A Simple Guide To The Most Famous Greek Philosophers
There are many famous Greek philosophers you should know about, but here are the key figures!
Searching for wisdom in everyday life is a must for all people. We tend to always seek educated opinions and answers in order to save time and pain and organize our life in the easiest and most productive way. This is the reason most of us turn to famous ancient Greek philosophers; they’ve said it all! Thousands of years ahead of our time they tried to explain the mysteries of life, death and well-being by using logic and reason.
This love for wisdom (from the Greek ‘Philo’, love, and ‘Sophia’, wisdom – literally ‘the love of wisdom’) gave to these great men and women the name, Philosophers.
What these extraordinary thinkers did was quite radical for their time. Up until then, people believed in magic and mythology and they interpreted the world around them accordingly. The ancient Greek philosophers brought with them a totally new approach as they turned away from traditional mythological explanations and relied on their unique way of using reason and evidence to explain the world. And guess what, this kind of thinking later on became the basis for science and natural philosophy. It is actually widely admitted that western Philosophy was born in ancient Greece and those fundamental views were developed by ancient Greek philosophers.
Thales (624-546 B.C)
Thales was from the wealthy and flourishing Ionian city of Miletus, one of the most powerful Greek cities of his time. He studied mathematics and astronomy and after working for a small period of his youth in the commerce industry he devoted himself to science and philosophy. He examined natural phenomena, studied the weather, predicted a solar eclipse and even tried to rationalize earthquakes. The better he came to understand the world around him the more he learned that – The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.
No wonder why he was considered one of the seven ancient sages.
Anaximander (610-546 B.C)
Anaximander was also a child of Miletus and the very first disciple of Thales. Following the enlightening instructions of his teacher he applied as much as he could of his rational thinking to understanding and explaining the universe. As a matter of fact he expanded and took his teacher’s theory about the Cosmos much further. He was a firm supporter of the idea that the world we stand on is not a flat mass that needs support from underneath. Most of all we love his conception of Water is the arché (principle) of the universe. This great wise man could not have thought any differently about water, since he grew up and lived in a beautiful Hellenic city in front of the deep blue Aegean Sea.
Pythagoras (569 -500 B.C)
Pythagoras was born on the beautiful island of Samos and is considered to be the last disciple of Thales. He is mostly known as a pure mathematician although he studied thoroughly a great variety of subjects such as poetry, philosophy, astronomy, music and geometry as all wise men did in his time. This educated man passed away during his travels to Egypt and Italy where he had tried to understand and explain the marvel of the Cosmos – the world. He has left behind a great deal of theories fundamental for sciences but most of all the biggest teaching we inherited from him was that – A thought is in idea in transit – and that we should all believe in the power of our logic. Eventually Pythagoras married Theano, a wise philosopher and mathematician herself that lived in his shadow and contributed to the flourishing of his work.
Anaxagoras (510 -428 B.C)
Anaxagoras also a kid of Asia Minor was born in the ancient Greek city of Clazomenae and spent his adult life in Athens, where he pursued a structured education. He is considered the first to have studied philosophy as a separate discipline. He also practiced the rational and observatory explanation of the world in such depth that eventually his studies ended up contradicting with Greek mythology and as a result he was accused of being an atheist. Although rejected by many as a dangerous thinker and exiled from Athens, we know for certain that he deeply influenced several of his ancestral thinkers such as the politician Pericles, the dramatist Euripides and the comic playwright Aristophanes. That is why he so fiercely pronounced that: It is not I who have lost the Athenians but the Athenians who have lost me.
Empedocles (494 – 434 B.C)
On the right: Painting by Salvator Rosa. Depiction of the alleged suicide of Empedocles by jumping into Mount Etna.
Empedocles was born and lived on the west side of the Ionian Sea in Akragas Sicily and died in the Peloponnese. He was admired by big philosophers such as Aristotle as the inventor of rhetoric, by Galen as the founder of Italian medicine and by many others for his poetry. Nowadays he is fondly admired for his protest against animal sacrifice and meat eating. He must have been the first vegetarian!
Although Empedocles was strongly influenced by the theory of the unity of things he also proposed a different concept that the world and all things in it consist of four ingredients: air, water, fire and earth. He also claimed that two forces Love and Strife interact to bring together and separate these four substances.
From his teaching we can assume that he was more than just a wise man but also had a very keen romantic side to him as well.
The force that unites the elements to become all things is Love, also called Aphrodite; Love brings together dissimilar elements into a unity, to become a composite thing. Love is the same force that human beings find at work in themselves whenever they feel joy, love and peace. Strife, on the other hand, is the force responsible for the dissolution of the one back into its many, the four elements of which it was composed.
Heraclitus (540 -480 B.C)
Heraclitus was born in the blooming Greek city of Ephesus located in Minor Asia near the island of Samos which was famous for its temple of the Goddess Artemis. He abandoned his wealthy life early and left his family in order to live alone in the mountains so he could observe the natural cycle of life.
He stated that “There is nothing permanent except change” pronouncing the simple truth that nature is in a state of constant flux. He also taught that the basic ingredient of the world is fire and that opposites coincide (unity of opposites), an interpretation that tends to be controversial.
Democritus (460 -370 B.C)
Democritus was born into a noble family in the Ancient Greek city of Abdera in Thrace. After his father passed away, Democritus used the inheritance he was left with to travel to Egypt, Babylon, throughout Ancient Greece and probably India as well before settling down in his hometown.
He believed that the main goal of life should be happiness for everyone as “Life with no festivity is a long road without an inn”, and he was known as the “laughing philosopher” because of his calm and cheerful demeanor. He contributed greatly to mathematics, poetry, anthropology, biology, medicine, cosmology, physics and atomic theory.
The Three Stars of the Ancient Greek Philosophers’ list:
Socrates (470 – 399 B.C)
The famous work by French painter Jacques-Louis David, depicting Socrates ready to face his death. Notice the old man at the foot of the bed, who is Plato even though he would have been a young pupil at the time, the grieving wife outside the room, whose weakness in the face of death has placed her outside and Socrates idiolized in a pose of unwavering comittment to teaching his students.
Socrates was the Athenian son of a sculptor who studied music, gymnastics and poetry as it was common for most of the young men of his time. He followed his father’s profession and is thought to have been an exceptional artist and even served with distinction in the army. He was married and had three sons living a rather ordinary life up until he was forced by the Oracle of Delphi to reintroduce himself.
The story goes like this: when Socrates was middle-aged, his very close friend Chaerephon asked the Oracle of the God Apollo in Delphi if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. And the God through the mouth of Pythia answered “None”. Socrates who claimed that “The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing” was unhappy with that answer. He wanted to prove the Oracle wrong so he started questioning everyone that was considered to be wise on their opinion of themselves and others. What he found was that people with a great reputation for wisdom were actually lacking the quality of being wise, while the common people seemed to be more intelligent.
Soon enough some young Athenians became interested in his mission to prove that he was in fact not a wise guy and began following him. Some of them later became philosophers themselves and started their own schools. Socrates taught them to focus on teaching the best way to live a good and virtuous life. He also taught them to be humble and honest and remain true to their values, not just in theory but in practice, like when he was accused of betrayal and was convicted to death. Although his students tried to help him escape from the Athenian authorities and what would be a sure death, he refused any such idea choosing instead to stay loyal to his beliefs. Inevitably the impact of the life and death of this great Athenian follow us to this day.
Plato (428 – 348 B.C)
Plato was one of the Athenian students of Socrates who founded his own school, the famous Academy, and wrote several philosophical works that significantly influenced Western thought.
Socrates’s method of dialect and debate impressed young Plato so much that he devoted himself to philosophy seeking virtue and how to be of noble character. He served for a brief period in the Peloponnesian war, travelled throughout the Mediterranean World after the death of Socrates and studied mathematics, astronomy, geology, geometry and religion. It was during that time that he started his writing leaving behind a great amount of wisdom on how to build a fair and just society.
For Plato “Excellence is not a gift, but a skill that takes practice. We do not act “rightly” because we are “excellent”, in fact we achieve “excellence” by acting “rightly”.”
Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C)
Aristotle was born in Halkidiki of Northern Greece near Thessaloniki and was one of Plato’s students. His great mind and work influenced most of the sciences and arts, such as biology, botany, zoology, chemistry, ethics, history, logic, rhetoric, physics, poetics, political theory and psychology. His works in ethics and political theory and the philosophy of science continue to be studied and his theories remain powerful in contemporary examinations.
After the death of this teacher Plato, Aristotle left Athens and was summoned by the king Philip II in Pella to teach the future emperor Alexander the Great beginning in 343 B.C. for three years. Under the guidance of his teacher the brilliant student formed a prominent character and valuable habits as he was taught to Be a free thinker and not accept everything he hears as truth. Be critical and evaluate what you believe in.
So young Alexander gets ready to fight beside his father and to conquer the whole world diffusing at the same time the philosophical ideas of the Greeks to tribes and nations throughout his long journeys.
- Which one of the famous Greek philosophers did you know nothing about? What is the most interesting thing you learnt?
Maria as a child collected with her little hands, grapes, olives, nuts, almonds, and vegetables helping out her family with all the tasks that needed to be done for their home, becoming rich in memories and values of the simple Greek way of living. She lives in Delphi Greece and loves to use her words to share more about her homeland.