1. E5/P1: Video Lecture by Kavan Limbasiya (Rank-198/UPSC-2014)
  2. Ancient Greek Thinkers
  3. Method of dialectic: Plato and Socrates
  4. Socrates (469-399 BC)
    1. Anti-Sophist
    2. Coaching method of Socrates
  5. Plato (427-347 BC)
    1. Form, ideas and realms
    2. Plato Hated BA/MA Arts graduates
    3. Conflicts & classes
    4. Hater of Democracy
    5. Books / contribution
  6. Aristotle (384-322 BC)
    1. Virtue, Ethics & golden mean
    2. Happiness
    3. Politics
    4. Vagueness of Practical Sciences
    5. Unequal Society

E4/P1: Lecture by Kavan Limbasiya (Rank-198/UPSC-2014)

Socrates, Aristotle, Plato

click to watch the video of lecture

First we start with Western Moral thinkers, then we’ll look at Indian/Eastern moral thinkers.
Youtube Link: youtube.com/watch?v=oBFCWJ3ZLwU

Ancient Greek Thinkers

Socrates, Aristotle, Plato. All three of them advocated Virtue Ethics-Temperance, Justice, Character.

Method of dialectic: Plato and Socrates

  • How does knowledge come out? One way: Guru to give sermons to his disciples.
  • But Plato and Socrates adopted the “Method of dialectic”- doing Question and answer session with the audience, and thus knowledge came out.
  • Also known as mid-wifery method. Just like Mid-wife facilitates the birth of a child from mother. Same way knowledge is inside, you just need to search and bring it out.
  • Socrates called up a slave and with dialectic method, he brought out a theorem of mathematics, thereby proving all men are equal whether slave or aristocrat.
  • Dialectic method is a mature method to elicit knowledge.
  • Sophists used rhetoric method / propaganda to gain emotional response from the audience, instead of moral reasoning.  They had degraded the culture of dialogue in Greek.
  • Similarly, today twitter and Facebook has degraded the culture of dialogue among youth.
  • Both Socrates and Plato were against democracy, because in their times, Junta was unaware, due to lack of quality-public dialogue.

Socrates (469-399 BC)

Moral thinkers & Philosophers- Socrates


  • “Sophists” was a philosophical school in the Greek society.
  • They promoted a corrupted society, namesake democracy, might is right, full of moral corruption.
  • So, Socrates promoted ideas of Moral virtues against ideas of Sophism. Subsequently, he fell out from the eyes of the government.
  • People might have considered him a threat because of he associated with Aristocratic Youth like Plato. Similar groups of Aristocratic Youths had played a pivotal role in befalling the Democracy in 411 BC & 404 BC in Athens.
  • Socrates was charged with ‘Corrupting the youth of the city’.
  • He was given a chance to defend himself, but he didn’t. (In the contemporary Athens, people were tried before a court of fellow citizens numbering hundreds. This made the skill of Rhetoric very important)
  • He was sent to jail, and chance to escape from there, but he didn’t.
  • He was given desi liquor poison in the jail, he drank it and died. Naturally, Plato reacted to it by terming it as a wicked & shameful act & since then, he is believed to be martyr for reason & truth.
  • John Stuart Mill compared it with Christ’s Crucifixion.
Socrates vs. Other coaching class wallas
Before Socrates Socrates Sophists
Thales, Empedocles, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Democritus etc. they focused on fundamental nature of the universe; something similar to present day cosmologists & physicists. fundamentals of ‘Virtue’ – e.g. love, justice, morality, courage, friendship etc. Method of rhetoric & persuasion

Coaching method of Socrates

Did not give handouts
  • Socrates believed that Philosophy could be properly taught & practiced by oral methods only.
  • He considered “writing” was an inappropriate technique. (Most of the knowledge available about Socrates is through the works of Plato – his disciple.)
  • May be he didn’t care about being famous.
Did not take fees
  • unlike ‘Sophists’, Socrates never charged for his “coaching” services.
Did not claim to be omniscient
  • Instead of claiming to know anything, Socrates disguised as an Ignorant (that he did not think he knew answers to all the questions).
  • Plato said– “Only Socrates knew that he knew nothing, and it was this knowledge which made him wiser than everyone else.”
Did not dictate model-answers
  • Socrates seldom came with the final answer himself
  • but rather stimulated excitement in the people to take interest in the questions raised by him and made people appreciate the difficulties in the attempts to find the solution.
  • Socrates’ questioning revealed people’s ignorance & aroused people’s interest in fundamental philosophical questions.
Gave personal coaching
  • Socrates’ method of Dialectic which involved a sympathetic personal relationship between the teacher & the student is still also called ‘Socrates Method’. In this, the teacher truly understands the students’ difficulties and counsels him gradually in the right direction.

To sum up, Socrates’ philosophy remained totally centered around Values.

“If you will take my advice, you will think little of Socrates, and a great deal more of truth” – Socrates

Moral Heroism. Socrates is regarded as the founder of Moral Philosophy. He founded the method of trying to reach truth by persistent questioning.
To Quote Mill : Socrates was…

  • “Acknowledged master of all the eminent thinkers who have since lived”
  • “the man who probably of all then born had deserved least of mankind to be put to death as a criminal”

Plato (427-347 BC)

  • He was a disciple of Socrates and propagated his ideas further.
  • He was the first western thinker who wrote his works & whose works remained intact.
  • Socrates only discussed about moral problems whereas Plato discussed Moral as well as worldly philosophical problems with equal importance. These also included Mathematics, nature etc.
  • But Plato always agreed with Socrates that the real harm possible to a person is the harm to the soul and therefore it is preferable to suffer wrong than commit it.
  • Just like Socrates, Plato taught people to “to think of oneself (and any question) independently & to be ready to question everybody & everything.”
  • To quote Plato – “Philosophy begins in wonder”
  • He also rejected the idea that ‘virtue is solely a matter of knowing what is right’. Thus, he gave practice of truth more important than preaching/knowing.

Form, ideas and realms

  • Plato gave a theory of Form & Idea – Everything in this world is a decaying copy of something whose ideal form exists outside space & time.
  • real reality as it is stable – and the visible world only offers glimpses of that real reality.
  • Visible world where everything is always becoming something but nothing is permanent – “Everything is becoming, nothing is” – Plato.
  • physical world exemplified mathematical order expressible in mathematical formulas.
  • This was further developed into the philosophy of Body & Soul – known as Platonism & became source for Christian Philosophies as well.
  • Thus, Socrates & Plato were also referred by later Christians as – “Christians before Christ.”

Moral Thinkers & Philosophers- Plato

Plato Hated BA/MA Arts graduates

  • Plato advocated austerity and self-abnegation. Soul should remain aloof from bodily pleasures.
  • Subordination of individual wishes/aims for communal life.

Because of above ideas, Plato was hostile to arts stream, claiming that

  • Arts is a danger to soul.
  • They’re doubly deceptive, who glamorized & bejeweled emotional attachment towards the worldly things;
  • They keep a person away from grasping the other realm.

Plato Hated Democracy also

  • Plato was even more critical of democracy than Socrates, because his guru (Socrates) was hanged in Democracy.
  • Plato said typical ‘Democratic Character’ is superficial, feckless & easily led (due to too much liberty & idea that all are equal).
  • Such “democratic” people are easy prey for manipulative, power-hungry which gradually turns democracy into tyranny.
  • Therefore, quality of the leadership is too important else entire institution (Democracy) gets maligned and people will loose faith.
  • In Greek times, Democracy had become Mobocracy. No one had fundamental rights; Justice was done in open-amphitheater, where people decided the punishment.
  • Plato is the warning sign for our democracy- there is a limit beyond which you shouldn’t stretch it.

Conflicts & classes

  • Human is a mixture of three conflicting elements: “Passion, Intellect & Will”.
  • Therefore “intellect” must use “will” to control “passion”.
  • He extrapolated this idea on society as well, that
    • We need auxiliaries (intermediate police class) to keep the masses in order
    • We need ‘guardians’ / ‘philosophical rulers’ to give philosophical direction to society as whole.
    • This was Somewhere similar to the Communist societies of the 20th century.
  • The classes were in this ideal society were to be divided tripartite on the base of Meritocracy.
  • Women were also to be involved unlike the contemporary society.

Books / contribution

  • In this book, he discussed nature of justice
  • he gave blueprint of an ideal state has been made.
  • inquisition into the nature of love
  • “Academy” was the name of Plato’s house where he gave coaching to adult students.
  • Thus the word “academy” got associated with any building where young mature people receive higher education.
  • Later this evolved into self-financed “College”.

To end, it must thus be noted that Plato was highly interested in ‘Institution’ apart from being mainly concerned with Values.

Aristotle (384-322 BC)

Plato Aristotle
He was Aristotle’s teacher. He was Plato’s best, most gifted & most famous student
Books; republic, symposium ‘The Politics’ & ‘The Nicomachean Ethics’ (named after his son, Nicomachus).
Focused on values and institutions Apart from values, ethics, politics, he also focused on many optional subjects like zoology, logic, psychology, botany, astronomy, physics, poetry, meteorology, economy, metaphysics, rhetoric etc.
Invented the word “academy”
  • invented technical terms such as – energy, dynamics, induction, demonstration, substance, attribute, essence, property, accident, category, topic, proposition and universal.
  • Even the title of the subject ‘Physics’ gets its name from Aristotle’s book with this title.
  • Gave idea of ‘two’ realms.
  • Wanted to direct minds of people from virtual realm and draw it nearer to deeper reality lying behind it.
  • Aristotle rejected the idea of two worlds. He only gave recognition to this world. Anything beyond the possibility of experience was nothing for him
  • he denied carrying on empty talks about so called ‘Ideal Forms’.
  • In politics, Plato hated democracy and advocated rule of “philosopher king”.
  • Aristotle writes of the dissimilarities of two systems as a neutral but interested observer.
  • Plato hated arts – because arts make people’s soul weak.
  • Aristotle said arts is complementary to soul. Arts makes people strong. For example
  • Greek Tragedies gave insight into life and were also a medium for catharsis (‘purgation’/’cleansing’) by pity & terror.
  • Aristotle also developed the art of a plot as having ‘a beginning, a middle, and an end’.
  • “Poetry is more philosophical and more worthy of serious attention than history”.
Plato and Aristotle had disagreement over many topics. “Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth” – Aristotle.
He wrote a zoology book “The History of Animals”- even Charles Darwin bowed to it.
  • Aristotle systematized ‘logic’ wherein he worked out valid & invalid form of inferences.
  • Aristotle is termed as a great observer. In Philosophy and all other fields of work, he approaches his subjects by recording & systematizing numerous observations. Thus, his method is more ‘empirical’.  “What is Being?” and “All man by virtue desire to know” are his famous quotes.
  • Aristotle derived the four causes namely – Material cause, Efficient cause, Formal cause & Final cause for anything to be the thing it is.
  • Aristotle gave emphasis to Teleology in Philosophy & Politics. (Teleology is a method to study & direct the actions based on the final purpose or end result of any being or action.)
  • In Philosophy – Rationality is the final goal, all the virtues & wisdom prepare us for good life & this good life must consist of Rational Contemplation.
  • In Politics – the objective of a city-state is to maximize the opportunities for its citizens to pursue the good life.
  • Aristotle gave primacy to Substance to be the binding agent for the cosmos instead of Time & Location. Substance is something whose definition does not rely on existence of any other thing besides the substance itself.
  • For Change & Motion, he emphasized that all changes & motions must have a cause & all causes must themselves be caused. This Philosophy of his leads to an infinite regress that there would be no first cause as there must be an antecedent cause for all the causes.
  • To answer this he says that there must be a First, unmoved, Perfect Cause & mover. Here Aristotle comes to associate with God.

Virtue, Ethics & golden mean

  • Virtue is a disposition to act in certain ways and not others. Ethics is the highest goal.
  • We can develop Virtue by practicing it, as a skill.
  • So, if you live a good life, then you’ve developed the skill(/s) of acting virtuously.
  • In the book Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle has given ‘Table of Virtues & Vices’
Fear and Confidence Rashness Courage Cowardice
Pleasure and Pain Licentiousness/Self-indulgence Temperance Insensibility
Getting and Spending
Prodigality Liberality Illiberality/Meanness
Getting and Spending
Vulgarity/Tastelessness Magnificence Pettiness/Niggardliness
Honour and Dishonour
Vanity Magnanimity Pusillanimity
Honour and Dishonour
Ambition/empty vanity Proper ambition/pride Unambitiousness/undue humility
Anger Irascibility Patience/Good temper Lack of spirit/unirascibility
Self-expression Boastfulness Truthfulness Understatement/mock modesty
Conversation Buffoonery Wittiness Boorishness
Social Conduct Obsequiousness Friendliness Cantankerousness
Shame Shyness Modesty Shamelessness
Indignation Envy Righteous indignation Malicious enjoyment/Spitefulness

e.g. excess confidence = rashness. Excess fear = cowrdice. So golden mean is “courage” – the best virtue. This is also famously known as Aristotle’s ‘doctrine of the mean’


Utilitarianism  (J.S.Mills) Aristotle
Happiness is a state of mind. happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain. Happiness is a matter of ‘living well or doing well’.
based on the principle that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” “we always choose happiness for itself and never for any other reason”
virtuous living, should be counted as part of person’s happiness. Happiness is an evaluative term, a concept in terms of which you assess the course of a life.Therefore, true happiness means living as a rational being.


  • Aristotle is also considered as the first ‘Political Scientist’.
  • Aristotle applied the ‘Scientific Methods’ & rational analysis with politics.
  • He defined human to be a ‘Political Animal by nature’ apart from being a social one.
  • because humans alone have the power of speech which serves to signal useful & harmful – just & unjust apart.
  • Human alone have a perception of good & evil, just & unjust, etc.
  • ‘State is an association of persons whose aim is the best life possible’ – Aristotle – The Politics
  • a stateless person cannot practice virtue i.e. cannot live well, develop & flourish like a human. Thus, happiness is exercise of virtue and only within the context of state (polis) can one find happiness.

Vagueness of Practical Sciences

  • Aristotle considered practical sciences such as Ethics, Politics etc. much more vague & compartmentalized. I.e. Ethics & Politics are far less accurate in methods & procedures than ‘Logic’.
  • This is because these sciences deal with people. Now people are quite variable in their behaviour.
  • Thus Aristotle never laid down hard & fast rules in Ethics & Politics. He even didn’t declare any one type of Constitution as best.
  • This is developed from his view that ‘different forms of study requires different approaches’.

Unequal Society

Aristotle considered

  • male superior than female
  • citizen (elite) superior than slaves. He supported democracy over oligarchy because that was the better decision procedure for ruling group of citizens to a make.

Aristotle did not believe in modern ideas of Equality or Freedom for all. (But then again, we can’t expect such modern political correctness in a person living in ancient times.)
Visit Mrunal.org/Ethics for more study material on Ethics.