Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Essential Thinkers #18 Galileo Galilei: The Quest for Knowledge Amidst Religious Dogmatism

Italian philosopher, astronomer, scientist and mathematician, Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) is probably best remembered for his work in support of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the solar system. For the sake of his life, Galileo recanted his views in 1633, admitting that the earth did not spin on its own axis. It is unlikely that the recantation was sincere and he nevertheless remained under house arrest.

In 1608 the Dutchmen Lippershey invented the telescope. Within two years Galileo used it to dramatic effect, showing by his astronomical observations that the Ptolemaic or geocentric theory which held that the Earth was at the centre of the universe, was seriously flawed. Galileo also observed that the Milky Way was in fact made up of many millions of individual stars. He observed the phrases of Venus and discovered the moons of Jupiter, which had theological experts up in arms. Indeed, Galileo’s findings attracted such sharp criticism, both from secular and ecclesiastical quarters that he felt compelled to offer, both in his defence and in reply to his critics, the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1615. In the Letter, Galileo argues that scientific and theological matters should not be confused. Science could not cast doubt on religious doctrine, only strengthen it. Nonetheless he was condemned by the Inquisition, first in private communication in 1616 and later in 1633, when he publicly recanted.

Although his work was instrumental in bringing the Copernican system into prominence, Galileo was far more than just an astronomer. Much of his important work lay in dynamics and the principles of movement. He was the first to discover the law of falling bodies, or constant acceleration, published after his recantation and whilst still under house arrest in 1638, in his Discourse on Two New Sciences.

Moreover, what would later be Newton’s celebrated first Law of Motion was directly taken from Galileo’s principle of inertia, namely that a body moves in a straight line with uniform velocity unless acted upon.

This principle was important in helping to support the Copernican theory. Critics of Copernicus had claimed that if the heliocentric theory were true, then a falling body should not fall in a straight line, but in fact land somewhat to the west of the point from which it was dropped, on account of the eastwise rotation of the Earth. It had been proven by experiment that this was not the case, a result which led many to dismiss Copernicus as wrong even if they did not share the religious reasons for dismissing him. It took Galileo’s work in dynamics to show why the prediction was not fulfilled. Simply put, the falling stone retains the rotational velocity of the Earth.

Philosophically, Galileo held that “the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.” He was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy and a great admirer of Archimedes. He also maintained, like John Locke, that there was a metaphysical distinction between the primary and secondary qualities of bodies. The former are essential and inherent in objects, whereas the latter exist only insofar as they cause certain effects in the minds of observers. Undoubtedly, Galileo was a great thinker who risked much in the pursuit of truth, helping to set free the quest for knowledge from the chains of religious dogmatism.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012]

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Essential Thinkers #17 Francis Bacon: Scientific Method and the Problem of Induction

English philosopher of science, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the forerunner of the famed British school of philosophers that include John Locke, David Hume, George Berkeley, J. S. Mill and Bertrand Russell. Bacon’s important works include The Advancement of Learning, New Atlantis and the Novum Organum. Bacon was also an essayist and enjoyed a successful legal and political career, in particular after James I’s succession of Elizabeth, whereupon he was made Lord Chancellor until being found guilty of corruption.

Attributed as the originator of the saying “knowledge is power,” his importance as a philosopher is most notable with regard to his concern for scientific method. Bacon was troubled by the two schools of thought that had come out of Platonism and Aristotelianism respectively. Firstly, the rationalist view that knowledge could be gained by examining the content and meanings of works – a view Bacon dismissed as like spinning a web from the inside of one’s own head. Secondly, the Aristotelians, intent on collecting masses of empirical data, where equally useless at helping a man arrive at any scientific hypotheses. What was needed, insisted Bacon, was a new way of collecting and organising data that would help generate inductive hypotheses.

Bacon, like many of his contemporaries and predecessors, had been concerned with the problem of induction, a problem that would later receive an astonishingly sceptical response from David Hume. The problem of induction, as Bacon’s contemporaries saw it, was that the mere repetitive occurrence of an incident does not guarantee that the same thing will happen again. To give a simple example, suppose a man draws nine blue marbles out of a bag of ten (9/10). It is no more likely that the tenth marble will be blue than it is that it will be red. The previous instances do not guarantee anything about the following instance.

Bacon saw that the answer to this problem lay in placing the emphasis of investigation on looking for negative instances to disconfirm hypotheses, rather than finding ways of confirming them. This is striking precursor to Karl Popper’s twentieth century falsificationist scientific methodology and his much vaunted claim of ‘solving the problem of induction.’ As Popper readily admits, he owes much to Francis Bacon.

However, unlike others of his time and later David Hume, Bacon was less interested in the problem of justifying inductive generalisations, than in how to generate good inductive hypotheses out of the masses of data collected by observation. Bacon revised a new method. To illustrate it, Bacon shows how one might generate a hypothesis on the nature of heat. One should, Bacon tells us, list all those things in which the property under investigation, in this case heat, is present, then all those things in which the property is absent and finally all those cases which admit of varying degrees of the property in question. From such list, Bacon believes the natural hypothesis will present itself, which in this case, as he well knew at the time, is that heat is produced according to the movement or excitation of molecules within a body.

Although Bacon’s method is undoubtedly one way of applying order to a body of data, and even perhaps a useful way in some cases, it nevertheless seems unlikely to fulfil his ambition, which was to find a systematic way of deriving scientific hypotheses from the arrangement of data. It is unlikely that there ever could be such a system. Bacon failed to take into account the creativity and imaginative aspect of scientific theory building. No matter how systematically one organises data, inductive hypotheses cannot be guaranteed to appear out of them. One may find that some facts deductively follow from a certain ordering of data, but that is not what Bacon was after.

Despite his failure in this regard, Bacon nevertheless made some important contribution to the philosophy of science and the problem of induction, not least, as we have seen, in being the first to stress the importance of negative instances.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube 60 Second Philosophy: Francis Bacon]

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Saturday, November 19, 2016

I Wonder #8 How Do People Age?

Ageing is a result of the gradual failure of the body’s cells and organs to replace and repair themselves. This is because there is a limit to the number of times that each cell can divide. As the body’s cells begin to near this limit, the rate at which they divide slows down. Sometimes the new cells that are produced have defects or do not carry out their usual task effectively. Organs can then begin to fail, tissues change in structure, and the chemical reactions that power the body become less efficient. Sometime the blood supply to the brain is not effective. The brain cells become starved of oxygen and nutrients, leading to forgetfulness. For most old people memories bring great pleasure. Strangely, even though recent events may be forgotten, old people often clearly remember events that took place in their childhood.

Fact: The skin becomes looser as people age. As skin sags it forms into wrinkles and creases because the fibres of collagen that normally provide support to the skin became weaker.

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Friday, November 18, 2016

I Wonder #7 How Does Our Body Grow?

The most important forces that cause growth lie inside a living thing from the beginning. These forces are called its heredity. The human body has stages of growth: embryo and foetus, infant, child, youth, mature adult and old age. People’s bodies grow faster in the early weeks of life than at any other time. Even before the end of the first year, they are growing less rapidly. Through the whole period of childhood, they grow at a moderate rate. Then growth starts to speed up again. All human beings are much alike in their growth. But there are important differences. Boys and girls all follow the same general pathway of growth, but each one follows it in his own way.

Fact: [From the Internet] The bones of a baby’s head are not fully fused at birth, making the skull flexible enough to pass through the mother’s birth canal. The bones eventually join, but a gap in the skull, called the fontanelle, may not close up for several months.

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Essential Thinkers #16 Thomas More: Utopia's Vision

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), friend and supporter of Erasmus (refer to previous Thinker), led a dangerous but incorruptible political life which would earn him the death penalty from the same King who once knighted him, Hendry VIII. Unimpressed by Henry’s solicitations, More’s determined adherence to Catholic orthodoxy prevented him from recognising either Hendry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon or his subsequent self-appointment as head of the English Church in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Fortunately for the history of Western thought, More managed to complete his most important philosophical work, Utopia in good time, 1518 in fact, before Hendry took his head in 1535.

In More’s Utopia, a traveller brings back tales of an island in the South Seas where everything is organized in the best possible way. The book takes the form of a dialogue, in which the traveller, Raphael Hythloday, divulges the wise ways of Utopia as he found them in the five years he spent there. More’s vision of Utopia is a kind of Christian communism, in which there is no personal property, internal commerce or personal ambition. Each member of society works six hours a day regardless of their job. This, says More, is entirely satisfactory in terms of providing enough labour. For other societies only require the poor to work long and exhausting days because of the existence of the idle rich.

The Utopia provides for its citizens by means of a system of farms, each consisting of at least forty workers. There are intellectuals and governors in More’s visionary society, but these are chosen by merit and only remain in their jobs so long as they prove satisfactory. There is also an elected Prince who acts as head of state, but can be removed in case of tyranny. Interestingly, More does not rule out slavery in his ideal society. So-called ‘bondsmen’ are given the distasteful jobs that More does not want his happy citizens to partake in, such as slaughtering the livestock and serving up communal dinners. The bondmen are people serving penal sentences for the breaking of any of the Utopian laws, such as virginity before marriage and chastity during wedlock. Bondmen are also drawn from other societies from among those who have been condemned to death.

Whilst More’s Utopia possesses some admirable liberal qualities, it is also, aesthetically oppressive in the same way as Maoist and Cambodian regimes have been in the real world. More expects all his citizens to wear the same plain, undifferentiated dress. Architecturally it is unremittingly dull. Each of the fifty-four towns are built according to an identical plan. The streets are all twenty feet across and every home is exactly alike. The residents swap homes on a regular basis according to the law to discourage the idea of private ownership, although since all the houses are alike this seems somewhat pointless.

Like The Republic of Plato, it is doubtful that More’s utopian vision could provide the basis for a realistic model of any society, let alone the transformation of an existence one. Nevertheless, the value of Utopia lies in the articulation of certain social and socialistic ideals in an age very far removed from such philanthropic concerns. Bertrand Russell probably sums up the problem with More’s vision, when he says, “If in More’s Utopia, as in most others, would be intolerably dull. Diversity is essential to happiness, and in Utopia there is hardly any.”
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012]

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I Wonder #6 How Fast Does the Earth Move?

The Earth orbits the Sun every 365¼ days. The Earth’s orbit is not quite circular but ellipse and when it is closest to the Sun, it revolves or moves at 18.2 miles per second and when it is farthest away from the Sun it travels at 18.8 miles per second (on average 30 km/h. As for the case of SuperMoon recently, Moon looked larger because it orbiting in ellipse nearer to the Earth and moves at 3,683 km/h on average).

The Earth also rotates about its own axis once every 23 hours 56 minutes and 4.091 seconds. This means that the stars rise just under 4 minutes earlier each day. In four years this adds up to a whole day, which is why is added to the calendar at the end of February every fourth year or what is called the “leap year.”

In addition to the Earth’s own movement, our solar system is orbiting the Milky Way galaxy at 160 miles per second and the galaxy is travelling through space at about 390 miles per second. We all are moving even when we’re not moving. Get it?

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Monday, November 14, 2016

I Wonder #5 How Does Time Differ Around the World?

The earth gets light and dark at approximately the same time all over the world, so it is necessary to adjust the clocks. If we did not do this, you might find that dawn was at 10pm. In the year 1884 time zones were set up around the world, measured from Greenwich in London. Each time zone on the east or west of Greenwich has a different time.

Each zone is either one hour ahead or one hour behind its neighbouring zone – it is one hour earlier to the west of each zone, and one hour later to the east. One example of the time difference is, when it is 12 noon in Malaysia it is 1pm in Seoul, Korea.

Fact: When people travel long distances by fast jet plane they often get a feeling of confusion which is known as jet lag. The reason for this is because modern aircraft travel so fast that they may cross several time zones in a short time during a flight. It may take a couple of days for your brain to adjust.

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Saturday, November 12, 2016

I Wonder #4 How Mirror Works?

Listen to Mirror Mirror by M2M and Mirrors by Justin Timberlake, I wonder about… mirror. Mirrors are pieces of glass that have been coated with a reflective material on the back, so that when a beam of light strikes the surface none of it is absorbed. The beam of light is actually reflected away again.

The beam of light is reflected at exactly the same angle as it struck the mirror, but in the opposite direction. This can be visualised if you imagine a snooker ball striking the cushion of the table and bouncing back at an angle. Mirrors are used in many ways for example in telescopes, flashlights, headlights of cars and lamps in lighthouse.

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Friday, November 11, 2016

Essential Thinkers #15 Desiderius Erasmus: Reformed Theology, But Sided Catholics

Dutch humanist philosopher and theologian, Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) was the illegitimate son of a priest and was himself forced into a monastic life by his guardians. It the monastery at Steyr his lifelong passion for Latin began, and he quickly outstripped the ability of his tutors. He escaped the monastic life in his late twenties and proceeded to travel and study widely. He eventually came to England and struck up a friendship with Thomas More [I’ll introduce him on the next list of thinker], which lasted until the latter’s death at the hands of Hendry VIII. It as whilst making his way to England on a subsequent visit from Italy that he conceived his best known work, In The Praise of Folly. Arriving at More’s house in London, he quickly committed it to paper and published it, with More’s support, in 1509.

In The Praise of Folly has a dual purpose. On the one hand, Erasmus uses it as a vehicle for satire against the offices and institutions of the Roman Catholic Church, for which he had developed a deep hatred during his time at Steyr. He attacks the monastic orders and their conception of worship as consisting in “the precise number of knots to the tying on their sandals.” With more venom he goes on, “It will be pretty to hear their pleas before the great tribunal: one will brag how he mortified his carnal appetite by feeding only upon fish; another will urge that he spend more of his time on earth in the divine exercise of singing psalms… but Christ will interrupt: ‘Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees,… I left you but one precept, of loving one another, which I do not hear anyone plead that he has faithfully discharged.’”

This introduces the central theme of Erasmus’s Folly, namely his concern with religion as a worship “from the heart,” that has no need of the offices and intermediaries supplied by the Church. True religion, Erasmus insists, is a form of Folly, in the sense that it is simplistic and direct, not convoluted with unnecessary sophistications and dogmatic doctrine. For Erasmus, religion is based on a thorough-going humanism, understood in its classical sense, as a confidence in human reason to know and worship God. In similar vein, Erasmus was no friend of scholasticism, nor indeed of the philosophical fathers of his day, Plato and Aristotle, Erasmus’s hero was St Augustine, from whom he took the doctrine that reason must be the servant of faith. Apart from In the Praise of Folly and his later Colloquia much of his work consisted in Greek and Latin translations of the Bible.

Erasmus had enormous influence on ushering in the Reformation, but surprisingly, in the struggle between the Catholics and the Protestants, the latter of who were undoubtedly closer to Erasmus’s religious ideas, he eventually sided with the Catholics. This apparent contradiction reflects his somewhat timid nature. He could not condone the violence of the Lutherans, preferring to attach the Catholics with words rather than actions. When More was executed by Hendy VIII for refusing to accept his supremacy over the Pope as head of the Church of England, Erasmus is quoted as saying, “Would More have never meddled with the dangerous business, and left the theological cause to the theologians”, a quote that brings into sharp relief the difference between his character and the uncompromising, incorruptible nature of More.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘Desiderius Erasmus: Short Biography’]  

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

I Wonder #3 How Was Glass Discovered?

It was discovered that glass forms when melted solid materials are cooled quickly, so that they do not produce crystals. The main ingredients for making glass are sand, soda ash, or potash and lime, melted together at a very high temperature. Since these materials are found in abundance in many parts of the world, the secret of glassmaking could have been discovered in many countries.

The Romans were great glassmakers and used glass as a coating for walls. By the time of the Christian era glass was already being used for windowpanes.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

I Wonder #2 How Do Kidney Machines Work?

If the kidneys become diseased and stop working, it is necessary to use a kidney machine to remove waste from the blood. This machine process is called dialysis. It involves pumping blood from a tube in the person’s arm into thin tubing that runs through a tank of sterile liquid. Waste passes from the blood through the walls of the tubing, and the cleaned blood is returned to the blood. This process must be carried out regularly if it is to be successful.
FACT The adrenal glands are attached to the kidneys. They help create energy which stimulates the body to prepare it for instant action. Any extreme sport or violent activity, such as playing skateboard, causes a sudden rush of adrenalin.

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I Wonder #1 How Do the Kidneys Work?

The kidneys work by effectively removing the majority of waste products from our blood, and are vital to our health (or I may called it as blood-cleansing system). We each have two kidneys, which lie on the back of the abdomen. From the inner side of each kidney a tube called the ureter runs down the abdominal cavity entering the bladder.

Blood is pumped through groups of tiny tubes inside the kidneys, and harmful waste material passes out through the walls of these vessels and down the ureter into the bladder. Here it is ready to be discharged from the body as urine. The kidneys also work by producing certain hormones which help to regulate blood pressure.

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Saturday, November 5, 2016

Essential Thinkers #14: Niccolo Machiavelli, a Political Theorist "The Prince"

Florentine-born philosopher of the Italian Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli (1467-1527) was a diplomat and dramatist, but is best remembered for his hugely influential and notorious work of political theory, The Prince, which was made his name synonymous with political machinations. Providing a detailed analysis of successful, if on occasion immoral, political techniques, Machiavelli’s text is still used today by students of both philosophy and politics. In The Prince, Machiavelli concentrates on those techniques a successful politician must use if he is to achieve his political ends, without regard to the moral justification of the means thereby employed. Often criticised by detractors for its lack of moral sensibility, it is nevertheless a work of great intellectual integrity and consistency.

In The Prince, Machiavelli considers how best a leader can achieve his ends once he has determined that the ends he has identified are worthwhile. Never has the phrase “the ends justify the means” been more appropriately applied than it is to Machiavellian technique. The book is almost entirely practical, rarely speculating on the rightness or wrongness of the methods adumbrated therein.

Nonetheless, The Prince does contain certain theses about which political ends are good. Machiavelli thinks there are three primary political “goods”: national security, national independence, and a strong constitution. Beyond this, he is almost entirely concerned with practical questions of how to go about securing political success. It is vain to pursue a good political end with inadequate means, for it will surely fail. One must pursue one’s convictions with strength and courage it one is to be successful, employing whatever means necessary.

The heart of Machiavelli’s teachings consists in the manipulation of others, including the populace, for power. To this end, although Machiavelli does not teach that virtue is good in itself, it can often serve one’s political ends to appear to be virtuous. This is perhaps the doctrine that has caused most outrage against Machiavellian thought. But Machiavelli himself is unconcerned with such weak and even hypocritical sensibility. If, as we have said, one’s ends are good in themselves, all that matters is that one brings them about; in order to do this, Machiavelli tells us, one must have more power than one’s opponents. Without doubt, The Prince is a work meant only for those that have the fibre to take this fact, however unpleasant, seriously.

Although The Prince is unflinching in its teachings, it must be read alongside Machiavelli’s longer and more balanced work, the Discourses, if his own views are to be fairly understood. In the Discourses, he provides more detailed background as to what he thinks makes a good and successful constitution. His political ideal is the republic run by the Princes, leaders of the principalities, but held in check by both the noblemen and ordinary citizens, all of whom share a part in the constitution. As Bertrand Russell rightly says in his commentary on Machiavelli, the Discourses might easily be read by an eighteenth century liberal without occasioning mush surprise or disagreement. Machiavelli has no time for tyrannies, not because people have an inalienable right to freedom, but because tyrannies are less-stable, more cruel and more inconstant than governments held in esteem by a reasonably content population. It is the achievement of such a government that is Machiavelli’s prime political concern.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘The School of Life: Niccolo Machiavelli’]

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Monday, October 31, 2016

Essential Thinkers #13: Nicolaus Copernicus, 'De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium'

Born in Poland and graduate of Cracow University, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) studied Greek philosophy, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and theology before becoming a canon of the cathedral at Frauenberg, where he finally settled. Copernicus did more to revolutionize man’s conception of himself and his place in the universe than perhaps any other thinker, before or since. Even if his work would have a profound and negative impact on the Church, he was a man of impeccable orthodoxy. Although he delayed publication of his findings for fear of censure by the Church, it is clear that he believed his views were not inconsistent with his theology.

Prior to Copernicus, astronomers had favoured the view, following both Aristotle and Ptolemy, that the Earth was at the centre of the universe, with both the stars, sun and the moon revolving about it. known as the Ptolemaic system, this view was wholly in keeping with many theological teachings, in which the universe is seem to be created by God for the express purpose of man. The effect of Copernicus’ work was to turn all this on its head.

Probably first posited by Aristarchus of Samos around 340 BC, Copernicus revived the idea that the earth and planets revolve around the sun, which remains in a fixed position. Moreover, he proclaimed that in this system the earth has a twofold motion. On the one hand it turns on its own axis, rotating one full turn every 24 hours, and on the other it completely circumnavigates the sun every 364 days.

This heliocentric (sun-centred) system was vigorously resisted by the Church, which saw it as usurping man’s central place in creationist stories of the universe. By using Pythagorean calculations, however, Copernicus managed to predict and account for various astronomical observations with amazing accuracy.

Although Copernicus claimed his work was no more than hypothetical, eventually the weight of evidence would be too great to be resisted, and before long Copernicus would famously be supported by Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton amongst others. By the end of the following century Copernicus’ idea would be refined to the point of irrefutability. The heliocentric theory was condemned by the [Roman Catholic] Church, but Copernicus was carefully during his life not to incur its wrath, unlike Galileo after him.  Indeed Copernicus even dedicated the work in which he proclaims the heliocentric theory, the De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium, with apparent sincerity, to the Pope. It was only later, in Galileo’s time, that the Church condemned Copernicus’ work as heretical.

So great and profound was the effect of Copernicus’ hypothesis on the intellectual world that philosophers and scientists have since coined the phrase, “Copernican Revolution” to describe world-changing ideas. The effect of the original ‘Copernican Revolution’ on the development of Western thought, both philosophical and scientific is difficult to exaggerate. It gave birth to the scientific age and helped remove many of the superstitious and ignorant beliefs so typical of the time. It would, for better or worse, lead to the decline of the power of the church, and to a new age of scientific inquiry and invention.

[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘Copernicus: Mini Biography’]

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Essential Thinkers #12: St Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways from Summa Theologica

The favoured philosopher of the Catholic Church, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is principally remembered for reconciling the philosophy of Aristotle with Christian doctrine. Born in northern Sicily, he was educated first at the University of Naples and later at Cologne, and lectured at Paris and Naples. Aquinas was canonized in 1323 by Pope John XII (thus, he is called Saint Thomas Aquinas).

While much of Aquinas’ work was Aristotelian in derivation he also extended and clarified many of Aristotle’s ideas and made many original contributions to Aristotelian thought. Chief amongst Aquinas’ many achievements are the Five Ways, or proofs of the existence of God, from his Summa Theologica. The Five Ways are the clearest and most succinct attempt to prove the existence of God by means of logical argument.

In the first of the Five Ways, Aquinas says the existence of God can be proved by considering the concept of change. We can clearly see that some things in the world are in the process of change, and this change must be a result of something else, since a thing cannot change of itself. But the cause of the change itself, since in the process of change, must also be caused to change by something other than itself, and so on again, ad infinitum. Clearly, there must be something which is the cause of all change, but which itself does not undergo change. For, as Aquinas says, “If the hand does not move the stick, the stick will not move anything else.” The first mover, Aquinas concludes, is God.

In the second Way, arguing in a similar manner to the first, Aquinas notes that causes always operate in series, but there must be a first cause of the series or there could not be a series at all. Interestingly, both the first and second Ways proceed on the assumption that a thing cannot cause itself. Yet this is precisely his conclusion, that there is a thing which does cause itself, namely, God. Philosophers have criticized this form of arguing as confused, since the proposition that appears to be proven in the conclusion is the very same proposition denied in the argument.

In the third Way, it is noted that we observe that things in the world come to be and pass away. But clearly not everything can be like this, for then there would have been a time when nothing existed. But if that were true then nothing could ever have come into being, since something cannot come from nothing. Therefore something must have always existed, and this is what people understand by God. The first, second and third Ways of Aquinas’ arguments are often called variations of a more general argument, the Cosmological Argument.

In the fourth Way, Aquinas offers a version of the Ontological Argument (to know more about this argument, see my previous post on St Anselm). In Aquinas’ version some things are noted to exhibit varying degrees of a quality. A thing may be more or less hot, more or less good, more or less noble. Such varying degrees of quality are caused by something that contains the most and perfect amount of that quality. Because, just as the sun is the hottest thing, and thus is the cause of all other things being hot, so there must be some fully ‘good’ thing which makes all other things good. That which is most good is, of course, God.  

Finally, the in the Fifth Way, Aquinas relies on Aristotle’s notion of ‘telos’ or purpose. All things aim towards some ultimate goal or end. But to be guided by a purpose or a goal implies some mind that directs or intends that purpose. That director is, once again, God. Versions of Aquinas’ cosmological and ontological arguments are still accepted by the Catholic Church today, though modern philosophers have almost unanimously rejected all five of Aquinas’ Ways.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘The School of Life: Thomas Aquinas]

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Essential Thinkers #11: St. Anselm, the Father of the Scholastic Tradition

Born at Aosta in Burgundy, Anselm (1033-1109) was a pious child and sought admission to the monastic life at the early age of 15. The local Abbot, however, refused him of his father’s insistence (Abbot mean ‘a man who is the head of an abbey of monks’). After his mother’s death, Anselm went for travelling. Eventually he arrived at the Abbey of Bec and began studying under the renowned Prior Lanfranc. He eventually took his monastic orders in 1060. Only three years later, when Lanfranc was appointed Abbot of Caen, the young Anselm succeeded him as Prior much to the chagrin of older and more established candidates. During the next 30 years he wrote his philosophical and theological works and was appointed Abbot of Bec.

Now remembered as the father of the Scholastic tradition and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 until his death, Anselm is of philosophical interest mainly for his logical arguments in two major works, the Monologion (meaning ‘Soliloquy’) and the Proslogion (Discourse) both of which gave various arguments intended to prove the existence of God. By the 12th century the works of Plato and Aristotle had been rediscovered and reinterpreted by the scholastics who attempted to synthesise early Greek ideas with medieval theology. Following the Greek tradition, it is said that Anselm’s students had been concerned to hear a rational justification for the existence of God that did not rely merely in the acceptance of Scripture or doctrinal teaching. Anselm’s most famous response to this challenge was to become famously known as “the ontological argument for the existence of God” which has been called by some one of the most hotly debated issues in the history of philosophy.

Consider, invites Anselm, that by the term ‘God’ we mean something than which nothing greater can be thought of. Given that even the non-believer or, as Anselm calls him, the Fool, accepts that this is what the concept of God entails, the existence of God would seem to follow necessarily from the definition. For it would be a contradiction to suppose that God is on the one hand something than which nothing greater can be thought of and on the other hand does not exist. For a God thought of that does not really exist is not so great as one thought of that does exist, and since one can clearly think of God and suppose he exists, then something which nothing greater can be thought of must be something that exists (read the last two passages again).

Anselm’s ontological argument is ingenious in its simplicity. While most people agree that there is something rather fishy about it, opinion has been divided as to exactly what is the matter with the argument. The earliest critic of Anselm was a contemporary Benedictine monk called Gaunilo of Marmoutiers. Gaunilo argued that if Anselm’s reasoning were correct, then one could conceive of a lost island that was the most perfect island there could ever be. Since by definition the island is the most perfect it must exist, for by Anselm’s reasoning it would be less than perfect if it did not. Thus, complained Gaunilo, Anselm’s reasoning licences the existence of all sorts of imaginary objects and must therefore be faulty. In response, Anselm claimed that the quality of perfection is an attribute that only applies to God, and therefore his ontological argument cannot be used to prove the existence of imaginary islands or anything else.

Versions of Anselm’s ontological argument were later used by both St. Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes and were, much later still, heavily criticised by Immanuel Kant. Kant’s principle complaint was that the concept of God as a perfect being does not entail that God exists since ‘existence’ is not a perfection. The concept of a perfect being that exists is no more or less great than the concept of a perfect being that does not exist. Philosophers agree that the problem with Anselm’s argument revolves around the fact that we surely cannot ascertain whether something exists or not merely by analysing the meaning of a word or concept. However, exactly what logical error is being committed by attempting to do so has remained a cause of much dispute amongst philosophers and logicians.

The argument was taken up again in more recent times, in the 1960’s, when the philosopher Norman Malcolm revived a lesser known variant of Anselm’s argument which sidesteps the objections made by Kant and others. According to Malcolm, Anselm argues in the Proslogion that if it is possible that a necessary being could exist, then it must exist, for it would be a contradiction to say a necessary being does not exist. God could only fail to exist of the concept of God was self-contradictory or nonsensical. This remains to be shown by opponents of the ontological argument.

[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘Anselm and the Argument for God’]

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Essential Thinkers #10: St Augustine, Rational Thought is the Servant of Faith

Religious scholar and philosopher, Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD) produced works, principally his Confessions and his City of God, that are classics in both the philosophy of religion and Christian doctrine. Born in Algeria, he studied in Carthage, Rome and Milan before returning to North Africa to found a monastery. He was made Bishop of Hippo Regius in 395. At the heart of Augustine’s philosophy is the belief that only through faith can wisdom be attained. He saw both philosophy and religion as quests for the same thing, namely truth, but with the former inferior to the latter in this pursuit. The philosopher without faith could never attain to the ultimate truth, which for Augustine was beatitude, or ‘the enjoying of truth.’ Although reason alone could attain to some truths, Augustine maintained that rational thought was the servant of faith.

One of Augustine’s favourite texts, quoted from [the prophet] Isaiah, held that “unless thou believe thou shalt not understand.” One must believe in order to acquire understanding. This idea of Augustine’s was not mere slavish following of Christian doctrine. Indeed, in his youth he had renounced religion, finding the Scriptures intellectually unsatisfying. It was his aim, after his conversion to Christianity in his early thirties, to show how reason could prove the tenets of faith. This was the idea that informed his philosophy.

Augustine’s use of reason to justify the doctrines of faith is best known, famously or infamously depending on one’s point of view, for putting down the so-called ‘Pelagian heresy.’ Pelagius had questioned the notion of original sin, and further held, in accordance with the notion of free will, that when a person does good they do so from the virtue of their own moral character. As a result they are rewarded in heaven. Augustine found this doctrine subversive and distasteful. He argued, following the Epistle of St Paul, that all men are born in sin. Redemption is only possible by the grace of God regardless of our actions on earth. Adam, in taking the apple [Richard: The Bible doesn’t say ‘an apple’ but ‘the fruit’] had condemned himself and all of mankind to damnation. Our only salvation lies in repentance, but this does not guarantee that we will be chosen to go to heaven and not to hell.  

Augustine’s arguments, later revived by John Calvin and eventually abandoned by the Catholic Church, are skilled rationalisations of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. But nowhere does he question the assumptions of the Epistle, concentrating instead on drawing out the logical conclusions of the Scripture.

In more recent times, Augustine’s Confessions received attention from Ludwig Wittgenstein, not for its religious or even philosophical pronouncements, but for the way in which Augustine describes the learning of language:

When they [my elders] named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all people: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes…. Thus as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and… I used these signs to express my own desires” (Confessions, I. 8).

At the beginning of his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein famously called this common-place conception ‘the Augustinian picture of language.’ Much of the rest of the Investigations is a successful repudiation of the Augustinian conception of language. [Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘Augustine Documentary (2015)’]

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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Essential Thinkers #9 Marcus Aurelius, the Philosopher King

Adopted son of the Emperor Pius, Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD) himself became Roman emperor for almost 20 years until his death in 180 AD. He is known for his only work the Meditations or Writings to Himself, written, according to critics, in the midst of the Parthian war when he might have better used his time directing the army. Still, as a ‘converted’ Stoic, he was greatly concerned with the social problems of the poor, slaves, and the imprisoned. Despite this, he continued, as emperor, to persecute the increasing Christian population, undoubtedly because he saw them as a threat to the Roman religion and way of life, based as this was on conquest, polytheism, and the deification of dead emperors. His own life ended as a result of the plague which broke out whilst he was planning a campaign to increase the domain of the Empire to the north.

The important of his Meditations lies in their practical and aphoristic Stoic message. A loosely-organized set of thoughts relating to stoic philosophy, they nevertheless represent an example of a living ethic, of a teaching closer to religion than to philosophic speculation. For example, the following is typical of Marcus Aurelius: “The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.”

Like Seneca before him, Marcus Aurelius believed that a divine providence had placed reason in man, and it was in the power of man to be one with the rational purpose of the universe. The Stoic philosophy was primary concerned with living in accordance with both one’s own nature and universal Nature, perhaps best understood in the sense meant by Taoist philosophers of the East. Simple living and contentment with one’s lot go hand in hand with stoicism, but run the risk of leading to quietism. As a means of social control Stoicism is the ideal ‘religion’, since the more people are willing to accept the things are just they are, the less trouble they are likely to give the Emperor. Though it is unlikely that Marcus Aurelius professed Stoicism for political purposes – the Meditations seem sincere enough – it is a factor of his philosophy that should not be ignored.

The rationale behind the Stoic insistence on living ‘in accordance with nature’ stems from a certain biological outlook. According to the Stoics, all ‘ensouled beings’ (by which they mean to include everything we would now call ‘sentient life’) strive towards self-preservation. Self-preservation leads a being to look for that which is in tune with its nature and appropriate to its own being. Man, being endowed with reason, seeks not just food, warmth and shelter, but also that which is good for the intellect. Ultimately, Reason allows us to choose that which is in tune with our true nature with greater accuracy than if we merely follow our animal instinct.

Central to this Stoic outlook is an understanding of what constitutes the good or most appropriate life for human beings. Whilst many thinkers might suppose health and wealth, the Stoics insist that the ultimate good must be good at all times. It is conceivable that wealth may be sometimes detrimental to me, and so too, even, health, if for example, my strength were put to ill-doing. Hence the Stoic conclusion that the only infallible good is virtue, which includes the usual list of Greco-Roman excellences: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch Philosophers Note TV: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius]

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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Essential Thinkers #8 Seneca, a Simple Life Devoted to Virtue and Reason

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much...
The life we receive is not short but we make it so;
we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”

Son of Seneca the Elder, the younger Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BC – AD65) was born in Cordoba, Spain. He was educated in philosophy from an early age in Rome, where he would flirt with death at the hands of thee emperors during his lifetime. Caligula would have had him killed but was dissuaded on the grounds that he was destined to live a short life. Claudius exiled him and finally, after falsely being accused of plotting against Nero, whom he had tutored as a small boy, Seneca took his own life in AD 65. Nevertheless, he had a successful career as a lawyer and amassed a personal fortune. He wrote many works, which can be categorized into broadly three main kinds.

First, there are his essays on Stoic philosophy, then the sermonising Epistles, and finally his plays, often depicting graphic violence. His many plays include The Trojan Women, Oedipus, Medea, The Mad Hercules, The Phoenician Women, Phaedra, Agamemnon and Thyestes.

Seneca was a Stoic philosopher but with a somewhat pragmatic bent. Unlike the other Stoics who often aspired to lofty goals few if any could ever reach, Seneca moderated his philosophy with a more practical approach. As with the other Stoics, the heart of his philosophy was the belief in a simple life devoted to virtue and reason. However, his extant works, particularly the one hundred and twenty-four essays of his Epistles, but also to a degree his essays, contain the same tone, being often persuasive entreaties rather than expositions of technical philosophy. He is constantly trying to administer advice to his reader rather than impart philosophical wisdom. It is said that Boethius was consoled by reading Seneca whilst in prison. One particular passage to Seneca’s grieving mother is illustrative of his sermonising style:

You never polluted yourself with make-up, and you never wore a dress that covered about as much on as it did off. Your only ornament, the kind of beauty that time does not tarnish, is the great honour of modesty. So you cannot use your sex to justify your sorrow when with your virtue you have transcended it. Keep as far away from women’s tears as from their faults.”

This sermonising is typical of Seneca’s work and becomes more frequent as he matures. His Stoicism is tinged with a kind of pseudo-religious flavour but importantly reflects a concern with ethical and moral principles at the expense of metaphysics. Seneca’s stoicism is less a theoretical philosophy than a guide to living. Like the Epicureans, the Stoics did not pursue a hedonistic lifestyle. Rather, Seneca insists that the only good is virtue. Doing the right thing is of paramount importance and one should show an attitude of indifference to all else. Each and every one of us, professes Seneca, has a god within him guiding us along the path set for us by Providence. We can attain happiness only by acting in accord with our own true nature, as revealed by our inner guide, and by being content with one’s lot in life. Altruism and simple living are essential to Seneca’s idea of correct living.

The important of Seneca places on doing the right thing in his philosophy appears to be sincere, given the manner of his death as reported by the Roman historian, Tacitus. Upon hearing Nero’s sentence, Seneca slashed his arms and legs and gave an erudite speech to his wife and a gathered audience. His wife Paulina, in despair, attempted to take her own life at the same time, to which Seneca said, “I have shown you ways of smoothing life; you prefer the glory of dying. I will not grudge you such a noble example.” However, the Emperor’s soldiers prevented Paulina from carrying out the dead by tying her up. Despite his wounds, Seneca lingered on. Tacitus reports that Seneca “begged Statius Annaeus… to produce a poison with which he had some time before provided himself, the same drug which extinguished the life of those who were condemned by a public sentence of the people of Athens [i.e. the hemlock of Socrates]. It was brought to him and he drank it in vain, chilled as he was throughout his limbs, and his frame closed against the efficacy of the poison… He was then carried into a bath, with the steam of which he was suffocated, and he was burnt without funeral rites. So he had directed in his will, when even in the height of his wealth and power he was thinking of his life’s close.”

[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012.
Also watch Stoicism: On the shortness of Life by Seneca]

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Essential Thinkers #7 Cicero, A Mixture of Scepticism and Stoicism

For much of his life Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43BC) was known as a Roman politician, lawyer and orator, who despite his humble origins, rose to pre-eminence among the conservative Roman aristocracy. As a youth he had travelled and studied in Greece and maintained a firm interest in philosophy throughout his public life. He maintained friendships with philosophers from all the leading schools but it was not until his retirement, finding himself in the political wilderness, that he devoted his final years to translating large parts of the Greek corpus into Latin. Much of our knowledge of Greek thought is due to Cicero’s translations and he remains a primary source for students of Hellenistic philosophy.

Of Cicero’s many works the most important include his Acedemica, on the impossibility of certain knowledge, the De Finibus and De Officiis, in which he discusses the ends of human action and the rules of right conduct, the Tusculan Disputations, concerning the problems of happiness, pain, the human emotions and death, and On the Nature of Gods and On Divination, both concerned with theological matters.

Mostly produced in the last two years of his life, Cicero’s philosophy comprises a mixture of scepticism in the theory of knowledge and stoicism in ethics. He was largely critical of all things Epicurean. Although he maintained a claim to some originality in his thought, Cicero’s dialogues are principally a ‘pick and mix’ of the three leading Greek philosophical schools. This was neither by accident, nor disguised. Cicero felt that the more modern Latin language could resolve and clarify the problems of Greek philosophy, as well as make it more appealing to a modern audience.

In this aim Cicero is largely judged to have been successful. The philosophical vocabulary invented by him is responsible for Latin becoming the primary philosophical language over Greek: despite the invention of modern languages, Latin remained the primary language of philosophy right up until the Renaissance. Even Descartes’ hugely influential Meditations of First Philosophy, published in 1641, was written first in Latin and only later translated into French. Its most famous conclusion ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (popularly translated as “I think, therefore I am”) is still today referred to in philosophical schools by its Latin name, “the Cogito.”

Although philosophy no longer uses Latin as its first language, many of Cicero’s philosophical terms are still in common employment today. Latin phrases such as a priori (meaning “prior to experience”), a fortiori (even more so), reductio ad absurdum (reduction to absurdity), ceteris paribus (a caveat meaning “other things being equal”), are not just in common philosophical usage but also, in some cases, set the agenda for the philosophical debate. For example, the great debate between empiricists and rationalists is primarily a debate over whether there can be such a thing as a priori knowledge – as the rationalists maintain – or whether all knowledge is a posteriori, in other words, derived from experience. In both logic and philosophical logic, Latin terms remain in current and widespread use.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012.
Also listen to Forgotten Thinkers: Cicero ]

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Monday, September 26, 2016

Essential Thinkers #6 Aristotle the Philosopher also Scientist, Astronomer and Political Theorist

Aristotle’s achievements in the history and development of western thought are both stunning and unrivaled. More than just a philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a scientist, astronomer, political theorist and the inventor of what is now called symbolic or formal logic. He wrote extensively on biology, psychology, ethics, physics, metaphysics and politics and set the terms of debate in all these areas right up to modern times. Indeed, his writings on justice are still required reading for undergraduates reading Law.

After his death his works were lost for some 200 years or so but fortunately rediscovered in Crete. Later translated into Latin by Boethius around 500 AD, Aristotle’s influence spread throughout Syria and Islam whilst Christian Europe ignored him in favour of Plato. Not until Thomas Aquinas reconciled Aristotle’s work with Christian doctrine in the 13th century did he become influential in Western Europe. Aristotle received his education from age seventeen in Plato’s ‘Academy’, where he stayed for some 20 years until Plato’s death. Later he founded his own institution, ‘The Lyceum’, where he would expound a philosophy altogether different both in method and content from that of his former teacher.

More than any other philosopher before him, Aristotle made much of observation and strict classification of data in his studies. For this reason he is often considered as the father of empirical science and scientific method. Unlike his predecessor Plato, Aristotle always undertook his investigations by considering the regarded opinions of both experts and lay people, before detailing his own arguments, assuming that some grain of truth is likely to be found in commonly held ideas. Aristotle’s method was nothing if not rigorous and lacked the proselytising tone of many of his predecessors.

In contradistinction to both Plato and the Pre-Socratic, Aristotle rejected the idea that the many diverse branches of human inquiry could, in principle, be subsumed under one discipline based on some universal philosophic principle. Different sciences require different axioms and admit of varying degrees of precision according to their subject. Thus Aristotle denied there could be exact law of human nature, whilst maintaining that certain metaphysical categories – such as quantity, quality, substance and relation – were applicable to the description of all phenomena.

If there is one common thread to much of Aristotle’s work it lies in his conception of teleology, or purpose. Perhaps as a result of his preoccupation with biological studies, Aristotle was impressed by the idea that both animate and inanimate behaviour is directed toward some final purpose (‘telos’) or goal. It is common to explain the behaviour of people, institutions and nations in terms of purposes and goals: for example, John is sitting the bar exam to become a barrister; the school is holding a fete to raise funds for the roof; the country is going to war to protect its territory. Similarly, modern evolutionary biology makes use of purposive explanation to account for the behaviour of, for instance, genes and genetic imperatives.

However, Aristotle thought the concept of purpose could be invoked to explain the behaviour of everything in the universe. His reasoning lay in the idea that everything has a natural function and strives towards fulfilling or exhibiting that function, which is its best and more natural state. It is by means of the concept of function that Aristotle then ties his ethics to his physics, claiming that the natural function of man is to reason, and to reason will is to reason in accordance with virtue.

Unlike the opposing ethical theories of Kant and Mill, both of which view actions as the subject of ethical judgements, Aristotle’s ethics focuses on the character of the agent as that which is morally good or morally bad. This is so-called ‘virtue ethics’ was revived with much critical success by Alistair Macintyre in late 20th century.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012]

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Essential Thinkers #5 Plato the Founder of the Academy and 'The Republic'

Wise men talk because they have something to say;
fools, because they have to say something
Philosophy begins in wonder

Plato is the student of Socrates and founder of the Academy, the first reported institution of higher education – no philosopher has had a greater or wider-ranging influence in the history of philosophy than Plato. Alfred North Whitehead once said, with much justification, that “the safest characterisation of Western philosophy is that of a series of footnotes to Plato.” This is no topic of philosophical concern for which one cannot find some view in the corpus of his work.

Accordingly it can be difficult to characterise such a vast and comprehensive canon of thought. However, much of Plato’s work revolves around his conception of a realm of ideal forms. The world of experience is illusory, Plato tells us, since only that which is unchanging and eternal is real, an idea he borrowed from Parmenides. There must, then, be a realm of eternal unchanging forms that are the blueprints of the ephemeral phenomena we encounter through sense experience. According to Plato, though there are many individual horses, cats and dogs, they are all made in the image of the one universal form of “the horse”, “the cat”, “the dog” and so on. Likewise, just as there many men, all men are made in the image of the universal “form of man.” The influence of this idea on Christian thought, in which man is made in the image of God, is only one of many ways in which Plato had a direct influence on Christian theology.

Plato’s Theory of Forms, however, was not restricted to material objects. He also thought there were ideal forms of universal or abstract concepts, such as beauty, justice, truth and mathematical concepts such as number and class. Indeed, it is in mathematics that Plato’s influence is still felt strongly today.

The Theory of Forms also underlies Plato’s most contentious and best known work, The Republic. In a quest to understand the nature and value of justice, Plato offers a vision of a utopian society led by an elite class of guardians who are trained from birth for the task of ruling. The rest of society is divided into soldiers and the common people. In The Republic, the ideal citizen is one who understands how best they can use their talents to the benefit of the whole of society, and bends unerringly to that task. There is little thought of personal freedom or individual rights in Plato’s Republic, for everything is tightly controlled by the guardians for the good of the state as a whole. This has led some, notably Bertrand Russell, to accuse Plato of endorsing an elitist and totalitarian regime under the guise of communist or socialist principles. Whether Russell and others who level this criticism are right or not is itself a subject of great debate.

But it is important to understand Plato’s reasons for organizing society in this way. The Republic is an attempt, in line with his Theory of Forms, to discover the ideal form of society, of which all actual societies are mere imperfect copies, since they do not promote the good of all. Such a society, Plato believes, would be stronger than its neighbours and unconquerable by its enemies, a thought very much in Greek minds given the frequent warring between Athens, Sparta and the other Hellenistic city-states. But more importantly, such a society would be just to all its citizens, giving to and taking from each their due, with each working for the benefit of the whole. Whether Plato’s Republic is an ideal, or even viable society, has had scholars divided ever since.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch The School of Life: Plato]

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