Although there were a number of Greek philosophers who were identified throughout history for their contributions to philosophy, three of the most famous are Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Socrates was instrumental in forming many of the beliefs that were embraced by Greek society including those concerning the gods, medicine, music, dance and systems of justice. Socrates’ hard line on many established beliefs worked to put him at odds with much of Greek society and ultimately led to his arrest and death sentence.
Pre-Socratic Greek Philosophers
Pre-Socratic philosophers are often overlooked in philosophical studies and by the general public because of Socrates’ contributions to Western society and culture by virtue of Plato’s body of work. Among the most pre-eminent pre-Socratic philosophers is Thales of Miletus who lived and taught in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. Thales primary contribution to Western thought as it was passed down through philosophical inheritance and later embraced by the Socratic philosophers, chiefly Aristotle, was his refusal to attribute phenomena strictly to the acts of the Gods or other mythological explanations. Thales searched for naturalistic explanations within the physical world and in doing so, perhaps was one of the most influential of pre-Socratic philosophers by setting the precedents that would later morph into the scientific method: “These early Greek thinkers celebrated a hard-headed rationality and an emphasis on material causes rather than speculative poetry and the behavior of divinities behind the scenes”.
Thales was also instrumental in advancing mathematics and particularly geometry.
One of Thales’ inheritors of this intellectual tradition was Pythagoras. Pythagoras was, for a time, a contemporary of Thales but was considerably younger. He is purported to have died around 496 B.C. Pythagoras, like Thales, brought mathematics to the forefront of philosophical thought but, unlike Thales, attributed almost every natural known and unknown phenomena to a mathematical cause or origin in some way. Yet, for all of Pythagoras’ reliance on mathematical equation and inference, he was a product of his times and so his teachings, like those of his contemporaries, though refuting much of the mystical, still spoke to an audience and a society deeply reliant on mythological construct.
While many of the pre-Socratic philosophers did indeed reject much of the mysticism of their time in explaining natural phenomena, this was often only to a matter of degrees and in ways that might seem nonsensical to 21st century rationalism. But the fact that they began to search, at such an early period, for alternate explanations for phenomena easily written off as the product of an angry God, is astounding.
Pythagoras’ thought is deeply influential to this day with the roots of the Hippocratic Oath, the musical scale, and the Pythagorean Theorem grounded firmly in his teachings. However, as with Socrates, there is some difficulty ascertaining exactly what Pythagoras was responsible for as opposed to what were later contributions of his followers.
Another major figure in pre-Socratic Greek philosophy is Parmenides whose search for the ultimate truth or path to truth perhaps mirrored Eastern philosophy’s conception of the Dao or the way. Parmenides began an entire school of thought into the symbolism of language and the signs it represents. With this train of thought he questioned the ultimate substance of the physical world around him. Yet, his examination of language is a philosophical inquiry that was followed up on as late as last century with the likes of Barthes, Saussure, and Derrida, among others who advanced Deconstructionism as a philosophical school of thought much in the way Parmenides might have were he to have lived in the same period.
The last pre-Socratic philosopher to be examined in relation to a diacritical thread of consistent thought and philosophical principles in early Greek philosophy is Empedocles. Empedocles lived during the 4th century B.C. and is perhaps best known and most associated with the principle of the 4 elements usurped by contemporary popular culture and pseudo-science alike. Empedocles could probably be considered a renaissance man of his times since he combined both the philosophical and scientific inquiry of the other major pre-Socratics with a devout mysticism associated with life after death, wrote in verse, and seemed to be, what can best be described as, full of himself, or arrogant to a fault.
Classical Age: Socratic Philosophers
Greek Civilization flourished during the Classical Age. Socrates is considered to be the greatest of the philosophers. His teaching was infused with a high moral purpose: Education, he insisted, had the improvement of the individual as its sole purpose. In the Apology, Socrates puts forth the most succinct arguments in regards to his philosophy: “I go around doing nothing but persuading…you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul.” One can imply from this statement that the Greeks not only believed in some sort of soul, but saw that its care was important.
Although much younger, Plato studied under the Greek philosopher Socrates and therefore much of his philosophy was influenced by him. This was especially true on the issue of order and governance. Plato believed that political authority was required to assist Greek society in its formulation of values and goals and his famous, The Republic, demonstrates Plato’s application of this belief. Like Plato, who incorporated his own philosophy with many of the ideas put forth by Socrates, Aristotle’s recognition as a Greek philosopher could be attributed to some degree by the fact that he was a student of Plato.
Once the teacher of Alexander the Great, Aristotle philosophic views were often influenced by his interest the physical sciences and in metaphysics in particular. In fact, Aristotle is perhaps best known for his work Metaphysics, which examined many common but confounding notions such as man’s existence as well as the concepts of space-and-time and cause-and-effect.
Aristotle exerts a powerful magnetic pull across many disciplines. In Aesthetics Aristotle wrote the Poetics of which its principles for dramatic criticism are still largely used to this day, he wrote a foundational work on rhetoric, he wrote the Nicomachean Ethics dealing with the same subject, he wrote many volumes on the physical and scientific sciences at a time when they were barely conceived, he wrote the Organon which is a collection of writings on logic, and a slew of other publications that are extant to this day. Perhaps the greatest testament to Aristotle’s sheer intellectual capacity for philosophical and scientific inquiry is that researchers are still arguing whether his foundational principles are applicable in the 21st century. The sheer magnitude of Aristotle’s contributions to Western science, society, and aesthetics is difficult to comprehend but important in the attempt.
Perhaps the most well-known Greek philosopher to follow Aristotle was Epicurus who lived from about 341 to 270 B.C. Epicurus is most well-known for an entire philosophical school of study: Epicureanism or a kind of antithesis to stoic philosophy. For Epicurus life was meant to be spent free of threat of harm and fear but lived temperately absent the swings of emotions or instability common to normal everyday life. This lifestyle spent in thoughtful meditation and which forms the basis of ethical thought, is comprised of 4 basic tenets:
- Man has a purpose
- A good life is concerned with harmony in structure
- Rationality and logic should be a primary motivator
- The human being is an integral part of the community as a whole
These principles as espoused by Epicurus and canonized through Epicureanism were themes that have influenced all manner of humanistic philosophers since in whose writings Epicurean themes can be found such as: Rousseau who found claim to some of the concepts of the social contract, John Locke who identified with the basic human rights of life, liberty and property, and ultimately, by association, some aspects of the U.S. Constitution. Epicurus proved to be the West’s version of a Zen philosopher in that he preached a sort of abstinence and an avoidance of a publicly visible life.
The Greeks went far beyond the polytheistic worldview of Zeus and the Olympian Gods, but they did hold such ideas as virtue in high regard. They saw education as valuable in shaping the moral character of the citizen. They believed that to develop a character that was virtuous…a child had to grow up within a moral and educative community. Their morality is a public morality, a group of virtues that made a person a good citizen.