Socratics, Later Sophists, and Cynics

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Socratics, Later Sophists, and Cynics


Aristotle . A pupil of Plato, Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.) founded in 335 b.c.e. his own philosophical school, the Lyceum, slightly to the northeast of Athens. Like Plato’s Academy, the Lyceum was legally organized as a thiasos, a cult dedicated to the Muses. The buildings of the Lyceum included a peripatos (covered court). Because he taught in the peripatos, Aristotle and his followers and called “Peripatetics.”

Writings . Aristotle was an extremely prolific writer who also gave many lectures and supervised his students in wide-ranging researches, which resulted in encyclopedic collections of written materials such as the constitutions of all the Greek cities. What has been preserved of Aristotle’s work, despite its substantial volume, is a small and rather paradoxically limited selection. Aristotle wrote various exoteric works for publication in the sense of circulation to an audience outside the Academy or Lyceum. These works were mainly philosophical dialogues in the manner of Plato. None of these are extant. Of the encyclopedic collections, a papyrus copy of the Constitution of Athens (circa 335 b.c.e.) was discovered in Egypt in 1890, but little else has survived. The extant Aristotelian Corpus, which has come to us as a result of repeated recopying in antiquity and the Middle Ages, consists of extensive lecture notes, possibly revised for circulation within his school (and hence known as “esoteric” works, from the Greek esoteros, meaning “interior”). This material had disappeared almost completely after the death of Theophrastus, but was rediscovered, brought to Rome, and edited for publication by the grammarians Tyrranion and Andronicus of Rhodes (first century b.c.e.). Because these rediscovered works came to be considered the true teachings of Aristotle (“esoteric” in the sense of secret truth), they became the subject of commentaries; eventually, Aristotle’s published works ceased to be read and recopied in the philosophical schools thus, only Aristotle’s esoteric corpus has survived intact.

Relation to Plato . Although a devoted student of Plato, Aristotle differed from his teacher in interests and approach—his philosophical differences with Plato were defended with the phrase that he had great love for Plato, but even greater love of the truth. While Plato’s work was characterized by literary eloquence, complexity, ambiguity, and a pronounced mystical streak, Aristotle was a more prosaic and scientific thinker, interested in dividing knowledge into precise categories and accumulating vast stores of factual information. Especially the mathematical mysticism that dominated the last period of Plato’s life was antithetical to Aristotle, and Aristotle totally rejected the Platonic notion of separated Forms (the existence of universal concepts or templates independent of the particulars in which they were embodied).

Contributions . Aristotle contributed to many areas of knowledge. His prototypical work was in biology, categorizing plants and animals by genus and species, using characteristics that differentiate a member of one species from a member of another as the basis for species membership definition. On a more abstract level, in works including Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, and Categories (all written circa 335 b.c.e.), Aristotle discussed logic, analyzing the relationships of class membership, implication, and truth-value among statements. In physics his most influential contributions again lay in the area of categorization, both of his predecessors’ theories and of observable phenomena. He thought that all objects had four “causes” or sources of origin: the material cause (the substance from which they were fashioned), the efficient cause (the tool which did their fashioning), the formal cause (the pattern on which they were based), and the final cause (the purpose for which they were made). Thus, the material cause of a bed would be wood; the efficient, the carpenter who made it; the formal, the blueprint to which it was designed; and the final, its use as an article of furniture for sleeping. Aristotle also made many valuable contributions to the study of metaphysics, rhetoric, poetics, ethics, politics, and many other disciplines, and even to the concept of disciplinarity itself, for example the notion that there are certain subjects and methods proper to each different area of knowledge.

Antisthenes . The son of an Athenian man and a Thracian woman, Antisthenes (circa 443-circa 360 b.c.e.) was a follower of Socrates and originator of Cynic philosophy. He believed that one gained knowledge by investigating the meanings of words, thus following the Socratic interest in definition and the Sophistic focus on correctness of language. Happiness was based on virtue, which was attained through knowledge, rather than material prosperity or physical pleasure. Like Prodicus, he considered Heracles a prototype of virtue. He wrote several philosophical dialogues and orations and a commentary on Homer, which are not extant.

Crates . The son of Ascondas of Thebes, Crates (circa 365-285 b.c.e.) was a Cynic philosopher and followed the teachings of Diogenes, living a self-sufficient and simple life. He renounced a large fortune and lived as a beggar, owning only a walking stick and knapsack. He married Hipparchia, a wealthy woman who abandoned her family to live a Cynic life. They wandered around Greece together, exhorting people to virtue and poverty. Crates’s writings included poems, letters, and possibly tragedies, but only a few fragments are extant.

Diogenes the Cynic . A follower of the teachings of Antisthenes, Diogenes the Cynic (circa 400-325 b.c.e.) was renowned for the austerity of his personal life. Although no authentic writings of his have survived, many anecdotes concerning his life remain, many of which are probably later inventions. He was said to have lived in a tub at a temple and owned only his clothes and a bowl. According to one story, when he saw a man scooping up and drinking water with his hands, he cast away the bowl as unnecessary. He believed that happiness could be attained by satisfying physical needs in as simple and uncomplicated a manner as possible, like a dog (Greek kuon, from which Diogenes and his followers took the name Cynic). He emphasized the need for independence, such as not depending for one’s happiness on external matters, and considered nature (phusis) good and conventions unnatural. In literature, both laudatory and satiric, he is portrayed as rejecting conventions of appearance and manners.

Heraclides of Pontus . Born into a wealthy aristocratic family in Heraclea (on the Black Sea), Heraclides traveled to Athens, where he studied and, between 361 and 360, directed Plato’s Academy. After having been passed over as Plato’s successor, in favor of Speusippus, he returned to his native city, where he opened his own school. His writings, like Plato’s, were dialogues, often among famous historical characters (including Empedocles and Pythagoras, who do not appear in Platonic dialogues). His innovations included adding extensive proems to the dialogues and including substantial mythological and anecdotal material; later writers, such as Cicero and Plutarch, emulated Heraclides’s literary form. Like many of the Academics, Heraclides probably did significant original work in astronomy and physics, with a somewhat mystical bent. His literary style was widely admired, but so little of his work remains extant that one cannot gauge the originality or quality of his philosophical doctrines.

Hipparchia . The sister of Metrocles of Maronea and wife of Crates, Hipparchia left her wealthy family in order to travel with her husband, exhorting people to the Cynic life. Several anecdotes are told of her, and some letters (probably inauthentic) are attributed to her. In one anecdote, she and Crates were said to have had sexual relations in public, claiming that it was a natural, and thus not shameful, activity.

Isocrates . Originally from a wealthy family, Isocrates (436-388 b.c.e.) later earned his living by writing speeches for law courts and teaching oratory. He argued that Plato and other theoreticians wrongly appropriated the term philosophia for themselves and that the word was best applied to those, like himself, whose teaching trained students to know politics and ethics and speak persuasively on

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important matters. His view of philosophy is close to what one now might term the liberal arts or humanistic education, and while his work had little effect on technical philosophy, it strongly influenced the history of education.

Plato . As a young man, Plato (circa 428-348/347 b.c.e.) wrote poetry, but was converted to philosophy by Socrates and was among the circle of Socrates’s followers. In 387 Plato founded his school, the Academy, where he taught for approximately forty years. His influence on subsequent thinkers could scarcely be overestimated. A modern scholar once described all of philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato, and philosophers constantly return to him to renew their discipline. While everyone agrees on the importance of Plato, there is almost no agreement on how to interpret his work. Good copies exist of every Platonic work mentioned by ancient authors, and of several works falsely attributed to Plato. There are also several letters attributed to Plato, of which only one, Epistle VII, is likely to be authentic. The interpretive problems stem not from missing works but instead from the nature of Platonic writing. All of Plato’s extant philosophical works, with the exception of Epistle VII, are in the form of dialogues. The characters in the dialogues advance and examine various arguments but rarely come to fixed conclusions. No single character’s ideas can be assumed to represent a Platonic doctrine. Plato’s writing is even more resistant to interpretation because the dialogues have a complex form, including extravagantly poetic and symbolic myths, irony, humor, and other literary devices. Trying to divorce Plato’s ideas from their literary and dramatic context produces conceptual clarity at the expense of faithfulness to Plato. There are also doctrines attributed to Plato by Aristotle and other writers that do not appear in the dialogues.

Early Dialogues . Plato’s works have traditionally been divided into three periods, early (circa 387-380 b.c.e.), middle (circa 380-360 b.c.e.), and late (circa 360-347 b.c.e.), although there is no secure basis for establishing an accurate chronology. In the early dialogues Apology, Euthyphro, Crito, Charmides, Ion, Laches, and Hippias Minor, the main character is Socrates, and he is portrayed as seeking a true definition of some abstract term (piety, virtue, courage, and so forth) by asking questions of interlocutors and demonstrating that their answers are unsatisfactory. The early dialogues normally end in aporiai (insoluble problems) and do not reach positive conclusions. Generally, however, characters who consider themselves already wise come off as the most ignorant, and characters who know the limits of their own knowledge and are open to learning, are made to appear the wisest.

Middle Dialogues . In the middle dialogues Protagoras, Gorgias, Meno, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Parmenides, Republic, Symposium, and Theaetetus, Socrates remains a central character, but he propounds positive doctrines, not all of which are reconcilable with each other. In these dialogues Socrates advances the theory of Forms, that universals (abstract terms such as beauty, justice, virtue, or equality) exist independently of the phainomena (phenomena or “things that appear” [in the physical world]) in which they are instantiated. The phenomena are patterned on or “participate in” the Forms. Since the general Forms cannot be deduced from particular cases, souls must have been acquainted with the Forms before they descended into the body, and thus all learning is really recollection of things known before this lifetime. True knowledge, therefore, is distinct from opinion and comes from reason rather than observation. The goal of philosophy is separation of the soul from the body so that it may return to its divine origin. Moral good for the individual consists in acting in such a way as to improve the condition of the soul; so, for example, one should not indulge in sensual pleasures because, in so, doing the mind is turned from the rational to the physical

world. This notion of care of the soul leads to the paradoxical conclusion, advanced by Socrates in Gorgias, that it is worse to commit than to suffer injustice, because suffering injustice only harms the body, whereas committing injustice harms the soul.

Late Dialogues . Parmenides represents a transition to the later dialogues in that the primary speakers are Parmenides and Zeno, and Socrates is represented as a young man, trying to defend the Forms against what becomes a devastating critique. The late dialogues, including Statesman, Sophist, Philebus, and Laws, emphasize method as much as outcome, focusing on the proper ways of dividing and collecting information in order to produce correct definitions.

Socrates . The Athenian philosopher Socrates (469-399 b.c.e.) devoted much of his life to talking in the gymnasium and marketplace with anyone willing to speak to him about philosophical matters. In personal appearance he was strikingly ugly, his features resembling those of comic masks. He possessed, however, great personal charm or magnetism, which attracted many followers, especially young men from well-to-do families. In 399 he was accused of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens, and was, by a narrow margin, condemned to death. He refused the offers of several of his friends to help him either pay a fine or escape into exile instead and died by drinking hemlock. His life was marked by a high degree of personal austerity; he seemed indifferent to physical pleasure or even comfort and would occasionally stand still and meditate in silence on some complex problem for many hours before resuming normal activities. He also had what he referred to as a divine sign (daimonion, literally “divine thing”), which would appear to him on occasion and forbid him from pursuing certain courses of action.

Different Portraits . Beyond this brief outline of his life, one knows surprisingly little about Socrates, especially given the mass of writings about him. Socrates himself never wrote and did not appear to have any consistent and fixed doctrines. There are substantial portraits of him in Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes, and other fragmentary reports, which are not entirely consistent with one another. In Plato, Socrates appears brilliant, arrogant, witty, sarcastic, paradoxical, sceptical, and charismatic by turns, alternately inspiring and infuriating his interlocutors. In Xenophon, Socrates appears rather more conventionally pious, a stern moralist and solid, if not spectacularly brilliant , thinker. Aristophanes shows Socrates as a stereotypical intellectual, clever, unscrupulous, and often devoting his time to speculating about absurd trivialities (measuring how far a flea could jump or determining whether a gnat whistles out of its mouth or its anus). The Platonic portrait is that Socrates has had the greatest influence on the history of philosophy.

Larger Questions . Although in his youth Socrates was interested in natural philosophy, as he grew older he became interested almost exclusively in moral and epistemological questions. He thought that virtue (moral excellence) depended on knowledge, and that if people knew the good then they would do it. Yet, in order to act well, one must know how to define goodness precisely and thus have some methodology that could reliably produce (and judge) definitions. Plato’s early dialogues present Socrates conversing with various Athenians over the definition of some general term such as goodness, virtue, courage, piety, or beauty. Generally, Socrates’s interlocutors offer up inadequate definitions (frequently examples in place of general definitions), and Socrates disproves a series of increasingly complex accounts until the interlocutors get tired, angry, or have other pressing duties, and the conversations end without resolution. Socrates himself claimed to have no definite knowledge but said that he was like a midwife who, though herself barren, helped bring other people’s children to birth and judged them true offspring or stillbirths. He saw ignorance as positive, in the sense that the greatest obstacle to learning is false belief (especially the false belief that one knows things one does not), and thought that by his method of inquiry (elenchus) which showed that people held impossible or self-contradictory ideas, he could, like a midwife, help knowledge come to light even if he himself had no positive doctrines to proffer.

Speusippus . On Plato’s death in 347, Speusippus succeeded Plato as head of the Academy and was, in turn, upon his own death in 339, followed by Xenocrates. Although only limited fragments and testimonies of Speusippus’s work are extant, he appears to have had interests similar to Plato and to have continued in his uncle’s tradition, both as leader of the Academy and philosopher. Speusippus was interested in logic, physics (including both biology and cosmology), and ethics and made significant contributions in each field. In logic, Speusippus was interested in the question of definition, and thought that since definitions were based on drawing distinctions, in order to define any given thing, one must have knowledge of everything else in order to see how the thing under consideration differed from other things. His interest in definition involved consideration of both words and things. Among words, it is possible for one word to have multiple meanings, change its meaning when combined with other words, or depend for its meaning on its derivation from other words, and, of course, the same thing can be referred to by multiple words. Definitions, however, are not exclusively verbal. To define the term dog, for example, one must investigate how dogs differed from other related species of animal. Speusippus, therefore, wrote ten books collecting observations of similarities and dissimilarities among plants and animals. In theoretical philosophy, Speusippus, like Plato, wrote about Pythagorean mathematics but did not equate the Forms with numbers and denied that the numbers were the source of all things. Little is known of Speusippus’s ethics, other than that he considered pleasure morally neutral and goodness a goal, rather than a beginning.

Theophrastus of Eresos . The philosopher Theophrastus (circa 370-286 b.c.e.) was a pupil of Aristotle and his successor as head of the Lyceum. Of his voluminous writings few are extant, namely two treatises on plants, Characters (319 b.c.e.), Metaphysics (circa 335 b.c.e.), and short works on physics and physiology. He was not so much an original thinker as a cataloguer and systematizer of knowledge and empirical research. He made collections of law codes from various poleis, and, more important for philosophers, collected the opinions of earlier philosophers, on which many later doxographies are based.

Xenocrates of Chacedon . Speusippus’s successor as head of the Platonic Academy (339-314), Xenocrates was interested in theology and connected divine to celestial hierarchies in a systematic way that anticipated neoplatonism.

Xenophon . The Athenian aristocrat Xenophon (circa 428-circa 354 b.c.e.) wrote various works concerned with such diverse topics as autobiography, history, politics, the education of a Persian king, hunting, horsemanship, and household management. For the history of philosophy his most important texts are the ones about Socrates, namely Apology, Memorabilia, Symposium, and Oeconomicus (all four were written circa 430-circa 356 b.c.e.). Xenophon’s Socrates is more of a conventional moralist and less of an abstract thinker than the one found in the Platonic dialogues. The question of the relative degree of accuracy of the two Socratic portraits has been widely debated by scholars for several centuries.


Jonathan Barnes, The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Harold Cherniss, The Riddle of the Early Academy (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962).

Abraham Edel, Aristotle and his Philosophy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).

Hans Georg Gadamer, The Idea of The Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy, translated by P. Christopher Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

Richard Kraut, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Gerald Press, ed. Plato’s Dialogues: New Studies and Interpretations (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993).

John M. Rist, The Mind of Aristotle: A Study in Philosophical Growth (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989).

W. D. Ross, Plato’s Theory of Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953).

Kenneth Sayre, Plato’s Literary Garden: How To Read A Platonic Dialogue (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995).