The Ancient Greek philosophers were definitely ahead of their time! The word philosopher comes from the two Greek words philo (meaning love) and sophia (wisdom) The philosophers were wise and spent many hours observing and interpreting what they saw around them. They tried to explain the mysteries of life using logic and reason. This was a very new approach and it was very different from the usual mythological explanations.
The words and teachings of these great philosophers became the solid foundations for western philosophy and modern thinking and are still regularly quoted in discussions about mathematics, the sciences, human nature and the universe.
10 Greek philosophers, you should know
1. Socrates (469- 399 BC)
“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing’
Socrates was born in Alopece and is credited with being one of the founders of western philosophy and is the best known of the Ancient Greek philosophers. He was a master stonemason who never actually wrote anything down but imparted his philosophical ideas to his students who included Plato. He had a profound influence on philosophy and believed it could achieve practical results for the greater good of society in everyday life. He firmly believed that human choice was motivated by the desire for happiness and encouraged people to critically question everything.
Socrates’ greatest contribution to philosophy was the Socratic Method in which discussion, argument, and dialogue are used to discern the truth. Eventually, his beliefs and realistic approach to philosophy led to his downfall. He was tried and convicted for criticising religion and corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates chose to kill himself rather than be exiled from his homeland. His trial and death at the altar of the ancient Greek democratic system has prompted a study of life itself.
2. Plato (428-348 BC)
“Thinking – the talking of the soul with itself’
Plato was born in Athens to an aristocratic and influential family. during the Classical period and he was a student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. He was the founder of the Platonist school of thought and of the Academy – the first institution of higher learning in the world in Athens. He was the inventor of written dialogue. He believed that the soul had three functions – reason, emotion and desire. Plato wrote one of the first and most influential works on politics, The Republic in which he described an ideal or Utopian society. Like his mentor Socrates, Plato was a strong critic of democracy.
3. Aristotle (385-323 BC)
“One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.”
Born in Stagira, Aristotle was taught by Pluto. He was the founder of the Lyceum, the Peripatetic School of Philosophy and the Aristotelian tradition.
and is considered one of the greatest ancient philosophers. He studied many subjects including science, government, physics and politics, and wrote on all of them. He was the first to develop a formal way of reasoning – known as the field of formal logic. He also identified the different scientific disciplines and their relationships and interaction. Aristotle is arguably the best-known philosopher as his quotations and writings have been passed down through generations. They continue to be the object of active academic study today.
4. Thales of Miletus (625- 546 BC)
‘The past is certain, the future obscure.”
Thales of Miletus was a mathematician, astronomer and philosopher from Miletus in Ionia, Asia Minor. He was one of the seven sages of Greece. He is best known as one of the fathers of Greek philosophy and is famous for predicting a solar eclipse and for devising five theorems in geometry including –the fact that for a triangle to fit inside a semicircle, it must have a right angle. He tried to discover what everything in nature is made from and decided the core substance must be water. Thales is also said to be the founder of the school of natural philosophy.
5. Pythagoras (570- 495 BC)
‘Do not say a little in many words, but a great deal in a few’
Pythagoras was another pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and also a mathematician, who was born on the island of Samos. He is best known for his Pythagoras theorem which remains one of the most important calculations in geometry and is based on right-angled triangles. The theorem is still used in the construction industry. He started a group of mathematicians called Pythagoreans who worshipped numbers and calculations and lived like monks. He is credited with the discovery that the earth is round and the existence of the planet of Venus, plus the fact that there are both morning and evening stars.
Pythagoras’ philosophies included his belief in immortality and reincarnation and that all living things should behave humanely to each other. He believed in numbers and said that they cleared the mind making it possible to truly understand reality.
6. Democritus (460- 370 BC)
‘Happiness resides not in possessions and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul’.
Born in Abdera in Greece, Democritus was an influential Ancient Greek philosopher who had the nickname ‘the laughing philosopher’ because he always emphasised happiness. With his teacher, Leucippus, he developed the idea of the ‘atom’ which comes from the Greek word meaning ‘indivisible’. He firmly believed that everything was made up of atoms and that there were an infinite number of atoms that were all microscopic and indestructible.
He believed that the human soul was made from a fire atom and that thought was caused by the movement of atoms. Many consider him to be the “father of modern science”. Democritus believed in the justice theory and that people should take up arms to defend themselves.
7. Empedokles (483- 330 BC)
‘God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and its circumference nowhere’.
Empedokles was one of the most important pre-Socratic philosophers. He was born in the city of Akragas, a Greek city in Sicily. He founded a medical school and its fundamental doctrine was the cosmogenic theory of the four classical elements. Empedokles believed that all matter is composed of four primary elements – earth, air, fire and water. H also proposed forces called Love and Strife which would mix and separate the elements. He believed that we breathe through all the pores of the body and that the heart and not the brain was the organ of consciousness.
8. Anaxagoras (510- 428 BC)
“Everything has a natural explanation. The moon is not a god but a great rock and the sun is a hot rock.”
Anaxagoras was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who was born into a wealthy family in Ionia in Asia Minor. He moved to Athens and his name means ‘lord of the assembly’. His philosophy focused on nature and he developed different theories on the formation of the universe from an infinite number of particles rather than the four elements (air, water, earth and fire). He discovered the true cause of eclipses. Anaxagoras rejected traditional Greek mythology and contemporary ideologies so he was convicted of atheism and was banished from Athens.
9. Anaximander (610 – 546 BC)
‘A citizen without property has no fatherland’
Anaximander was also born in Miletus, a city in Ionia and he was the first disciple of Thales. He particularly liked his teacher’s theory about the cosmos and expanded it further, using mathematical proportions to map the stars. He was convinced that the world was not flat at all. He took over the teachings of Thales and became the second master in his school -where Pythagoras later studied. Anaximander also talked of eternal motion caused by opposites and used his theories to explain hot and cold.
10. Epicurus (341-270 BC)
‘The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it’
Epicurus was born on the island of Samos to Athenian parents. He was the founder of a very influential school of philosophy called Epicureanism – which advocated that the greatest good to seek was a modest pleasure which would lead to a tranquil life characterised by ataraxia – peace and freedom – and aponia – meaning the absence of pain. Epicurus believed that humans had no control over their fate and did not believe in the gods, he also believed that the universe was infinite. He firmly believed that the greatest fear for man was that of dying. He wrote hundreds of works, but none of them have survived.