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2. The Shape and Content of First-Century Philosophy
(ii) The Real Beginning: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

First, then, the four great schools. All western philosophy traces itself back to Plato, and thereby to Socrates. Plato, though himself a great and original thinker, wins initial attention from having played Boswell to Socrates’s Johnson. Socrates, however, was far more than a Johnson (implying no disrespect to the latter), and Plato was much, much more than a Boswell (implying deliberate and cheerful disrespect to that industrious but shallow hedonist). Plato’s early dialogues, it is generally agreed, are closer to ‘the historical Socrates’ than the later ones, and from the whole corpus we gain a lively impression of the great man as possessed not only of extraordinary mental skill but also personal courage and deep integrity. His teaching technique encapsulated his basic philosophical position, which was the need to probe beneath common assumptions about life, goodness, justice, wisdom and so forth and to subject everything to close enquiry, taking nothing for granted. One can see already how this might lead in at least two directions: to a deep, reinforced piety, and with it a loyalty to the city and its best interests (the route taken by Socrates himself), or to a scepticism which allowed the questions to press on until everything seemed uncertain (the position taken by the later ‘Academy’)...

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