Socrates (c. 469-399 BCE)

The life and teachings of Socrates stand at the foundation of Western philosophy. He lived in Athens during a time of transition (Athens' defeat at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431—404 BCE) ended the Golden Age of Athenian civilization) and had a tremendous influence on the Athenian youth of his day. Socrates himself never recorded his thoughts, so our only record of his life and thought comes from his contemporaries. These accounts are mixed and often biased by the authors' personal interpretations.

It seems that Socrates led a very simple life, renouncing wealth and holding himself aloof from political ambitions, preferring instead to mingle with the crowds in Athens' public places, engaging whomever he could in conversation. Nonetheless, he did serve as a hoplite (heavy infantryman) in several battles during the Peloponnesian War, and that he was distinguished by his bravery. In 399 BCE, Socrates was brought before a jury of around 500 Athenians on charges of not recognizing the gods recognized by the state, of inventing new deities, and of corrupting the youth of Athens.

The most likely reason for this trial is Socrates' close association with a number of men who had fallen out of political favor in Athens, but because an amnesty had been declared for political offenders, other charges had to be brought against him. Socrates was found guilty by a narrow margin and then sentenced to death.

Plato (c. 427-347 BCE)

The child of wealthy and well-connected Athenian parents, Plato was both Socrates's student and Aristotle's teacher. Though seemingly destined to become a politician by means of his inherited high social status, Plato ultimately shunned the political life. Two historical events traditionally are believed to explain this rebellion: the assumption of power in Athens by a corrupt and wealthy group of citizens following the Peloponnesian War (431— 404), and the trial, conviction, and execution of Socrates by this same government in 399. These events demarcate the end of Athenian civilization's golden age. In addition, they caused Plato first to call into question and then to reject the principles and legitimacy of his own government and of any government based upon supposed claims to power and justice. Though he may have even served as a soldier in the war, Plato turned his back on his state's authority when they clashed with his morals.

Plato instead chose to focus his efforts in the realm of philosophy, assuming a lifelong quest to formalize the verbal Socratic method and findings of philosophical inquiry as well as to further develop his own treatment of the investigations his mentor Socrates began. His writings, which often take the form of a hypothetical dialogue between Socrates and some of his contemporaries, include studies of ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, justice, politics, and virtue. For reasons that will become clear below, it should be noted that many among Plato's most famous writings focus on the subject of ethics.

Works such as Euthyphro, The Apology, Crito, and Phaedo (together comprising The Trial and Death of Socrates) and The Republic take up a bold stance against evil, greed and corruption of authority as well as espouse strong new views of virtue and justice based upon principles of reason and truth. The nature of these formulations alone served as a significant attack upon the then ruling class of wealthy and base leaders. Moreover, Plato's intentional decision often to voice such views through the mouthpiece of Socrates instills these texts with an even more passionate tone, all the more so given Socrates's recent execution. These tumultuous events must have made an indelible impact upon Plato at that time, as is evidenced by the subject and style of several of his seminal works.

In 385, Plato founded the Academy, an institution devoted to the study of philosophy and mathematics, as well as to the education of a ruling class of "philosopher-kings" (see e.g. The Republic). Through an intense application of analytic reason to human life and thought, students of the academy aimed at a pure and formal understanding of truth. Operational for approximately nine hundred years, the Academy exists as an ancestor of the modern university. Due to his role in the initial establishment of formal higher education, and to the vast span, impact, and relevance of his body of thought—which strongly continue to this day—many hold Plato to be the father of Western thought.