Ancient Greek Philosophers
From Thales to Socrates to Plotinus, here are the Greek philosophers whose teachings influence Western thought and tradition even to this day.
A Short History of Greek Philosophy
|Thales is usually considered to be the first philosopher as well as ‘the father of science’ as he was the first to try to explain things in nature without relying on mythology. He was the first of three major figures in the Milesian school, all of whom felt that one single substance was the source of all things. According to Thales, that one subtance was water.|
|Anaximander was a student of Thales and the second major figure in the Milesian school. He believed that the single substance that was the source of all things was an endless, unlimited substance called apeiron.|
|Anaximenes was a student of Anaximander and the third major figure in the Milesian school. He believed that air was the single substance that was the source of all things|
|Although little is known of the historical figure, Pythagoras is considered to be the founder of the mystical/religious movement that bears his name. He made important contributions to the field of mathematics, the most famous of which is the Pythagorean theorem. He also believed in reincarnation.|
(c. early 500’s BCE)
|The founder of the Eleatic school, Parmenides believed that all is one, that everything that exists has always existed, and that nothing ever really changes. He felt that this conclusion, based on reason alone, was correct and that our senses, which tell us otherwise, are ultimately unreliable.|
|Unlike Parmenides, Heraclitus believed that everything is in a constant state of change and that are sense are generally reliable. A melancholy and obscure man, he is often portrayed as the “weeping philosopher”.|
|Zeno of Elea
|A student of Parmenides, Zeno is most famous for his paradoxes, the most famous of which is known as Achilles and the tortoise.|
|Empedocles introduced the concept of four fundamental elements (fire, air, earth & water), instead of just one — an idea that persisted until modern times.|
|Anaxagoras, a member of the pluralist school, was the first to bring philosophy to Athens, where it later flourished in the hands of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.|
|Protagoras was one of the first sophists — ‘practical’ philosophers who taught the wealthy for money. He is most famous for his saying, “Man is the measure of all things“.|
|Democritus, together with his teacher Leucippus, is usually credited with developing atomism — the idea that everything in nature is made up of indivisible elements called atoms. This theory reconciled Parmenides’ concept of nothing changing (because the atoms themselves don’t change) with Heraclitus’ idea of constant change (because it is the way in which the atoms are arranged that changes). He is often referred to as the laughing philosopher.|
|THE THREE GREATEST GREEK PHILOSOPHERS|
|Socrates is remembered more for how he taught than for what he taught. He liked to appear ignorant and ask a lot of questions, thus helping people to find answers on their own — a technique that became known as the Socratic Method. He is also remembered for his death. Accused of corrupting youth and disbelieving in the gods, he was sentenced to commit suicide by drinking poison. Socrates left behind no writings and everything we know about him is based on what Plato and his other students wrote.
Socrates: A Very Short Introduction
|A student of Socrates, Plato founded The Academy in Athens and became one of the greatest figures in the entire history of philosophy. He believed in the existence of ideal forms, residing beyond the physical world and known by reason alone, upon which our world of senses is based. He expressed this theory most clearly in his famous piece “The Myth of the Cave“.
Plato: A Very Short Introduction
|A student of Plato, Aristotle is perhaps the most influential of all the ancient Greek philosophers. He is famous for his empirical approach to studying nature, his theory of Four Causes (material, formal, efficient and final), and his development of formal logic. He was also a tutor for Alexander the Great.
Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction
|Aristippus was the founder of Cyrenaicism, an ultra-hedonist philosophy that encouraged people to get as much pleasure as possible out of life.|
|Diogenes was one of the founders of Cynicism, a philosophy that, in opposition to Cyrenaicism, rejected the desire for wealth and luxury and encouraged a simple life, free from possessions, instead. Diogenes is remembered for his theatrics such as walking around with a lamp during the day proclaiming that he was looking for an honest man and for responding to Alexander the Great’s question, “What can I do for you?” with “Move, because you’re blocking my sun.”|
|Pyrrho was an ultimate skeptic in that he believed it was impossible to actually know anything for certain. He therefore recommended that people suspend judgment on philosophical matters and simply focus on more practical matters instead.|
|Influenced by Cyrenaicism, Epicurus saw pleasure and pain as the measures of good and evil. Epicureans therefore tried their best to enjoy life by aiming for as much happiness and as little suffering as possible.|
|Zeno of Citium
|Zeno was the founder of Stoicism, a philosophy that developed out of Cynicism and encourages people to use their free will to repress emotions and simply be at peace with whatever nature throws their way.|
|Plotinus is considered the founder of Neoplatonism, a pantheistic and mystical philosophy that emphasizes how everything is really part of “the One” and that there really is no dualism (e.g. – darkness does not exist by itself; it is simply the absence of light).|