Quick and Dirty Guide to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle

Key concepts of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (very hard to separate the three, one from another)


Socrates (469-399b.c.); Plato (ca. 427-ca. 347b.c.); and Aristotle (385-322 b.c.)

  • Teacher-student-student relationship
  • Came at the very end of their civilization—but tied to the earliest philosophers (Thales, Heraclitus, etc.—that is, in a long continuity of thinkers)
  • Three of the finest minds to exist in ANY civilization; gives us much to ponder in terms of culture, history, etc.
  • Shaped much of western political, philosophical, scientific, and the theological thought up to the Enlightenment. . . and still through today. (e.g.  Pope Benedict XVI is deeply aware and influenced by these thinkers)
  • Order is the key to everything

Socrates: Order of the Soul and Order of the Polis

Plato: Order of the Soul, Order of the Republic, and Order of the Universe

Aristotle: Order of the Soul, Order of Nature, and Order of the Universe

  • How do we know what we know?

Socrates: From the Gods and Tradition/Wisdom

Plato: From the God/Divine Madness/Order in Nature

Aristotle: From our Senses/Order in Nature

There exists an objective reality for each of them.

  • The best things reflect Nature (government, the Soul, etc.)
  • Each was later regarded as a “Proto-Christian.” Most likely that Aristotle, at least, had some access to the Pentateuch; Moses was regarded as a demi-God in Greek society.



Plato (ca. 427-ca. 347b.c.)

Alfred Lord Whitehead: “All of western civilization is but a series of footnotes to Plato.”[1]

Important dates:

  • 427: Plato’s birth; his given name was Androcles or Aristocles. As a wrestler, he took the name Plato, which means “broad” or “wide body/head.”
  • 399: Athens executed Socrates, Plato’s teacher. Of Socrates, Plato wrote, he was a man “whom I would not hesitate to call the justest man at the time.”[2]
  • 399: After Socrates’ execution, Plato traveled to Megara and studied with Euclid. Then, he moved to southern Italy and Sicily and studied with Archytas of Tarentum, a Pythagorean, and learned mathematics.
  • 395-394: Plato may have served with the Athenian army in Corinthian wars. (Some scholars place his visit to Archytas at roughly 390.
  • 387: Founded the Academy (named after the nearby shrine to Academus), the first western “university,” at Athens. It lasted until 524AD, when Emperor Justinian closed it.  Students at the Academy studied philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, physical sciences.  Each student also had to participate in a service to worship the Muses.  The role of “true education,” according to Plato, is “To hate what one ought to hate and to love what one ought to love.”[3]
  • 374: Plato wrote The Republic.
  • 367: Plato moved to Syracuse to tutor the son of the local dictator, Dionysius I. Dionysius, tired of Plato’s accusations regarding sexual promiscuity, sold him into slavery.
  • Post 367: Plato wrote The Laws, an revision of The Republic. In the former, he argued for a mixed government, which his student, Aristotle, elaborated.
  • 361: Plato again traveled to Syracuse
  • 360: Plato returned to Athens and remained in charge of the Academy until his death in 348 or 347. Aristotle said of him: “He was the only man, or at least the first, who showed, through his words and through his life, how a man can become both good and happy at the same time.”[4]



Christopher Dawson on Plato: “For it was in the philosophy of Plato that the theory of a transcendent reality attained its classical expression in the West.  The vision of Eternity that had so long absorbed the mind of the East, at last burnt on the Greek world with dazzling power.  With Plato, the Western mind turns away from the many-coloured changing world of experience to that other world of eternal forms.”[5]

  • Influenced by Pythagoras, Plato argued that there were two worlds—the ideal and the copy. We live in the copy.


  • In the ideal, everything was pure—and there was never change, for everything was already perfect. g., Earth is merely a poor reflection of the ideal.  Every once in a while, we get a glimpse of perfection, but rarely.  Usually through dreams–a glimpse of the soul.  Additionally, Plato never condemned poetry—for which he’s infamous—but rather poetry written by earthly people for an earthly purpose.  Real poetry glorifies the Ideal and the One.  Plato also very concerned with mythos (“serious play” and anamnesis) and the divine madness/imagination—a “mind beside itself.”


  • Overlooking all of perfection, was a perfect, omnipotent, supreme being. He was the PERFECT BEING.


  • He argued that humans came from the stars, and returned to them when we died. Specifically, we went to a place called the Celestial City, the city of Heaven.



The Republic—about a utopian (or close to it) society.


Society, run by a militaristic Philosopher King, is

  • divided into strict social classes
  • men and women live in military dorms apart from one another
  • and children are raised by the state
  • All actions are controlled by the central government.


Most likely, The Republic is an allegory of the soul.  Russell Kirk wrote: “The Republic is an inquiry into the real nature of spiritual and social harmony.  It is an analogy or allegory of personal order, not a model constitution—though it does suggest reforms in the state.  Consider how a good polis would be ordered, Plato is saying; if we an imagine that, then perhaps we can imagine how a man should order his soul.”[6]


In The Laws, however, Plato revised much of what he wrote in The Republic (further evidence that the Republic is an allegory of the soul).  In The Laws, Plato argued for a mixed government, one that incorporated elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.  Each by itself was dangerous—the essence of despotism.  In combination, though, a mixed government was best.



Virtue is the end of all of Plato’s Dialogues and concerns.  Plato identified the four classical virtues: prudence; justice, fortitude; temperance.  Mentions them rather casually in the Symposium.


Virtue consists in the harmony of the human soul with the universe of Ideas/Forms—the Good, the True, and the Beautiful—each of which assures order, intelligence, and pattern to a world in constant flux.  For Plato, the soul is eternal, but the physical world is ever changing.


Supreme among them is the Idea of “the Good,” analogous to the sun in the physical world. Only the philosopher, who understands the harmony of all parts of the universe with the Idea of the Good, is capable of ruling the just state.  He must shun material and economic pursuits.


Anamnesis (mentioned above)—the “serious play.”


[Other sources for Plato: the various Platonic dialogues; Voegelin, PLATO AND ARISTOTLE; Kirk, THE ROOTS OF AMERICAN ORDER; Richard, TWELVE GREEKS AND ROMANS; Copleston, HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY, vol. 1; Hamlyn, THE PELICAN HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY]









Aristotle (385-322bc)

Historian William McNeill wrote of him: “one seems to confront not a man so much as a thinking machine.”[7]


Important dates:

  • Ca. 385: Aristotle born in Stagira; his father (Nicomachus) was a physician for Philip II of Macedon.
  • 367: Aristotle moves to Athens to study with Plato.
  • 348: Aristotle departs from Academy following the death of Plato
  • 343: Began to tutor Alexander (soon to be Alexander the Great)
  • 335: Aristotle returns to Athens and opened the Lyceum to rival the Academy.
  • 327: Aristotle’s nephew, Callisthenes, executed for conspiracy against the state
  • 323: Aristotle flees Athens because of anti-Alexander feeling
  • 322: Aristotle dies in Chalcis


He categorized and systematized nearly all of the knowledge of his day–in any number of subjects: philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, music, literature, poetry, theology, and zoology.




  • Argued that the soul, while not physical, could not exist without a physical body–or some kind of container; it does not just float around.


  • He disagreed with Plato over the existence of ideal Forms; he believed that form and matter are always joined (except in the case of God–the PRIME MOVER–he was perfect in form and matter). Further, one could know truth best through experience.


  • All things have a nature, a purpose. “Nature, according to our theory, makes nothing in vain.”




His most famous belief is that “man is a social animal”–meaning that humans must live in community.

  • Community anchors us and defines our existence.
  • “A man in solitude must be either a beast or a god”—meaning that man is an animal if left on his own—only concerned with the self.


Following the lead of Plato in The Laws, Aristotle argued for a mixed government: meaning a government that mixes aspects of oligarchy, monarchy, and democracy.  They would balance each other.



For Aristotle, man is a being of action.  But real action must be defined first by thought–otherwise it is merely instinct.  Hence, he divides societies into

  • civilized (where humans are encouraged to think about their actions and consequences)
  • non-civilizations, where humans act out of passion and instinct–and then think about it


In ethics, Aristotle argues that the good life is many things.

  1. It is free impediments–i.e., poverty and sickness.
  2. People must be temperate

–be neither ascetic nor gluttonous: be moderate

–be neither cowardly nor rash: be prudently courageous

–be neither subservient nor arrogant: be self-respecting



through the use of systematic LOGIC as expressed in SYLLOGISMS, of the self-evident, changeless first principles that form the basis of all knowledge.


He taught that knowledge of a thing requires an inquiry into causality and that the “final cause”—the PURPOSE or function of the thing—is primary.  (See the “nature” of things in metaphysics.)



The highest good for the individual is the complete exercise of the specifically human function of rationality.


[Sources for Aristotle: the various Aristotelian writings; Voegelin, PLATO AND ARISTOTLE; Richard, TWELVE GREEKS AND ROMANS; Copleston, HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY]



Platonic Imagination

As Cicero, through the voice of Quintus in Of the Laws “[The oak] survives, Atticus, and it will always survive: its roots are in the imagination.  No farmer’s cultivation can preserve a tree as long as one sown in a poet’s verse.”


Poetry is inspired.


From Plato (The Ion):

“The third kind is the madness of those who are possessed by the Muses; which taking hold of a delicate and virgin soul, and there inspiring frenzy, awakens lyrical and all other numbers; with these adorning the myriad actions of action heroes for the instruction of posterity.  But he who, having no touch of the Muses’ madness in his soul, comes to the door and thinks that he will get into the temple by the help of art–he, I say, and his poetry are not admitted; the sane man disappears and is nowhere when he enters into rivalry with the madman.” [Plato, “Ion,” pg. 124]


“for not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine.  Had he learned by rules of art, he would have known how to speak not of one them only, but of all; and therefore God takes away the minds of poets, and uses them as his ministers, as he also uses diviners and holy prophets, in order that we who hear them may know them to be seapking not of themselves who utter these priceless words in a state of unconsciousness, but that God himself is the speaker, and that through them is conversing with us.” [Plato, “Ion,” pg. 124]


In 1978, Kirk wrote “Images are representations of mysteries, necessarily; for mere words are tools that break in the hand, and it has not pleased God that man should be saved by logic, abstract reason, alone.”


“The image, I [Kirk] repeat, can raise us on high, as did Dante’s high dream; also it can draw us down to the abyss. . . . It is imagery, rather than some narrowly deductive and inductive process, which gives us great poetry and scientific insights. . . . And it is true of great philosophy, before Plato and since him, that the enduring philosopher sees things in images initially.”


Poetry–allows us to see things that were always there.  But, we might never have seen them before.


“We may indeed be older now, in so far as we are heirs in enjoyment or in practice of many generations of ancestors in the arts.  In this inheritance of wealth there may be a danger of boredom or of anxiety to be original, and that my lead to a distaste for fine drawing, delicate pattern, and ‘pretty’ colours, or else to mere manipulation and over elaboration of old material, clever and heartless,” Tolkien told an audience at the University of St. Andrews in the 1930s.  “We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red.  We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like ancient shepherds, sheep, dogs, and horses–and wolves.”

Further, why should one protest so-called “escape” that literature and mythology provide, Tolkien asked?  “For it is after all possible for a rational man, after reflection (quite unconnected with fairy-story or romance), to arrive at the condemnation, implicit at least in the mere silence of ‘escapist’ literature, of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable, dare we say ‘inexorable’, products.”



C.S. Lewis, too, admired the art of escape through poetry, literature, and the imagination.  “The Fantastic or Mythical is a Mode available at all ages for some readers; for others, at none.  At all ages, if it is well used by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power,” Lewis wrote for the New York Times in 1956, “to generalise while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies.”  In its best form, the fantastic can “add to” life, not just “comment on” it.



In his 1928 book, Poetic Diction, Barfield had written: “A civilization which must look more and more to art—to the individualized poet—as the very source and fountain-head of all meaning.”

In a 1984 interview, Barfield nicely summed up the thinking of Lewis and Tolkien on art and literature: “all of the Inklings felt that literature shouldn’t be used as a means of propagating a message.”  Further, he noted, “The thing that mattered was that it was a good work of art, and that had its own value, which in the long run was a Christian value.  I think that that would perhaps be as fair a ways as I could imagine of stating both Tolkien’s and Lewis’s attitude.”



Owen Barfield explored similar themes in his 1928 Poetic Diction:

“Our sophistication, like Odin’s, has cost us an eye; and now it is the language of poets, in so far as they create true metaphors, which must restore this unity conceptually, after it has been lost from perception.  Thus, the ‘before-unapprehended’ relationship of which Shelley spoke, are in a sense ‘forgotten’ relationships.  For though they were never yet apprehended, they were at one time seen.  And imagination can see them again.” (pp. 72-73)


Again, from Barfield: “It is only when we have risen from beholding the creature into beholding creation that our mortality catches for a moment the music of the turning spheres.” (pg. 203)

[1] Quoted in Richard, Twelve Greeks and Romans, 95.

[2] Quoted in Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 4.

[3] Quoted in Richard, Twelve Greeks and Romans, 102.

[4] Quoted in Richard, Twelve Greeks and Romans, 103.

[5] Dawson, Religion and World History, 100; and Dawson, “Religion and the Life of Civilization,” in Religions of the Empire: A Conference on Some Living Religions within the Empire (London: Duckworth, 1925), 462.

[6] Kirk, The Roots of American Order, 82.

[7] McNeill, Rise of the West, 267.

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