LIKE MOST MIDDLE-CLASS INDIANS I was primed from early childhood to value a practical life over a contemplative one. The assumption was that only an education in science can develop one’s reasoning capabilities and, more importantly, solve the world’s pressing problems. So when I decided to enroll for a master’s degree in philosophy, the question that troubled me was less about whether the subject would lead me to the truth and more about how effectively it would help me use my reason. I was conditioned to believe that “reasoning” meant solving complicated mathematical and scientific problems, or figuring out the issues of poverty and development. So I chose politics over philosophy. Most contemporary problems are political, and the solutions to even non-political problems depend on politics, the best example being climate change. Yet, having made this decision, I continued to wonder how we could live well in the world without investigating what a good life is. And that is when I discovered the centrality of this question to the ancient Greeks and to classical Western philosophy, and these philosophers’ belief that reason was crucial to living the good life.
Greece had produced philosophers such as Heraclitus, Parmenides and Protagoras before Plato, the protagonist of this essay. But despite the variety in their thought—from the metaphysical to the cosmological—Plato’s predecessors are often clubbed together and referred to as the “Pre-Socratics.”