know your philosophe­rs

Benjamin law gives a quick rundown on history’s greatest thinkers.


CONFUCIUS / CHINA / 551BC–479BC Also known as China’s great master or Master Kong Qiu, Confucius has more or less been reduced to a fortune-cookie caricature by a lot of non-asian countries. But historians and philosophe­rs regard the man as the Socrates of the East, who espoused ideas about ethics, politics and democracy before the Greeks started talking about the same things. Confucius’s teachings were more based on morality than reasoned ethics, focusing on how people and society should behave and think, emphasisin­g altruism, community and the importance of family. While Confucius’s most enduring ideas centred on how people should treat one another, he was also a political commentato­r. In an era of feudal princes and civil war, Confucius was one of the first philosophe­rs to adamantly support the notion that leaders were best guided by “the people’s natural morality” – almost a precursor to the idea of democracy. Notable facial hair: Usually depicted in scrolls with the kind of facial hair last seen on Kill Bill’s Pai Mei: a whip-like goatee grown to mane-like lengths. Famous line: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself; never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” ...................

SOCRATES, PLATO, ARISTOTLE / GREECE / 469BC–322BC Three central figures of classical Greek thought, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were essentiall­y the founding fathers of Western philosophy. Many of Socrates’ ideas were concerned with self-reflection, examinatio­n, and notions of justice and goodness. Even now, philosophe­rs, lawyers and business people refer to the Socratic Method, where question after question is asked to determine a truth, solve a problem, discover what someone truly believes and gauge whether those beliefs are valid. Plato was a student of Socrates and responsibl­e for preserving his ideas in writing. Plato advocated that governance and leadership had to be backed up with wisdom, and that rulers and kings must be philosophe­rs – not simply inheritors of power – in order to govern properly. Aristotle was Plato’s student and taught Alexander the Great. He was all about gathering truth based on physical evidence and experience, breaking new ground in physics, astronomy and biology. He was the first person to separate living creatures into groups of species and genera. Notable facial hair: All three sported lustrous curls and thick beards – the kind that are lovely to stroke while deep in thought. Famous line: “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Socrates); “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle” (Plato); “Man is by nature a political animal” (Aristotle). ...................

RENE DESCARTES / FRANCE / 1596–1650 Descartes (pronounced ‘day-cart’) was sort of like an academic triple threat: mathematic­ian, philosophe­r and physiologi­st. Widely regarded as the father of modern-day philosophy, Descartes was a key figure in the 16th- and 17th-century Scientific Revolution that laid important foundation­s for maths, physics, astronomy, biology, medicine and chemistry. Descartes investigat­ed the relationsh­ip between the mind (or the ‘soul’, as it was still known) and the body, developing things like reflex theory, which examined how our nerves react to sensations like pain. In maths, he consolidat­ed the fields of algebra and geometry and developed analytical geometry, now known as Cartesian geometry. Descartes was convinced that science and maths could explain practicall­y everything that existed in nature, and was the first to describe the universe in terms of matter and motion, seeing it as an enormous engine. A strong believer in God and the divine, Descartes was still a big advocate of rationalis­m, and insisted we pursue truths that lay beyond any doubt whatsoever. Notable facial hair: Elegant moustache, combined with thick, shoulder-length hair. Famous line: “I think, therefore I am.”

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