Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (an extremely short introduction)

Entire volumes can and have been written about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle individually. Even more, volumes can be written about the relationship among these, the greatest of Greek thinkers. What follows will be an attempt to summarize briefly the influence these men had not only on their contemporaries, but on modern philosophy, as well.

What logicians today call logic is not what the layperson today calls logic. And neither of these is what the Greeks called logic. The Pre-Socratics seem to have had a notion of logic or at least logical demonstration. The Pythagoreans probably best exemplify this in that they understood that the rigorous method of demonstration that accompanied geometric proofs constituted a formal, objective, and authoritative proposition about some geometric figure. It is unclear if the Pythagoreans influenced Socrates. He was definitely a practitioner of the dialectic method of investigation, however. We see this method employed in the Theaetetus, but the Pre-Socratics were also aware of the method and also utilized it. Zeno of Elea is probably the best-known example, as he regularly applied the reductio ad impossibile approach to proving his mentor’s (Parmenides) arguments against motion (Kneale & Kneale, 1962, pp. 6, 7). Plato advanced the dialectic approach even further, being more greatly influenced by the Pythagoreans. It is clear that the concept of geometric proofs and validity became important to Plato and has Socrates applying many rudimentary logical principles in the dialogues, especially the Theaetetus and Sophist. One problem with Plato’s logical system, however, is that he frequently confuses metaphysical propositions with logical principles. But this was common among the Greek prior to Aristotle, so it is difficult to fault Plato in particular for it, but that we should expect more from such a great mind. Plato’s Sophist also presents Socrates as arguing a “collection and division” dialectic that would later serve as the basis for the Tree of Porphyry, named for the Neoplatonist who posited it. When we come to Aristotle, we find logic differentiating itself finally from the many philosophical sub-disciplines. Before this could happen, truth had to first be wrenched from the grips of ethical philosophy and realized as a separate epistemological notion devoid of ethical considerations in that context. Aristotle was thus able to create a formal system of valid inference that has been magnificently influential throughout the years. Though Fregean predicate logic has largely ruled since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, new thinkers such as Fred Sommers are finding the new logic to be much too artificial and are synthesizing the old logic (Aristotelian) with modern propositional logic. The result is an elegant and coherent system that can actually be applied by the layperson.

What the layperson still yet does not understand is the philosophical notion of knowledge. Socrates, in fitting with his sophist heritage, was very much a skeptic. Part of the problem in identifying where Socrates stood on the idea of knowledge is that his dialectic method of examination in dialogue naturally prevents the establishment of much in the way of positive arguments. We see Socrates leveling many negative arguments, but precious few positive ones. His disciple Plato was much more lucid, though. Plato saw all knowledge as being a priori in the World of Ideas. All that is “truly” knowledge exists therein. In the Theaetetus, Plato claims knowledge is justified true belief (189E-190A). It is not enough that one have an opinion, for if two have contradictory opinion, they surely cannot both be true. And if something is false, how indeed can it be said to be an object of knowledge? Even more, if it be true and my belief, perhaps I have but guessed: perhaps my belief that it is raining in Japan (and the fact that it is) is unwarranted; do I thus know it? Plato and most people would say no. Thus, justification is the missing link. Even to this day, the overwhelming majority of the discussion regarding epistemology centers on the theory of justification. Plato was something of a skeptic, something of a rationalist, believing that our experience of material objects is not truly knowledge, for we do not know the thing in itself (Kant’s Ding an sich), but a fallible combination of Ideas. Only when one ascends to the World of Ideas and grasps the Thing in question can knowledge be truly attained. This view has come to be known as Platonic realist. Aristotle was also a realist, but not in a Platonic sense. He believed that we truly do know the thing we sense, which is comprised of two parts: matter and form. For most purposes, Aristotle’s matter is generally what we think of today, minus all the atomic theory that sometimes coheres in the common connotation of the word. Thus, by simple, controlled observation of the world before our senses, Aristotle believed we could obtain knowledge.

Plato’s Symposium poses a bit of a difficulty for us in trying to determine whether it is Plato that holds the view of love presented or whether the words expressed by the character Socrates are actually those of the ancient figure. Given the later date of the Symposium and the other elements introduced, especially the character of Diotima, who is generally believed to be the only named fictitious character in Plato’s dialogues (“Diotima,” 2006, ¶ 3, 4), we are lead to believe that Plato expresses his own views. A particularly compelling argument for this conclusion is the distinctly Platonic answer given by Diotima in the conclusion of the dialogue:

He who under the influence of true love rising upward from these begins to see that beauty, is not far from the end. And the true order of going or being led by another to the things of love, is to use the beauties of earth as steps along which he mounts upwards for the sake of that other beauty, going from one to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at least knows what the essence of beauty is. (Plato, 2000, p. 37)

The overwhelmingly Platonic theme in this passage can only lead us to believe that Plato saw love as participation in the Idea Beauty. Unfortunately, it seems that, since Plato is our only source of information concerning Socrates, that if the latter spoke on the subject, such information is lost to us. Aristotle also seemed to be disinterested in the subject, and so we are left with Plato’s thoughts alone among the greatest of the Greeks.

We thus come to the final point of comparison: ontology. For some reason, modern philosophers think they have ontology quite figured out. The ancient Greeks had no such misconceptions. The Sophists plied their trade on the unsuspecting populace and “proved” such absurd conclusions as “non-being exists.” Now, such a silly proposition is clearly meaningless as it is self-contradictory, but then, the ancient Greeks did not enjoy the well-developed system of logic we have today. Plato’s theory of ontology is intimately tied to his metaphysics. There is the World of Ideas, which most certainly exists, and the Ideas are certainly particulars (upsetting modern logicians who denounce subalternation), and also certainly existence. But the world shaped by the Demiurge based on these Ideas is an imperfect mishmash. Thus, for Plato, what we see as a rock is really only a rock insofar as it participates in the Idea Rock. It is the Rock that exists, not the rock. The rock is simply an imperfect representative of Rock. Aristotle thought this all a very silly distinction. He retained Plato’s realism, but introduced an empirical epistemology. This shifted his ontological position to be that objects truly do exist as we sense them. The rock I hold in my hand is actually a rock: it is formed in the form of a rock and it is made of the matter that rocks are made of. These two essential qualities make this really a rock.

While the ancient Greeks are frequently studied and paid lip service as being heavily influential on modern philosophy, this is usually a disingenuous homage. But it is actually more the case that philosophy has probably advanced only moderately from the Greeks. More appropriately, it seems that we have simply made it more complex and more confused with the infusion of new terms and new revisions of old ideas. Any way one looks at it, clearly we owe a great deal to these three groundbreaking men.

Soli Deo Gloria



Bruder, K., & Moore, B. N. (2002). Philosophy: The power of ideas (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Diotima. (2006, March 23). Retrieved April 9, 2006, from

Kneale, W. & Kneale, M. (1962). The development of logic. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Plato. (2000). Symposium. In S. Rosen (Ed.), The philosopher’s handbook, (pp. 27-37). New York: Random House.

The Impact of the Christian Response [to Pagan Philosophy]

Christianity has had an interesting relationship with philosophy ever since the two confronted each other in the Areopagus in the first century (Acts 17:19-33). Christians today point to this encounter between the apostle Paul and the greatest thinkers in Athens as an example of the “apologetic encounter.” Paul matched his theology against the philosophy of the Greeks, defying their paganism and claiming that they knew God, but glorified him not, professing to be wise, but were fools (Romans 1:21). For the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God (1 Corinthians 1:20). It was for this reason that Paul declare to the church in Colosse: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Colossians 2:8 KJV). But if Paul decried all philosophy then why the rich heritage and tradition it has enjoyed in the Christian faith? Why did such giants as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas take up the issue with such fervor if apostolic tradition denounced it? Perhaps there is more said on the issue than just the verse cited in Colossians. After all, Paul spoke of “philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” If to be Christian is to be “of Christ” then it appears Paul stands in approval of Christian philosophy—for “whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17 KJV). What, then, was Paul’s philosophy?

Paul was, of course, a determinist. Many who have come since have tried to deny that Christianity is a deterministic system, but its Scriptures clearly assert as much. Paul argued that determinism, rather than adversely affecting the will and responsibility of human beings, is actually the basis for Christianity’s particular theistic foundation. With this, he also asserts the sovereignty of God and his compelling and uncompelled rule over all things, doing as his pleases when he pleases; and all for his own glory. Paul realized how odious this doctrine must seem to those hostile to his religion. He rhetorically raises a number of objections in the ninth chapter of Romans. He speaks of Isaac being loved and Esau being hated, even before the two were born and had done anything right or wrong (Romans 9:11, 13). He quips, “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid” (Romans 9:14 KJV). And in regards to God’s mercy: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy . . .” (Romans 9:18 KJV). And sensing the objection that a sovereign God necessarily means that man does not have free will, which necessarily means that evil is caused by God, which seems to necessitate that man should not be held responsible for his faults, he interjects on behalf of his naysayers, “Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?” (Romans 9:19 KJV). His reply has disappointed all but the ardently faithful. It is worth quoting in full.

Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory. (Romans 9:20-23 KJV)

Paul learned well from Job’s trials that man could say nothing to God. Job suffered greatly for the glory of God, but thought to protest that he, a righteous man, should have to suffer so. He thought to question God for his purposes, but repented in sackcloth and ashes when the Almighty answered out of the whirlwind and said, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me” (Job 38:2, 3 KJV). Even more, Paul had previously elucidated earlier in the same epistle that the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden was by design: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12 KJV), and this was done that “. . . all the world may become guilty before God” (Romans 3:19 KJV). This doctrine has become the most hated and most despised of all Christian doctrine throughout the ages. It is so repulsive that most nominal Christians do not even believe it, instead dogmatically asserting that man is indeed free: free to choose God or free to not choose God. But this is not the position Paul taught: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8 KJV). We see then that Paul’s philosophy was a dogmatic, deterministic, theistic system that placed all faith and all authority in God alone. Over the years, this would gain disfavor from subsequent saints, but these foundational beliefs live on in what is now known as “Calvinism.” While we shall not cover that doctrine here, it shall arise again in the future.

Chronologically, Augustine is next in our survey of significant Christian influences on philosophy. Theologically speaking, Augustine was also closest to Paul’s strict deterministic theism. He is claimed (by Protestants) to be the first saint of the post apostolic era to have fully grasped the biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty in election (that is, the choosing of those persons elected to salvation by God). Many theologians find shades of the doctrine in earlier saints, but most agree that Augustine was the most lucid and complete writer on the matter. Augustine was a prolific author. Volumes upon volumes of his works have been published, but volumes and volumes remain yet unpublished. He was particularly voluminous in his writing against the British monk, Pelagius. Augustine’s dedicated attack on Pelagius’ doctrine finally resulted in said doctrine being declared heretical. Ultimately, Augustine’s disciples would lose the fight against the doctrine of free will in the church, which would come to grip it for nearly a millennium. Before converting to Christianity, Augustine was a Manichean, and we find many dualistic tendencies in his early writings. Later in his life, however, Augustine’s philosophy took on a distinctly Platonic flavor. Probably more so than any other work of his, De Magistro is overtly Platonic: drawing heavily upon Plato’s theory of Ideas and man’s a priori knowledge thereof, coupled with existentially triggered reminiscence. Of course, Augustine put a decidedly Christian spin on the doctrine, asserting that Jesus Christ alone is the true teacher and that our knowledge consists in his knowledge, albeit only partially. He taught that no one is ever “taught,” but only inspired to remembrance. As one might expect, he was most definitely a rationalist (but, inconsistently, had some faith in the senses). He also conclusively demonstrated that truth is transcendent and eternal in the Confessions (VI, VII, XI) after casting off Aristotelian empiricism and embracing Neoplatonism. He would influence the field of rational metaphysical and epistemological inquiry for centuries to come. To this day, his influence remains great. The late Dr. Gordon H. Clark considered himself an “Augustinian” in that he was an epistemic scripturalist (which he simply deemed, Dogmatism). This brand of epistemological foundationalism asserts that only propositions found in the Bible or propositions that are validly deducible from the Bible are objects of human knowledge. Augustine did not concur with this denial of empiricism in toto, but the influence he had on later thinkers cannot be denied. While Augustine presented no formal arguments for the existence of God, his argument for the transcendent eternality of truth serves as a strong argument for the impossibility of empirical data and leads the believer to look for truth solely through theology. This author has elaborated a similar argument, finding empiricism to be untenable for the Christian theist, and elaborating an argument from Scripture that establishes epistemic Scripturalism as the sole consistent Christian worldview. This Augustine-inspired rationalism is not confined to the last century, however.

Anselm of Canterbury was a rationalist in the Augustinian tradition. While he had abandoned the soteriological position of Augustine, he embraced many of the philosophical principles of his predecessor. Anselm was the first to posit what has become the notorious ontological argument for the existence of God, or “ontological argument.” It is a rather ingenious argument all things considered. The validity of it has been hotly contested by theists and atheists alike. First argued by Anselm, it was soon after countered by the monk, Guanillo. Guanillo’s refutation was found to be quite equivocal, however, and the argument lived on, but was soon replaced by the Aristotelian cosmological argument (or argument from first cause) in its multi-faceted forms as enumerated by Aquinas—more on him later. When Kant came along and presented his refutation of the ontological argument, it was thought finished; however, his student Hegel resurrected it and even to this day, its validity is not so much questioned as his phenomenology and the disassociated and individuality-destroying worldview that he deduced from it. The critical flaw is not that the ontological argument is invalid in and of itself. The problem is that trying to infer the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the “god” proven by the ontological argument is impossible. It is at the same time an affirmation of the consequent and an equivocation to argue that the ontological argument proves the existence of the God of the Bible. The reason Anselm’s argument was “successful” for the period of time that it was is Europe was largely a Christian continent. The education level of the people was extremely low, as well. They probably had no concept of formal validity, much less the tools to evaluate the argument within the appropriate context. Instead, the Catholic doctrine of implicit faith encouraged them to not think about the argument and simply believe its conclusion, moreover, to simply believe the Church. Anselm helped to demonstrate how strict rationalism was incapable of inferring God. Even though his argument was valid, it did not prove enough. This inspired Aquinas to take a different approach to the problem. Aquinas was an Aristotelian. Though more than a millennium and a half separated him from Aristotle, Aquinas was remarkably faithful to the empirical philosophy of the Greek. Aristotle was also a theist, though not a Christian theist. He believed in a god of motion: a single motion, actually. Aquinas claimed that he had found Aristotle’s enigmatic “First Mover.” It was the God of the Bible. Even more, he was completely sure that this was “evident to the senses.” His cosmological argument has become a standard weapon in the hands of many Christian apologists since, much to the chagrin of more learned individuals, and to the frequent embarrassment of those who employ the argument. Lest we should become bogged down in a critique of the cosmological argument and lose sight of the present topic, we shall avoid the issue and simply point out that the argument hinges on an egregious petitio principii. Instead, we return to Aquinas and his influence on philosophy, especially Christian philosophy. Aquinas’s legacy endures to this day as most apologists subscribe to the method called, Evidentialism. It is believed that Christians must start at neutral grounds, a position or proposition that both the believer and unbeliever trust as reliable. From there, the Christian presents empirical evidence of the general reliability of the Bible, from which he infers that it is completely reliable, from which he can infer the existence of God. This was Aquinas’s method and it survives not only in Catholic circles, but in evangelical circles as well. It bears mentioning that this type of apologetic represents a radical shift away from Paul. As the survey in Romans showed, Paul presupposes the existence of God and deals only with theological matters. Augustine similarly presupposed God’s existence. In Anselm, we saw a rational explanation for the a priori idea of God (God was most certainly a priori to Anselm for all but “the fool”). Aquinas has done away with this aprioristic assumption and taken instead as his fundamental assumption the senses and the a posteriori perceptions they cause. Not only would this change the face of Christian apologetics, but also it would similarly influence later scientific thought. Today’s philosophy of science begins with the presupposition that everything has a natural explanation. Supernatural phenomena are ruled out from the very beginning. The human sense organs are capable of discovering truth about the world and the nature of it. A large deal of the credit for this worldview is owed to Thomas Aquinas.

We have thus seen how the chronological distance separating Christianity from its roots has furnished a great deal of change and departure from the historical foundations of the faith. Paul was strictly deterministic and adamantly presumptive in his theism. Augustine was similarly so, but also explained a number of key philosophical issues within a loose framework of Neoplatonism. Anselm saw merit in employing Augustine’s rationalism to formally prove the suppositions of those saints come before him. Aquinas embodied the departure from orthodoxy and placed his faith in the secular arguments and suppositions of a pagan, Aristotle. Since then, Christian philosophy made little progress between Aquinas and the 20th century. Recently developments have greatly helped to reverse the damage done, but secular philosophy has now greatly outpaced the religion that once fostered and nurtured it during the darkest ages of the European continent. Already the presuppositional apologetic approach advocated by Van Til and Clark has made its presence known in the halls of academia worldwide. It remains to be seen how much of an influence this modern rebirth of Christian philosophy will have.

Soli Deo Gloria


New series of topics

I am currently taking a philosophy course in school. Since I am in a business program, this will probably be the only class on philosophy that I will be taking, but I thought that it might be interesting if I were to share with you the assignments that I will be turning in. Of course, I don’t see this class as just a class on philosophy, but an extended apologetic encounter. I plan on elaborating the work of Christ as much as possible within the context of a fully biblical, philosophical worldview. It’s sure to raise some interesting discussions in the class. I’ll be sure to keep you posted of those of substantial note.

Since my courses are all fast track, this series will only run for nine weeks, but it will be more consistent, and will offer more content than I have published so far (naturally, since college requires plenty of work). After the class is over, I plan on coming back to the epistemology series, which I have let founder for too long.

As a final note, my original thesis for the next section was to demonstrate an axiomatized system of propositional logic from Scripture. That will be set aside for now. Instead, I will be demonstrating Aristotelian logic, for reasons that are probably more complicated and subjective than are worth addressing.

I have an interesting book here that contains a number of essays about the philosophy of Fred Sommers, who revised and revived the syllogism (and by extension, term logic). Those interested in more can read this article by Sommers. I’ve been reading some of his responses to those who decry the “old logic” (as well as Clark’s response in his Logic) and am becoming more and more convinced that modern logic is something of a sham. It’s touted to be a superior system and methodology to the old system, but I see nothing that indicates that whatsoever. Modern mathematical logic is simply more suited to mathematics, which makes the scientists happy, since they consider math a skeleton key in the locker room of truth. Essentially, Sommers sees a sort of union between propositional and term logic (which he believes was posited by Leibniz) is the best solution. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll get to this later.

I’ll have something to read posted tomorrow, viz. The Impact of the Christian Response [to Pagan Philosophy].

Soli Deo Gloria