialogues, is perhaps the single best-known and most definitive aspect of what
has come to be known as Platonism.
b. The Theory of Forms
In many of his dialogues, Plato mentions supra-sensible entities he calls Forms (or Ideas). So, for
example, in the Phaedo, we are told that particular sensible equal thingsfor example, equal sticks or
stones (see Phaedo 74a-75d)are equal because of their participation or sharing in the character
of the Form of Equality, which is absolutely, changelessly, perfectly, and essentially equal. Plato
sometimes characterizes this participation in the Form as a kind of imaging, or approximation of the
Form. The same may be said of the many things that are greater or smaller and the Forms of Great and
Small (Phaedo 75c-d), or the many tall things and the Form of Tall (Phaedo 100e), or the many
beautiful things and the Form of Beauty (Phaedo 75c-d, Symposium 211e, Republic V.476c). When
Plato writes about instances of Forms approximating Forms, it is easy to infer that, for Plato, Forms
are exemplars. If so, Plato believes that The Form of Beauty is perfect beauty, the Form of Justice is
perfect justice, and so forth. Conceiving of Forms in this way was important to Plato because it enabled
the philosopher who grasps the entities to be best able to judge to what extent sensible instances of the
Forms are good examples of the Forms they approximate.
Scholars disagree about the scope of what is often called the theory of Forms, and question whether
Plato began holding that there are only Forms for a small range of properties, such as tallness, equality,
justice, beauty, and so on, and then widened the scope to include Forms corresponding to every term
that can be applied to a multiplicity of instances. In the Republic, he writes as if there may be a great
multiplicity of Formsfor example, in Book X of that work, we find him writing about the Form of Bed
(see Republic X.596b). He may have come to believe that for any set of things that shares some
property, there is a Form that gives unity to the set of things (and univocity to the term by which we
refer to members of that set of things). Knowledge involves the recognition of the Forms
(Republic V.475e-480a), and any reliable application of this knowledge will involve the ability compare
the particular sensible instantiations of a property to the Form.
c. Immortality and Reincarnation
In the early transitional dialogue, the Meno, Plato has Socrates introduce the Orphic and Pythagorean
idea that souls are immortal and existed before our births. All knowledge, he explains, is actually
recollected from this prior existence. In perhaps the most famous passage in this dialogue, Socrates
elicits recollection about geometry from one of Menos slaves (Meno 81a-86b). Socrates apparent
interest in, and fairly sophisticated knowledge of, mathematics appears wholly new in this dialogue. It
is an interest, however, that shows up plainly in the middle period dialogues, especially in the middle
books of the Republic.
Several arguments for the immortality of the soul, and the idea that souls are reincarnated into
different life forms, are also featured in Platos Phaedo (which also includes the famous scene in which
Socrates drinks the hemlock and utters his last words). Stylometry has tended to count
the Phaedo among the early dialogues, whereas analysis of philosophical content has tended to place
it at the beginning of the middle period. Similar accounts of the transmigration of souls may be found,
with somewhat different details, in Book X of the Republic and in the Phaedrus, as well as in several
dialogues of the late period, including the Timaeus and the Laws. No traces of the doctrine of
recollection, or the theory of reincarnation or transmigration of souls, are to be found in the dialogues
we listed above as those of the early period.
d. Moral Psychology
The moral psychology of the middle period dialogues also seems to be quite different from what we
find in the early period. In the early dialogues, Platos Socrates is an intellectualistthat is, he claims
that people always act in the way they believe is best for them (at the time of action, at any rate). Hence,
all wrongdoing reflects some cognitive error. But in the middle period, Plato conceives of the soul as
having (at least) three parts:
1. a rational part (the part that loves truth, which should rule over the other parts of the soul through
the use of reason),
2. a spirited part (which loves honor and victory), and
3. an appetitive part (which desires food, drink, and sex),
and justice will be that condition of the soul in which each of these three parts does its own work,
and does not interfere in the workings of the other parts (see esp. Republic IV.435b-445b). It seems
clear from the way Plato describes what can go wrong in a soul, however, that in this new picture of
moral psychology, the appetitive part of the soul can simply overrule reasons judgments. One may
suffer, in this account of psychology, from what is called akrasia or moral weaknessin which one
finds oneself doing something that one actually believes is not the right thing to do (see
especially Republic IV.439e-440b). In the early period, Socrates denied that akrasia was possible: One
might change ones mind at the last minute about what one ought to doand could perhaps change
ones mind again later to regret doing what one has donebut one could never do what one actually
believed was wrong, at the time of acting.
e. Critique of the Arts
The Republic also introduces Platos notorious critique of the visual and imitative arts. In the early
period works, Socrates contends that the poets lack wisdom, but he also grants that they say many
fine things. In the Republic, on the contrary, it seems that there is little that is fine in poetry or any of
the other fine arts. Most of poetry and the other fine arts are to be censored out of existence in the
noble state (kallipolis) Plato sketches in the Republic, as merely imitating appearances (rather than
realities), and as arousing excessive and unnatural emotions and appetites (see esp. Republic X.595b-
f. Platonic Love
In the Symposium, which is normally dated at the beginning of the middle period, and in
the Phaedrus,which is dated at the end of the middle period or later yet, Plato introduces his theory
of ers (usually translated as love). Several passages and images from these dialogues continued to
show up in Western culturefor example, the image of two lovers as being each others other half,
which Plato assigns to Aristophanes in the Symposium. Also in that dialogue, we are told of the ladder
of love, by which the lover can ascend to direct cognitive contact with (usually compared to a kind of
vision of) Beauty Itself. In the Phaedrus, love is revealed to be the great divine madness through
which the wings of the lovers soul may sprout, allowing the lover to take flight to all of the highest
aspirations and achievements possible for humankind. In both of these dialogues, Plato clearly regards
actual physical or sexual contact between lovers as degraded and wasteful forms of erotic expression.
Because the true goal of ersis real beauty and real beauty is the Form of Beauty, what Plato calls
Beauty Itself, ers finds its fulfillment only in Platonic philosophy. Unless it channels its power of love
into higher pursuits, which culminate in the knowledge of the Form of Beauty, ers is doomed to
frustration. For this reason, Plato thinks that most people sadly squander the real power of love by
limiting themselves to the mere pleasures of physical beauty.
7. Late Transitional and Late Dialogues
a. Philosophical Methodology
One of the novelties of the dialogues after those of the middle period is the introduction of a new
philosophical method. This method was introduced probably either late in the middle period or in the
transition to the late period, but was increasingly important in the late period. In the early period
dialogues, as we have said, the mode of philosophizing was refutative question-and-answer
(calledelenchos or the Socratic method). Although the middle period dialogues continue to show
Socrates asking questions, the questioning in these dialogues becomes much more overtly leading and
didactic. The highest method of philosophizing discussed in the middle period dialogues, called
dialectic, is never very well explained (at best, it is just barely sketched in the divided line image at
the end of Book VI of theRepublic). The correct method for doing philosophy, we are now told in the
later works, is what Plato identifies as collection and division, which is perhaps first referred to
at Phaedrus 265e. In this method, the philosopher collects all of the instances of some generic category
that seem to have common characteristics, and then divides them into specific kinds until they cannot
be further subdivided. This method is explicitly and extensively on display in the Sophist,
Statesman, and Philebus.
b. Critique of the Earlier Theory of Forms
One of the most puzzling features of the late dialogues is the strong suggestion in them that Plato has
reconsidered his theory of Forms in some way. Although there seems still in the late dialogues to be a
theory of Forms (although the theory is, quite strikingly, wholly unmentioned in the Theaetetus, a later
dialogue on the nature of knowledge), where it does appear in the later dialogues, it seems in several
ways to have been modified from its conception in the middle period works. Perhaps the most dramatic
signal of such a change in the theory appears first in the Parmenides, which appears to subject the
middle period version of the theory to a kind of Socratic refutation, only this time, the main refuter
is the older Eleatic philosopher Parmenides, and the hapless victim of the refutation is a youthful
Socrates. The most famous (and apparently fatal) of the arguments provided by Parmenides in this
dialogue has come to be known as the Third Man Argument, which suggests that the conception of
participation (by which individual objects take on the characters of the Forms) falls prey to an infinite
regress: If individual male things are male in virtue of participation in the Form of Man, and the Form
of Man is itself male, then what is common to both The Form of Man and the particular male things
must be that they all participate in some (other) Form, say, Man 2. But then, if Man 2 is male, then
what it has in common with the other male things is participation in some further Form, Man 3, and
so on. That Platos theory is open to this problem gains support from the notion, mentioned above,
that Forms are exemplars. If the Form of Man is itself a (perfect) male, then the Form shares a property
in common with the males that participate in it. But since the Theory requires that for any group of
entities with a common property, there is a Form to explain the commonality, it appears that the theory
does indeed give rise to the vicious regress.
There has been considerable controversy for many years over whether Plato believed that the Theory
of Forms was vulnerable to the Third Man argument, as Aristotle believed it was, and so uses
theParmenides to announce his rejection of the Theory of Forms, or instead believed that the Third
Man argument can be avoided by making adjustments to the Theory of Forms. Of relevance to this
discussion is the relative dating of the Timaeus and the Parmenides, since the Theory of Forms very
much as it appears in the middle period works plays a prominent role in the Timaeus. Thus, the
assignment of a later date to the Timaeus shows that Plato did not regard the objection to the Theory
of Forms raised in theParmenides as in any way decisive. In any event, it is agreed on all sides that
Platos interest in the Theory shifted in the Sophist and Stateman to the exploration of the logical
relations that hold between abstract entities. In the Laws, Platos last (and unfinished) work, the
Theory of Forms appears to have dropped out altogether. Whatever value Plato believed that
knowledge of abstract entities has for the proper conduct of philosophy, he no longer seems to have
believed that such knowledge is necessary for the proper running of a political community.
c. The Eclipse of Socrates
In several of the late dialogues, Socrates is even further marginalized. He is either represented as a
mostly mute bystander (in the Sophist and Statesman), or else absent altogether from the cast of
characters (in the Laws and Critias). In the Theaetetus and Philebus, however, we find Socrates in the
familiar leading role. The so-called eclipse of Socrates in several of the later dialogues has been a
subject of much scholarly discussion.
d. The Myth of Atlantis
Platos famous myth of Atlantis is first given in the Timaeus, which scholars now generally agree is
quite late, despite being dramatically placed on the day after the discussion recounted in
the Republic. The myth of Atlantis is continued in the unfinished dialogue intended to be the sequel to
the Timaeus, theCritias.
e. The Creation of the Universe
The Timaeus is also famous for its account of the creation of the universe by the Demiurge. Unlike the
creation by the God of medieval theologians, Platos Demiurge does not create ex nihilo, but rather
orders the cosmos out of chaotic elemental matter, imitating the eternal Forms. Plato takes the four
elements, fire, air, water, and earth (which Plato proclaims to be composed of various aggregates of
triangles), making various compounds of these into what he calls the Body of the Universe. Of all of
Platos works, the Timaeus provides the most detailed conjectures in the areas we now regard as the
natural sciences: physics, astronomy, chemistry, and biology.
f. The Laws
In the Laws, Platos last work, the philosopher returns once again to the question of how a society
ought best to be organized. Unlike his earlier treatment in the Republic, however, the Laws appears
to concern itself less with what a best possible state might be like, and much more squarely with the
project of designing a genuinely practicable, if admittedly not ideal, form of government. The founders
of the community sketched in the Laws concern themselves with 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. A work enormous length and complexity, running some 345 Stephanus pages,
the Laws was unfinished at the time of Platos death. According to Diogenes Laertius (3.37), it was left
written on wax tablets.
8. References and Further Reading
a. Greek Texts
Platonis Opera (in 5 volumes) The Oxford Classical Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press):
Volume I (E. A. Duke et al., eds., 1995): Euthyphro, Apologia Socratis, Crito, Phaedo, Cratylus,
Theaetetus, Sophista, Politicus.
Volume II (John Burnet, ed., 1901): Parmenides, Philebus, Symposium, Phaedrus, Alcibiades I,
Alcibiades II, Hipparchus, Amatores.
Volume III (John Burnet, ed., 1903): Theages, Charmides, Laches, Lysis, Euthydemus, Protagoras,
Gorgias, Meno, Hippias Maior, Hippias Minor, Io, Menexenus.
Volume IV (John Burnet, ed., 1978): Clitopho, Respublica, Timaeus, Critias.
Volume V (John Burnet, ed. 1907): Minos, Leges, Epinomis, Epistulae, Definitiones, De Iusto, De
Virtute, Demodocus, Sisyphus, Eryxias, Axiochus.
o The Oxford Classical Texts are the standard Greek texts of Platos works, including all of
the spuria anddubia except for the epigrams, the Greek texts of which may be found in Hermann Beckby
(ed.),Anthologia Graeca (Munich: Heimeran, 1957).
b. Translations into English
Cooper, J. M. (ed.), Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997).
o Contains very recent translations of all of the Platonic works, dubia, spuria, and epigrams.
Now generally regarded as the standard for English translations.
c. Platos Socrates and the Historical Socrates
Kahn, Charles H., Plato and the Socratic Dialogue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
o Kahns own version of the unitarian reading of Platos dialogues. Although scholars have
not widely accepted Kahns positions, Kahn offers several arguments for rejecting the more established held
developmentalist position.
Vlastos, Gregory, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
and Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991).
o Chapters 2 and 3 of this book are invariably cited as providing the most influential recent
arguments for the historicist version of the developmentalist position.
d. Socrates and Platos Early Period Dialogues
Benson, Hugh H. (ed.), Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates (New York: Oxford University Press,
o A collection of previously published articles by various authors on Socrates and Platos early
Brickhouse, Thomas C. and Nicholas D. Smith, Platos Socrates (New York: Oxford University Press,
o Six chapters, each on different topics in the study of Platos early or Socratic dialogues.
Brickhouse, Thomas C. and Nicholas D. Smith, The Philosophy of Socrates (Boulder: Westview,
o Seven chapters, each on different topics in the study of Platos early or Socratic dialogues.
Some changes in views from those offered in their 1994 book.
Prior, William (ed.), Socrates: Critical Assessments (London and New York, 1996) in four volumes:
I:The Socratic Problem and Socratic Ignorance; II: Issues Arising from the Trial of
Socrates; III:Socratic Method; IV: Happiness and Virtue.
o A collection of previously published articles by various authors on Socrates and Platos early
Santas, Gerasimos Xenophon, Socrates: Philosophy in Platos Early Dialogues (Boston and London:
Routledge, 1979).
o Eight chapters, each on different topics in the study of Platos early or Socratic dialogues.
Taylor, C. C. W. Socrates: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
o Very short, indeed, but nicely written and generally very reliable.
Vlastos, Gregory, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
and Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991). (Also cited in VIII.3, above.)
o Eight chapters, each on different topics in the study of Platos early or Socratic dialogues.
Vlastos, Gregory, Socratic Studies (ed. Myles Burnyeat; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
o Edited and published after Vlastoss death. A collection of Vlastoss papers on Socrates not
published in Vlastoss 1991 book.
Vlastos, Gregory (ed.) The Philosophy of Socrates (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press,
o A collection of papers by various authors on Socrates and Platos early dialogues. Although
now somewhat dated, several articles in this collection continue to be widely cited and studied.
e. General Books on Plato
Cherniss, Harold, The Riddle of the Early Academy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1945).
o A study of reports in the Early Academy, following Platos death, of the so-called unwritten
doctrines of Plato.
Fine, Gail (ed.), Plato I: Metaphysics and Epistemology and Plato II: Ethics, Politics, Religion and
the Soul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
o A collection of previously published papers by various authors, mostly on Platos middle and
later periods.
Grote, George, Plato and the Other Companions of Sokrates 2nd ed. 3 vols. (London: J. Murray,
o 3-volume collection with general discussion of the Socratics other than Plato, as well as
specific discussions of each of Platos works.
Guthrie, W. K. C., A History of Greek Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) vols. 3
(1969), 4 (1975) and 5 (1978).
o Volume 3 is on the Sophists and Socrates; volume 4 is on Platos early dialogues and
continues with chapters on Phaedo, Symposium, and Phaedrus, and then a final chapter on the Republic.
Irwin, Terence, Platos Ethics (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
o Systematic discussion of the ethical thought in Platos works.
Kraut, Richard (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
o A collection of original discussions of various general topics about Plato and the dialogues.
Smith, Nicholas D. (ed.), Plato: Critical Assessments (London and New York: Routledge, 1998) in
four volumes: I: General Issues of Interpretation; II: Platos Middle Period: Metaphysics and
Epistemology; III: Platos Middle Period: Psychology and Value Theory; IV: Platos Later Works.
o A collection of previously published articles by various authors on interpretive problems and
on Platos middle and later periods. Platos early period dialogues are covered in this series by Prior 1996 (see
Vlastos, Gregory, Platonic Studies 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).
o A collection of Vlastoss papers on Plato, including some important earlier work on the early
Vlastos, Gregory, Plato I: Metaphysics and Epistemology and Plato II: Ethics, Politics, and
Philosophy of Art and Religion (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987).
o A collection of papers by various authors on Platos middle period and later dialogues.
Although now somewhat dated, several articles in this collection continue to be widely cited and studied.

Aristotle (384322 B.C.E.)
Aristotle is a towering figure in ancient Greek philosophy,
making contributions to logic, metaphysics, mathematics, physics, biology, botany, ethics, politics,
agriculture, medicine, dance and theatre. He was a student of Plato who in turn studied under Socrates.
He was more empirically-minded than Plato or Socrates and is famous for rejecting Platos theory of
As a prolific writer and polymath, Aristotle radically transformed most, if not all, areas of knowledge
he touched. It is no wonder that Aquinas referred to him simply as The Philosopher. In his lifetime,
Aristotle wrote as many as 200 treatises, of which only 31 survive. Unfortunately for us, these works
are in the form of lecture notes and draft manuscripts never intended for general readership, so they
do not demonstrate his reputed polished prose style which attracted many great followers, including
the Roman Cicero. Aristotle was the first to classify areas of human knowledge into distinct disciplines
such as mathematics, biology, and ethics. Some of these classifications are still used today.
As the father of the field of logic, he was the first to develop a formalized system for reasoning. Aristotle
observed that the validity of any argument can be determined by its structure rather than its content.
A classic example of a valid argument is his syllogism: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore,
Socrates is mortal. Given the structure of this argument, as long as the premises are true, then the
conclusion is also guaranteed to be true. Aristotles brand of logic dominated this area of thought until
the rise of modern propositional logic and predicate logic 2000 years later.
Aristotles emphasis on good reasoning combined with his belief in the scientific method forms the
backdrop for most of his work. For example, in his work in ethics and politics, Aristotle identifies the
highest good with intellectual virtue; that is, a moral person is one who cultivates certain virtues based
on reasoning. And in his work on psychology and the soul, Aristotle distinguishes sense perception
from reason, which unifies and interprets the sense perceptions and is the source of all knowledge.
Aristotle famously rejected Platos theory of forms, which states that properties such as beauty are
abstract universal entities that exist independent of the objects themselves. Instead, he argued that
forms are intrinsic to the objects and cannot exist apart from them, and so must be studied in relation
to them. However, in discussing art, Aristotle seems to reject this, and instead argues for idealized
universal form which artists attempt to capture in their work.
Aristotle was the founder of the Lyceum, a school of learning based in Athens, Greece; and he was an
inspiration for the Peripatetics, his followers from the Lyceum.
Table of Contents
1. Life
2. Writings
3. Logic
4. Metaphysics
5. Philosophy of Nature
6. The Soul and Psychology
7. Ethics
8. Politics
9. Art and Poetics
1. Life
Aristotle was born in 384 BCE at Stagirus, a now extinct Greek colony and seaport on the coast of
Thrace. His father Nichomachus was court physician to King Amyntas of Macedonia, and from this
began Aristotles long association with the Macedonian Court, which considerably influenced his life.
While he was still a boy his father died. At age 17 his guardian, Proxenus, sent him to Athens, the
intellectual center of the world, to complete his education. He joined the Academy and studied
under Plato, attending his lectures for a period of twenty years. In the later years of his association with
Plato and the Academy he began to lecture on his own account, especially on the subject of rhetoric.
At the death of Plato in 347, the pre-eminent ability of Aristotle would seem to have designated him to
succeed to the leadership of the Academy. But his divergence from Platos teaching was too great to
make this possible, and Platos nephew Speusippus was chosen instead. At the invitation of his friend
Hermeas, ruler of Atarneus and Assos in Mysia, Aristotle left for his court. He stayed three year and,
while there, married Pythias, the niece of the King. In later life he was married a second time to a
woman named Herpyllis, who bore him a son, Nichomachus. At the end of three years Hermeas was
overtaken by the Persians, and Aristotle went to Mytilene. At the invitation of Philip of Macedonia he
became the tutor of his 13 year old son Alexander (later world conqueror); he did this for the next five
years. Both Philip and Alexander appear to have paid Aristotle high honor, and there were stories that
Aristotle was supplied by the Macedonian court, not only with funds for teaching, but also with
thousands of slaves to collect specimens for his studies in natural science. These stories are probably
false and certainly exaggerated.
Upon the death of Philip, Alexander succeeded to the kingship and prepared for his subsequent
conquests. Aristotles work being finished, he returned to Athens, which he had not visited since the
death of Plato. He found the Platonic school flourishing under Xenocrates, and Platonism the
dominant philosophy of Athens. He thus set up his own school at a place called the Lyceum. When
teaching at the Lyceum, Aristotle had a habit of walking about as he discoursed. It was in connection
with this that his followers became known in later years as the peripatetics, meaning to walk about.
For the next thirteen years he devoted his energies to his teaching and composing his philosophical
treatises. He is said to have given two kinds of lectures: the more detailed discussions in the morning
for an inner circle of advanced students, and the popular discourses in the evening for the general body
of lovers of knowledge. At the sudden death of Alexander in 323 BCE., the pro-Macedonian
government in Athens was overthrown, and a general reaction occurred against anything Macedonian.
A charge of impiety was trumped up against him. To escape prosecution he fled to Chalcis in Euboea
so that (Aristotle says) The Athenians might not have another opportunity of sinning against
philosophy as they had already done in the person of Socrates. In the first year of his residence at
Chalcis he complained of a stomach illness and died in 322 BCE.
2. Writings
It is reported that Aristotles writings were held by his student Theophrastus, who had succeeded
Aristotle in leadership of the Peripatetic School. Theophrastuss library passed to his pupil Neleus. To
protect the books from theft, Neleuss heirs concealed them in a vault, where they were damaged
somewhat by dampness, moths and worms. In this hiding place they were discovered about 100 BCE
by Apellicon, a rich book lover, and brought to Athens. They were later taken to Rome after the capture
of Athens by Sulla in 86 BCE. In Rome they soon attracted the attention of scholars, and the new
edition of them gave fresh impetus to the study of Aristotle and of philosophy in general. This
collection is the basis of the works of Aristotle that we have today. Strangely, the list of Aristotles works
given by Diogenes Laertius does not contain any of these treatises. It is possible that Diogenes list is
that of forgeries compiled at a time when the real works were lost to sight.
The works of Aristotle fall under three headings: (1) dialogues and other works of a popular character;
(2) collections of facts and material from scientific treatment; and (3) systematic works. Among his
writings of a popular nature the only one which we possess of any consequence is the interesting
tract On the Polity of the Athenians. The works on the second group include 200 titles, most in
fragments, collected by Aristotles school and used as research. Some may have been done at the time
of Aristotles successor Theophrastus. Included in this group are constitutions of 158 Greek states. The
systematic treatises of the third group are marked by a plainness of style, with none of the golden flow
of language which the ancients praised in Aristotle. This may be due to the fact that these works were
not, in most cases, published by Aristotle himself or during his lifetime, but were edited after his death
from unfinished manuscripts. Until Werner Jaeger (1912) it was assumed that Aristotles writings
presented a systematic account of his views. Jaeger argues for an early, middle and late period (genetic
approach), where the early period follows Platos theory of forms and soul, the middle rejects Plato,
and the later period (which includes most of his treatises) is more empirically oriented. Aristotles
systematic treatises may be grouped in several divisions:
1. Categories (10 classifications of terms)
2. On Interpretation (propositions, truth, modality)
3. Prior Analytics (syllogistic logic)
4. Posterior Analytics (scientific method and syllogism)
5. Topics (rules for effective arguments and debate)
6. On Sophistical Refutations (informal fallacies)
Physical works
1. Physics (explains change, motion, void, time)
2. On the Heavens (structure of heaven, earth, elements)
3. On Generation (through combining material constituents)
4. Meteorologics (origin of comets, weather, disasters)
Psychological works
1. On the Soul (explains faculties, senses, mind, imagination)
2. On Memory, Reminiscence, Dreams, and Prophesying
Works on natural history
1. History of Animals (physical/mental qualities, habits)
2. On the parts of Animals
3. On the Movement of Animals
4. On the Progression of Animals
5. On the Generation of Animals
6. Minor treatises
7. Problems
Philosophical works
1. Metaphysics (substance, cause, form, potentiality)
2. Nicomachean Ethics (soul, happiness, virtue, friendship)
3. Eudemain Ethics
4. Magna Moralia
5. Politics (best states, utopias, constitutions, revolutions)
6. Rhetoric (elements of forensic and political debate)
7. Poetics (tragedy, epic poetry)
3. Logic
Aristotles writings on the general subject of logic were grouped by the later Peripatetics under the
name Organon, or instrument. From their perspective, logic and reasoning was the chief preparatory
instrument of scientific investigation. Aristotle himself, however, uses the term logic as equivalent
to verbal reasoning. The Categories of Aristotle are classifications of individual words (as opposed to
sentences or propositions), and include the following ten: substance, quantity, quality, relation, place,
time, situation, condition, action, passion. They seem to be arranged according to the order of the
questions we would ask in gaining knowledge of an object. For example, we ask, first, what a thing is,
then how great it is, next of what kind it is. Substance is always regarded as the most important of
these. Substances are further divided into first and second: first substances are individual objects;
second substances are the species in which first substances or individuals inhere.
Notions when isolated do not in themselves express either truth or falsehood: it is only with the
combination of ideas in a proposition that truth and falsity are possible. The elements of such a
proposition are the noun substantive and the verb. The combination of words gives rise to rational
speech and thought, conveys a meaning both in its parts and as a whole. Such thought may take many
forms, but logic considers only demonstrative forms which express truth and falsehood. The truth or
falsity of propositions is determined by their agreement or disagreement with the facts they represent.
Thus propositions are either affirmative or negative, each of which again may be either universal or
particular or undesignated. A definition, for Aristotle is a statement of the essential character of a
subject, and involves both the genus and the difference. To get at a true definition we must find out
those qualities within the genus which taken separately are wider than the subject to be defined, but
taken together are precisely equal to it. For example, prime, odd, and number are each wider
than triplet (that is, a collection of any three items, such as three rocks); but taken together they are
just equal to it. The genus definition must be formed so that no species is left out. Having determined
the genus and species, we must next find the points of similarity in the species separately and then
consider the common characteristics of different species. Definitions may be imperfect by (1) being
obscure, (2) by being too wide, or (3) by not stating the essential and fundamental attributes. Obscurity
may arise from the use of equivocal expressions, of metaphorical phrases, or of eccentric words. The
heart of Aristotles logic is the syllogism, the classic example of which is as follows: All men are mortal;
Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal. The syllogistic form of logical argumentation
dominated logic for 2,000 years until the rise of modern propositional and predicate logic thanks to
Frege, Russell, and others.
4. Metaphysics
Aristotles editors gave the name Metaphysics to his works on first philosophy, either because they
went beyond or followed after his physical investigations. Aristotle begins by sketching the history of
philosophy. For Aristotle, philosophy arose historically after basic necessities were secured. It grew
out of a feeling of curiosity and wonder, to which religious myth gave only provisional satisfaction. The
earliest speculators (i.e. Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander) were philosophers of nature. The
Pythagoreans succeeded these with mathematical abstractions. The level of pure thought was reached
partly in the Eleatic philosophers (such as Parmenides) and Anaxagoras, but more completely in the
work of Socrates. Socrates contribution was the expression of general conceptions in the form of
definitions, which he arrived at by induction and analogy. For Aristotle, the subject of metaphysics
deals with the first principles of scientific knowledge and the ultimate conditions of all existence. More
specifically, it deals with existence in its most fundamental state (i.e. being as being), and the essential
attributes of existence. This can be contrasted with mathematics which deals with existence in terms
of lines or angles, and not existence as it is in itself. In its universal character, metaphysics superficially
resembles dialectics and sophistry. However, it differs from dialectics which is tentative, and it differs
from sophistry which is a pretence of knowledge without the reality.
The axioms of science fall under the consideration of the metaphysician insofar as they are properties
ofall existence. Aristotle argues that there are a handful of universal truths. Against the followers of
Heraclitus and Protagoras, Aristotle defends both the laws of contradiction, and that of excluded
middle. He does this by showing that their denial is suicidal. Carried out to its logical consequences,
the denial of these laws would lead to the sameness of all facts and all assertions. It would also result
in an indifference in conduct. As the science of being as being, the leading question of Aristotles
metaphysics is, What is meant by the real or true substance? Plato tried to solve the same question by
positing a universal and invariable element of knowledge and existence the forms as the only real
permanent besides the changing phenomena of the senses. Aristotle attacks Platos theory of the forms
on three different grounds.
First, Aristotle argues, forms are powerless to explain changes of things and a things ultimate
extinction. Forms are not causes of movement and alteration in the physical objects of
sensation. Second, forms are equally incompetent to explain how we arrive at knowledge of particular
things. For, to have knowledge of a particular object, it must be knowledge of the substance which
is in that things. However, the forms place knowledge outside of particular things. Further, to suppose
that we know particular things better by adding on their general conceptions of their forms, is about
as absurd as to imagine that we can count numbers better by multiplying them. Finally, if forms were
needed to explain our knowledge of particular objects, then forms must be used to explain our
knowledge of objects of art; however, Platonists do not recognize such forms. The third ground of
attack is that the forms simply cannot explain the existence of particular objects. Plato contends that
forms do not exist in the particular objects which partake in the forms. However, that substance of a
particular thing cannot be separated from the thing itself. Further, aside from the jargon of
participation, Plato does not explain the relation between forms and particular things. In reality, it
is merely metaphorical to describe the forms as patterns of things; for, what is a genus to one object is
a species to a higher class, the same idea will have to be both a form and a particular thing at the same
time. Finally, on Platos account of the forms, we must imagine an intermediate link between the form
and the particular object, and so on ad infinitum: there must always be a third man between the
individual man and the form of man.
For Aristotle, the form is not something outside the object, but rather in the varied phenomena of
sense. Real substance, or true being, is not the abstract form, but rather the concrete individual thing.
Unfortunately, Aristotles theory of substance is not altogether consistent with itself. In
the Categoriesthe notion of substance tends to be nominalistic (that is, substance is a concept we apply
to things). In theMetaphysics, though, it frequently inclines towards realism (that is, substance has a
real existence in itself). We are also struck by the apparent contradiction in his claims that science
deals with universal concepts, and substance is declared to be an individual. In any case, substance is
for him a merging of matter into form. The term matter is used by Aristotle in four overlapping
senses. First, it is the underlying structure of changes, particularly changes of growth and of
decay. Secondly, it is the potential which has implicitly the capacity to develop into reality. Thirdly, it
is a kind of stuff without specific qualities and so is indeterminate and contingent. Fourthly, it is
identical with form when it takes on a form in its actualized and final phase.
The development of potentiality to actuality is one of the most important aspects of Aristotles
philosophy. It was intended to solve the difficulties which earlier thinkers had raised with reference to
the beginnings of existence and the relations of the one and many. The actual vs. potential state of
things is explained in terms of the causes which act on things. There are four causes:
1. Material cause, or the elements out of which an object is created;
2. Efficient cause, or the means by which it is created;
3. Formal cause, or the expression of what it is;
4. Final cause, or the end for which it is.
Take, for example, a bronze statue. Its material cause is the bronze itself. Its efficient cause is the
sculptor, insofar has he forces the bronze into shape. The formal cause is the idea of the completed
statue. The final cause is the idea of the statue as it prompts the sculptor to act on the bronze. The final
cause tends to be the same as the formal cause, and both of these can be subsumed by the efficient
cause. Of the four, it is the formal and final which is the most important, and which most truly gives
the explanation of an object. The final end (purpose, or teleology) of a thing is realized in the full
perfection of the object itself, not in our conception of it. Final cause is thus internal to the nature of
the object itself, and not something we subjectively impose on it.
To Aristotle, God is the first of all substances, the necessary first source of movement who is himself
unmoved. God is a being with everlasting life, and perfect blessedness, engaged in never-ending
For a fuller discussion, see the article Aristotles Metaphysics and Western Concepts of God.
5. Philosophy of Nature
Aristotle sees the universe as a scale lying between the two extremes: form without matter is on one
end, and matter without form is on the other end. The passage of matter into form must be shown in
its various stages in the world of nature. To do this is the object of Aristotles physics, or philosophy of
nature. It is important to keep in mind that the passage from form to matter within nature is a
movement towards ends or purposes. Everything in nature has its end and function, and nothing is
without its purpose. Everywhere we find evidences of design and rational plan. No doctrine of physics
can ignore the fundamental notions of motion, space, and time. Motion is the passage of matter into
form, and it is of four kinds: (1) motion which affects the substance of a thing, particularly its beginning
and its ending; (2) motion which brings about changes in quality; (3) motion which brings about
changes in quantity, by increasing it and decreasing it; and (4) motion which brings about locomotion,
or change of place. Of these the last is the most fundamental and important.
Aristotle rejects the definition of space as the void. Empty space is an impossibility. Hence, too, he
disagrees with the view of Plato and the Pythagoreans that the elements are composed of geometrical
figures. Space is defined as the limit of the surrounding body towards what is surrounded. Time is
defined as the measure of motion in regard to what is earlier and later. It thus depends for its existence
upon motion. If there where no change in the universe, there would be no time. Since it is the
measuring or counting of motion, it also depends for its existence on a counting mind. If there were
no mind to count, there could be no time. As to the infinite divisibility of space and time, and the
paradoxes proposed byZeno, Aristotle argues that space and time are potentially divisible ad infinitum,
but are not actually so divided.
After these preliminaries, Aristotle passes to the main subject of physics, the scale of being. The first
thing to notice about this scale is that it is a scale of values. What is higher on the scale of being is of
more worth, because the principle of form is more advanced in it. Species on this scale are eternally
fixed in their place, and cannot evolve over time. The higher items on the scale are also more organized.
Further, the lower items are inorganic and the higher are organic. The principle which gives internal
organization to the higher or organic items on the scale of being is life, or what he calls the soul of the
organism. Even the human soul is nothing but the organization of the body. Plants are the lowest forms
of life on the scale, and their souls contain a nutritive element by which it preserves itself. Animals are
above plants on the scale, and their souls contain an appetitive feature which allows them to have
sensations, desires, and thus gives them the ability to move. The scale of being proceeds from animals
to humans. The human soul shares the nutritive element with plants, and the appetitive element with
animals, but also has a rational element which is distinctively our own. The details of the appetitive
and rational aspects of the soul are described in the following two sections.
For a fuller discussion of these topics, see the article Aristotle: Motion and its Place in Nature.
6. The Soul and Psychology
Soul is defined by Aristotle as the perfect expression or realization of a natural body. From this
definition it follows that there is a close connection between psychological states, and physiological
processes. Body and soul are unified in the same way that wax and an impression stamped on it are
unified. Metaphysicians before Aristotle discussed the soul abstractly without any regard to the bodily
environment; this, Aristotle believes, was a mistake. At the same time, Aristotle regards the soul or
mind not as the product of the physiological conditions of the body, but as the truth of the body the
substance in which only the bodily conditions gain their real meaning.
The soul manifests its activity in certain faculties or parts which correspond with the stages of
biological development, and are the faculties of nutrition (peculiar to plants), that of movement
(peculiar to animals), and that of reason (peculiar to humans). These faculties resemble mathematical
figures in which the higher includes the lower, and must be understood not as like actual physical
parts, but like suchaspects as convex and concave which we distinguish in the same line. The mind
remains throughout a unity: and it is absurd to speak of it, as Plato did, as desiring with one part and
feeling anger with another. Sense perception is a faculty of receiving the forms of outward objects
independently of the matter of which they are composed, just as the wax takes on the figure of the seal
without the gold or other metal of which the seal is composed. As the subject of impression, perception
involves a movement and a kind of qualitative change; but perception is not merely a passive or
receptive affection. It in turn acts, and,distinguishing between the qualities of outward things,
becomes a movement of the soul through the medium of the body.
The objects of the senses may be either (1) special, (such as color is the special object of sight, and
sound of hearing), (2) common, or apprehended by several senses in combination (such as motion or
figure), or (3) incidental or inferential (such as when from the immediate sensation of white we come
to know a person or object which is white). There are five special senses. Of these, touch is the must
rudimentary, hearing the most instructive, and sight the most ennobling. The organ in these senses
never acts directly , but is affected by some medium such as air. Even touch, which seems to act by
actual contact, probably involves some vehicle of communication. For Aristotle, the heart is the
common or central sense organ. It recognizes the common qualities which are involved in all particular
objects of sensation. It is, first, the sense which brings us a consciousness of sensation. Secondly, in
one act before the mind, it holds up the objects of our knowledge and enables us to distinguish between
the reports of different senses.
Aristotle defines the imagination as the movement which results upon an actual sensation. In other
words, it is the process by which an impression of the senses is pictured and retained before the mind,
and is accordingly the basis of memory. The representative pictures which it provides form the
materials of reason. Illusions and dreams are both alike due to an excitement in the organ of sense
similar to that which would be caused by the actual presence of the sensible phenomenon. Memory is
defined as the permanent possession of the sensuous picture as a copy which represents the object of
which it is a picture. Recollection, or the calling back to mind the residue of memory, depends on the
laws which regulate the association of our ideas. We trace the associations by starting with the thought
of the object present to us, then considering what is similar, contrary or contiguous.
Reason is the source of the first principles of knowledge. Reason is opposed to the sense insofar as
sensations are restricted and individual, and thought is free and universal. Also, while the senses deals
with the concrete and material aspect of phenomena, reason deals with the abstract and ideal aspects.
But while reason is in itself the source of general ideas, it is so only potentially. For, it arrives at them
only by a process of development in which it gradually clothes sense in thought, and unifies and
interprets sense-presentations. This work of reason in thinking beings suggests the question: How can
immaterial thought come to receive material things? It is only possible in virtue of
some community between thought and things. Aristotle recognizes an active reason
which makes objects of thought. This is distinguished from passive reason which receives, combines
and compares the objects of thought. Active reason makes the world intelligible, and bestows on the
materials of knowledge those ideas or categories which make them accessible to thought. This is just
as the sun communicates to material objects that light, without which color would be invisible, and
sight would have no object. Hence reason is the constant support of an intelligible world. While
assigning reason to the soul of humans, Aristotle describes it as coming from without, and almost
seems to identify it with God as the eternal and omnipresent thinker. Even in humans, in short, reason
realizes something of the essential characteristic of absolute thought the unity of thought as subject
with thought as object.
7. Ethics
Ethics, as viewed by Aristotle, is an attempt to find out our chief end or highest good: an end which he
maintains is really final. Though many ends of life are only means to further ends, our aspirations and
desires must have some final object or pursuit. Such a chief end is universally called happiness. But
people mean such different things by the expression that he finds it necessary to discuss the nature of
it for himself. For starters, happiness must be based on human nature, and must begin from the facts
of personal experience. Thus, happiness cannot be found in any abstract or ideal notion, like Platos
self-existing good. It must be something practical and human. It must then be found in the work and
life which is unique to humans. But this is neither the vegetative life we share with plants nor the
sensitive existence which we share with animals. It follows therefore that true happiness lies in the
active life of a rational being or in a perfect realization and outworking of the true soul and self,
continued throughout a lifetime.
Aristotle expands his notion of happiness through an analysis of the human soul which structures and
animates a living human organism. The parts of the soul are divided as follows:

Calculative Intellectual Virtue

Appetitive Moral Virtue
Vegetative Nutritional Virtue
The human soul has an irrational element which is shared with the animals, and a rational element
which is distinctly human. The most primitive irrational element is the vegetative faculty which is
responsible for nutrition and growth. An organism which does this well may be said to have a
nutritional virtue. The second tier of the soul is the appetitive faculty which is responsible for our
emotions and desires (such as joy, grief, hope and fear). This faculty is both rational and irrational. It
is irrational since even animals experience desires. However, it is also rational since humans have the
distinct ability to control these desires with the help of reason. The human ability to properly control
these desires is called moral virtue, and is the focus of morality. Aristotle notes that there is a purely
rational part of the soul, the calculative, which is responsible for the human ability to contemplate,
reason logically, and formulate scientific principles. The mastery of these abilities is called intellectual
Aristotle continues by making several general points about the nature of moral virtues (i.e. desire-
regulating virtues). First, he argues that the ability to regulate our desires is not instinctive, but learned
and is the outcome of both teaching and practice. Second, he notes that if we regulate our desires either
too much or too little, then we create problems. As an analogy, Aristotle comments that, either excess
or deficiency of gymnastic exercise is fatal to strength. Third, he argues that desire-regulating virtues
are character traits, and are not to be understood as either emotions or mental faculties.
The core of Aristotles account of moral virtue is his doctrine of the mean. According to this doctrine,
moral virtues are desire-regulating character traits which are at a mean between more extreme
character traits (or vices). For example, in response to the natural emotion of fear, we should develop
the virtuous character trait of courage. If we develop an excessive character trait by curbing fear too
much, then we are said to be rash, which is a vice. If, on the other extreme, we develop a deficient
character trait by curbing fear too little, then we are said to be cowardly, which is also a vice. The virtue
of courage, then, lies at the mean between the excessive extreme of rashness, and the deficient extreme
of cowardice. Aristotle is quick to point out that the virtuous mean is not a strict mathematical mean
between two extremes. For example, if eating 100 apples is too many, and eating zero apples is too
little, this does not imply that we should eat 50 apples, which is the mathematical mean. Instead, the
mean is rationally determined, based on the relative merits of the situation. That is, it is as a prudent
man would determine it. He concludes that it is difficult to live the virtuous life primarily because it
is often difficult to find the mean between the extremes.
Most moral virtues, and not just courage, are to be understood as falling at the mean between two
accompanying vices. His list may be represented by the following table:
Vice of Deficiency Virtuous Mean Vice of Excess
Cowardice Courage Rashness
Insensibility Temperance Intemperance
Illiberality Liberality Prodigality
Pettiness Munificence Vulgarity
Humble-mindedness High-mindedness Vaingloriness
Want of Ambition Right Ambition Over-ambition
Spiritlessness Good Temper Irascibility
Surliness Friendly Civility Obsequiousness
Ironical Depreciation Sincerity Boastfulness
Boorishness Wittiness Buffoonery
Shamelessness Modesty Bashfulness
Callousness Just Resentment Spitefulness
The prominent virtue of this list is high-mindedness, which, as being a kind of ideal self-respect, is
regarded as the crown of all the other virtues, depending on them for its existence, and itself in turn
tending to intensify their force. The list seems to be more a deduction from the formula than a
statement of the facts on which the formula itself depends, and Aristotle accordingly finds language
frequently inadequate to express the states of excess or defect which his theory involves (for example
in dealing with the virtue of ambition). Throughout the list he insists on the autonomy of will as
indispensable to virtue: courage for instance is only really worthy of the name when done from a love
of honor and duty: munificence again becomes vulgarity when it is not exercised from a love of what
is right and beautiful, but for displaying wealth.
Justice is used both in a general and in a special sense. In its general sense it is equivalent to the
observance of law. As such it is the same thing as virtue, differing only insofar as virtue exercises the
disposition simply in the abstract, and justice applies it in dealings with people. Particular justice
displays itself in two forms. First, distributive justice hands out honors and rewards according to the
merits of the recipients. Second, corrective justice takes no account of the position of the parties
concerned, but simply secures equality between the two by taking away from the advantage of the one
and adding it to the disadvantage of the other. Strictly speaking, distributive and corrective justice are
more than mere retaliation and reciprocity. However, in concrete situations of civil life, retaliation and
reciprocity is an adequate formula since such circumstances involve money, depending on a relation
between producer and consumer. Since absolute justice is abstract in nature, in the real world it must
be supplemented with equity, which corrects and modifies the laws of justice where it falls short. Thus,
morality requires a standard which will not only regulate the inadequacies of absolute justice but be
also an idea of moral progress.
This idea of morality is given by the faculty of moral insight. The truly good person is at the same time
a person of perfect insight, and a person of perfect insight is also perfectly good. Our idea of the
ultimate end of moral action is developed through habitual experience, and this gradually frames itself
out of particular perceptions. It is the job of reason to apprehend and organize these particular
perceptions. However, moral action is never the result of a mere act of the understanding, nor is it the
result of a simple desire which views objects merely as things which produce pain or pleasure. We start
with a rational conception of what is advantageous, but this conception is in itself powerless without
the natural impulse which will give it strength. The will or purpose implied by morality is thus either
reason stimulated to act by desire, or desire guided and controlled by understanding. These factors
then motivate the willful action. Freedom of the will is a factor with both virtuous choices and vicious
choices. Actions are involuntary only when another person forces our action, or if we are ignorant of
important details in actions. Actions are voluntary when the originating cause of action (either virtuous
or vicious) lies in ourselves.
Moral weakness of the will results in someone does what is wrong, knowing that it is right, and yet
follows his desire against reason. For Aristotle, this condition is not a myth, as Socrates supposed it
was. The problem is a matter of conflicting moral principles. Moral action may be represented as a
syllogism in which a general principle of morality forms the first (i.e. major) premise, while the
particular application is the second (i.e. minor) premise. The conclusion, though, which is arrived at
through speculation, is not always carried out in practice. The moral syllogism is not simply a matter
of logic, but involves psychological drives and desires. Desires can lead to a minor premise being
applied to one rather than another of two major premises existing in the agents mind. Animals, on the
other hand, cannot be called weak willed or incontinent since such a conflict of principles is not
possible with them.
Pleasure is not to be identified with Good. Pleasure is found in the consciousness of free spontaneous
action. It is an invisible experience, like vision, and is always present when a perfect organ acts upon
a perfect object. Pleasures accordingly differ in kind, varying along with the different value of the
functions of which they are the expression. They are determined ultimately by the judgment of the
good person. Our chief end is the perfect development of our true nature; it thus must be particularly
found in the realization of our highest faculty, that is, reason. It is this in fact which constitutes our
personality, and we would not be pursuing our own life, but the life of some lower being, if we followed
any other aim. Self-love accordingly may be said to be the highest law of morals, because while such
self-love may be understood as the selfishness which gratifies a persons lower nature, it may also be,
and is rightly, the love of that higher and rational nature which constitutes each persons true self.
Such a life of thought is further recommended as that which is most pleasant, most self-sufficient,
most continuous, and most consonant with our purpose. It is also that which is most akin to the life of
God: for God cannot be conceived as practising the ordinary moral virtues and must therefore find his
happiness in contemplation.
Friendship is an indispensable aid in framing for ourselves the higher moral life; if not itself a virtue,
it is at least associated with virtue, and it proves itself of service in almost all conditions of our
existence. Such results, however, are to be derived not from the worldly friendships of utility or
pleasure, but only from those which are founded on virtue. The true friend is in fact a second self, and
the true moral value of friendship lies in the fact that the friend presents to us a mirror of good actions,
and so intensifies our consciousness and our appreciation of life.
For a fuller discussion of these topics, see the article Aristotles Ethics.
8. Politics
Aristotle does not regard politics as a separate science from ethics, but as the completion, and almost
a verification of it. The moral ideal in political administration is only a different aspect of that which
also applies to individual happiness. Humans are by nature social beings, and the possession of
rational speech (logos) in itself leads us to social union. The state is a development from the family
through the village community, an offshoot of the family. Formed originally for the satisfaction of
natural wants, it exists afterwards for moral ends and for the promotion of the higher life. The state in
fact is no mere local union for the prevention of wrong doing, and the convenience of exchange. It is
also no mere institution for the protection of goods and property. It is a genuine moral organization
for advancing the development of humans.
The family, which is chronologically prior to the state, involves a series of relations between husband
and wife, parent and child, master and slave. Aristotle regards the slave as a piece of live property
having no existence except in relation to his master. Slavery is a natural institution because there is a
ruling and a subject class among people related to each other as soul to body; however, we must
distinguish between those who are slaves by nature, and those who have become slaves merely by war
and conquest. Household management involves the acquisition of riches, but must be distinguished
from money-making for its own sake. Wealth is everything whose value can be measured by money;
but it is the use rather than the possession of commodities which constitutes riches.
Financial exchange first involved bartering. However, with the difficulties of transmission between
countries widely separated from each other, money as a currency arose. At first it was merely a specific
amount of weighted or measured metal. Afterwards it received a stamp to mark the amount. Demand
is the real standard of value. Currency, therefore, is merely a convention which represents the demand;
it stands between the producer and the recipient and secures fairness. Usury is an unnatural and
reprehensible use of money.
The communal ownership of wives and property as sketched by Plato in the Republic rests on a false
conception of political society. For, the state is not a homogeneous unity, as Plato believed, but rather
is made up of dissimilar elements. The classification of constitutions is based on the fact that
government may be exercised either for the good of the governed or of the governing, and may be
either concentrated in one person or shared by a few or by the many. There are thus three true forms
of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional republic. The perverted forms of these are
tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. The difference between the last two is not that democracy is a
government of the many, and oligarchy of the few; instead, democracy is the state of the poor, and
oligarchy of the rich. Considered in the abstract, these six states stand in the following order of
preference: monarchy, aristocracy, constitutional republic, democracy, oligarchy, tyranny. But though
with a perfect person monarchy would be the highest form of government, the absence of such people
puts it practically out of consideration. Similarly, true aristocracy is hardly ever found in its
uncorrupted form. It is in the constitution that the good person and the good citizen coincide. Ideal
preferences aside, then, the constitutional republic is regarded as the best attainable form of
government, especially as it secures that predominance of a large middle class, which is the chief basis
of permanence in any state. With the spread of population, democracy is likely to become the general
form of government.
Which is the best state is a question that cannot be directly answered. Different races are suited for
different forms of government, and the question which meets the politician is not so much what is
abstractly the best state, but what is the best state under existing circumstances. Generally, however,
the best state will enable anyone to act in the best and live in the happiest manner. To serve this end
the ideal state should be neither too great nor too small, but simply self-sufficient. It should occupy a
favorable position towards land and sea and consist of citizens gifted with the spirit of the northern
nations, and the intelligence of the Asiatic nations. It should further take particular care to exclude
from government all those engaged in trade and commerce; the best state will not make the working
man a citizen; it should provide support religious worship; it should secure morality through the
educational influences of law and early training. Law, for Aristotle, is the outward expression of the
moral ideal without the bias of human feeling. It is thus no mere agreement or convention, but a moral
force coextensive with all virtue. Since it is universal in its character, it requires modification and
adaptation to particular circumstances through equity.
Education should be guided by legislation to make it correspond with the results of psychological
analysis, and follow the gradual development of the bodily and mental faculties. Children should
during their earliest years be carefully protected from all injurious associations, and be introduced to
such amusements as will prepare them for the serious duties of life. Their literary education should
begin in their seventh year, and continue to their twenty-first year. This period is divided into two
courses of training, one from age seven to puberty, and the other from puberty to age twenty-one. Such
education should not be left to private enterprise, but should be undertaken by the state. There are
four main branches of education: reading and writing, Gymnastics, music, and painting. They should
not be studied to achieve a specific aim, but in the liberal spirit which creates true freemen. Thus, for
example, gymnastics should not be pursued by itself exclusively, or it will result in a harsh savage type
of character. Painting must not be studied merely to prevent people from being cheated in pictures,
but to make them attend to physical beauty. Music must not be studied merely for amusement, but for
the moral influence which it exerts on the feelings. Indeed all true education is, as Plato saw, a training
of our sympathies so that we may love and hate in a right manner.
For a fuller discussion of these topics, see the article Aristotles Politics.
9. Art and Poetics
Art is defined by Aristotle as the realization in external form of a true idea, and is traced back to that
natural love of imitation which characterizes humans, and to the pleasure which we feel in recognizing
likenesses. Art however is not limited to mere copying. It idealizes nature and completes its
deficiencies: it seeks to grasp the universal type in the individual phenomenon. The distinction
therefore between poetic art and history is not that the one uses meter, and the other does not. The
distinction is that while history is limited to what has actually happened, poetry depicts things in their
universal character. And, therefore, poetry is more philosophical and more elevated than history.
Such imitation may represent people either as better or as worse than people usually are, or it may
neither go beyond nor fall below the average standard. Comedy is the imitation of the worse examples
of humanity, understood however not in the sense of absolute badness, but only in so far as what is
low and ignoble enters into what is laughable and comic.
Tragedy, on the other hand, is the representation of a serious or meaningful, rounded or finished, and
more or less extended or far-reaching action a representation which is effected by action and not
mere narration. It is fitted by portraying events which excite fear and pity in the mind of the observer
to purify or purge these feelings and extend and regulate their sympathy. It is thus a homeopathic
curing of the passions. Insofar as art in general universalizes particular events, tragedy, in depicting
passionate and critical situations, takes the observer outside the selfish and individual standpoint, and
views them in connection with the general lot of human beings. This is similar to Aristotles
explanation of the use of orgiastic music in the worship of Bacchas and other deities: it affords an
outlet for religious fervor and thus steadies ones religious sentiments.
For a discussion of poetics and dramatic literature, see the article Aristotles Poetics.
For a discussion of Aristotles views on biology, see the article Aristotles Biology.
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