Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 3

(Read Part 2 of the series.)

Part 3 – Plato, Aristotle and the Cynics

Socrates is famous for claiming that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. If we simply go through our lives seeking pleasures for their own sake without ever looking for some sense of purpose and meaning, then we might as well not have existed. The hedonist’s retort to this is that, if we spend all of our lives searching for significance and fail to find any (whether or not there actually is one), then we have wasted our opportunity to enjoy it while we are able. The fact that many claim that there is a purpose, and that they themselves have realised this, is not really any help. Most of such people will be held by us to be deluded religious fanatics and their opinions will carry little weight. If there is meaning then it does seem that we must discover it for ourselves, perhaps by systematically examining all of the claims and deciding whether they are in any way justified.

Plato also had much to say on morality. What ought we do? Are some actions good and others bad? Should we act solely to benefit ourselves or (try to) take into account the feelings of others? Our natural inclinations must be to further our own interests. As Darwin pointed out much later, we are biologically driven to survive and prosper, passing on the genes that have helped us to do so to the next generation. Those members of the species that are genetically ill-suited to doing this simply die out. But Plato said that we also have a need to form societies. Each of us does not have all of the skills needed to provide an optimum environment. If someone is especially good at building, for example, it makes sense for others to utilise his skills and to provide something of their own in exchange, perhaps hunting, cooking or protection. Once groups begin to form in this way, it becomes necessary to agree codes of behaviour for interactions so that one person’s wishes are not satisfied to the exclusion of all others (unless your name is Saddam Hussein).

Thus it comes about naturally that I will sometimes have to do things that I would rather not do, that benefit others rather than myself, so that I may gain the other advantages that result from being a member of a society. And actions or results that are agreed to be desirable or ‘good’ may not necessarily be ones that I would choose myself if I lived in isolation. In fact, Plato believed that the world of objects was only an appearance and that there was an invisible ‘reality’ in which absolute ‘forms’ of concepts such as Good and Justice existed and it was really this reality that provides the standards by which we should aim to live our lives. When we can do this, we may experience moments in which we gain a glimpse of this reality and a revelatory feeling of understanding – the ‘peak experience’ that was described in the twentieth century by Abraham Maslow.

Plato’s dialogues cover a variety of topics but all assume the same format, with Socrates engaged in what begins as an almost light-hearted discussion with a friend. The friend will make an apparently straightforward statement about justice, love, or other familiar, if abstract concept and Socrates will respond with some equally simple question of clarification. From there, the debate proceeds with inevitability as Socrates exposes the fact that the other hasn’t really considered what he is saying; he may be saying things that are traditionally accepted but, on analysis, they are shown to be mistaken. Continuing then with a series of elucidatory questions, Socrates shows that, in fact, the friend does indeed understand the truth of the situation. The knowledge is actually already there, merely covered over by habitually careless assumptions and ignorance. Readers may see some more-than-slight affinity with Advaita here!


Aristotle too, though he denied Plato’s ‘reality’, the invisible world of Forms, argued that the sort of life we ought to pursue if we wish it to be as happy as possible is one which is lived in accordance with reason, which is the most divine element in the human being. This is a recurring theme throughout philosophy and one against which it is difficult to argue. If we do not understand the nature of ‘reality’, how can we know how to act? We could live our entire lives on the assumption that there is no afterlife for example, seeking self-gratification and ignoring the feelings of others. If this turns out to be wrong we could be reborn as a cockroach or find ourselves burning in hell for the rest of eternity. And that ought to be a cause for concern, since the duration of this life is rather insignificant compared to that of eternity!

Aristotle believed that happiness is the ultimate good, the purpose of human existence. Once we are truly happy, we do not want anything else. The route to happiness lies simply in developing our potentials as far as possible and exercising these within society. He is also responsible for the idea of the ‘Golden Mean’, so that he believed that the optimum course was that of a balance between excesses. Whatever we do, we should aim for neither extreme of possible courses of action, always using our reason to guide our behaviour. To endeavour to keep everything for ourselves is clearly immoral behaviour but so, he said, would be to give everything away. If we have a job and a family to look after, we should certainly go to work in order to be able to support them. But we should neither spend all hours slaving away at the office so that we have no time with our children nor neglect our job in order to stay at home.

All virtues operate in this way and form the basis of defining a good and moral person. For example, in response to the emotion of fear, we could train ourselves to be totally oblivious and act without any regard for it – but this would be reckless and foolish. Alternatively, we might be very responsive to it and act very circumspectly – but this would be timid and cowardly. The correct way to behave is to find the mean between these extremes and this would be courageous.


The value of values was called into question by the Cynics, the most famous of whom was Diogenes, a contemporary of Aristotle who lived his later life in a large earthenware container, naked and dirty, ‘like a dog’ (the literal meaning of the Greek word cynic). He derided the ideas of social conventions and national allegiance, for example, as ‘false values’. Obviously he had no regard whatsoever for material possessions and instead passionately sought virtue and freedom from desire.

In the face of adversity, there are various ways in which we can respond. If we live in a totalitarian regime we may well be obliged simply to put up with it but in a Western, democratic society, we can usually choose to try to fight it or, as the hippies did in the sixties, just drop out.

Theories of ethics, the principles that we use to guide us in our behaviour, could be said to arise whenever man is dissatisfied with his own life or the society in which he lives. After all, if we are happy with our ‘lot’, why should we want to theorise about it or try to change it? Cynicism came into prominence during the era of Alexander the Great. The effective founder and teacher of Diogenes was Antisthenes, who had been a disciple of Socrates and was no doubt somewhat disturbed following the effective execution of Socrates and the later defeat of Athens by the Spartans. These were troubled times and an obvious way out was simply to denounce the values of society and try to live a life of simple pleasures outside of it. All of the standards of civilisation were rejected, from government and private ownership down to marriage and religion. All material possessions were transient and potentially liable to lead to unhappiness. Instead, a life of asceticism was advocated and searching for happiness within oneself.

In essence the philosophy is not different from that of the traditional monastic life, pursuing virtue and living a frugal existence free from the temptations of a materialistic world. It is of course substantially different from the meaning that is applied to the term ‘cynic’ today. This change in meaning came about as a result of later people distorting the principles in order to justify their own selfish behaviour.

Read Part 4 of the series