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Ancient Greek Philosophers

Ancient Greek philosophers were pivotal in the formation and evolution of western thoughts on existential matters, such as the meaning of life, death, wisdom, metaphysics, epistemology, and the attainment of happiness and ethics.

Ancient Greek Philosophers

Cradle of Western Philosophy

The three most well known of the ancient Greek philosophers are Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Pre-Socrates

Before Socrates, Greek philosophers focused on scientific matters such as astronomy, biology, and mathematics. They emphasized rational thought and actually rejected mythological explanations. While history books document only fragments of pre-Socratic philosophies, they are referenced in the works of Aristotle and his students.

Heraclitus of Ephesus was one such notable pre-Socratic philosopher. He believed that the world was in a state of perpetual, yet structured flux. He labeled this concept of never-ending development "logos." The word logos means word, but is also a root in the entomology of logic, reason, and argument.

Other Pre-Socratic philosophers include:

  • Pythagoras (582-504 BCE) – A pure mathematician, he regarded the world as a quest for perfect harmony, dependent on numbers.
  • Xenophanes of Colophon (570 BCE) – The father of pantheism, the concept that God was an eternal unity.
  • Parmenides of Elea (511 BCE) – Parmenides believed in the dual nature of reality, one flexible and changeable, the other timeless, uniform, and unchanging.
  • Zeno (Unknown) – Debated the nature of paradox, insisting that all arguments in a matter must be explored.
  • Empedocles of Agrigentum (492 BCE) - Espoused a belief in the evolution of species.

Socrates

Socrates was born in Athens in 469 BCE. He questioned people relentlessly on what they thought, why the thought it, and how they thought it. He believed that only through relentless cross-examination could the truth be found. His method of cross-examination often exposed the ignorance of those around him and won him as many enemies as disciples. But the use of ruthless questioning dialogue as a teaching method is utilized into the 21st century in matters of law, philosophy, and ethics.

Plato

Plato (428-348 BCE) was a student of Socrates and he combined his teacher's Socratic method with the work of his predecessors to form a philosophy that rested on dialectic, ethics, and physics. His many dialogues detail much of what is known about Greek philosophy in that time period. His most famous dialogue, The Republic, provided guidance for a concept of justice and moral. Plato also opened a school, which he called Academy, that continued long after his passing.

Aristotle

Of Plato's students, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was his greatest. Aristotle believed that philosophy must be grounded in science and serve a purpose. He speculated on the fundamental principles of being, effect of form, the origin of motion, and the existence of a pure, immaterial form. His works covered physics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, zoology, biology, and ethics. Artistotle's works provided a comprehensive foundation for all of Western philosophy. Among his many students was Alexander the Great.

Greek Tradition and Schools of Thought

Many Greek and Roman philosophers followed in the footsteps of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, founding schools of thought that would continue to evolve over the centuries, influencing art, music, religion, and more. Among those Greek philosophies were:

  • Stoicism: Stoics believe that destructive emotions were the result of bad judgment. A sage was a person of moral and intellectual perfection.
  • Epicureanism: Epicurus advocated that life was about the ethics of pleasure and that an honorable life must be lived through achieving the greatest amount of pleasure while avoiding overindulgence.
  • Skepticism: Skeptics believed in avoiding absolutes of the truth.
  • Empiricism: Empiricists sought tangible evidence in support of truth.
  • Neo-Platonism:– This philosophy attempted to preserve the teachings of Plato and tends to be considered a religious philosophy, introducing concepts of sin and the need to overcome human frailty.

The Legacy of Greek Philosophers

Western civilization owes a tremendous debt to the early Greeks. The questions and debates about issues such happiness, justice, law, and ethics continues to shape modern societies.