Great Thinkers - Simple Tools from 60 Great Thinkers to Improve Your Life Today
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Fascinating. A very condensed and nice summary of some of the greatest mind in history. Lessons from which we all can get inspired.
What a treasure.
the canon of The School of Life: it is our selection of the greatest thinkers from the fields of philosophy, political theory, sociology, psychotherapy, art, architecture and literature whom we believe have the most to offer to us today.
We’ve mined history to bring you the ideas we believe to be of the greatest relevance to our own times.
Plato - c.428–c.348 BC
the world’s first true – and probably greatest – philosopher: Plato.
Plato devoted his life to one goal: helping people to reach a state of what he termed, or eudaimonia.
It almost means ‘happiness’ but is really closer to ‘fulfilment’.
How did Plato propose to make people more fulfilled?
1. Think harder
Plato proposed that our lives go wrong in large part because we almost never give ourselves time to think carefully and logically enough about our plans.
And so we end up with the wrong values, careers and relationships. Plato wanted to bring order and clarity to our minds.
He observed how many of our ideas are derived from what the crowd thinks, from what the Greeks called ‘doxa’, and we’d call ‘common sense’.
Plato showed this common sense to be riddled with errors, prejudice and superstition. Popular ideas about love, fame, money or goodness simply don’t stand up to reason.
Plato also noticed how proud people were about being led by their instincts or passions (jumping into decisions on the basis of nothing more than ‘how they felt’), and he compared this to being dragged dangerously along by a group of blindfolded wild horses.
As Freud was happy to acknowledge, Plato was the inventor of therapy, insisting that we learn to submit all our thoughts and feelings to reason.
As Plato repeatedly wrote, the essence of philosophy came down to the command to ‘know yourself’.
2. Love more wisely
Plato is one of the great theorists of relationships. His book, The Symposium, is an attempt to explain what love really is.
when you fall in love, what’s really going on is that you have seen in another person some good quality which you haven’t got. Perhaps they are calm, when you get agitated; or they are self-disciplined, while you’re all over the place; or they are eloquent when you are tongue-tied.
The underlying fantasy of love is that by getting close to this person, you can become a little like they are. They can help you to grow to your full potential.
In Plato’s eyes, love is in essence a kind of education: you couldn’t really love someone if you didn’t want to be improved by them. Love should be two people trying to grow together – and helping each other to do so. Which means you need to get together with the person who contains a key missing bit of your evolution: the virtues you don’t have.
It means committing to helping them become a better version of themselves – and to endure the stormy passages this inevitably involves – while also not resisting their attempts to improve us.
3. The Importance of beauty
Everyone – pretty much – likes beautiful things.
Plato proposed that it really matters what sorts of houses or temples, pots or sculptures you have around you.
There are lots of good things we aspire to be: kind, gentle, harmonious, balanced, peaceful, strong, dignified. These are qualities in people. But they are also qualities in objects. We get moved and excited when we find in objects the qualities we need but are missing in our lives.
Beautiful objects therefore have a really important function. They invite us to evolve in their direction, to become as they are. Beauty can educate our souls.
It follows that ugliness is a serious matter too, for it parades dangerous and damaged characteristics in front of us. It encourages us to be like it: harsh, chaotic, brash. It makes it that much harder to be wise, kind and calm.
Plato sees art as therapeutic: it is the duty of poets and painters (and, nowadays, novelists, television producers and designers) to help us lead good lives.
That’s why Plato believed that artists should work under the command of philosophers, who would give them the right ideas and ask them to make these convincing and popular. Art was to be a sort of propaganda – or advertising – for the good.
4. Changing society
Everything the Spartans did – how they raised their children, how their economy was organised, whom they admired, how they had sex, what they ate – was tailored to that one goal. And Sparta was hugely successful, from a military point of view.
Plato wanted to know: how could a society get better at producing not military power but eudaimonia? How could it reliably help people towards fulfilment?
In his book, The Republic, Plato identifies a number of changes that should be made:
a. We need new heroes
Athenian society was very focused on the rich. Plato wasn’t impressed: it really matters whom we admire, for celebrities influence our outlook, ideas and conduct. And bad heroes give glamour to flaws of character.
Instead, people would be distinguished by their record of public service, their modesty and simple habits.
b. We need censorship
Continuous exposure to a storm of confused voices was – Plato thought – seriously bad for us, so he wanted to limit the activities of public orators and dangerous preachers. He would – nowadays – have been very sceptical about the power of mass media.
c. Better education
Plato believed passionately in education but wanted to refocus the curriculum. The primary thing we need to learn is not just maths or spelling, but how to be good: we need to learn about courage, self-control, reasonableness, independence and calm.
To put this into practice, Plato founded a school called The Academy in Athens, which flourished for over 400 years. You went there to learn nothing less than how to live and die well.
d. Better childhoods
Families try their best. And sometimes children strike lucky. Their parents are well balanced, good teachers, reliably mature and wise. But pretty often parents transmit their confusions and failings to their children.
Plato thought that bringing up children well was one of the most difficult (and most needed) skills. He was acutely sympathetic to the child who is held back by the wrong home environment.
So he proposed that many children would in fact be better off if they could take their vision of life not from their parents but from wise guardians, paid for by the state. He proposed that a sizeable share of the next generation should be brought up by people more qualified than their own parents.
Plato’s ideas remain deeply provocative and fascinating. What unites them is their ambition and their idealism. He wanted philosophy to be a tool to help us change the world. We should continue to be inspired by his example.