Did you know that to this day, much of the Western way of thinking is derived from the philosophical explorations of three men of Ancient Greece?
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. No doubt you have heard of these thinkers. Certainly, when I began researching my latest novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, set in Greece and inspired by Ancient Greek mythology, it was no surprise that I came across these names over and over. I was fascinated to learn more about these men, for it struck me that while they became legends, in a sense, their work was fact, not fiction, and its influence has stood the test of more than 2,000 years of history.
The Roman politician Cicero called Socrates ‘the first who brought philosophy down from the heavens, placed it in cities, introduced it into families, and obliged it to examine into life and morals, and good and evil’. In the 5th century BC, Athens was a hub of learning and thinking, and its citizen Socrates was a young man with a head full of ideas. Despite the fact it was illegal at the time ‘to investigate the things above the heavens or below the earth, subjects considered impious’, Socrates made it his business to ask questions in public (known as the Socratic Method of Teaching).
What made Socrates so interesting is that he did not cast himself in the role of wise man. In fact, his whole philosophical career was based on this premise:
True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.
Socrates’ career had begun when the oracle at Delphi declared him the wisest man on the planet. You may think Socrates would have been delighted by this proclamation; what a boon for his ego! Actually, though, he was puzzled – and very sceptical. He decided to test out his wisdom by interviewing other men who purported to be wise. He discovered that in fact he was the wiser man, simply for the fact that he was ‘quite conscious of [his] ignorance’. From The Apology of Socrates (by Plato): ‘I am wiser than he is to this small extent – that I do not think that I know what I do not know.’
Unfortunately for Socrates, ‘wise’ men did not enjoy having their wisdom thrown into question. The result: he was convicted of corrupting the youth of the city, and was sentenced to death for his ‘crime’.
Unlike Socrates, Plato was an aristocrat. His wealth and status in Athens did not deter him, however, from being a keen student of Socrates. He took everything Socrates had taught him and built upon it, and what he built was a body of work imbued with such pivotal meaning that scholars have attributed to him the foundations for modern Western philosophy, science, mathematics, political thought and even spirituality.
Plato defined thinking as ‘the talking of the soul with itself’. He taught that the soul is immortal, and that life imprisons the soul in the body. Perception is key: in his Allegory of the Cave, for example, he describes people in a cave who can only see shadows on the walls; but if they turned around, they would understand what was casting those shadows and thus be wiser.
Plato founded his own school of thought, the Academy, in Athens, which was a hub of sceptical philosophy for 300 years and had many important students, including Aristotle (see below). In the 16th century, Italian Renaissance artist Raphael depicted the Academy in his masterpiece, The School of Athens, pictured here.
Aristotle moved to Athens in his teens to study at Plato’s Academy for some twenty years, until his teacher, Plato, passed away. He was Plato’s best student, and all the knowledge he gained from him earned Aristotle a top job: tutor of Alexander the Great (indeed, in this he was most likely the highest paid philosopher in history). He later established his own philosophical school called the Peripatetic school at the Lyceum, a temple dedicated to Apollo. (Peripatetic comes from the Greek peripateo, ‘to walk around’; Aristotle liked to walk as he thought and taught.)
Aristotle was less interested in the metaphysical plane; he was interested in reasoning: indeed, he founded logical theory. He also believed that life is fundamentally about finding happiness, but that the individual holds the power: ‘Happiness depends upon ourselves,’ he said.
There is a wonderful practicality to Aristotle’s wisdom so that it makes a great deal of sense even to this day. Take, for example:
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
Simple, but powerful. He also advocated moderation; that we should look for ‘The Golden Mean’, the middle way between two extremes.
But my favourite Aristotelian wisdom is this:
Love is composed of a single soul abiding in two bodies.
He was drawing upon a story by Plato, from his dialogue The Symposium, in which humans originally had four arms and four legs and two faces. But with their great strength, they threatened to overpower the gods. As punishment, Zeus cut them in half, leaving one half female and one half male, thus weakening the humans and doubling the number who would give tribute to the gods. Since that day, each human has longed for his or her other half – the other half of his or her soul – and a person can know no greater fulfilment than uniting with his or her soulmate.
It is a beautiful thought, don’t you think? Certainly, wisdom to inspire my writing in Aphrodite’s Tears.