The Sophists, Socrates & Plato



 By Fr. Raymond Taouk,



I.  the sceptical sophists


1.    Origin :  In the V.c B.C. Athens becomes the intellectual centre of the world, where all philosophers and poets meet.  This meeting of all philosophical schools brings the evidence  :

·      of their own insufficiency : despite real progress achieved, many problems were still unanswered given the lack of discipline in the logic of concepts and the ignorance of the human mode of knowledge.

·      of their contradictions : the meeting of opposite theories and of principles partially true led to an intellectual crisis.  The speculative thought seemed vanquished, and scepticism reigned with the Sophists.


2.    Sophistry is only a vicious attitude of the mind, not a system of ideas. 

·      The sophists : were wandering professors who sold their knowledge without seeking the truth.  They cultivated especially rhetoric, law, casuistry and political oratory.  They sacrificed the truth for the eloquence and the form.

·      Method : they presented themselves as rationalists and encyclopedists, having a ready answer for anything, deceptively convincing.  By their contradictions and their pride, ‘science’ became the art of destroying the enemy with their sophisms or quibbles.  What the ancient philosophers did by error, they did on purpose.

·      Sophisms are false reasonings, for the pleasure of playing with the concepts and destroying the adversary, without desire to seek the truth.

·      Consequences : they destroy

·      religion and the moral law, since everything is arbitrary. Virtue consists only in success.

·      intelligence as a power to reach the truth, by their relativism and scepticism.


3.    Protagonists

·      Protagoras of Abdera (480-410), friend of Pericles.  “Man is the measure of all things--of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not... Truth is relative to the knowing subject.  According as each thing appears to me, it is such for me; according as it appears to you, it is such for you, since you are man and so am I.”  He does not care for the being of things, but only for our subjective thoughts valid in themselves.

·      Gorgias of Leontini (W375)  professes philosophical nihilism in his book ‘Of nature and the non-existent’:

·      1º denial of all reality : “the non-being is the non-being.  Thus it is.  But being is not the non-being.  Thus being is not.”  Conclusion : “nothing is”.

·      2º denial of knowledge :  “Even if something was, it would still be unknowable”.

·      3º denial of the validity of language : “Even if something was knowable, anyways it would still be incommunicable to others”:



ii.  Socrates


1) his mission


1.    Athenian (469-399) of modest condition.  He saved the Greek thought from utter death.

2.    He contradicted the sophists.

·      they teach for money, he teaches free of charge.

·      They pretend to know it all, he affirms ignoring everything.

·      they are sceptics, he orientates towards the truth.

3.    He founds the study of Ethics.  Great initiator, his impulse will be crowned with Plato and Aristotle.


4.    He is a contemplative and became Athens’ conscience.  Accused, he uses irony to defend himself.


5.    He was accused of attempting against the Athenian traditions :

·      the family, because the youth leave their parents to follow him,

·      the city, because he teaches that the government belongs to the wise,

·      religion, because reason must be the criterion of behaviour.  He is monotheist!

6.    Condemned to death, he is executed by drinking hemlock at the age of 70.

2) moral teaching


            His teaching is a reflection on man (very much like the Sophists who started to leave aside the problems of nature to get into human problems), but in dependence with things as rules of human life.  He is not a  metaphysician but a moralist.


1.    The metaphysical principles behind Ethics

·      apparent utilitarianism : something is good for me in as much as it is useful to reach my happiness.  But he places it in the higher things, as the ultimate end of man : happiness consists in the possession of the true good, ie. known by  the intellect.

·      he sets the hierarchy of goods :

·      exterior advantages (riches, honour).  One must know how to use them.

·      pleasures of the body and of the senses.  One must follow a rule of moderation.

·      control of self.  This is what frees us from the passions and prepares man for the supreme good.

·      wisdom or virtue.  this is the absolute incorruptible good of man.


2.    The scientific aspect of Ethics

·      This man is virtuous who has the perfect science of the moral good.  One is a sinner only because of ignorance.  No one is voluntarily evil.  Virtue is identified with science.

·      The practice of good and of virtue consists essentially in a rational study.

·      Since man desires happiness, virtue and happiness become identical, moral ‘eudemonism’[1].

·      The practice of the virtues (wisdom, temperance, fortitude, piety and justice) is mandatory since there exist unwritten laws which rule all the countries, written by the divinity in the heart of man.  Thus there is no possible opposition between the law and nature.


3) the socratic method


1.    in General, he uses

·      dialogue with short questions/answers to reach the truth by exciting the reflexion.

·      irony to make the opponent confess his ignorance, and free him from the easy but false science, a necessary method to deal with the sophists.

·      ‘maieutic’, the art of ‘intellectual midwivery’, of begetting concepts and knowledge.  This method teaches that the master only helps the disciple to conceive, ie. to awaken, the truth which he holds in germ within himself.


2.    Critique :  The Socratic doctrine believes in the innate knowledge and innate ideas, and will be followed in this by his disciple Plato. 


4) fruits on the human intelligence


            His method formed the philosophical intelligence, by giving it :

1.    its goal, the search for essences and definitions of things[2] :

·      he precises the proper object of the intellect, the essence of the thing which is expressed by the definition.

·      he founds the philosophy of essences, and seeks not only a unique principle (either material or formal) but the definition, ie. the proper intellectual expression of each thing.


2.    its method, dialectic.  If he did not found the science of logic, which is to the honour of Aristotle, however he teaches the art of thinking by :

·      following the ‘articulations’ of reality with the concepts, by means of gradual inductions, and rarely deduction.

·      avoiding the precipited solutions as did the sophists.


3.    its confidence in the fact of knowledge :

·      preserving the humble place of science in front of the real.  Science is limited.

·      preserving the absolute confidence in the science which is properly disciplined.



III. Plato


The followers of Socrates, led by so undoctrinal teaching, developed along divergent lines.  The minor Socratics seized upon partial aspects of the Master’s thought and distorted it. There were the pure moralists, Cyrenaics (placing present pleasure as the last end of man) and Cynics (deifying the force of character or virtue); in Logic, the Megarians tend to destroy all science and deny that any judgement can predicate one thing of another.


1) biography and works of plato


1.    Person : Aristocles (428-347), nicknamed Plato (large front or broad shoulders), was born in the Egina island, descendent from the king of Athens and from Solon.  Studied with Cratylus, disciple of Heraclitus.  Socrates turned him away from poetry to study philosophy with him for 8 years.  He studied dialectic in Megara, astronomy in Egypt,  joined the Pythagorean and Eleate schools in Italy.  He founded his own school in Athens by buying some land to ‘Academus’ which was called the Academy.  Great philosopher of elevated genius who deserves the name of ‘divinus’ of  ‘Augustine without the faith’.


2.    Works :

·      35 ‘Dialogues’ are theatre plays, real jewels in style and doctrine, whereby he speaks his mind through the mouth of Socrates.

·      Among them, the most important are : Protagoras (on the sophists); Gorgias (on rhetoric); Menon (on virtue); the Banquet (on love);  Phedrus (on beauty); Phedo (on the immortality of the soul); Parmenides (on ideas);  Teetus (on science); the Sophist (on being); Timeo (on nature); the Republic and later the Laws (on politics).


2)  the philosophical system of plato[3]


1.    The metaphysical principle : like Parmenides, he contemplates being, but acknowledges a diversity of degrees of being : things participate in goodness.  But what exists in a participated way must exist purely and absolutely.  Thus, there must exist a pure goodness : which elevates him to the true God, transcendental, distinct from the world, and absolute Goodness.


2.    the essential doctrine : the subsistent ideas

·      Plato improves on the moral Socratic concepts by extending philosophy to all being, and he also transcends the sensible world by calling philosophy the intellectual intuition, the ‘gnosis’ of the suprasensible as such (myth of the cavern : we know only the shadows of reality).

·      The object of philosophy must be supra-sensible because :

·      what exists in a participated way must exist purely and absolutely, God exists(cf. Mphcl pple).

·      It is improper to say that this thing is triangle or is water.  What we drink is not water but something which has the form of water, which is ‘aquaform’. Things in the sensible world are similarities, imitations, appearances or images of other things which determine them.  Sensible things are only ‘idolos’ or ‘ideillae’, commanded by the big ‘eidos’ .

·      As Socrates speaks of the essences, so Plato speaks of the Ideas.  Socrates taught that the essences express the definition.  These essences/ideas are thus abstracted from the particular.  They are universal, immutable and eternal, and allow man to contemplate in its pure state what is only participated in the sensible things.  The ideas are in fact the only real existing things.[4]

·      Origin of the ideas.  Since senses deceive us, Ideas must come from oneself as innate Ideas

·      Science is only a reminiscence of what was always there but in a dormant state. 


3.    Applications

·      God is the first Subsistent Idea without matter (Plato seems to admit a hierarchy within the subsistent ideas).  He is not demonstrated but affirmed in the Idea of Good = God.[5]  God is Providence since He does everything out of love and the world He makes is the best possible.  There is only one God (yet not clearly distinguished from the soul of the world nor of a demiurge  or world organizer).

·      Physics : the world

·      matter is not that out of which a thing is made, but rather the place where it is.  Defined as what is not.  It is eternal and God has only to organise it.

·      the world is a big animal, composed like man of a visible body and an invisible soul.

·      All obey the demiurge, supreme orderer of the world and of all other planets.

·      The particular souls are emanations of the cosmic soul, which is fundamentally identical with God. God or Jupiter is inferior to the Ideas, all of them being subject to Destiny/fortune.

·      the living beings (including the woman) come from the degradation of man (cf. transmigration).

·      Psychology :

·      The human soul exists prior to the body and is bound to it as the punishment of some sin. 

·      Thus the union is only accidental. 

·      In the same way as the soul exists before the body, it survives it also.  Yet Plato gives better arguments for the immortality of the soul (men know the essence of each thing and consequently are spiritual; men must be rewarded according to their works). 

·      The soul has 3 functions : the spirit , the heart , the appetite , which leads Plato to multiply the souls in the same individual being.

·      Moral science :

·      the end of man is his happiness, which consists in the contemplation of the ideas (idem for God).

·      There are 4 virtues, wisdom (virtue of the spirit), fortitude (virtue of the heart), temperance (v. of the appetite), justice (harmonising the 3 parts of the soul).

·      in politics, Plato sees the state as a help for man to reach his moral end, thus as a school of education.  For him “there will be a good government only when the kings are philosophers or when the philosophers become kings”.

·      The personal interest is opposed to the harmony of classes.  It feeds on the idea of property and the spirit of family.  Both must be suppressed (he says in the Republic), later on he is less radical (in the Laws).


3) Critique


1.    Positive

·      He sets clearly the hierarchy of good up to and including the Sovereign Good which prepares the examplarism of St. Augustine. He brings clearly the principle of participation, foundation of the whole Augustinism.

·      The relative ‘non-being existing’ (the matter which ‘is not’) prepares the notion of Potency.

·      Good is an analogical concept.


2.    Negative

·      the doctrine of the Subsistent Ideas : Plato confuses the logical and the ontological order, assuming that truth consists not only in the ‘adequatio rei et intellectus’ but in the ‘identity’ between them.  Since the idea has a specific form which in the mind exists in a mode universal and immaterial, he concludes that the thing itself not only has the same form but also the same mode of existence.

·      In cosmology, he tends to idealism, because for him, the world of singular things is not the real world, it is only a phenomenon.  The sensible things can furnish us only with an opinion  not a science  properly said.[6]

·      His psychology is ultra-spiritualist, since it supposes the pre-existence of the souls, the metempsychosis, the accidental union with the body, the innate ideas and the two other souls besides the spiritual soul. 

·      His theology leads to the dualism or even the trialism and thus to pantheism because both matter and the ideas are eternal.  The souls are not created since they emanate from God.

·      His political view is reduced to Statism and to a utopia which he himself was obliged to correct later on in his treatise of ‘the Laws’.

·      In Summary : Platonism is a dualism in every aspect : between the sensible world and the intelligible world, between God and matter, between the soul and the body.


iV. Aristotle


1) life


1.    Person.  Born in Stagira (Thracia), Aristotle (384-322) enters at the age of 18 the Academy of Athens, and becomes the pupil of Plato for 20 years.  He calls himself ‘amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas’.  After Plato, the king Philip of Macedonia takes him as preceptor of his 13 y.old son Alexander the Great.  In 336 Alexander succeeds his father, Aristotle can return to Athens and open a school near the temple of Apollo Liceo where he stayed 13 years.  He gave his lessons while walking, hence the name of ‘peripatetics’ given his disciples.  He dies in exile in Chalcis, age 62.


2.    Works : His works were  written during his second stay in Athens, and consist of a summary of his oral teaching as notes of some disciple; the works destined to the public were lost.  His works lost during 150 years were copied and in the II cent A.D.edited by Andronic of Rhodes, with some alterations.  His main works which seem to form an encyclopedia of modern sciences are : the ‘Organon’ (6 treatises of Logic); the ‘Rhetoric’ and ‘Poetry’; in psychology, ‘Physics’ (7 diverse treatises), ‘The natural history of animals’, ‘the soul’; Metaphysics, 2 ‘Morals’ and ‘politics’.


2) refutation of plato


1.    In general : Ar. is opposed to the Platonic separation between ideas and things, and considers that, as Socrates had seen, the universal essences should be somewhat in the things.  Thus far from having the ideas rule over the things, the things rule and determine our ideas.  This means that Ar. revalorizes the sensible world, which becomes object of intellection.  Philosophy thus becomes the science of all beings through its ultimate causes and first principles.

2.    The essences of things exist universaliter immaterally in mente, individually and in reality.


3.    The sensible world is the real world.  The world is intelligible since the intelligible principle, the form, exists not separated from but in the world.  Ar. discovers the immobility of the intelligible (form) in the mobility of reality (matter).


4.    Plato in reality ignores the true nature of the causes :

·      the formal cause,

·      the efficient cause, principle of change, is totally left out,

·      the final cause, motive of the action, is forgotten,

·      motion is suppressed since the ideas are immobile,

·      the investigation of nature or physics is suppressed.


5.    Aristotle distinguishes 3 forms of knowledge :

·      experimental knowledge,

·      intellectual knowledge which is either :

·      demonstrative, science (‘episteme’) or knowledge through the causes and principles,

·      intuitive of the intellect  or direct knowledge of the principles themselves.


6.    Regarding the origin of ideas, he gives the solution of abstraction.  Ideas are not innate but are drawn by abstraction from the senses.


7.    Regarding the soul :

·      agst the metempsychosis : he does not investigate the state of the soul after death,

·      agst dualism : he affirms the substantial unity of the 2 incomplete and complementary parts (body/soul).

·      agst materialism : he affirms the spirituality of the activities of the intellect and the will.  A spiritualist psychology alone can explain properly the experimental data.


8.    Ethics, agst the identification of science with virtue, he distinguishes the speculative judgement, fruit of the sole intellect, and the practical judgement, fruit of the int. and will, which leaves room for freedom.



3) aspects of the philosophy of aristotle


1.    Logic :

·      Ar. shows himself the legislator of the human mind.  Kant said that “its seems as if logic has been completely perfect and finished from its birth”. 

·      It comprises properly 3 parts : the definition of the conceptual essences, the ‘Categories’; the judgements or propositions, ‘Hermeneia’, ie. interpretation; the reasoning for which in ‘Ia Analytica’ he studies the syllogism (laws, figures, modes) and the demonstrative reasoning itself in ‘IIa Analytica’.  He finally deals with the probable and sophistic syllogism in ‘Topics’ and ‘Sophistic Refutations’ as well as the question of induction.


2.    Physics :

·      General principles :

·      Where does the new being come from?  Neither from being nor from nothing (nothing can come out of nothing).  Thus the new being exists in potency in the matter.  When the matter is deprived of its form, it acquires another one under the action of an agent which always acts for a particular end.

·      Hence the explanation of the different types of motion; the conditions of motion; the relation between the mobile and the motor and in last instance an immobile motor; the explanation of the measures of motion, ie. time and space.

·      The study of diverse bodies subject to motion : the celestial and corporal bodies.

·      Celestial bodies.  Ar. follows the prejudices of ancient astronomy, the uncreated matter, the eternal movement of the heavens, their incorruptibility, the circular movement of the heavens around the earth[7].    But he has ideas of a genius on the colours, on the theory of the luminous vibrations and of emission, his denial of the immensity of the heavens.[8]

·      Sublunar bodies.  They are the object of generation and corruption, and their active and passive qualities are based on the philosophical system of matter and form, more profound than the chemistry of the Ancients.  He uses his theory of hylomorphism to distinguish the mixed beings from the combined beings, and prepares the way for modern chemistry.  He deals with the Meteors and the minerals.

·      Animate beings.  Ar. explored all the aspects of the animated world : the history of plants and animals, the anatomy of animals, their physiology in the question of locomotion and respiration.  He is the first to distinguish between organs and mere tissues of flesh.  He brings the sciences to their superior principle, ie. the specific difference between minerals, plants and animals.[9]


3.    Psychology

·      The main work is the ‘De Anima’ divided into 3 parts:

·      I.  Refutation of the erroneous systems.  He defines the soul as “the first act of the organised body, in potency to receive life”.  Thus he refutes :

·      the errors of Plato re. the pre-existence of the human souls,

·      the accidental union of soul and body,

·      the multiplicity of souls,

·      the phenomenism of Pythagoras who said that the soul is the harmony of the body,= 1 accidt,

·      the materialism of Empedocles and Democritus,

·      the metempsychosis since the soul individuated by its own body cannot inform another.

·      II. He explains the nature of the soul.

·      III.  He explains the 5 potencies of the soul.  The most important is the soul, distinct from the body, coming from something outside.  “It survives to the body”. “It is necessary that man do everything so that he may live (eternally) according to the more noble principle within himself, which alone is impassible, eternal and divine.”

·      To the treatise of the De Anima, others are added of lesser importance on sensation (the soul is tabula rasa in principio), on memory, on dreams and illusions.


4.    Metaphysics

·      In General.  Ar. is the real founder of Metaphysics.  His predecessors gave certain principles.  But it belonged to Ar. to unite them and order them scientifically.  His Mphcs is rich in history and supplies the documents which otherwise would be lost re. the previous authors.  It is an invitation to scrupulously consult the past teachers.  He deserved the name of first historian of philosophy.  In his full scale system of metaphysics dealing with being as such, Ar. reconciles the unity of being with its concrete diversity by the two theories of analogy and act/potency. 

·      Here are some of his proper theses :

·      the 4 modes (distinctions?) of being : to be per se/accidens;[10] to be according to one’s categories; to be true/false; to be in potency/act.

·      Being is neither nothing nor the pure possibility.  It is determined by the essence and ‘realised’(= brought to reality) by existence, which makes the essence pass from the potency to act.  Such is the solution of the dilemma of Parmenides and Heraclitus.[11]

·      The properties of being (in communi) are called the transcendentals : one, true, good.

·      The first division of being is the 10 categories called also the 10 predicaments (subst.+9 accdts)

·      the 4 causes and their explanation and interconnection.

·      Theology : God exists and is proved rationally by the motion and order in nature.  His essence consists in being the immobile intelligent motor, pure act or thought of thought.  “We call God a living being, perfect and eternal since the continuous and eternal life resides in Him”.  He is one, as his last book of Mpsc (XII) recalls the phrase of Homer : “the multiplicity of rulers produces nothing good : let there be only one governor”.


5.    Moral  life

·      The end of man is felicity, is an operation which perfects man, which is more than the mere pleasure. Perfect happiness is found in the exercise of our highest faculties.

·      The morally good man seeks virtue, which does not consist in science, but depends on our liberty.  Virtue is an acquired habit which leads us to choose the middle between two extremes dictated by prudence.

·      There are 4 virtues, prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice (bks III-VI).  He deals also with friendship, as the highest human habit.

·      Is man eternal? Ar. does not say it explicitly, but man’s life deserves an eternal sanction : “This divine thing which is the thought would be the perfect happiness if we added to it the perfect duration of life.  There is no reason why man should have only human thoughts because he is man, and only mortal thoughts because he is mortal; in as much as it depends on us, we must reach immortality”... by thinking of things imperishable.


6.    Politics

·      In genere,

·      based on the fundamental principle that man is a political animal and common sense, far from Platonic utopias, he establishes the family and property as the foundations of all political society. 

·      Faithful to his concept of the possible types of life, he was led to accept the natural state of slaves in society given the fact that some men are deprived of the gifts of nature, good only for inferior works. 

·      He concedes too much to the State, esp. re. education. 

·      He even allows the sacrifice of deformed children. 

·      In his treatise on Politics, he deals with :

·      bk I.  he puts together the constitutions of 158 states to judge which is the best state (bk I=lost!)

·      bk II.  a polemic against the communism of Socrates, from which he draws some conclusions:

·      Society is necessary to man, unless he be a god or a beast.  Man must obey the natural law.  Property and family are the basis of society vs. communism.

·      there are 3 forms of government : monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Monarchy, tempered with aristocracy and democracy is the best form in itself, although in concreto the circumstances may dictate another form which will be better hic et nunc.  The just forms of gvt necessarily seek firstly the common good.

·      the unjust forms of gvt sacrifice the common good for the particular good of the governor and are 3 : tyranny, oligarchy and demagogy.

·      There is also a treatise on the international law, which condemns the unjust war.



[1]  Ethical system (promoted also by Arist.) which sets as goal of human action his felicity.  St. Thomas Aquinas accepts it also and elevates it to the supern. level I II 1-5 on beatitude (or happiness).

[2]Cf. Arist. Metaph. xi, 4 #1078.

[3] Taken from Thonnard ‘Summary of history of philosophy’.

[4]Plato, with his subsistent Ideas, far from being idealist in the sense of anti-realist, is in fact supra-realist.

[5] “I ask what would not be the fate of a mortal to whom be given to contemplate the beauty without mixture in its purity and simplicity, not revested anymore with human flesh and appearance, with all the vain attractive things condemned to perish; to whom be given to see, face to face, in a unique way, the divine beauty” (The Banquet).

[6]this intellectual knowledge is itself divided into reason whose object is mathematical number, and intellect  which rises to the intuitive contemplation of the ideas and finally of God.

[7]He follows and accepts them because that is what the limited experience of his age could observe!

[8]He affirms that the sky has limits out of which there is only the pure possibility of space, not even the void.

[9]Although he insinuates the impossibility of the transformation of species because of the substantial form, nevertheless he teaches also the rhythmical evolution of substances towards the more perfect.  He admitted also the spontaneous generation, and regarding the human fetus, he believes that it passes from vegetal to sensitive to rational life!

[10]Peter is man per se, musician per accidens.

[11]one same identical element can change either accidentally (water from cold becomes hot) or substantially (the I matter of  wood turns to ashes), but in both case, the potential part of the thing (water potentially hot) becomes actuated.  The water is potentially hot, and thus can become hot without losing its substance.