Ancient Greek Philosophy and Philosophers

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Zeno of Citium in Thomas
Stanley's History of Philosophy
Philosophy is said to have been the beginning of reason , with the assumption being that before then people didn’t question things, they simply accepted them as seemed to be the case in ancient Egypt, where things changed little in 3000 years. Philosophy was like religion in that it attempted to explain things that were difficult to explain but rather than relying on doctrines and set beliefs to explain them it used reasoning the scientific thought to sort them out. For the Greeks, it was also a mental exercise the same way working in the gymnasium was physical exercise. [Sources: The “Seekers” by Daniel Boorstin (Vintage Books, 1998). Translations of Greek texts by Benjamin Jowett]

Philosophy is said is to have began in ancient Greece. The primary forces behind its founding were curiosity and a desire to understand the universe and explain things that happened around them. The Greece philosophers were as much scientists and as philosophers. They often devoted as much attention to describing phenomena in the natural world as they did exploring human issues such as fate and mankind’s purpose.

The Golden Age of Philosophy extended roughly from 430 B.C. to 320 B.C., corresponding with the lives of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Although Plato was a pupil of Socrates and Aristotle was a pupil of Plato all three philosophers made very different contributions to philosophy. Great schools of philosophy included Plato's Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum. These and other schools were often connected to gymnasiums and some early students were athletes who listened to lectures between training sessions. There were also groups like the Sophists, Cynics, and Stoics.

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Books: “Greek Thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge” by Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey E.R. Lloyd (Harvard University Press); “ The Seekers” by Daniel Boorstin (Vintage Books, 1998]


Early Ancient Greek Philosophers

20120222-Greek_philosopher_busts.jpg Early philosophers of the Archaic Age such as Thales of Miletus (624-546? B.C.) and Herakleitos (540?-475 “) began investigating things like the nature of the universe, the origin of life and the nature of life. Among other things, Thales believed that all things developed from water not the gods. Herakleitos argued that change was the guiding force in the universe and permanence was impossible.

Parmenides (5th century B.C.) and Zeno of Elea (5th century B.C.) , sometimes considered the founding fathers of philosophy, were the first people to be recorded as questioning the nature of being. Parmenides had the opposite view as Herakleitos. He argued that permanence was the guiding force in the universe and change was impossible. Some scholars have suggested that Zeno of Elea was gay.


Pythagoras of Samos (sixth century B.C.) is said to have been the first man to call himself a philosopher and is credited with coining the word philosophy. None of his original writings survive. According to legend he fled the Aegean island of Samos as a youth to escape from an evil tyrant. After being exposed to new ideas in Egypt and Asia Minor he established a school in the Italian colony of Kroton in 530 B.C. After being persecuted and forced to flee again he settled in Metapontum, Greece, where he died around 500 B.C.

Pythagoras was one of the first people to become a vegetarian for health and philosophical reasons. He ate bread and honey for his meals, with vegetables for desert, and he even abstained from eating eggs and beans. He didn’t eat meat because he believed that animals had souls. His belief about beans had nothing to do with farts. Instead it based on the belief that beans were the first offspring of the Earth.

There is no evidence that Pythagoras was a mathematician, let alone proved the theorem named after him or discovered the ratios of musical intervals. He was however a number-worshiper and a guru who founded a commune and spoke of the coming of a messiah-like figure. The theorem named after him (“the sum of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides”) was known to the Sumerians as early as 2000 B.C.

Pythagoreans and Pythagorean Beliefs

20120222-Pythagoras Gaffurio 1.jpg The Pythagoreans were followers of the philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras. Headquartered first on the island of Samos and later Croton in southern Italy, they were the first to make the profound discovery that all aspects of nature — musical notes, mathematics, science, architecture and engineering — followed rules that were determined by the relationship between numbers.

The Pythagoreans were like an ascetic religious cult. They believed in reincarnation and conducted purification rituals that attempted to erase wrongs committed in past lives. They were required to follow many rules. They had to be vegetarians. They couldn’t drink wine and were required to observe periods of silence. Their purification rituals were conducted with great secrecy.

The Pythagoreans believed in a general prohibition against eating animals on the grounds of “having a right to live in common with mankind.” Their ideas were an inspiration for the Neoplatonist of the A.D. third and forth centuries and their views on purification of the soul before the afterlife influenced early Christians.

The Pythagoreans believed in immortality and “transmigration of the soul” (the idea that after death souls went to heaven or occupied the bodies of men or animals). They also thought that pure knowledge was the essence of the soul and the best means of attaining pure knowledge was through numbers.

The Pythagoreans believed the world was a sphere and that the sphere was the most perfect shape. They then took that idea a step further, theorizing that the Earth was the center of the universe because all objects are pulled to the center of something, which creates a sphere (in this case the Earth).

Pythagoreans and Music

20120222-Pythagoras Gaffurio22.jpg The Pythagoreans showed how numbers could be used to describe the harmonies and beauties of music and introduced the musical terminology of the octave, the fifth, the forth, expressed as 2:1, 3:1 and 4:3. They found that the most pleasant sounds occurred in exact proportions and discovered that the length of a musical string was is in an exact numerical relation to the pitch of its tone.

Notes are sound waves created by vibrations. A vibration that is twice as high as another is an octave. Others that are pleasant together are those whose vibration are a forth or fifth higher. These same proportions are used in designing what are regarded as aesthetically pleasing building, which is why architecture has been called “frozen music.”

The Pythagoreans argued that of numbers worked so well describing music they could also describe everything in the universe. Describing the Pythagoreans in his “Metaphysics” , Aristotle wrote: "they say that the things themselves are Numbers and do not place the objects of mathematics between Forms and sensible things...Since, again, they saw that the modifications and the ratios of the musical scales were expressible in numbers — since, then, all other things seemed in their whole nature, they supposed the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number...and the whole arrangement of the heavens they collected and fitted into their scheme; and if there was a gap anywhere, they readily made additions so as to make their whole theory coherent."


20120222-Cynic_philosopher-Musei_Capitolini.jpg The Sophists were a group of anti-philosophers. Protagoras (480?-411 B.C.), their founder, believed that the human mind was incapable of fathoming the truth and said that all view points could be argued and people were better off spending their time doing civic duties and helping others. His famous motto was: “Man is the measure of all things.”

Rising to prominence in the 5th century B.C., Sophists were traveling teachers who taught mainly in sports gymnasiums. They opposed philosophical speculation. Instead they taught rhetoric in Dale Carnegie-style positive thinking and getting-ahead-in-life classes. These practical philosophers believed thought and action were intrinsically linked and persuasion was the most effective means of getting what one wanted. The Sophists gave us the word sophism, meaning a clever but specious.

The Sophists had a special speech-making school for generals and statesman. Protagoras taught his students many useful tips including never let "vowels fall in adjacent positions, for this would create a halting effect, nor is it right to end one word and begin the next with same syllable." The leader's most famous speech, “ Panegyric,” took nearly 15 years to compose. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Cynics and Diogenes

Diogenes of Sinope
The Cynics were created after the death of Socrates in 339 B.C. They were like hippies. They dressed is shabby clothes, begged for spare change and taunted sports fans when they left the stadiums. They even went as far as urinating and shitting in public as a kind of performance art. They gave us the words cynical and cynics

The Cynics were founded by Antisthenes (445- 360 B.C.). They stressed the private individual's search for happiness, satisfaction of animal gratification and turned up their noses to social convention and material possessions.

Diogenes (372-287 B.C.) is the philosopher most associated with the Cynics. The son of a Crimean banker who was exiled to Greece for his involvement a counterfeiting scandal, he was captured by pirates and sold into slavery. Before he was sold he said his only skill was governing men and that he should sold to someone who wanted to learn such a skill.

Diogenes ended up teaching children in Corinth, where he became so famous that Alexander the Great once came to visit. When Alexander asked if he could do anything for Diogenes, the philosophers said, yeah, Alexander could stop standing between him and the sun.

Diogenes was a great admirer of Socrates and was known as an eccentric. He believed that wisdom could be obtained by giving up material possession expect a cloak and a wooden bowl. He used to sleep in a cask and a tub. Once he was spotted walking through the streets in the daytime holding a lantern. When he was asked why, he said, “I am seeking an honest man.”

Stoics, Skeptics and Epicureans

20120223-Epicurus Raphael.jpg
Epicurus by Raphael
Zeno of Citium (335-263 B.C.) and the Stoics exalted reason, identified it with reason, and counseled an ascetic disregard for misfortune. Zeno "preached that wise men should remain indifferent to the vanities of the transient world." The Stoics gave us the word stoic, meaning: enduring pain or hardship without showing feelings or complaining.

Epicurus (342?-270 B.C.) proposed that the world is infinite and there are other worlds. The Epicureans regarded reality as a random arrangement of atoms and maintained that pleasure was the primary guiding force in life The Epicurean tried to build lives around the attainment of moderate pleasure without political or emotional involvement. The Epicureans gave us the word epicurean, meaning: devoted to the pursuit of sensual pleasure, especially to the enjoyment of good food and comfort.↕

The Skeptics — a group that in its extreme forms avoided all activity and human contact by going into the desert — argued it was impossible to be sure about anything.

Ancient Greek Philosophy and Christianity

Philosophers showed an increasing concern with religion during the first centuries of the Christian era. Some combined Greek Philosophy with Oriental religious mysticism, The Neoplatonists created religious philosophies based on Plato’s teachings. A prominent Neoplatonist was Plotinus (A.D. 205? -270), whose views were used to combat the doctrines of Christianity.

The greatest early Christian thinker was St. Augustine (354-430) who philosophy drew heavily on Platonic concepts.

As Christianity became distanced from its Jewish roots it began to incorporate elements of other cultures and ways of thinking. It was especially influenced by Greek philosophy and Roman concepts of organization. Christianity also influenced other institutions. Roman paganism was influenced by Christianity and Christian hermits.

Theology according to historian Daniel Boorstein was "a Western creation nurtured in Hellenist Alexandria" and was "both a producer and a by-product of Christianity." Whereas the myth of the Gods and philosophy were separated under the Greeks. They were united in theology as Moses was made into a philosopher as well religious leader.

20120223-Plato Diogenes_brings_a_plucked_chicken_to_Plato.jpg
Diogenes brings a plucked chicken to Plato

Philo of Alexandria (late first century B.C. to first century A.D.) is considered the father of theology. A rich Jewish nobleman, who was regarded a quite a fun-loving guy, he was one of the first to scrutinize Jewish-Christian doctrine using Platonic philosophical reasoning.

Another influential thinker was Origen (185?-254), an Alexandrian Greek who castrated himself to ensure his purity and became head of the leading Christ theological academy at the age of 18. He is credited with giving Christianity some analytical credibility by incorporating elements of Greek philosophy but was unsuccessful making it hold up to the scrutiny of history.

Alexandria was a center of Christian and Jewish learning as well Greek learning. One of the greatest achievements of the Alexandria Library and learning center was The creation of the Old Testament by seventy-two Jewish scholars, brought together by Ptolemy, to translate the Hebrew Bible (the Torah), "which from its beginning was enshrouded in legend and folklore," into Greek. According to a Jewish legend, Ptolemy asked each of the Jewish scholars to individually to translate the whole Hebrew bible, and miraculously, the result, was 72 identical versions. Modern copies of the Bible are all based on the Greek translation.

Gnostics, St. Augustine and Greek Philosophy

Gnostics were Christian mystics who emerged between around A.D. 100 in Egypt and christianized a pagan sun festival around A.D. 120-140. Influenced by Plato and other Greek philosophers, they viewed things in dualistic terms such as between the goodness of the spirit and the evil of the earth and between a real world and false world. Gnosticism may have originally been a Christian adaption of the Greek philosophy. “ Gnosis” is the Greek word for knowledge. Much of what we know about the Gnostics comes from the Nag Hammadi manuscripts.

20120223-Pythagoras_Emerging_from_the_Underworld by_Salvator_Rosa.jpg
Pythagoras Emerging from the Underworld by Salvator Rosa

St. Augustine’s efforts helped clarify many divisive doctrinal issues and helped define what the Christian church is today. His account of his early life in his “Confessions” is widely regarded as classic biography of the conversion experience. In addition to the contributions he made to religion Augustine has also been called the first great psychologist, the father of the autobiography and pioneer of using literature to analyze himself and to explore self consciousness. His philosophy drew heavily on Platonic concepts.

Thomas Aquinas accepted Christian doctrines as beyond dispute but also studied and translated the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, and set about harmonizing their ideas with Christianity.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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