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The Story of Philosophy summary

Will Durant

The Lives and Opinions of the World's Greatest Philosophers

4.6 (233 ratings)
26 mins
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    The Story of Philosophy
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    Influenced by the death of Socrates, Plato proposed a utopia ruled by philosopher kings.

    The story of Western philosophy begins in ancient Greece. In the sixth century BCE, philosophical thinkers mostly concerned themselves with questioning the nature of the physical world – until the charismatic philosopher Socrates rose to prominence in Athens. Socrates loved to mull over moral and psychological questions. Soon, other philosophers shifted their thinking to consider the nature of humankind. 

    Socrates posed questions about morality, justice, and knowledge through his “Socratic method.” This form of dialogue involves asking questions that challenge the assumptions of your interlocutor – urging them to precisely clarify their terms. Capable of destroying dogmas and presumptions, it’s still a widely practiced and effective teaching method today. 

    Though it wasn’t Socrates’s style to give answers directly, there was one topic that he did have concrete ideas about: the best form of governance for the Athenian state. At the time, Athenian democracy had been weakened by a passion-led mob rule, and it was under threat by the nearby Spartans. 

    Socrates believed that a state run by men with intelligence would save Athens, and this belief both killed him and earned him an immortal place in history. When the aristocratic party’s attempt to overthrow Athenian democracy failed, Socrates was considered the de facto intellectual leader of the coup. As a result, the democrats sentenced Socrates to death; he was forced to drink poisonous hemlock.

    The story of Socrates's death was captured in beautiful prose by the philosopher’s most famous pupil, Plato. Blaming democracy for the death of his mentor, Plato set out to destroy it. Instead, he asserted, the city’s wisest should be its rulers.

    Plato developed this idea in his best-known work The Republic, a philosophical treatise spanning ideas on ethics, theology, psychology, pedagogy, art, and politics. In it, he argues against both of the dominant opposing political philosophies: democracy and aristocracy. He finds democracy’s mob rule too unrestricted and chaotic. Aristocracy, on the other hand, drives a state to destruction because greed and luxury lead men to be competitive and ambitious. 

    As an alternative, Plato proposes a utopian political regime ruled by a small class of philosopher kings called guardians. This new system would be a democratic aristocracy. It would include a universal education system to identify and train suitable guardians based on talent and intelligence rather than nepotism.

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    What is The Story of Philosophy about?

    The Story of Philosophy (1926) traces the lives and ideas of several prominent Western philosophers including Plato, Spinoza, Kant, and Nietzsche. Each philosopher was influenced by his historical context, personal history, and philosophical predecessors. Revealing the human side of some of the world’s greatest thinkers, these blinks trace the evolution of Western philosophical thought.

    Who should read The Story of Philosophy?

    • Inquisitive minds new to philosophy
    • Students of philosophy, political science, or history
    • Anyone wondering what some of the world’s greatest minds were like as people

    About the Author

    Will Durant was an American writer, historian, and philosopher. He became best known for The Story of Civilization – an eleven-volume work that he cowrote with his wife, Ariel Durant. The Durants were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1968 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.

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