Greece has produced some of history’s most important thinkers. Known as the cradle of Western civilisation and birthplace of democracy, ancient Greece gave rise to countless seminal ideas which shape our lives today.
More than 2,000 years ago, Greece was artistically, politically, architecturally and geographically developing. Belief systems in ancient Greece largely revolved around magic, mythology and the idea that a higher deity controlled all. The ancient Greek philosophers offered a new perspective.
Breaking away from mythological explanations in favour of reasoning and evidence, ancient Greek philosophers created a culture of innovation, debate and rhetoric. They placed natural science and the ethical application of philosophical values at the centre of their practice.
Though our list highlights 5 key ancient Greek philosophers, a number of key thinkers such as Zeno, Empedocles, Anaximander, Anaxagoras, Eratosthenes and Parmenides also deserve mention for their contributions to modern philosophy. Without these ancient Greek thinkers, modern philosophical and scientific scholarship may have looked entirely different.
1. Thales of Miletus (620 BC–546 BC)
Despite the fact that none of Thales of Miletus’ writings survive, his work was so formative to subsequent generations of thinkers, theorists, dialectics, meta-physicists and philosophers that his reputation has endured.
Thales of Miletus is renowned as one of the legendary Seven Wise Men (or ‘Sophoi’) of antiquity and was the first to pioneer the basic principle of matter. Most famous is his cosmology, which proposed that water is the underlying component of the world, and his theory that the Earth is a flat disk floating on a vast sea.
He actively engaged in understanding different aspects of knowledge such as philosophy, mathematics, science and geography, and is also said to be the founder of the school of natural philosophy. As well as discovering a number of fundamental geometric theorems, Thales of Miletus is also credited with the phrases ‘know thyself’ and ‘nothing in excess’.
Not one to entirely discount mythology, he was an advocate for bridging the gap between the worlds of myth and reason.
2. Pythagoras (570 BC–495 BC)
Like Thales of Miletus, everything that we know about Pythagoras is reported third-hand, with fragmentary accounts of his life only first appearing some 150 years after his death. Similarly, many of his teachings, which he probably never wrote down, were reported by his disciples from the Pythagorean Brotherhood and may have even been developed after his death.
Though he is known far more for his theories and ideas in mathematics than in philosophy, Pythagoras founded a philosophical school which gained a vast following. This included many prominent women: some modern scholars think that Pythagoras wanted women to be taught philosophy alongside men.
As well as his namesake – Pythagoras’ Theorem – his key discoveries include the functional significance of numbers in the objective world and music, and the incommensurability of the side and diagonal of a square.
More broadly, Pythagoras believed that the world was in perfect harmony, so his teachings encouraged his followers to understand what to eat (he was a vegetarian), when to sleep and how to live with others to achieve equilibrium.
3. Socrates (469 BC–399 BC)
Socrates’ teachings were so formative that many contemporary historians categorise other philosophers as either ‘pre-Socratic’ or ‘post-Socratic’ thinkers. Nicknamed the ‘Father of Western Philosophy’, Socrates is known for pioneering the ‘Socratic Method’, which dictated that a dialogue between a pupil and a teacher was a foundational method of learning.
In this way, he openly moved away from the endless physical speculation that his fellow philosophers prized, instead advocating for a method of philosophy based on human reason that was practically applicable.
This method of practical teaching ultimately led to his downfall, when he was put on trial for ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’. During his defence, he delivered the famous ‘Apology of Socrates’ speech. It criticised Athenian democracy, and remains a central document of Western thought and culture today.
Socrates was condemned to death, but was also given the opportunity to choose his own punishment, and would likely have been allowed to opt for exile instead. However, he chose death, and famously drank the poison hemlock.
Since Socrates had no written account of his philosophy, after his death his fellow philosophers recorded his speeches and dialogues. Among the most famous are dialogues aiming to define virtue, which reveal Socrates as a man of great insight, integrity and argumentative skill.
4. Plato (427 BC–347 BC)
A student of Socrates, Plato incorporated elements of his teacher’s interpretations of human reasoning into his own form of metaphysics, as well as natural and ethical theology.
The foundations of Plato’s philosophy are dialects, ethics and physics. He also investigated and agreed with physical thinkers and incorporated Pythagorean understanding into his works.
Essentially, Plato’s philosophical work describes the world as composed of two realms – the visible (which humans sense) and the intelligible (which can only be grasped intellectually).
He famously illustrated this worldview through his ‘Plato’s Cave’ analogy. This suggested that human perception (i.e. witnessing the shadows of flames on a cave wall) cannot equate to true knowledge (actually viewing and understanding the fire itself). He espoused finding meaning beyond face value – using philosophical thought to truly understand the lived world.
In his famous work The Republic, Plato combines various aspects of ethics, political philosophy and metaphysics to create a philosophy which was systematic, meaningful and applicable. It is still widely taught as a key philosophical text today.
5. Aristotle (384 BC–322 BC)
Just as Plato was taught by Socrates, Aristotle was taught by Plato. Aristotle emerged as one of Plato’s most influential disciples but disagreed with his teacher’s philosophy that meaning was beyond accessibility through our senses.
Instead, Aristotle developed a theory of philosophy that interpreted the world as based on facts learned from experience. He also proved to be an imaginative writer, gradually re-writing and defining pre-established concepts in almost all areas of knowledge that he encountered.
He is also credited with being the first to ‘break down’ knowledge into different categories such as ethics, biology, mathematics and physics, which is a classification pattern still used today. His philosophical and scientific system became the framework and vehicle for both Christian Scholasticism and medieval Islamic philosophy.
Even after the intellectual revolutions of the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, Aristotle’s ideas and theories have remained embedded in Western culture.