When you think of ancient Greece, you might imagine bearded philosophers drinking wine under Acropolis, speaking wise words about politics, science and the universe. Although this picture might not necessarily be true, ancient Greek philosophers were the first that doubted the contemporary philosophical paradigm, observed and interpreted the world they lived in and set the basis of Western civilization thinking. This list will introduce you to the top 10, so sit comfortably and get ready for some wisdom!
10. Epicurus (c. 341-270 BCE)
“Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.”
Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher as well as the founder of the school of philosophy called Epicureanism. For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia-peace and freedom from fear-and aponia-the absence of pain. Epicurus believed in atoms and taught that the humans had no control over fate. He also refused to believe in the gods and taught that the universe was infinite and had no purpose. He often said that fear of death was one of the main causes of human anxiety and it often led people to despair. Epicurus preached that death was an inescapable reality and that it was an end to the body with the soul as well. Even though Epicurus is believed to have written 300 works, almost none of his writings are known to have survived.
9. Anaxagoras (c. 500-428 BCE)
“The seed of everything is in everything else.”
Anaxagoras was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived in Athens. His philosophical views much revolved around the nature itself. He believed that in the physical world, everything contains a portion of everything else. Nothing was pure on its own and ‘nous’ (which means ‘mind’) asserts a certain motion and meaning to the entities in this chaos. As it was the case with most of the philosophers in ancient Greece, his ideas contrasted and collided with the contemporary ideologies and beliefs that led him to face life-threatening consequences and exile.
8. Pythagoras (c. 570-495 BCE)
“There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.”
Another pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Pythagoras is a famous mathematician who is credited with inventing the Pythagorean Theorem, one of the key computations in geometry. Although better known for his legendary contribution to mathematics, his philosophical works and ideas have had a great influence on modern philosophy and on Plato as well. He regarded the world as perfect harmony and aimed his teaching on how to lead a harmonious life. Some legends also indicate that he was the first to teach that the Earth was round.
7. Heraclitus (c. 535-475 BCE)
“There is nothing permanent except change.”
Heraclitus is yet another pre-Socratic philosopher, mostly known for his contribution to the thought that things are always changing. He thought that change is the fundamental essence of the universe, as stated in the famous saying, “No man ever steps in the same river twice”. He also said that opposites attract and that fire was the base for all things in the world. He was also called “The Obscure” and the “Weeping Philosopher”, because of the lonely life he led and the nature of his philosophy.
6. Democritus (c. 460-370 BCE)
“Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.”
Democritus, the so called “laughing philosopher”, was an influential ancient Greek philosopher and one of the first advocates of democracy, equality and liberty. He was also the first person, along with his mentor Leucippus, to advance the hypothesis that all matter is composed of small invisible particles called atoms. Many consider Democritus to be the “father of modern science”. Apart from that, Democritus was one of the first known critics and a proponent of the just theory—the idea that people should take up arms to defend themselves from tyrants.
5. Empedocles (c. 490-330 BCE)
“There are forces in nature called Love and Hate. The force of Love causes elements to be attracted to each other and to be built up into some particular form or person, and the force of Hate causes the decomposition of things.”
Empedocles was one of the most important pre-Socratic era philosophers. His philosophical landmark was originating the cosmogenic theory of the four classical elements. It states that all matter is basically composed of four primary elements – earth, air, fire and water. He also put forth the idea of opposite motive forces involved in building of the world – namely, love as the cause of union and strife as the cause of separation. He also went on to become the first person to give an evolutionary account on the development of species.
4. Thales (c. 624-546 BCE)
“The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.”
Thales of Miletus is regarded as one of the fathers of Greek philosophy, being a pivotal point for following generations of famous thinkers, philosophers and scientists. He was the first to try to explain natural phenomena without the inclusion of myths, by theories and hypothesis, ergo science. Aristotle points Thales as the first person to have investigated basic principles such as origination of matter. Thales is also said to be the founder of school of natural philosophy.
3. Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE)
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
A student of Plato and the teacher of Alexander the Great, Aristotle is considered one of the world’s greatest ancient philosophers. Aristotle studied a wide variety of subjects, including science, ethics, government, physics and politics, and wrote extensively on them. He believed that people’s concepts and all of their knowledge were ultimately based on perception. All aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy continue to be the object of active academic study today.
2. Plato (c. 428-348 BCE)
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
Plato, a student of Socrates, is regarded as the father of political science and the founder of one of the world’s first known institutions of higher learning, the Academy in Athens. The primary groundwork of Plato’s philosophy is a threefold approach – dialects, ethics and physics, the central point of unison being the theory of forms. For him, the highest of forms was that of the ‘good’, which he took as the cause of being and knowledge. Plato wrote one of the first and most influential works on politics, The Republic, which described an ideal or Utopian society. Like his mentor Socrates, Plato was a critic of democracy.
1. Socrates (c. 469-399 BCE)
“Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.”
The most well-known ancient Greek Philosopher of all time, Socrates, was a master stonemason and social critic. He never wrote anything and most of his philosophical contributions come through his students, mainly Plato. Socrates embarked a whole new perspective of achieving practical results through application of philosophy in our daily lives. Socrates became famous for encouraging 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 in philosophy led to his end, as he was tried and convicted for criticizing religion and corrupting the youth. Socrates then chose death by suicide over exile from his homeland of Athens. His legendary trial and death at the altar of the ancient Greek democratic system has changed the academic view of philosophy as a study of life itself.