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Introductory Paragraph

Early Ionic Natural Philosophers

The Pythagoreans

The Eleatics


Later Natural Philosophers

General Character of the First Period in the History of Greek Philosophy

The Sophist


The Followers of Socrates

The Lesser Socratics

Plato. Life. Works

Plato. Philosophy

The Disciples of Plato

The Old Academy

Aristotle: Life and works

Aristotle: Theory of Knowledge

Aristotle: Metaphysics

Aristotle: Physics

Aristotle: Psychology

Aristotle: Practical Philosophy

Aristotle: Rhetoric and Poetic

Aristotle: Sources

Aristotle: Unity of Plato and Aristotle

Aristotle: result

The Peripatetic School

Three Leading Post-Aristotelian Schools

The Stoics and Stoicism

The Epicureans and Epicureanism

The Sceptics

The Common Ground of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics

Philosophy in Rome: Eclecticism

The Later Peripatetics

The Later Academics

The Later Stoics

General Character of the Second Period

Standpoint and Schools of the Third and Latest Period of Greek Philosophy

Jewish-Alexandrian School


The Eclectic Platonist

Neo-Platonism. Plotinus

Neo-Platonism. Porphyry. Jamblichus

Neo-Platonism. Proclus




B. C. BURT (1852-1915) - Table of contents                        




§ 10 - The Lesser Socratics (1)

Of the Lesser Socratics there were three schools, representing three very distinct tendencies in the Socratic philosophizing: the Megarians or Megarics, the Cynics, and the Cyrenaics.

The Megarians, or Megarics

The Megarians took their name from the place Megara (not very far from Athens), in which the school flourished. These thinkers—children of the intellectual subtlety of Socrates (see Socrates, The Personality of Socrates and its Relation to the Subsequent History of Philosophy)—occupied themselves with dialectics and conceived reality, which they termed the Good, not as ethical Being, but as a purely abstract ontological entity, Being in the Eleatic sense.


  The Good, they declared, and only the Good is. Their method was similar to that of Zeno, and so tenaciously did Euclid, the founder of the school, cling, theoretically at least, to the principle of identity, the logical counterpart of pure Being, that he rejected the Socratic reasoning by analogy, affirming that to explain things by means of others unlike them is impossible and to explain them by means of things like them is superfluous.

The principal Megarians besides Euclid were Eubulides, Diodorus, and, unless he belongs rather with the Cynics, Stilpo, said to have been the most brilliant of them all. The method of the Megarics, it appears, degenerated into logical hair-splitting and fell into disrepute under the name "eristic". From one point of view, indeed, it seems idle to affirm, as did Stilpo, that only "identical propositions" (e.g. A man is a man) are valid; but Stilpo was consistent: simple, abstract identity is, as we shall find Plato demonstrating, no principle of synthesis. This, however, was not the most disagreeable phase of the "eristic"; it became, to use words (2) applied by Plato to the corrupt Sophist in general, "disputatious, controversial, pugnacious, combative," and if it served any good purpose whatever, served only to stimulate minds more profound than the Megarian to a discovery of a serious, straightforward, logical method: the Megarians, bad as well as good, must share the credit of having incited both Plato and Aristotle to logical and metaphysical investigation deeper than their predecessors had undertaken. One of the most celebrated pieces of dialectic employed by the Megarians is that of Diodorus on possibility and actuality, which "is still admired after centuries as a masterpiece of subtle criticism":—"From anything possible nothing impossible can result. But it is impossible that the past can be different from what it is; for had it been possible at a past moment, something impossible would have resulted from something possible. It was therefore never possible, and generally speaking it is impossible that anything should happen differently from what has happened (3)".

The Cynics

Nearest in method and spirit to the Megarians were the Cynics, who also declared that only "identical propositions" are valid, and who conceived the Good, if not as the abstract, universal, sole metaphysical entity, the One, yet as the equally abstract particular, individual One. The Cynics took their name either from a place near Athens, —a gymnasium called the Cynosarges, —where Antisthenes (born 444 B.C.), their leader, taught, or else from their unsociableness, churlish (doggish = κυνικός = cynical} manners and mode of life. Antisthenes—a pupil of Gorgias—was an intimate associate of Socrates and considered himself the genuine Socratic. Superficially speaking, such he was. He affected a preference to ethics over logic and physics (philosophy of nature), holding logic to be entirely subsidiary to ethics, and physics to be valueless; and adopted the narrowest view of ethics, the view, namely, that treats the individual as merely such, as merely a particular, isolated, empty self. He inverted, or technically speaking, converted, Socrates's dictum, All virtue is knowledge (making it All knowledge is virtue) and then took as the ideal of virtue a strained conception of the Socratic self-control and superiority to appetite. The Cynic doctrine of virtue is practically, therefore, in a word this: The Good is the realization, to the fullest possible extent, of the conception of the abstract individual self. In conduct, —for the Cynics were conscientious and attempted to live up to their ideal—, this doctrine had for its result shabbiness of dress, indecency of manner and life, mendicancy, vagrant "citizenship of the world," almost complete abandonment of all concrete relation to family, state, and religion. This, obviously, was pure asceticism, unlovely, unhuman; but it was the asceticism not of "supernaturalism" but of naked "naturalism," abstract "positivism". Antisthenes was himself a true exemplar of the Cynic virtue: "He wore no garment except a cloak; allowed his beard to grow; carried a wallet and staff; renounced all diet but the simplest; . . . [was] stern, reproachful, and bitter in his language; careless and indecent in his gestures". (4)


  The most cynical and famous of the Cynics, however, was Diogenes of Sinope, who was conceited, scurrilous, witty, more than half wise, a caricature of Socrates, sleeping in porticos, coarsely and scantily clad, living on the rudest fare, drinking water from the palm of his hand; violating all rules of decency, railing at whatever and whomever he whimsically conceived a dislike to, an admired, privileged "Dog" indeed! (5)

At their best, however, the Cynics undertook to be moral benefactors: to teach and enforce by moral suasion the doctrines of simplicity in living, sincerity and candor in speech, the paramount value of the inner life. But they were extremists, and their doctrines passed into and gave rise to those diametrically opposed to them.

The Cyrenaics

From particular, individual will it is but a step to particular, individual pleasure, and the next form to be considered of that peculiar mode of abstraction which characterizes the Lesser Socratics is found in the Cyrenaic doctrine of the good as happiness, or pleasure. The founder of the Cyrenaic school was Aristippus of Cyrene (born 435 B.C.), who, notwithstanding his appetite for luxury in living, and the abundance of his means for gratifying it (for he was wealthy), was strongly attracted by Socrates and his teachings, and became an enthusiastic disciple of his. The point of greatest attractiveness to Aristippus was, doubtless, Socrates's practice and theory of self-control, not in the form of self-denial but of easy mastership of self in the midst of free indulgence. The doctrine of the Cyrenaics appears to have been in its origin and development substantially as follows: happiness and virtue, or the good, coincide. Whatever does not conduce to that, the sole end of human existence, is worthless (logic and physics are completely subsidiary to ethics). The only objects of knowledge are feelings, which are the sole end of action. Each individual knows only his own feelings, which, therefore, constitute the sole end of his actions. The only feelings of absolute worth are pleasurable feelings. Hence virtue, the good, is the pleasure,—and primarily the bodily pleasure,—of the individual. This view underwent a development which is substantially as follows:—The discovery was made that there is a difference among pleasures in degree and kind, and that the idea of pleasure as such is untenable. Pleasures must sometimes be purchased by pain, and a balancing of pleasures with pains is necessary to a determination of the value of pleasures. Again, it was discovered that pleasures, to be most fully desirable, must at least be accompanied by thought or wisdom, and hence that mere bodily pleasures are inferior in kind. The Cyrenaics thus arrived at a theory of happiness which, as we shall see, differed from those of Plato and Aristotle, which had from the beginning a thought-basis, only as regards basis, and consequently as regards value for a life that is radically determined by thought. There is here the same weakness that appears in the theories of the other Lesser Socratics, and in the philosophizing even of Socrates himself: namely, the want of a thought-basis, and hence of essential synthesis and wholeness. The lives of the Cyrenaics, it appears, conformed fairly well with their doctrines. Aristippus was a brilliant pleasure-seeker, but he was more than that; he understood something of true nobility of mind— that he had felt in Socrates, and he appears to have possessed it so far as to know "how to preserve calmness and composure in the midst of the perpetual change of human affairs, how to govern his passions and inclinations, and how to make the best of all the events of life". (6) Nearly a century later the Cyrenaic doctrine underwent still further development. This began with Theodorus (near the close of the fourth century B.C.), who affirmed the self-sufficiency of private intellectual satisfaction, for the attainment of which he renounced, theoretically at least, family, country, the popular religion, and all else. Hegesias, advancing a step, affirmed happiness to consist in resignation, a struggle to avoid or endure pain rather than an effort to find positive pleasure, which he regarded as beyond human attainment. According to him, indifference, not positive desire, was the philosophic attitude of mind. He is said to have committed suicide. Anniceris, finally, retreated towards the earlier Cyrenaic doctrine, advocating the active pursuit of pleasure and a due attention to all possible sources of enjoyment. He even recognized self-sacrifice as a means to true happiness. To intelligence or mental culture he seems to have assigned only a secondary position in the scale of desirable things.


The general character of the doctrines of the Lesser Socratics need not be dwelt upon here. It has already been pretty fully indicated, and will receive further elucidation in the accounts that are to follow of the doctrines of Plato, Aristotle, and the post-Aristotelian schools of philosophy, with which last they will be seen to have very close connection. We therefore pass at once to Plato, who was the truest continuator of the philosophy of Socrates.


(1) The following account is in matters of detail based largely upon Zeller's account in the Socrates and the Socratic Schools. Assistance has been derived from Hegel's interpretation (which is the best) in his Geschichte der Philosophie, Vol. II.

(2) Sophist, p. 226.

(3) Zeller's Socrates and the Schools, p. 232.

(4) Lewes's Biographical History of Philosophy, p. 178; also Diogenes Laertius, Life of Antisthenes.

(5) Diog. Laert.

(6) See above, p. 58, for a similar statement concerning Socrates.



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