Classical Philosophers: Political Ideas & Influence

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  • 0:04 The Importance of Philosophers
  • 1:08 Classical Philosophers
  • 4:15 Influence on Future…
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about classical Greek philosophers. We will highlight their key philosophical contributions, explore their views on politics, and see how their ideas have influenced modern thinking.

The Importance of Philosophers

What comes to mind when you think of philosophy? For some, the image that comes to mind might be of a graying university professor explaining the universe in a way that makes absolutely no sense. We sometimes tend to think of philosophers as people who sit around not really doing anything practical, just thinking way too hard about everyday things.

Nevertheless, philosophers play an important role in society. They help us understand the way we think and why we think that way. They help to explain how we understand the universe and how we understand ourselves. Philosophers formulate ideas about government and politics. Because of this, their ideas are extremely influential. The word 'philosopher' itself comes from the Greek language and literally means 'lover of wisdom.' The foundation of modern Western philosophy rests with the ancient Greek philosophers. You know, men like Plato, Aristotle, and others. We call these men classical philosophers. Let's explore in greater detail the ideas of classical philosophers, particularly as they relate to politics.

Classical Philosophers

The ancient Greeks were the first to develop philosophy based on reason and logic as opposed to mysticism. They sought to understand the objective nature of reality. Born in Athens, Socrates, who was born around 470 B.C.E. and died in 399 B.C.E., was one of the most influential philosophers in history and is best known for his development of the Socratic Method. The Socratic Method is a process of intellectual inquiry based on a dialectic dialogue. In this process questions are asked and answered in an attempt to arrive at universal truths.

Much of Socrates' philosophy related to human activity, as opposed to the physical universe. His views on politics are hotly debated. In Plato's famous Republic, Socrates is presented as opposing democracy, and many scholars argue Socrates favored a government in which wise philosopher-kings rule. Unfortunately for Socrates, his views were not accepted by all. Socrates was accused of 'corrupting the minds of the youth' by 'teaching atheism,' and he was sentenced to death by local officials. He calmly accepted his death sentence and died from drinking hemlock juice, which was poisonous.

Arguably the most influential philosopher of all time, Plato, who lived from the 420s to the 340s B.C.E., was a pupil of Socrates and was concerned with understanding the true, objective nature of reality, a branch of philosophy called metaphysics. It has been said by prominent scholar Alfred North Whitehead that the whole of Western philosophy consists of 'footnotes to Plato.' Plato is known for developing the Theory of Forms, in which he argues the true 'essence,' or form, of material objects exists in another non-material realm. His most famous work is his Republic. Plato's Republic is a Socratic dialogue concerning issues of politics, justice, and the role of philosophy. In Republic, Plato seems to suggest the ideal society is one ruled by just philosopher-kings, as opposed to a democracy.

Another important Greek philosopher was Aristotle, who lived from 384 to 322 B.C.E. Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, and many of his ideas centered around matter and motion. In this way, Aristotle's views were considerably scientific. In regard to politics, Aristotle conceived of the city as being the natural political entity and the center of political activity. The purpose of the city was to enable citizens to lead a good, fulfilling life.

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