Greek Thinkers Who Were Determined to Seek the Truth
In the ancient Greek city-state of Athens, professional teachers called "sophists" offered to teach young men how to become such skilled debaters that they could take any side of any question and still win the argument. In contrast to the sophists, the philosopher Socrates tried to discover the truth by asking probing questions, beginning an intellectual tradition later continued by Plato and Aristotle.
1 The Sophists
The sophists of Athens were not so much seekers of truth as experts at making anything seem true. The word "sophist" means "a wise man," but the type of wisdom the sophists offered to teach was the skill of rhetoric and argument rather than wisdom for its own sake. Protagoras, for example, offered to teach his students how to successfully defend the weaker of two positions. Although the sophists were criticized for their cynical attitudes, their willingness to examine different angles of a question without making prior assumptions contributed to the development of philosophy.
2 Lovers of Wisdom
In contrast to the sophists or "wise men," Socrates took the position that he was not personally wise but merely a lover of wisdom or "philein-sophia" in ancient Greek, the origin of the words "philosopher" and "philosophy." By presenting themselves as lovers of wisdom, the early philosophers made a commitment to seek the truth for its own sake. Socrates never taught any specific doctrine or set of fixed ideas. Instead, he relentlessly questioned other people about whatever they believed to be true, often embarrassing them by revealing the flimsy logical basis for many conventional opinions.
3 Eternal Truth
Although Socrates never wrote any books about his philosophy, his student Plato wrote a number of highly influential works. These books are presented as dialogues between Socrates and other Athenian citizens on topics such as how to tell justice from injustice or truth from falsehood, but most scholars do not believe Socrates actually taught most of the ideas presented by Plato. Instead, Plato was using the character of his old teacher as a mouthpiece for his own ideas. While Socrates was focused on asking questions, Plato hoped to present some answers. He believed that questions such as "What is justice?" could be answered through the use of reason. According to Plato, abstract ideas such as justice are not mere concepts, but eternal truths or "Forms" that provide the structure of reality.
4 The Search for Facts
Just as Plato took his teacher's love of questions and transformed it into a quest for eternal truths, Plato's student Aristotle turned away from the idea of eternal truths to focus on facts instead. Aristotle disagreed with the idea that abstract Forms such as justice really exist on a higher level of reality, as Plato taught. He focused on the study of the material world and tried to place ancient Greek science on a logical footing by dividing it into categories of inquiry such as physics and biology. Aristotle also developed a system of formal logic to help distinguish strong arguments from weak arguments. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle transformed the sophist emphasis on arguing for the sake of winning into a tradition of seeking the truth through reasoned argument.