Ancient Greek philosophy
Ancient Greek philosophy arose in the 6th century BC and continued
Hellenistic period and the period in which Ancient
Greece was part of the Roman Empire.
Philosophy was used to make sense
out of the world in a non-religious way. It dealt with a wide variety
of subjects, including political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics,
ontology, logic, biology, rhetoric and aesthetics.
Many philosophers around the world agree that Greek philosophy has
influenced much of
Western culture since its inception. Alfred North
Whitehead once noted: "The safest general characterization of the
European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of
footnotes to Plato". Clear, unbroken lines of influence lead from
ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers to Early Islamic
philosophy, the European
Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment.
Some claim that Greek philosophy was in turn influenced by the older
wisdom literature and mythological cosmogonies of the ancient Near
East, though this is debated.
Martin Litchfield West
Martin Litchfield West gives qualified
assent to this view by stating that "contact with oriental cosmology
and theology helped to liberate the early Greek philosophers'
imagination; it certainly gave them many suggestive ideas. But they
taught themselves to reason.
Philosophy as we understand it is a Greek
Subsequent philosophic tradition was so influenced by
Plato that it is conventional to refer to philosophy
developed prior to
Socrates as pre-Socratic philosophy. The periods
following this, up to and after the wars of Alexander the Great, are
those of "classical Greek" and "Hellenistic" philosophy.
1 Pre-Socratic philosophy
1.1 Milesian school
1.5 Eleatic philosophy
1.6 Pluralism and atomism
2 Classical Greek philosophy
3 Hellenistic philosophy
4 Transmission of Greek philosophy under Byzantium and Islam
5 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
Main article: Pre-Socratic philosophy
The convention of terming those philosophers who were active prior to
Socrates the pre-Socratics gained currency with the 1903 publication
of Hermann Diels' Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, although the term did
not originate with him. The term is considered philosophically
useful because what came to be known as the "Athenian school"
(composed of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) signaled a profound shift
in the subject matter and methods of philosophy; Friedrich Nietzsche's
thesis that this shift began with
Plato rather than with Socrates
(hence his nomenclature of "pre-Platonic philosophy") has not
prevented the predominance of the "pre-Socratic" distinction.
The pre-Socratics were primarily concerned with cosmology, ontology
and mathematics. They were distinguished from "non-philosophers"
insofar as they rejected mythological explanations in favor of
Main article: Milesian school
Thales of Miletus, regarded by
Aristotle as the first philosopher,
held that all things arise from a single material substance, water.
It is not because he gave a cosmogony that John Burnet calls him the
"first man of science," but because he gave a naturalistic explanation
of the cosmos and supported it with reasons. According to
Thales was able to predict an eclipse and taught the
Egyptians how to measure the height of the pyramids.
Thales inspired the
Milesian school of philosophy and was followed by
Anaximander, who argued that the substratum or arche could not be
water or any of the classical elements but was instead something
"unlimited" or "indefinite" (in Greek, the apeiron). He began from the
observation that the world seems to consist of opposites (e.g., hot
and cold), yet a thing can become its opposite (e.g., a hot thing
cold). Therefore, they cannot truly be opposites but rather must both
be manifestations of some underlying unity that is neither. This
underlying unity (substratum, arche) could not be any of the classical
elements, since they were one extreme or another. For example, water
is wet, the opposite of dry, while fire is dry, the opposite of
wet. This initial state is ageless and imperishable, and
everything returns to it according to necessity Anaximenes in turn
held that the arche was air, although John Burnet argues that by this
he meant that it was a transparent mist, the aether. Despite their
varied answers, the
Milesian school was searching for a natural
substance that would remain unchanged despite appearing in different
forms, and thus represents one of the first scientific attempts to
answer the question that would lead to the development of modern
atomic theory; "the Milesians," says Burnet, "asked for the φύσις
of all things."
Main article: Xenophanes
Xenophanes was born in Ionia, where the
Milesian school was at its
most powerful, and may have picked up some of the Milesians'
cosmological theories as a result. What is known is that he argued
that each of the phenomena had a natural rather than divine
explanation in a manner reminiscent of Anaximander's theories and that
there was only one god, the world as a whole, and that he ridiculed
the anthropomorphism of the Greek religion by claiming that cattle
would claim that the gods looked like cattle, horses like horses, and
lions like lions, just as the Ethiopians claimed that the gods were
snubnosed and black and the Thracians claimed they were pale and
Burnet says that
Xenophanes was not, however, a scientific man, with
many of his "naturalistic" explanations having no further support than
that they render the Homeric gods superfluous or foolish. He has
been claimed as an influence on Eleatic philosophy, although that is
disputed, and a precursor to Epicurus, a representative of a total
break between science and religion.
Main article: Pythagoreanism
Pythagoras lived at roughly the same time that
Xenophanes did and, in
contrast to the latter, the school that he founded sought to reconcile
religious belief and reason. Little is known about his life with any
reliability, however, and no writings of his survive, so it is
possible that he was simply a mystic whose successors introduced
rationalism into Pythagoreanism, that he was simply a rationalist
whose successors are responsible for the mysticism in Pythagoreanism,
or that he was actually the author of the doctrine; there is no way to
know for certain.
Pythagoras is said to have been a disciple of
Anaximander and to have
imbibed the cosmological concerns of the Ionians, including the idea
that the cosmos is constructed of spheres, the importance of the
infinite, and that air or aether is the arche of everything.
Pythagoreanism also incorporated ascetic ideals, emphasizing
purgation, metempsychosis, and consequently a respect for all animal
life; much was made of the correspondence between mathematics and the
cosmos in a musical harmony.
Pythagoras believed that behind the
appearance of things, there was the permanent principle of
mathematics, and that the forms were based on a transcendental
Main article: Heraclitus
Heraclitus must have lived after
Xenophanes and Pythagoras, as he
condemns them along with
Homer as proving that much learning cannot
teach a man to think; since
Parmenides refers to him in the past
tense, this would place him in the 5th century BCE. Contrary to
the Milesian school, which posits one stable element as the arche,
Heraclitus taught that panta rhei ("everything flows"), the closest
element to this eternal flux being fire. All things come to pass in
accordance with Logos, which must be considered as "plan" or
"formula", and "the
Logos is common". He also posited a unity
of opposites, expressed through dialectic, which structured this flux,
such as that seeming opposites in fact are manifestations of a common
substrate to good and evil itself.
Heraclitus called the oppositional processes ἔρις (eris),
"strife", and hypothesized that the apparently stable state of
δίκη (dikê), or "justice", is the harmonic unity of these
Main article: Eleatics
Parmenides of Elea cast his philosophy against those who held "it is
and is not the same, and all things travel in opposite
directions,"—presumably referring to
Heraclitus and those who
followed him. Whereas the doctrines of the Milesian school, in
suggesting that the substratum could appear in a variety of different
guises, implied that everything that exists is corpuscular, Parmenides
argued that the first principle of being was One, indivisible, and
unchanging. Being, he argued, by definition implies eternality,
while only that which is can be thought; a thing which is, moreover,
cannot be more or less, and so the rarefaction and condensation of the
Milesians is impossible regarding Being; lastly, as movement requires
that something exist apart from the thing moving (viz. the space into
which it moves), the One or
Being cannot move, since this would
require that "space" both exist and not exist. While this doctrine
is at odds with ordinary sensory experience, where things do indeed
change and move, the Eleatic school followed
Parmenides in denying
that sense phenomena revealed the world as it actually was; instead,
the only thing with
Being was thought, or the question of whether
something exists or not is one of whether it can be thought.
In support of this, Parmenides' pupil
Zeno of Elea
Zeno of Elea attempted to prove
that the concept of motion was absurd and as such motion did not
exist. He also attacked the subsequent development of pluralism,
arguing that it was incompatible with Being. His arguments are
known as Zeno's paradoxes.
Pluralism and atomism
The power of Parmenides' logic was such that some subsequent
philosophers abandoned the monism of the Milesians, Xenophanes,
Heraclitus, and Parmenides, where one thing was the arche, and adopted
pluralism, such as
Empedocles and Anaxagoras. There were, they
said, multiple elements which were not reducible to one another and
these were set in motion by love and strife (as in Empedocles) or by
Mind (as in Anaxagoras). Agreeing with
Parmenides that there is no
coming into being or passing away, genesis or decay, they said that
things appear to come into being and pass away because the elements
out of which they are composed assemble or disassemble while
themselves being unchanging.
Leucippus also proposed an ontological pluralism with a cosmogony
based on two main elements: the vacuum and atoms. These, by means of
their inherent movement, are crossing the void and creating the real
material bodies. His theories were not well known by the time of
Plato, however, and they were ultimately incorporated into the work of
his student, Democritus.
Main article: Sophists
Sophistry arose from the juxtaposition of physis (nature) and nomos
(law). John Burnet posits its origin in the scientific progress of the
previous centuries which suggested that
Being was radically different
from what was experienced by the senses and, if comprehensible at all,
was not comprehensible in terms of order; the world in which men
lived, on the other hand, was one of law and order, albeit of
humankind's own making. At the same time, nature was constant,
while what was by law differed from one place to another and could be
The first man to call himself a sophist, according to Plato, was
Protagoras, whom he presents as teaching that all virtue is
conventional. It was
Protagoras who claimed that "man is the measure
of all things, of the things that are, that they are, and of the
things that are not, that they are not," which
Plato interprets as a
radical perspectivism, where some things seem to be one way for one
person (and so actually are that way) and another way for another
person (and so actually are that way as well); the conclusion being
that one cannot look to nature for guidance regarding how to live
Protagoras and subsequent sophists tended to teach rhetoric as their
primary vocation. Prodicus, Gorgias, Hippias, and
in various dialogues, sometimes explicitly teaching that while nature
provides no ethical guidance, the guidance that the laws provide is
worthless, or that nature favors those who act against the laws.
Classical Greek philosophy
Main article: Socrates
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Socrates, born in Athens in the 5th century BCE, marks a watershed in
ancient Greek philosophy. Athens was a center of learning, with
sophists and philosophers traveling from across Greece to teach
rhetoric, astronomy, cosmology, geometry, and the like. The great
Pericles was closely associated with this new learning and a
friend of Anaxagoras, however, and his political opponents struck at
him by taking advantage of a conservative reaction against the
philosophers; it became a crime to investigate the things above the
heavens or below the earth, subjects considered impious.
said to have been charged and to have fled into exile when Socrates
was about twenty years of age. There is a story that Protagoras,
too, was forced to flee and that the Athenians burned his books.
Socrates, however, is the only subject recorded as charged under this
law, convicted, and sentenced to death in 399 BCE (see Trial of
Socrates). In the version of his defense speech presented by Plato, he
claims that it is the envy he arouses on account of his being a
philosopher that will convict him.
While philosophy was an established pursuit prior to Socrates, Cicero
credits him as "the first who brought philosophy down from the
heavens, placed it in cities, introduced it into families, and obliged
it to examine into life and morals, and good and evil." By this
account he would be considered the founder of political
philosophy. The reasons for this turn toward political and ethical
subjects remain the object of much study.
The fact that many conversations involving
Socrates (as recounted by
Plato and Xenophon) end without having reached a firm conclusion, or
aporetically, has stimulated debate over the meaning of the
Socrates is said to have pursued this probing
question-and-answer style of examination on a number of topics,
usually attempting to arrive at a defensible and attractive definition
of a virtue.
While Socrates' recorded conversations rarely provide a definite
answer to the question under examination, several maxims or paradoxes
for which he has become known recur.
Socrates taught that no one
desires what is bad, and so if anyone does something that truly is
bad, it must be unwillingly or out of ignorance; consequently, all
virtue is knowledge. He frequently remarks on his own
ignorance (claiming that he does not know what courage is, for
Plato presents him as distinguishing himself from the common
run of mankind by the fact that, while they know nothing noble and
good, they do not know that they do not know, whereas
and acknowledges that he knows nothing noble and good.
Numerous subsequent philosophical movements were inspired by Socrates
or his younger associates.
Socrates as the main
interlocutor in his dialogues, deriving from them the basis of
Platonism (and by extension, Neoplatonism). Plato's student Aristotle
in turn criticized and built upon the doctrines he ascribed to
Socrates and Plato, forming the foundation of Aristotelianism.
Antisthenes founded the school that would come to be known as Cynicism
Plato of distorting Socrates' teachings.
Zeno of Citium
Zeno of Citium in
turn adapted the ethics of Cynicism to articulate Stoicism. Epicurus
studied with Platonic and Stoic teachers before renouncing all
previous philosophers (including Democritus, on whose atomism the
Epicurean philosophy relies). The philosophic movements that were to
dominate the intellectual life of the
Roman empire were thus born in
this febrile period following Socrates' activity, and either directly
or indirectly influenced by him. They were also absorbed by the
expanding Muslim world in the 7th through 10th centuries AD, from
which they returned to the West as foundations of Medieval philosophy
and the Renaissance, as discussed below.
Main article: Plato
Plato was an Athenian of the generation after Socrates. Ancient
tradition ascribes thirty-six dialogues and thirteen letters to him,
although of these only twenty-four of the dialogues are now
universally recognized as authentic; most modern scholars believe that
at least twenty-eight dialogues and two of the letters were in fact
written by Plato, although all of the thirty-six dialogues have some
defenders. A further nine dialogues are ascribed to
Plato but were
considered spurious even in antiquity.
Plato's dialogues feature Socrates, although not always as the leader
of the conversation. (One dialogue, the Laws, instead contains an
"Athenian Stranger.") Along with Xenophon,
Plato is the primary source
of information about Socrates' life and beliefs and it is not always
easy to distinguish between the two. While the
Socrates presented in
the dialogues is often taken to be Plato's mouthpiece, Socrates'
reputation for irony, his caginess regarding his own opinions in the
dialogues, and his occasional absence from or minor role in the
conversation serve to conceal Plato's doctrines. Much of what is
said about his doctrines is derived from what
Aristotle reports about
The political doctrine ascribed to
Plato is derived from the Republic,
the Laws, and the Statesman. The first of these contains the
suggestion that there will not be justice in cities unless they are
ruled by philosopher kings; those responsible for enforcing the laws
are compelled to hold their women, children, and property in common;
and the individual is taught to pursue the common good through noble
lies; the Republic says that such a city is likely impossible,
however, generally assuming that philosophers would refuse to rule and
the people would refuse to compel them to do so.
Whereas the Republic is premised on a distinction between the sort of
knowledge possessed by the philosopher and that possessed by the king
or political man,
Socrates explores only the character of the
philosopher; in the Statesman, on the other hand, a participant
referred to as the Eleatic Stranger discusses the sort of knowledge
possessed by the political man, while
Socrates listens quietly.
Although rule by a wise man would be preferable to rule by law, the
wise cannot help but be judged by the unwise, and so in practice, rule
by law is deemed necessary.
Both the Republic and the Statesman reveal the limitations of
politics, raising the question of what political order would be best
given those constraints; that question is addressed in the Laws, a
dialogue that does not take place in Athens and from which
absent. The character of the society described there is eminently
conservative, a corrected or liberalized timocracy on the Spartan or
Cretan model or that of pre-democratic Athens.
Plato's dialogues also have metaphysical themes, the most famous of
which is his theory of forms. It holds that non-material abstract (but
substantial) forms (or ideas), and not the material world of change
known to us through our physical senses, possess the highest and most
fundamental kind of reality.
Plato often uses long-form analogies (usually allegories) to explain
his ideas; the most famous is perhaps the Allegory of the Cave. It
likens most humans to people tied up in a cave, who look only at
shadows on the walls and have no other conception of reality. If
they turned around, they would see what is casting the shadows (and
thereby gain a further dimension to their reality). If some left the
cave, they would see the outside world illuminated by the sun
(representing the ultimate form of goodness and truth). If these
travelers then re-entered the cave, the people inside (who are still
only familiar with the shadows) would not be equipped to believe
reports of this 'outside world'. This story explains the theory of
forms with their different levels of reality, and advances the view
that philosopher-kings are wisest while most humans are ignorant.
One student of
Plato (who would become another of the most influential
philosophers of all time) stressed the implication that understanding
relies upon first-hand observation.
Main article: Aristotle
Aristotle moved to Athens from his native
Stageira in 367 BCE and
began to study philosophy (perhaps even rhetoric, under Isocrates),
eventually enrolling at Plato's Academy. He left Athens
approximately twenty years later to study botany and zoology, became a
tutor of Alexander the Great, and ultimately returned to Athens a
decade later to establish his own school: the Lyceum. At least
twenty-nine of his treatises have survived, known as the corpus
Aristotelicum, and address a variety of subjects including logic,
physics, optics, metaphysics, ethics, rhetoric, politics, poetry,
botany, and zoology.
Aristotle is often portrayed as disagreeing with his teacher Plato
(e.g., in Raphael's School of Athens). He criticizes the regimes
described in Plato's Republic and Laws, and refers to the theory
of forms as "empty words and poetic metaphors." He is generally
presented as giving greater weight to empirical observation and
Aristotle's fame was not great during the Hellenistic period, when
Stoic logic was in vogue, but later peripatetic commentators
popularized his work, which eventually contributed heavily to Islamic,
Jewish, and medieval Christian philosophy. His influence was such
Avicenna referred to him simply as "the Master"; Maimonides,
Alfarabi, Averroes, and
Aquinas as "the Philosopher."
Pyrrho from Elis, in an anecdote taken from Sextus
Empiricus' Pyrrhonic Sketches
(upper) PIRRHO • HELIENSIS •
PLISTARCHI • FILIVS
translation (from Latin): Phyrrho . Greek . Son of Plistarchus
(middle) OPORTERE • SAPIENTEM
HANC ILLIVS IMITARI
SECVRITATEM translation (from Latin): It is right wisdom then that all
imitate this security (Phyrrho pointing at a peaceful pig munching his
(lower) Whoever wants to apply the real wisdom, shall not mind
trepidation and misery
Main article: Hellenistic philosophy
During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, many different schools of
thought developed in the Hellenistic world and then the Greco-Roman
world. There were Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Syrians and Arabs who
contributed to the development of Hellenistic philosophy. Elements of
Persian philosophy and
Indian philosophy also had an influence. The
most notable schools of
Hellenistic philosophy were:
Plotinus (Egyptian), Ammonius Saccas, Porphyry (Syrian),
Zethos (Arab), Iamblichus (Syrian), Proclus
Academic Skepticism: Arcesilaus, Carneades,
Pyrrhonian Skepticism: Pyrrho, Sextus Empiricus
Diogenes of Sinope,
Crates of Thebes
Crates of Thebes (taught
Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism)
Stoicism: Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, Crates of Mallus
Stoicism to Rome c. 170 BCE), Panaetius, Posidonius, Seneca
Marcus Aurelius (Roman)
Epicurus (Greek) and
The spread of
Christianity throughout the Roman world, followed by the
spread of Islam, ushered in the end of
Hellenistic philosophy and the
beginnings of Medieval philosophy, which was dominated by the three
Abrahamic traditions: Jewish philosophy, Christian philosophy, and
early Islamic philosophy.
Transmission of Greek philosophy under Byzantium and Islam
Arab transmission of the Classics to the West
Early Islamic philosophy
Early Islamic philosophy and Latin translations of the 12th
During the Middle Ages, Greek ideas were largely forgotten in Western
Europe due to the Migration Period, which resulted into decline in
literacy. In the
Byzantine Empire Greek ideas were preserved and
studied, and not long after the first major expansion of Islam,
Abbasid caliphs authorized the gathering of Greek
manuscripts and hired translators to increase their prestige. Islamic
philosophers such as
Al-Farabi (Alpharabius), Ibn
Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) reinterpreted these works,
and during the High
Middle Ages Greek philosophy re-entered the West
through translations from Arabic to Latin and also from the Byzantine
Empire. The re-introduction of these philosophies, accompanied by
the new Arabic commentaries, had a great influence on Medieval
philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas. Although we are fortunate to have
some figures who preserved these valuable texts, the general trend in
Islam was to dispose of books that conflicted with the teachings of
Mohammad. This can be seen in events such as the burning of the
Al-hakam II library in Córdoba by Al-Mansur Ibn and Abi Aamir in 976.
English words of Greek origin
International scientific vocabulary
List of ancient Greek philosophers
Transliteration of Greek into English
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Ancient Greek Philosophy, entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of
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The Impact of Greek Culture on Normative Judaism from the Hellenistic
Period through the
Middle Ages c. 330 BCE- 1250 CE
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