Are Classical Philosophers Relevant?

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 Philosophy, really, gets a bad rep.

In a time when degrees get more expensive for prospective students and the job market feels tighter than ever, choosing to study philosophy can sometimes seem, at best, self indulgent and,at worst, hopelessly short sighted. It's an opinion that has plagued the arts and humanities sector of education for decades - what is the purpose of it? Why choose such a potentially intangible subject above the vocational graft or engineering technicality that will put food in your families mouths and bring about industrial and capital gain? Or, if you must insist on being an academic of theory, why not choose the empirical sciences? Why would you choose to analyse ideas when you could be analysing atoms?

And glorious, glorious equations

 Personally, my opinion of academia is that you should pursue it, if you can, from a place in you that has a love of learning. It's this curiosity and enjoyment of academia for its own sake that pulled me into two history qualifications. Philosophy has also always intrigued me and the two subjects feed into one another nicely. One thing it was almost impossible to escape in history was the veneration of the classical philosophers.

The majority of us have heard, in passing through popular culture, about many of the Greek 'greats': Aristotle, Plato, Pythogaras to name but a few. But who an earth were they and why, now that the 'classical education' of our ancestors has mostly been put aside, should we care about them?

[Of Miletus]
624-546 BC

Who was he?

With the development of the city-states in Ancient Greece, there was a gradual movement away from using religion as an explanation for all phenomena, and towards rational thinkers who sought natural explanations. Thales lived in Miletus in what we now call Turkey and, while no writings of his own survived, we can look back to see his work through second hand accounts from Aristotle and Diogenes Laertius. It is thought that Thales had a keen grasp of geometry, astronomy, and was a commendable businessman.
Thales' was, we believe, the first person in Western Philosophy to propose Monism; that is, that everything on Earth and beyond is comprised of a single substance. He believed that this had to be something that everything else could be formed out of: something that is essential to life, capable of motion and capable of change.
Aristotle, from whom we learn much about Thales, described his theory:

'Thales says that it [the nature of things] is water’ (Metaph. 983 b20), ... ‘[Thales's] supposition may have arisen from observation . . . ‘ (Metaph. 983 b22). So that ‘that the nurture of all creatures is moist, and that warmth itself is generated from moisture and lives by it; and that from which all things come to be is their first principle’ (Metaph. 983 b23-25)

 Water can be liquid, solid or gas and all life is, it seems, comprised in some part water. Therefore the base element of the whole universe is water.

Why should I care?

Nowadays it's common knowledge how vital water is. The human brain, for example, is 70% water. While it was later debunked that water is the fundamental composition of all things, it was still an important (and secular!) theory to create. Belief in the generation of water from the Earth too, wasn't replaced until 1769 AD. And, it's believed, that Aristotle attributed the belief that the Earth was round to Thales.
But more importantly, it wasn't so much of what Thales concluded that was important, but how he came to prove it. he is the first known thinker in western culture (we believe) who deliberately sought naturalistic, rationalistic answers to these fundamental questions, rather than relying on religion. This structure carried across into further philosophy and developed into the scientific thought and values that our current modern culture is founded upon.
Thales and his followers effectively invented rational thought founded on secular, logical proof.
That is huge. Tell me that that isn't relevant.

[Mad about Triangles]
570-495 BC

 Who was he?

A2 + B2 = C2
I was never good with equations at school but Pythogoras' equation for how to work out the sides of a right-angled triangle always stuck with me. It's thought that Pythagoras learnt the fundamentals of his geometry from a trip to Egypt, and his interest in science and mathematics fed into his philosophy.
Pythagoras believed that everything in the universe conforms to mathematical rules and ratios, so if we understand these mathematical relationships we can understand the structure of the cosmos. Maths, therefore, should be the key model for philosophical thought.
As well as discovering square numbers, cube numbers and his famous theory, Pythagoras also discovered numerical harmonies such as the octave, which could even explain the pleasentness of music. He framed abstract, artistic, and even 'divine' topics in mathematical terms, and detected patterns that could be replicated to explain other phenomena.
He thought he was onto something
He thought that he was onto something so hard that he started his own religious cult based on the belief that these principles were mystical revelations. He cast himself as a Messiah, bent on freeing everyone from a cycle of reincarnation. 
As with Thales, none of Pythagoras' original writings survive, so we don't know how far some of his conclusions come from himself, his religious collective, or his admirers who passed on his ideas. 

Why should I care?

 He started a cult. That's pretty awesome.

But aside from that, the idea that the universe can be rationalised into mathematical equations and thoughts is, I think, the effective foundation of our own modern approach to science and the universe. Plato (as we shall see later) certainly agreed with this idea. Countless ways that we understand the universe and it's workings are based on simple mathematical principles which are true both in microcosms and macrocosms. For example, the branch of a tree resembles the whole tree, because they are working from the same fractal law. 


If you'd like to take a look into some of the fascinating mathematics of the universe, check of this website by Andrew Thomas that takes you through some of them.

For Pythagoras, mathematics was pure reasoning, and therefore he believed that they had greater value (and proof) than simple observation. In a way, abstract thought and deductive reasoning were seen as more important than the simple senses.

We can see this today in analysis of things that are beyond our own senses - from the atoms and microbes to the vast untouchable quantum theories that govern our universe and time itself.

Leucippus and Democritus
[The Atomic Duo] 
Early 5th century BC - 371 BC

Who were They?

 As we have seen, Thales of Miletus had already proposed that the whole cosmos was made out of one fundamental substance, in this case, water.
Leucippus and Democritus instead proposed that the universe was made up of tiny, invisible and unchangeable particles called atoms, and it was due to their existence that certain phenomena occurred, such as why light might shift even when there is no wind.
What is more, they proposed that these atoms existed in a void which allows them to move around freely, and through colliding and combining with one another objects in the world could change. While there are infinite numbers of atoms, the amount of forms they can take is ultimately finite.

Atoms were viewed as not mathematically indivisible because they had substance and weight, but they were physically indivisible because of their tiny size.
The sizes didn't have to be tiny - in theory there is no reason why an atom couldn't be the size of a planet - but that is how they worked.

  They assumed that the more clustered and larger an atom got, the more that it's movement was restricted. And the smaller an atom, the more it had space to move, creating something ethereal and fluid like flame. 

They believed then, that structure of atoms could also dissipate and that this is what happens when we die: our atoms simply disperse into the universe and can be reconstituted.

Why should I care?

Does all of this sound familiar to you?
These two were talking about atomic theory before we even had microscopes. And they achieved it with pure philosophy. How amazing is that?

They were mind-blowingly close to what we now understand as scientific reality, and in proposing atomism they also provided a completely mechanical view of the universe that required absolutely no involvement of the gods. This was revolutionary and the fundamental properties of matter that they described were vital for the development of the physical sciences from the 17thc onwards up until the present day.

...Also Democritus was an exceedingly odd looking man. So there's that.

[Dialectical Method]
469-399 BC

 Who was he?

 Socrates believed that 'good' and 'evil' are not relative, but are instead absolutes that you can find only by questioning and reasoning. Therefore in order to give life meaning you have to very closely examine it, and, through knowledge, you also find morality.
For example what do people understand as 'good' or 'bad'? What is 'justice'? It's pointless to use these words as shorthand unless you discover exactly what they stand for. That way, regardless of cultural differences, we can all drill down to find the core values and meanings in these words: their truth.

His key teaching, and what him famous, was the dialectical method that he used to encourage people to question these words and moralities. He always debated by taking the standpoint of a man who knew nothing and simply asked questions that would, very gradually,elicit insights. As these little blocks of information and belief were uncovered, they would build up gradually to form a 'Truth' about how people interpret key ideas.

For example 
(taken  from 'the philisopy book' p48 see sources)

Q; So you think the gods know everything?
A Yes, because they are gods.
Q:Do some gods disagree with others?
A: Yes, of course they do. They are always fighting.
Q: So Gods disagree about what is true and right?
A: I suppose they must do.
Q:So some gods can be wrong somtimes?
A: I suppose that is true.
Conclusion: Therefore the gods cannot know everything!

This form of argument through exposing contradictions was quite controversial, to the point where Aristotle was put to death for 'corrupting the minds of young Athenians'.

Why should I care?
Not to repeat myself throughout this article but...this is the foundation of modern science, right here! Francis Bacon, considered one of the early modern scientific greats, used Aristotle's devices as the starting point of scientific method.
Also this method is still being used today to poke holes in highly charged arguments. Turn on the internet  and, fairly or unfairly, this is the dialect that is used to contradict religious teachings. Turn on the news and this form of discussion follows any subject where our concept of justice and morals are challenged.
While we may argue about whether a 'universal truth' can ever exist outside of individual cultures and semantics, it's clear that it's a powerful form of argument.

[Shadows of Ideals]
427-347 BC

Who was he?

Widely regarded as the most studied philosopher in our group, I can't begin to properly unpick the layers of theory from my novice standpoint. However, in simpler terms, it is worth mentioning his theory of the shadow of ideals.

 Plato was a student of Socrates and in many ways extended Socrates' belief that behind our practical assumptions there is a universal Truth. Socrates believed that hiding under our many faceted opinions on an idea (eg 'justice') there was a universal and absolute truth - a fundamental definition - of that idea that could be reached by questioning it properly. (So justice becomes Justice with a capital 'J' - the one and only true form of the idea, universal across all mankind.) Similarly, Plato took this theory and applied it to the sensory world around us.
 When we think of a flower, for example, we can recognise all flowers easily as being flowers. This applies regardless of their very many colours and shapes and species: there is something fundamentally 'flower-like' that we recognise, even if we have never seen that particular species before.
The same applies to other objects: we know a table is a table, despite the numerous designs. We recognise the 'table-ness' of it. We recognise an innate 'dogginess' about any dog we come across, even if we have never seen that breed before. 
We do the same with mathematics through reasoning. For example, we know a triangle is a triangle because of it's 'triangle-ness', that is, we've reasoned that the three interior angles of any triangle is always 180 degrees. We know the truth of this statement even though there are absolutely no 'perfect' triangles in the natural world. Perfectly straight lines, circles and triangles only exist in our own minds through reasoning. If this is true, isn't it the same for flowers, tables and dogs? Do such perfect forms exist anywhere on earth?
The answer, really, is no. Therefore Plato reasoned that there must be a world of Ideas, or Forms, which is completely separate from the material world. What we experience with our senses are only incomplete and imperfect 'shadows' of this universal truth in the world of Ideas. He believed then that our soul, which is immortal and eternal, mast have inhabited the world of Ideas before our birth and still yearns to return to this world after our death, and we recognise these imperfect objects as reflections of what we already know. A philosopher's job is to reason their way into discovering what these Ideal Forms are.
Because only true philosophers can understand these Truths about our world, Plato suggested that world leaders should be educated in philosophy.

Why should I care?

Personally, I believe that Plato is most important because he tried to understand why it is that, as humans, we can assume collective truths out of a myriad of things that are actually quite different. While on his own, Plato's theories can be hard to grasp and difficult to frame in practical reality, it is how his student took these ideas forward that is vital for the development of science as we know it...


[Classifying the Natural World]
384-322 BC

Who was he?

 When we was 17 Aristotle travelled to Athens to study under Plato, and stayed at his side as a student and teacher at the academy until the great philosopher's death 20 years later. He was passionate about studying wildlife and through it found that Plato's complicated and ethereal explanation of Forms was simply unnecessary. There was no need to create this hypothetical world of forms: the reality of things can already be seen on earth.

For example, if we consider an owl, we know that there are multiple species of owls, yet there is always an 'owl-ness' that we can recognise. Plato would view this 'owl-ness' as a memory of a perfect form that we carry with us from the 'World of Ideas'. For Aristotle, however, he could simply reason what this 'owl-ness' is simply a  generalisation about what all owls have in common. For example, does it fly? If yes it may be an owl, if not it is something else. Does it have feathers? If yes, it may be an owl, if no it is not an owl. Is it nocturnal? If yes it may be an owl, if no it is not an owl. Does it have a heart-shaped face? If yes it may be an owl. If no it may not be an owl. And so on and so on. By digging down in this way, individual characteristics could be included under the umbrella term 'owl', and yet the commonalities all show a distinct 'owl-ness' that we understand. A fundamental truth of what an owl is. If one takes a step back again, one could classify multiple creatures under another fundamantal common truth - eg 'birds'.

More abstract concepts such as 'virtue' 'justice' and 'beauty' can be examined in exactly the same way. If we are born as 'blank tablets' then our understanding of 'justice' is developed by our seeing multiple individual examples of justice in action. The more that these actions have in common, the more our understanding of 'justice' as a concept grows. Just like animal classification, we can classify these instances' commonality together to get a true sense of what we understand 'justice' to be, and all of this is gained through using our senses in the real world.

Why should we care? 

This way of classifying creatures is still in use today, albeit in a modified way. In the middle ages it was dubbed the scala naturae - the Great Chain of Being.  Without this approach to taxonomy, it would be almost impossible to develop the theory of evolution and to track the patterns of nature. Classification creates a foundation for biological knowledge.
For example, litte has fundamentally changed about how we identify extinct sharks, as can be seen on their wiki page:

Arirstotle, of course, had many more vital philosophical beliefs. but, for me, this is the most practical and enduring. And this vital tool for biology came from simple philosophy.

So, in conclusion, classical philosophy is relevant. It's fascinating in it's own right, but it is also historically responsible for the very way that we think. Science, Maths, History, Sociology, Psychology (and therefore medicine) and even some engineering would simply not exist in the way we use it today without the philosophical work of these people and the philosophers who followed them. Philosophy is, and never has been, a waste of time. It analyses what it is to the a thinking creature on Earth, and how we should live our short lives, and even how we should seek the answers to the workings of the universe itself. 

Philosophy isn't just relevant; it's vital.


The Philosophy Book, part of the fabulous 'Big ideas Simply Explained' series. Those books are full of both detail and clarity and are very readable. I want to dive off and learn more now, so check 'em out.

Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

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