Well-known ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle shaped ancient Greek life and influenced Western philosophy. Here is a guide to the 12 most influential philosophers of Greek origin.
Philosophy in Ancient Greece
Travelers to Greece are often overwhelmed by ancient monuments. Sites such as the Acropolis in Athens, Ancient Epidaurus, and Ancient Olympia are tied to Greece’s long and rich history.
Another fascinating aspect of ancient Greece is ancient Greek philosophy. Everyone has heard of Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
The Greek word philosophia literally means love of knowledge or wisdom. A philosopher is a person who considers and forms theories related to the fields of logic, ethics, ideology, and human nature.
Here are 12 ancient Greek philosophers who contributed to the formation of the major virtues and ethics of ancient Greece. Many of their philosophical ideas have remained popular through the centuries and inspire modern philosophers.
- Thales of Miletus (624/3-548/5 BC)
Thales of Miletus was a native of the Ionian region of Asia Minor. He is generally recognized as the first ancient Greek philosopher.
Thales was a mathematician, physician, engineer, astronomer, and is known as the “father of science.” He was not bound by myths, but used observation, scientific knowledge, and logic to construct several theories.
He sought to explain natural phenomena that had previously been attributed to the 12 Olympian gods. At the same time, he did not deny the existence of the gods, believing that they existed in all things.
Thales was most concerned with how the world was created. In his view, all nature arose from a single substance, water.
He was one of the most influential philosophers before Socrates and influenced most of those who followed him.
Pythagoras of Samos (570 BC – 495 BC)
Pythagoras was from the island of Samos. Pythagoras was from the island of Samos and was the founder of Pythagoreanism, which advocated a communal and simple lifestyle, following nature.
Pythagoras believed in metempsychosis, or theism. According to him, the soul was immortal and would pass into another body after death.
Besides philosophy, Pythagoras is also known for his contributions in the fields of mathematics and science. The Pythagorean theorem is still one of the most widely used theorems in geometry.
Pythagoras is often credited as being the first scientist to suggest that the earth is round. His teachings influenced later Greek philosophers such as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton, as well as scientists of the 15th and 16th centuries AD.
Parmenides of Elea (ca. 520 BC – 440 BC)
The Greek philosopher Parmenides was born in Elea, southern Italy. He is considered the founder of the Elea school and the father of metaphysics.
Parmenides was one of the first Greek philosophers to use logic. He believed that the existence of reality could be perceived only by logic, not by the senses. His main principle was that all is one.
Much of his thought was abstract and theoretical. Later philosophers often tried to simplify his philosophical propositions.
Anaxagoras of Clazomenai (500 B.C. – 428 B.C.)
Anaxagoras was born in Krasomenae in Asia Minor and moved to Athens when he was 20 years old. He was an astronomer and philosopher.
Anaxagoras sought to elucidate the natural phenomenon of eclipses, describing the sun as a fiery rock larger than the Peloponnese.
He argued that nothing perishes, but the material world is shaped by constantly evolving and shape-shifting components. Thus, everything has all its parts.
For his novel ideas and his denial of Greek mythology, Anaxagoras was sentenced to death by an Athenian court. He then left the city and spent his last years in exile.
empedocles of akragas (495-435 b.c.)
Empedocles was born into a noble family in Akragas, a city in Sicily, Greece. He was regarded as an almost supernatural teacher and healer during his travels around Sicily and the Peloponnese.
Contrary to Anaxagoras, Empedocles believed that matter was composed of the four classical elements: air, earth, water, and fire.
Whenever these elements changed, forces toward love or strife were at work, and he held that two opposing virtues must exist in balance for the world to prosper.
Following the Pythagorean school, Empedocles opposed carnivory and animal sacrifice. He also believed that soul and perception were related to the heart rather than the brain.
zenon of erea (c. 495 b.c. – c. 430 b.c.)
Zeno was born in Elea in southern Italy and was a follower of Parmenides.
He developed his teacher’s philosophical ideas and studied the concepts of space, time, and infinity. In particular, he argued that motion was only an illusion.
Zeno became known for the way he made people perceive reality. He is famous for his paradoxes, which challenge common perceptions and common sense. An example of a popular paradox is the Achilles and the Tortoise race.
socrates of athens (469 b.c. – 399 b.c.)
Socrates of Athens is the most famous of the Greek philosophers and one of the founders of Western philosophy. Socrates’ influence was so great that all philosophers who lived before him are called “pre-Socratic philosophers.
Socrates was originally the son of a wealthy stonemason, but first became interested in philosophy as a teenager. Unlike his predecessors, he was more interested in examining man and society than the material world and the universe.
The great Greek philosopher of the 5th century B.C. developed his own methods and ways of thinking. The Socratic method (maieutiki, from the Greek word for midwife) he established was based on the following principles
Dialogue between two or more persons stimulates critical thinking and helps each person discover his or her own beliefs and find his or her own solutions to some problems.
Despite (or because of) his contributions to philosophy, Socrates is eventually accused of atheism and corrupting the young and sentenced to death. He famously refused to leave the city and drank a cup of hemlock poison (conium) in 399 BCE.
Socrates famously did not write. He is known by the testimony of his disciples, notably Plato’s Dialogues.
democritus of abdera (460-370 b.c.)
Democritus was born in Abdera to a wealthy family. Although a contemporary of Socrates, he is classified as a pre-Socratic ancient Greek philosopher. He was interested in all fields of human knowledge of his time, with the exception of religion and politics. In particular, he studied mathematics, meteorology, music, cosmology, linguistics, and history. Unfortunately, much of his work has been lost.
His main goal in life was happiness, including peace of mind and stability. He advocated that material goods and money do not lead to happiness.
What makes people happy is rational thought and education. At the same time, people need to find happiness in what they have.
Plato of Athens (427 BC – 347 BC)
Plato was another famous Greek philosopher born in Athens. He was known as a disciple of Socrates and, in turn, a teacher of Aristotle.
Plato founded a school called Platonism and the first institution of higher learning called the Academy. Plato is one of the few ancient Greek philosophers whose writings have survived almost entirely.
One of Plato’s major works of political philosophy is The Republic. This work discusses justice and aims to answer the question of what constitutes a just person and a just city-state. It also examines the concepts of good and evil in relation to the body and soul.
It also compares five regimes – aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny – and describes an ideal utopian society.
Plato also contributed to philosophy through his “Theory of Forms” by declaring that absolute, non-physical ideas are more real than the natural world.
aristotle of stagira (384 b.c. – 322 b.c.)
Born in Stagira, Northern Greece, Aristotle moved to Athens in his late teens and became a student at Plato’s Academy. He served as tutor to Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia.
Aristotle founded his own school, the Lyceum, which can still be visited today with a combined admission ticket to all the sites of ancient Athens. He also founded the Peripatetic school of philosophy.
Like Democritus, Aristotle was a man of many talents. He was interested in a multitude of seemingly unrelated subjects, from physics and biology to theater, music, and politics.
Aristotle studied a number of philosophies that had been established before his time and synthesized and elevated them into more complex ideas.
He further distinguished the four elements as heat and cold, wet and dry, and suggested that they were inseparable from their nature.
Aristotle wrote several works on these themes. His works inspired later philosophers and had a profound influence on Western philosophy.
Epicurus of Samos (341-270 BC)
Epicurus is one of the best-known of the ancient Greek philosophers, but this is because his ideas are often misunderstood. Epicurus advocated a comfortable and peaceful life. His most important virtues are peace of mind (ataraxia), freedom, and the absence of pain and fear. Self-sufficiency and friends are important to make life pleasant.
According to the Epicurean system of thought, pleasure is morally justified and must be pursued in order to ultimately achieve ataraxia. In this view, even suffering can be viewed positively if it leads to peace of mind.
Some of his best-known principles include the following
One should not fear God.
Death is nothing to worry about.
It is easy to get what we really need
It is easy to endure that which afflicts us
Diogenes of Sinope (ca. 412 – 323 BCE)
Diogenes, known as Diogenes the Quinic, was born in Sinope on the Black Sea. He was expelled from his homeland in the mid-4th century BC and moved to Athens.
He lived a very simple life, wearing rugs and often begging. His house was a large ceramic urn, but it is said that wherever he was, he ate and spent the night. In modern parlance, he would be called a vagrant, or a citizen of the world.
Diogenes criticized the social and cultural practices of the city, which he considered corrupt. He believed that if man returned to a natural life and self-sufficiency, human corruption would cease.
Alexander the Great met Diogenes in Corinth in 336 B.C. and asked the philosopher what he could do for him. Diogenes reportedly replied, “I want Alexander to stand in the sun.”
According to another account, the king of Macedon said, “If I were not Alexander, I would have wanted to be Diogenes.”