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Idealism in Ancient Greece: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, Quick Overview

Updated on May 12, 2020

Idealism in Ancient Greece

Idealism, started in Greece almost in concurrency with materialism, is responsible for theorizing based on ideas. For idealists, ideas are more important than matter, they try to give teleological explanations to reality, that is, the final causes.

Three of the greatest exponents of idealism developed their thoughts in the mainland of Greece, its study centers were in Athens, known for being one of the most educated Greek polys: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Before and during Socrates’ lives, philosophers called the Sophists emerged, defending the relativity of the truth, reducing it to rhetoric. According to them, whether, depending on the argument, something could be true or not, it was sufficient to convince the other of the reason for an argument.

One of the most prominent sophists was Protagoras, to whom it is necessary to mention since he proposed that "man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, as they are, and of the things that are not, as long as they are not".

For idealists, ideas are more important than matter, they try to give teleological explanations to reality, that is, the final causes.

Socrates

Socrates applied a method called the Socratic method, by which, through questions, the teacher could make the student come to new knowledge through his own logical deductions. Socrates tried to find the essence of things. To understand reality, the essence of it had to be known. Another deep concern of Socrates was morality, he differed from the sophists, who said that the truth was subjective and could only be demonstrated according to the ability of the interlocutor to convince others. Socrates believed in the duality of the soul and body, and that, in order to transcend, it had to control and master the impulses of the latter and thus come to knowledge, which was clouded by the senses; by finding the essence of things, the soul could then handle itself correctly. In Phaedo, a dialogue written by Plato, Socrates declares:

“Consider, therefore, my dear, Cebes, if it is not necessarily inferred from all that we have just said that our soul is very similar to the divine, immortal, intelligible, simple, indissoluble, always equal and self-like and that our body perfectly resembles what is human, mortal, sensitive, composed, soluble, always changing and never resembling itself”.

Our soul is very similar to the divine, immortal, intelligible, simple, indissoluble, always equal and self-like

Plato

Plato was a disciple of Socrates, of whom he writes: "From him we can say that he has been the best of all that we have known in our time, the wisest and the most just". Plato's most important ideas regarding idealism are the realm of forms, reminiscence theory of knowledge and his ideas about the nature of the soul.

The Realm of Forms

Regarding the realm of forms, Plato proposed that all we can perceive of our reality are just imperfect shadows of ideas that are in another world, abstract, intelligible, eternal, and immutable. This is explained in detail in his work The Allegory of the Cave.

The Reminiscence Theory of Knowledge

The reminiscence theory of knowledge suggested that all knowledge had already been acquired by the soul before possessing the body. However, as they entered the body, sensory experiences deformed the knowledge that the soul already had. For this reason, Plato believed that to "recover" knowledge, the introspective should be used.

Plato makes a difference in remembering and evoking; remember is to remember something lived, evocation suggests a search in experiences, this is much deeper and meaningful.

It is important to emphasize that many ideas of Plato were modified by the scholastic to be assimilated by the church.

Aristotle

Aristotle was Plato's disciple. Like Plato and Socrates, Aristotle believed in essence, but unlike Plato, who rejected the sensitive world and argued that only by disconnecting from the sensory deformations caused by the body could knowledge be obtained; Aristotle believed that the essence of things could be found if studied in nature. Unlike Plato, who believed that knowledge and nature were separated, Aristotle believed that knowledge was in the study of nature and were therefore intertwined.

Some of his most important ideas for idealism were: Causality, the prime mover, common sense, passive intellect, the hierarchies of soul.

Causes of Being

Cause
Explanation
Matter
The internal constituent of what something is made of, such as bronze in respect of the statue or silver in respect of the cup.
Form
The form or model, that is, the definition of the essence.
Agent
It is the first principle where change or rest comes from
End or Purpose
It is the final goal, Aristotle says, for example, “Walking regarding health. Well, why are we walking? To which we respond: to be healthy, and in saying this we believe we have indicated the cause”.
Aristotle considers this causes as that which composes the elements of existence.

Prime Mover

Aristotle formulates the principle of causality ("Everything has a cause") and reminds us that infinite regress is not possible

A is moved by B, B is moved by C, C is moved by D, and so on. Then, there would never be a prime mover and therefore there would never have been any movement. And the fact that there is movement is evidence that cannot be questioned. Therefore, there must be a first mover, source of the movement.

However, to be truly first, this mover must be immobile (i.e. unchanged permanence), because if it were moved it would in turn need a previous mover, and the regression would begin again.

To Conclude

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were very influential figures in philosophy, even now. A lot of their ideas are questioned and criticized, and some of them are demonstrably wrong, but we must put them into context, while wrong, they were pioneers in critical thinking.

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    • Erin C Day profile image

      Erin Day 

      2 weeks ago from Washington, UT

      Very interesting

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