In the ancient pre-historic times, people had a rather strong belief in magic and mythology whenever it came to interpreting the world around us. The world as they perceived was largely influenced by the presence of a higher deity. The ancient Greek philosophers bought a refreshing approach to the contemporary philosophical paradigm. They broke away from the tradition of the mythological explanation for the observations they made, and embarked on an interpretation largely based on reasoning and evidence. The ancient Greece saw the rise of a plethora of philosophers. Among these a number of key figures stood out for their seminal work and ideas in philosophy. Their esoteric philosophical ideas on primitive natural science as well as the ethical application of their philosophical values in the society gave them a recognition that lives to this day. Here is the list of 10 most influential ancient Greek philosophers.
10. Parmenides 510 BCE – 560 BCE
Parmenides was a known follower of Pythagoras, another renowned figure in the philosophical paradigm of ancient Greece. His poems and thoughts always seemed to have a significant influence from Xanophanes, leading to most of the historians contemplating that he must have been his pupil. Among the pre-Socratic philosophers (those who went into the limelight before the time-period of Socrates), he is placed among one of the most significant ones.
In his only known work, the aptly titled poem ‘On Nature’, he tries to unravel the biggest questions of all – Is it or is it not? If truth be told, his attempt at deciphering this philosophical mystery (and a rhetorical one, some might say) leads to a rather paradoxical statement rather than a satisfying answer. Parmenides states that everything ‘that is’ must have always been, since any arbitrary, nothing would have to come from ‘nothing’ itself. And in turn, it becomes a paradox because it is impossible to think of what is not, and again, it is also impossible to think of something that cannot be thought of. The subsequent philosophers that succeeded him would work on to simply these philosophical impossibilities.
9. Anaxagoras 500 BCE – 428 BCE
Another important figure from the pre-Socratic era, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae was an influential philosopher and scientist who lived and taught in Athens for almost 30 years. His philosophical views much revolved around the nature itself. 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.
Anaxagoras is credited for being the first to establish a philosophy in its entirety in Athens, a place where it would go on to reach its peak, and continue to have an impact on the society for hundreds of years to come. He devoted much of his time in explaining nature as it is – taking universe as an undifferentiated mass until it was worked upon by a spiritual component which he called ‘nous’. He believed that in the physical world, everything contains a portion of everything else. Nothing was pure on its own, and everything was jumbled together in a chaotic, and ‘nous’ (which means ‘mind’) asserts a certain motion and meaning to the entities in this chaos.
8. Anaximander 610 BCE – 546 BCE
Anaximander of Miletus is the famous pupil and, in many ways, a philosophical successor to Thales himself. He is credited for being the first known writer on philosophy – given that he is the only known philosopher to have authored the first surviving lines of western philosophy. He is also a known figure in early of biology and geography. Moreover, he created the first world image of an open universe, diverting from the-then notion of closed universe and making him the first speculative astronomer in the human history.
He further extended the philosophical views of his master – proposing an ‘Arche’ or a principle that he believed to be the basis of all universe. But unlike Thales, he believed this basis had an ‘apeiron’ (an unlimited substance) that acted as a source for everything. This source acted as the prime point of differentiation for polar opposites like hot and cold, light and dark and so on. Much of his work may remain truncated, especially at the hands of subsequent generations of philosophers. But he was indeed one of the greatest minds in the ancient Greece.
7. Empedocles 490 BCE – 430 BCE
Empedocles was one of the most important pre-Socratic era philosophers and even more outstanding were his poems that went on to impose a great influence on later poets including the likes of Lucretius. One of his philosophical landmarks has been his assertion of four element theory of matter. It states that all matter is basically composed of four primary elements – earth, air, fire and water. This became one of the earliest theories to have been postulated on particle physics, although some historians see it as a hassled effort to negate the no-dualism theory of Parmenides.
He simply rejected the presence of any void or an empty space, thus contradicting the philosophical ideology of Parmenides through and through. He 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.
6. Zeno 490 BCE – 430 BCE
At a time when most philosophers in ancient Greece were scrutinizing their reasons and knowledge to interpret nature as it is, Zeno of Elea was devoting his time in elucidating the many puzzles and paradoxes about motion and plurality. It is worth noticing he tried to lay a detailed explanation to contradicting conclusions present in the physical world in days much before the development of logic.
Zeno further expanded and defended the philosophical ideologies established by Parmenides, which were facing much opposition from common opinion at that time. He propounded multiple paradoxes himself, which became as debated among later generations of philosophers. A majority of contemporary arguments on his paradoxes used to lead to dividing time and space infinitely – such as if there is a distance; there also is half of that distance and so on. Zeno was first in the philosophical history of mankind to show the concept of infinity exists.
5. Pythagoras 570 BCE – 495 BCE
Another pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Pythagoras is someone known far more for his theories and ideas in mathematics than in philosophy. In fact, he is best known for the theorem in geometry that is named after him. He is one of the most familiar names from pre-Socratic society, but yet, what we know about him surprisingly less. He is credited with founding a philosophical school that amassed him a number of followers.
It was at this school that Pythagoras tried to find a mutual harmony between real life and the practical aspects of philosophy. His teachings were not strictly constricted to what we know as philosophy, but also included common issues like ‘rules on living’, ‘daily food to eat’ and so on.
He regarded the world as perfect harmony and aimed his teaching on how to lead a harmonious life.
4. Socrates 469 BCE – 399 BCE
Socrates embarked a whole new perspective of achieving practical results through application of philosophy in our daily lives – something that was largely missing in the approach of pre-Socratic philosophy. He openly diverted from the relentless physical speculations prior philosophers were so busy interpreting and assimilating, and attempted to establish an ethical system that would be based on human reasoning rather than various (and often widely debated) theological doctrines.
Instead of regurgitating ideas solely based on his individual interpretations, he would question people relentlessly on their beliefs, and try to find definitions of virtues by conversing with anyone who would proclaim to possess such qualities. Socrates became a key figure amassing numerous followers, but he also made many enemies. Eventually, his beliefs and realistic approach in philosophy led to his execution. But one might argue that his philosophical martyrdom, more than anything else, turned him into the iconic figure that he is today.
3. Plato 427 BCE – 347 BCE
He was a Socrates’ student, and was visibly influenced by the philosophical approach of his master. But while Socrates was relentlessly occupied with interpreting philosophy based solely on human reasoning, Plato indulged himself in combining the two major approaches – pre-Socratic metaphysics and nature theology with Socratic ethical theology.
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. In physics, he agreed with much of the views of Pythagoreans. Most of his works, especially his most famous work – ‘The Republic’ serves as a blend for various aspects of ethics, political philosophy and metaphysics among others into a systematic, meaningful and applicable philosophy.
2. Aristotle 384 BCE – 322 BCE
Aristotle of Stagira was most influential among the disciples of Plato. His interpretation of things were more based on facts learnt from experience one would gain in their lives, an approach that differed from that of his master who preferred a perspective that was beyond the accessibility of physical senses. He proved to be an imaginative writer and equally creative polymath, gradually re-writing pre-established concepts in almost all areas of knowledge that he touched.
At a time when the expertise of human knowledge remained far too generalized, he broke down the overall knowledge assimilation into distinct categories such as ethics, biology, mathematics and physics – a classification pattern still used today. Aristotle is truly a key figure in the ancient Greek philosophy whose influence went on to have an impact way beyond the bounds of ancient Greece, and much further in time.
1. Thales of Miletus 620 BCE – 546 BCE
Thales of Miletus gets the top spot on this list for being the pivotal point in ancient Greek philosophy whereon the subsequent generations of many famous thinkers, theorists, dialectics, meta physicists and philosophers sprouted from. He is reputed among historians as the Father of Ancient Greek Philosophy. A majority of Thales’ ideologies come from Aristotle’s depiction, who points out 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.
As a philosopher, Thales rarely confined his research to a limited area among available knowledge and was actively indulged in understanding various aspects of knowledge such as philosophy, mathematics, science, geography and what not. He is also said to have developed a well-defined standard to theorize why changes occur in things. He proposed water as the basic underlying component of the world. Thales was highly esteemed among ancient Greeks and his hypotheses usually added meaning and girth into already existing ideas on nature.
The emergence of entire western philosophical tradition can be traced back to era of ancient Greek philosophy. The evolution of philosophical concerns and critical thinking among the philosophers in ancient Greece that started somewhere around the 6th century BCE arguably played a pivotal role in the subsequent development of knowledge as we know it today. They practiced varying approaches in their philosophical journey, seeking answers to known paradoxes, and creating countless more on the way. It started with the first attempt by Thales at perceiving the world from a methodical perspective. The succeeding cohort of critical thinkers went on diversify this approach into natural science, metaphysics and, eventually, ethical theology – leading to the evolution of philosophy as we know it today.