A Who's Who of the Classics

A Who's Who of the Classics
  By Jennifer Saltman

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What do morality and politics have in common? No, it's not an oxymoron or a joke, although some recent events in American and Canadian politics may lead people to think otherwise. The truth is that morality and politics both owe their roots to philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, three of the most well known classical philosophers. These three men, although they lived in the 400s and 300s BCE, have had a profound effect on the way we think today, particularly in the areas of ethics, morality and politics.

"Historically they offer a different way of thinking, and an earlier version of thoughts that developed beyond their beginning, but at the same time some of the questions they asked and answers they gave are still relevant and adaptable to our needs," says Dr. Robert Todd, a professor of Greek and Roman philosophy and science at the University of British Columbia.

According to Todd, many of philosophers' ideas, particularly scientific ones, have been rejected, but are still studied today for contrast. Some of the moral and political answers (ethics without religion, for example), he says, remain alive.

So who are these philosophers and why are they so important?
Socrates (469-399 BCE) is considered one of the wisest people of all time, spending his time discussing virtue, justice, and piety wherever his fellow citizens congregated, seeking wisdom about right conduct so that he might guide the moral and intellectual improvement of Athens.

Using a method now known as the Socratic dialogue, or dialectic, he drew knowledge from his students by pursuing a series of questions and examining the implications of their answers.

Socrates equated virtue with the knowledge of one's true self, holding that no one knowingly does wrong. He looked upon the soul as the seat of both waking consciousness and moral character, and held the universe to be purposively mind-ordered.

His criticism of the Sophists and of Athenian political and religious institutions made him many enemies and in 399 BCE, Socrates was tried for corrupting the morals of Athenian youth and for religious heresies. He was convicted and willingly drank the cup of poison hemlock given him.

Socrates himself left no writings, and most of what people know of him and his teachings comes from his most famous student, Plato.

The trial and death of Socrates are described by Plato in the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo.

Plato (429-347 BCE) is considered by some to be one of the most penetrating, wide-ranging, and influential authors in the history of philosophy.

His writings are in the form of dialogues, often between Socrates and different people representing the strata of Greek society.

The early, or Socratic, dialogues, such as the Apology, present Socrates in conversations that illustrate his major ideas - the unity of virtue and knowledge and of virtue and happiness.
Plato's goal in dialogues such as the Republic, Phaedo, Symposium and Timaeus, was to show the rational relationship between the soul, the state, and the cosmos.

The later dialogues, such as the Laws and Parmenides, contain treatises on law,

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