Who was the most original philosopher?
- Plato wrote profusely, and his ideas are intelligent, well argued, and powerful.
- His works form the backbone of so many subjects: epistemology, aesthetics, metaphysics, politics, and psychology.
- Plato also influenced Christianity, which in turn became a new kind of religion altogether.
Nothing in life can be treated in isolation. Behind every idea, person, discovery, invention, or project is a hidden network of conditions that gave rise to it. This is never truer than in academia. As Isaac Newton famously said, we are all just “standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
Philosophy is the same. Almost all its notable thinkers read, debated, and bounced ideas around with their contemporaries. Aristotle was a response to (and taught by) Plato, Chinese legalism was a critique of Confucianism, David Hume and Adam Smith were close friends, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau constantly attacked each other, and Thomas Hobbes was in regular correspondence with René Descartes.
So, it is hard to answer the question: who was the most original philosopher? But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to try.
The trunk of the tree
Generally every philosophical issue (in the West, anyway) is prefaced with the line, “It all began with the ancient Greeks.” Of these seminal thinkers, Plato is typically considered the foremost. There is an oft-quoted line from A.N. Whitehouse that reads, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”.
No doubt, there is some truth to this. Plato wrote profusely, and in both his dialogues and Republic we find the foundations of political philosophy, epistemology, metaphysics, and aesthetics. He was a psychologist before the term even existed: his tripartite division of the soul into Eros (desire), Thumos (spirit or passion), and Logos (rationality) tracks almost perfectly onto Freud’s Id, Superego, and Ego.
Importantly, he defined the rules of the philosophical game, in which dialogue, debate, dialectic, and rational sparring are the way to do philosophy. Today, we assume that good arguments must be logical, and that most people, most of the time, want to discover the Truth (with a capital T) of the universe. This all comes from Plato. (It is difficult to find a similar sentiment in Eastern traditions.)
Let me write that down
There is only one problem: it is difficult to say how strictly original Plato was and how much was already kicking around in the ideological zeitgeist of the Peloponnese. All of Plato’s dialogues contain a fictionalized version of his master and friend, Socrates, who is almost always the wisest character and the winner of debates. Socrates never wrote anything himself down (and in fact seems to have been opposed to this new-fangled “writing” the kids were up to), so we are left guessing at how much of what we call Plato’s was actually from his master. It could be all; it could be none.
Additionally, Plato alludes to other long lost philosophers, not least Diotima, who is thought to be the first female philosopher and even the teacher of Socrates. So many of these “pre-Socratics” did write, but their work is largely lost, so we have to rely again on Plato and later sources for what they wrote. (The most important and treasured of these is Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius.)
However, with the dearth of evidence, we are forced to give Plato his due — even if it is just being the first to write stuff down.
How Plato influenced Christianity
If Western philosophy and the manner in which it is done is merely a “footnote to Plato,” then it is not a stretch to say that Plato’s ideas lurk in the background of nearly every philosopher that we have read. Thinkers like Descartes, Nietzsche, and Freud were either responding or adding to Plato’s ideas.
Arguably more important even than this is how far Platonism influenced Christianity, the largest religion on Earth. The early Church Fathers who formulated the theology and official dogma of the Church were steeped in the knowledge of both Jewish tradition and Greek philosophy, the latter being all but dominated by Plato and the descendants of his school, The Academy.
Plato’s ideas of a world of forms — which was some perfect and removed ideal from our corrupt, base world — worked its way into formal Christian doctrine. Many ideas about sins of the flesh and weak mortal bodies were influenced by Plato. In his famous allegory of the cave, Plato argued that we ought not to indulge our worldly whims and desires (Eros) but contemplate and philosophize instead (Logos). All of these ideas tracked perfectly onto the fledgling Church. In fact, John’s Gospel opens with the verse: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.”
With us still
In the ways that Plato came to define Christianity we have, again, an entirely new way of doing philosophy — or, in this case, theology. Christianity is an original kind of faith that was half Judea, half Athens.
Plato dominated the Western tradition for centuries, and we still live with his legacy of valuing the intellect and rationality over our earthly lusts. To be called “irrational” is still a bad thing. Even though the likes of Aristotle creep into Christian theology via Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and theologians like Augustine, Irenaeus, and Origen have their own impact, none ever leave the same (unique) depth of mark as the rationalistic and original ideas of Plato.
Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.