Though I studied philosophy in my college years and have now read hundreds of books on philosophy and philosophical topics, I nevertheless think I was born to be a philosopher. Long before I began studying and teaching philosophy, I was—even as a youth—asking philosophical questions. My baseball coach nicknamed me “Professor.”
I view philosophy primarily as an activity in which I seek to think carefully about life’s most important questions. The word philosophy (from the Greek phileó, “love,” and sophía, “wisdom”) means “the love of wisdom.” One way of coming to know and appreciate philosophy is to consider some of the powerful quotations made by great philosophers on ultimate issues. In part one of this series, we’ll briefly look at three famous philosophical quotations from ancient Greek philosophy’s “Big Three.”
The Big Three Philosophers of Ancient Greece
1. Socrates (470–399 BC)
Socrates was ancient Greece’s “gadfly” who provoked people to think deeply about life. His “Socratic method” consisted of a question-and-answer philosophical approach, where he would carry out a form of reflective interrogation intended to help him and others discover answers to life’s big questions. The Oracle of Delphi (a prophetic voice) identified Socrates as the wisest man in Athens. While considered one of the greatest teachers in history, Socrates was ultimately arrested for challenging the deepest beliefs of those in authority in Athens as well as for corrupting the youth with his alleged subversive ideas. In one of history’s great miscarriages of justice, he was ultimately put to death by the drinking of poisonous hemlock.
The unexamined life is not worth living.
–Socrates, Plato’s Apology
This is arguably Socrates’s most influential quotation. To him, human beings are reflective creatures by nature. Therefore, to fail to ask the deep questions of life is to live a shallow and unengaged existence.
2. Plato (427–347 BC)
Coming from a Greek aristocratic family, Plato was a student of Socrates. In fact, most of what we know about the life and teachings of Socrates comes from a series of Plato’s writings. Plato is considered the first systematic philosopher because he held well-developed views on such philosophical ideas as metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and even politics. He may be best known philosophically for his affirmation of the “forms” (the view that ultimate reality is found in a transcendent world of conceptual ideas). Plato’s most influential story is found in his “Allegory of the Cave,” which focuses on philosophical enlightenment. His greatest book is The Republic, which has been a classic of Western civilization since it was written almost 2,400 years ago.
Philosophy is a silent dialogue between the soul and itself.
Plato believed human beings have eternal souls and that philosophical reflection allows people to get in touch with their inner selves. Plato agreed with his teacher Socrates that fulfillment was found in an examined life.
3. Aristotle (384–322 BC)
Just as Plato was a student of Socrates, so Aristotle was a student of Plato. Aristotle formally studied at Plato’s Academy—recognized as the first university of the Western world. Aristotle would go on to found his own school known as the Lyceum. He tutored Alexander the Great. Medieval Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas would later call Aristotle “the Philosopher.” An amazingly prolific author of some 1,000 books and pamphlets, Aristotle explored such fields as philosophy, science, and the arts. He wrote extensively in the philosophical areas of metaphysics and ethics, and he became the father of rhetoric and logic. Though he would have competition from Plato, Aristotle may be the most influential philosopher of all time.
All men by nature desire to know.
Following in the footsteps of Socrates and Plato, Aristotle affirmed that human beings are distinct creatures in their pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. In fact, Aristotle thought that a truly fulfilled life is found in philosophical reflection.
I hope this brief introduction to Greek philosophy’s Big Three and some of their most important quotes will help you appreciate the discipline of philosophy and part of its history. Come back next week for more of philosophy’s most famous quotations.
Reflections: Your Turn
Which one of the three quotes above do you find the most engaging? Why?
For a good introduction to the lives and thoughts of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, see the following books:
- Apology, Crito, and Phaedo of Socrates by Plato
- Questions That Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy by Ed L. Miller and Jon Jensen
- Philosophy: The Quest for Truth by Louis P. Pojman and Lewis Vaughn