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Socrates
This is supposed to be of Socrates,
but it was made after he had already been dead for some time,
by someone who did not know what Socrates looked like.
Socrates was the first of the three great Athenian philosophers (the other two are Plato and Aristotle).
Socrates was born in Athens in 469 BC, so he lived through the time of Pericles and the Athenian
Empire. He was not from a rich family. His father was probably a stone-carver, and Socrates also
worked with stone, especially as a not-very-good sculptor.
But when Socrates was in his forties or so, he began to feel an urge to think about the world around
him, and try to answer some difficult questions. He asked, "What is wisdom?" and "What is beauty?"
and "What is the right thing to do?" He knew that these questions were hard to answer, and he thought
it would be better to have a lot of people discuss the answers together, so that they might come up with
more ideas. So he began to go around Athens asking people he met these questions, "What is wisdom?"
, "What is the right thing to do?", and so forth. Sometimes the people just said they were busy, but
sometimes they would try to answer him. Then Socrates would try to teach them to think better by
asking them more questions which showed them the problems in their logic. Often this made people
angry. Sometimes they even tried to beat him up.
This is what is left of the Painted Stoa,
or Porch, where Socrates used to teach, in Athens.
Socrates soon had a group of young men who listened to him and learned from him how to
think. Plato was one of these young men. Socrates never charged them any money. But in 399 BC,
some of the Athenians got mad at Socrates for what he was teaching the young men. They charged him
in court with impiety (not respecting the gods) and corrupting the youth (teaching young men bad
things). People thought he was against democracy, and he probably was - he thought the smartest
people should make the decisions for everyone.
Socrates had a big trial in front of an Athenian jury. He was convicted of these charges and sentenced to
death, and he died soon afterwards, when the guards gave him a cup of hemlock (a poisonous plant) to
drink.
Socrates never wrote down any of his ideas while he was alive. But after he died, his student, Plato,
didwrite down some of what Socrates had said.
Plato
Plato is known today as one of the greatest philosophers of all time. He was born about 429 BC, close
to the time when Pericles died, and he died in 347 BC, just after the birth of Alexander the Great. Plato
was born in Athens, to a very rich and powerful family. When Plato was a young man, he went to
listen to Socrates, and learned a lot from Socrates about how to think, and what sort of questions to
think about. When Socrates was killed in 399 BC, Plato was very upset (He was 30 years old when
Socrates died). Plato began to write down some of the conversations he had heard Socrates have.
Practically everything we know about Socrates comes from what Plato wrote down.
Plato also thought a lot about the natural world and how it works. He thought that everything had a
sort of ideal form, like the idea of a chair, and then an actual chair was a sort of poor imitation of the
ideal chair that exists only in your mind. One of the ways Plato tried to explain his ideas was with the
famous metaphor of the cave. He said, Suppose there is a cave, and inside the cave there are some
men chained up to a wall, so that they can only see the back wall of the cave and nothing else. These
men can't see anything outside of the cave, or even see each other clearly, but they can see shadows of
what is going on outside the cave. Wouldn't these prisoners come to think that the shadows were real,
and that was what things really looked like?
Suppose now that one of the men escaped, and got out of the cave, and saw what real people looked
like, and real trees and grass. If he went back to the cave and told the other men what he had seen,
would they believe him, or would they think he was crazy?
Plato says that we are like those men sitting in the cave: we think we understand the real world, but
because we are trapped in our bodies we can see only the shadows on the wall. One of his goals is to
help us understand the real world better, by finding ways to predict or understand the real world even
without being able to see it.