Session Notes

What We Will Learn Today

  1. The importance of Socrates and Plato for all subsequent Western philosophy
  2. Plato and dialectic form
  3. The meaning of the word philosophy and its sub-fields
  4. How Christians might think about the thinkers we will explore
  5. The Importance of Athens


Preliminary Thoughts

  1. This course is a cursory overview
  2. It is for anyone; beginners or those seeking a refresher

Topics Not Covered in this Course

  1. Eastern philosophy
  2. Women of philosophy

Topics Covered in this Course (and session)

  1. The importance of Socrates and Plato for all subsequent Western philosophy
  2. That Plato wrote in dialog form because he believed we are born with innate ideas, and dialog brings these to consciousness
  3. The meaning of the word philosophy and its sub-fields
  4. How Christians might think about the thinkers we will explore
  5. The Importance of Athens
    1. “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”- Alfred North Whitehead.

While there is an important truth in this quotation, we shouldn’t take it too literally.

The nature of reality and how to live well was also explored by sages from

  1. Egypt
  2. China
  3. Africa

Meaning of Philosophy

  1. Hebrews called the quest for understanding CHOKMAH
  2. Greek speakers called it Sophia meaning wisdom
  3. Philo meaning love and Sophia meaning wisdom
  4. Philosophy = the love of wisdom

Socrates: Started

  1. Love of wisdom lead Socrates to ask questions
  2. Socrates most famous student is Plato
  3. Plato wrote down Socrates teachings and his own thoughts
  4. Many since have sought to answer questions raised in Socratic Dialogue

Question: Who is a Philosopher?

  1. Anyone who asks thoughtful questions about the world is exploring philosophy
  2. The three most important question for ancient philosophers
    1. How we should behave
    2. What we should believe
    3. What should we create and appreciate

Subfields of philosophy

  1. Ethics = What is good
  2. Logic = What is true
  3. Metaphysics = What is the nature of reality
  4. Ontology = What is the nature of being
  5. Epistemology = What is knowledge
  6. To keep things simple, when we ask about truth we will focus on epistemology, since epistemology uses logic to make claims about metaphysics and ontology, among other things.
  7. Exploration of Beauty = Aesthetics
  8. Axiology
    1. Subfield of philosophy exploring ethics and aesthetics
    2. Not a term used in this course

Sub-Fields continued...

Philosophy is the exploration of the

  1. Good
  2. True
  3. Beautiful

Think of this in terms of

  1. Good = Ethics
  2. True = Epistemology
  3. Beautiful = Aesthetics


  1. Challenged by Socrates
  2. Claimed to be experts on the topics of goodness, truth, and beauty
  3. Charged for their instruction
  4. Taught verbal debate
  5. Said to be clever but not wise

Sophistry: A term of derision and usually refers to educated people who try to win arguments without really caring about the truth of the matter.

Socrates/Socratic Method

  1. Didn’t charge for instruction
  2. Claimed to only have questions
  3. Must look at Plato’s writings to understand
  4. Dialogs
    1. Plato’s dialogues show Socrates challenging those who claimed to teach wisdom
    2. It is unlikely to find a clear thesis
    3. Go with the ride and pay attention to Socrates’ challenge to unfounded authority

What can be learned from Socratic Method

  1. Socrates and Plato use dialog to find truth from the mind through conversation/dialectical process

Socrates Continued

  1. Compared to a gadfly
    1. Gadflies irritate horses causing them to gallop
    2. Socrates irritated and spurned society to ask important questions
  2. Compared to torpedo fish
    1. Torpedo fish shocks predators as defense
    2. Socrates shocked those who claimed to be wise

Philosophy for Socrates involved either stirring someone to move away from falsehood (like a gadfly) or slowing them down when they were going toward falsehood (like a torpedo fish).

Socrates Death

  1. Socrates’ questions irritated and embarrassed too many important Athenians.
  2. He was convicted of
    1. Corrupting the youth
    2. Impiety for challenging teachings of the gods
  3. He viewed death as liberation from bondage
  4. He cared about the stability of Athens and respected its political structures.
  5. Because of this he drank hemlock tea instead of allowing his friends to bribe guards and save him from prison
  6. Christian reflections
    1. Some thought he’d go to heaven

Dialogues Continued

  1. Unclear how much portrays Socrates original thoughts and how much is Plato’s thoughts
  2. Innate knowledge
  3. Socrates, in the dialog called the Meno, shows how a slave boy has innate knowledge of geometry. If this is true, he argues, there might be other innate ideas that need only to be coaxed out of a mind by an artful teacher. This leads to several important Platonic concepts.

Key Contours of Platonism

  1. Logical deduction from general principles to particular cases is most important for philosophical thinking.
  2. Mathematics is an important foundation for philosophy.
  3. Opinions are unreliable
  4. Ideas possess more reality than appearances.
  5. Philosophy is important for engineering the state and vital for a properly governed society.
    1. This belief caused him to be skeptical of Democracy

Christian Reflection

  1. Sin affects our ability to know the truth with certainty, using our own minds.
  2. Luther called reason “the devil’s whore” because, when we get too arrogant about our ability to arrive at philosophical certainty, it leads us to think we can understand how God runs things.
  3. Tertullian:
    1. Philosophy is the root of heresy


  1. You might already see the reason the history of philosophy is sometimes described as a footnote to Plato
  2. Even when thinkers disagreed with Plato, they were responding to his initial questions and key themes

Further Reading: Primary Sources

  1. Plato, Apology: Available for free at
  2. Plato, Dialogue of the Cave (found in the larger work the Republic)
  3. Plato, Crito: Available for free at
  4. Plato, Meno: Available for free at

Further Reading: Secondary Sources

  1. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome From the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1993).