Socrates, Plato and Aristotle: What Were They Thinking?

By Ronda Bowen

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were among the greatest minds that have lived in Western Civilization. The three are responsible for shaping society as we know it. However, it's important to note that the three believed different things - and that we should keep them separate in our minds.

Ancient Pre-Socratic Philosophy

Philosophy literally means "love of wisdom." Philia is the Greek word for "love" and sophia is the Greek word for "wisdom." The ancient Greeks were no strangers to the love of wisdom, and they offered a logos - and account - of what they believed the world to be made up of.

Philosophy can be broken into at least four main divisions:

  • Value theory (what's right or wrong, what's the best political system, what does it mean to be a good person).
  • Knowledge theory (also known as epistemology - pronounced ee-pist-ehm-ah-oh-gee), it is the study of what we can know, what it means to say something is true, and whether we can have certainty.
  • Reality theory (also known as metaphysics - what sort of stuff is the world made up of, what does it mean to say something is 'real', how do objects exist through time and space).
  • Critical thinking (how can we evaluate arguments, under what circumstances if we have two true sentences can we say a third is true, how do we categorize things).

The ancient Greeks were very interested in these topics. Thales, often credited with being the first Greek philosopher, believed that everything was made up of water. Democritus, another Greek philosopher believed that the world was broken up into atoms - but he used "atom" a bit differently than modern physicists use the term. He was responding to another Greek philosopher, Parmenides. Parmenides offered the theory that there only "is being" and we cannot speak of "not being."

In order to resolve some of the problems this theory created, Democritus argued that we could break up all of the stuff of the universe into indivisible parts called atoms. Atoms then filled the void.

Pythagoras, another philosopher, inspired Socrates and others. Pythagoras was a heavy influence on the mathematics we use, even today. However, he also believed that mathematics offered some insight into spiritual matters. Because of this, many debate whether we can legitimately call Pythagoras a mathematician; some argue that he's a cosmologist. Even so, his influence on Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle has left a mark even today.

Socrates - Athens' "Gadfly"

The Death of Socrates When you compare the philosophical views of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, it's important to distinguish the historical Socrates from Plato's Socrates. You see, Socrates did not write anything himself. Instead, Plato chronicled Socrates' life using dialogues. When you read most of Plato's work, you will notice that it looks a lot like a play. As time went on after Socrates' death, Plato's Socrates was less like the historical Socrates, and more like Plato.

The historical Socrates was written about by another Greek, Xenophan. Many scholars believe that Plato's death of Socrates dialogues - Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Euthyphro - were more accurate in depicting the historical Socrates than some of the other works. What we know about Socrates is that he was heavily influenced by Pythagoras, he was a monotheist - which created accusations of heresy by other Greeks - and he was executed by the Greeks for being a menace to society. The accusations the Greek council charged him with included that he was corrupting the youth. In the Apology, we are given the phrase "know thyself" and we find that Socrates believes himself to be the wisest man in Athens because he knows that he does not know anything.

While earlier philosophers often focused upon metaphysics, Socrates was also concerned with knowledge as well as value theories. Plato often presents Socrates in situations where he's trying to find out what something means. For example, in Euthyphro, he asks a question like "Is piety good because the gods like it or do the gods like it because it is good?"

It's hard to say what Socrates actually believed because we only have the writings of those who were friends with him. In addition to Xenophan's Apology, we also find a comic look at Socrates in Aristophanes' play, the Clouds. It is from these three sources - Xenophan, Plato, and Aristophanes, that we know what we do about Socrates.

Plato - Athens' Philosophical Writer

Plato was concerned, even more than was Socrates (so scholars believe) with metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory. Scholars distinguish between the early Plato - closer to the beliefs of Socrates - and the later Plato - closer to his own beliefs - within the dialogues.

Plato was very concerned with ideas. In fact, we call him an idealist because of his theory of the forms. The theory of the forms, in a very basic sense, involves the notion that the world of ideas, or forms, is more real than the world of things. This might seem very complicated.

Imagine for a moment your favorite pet. I have three cats: LuLu, Stripes, and Lady. These cats are all very different from one another, yet, I still can call each a cat. The reason I can call each a cat is that each has certain features that exhibit the qualities of cat-ness. None of the three cats is "cat-ness" itself. Instead, they each "participate" in the form of "cat." LuLu is small and orange. Lady is large and Siamese. Stripes is orange and fat. Thus, the idea of cat-ness, or the form of "cat" is more real and accurate than any of the three cats who hang out with me while I write.

Aristotle's Groundings in "Reality"

The School of Athens In the picture to the left, you'll see Plato pointing upwards towards the heavens. However, you'll notice that Aristotle is holding his hands out in front of him. As much as Plato loved idealism, Aristotle loved realism.

Aristotle was more concerned with the way things are, in the world. A lot of his writings on metaphysics, politics, and ethics come from observation rather than reason and deduction. In fact, Aristotle began working with logic (unfortunately, he was a bit off from time to time, and some blame him for the "dark ages.")

Aristotle turned many philosophers' beliefs that the sun and not the Earth was the center of the universe on its head - and argued that the Earth was the center of the universe - a belief that was responsible for the death of Galileo in the 1600s.

Whereas Plato wrote in dialogues, Aristotle's writings read more like lecture notes. They're incomplete in a lot of cases, and they're not as engaging as Plato's works were. During the Medieval times, however, Plato's works were lost but Aristotle's survived. Perhaps this was due to the fact that Aristotle was Alexander the Great's teacher, but scholars have a variety of theories for this including the fact that Aristotle's work fit more closely with Christianity than did Plato's and Aristotle influenced St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, the philosophers associated with the Catholic church.

Whatever the reasoning behind it, it's interesting to see how much of Plato's theories are turned on their heads. Aristotle might have believed that LuLu, Stripes, and Lady might all belong to the category of "cats" but that they are certainly all more real than "cat-ness," which is an abstract category we have assigned to them.

Will the Real Building Please Stand Up?

Socrates would probably have been the most concerned with determining what made a square a square or what makes a building a building. (Does your brain hurt yet?) He was interested, at least from what can be determined from historical references, in raising questions.

Plato would have believed that squares were closer to reality than were buildings that exhibited square shapes. In Republic, as a matter of fact, he argues that the artist is removed from reality by four steps. First, there is the idea of the building, as it exists, in God's mind. Then, there is the idea of the building as it exists in the artist's mind. Third, there is the building as it exists, imperfectly in nature as the artist sees it. Finally, the building drawn by the artist - not even approximating the ideal square - is the least removed from reality.

Contrast this to Aristotle. Instead of starting with the ideal building, Aristotle would look around in the world, at the real buildings and begin his investigation there. He would then investigate the things that caused this to be there. For Aristotle, there were four causes:

  • Material cause - the stuff of which a thing is made (for a building the steel and concrete)
  • Formal cause - how the thing is arranged (the way the building is constructed, its participation in "building-ness")
  • Efficient cause - how that thing came to be (the builder of the building)
  • Final cause - the purpose of the thing (the building provides shelter from the elements)

For Aristotle, these four causes make up the reality of the object - this is in sharp contrast to Plato's beliefs. It's difficult to say who was "more right." People tend to be divided between Plato or Aristotle. What is important is that from this example - looking at the metaphysical beliefs of the three philosophers - you can see how they are different from one another. It's up to you to determine whose argument is more convincing.


Jowitt, The Collected Dialogues of Plato.

Barnes, The Complete Works of Aristotle.

Ronda Roberts has a B.A., honors philosophy from CSU, Chico and an M.A. philosophy from Northern Illinois University. In addition, she has 21 units of doctoral work under her belt in philosophy from Michigan State University. Her undergraduate honors thesis was on Plato and Kant, and her graduate work includes two Plato seminars.

Death of Socrates Jacques-Louis David by Unknown under Public Domain

The School of Athens Raphael by Raffaello Sanzio (1483 - 1520) under Public Domain