The Greeks and philosophy go together like peas and carrots. It’s nearly impossible to mention one without the other.
In many ways, philosophy was the Greeks’ greatest contributions to world history. Not only did they introduce new ideas but they also introduced totally new ways of thinking. This set in motion the wheels of change, helping humanity transition from a species reliant on mysticism and belief to one dependent on science and proof.
Many of the ideas introduced by the ancient Greek philosophers are still relevant today, and some of the questions they ask remain unanswered. But while we can debate their ideas, it’s hard to argue about the influence the Greeks had on both ancient and modern thought.
In general, ancient Greek philosophy can be broken up into three different parts: pre-Socratic, Socratic, and post-Socratic, aka Hellenistic.
The word Socratic comes from Socrates, arguably the most famous of all the Greek philosophers. He is used as the marker of different eras in Greek philosophy because the ideas being discussed before, during, and after his time were all very different.
The First Cause
For the pre-Socratics, the big question they were trying to answer was: where does life come from?
Phew, an easy one.
Part of the reason they may have been concerned with this is because ancient Greek religion did not have a single creation story. They believed the gods were involved, somehow, but there was little agreement as to how.
Therefore, there was a lot of room for interpretation, and people would have been willing to listen to new ideas.
One of the first people to delve into this topic was Thales of Miletus, a city on the Ionian coast, which is in modern-day Turkey. He believed that the origin of life was in water, making him one of the first people on record to say that life was not created by the gods. Talk about a game changer.
From there, philosophers came up with all sorts of different theories. For example, Pythagorus argued that numbers were the only truth in the universe. He said, just as numbers have no end and no beginning, so too does life. It’s merely a constant flow from one state to the next.
Pythagorus is also famous for creating his theorem about triangles. Discovering a mathematical law so reliable would have provided some nice proof to his idea that numbers were all that mattered.
Later on came a man named Democritus, and he was most concerned with understanding the smallest particles in the Universe. He thought that if we could understand these, we could understand everything. Such a theory gave birth to the concept of the atom.
Another Pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaxagoras, argued that the universe once existed as a mixture of all matter in infinitely small parts and that, eventually, that mixture began to expand into the known Universe. While hardly as scientific, this is one of the first examples of what we now call the Big Bang Theory.
In the end, the pre-Socratic philosophers were unable to prove any of their theories. But they were touting around ideas that were entirely new. However, more importantly, they helped logic and reason gain importance in society.
Previously, people just accepted whatever someone told them was true, especially when it had to do with the gods. But thanks to the pre-Socratics, people started stopping and saying, “Wait a minute…why is that true?”
This tradition of questioning and seeking a logical explanation to things in the world planted the seeds for the scientific method, which is still the primary means of investigation in the modern world.
The Rise of the Sophists
Another major contribution the pre-Socratics made was that they made philosophy cool in ancient Greece. While their theories were controversial, people liked hearing them. And they also liked the ways in which these people presented their ideas.
Therefore, wealthier members of society began hiring philosophers to come and teach them, not only about their ideas but also about how to be persuasive and effective while talking.
Such a practice would have been highly valued in a place such as Athens since it operated as a democracy. Being able to speak eloquently and persuasively could earn you a lot of power.
These teachers were called Sophists, and they were basically the world’s first professional philosophers. That you could make a living learning and teaching philosophy just encouraged more people to follow this path, opening the door for even more philosophy down the road.
In around 470 BC, in a small Greek town named Alopece, a man named Socrates was born. Soon, he would move to Athens and start thinking and writing, changing the world along the way.
Unlike the philosophers that came before him, Socrates was less concerned with the origin of life and the Universe and instead focused more on issues of morality and ethics, as well as epistemology, which is the study of “how we know what we know.”
He believed that it was impossible to know anything for sure, and he taught people to relentlessly question everything they saw and experienced so that they could better understand it.
This approach gave way to the “Socratic Method,” which is a style of inquiry based on questioning that is still in use today — this is why modern court cases involve lawyers asking witnesses lots of questions.
Eventually, however, Socrates asked too many questions and started annoying the people in power. He was accused of heresy, found guilty, and sentenced to death.
His student, Plato, continued his legacy and also built on it. His primary focus was on government, as in, which is the best form?
A big reason for this shift that took place during this time is that this era was defined by war. First, the Greeks fought the Persians. Then, Athens and Sparta fought, then Sparta and Thebes, then Thebes and Athens, then everyone.
Seeing all this war, and all its consequences, likely provoked these philosophers to wonder “what form of government would best help us avoid all of this?”
The next most famous Socratic philosopher is Aristotle. He was Plato’s student, but he was interested in very different things. Mainly, Aristotle was concerned with understanding the physical world, but he applied elements of the Socratic method to his studies, helping bring this technique into the world of science.
Overall, these three philosophers and their contemporaries made many contributions to Greek society. But perhaps the most important was that they helped establish logic and reason as the primary means of understanding something. In doing this, they had a dramatic impact on how we see and understand the world today.
The last branch of ancient Greek philosophy is called Post-Socratic, or Hellenistic. It emerged after Socrates (duh), during the time when Greek kingdoms stretched from Greece all the way to India.
During this period, the focus of philosophy switched from thinking about broad issues such as society, government, and ethics to issues of happiness and personal satisfaction.
A big reason for this may have been that the Greek world was at its most prosperous during this time. Yet despite all this wealth and abundance, the normal suffering of existence persisted. Therefore, the Greek philosophers of this time often asked, “What makes for a good life?”
An interesting question, indeed, one that we are still trying to answer today.
To try and solve this mystery, these philosophers used the same logic and reason that had been developing during earlier eras of Greek philosophy, and they arrived at some very interesting conclusions.
For example, one major school to emerge during this time was Cynicism. These philosophers believed that the best way to live was in harmony with nature and against convention. To put this into practice, they often chose to live in poverty, and they set up settlements in the middle of nowhere so that they could live as disconnected from society as possible.
Followers of Cyrenaicism believed that the best life was one that was full of physical pleasure. They argued that virtue had no real benefit, and that the best way to live was by maximizing the joy you could experience in your body.
In a similar but different vein, followers of Epicureanism argued that the objective of life was not necessarily to maximize pleasure but rather to minimize pain, both mental and physical. So, they pursued lifestyles that allowed them to live at peace.
Stoicism, on the other hand, centered around the idea that there were certain things humans could not change, and that happiness and peace could be found only by accepting this truth.
Other schools that emerged during this time include Skepticism, which doubted humans’ ability to ever know truth, as well as Megarian philosophy, which introduced the world to concepts such as conditional logic.
The Golden Age of Greek Philosophy
Many other versions of philosophy emerged during this time, and this was in part due to the widespread influence of Greek culture.
Because there were so many Hellenistic kingdoms spread out over such a large swath of territory, philosophers could come from anywhere, which meant they could have very different ideas and perspectives on life.
They would travel the Hellenistic kingdoms, learning new things and teaching one another, particularly in places such as Alexandria and Antioch, the two biggest cities of the Hellenistic world.
This may have been one of the high points in the history of philosophy. Being a philosopher at this time would have earned you considerable prestige, especially if you could recruit a following to your ideas.
Therefore, the field flourished and gave the world more ideas than it had ever had before. For example, never before had human happiness been such an important issue. And by bringing it to the forefront and subjecting it to scientific thought, it becomes a key concern of people.
From this point on, life was no longer about pleasing the gods and making it to the afterlife. There was now a strong desire to live well, and lots and lots of ideas about how to do it.
The Ongoing Role of Greek Philosophy
Although these philosophers all lived more than 2,000 years ago, their ideas remain as relevant as ever. The questions they asked remain some of the biggest mysteries we as a species face, and the methods they used to answer these questions make up the foundation of modern science.
In fact, the Greek philosophers were so important that they were the inspiration for Renaissance thinkers. This was the period of time in Europe from c. 1400-c. 1700 in which art and science flourished after centuries of oppression from the Catholic church. It had a profound impact on the development of the modern world, and it was all made possible thanks to the works of the Greek philosophers.
Today, Greek philosophy is required reading for anyone wishing to study the field. But even if you don’t become a student of philosophy, it’s impossible to avoid the influence of the Greeks. Their thoughts and ideas are everywhere!
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Del Hambre