Answers to Questions About Greek Philosophy

Was Protagoras in essence an atheist? He seems to present the idea that there is no connection between God and Humanity.
His writings imply agnosticism: refusal to decide whether gods exist or not. But it is significant that he was charged with impiety during his lifetime, had his books burned, and was finally exiled from Athens for his beliefs (or lack of them).

Why did Protagoras not believe in a God? How does he think the world began if man is the measure of all things.
The simple answer is that it is not clear Protagoras disbelieved in a God (see above). But more to the point, not all religions connect the origin of the world with the activity of a god. Often enough the world is just "born" through natural processes which produce the gods as well. Many Greeks believed the world to be eternal--it might not have had a beginning at all.

Explain more about Xenophanes. I don't understand anything you were saying about him.
Look at my introductory note to the selection from him. This is a very simple passage which just argues that people all over make up images of gods which look like them.

How many Gods were there in ancient Greece?
The Greeks welcomed the opportunity to worship gods appropriate for every occasion. The number was indefinite, counting them made difficult by some of them blending together or splitting off. There was also a large number demigods and other immortals which make any census difficult.

I am unclear about the atomists and Leucippus.
The atomists argued that the world is made up of tiny indivisible particles which they called "atoms." That's really all you need to know about them. Their importance is exaggerated because they turned out to be (sort of) right; but their speculations didn't lead to any scientific revolution in the ancient world.

Why did the Athenians sentence Socrates to commit suicide?
They accused him of atheism and of corrupting the youth of Athens. But the real reasons probably had more to do with his opposition to the government of the day. We don't know for sure what caused the trial. You can read his famous defence called "The Apology" for his view of the matter. For an interesting modern book arguing that Socrates was guilty, see I.F. Stone: The Trial of Socrates.

How did Plato avoid winding up like Socrates with the way that people disliked his opinions?
Like most of Socrates' closest companions, Plato went abroad after the old philosophers' death.

I want to know more about the Socratic method.
The best way to learn is simply to read some of Plato's dialogues and observe the method at work. Socrates argues that everyone already has buried within the truth, and that adroit questioning can bring it out. But you can see him framing his questions in such a way that he steers the people he is questioning toward what he wants them to say. To some degree, his famous method is a series of rhetorical tricks that try to convince people that they have arrived at agreement with him voluntarily. But we praise the method today as aiming at getting people to think and not just parrot back what they're told.

Maybe a clearer explanation on the difference between Socrates's thinking and Plato's. Same? Different?
Since most of what we know about Socrates' thought we get from Plato, it is very difficult to distinguish between the two, and ultimately it doesn't matter very much. The important and lasting ideas are those that they shared. Scholars will continue to argue endlessly about just where one ends and other begins.

I would like to know more about the actual relationship between Socrates and Plato: were they close, or is it known?
Frustratingly, he never depicts himself talking with Socrates in his dialogues. He met the older philosopher when he was about 20, and remained fascinated with him for life, so he clearly felt he knew him fairly well. Beyond that, we cannot say.

Why did people trust and believe Plato since changed his mind about his beliefs and made hem more like Socrates' beliefs?
Plato appears as a follower of Socrates from the earliest writings we have by him. He may have changed later in his career, as he developed his own ideas in addition, but he was not known as a philosopher before his studies with Socrates.

Since Socrates believed in an "after life," I wonder how he felt that Plato was taking his place and his words on philosophy? What was Socrates thinking: insulted or grateful?
Plato began his writing after Socrates' death, so I unless he was worrying about it in the next life, I doubt he cared one way or another.

I was wondering about Socrates' family. Did he have a wife or children or siblings?
The wife he married late in life, Xanthippe, was said by some to be hard to get along with; but he can't have been a very supportive husband given his preference for talking philosophy over supporting his family. Three sons survived him, but none became famous.

Why didn't Socrates write his dialogues down? Why did only others write them?
The short answer is: we don't know. But he lived in a largely oral culture, where many important manners were handled by speech rather than writing, and where an impressive number of people were able to recite Homer's works aloud from memory. Books were rare and expensive. All the great philosophers before him survive only in what others say about him. Plato was unusual in being the first literary Greek philosopher.

What did the common people believe with reference to religion and philosophy?
It is unlikely that many ordinary people were much interested in the details of the thought of philosophers like Socrates, but they were certainly aware of him and others--enough so that the comic playwright Aristophanes could entertain the public by making fun of Socrates. As for religion, they probably devoted themselves to various gods and rituals in a wide variety or ways and to a wide range of degrees. We know very little about the thoughts of obscure people from ancient cultures. Vol. 1 of The History of Private Life, edited by Philippe Aries, will give you some information.

Where did the majority of philosophers come from and why?
"Why?" isn't a question I can answer. Thales was born in Miletus (now in Turkey), as was his pupil Anaximander. The west coast of Anatolia, known as Ionia, was home to many of the pre-Socratics. After Socrates, many philosophers were attracted to Athens, as a famous center of philosophy. Aristotle was born in Stagira, and is sometimes called "the Stagirite." As a young boy he was sent by his father to Athens to study with Plato and spent the first 20 years of his life there.

Were people like Socrates above normal people; did they live like kings or were they jut known as great people?
Some were better off than others, but they were rarely rich. Socrates, though a prominent and influential citizens of Athens, was quite poor for much of his life.

Was there a king that was also a philosopher?
Not in ancient Greece: they did away with the institution of kingship early on. Alexander may well have considered himself a philosopher. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, is considered a minor Stoic philosopher. We'll read some of his philosophical writings soon. But "philosopher-kings" such as Plato dreamed of never became a reality.

Was Socrates very old? In the painting he seemed older than I imagined. Could that be another reason he wasn't afraid to die?
He was 71 when he died, and indeed states in the defence at his trial that he has lived a long life and therefore considers it not a tragedy that his life may end soon. However, not all people become less anxious about death as they age: often older people fear it far more than young ones. (That's one reason armies prefer young soldiers.)

How do we know so much about Socrates, because he had no writings? How do we know that Plato didn't just make up the stuff about Socrates?
Other people wrote about Socrates too. He was very famous. But it is quite likely that he didn't speak the precise words quoted in Plato's dialogues. Ancient writers felt no obligation to render speeches word-for-word.

Did everyone buy into Socrates' ideas? Who opposed him?
His story makes clear that many did oppose him. There were probably very few strict followers of the Socratic philosophy at first. Some people thought he was absurd (Aristophanes), but ardent advocates of democracy in Athens and foes of Sparta would have disliked his views on politics.

So was Socrates put to death or given a choice to die like the story?
He was sentenced to die by the court by being commanded to drink the hemlock potion that would poison him. He complied.

What is Plato most famous for as far as a philosophical idea goes?
His theory of "forms" or "ideals" which I outlined in class is his most famous contribution to philosophy. In technical terms, he is the founder of philosophical realism--the doctrine that qualities like virtue, love, and courage are concrete realities independent from the people that may seek them. Aristotle, on the other hand, is the founder of philosophical nominalism--the doctrine that such abstractions are merely language describing a variety of ideas and attitudes which we choose for convenience's sake to lump together under these labels. These conflicting attitudes toward abstraction are important aspects of the history of philosophy down to today, with nominalism clearly having the greater influence at present.

I don't understand the idea of "tableness" or Plato's ideas of the supernatural being of things.
These really aren't complicated ideas, but they can be difficult to grasp just because they seem so alien to us today. He would argue that we recognize a wide variety of tables because they incorporate physically the ideal form of "tableness" which exists in the abstract, separate from any individual table. For more details see Theory of Forms.

I am not clear on Thales and the idea that everything is based on water. What is the real significance or meaning of that?
What is significant about his philosophy is that he attempted to find some underlying unity and structure in the universe, a way to talk about the world in the abstract. In so doing, he may be said to be the first Greek philosopher.

Who didn't believe in gods and why? In one god or many gods; the reasons why.
We don't know many of these details, but Homer set the example early on of describing gods that many Greeks found implausible. Rather than deny all reality to the gods, they preferred usually to consider such playful tales as exaggerations, and still thought the rituals worthy of performance. They tended to separate the myths that fascinate us so much, and which entertained them, from the sacred rituals and sacrifices that were considered an important part of everyday life. The Greeks were sometimes troubled by the conflicting demands of gods with opposing interests, but most of them probably were content to turn to Aphrodite when they were in love and to Ares in time of war--choosing the god appropriate to the occasion. Some philosophers, like Plato, speak of "God" in the abstract as if they believed in a single divinity. These early writings were profoundly influential on early Christian thinkers, who saw foreshadowings of their own beliefs in Greek philosophy.

What similarity can you draw between Plato's republic and the democratic society we live in today?
Plato's Republic described an elitist, anti-democratic society. It doesn't bear much comparison with ours. Highly educated intellectuals ran his society, arranging matings in a secretly manipulated lottery designed to produce superior offspring. There was no voting by citizens. Be wary of people who praise Plato's Republic to you; they may be bent on robbing you of your freedom.

Plato's ideas state that all people are created or have equality. But why does he focus on only the enlightened people that could grasp the new ways of looking at the world differently?
There are several misconceptions here. Plato never argued for equality. He does write about other classes in The Republic, but it's true he cares most about the philosopher-kings. His concern is that society by governed by those he considered the wisest. But he didn't want them to grasp "new ways" exactly. He thinks that wise people grasp the eternal truths that have always existed. In this way he is somewhat like Confucius. He never claimed to be putting forward new ideas.

I want to know more about the "Allegory of the Cave." It was very confusing.
Did you read my explanatory introduction and footnotes in Reading About the World? I tried to reduce the passage to its essentials there. If you want to understand what Plato is describing image by image, the key is to read the passage very, very slowly. Stop at the end of each sentence and try to visualize exactly what he has just described. Or just look at this graphic. Try this explanation by UW professor Marc Cohen. Or see the explanation by Michael O'Leary.

Why do you think Plato's argument about living in the shadows is no longer accepted today?
Some people still find the Allegory of the Cave attractive as an account of the importance of education, but generally modern philosophers have decided that categories such as "virtue" and "love" are abstractions that are purely human-created, and do not exist independently from the people who think about them.

Some readings from Aristotle.
You can find all his works listed on this page, with links to older translations. For more modern translations with explanatory notes, see the library.

How did Aristotle systematize logic? What were his rules in forming arguments?
Read the article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a quick introduction to the basics. For a much simpler, if somewhat quirky, approach, see the chapter on logic in Ralph Arther Hall's A Measure of Truth

What else did Plato do?
He came from a prominent political family, but his beliefs made him unfit for a career in politics. After the death of Socrates he travelled for a while, then settled in Syracuse, where he founded the famous Academy, which was to last for centuries, developing his thought.

I would like to know how the Romans came about the Greek philosophical ideas.
Rome owed much of its intellectual heritage to the Greeks. It was only natural that their growing empire, which covered all of ancient Greece, would incorporate much that was Greek. And just as many European and other foreign thinkers have settled in the U.S., Greeks were drawn to the center of wealth and power in Rome. The stoic philosopher Epictetus was even brought there as a slave.

If they were so revolutionary why did anyone listen to the philosophers? Weren't they afraid of the consequences?
The Greeks were proud of being innovators. Despite the occasional waves of repression that swept across their culture, the society was generally open to speculation. Remember that it was quite late in the Classical age that Socrates had been condemned to death. By then several centuries of Greek philosophers had laid down the tradition of speculation.

What did they do with women who wanted to learn to participate in philosophical arguments?
Female citizens were discouraged from becoming involved in any kind of learned pursuit, including philosophy; but some women were famous thinkers anyway. Socrates speaks of a wise woman he admired in The Symposium named Diotima. Professional courtesans were sometimes highly educated and could discuss philosophy, like Aspasia, the lover of the great Athenian leader Pericles. The best-known ancient female philosopher was Hypatia of Alexandria.

Did the philosophers carry out normal lives or did they just think of theories all day?
Presumably they had normal lives, but we know almost nothing about their private lives. Plato portrays Socrates as neglecting his labor to engage in philosophy.

I think the lecture should contain stuff about the similarities between the Romans and the Greeks because one of these peoples stole the culture from the other.
We'll discuss Roman philosophy soon. They built on the ideas of the Greeks, particularly Stoicism. It's important to be able to keep them straight, however, so in an introductory course we discuss the Greeks separately first.

How did people know that the gods were mad at them? Or if the gods were pleased with them?
The Greeks were no different than most peoples in this regard: when illness, accidents, poverty, or other disasters came to them they tended to think they had been cursed by the gods; and when

I would like to know more about how Greek philosophy influences political structure.
Socrates and Plato failed to have any real influence on the politics of their time. It's not clear that Socrates' tutoring of Alexander the Great had any lasting influence on the way he governed either. But all these philosophers were studied by political thinkers for centuries afterward. Their influence is complex a subject to trace here. But the Stoics were particularly important in Roman times because their search for tranquil acceptance of death was very valuable under arbitrary tyrants like Nero.


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