Top 10 Ancient Greek Philosophers

One of the cornerstones of Greek civilization and culture were the Greek philosophers. An old, traditional, long-held belief was prevalent in ancient Greece that things were manifested purely according to the whims of the Gods.

Any mishap or misfortune that happened was an attribute of the manoeuvres of angry Gods and goddesses. Needless to say, if something good happened it was because the Gods were pleased.

During this time, there was an evolution in the belief and assumed that all things are guided by natural laws, a milestone that set the advent of modern science, mathematics and logic. This amalgamation was as explosive as it was nascent.

Thus, this concoction exploded in ancient Greece, thereby birthing philosophers we now recall.

I have compiled a list of top ten philosophers of ancient Greece who have conceived a paradigm shift the trajectory of which is infinite.

10. Anaximander (610 BCE-546 BCE) 

Anaximander of Miletus is a philosopher of the pre-Socratic period. He was a follower and pupil of Thales who went on to succeed him.

Having propounded the first cosmology or a philosophical paradigm of the world, he is known as the Father of Astronomy.

Only a handful of his works have survived for most of them are obliterated from history. These remnants are summaries compiled by Greek philosophers who later succeeded him. 

His central idea of the origin of things steered clear of the prevalent notion that it was a divine manifestation; he asserted that everything is ‘Apeiron’ borne, which translates into the boundless or that which is limitless.

According to Anaximander, Apeiron is a material which has no limit, neither in time nor in space. It is an undefined mass having no quality and devoid of beginning or end. Everything stems from this one infinite thing.

He is credited for cosmology, which was the single greatest achievement of any philosopher during the ancient period.

9. Empedocles (492 BCE-432 BCE)

Source: Wikimedia Common

Empedocles of Acagras was born in approximately 490 BC and was the most lively of all the pre-Socratics.

He is the ‘most multi-faceted figure of Greek philosophy’. The title attributed, was because of his dichotomous temperament of both the rationale and the spiritual zest.

Empedocles adhered to the theory of Parmenides and proceeded to claim that there are four categories of elementary particles which he called the ‘roots’ of all things.

These roots, such as fire, water, air and the earth are eternal and indestructible and infinite in number. He claimed that one thing could not transform itself to the other as well as they are qualitatively and quantitatively immutable in themselves.

He has opined that it is in their mingling that gives rise to the other myriad things of the universe.

Besides the four elemental theory, he has also proposed Love and Strife, an approach that states that elements with strong attracting force mingle harmoniously and those with force of repulsion repel only to seek their kind.

8. Diogenes (404 BCE-323 BCE)

Diogenes seated in his abode, the earthenware tub, in the Athens | Art by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Source: Wikimedia Common

Diogenes or better known as Diogenes the Cynic was the founder and the most famous member of the philosophical movement called Cynicism.

The philosophy of which was seen to retain its tenets for about 900 years. This philosophical idea subsequently inspired many other philosophies such as Stoicism.

Diogenes is also considered eccentric for what he thought and believed in goaded him to live like a recluse, alone yet thriving in his own self generated laws and ideals.

He felt that he was happy and self-sufficient when he was alone. He is regarded as the Autonomous Man. It is amusing to a man to observe his antics, especially his tattered clothes in the name of any possession and lodging in constrained storage space.

Yet, he assumed himself as the King of all men for he lived his philosophy rather than merely stating it and preaching it. He primarily expressed his ideas through his actions and conversations

7. Zeno (495 BCE-430 BCE)

Zeno of Elea was an ancient Greek philosopher, famous for inventing a number of paradoxes and arguments that taper into absurd conclusions and are usually self-contradicting.

Zeno’s queer riddles have inspired many mathematicians and philosophers for more than 2000 years which purports to understand the nature of infinity better

One of the significant paradoxes is called ‘The Dichotomy Paradox’, which implies the puzzle of making two. Some of his other problems include the ‘Paradox of Motion’, argument against Plurality, the Extant Paradoxes, etc.

Zeno was capable of propounding seemingly illogical arguments, but when adduced mathematically, they seemed flawless.    

6. Pythagoras (570 BCE-495 BCE)

Pythagoras was born in Samos, a Greek island off the coast of Turkey. Some have speculated that in his youth, he studied in Miletus or Egypt. After fleeing to Croton, he founded a school and started teaching philosophy, mathematics, music and astronomy.

It was a cult based divine revelation that he received from God and started a movement following a set of arbitrary rules all shrouded in secrecy.

Despite being a massive influencer, he has for most of his life, not penned down anything substantive about his teachings. 

The followers of Pythagoras were either Mathematikoi, a group that studied his mathematical and philosophical teachings and Akousmatikoi, the group inclined towards spirituality.

Regardless, the central theme was that it was possible to understand the universe through mathematics.

Not only in his philosophy but also music and astronomy, he believed that there was always maths behind it, best explained by a tale of the blacksmith and his hammering of anvil that circulates around. 

5. Heraclitus (540 BCE-475 BCE)

Heraclitus was an ancient Greek philosopher, born in approximately 540 BC in the Greek city of Ephesus. Of all the other philosophers, the ideals of Heraclitus are more complex. It is why he is called ‘The Riddler’ or ‘The Dark’. 

 Heraclitus was an heir to the throne of Ephesus. However, he renounced it and decided to spend his life in search of truth and wisdom. 

Heraclitus was a believer of the sole principle that he called ‘The Logos’, which permeated all of reality and which could be understood by men if they strived to.

He opined that this Logo was omnipresent, visible to the keen eye, manifesting reality. Regardless of the Truth being everywhere, he thought that most humankind was too lowly to realize it. In other words, most people live in their bubble of make-believe reality. 

4. Thales (624 BCE- 546 BCE)

Thales of Miletus lived during the 5th and 6th centuries in modern-day Turkey. We only know a little about Thales other than from what the later philosophers said about him. Still, he is a prominent figure and progenitor of the pre-Socratic philosopher, inspiring many other philosophers such as Anaximander. 

Thales posited that everything is water. In a quest to find the Unifying Principle of Diversity, he attempted to reject the Greek pantheon of gods and to look for predictable laws of nature akin to modern scientists.

Thales, in his life and teachings, maintained that the world was rational and scientific and groped the universe through a systematic investigation and inquiry.

It was a novel idea for the Greeks as they were quarrelsome who arbitrarily dissolved chaos or order in the world.

Thales dismissed such a belief and justified himself trailing through a unifying principle that connected everything being on the universe in sharp contrast to the prevalent view of interconnectedness and devotion to gods.

In other words, he wanted to explore the ‘Arche’ or the unifying principle. 

Thales posited that this Arche was fluid and permeated the whole world; thus, he believed the unifying principle was water. 

3. Plato (428/427 BCE- 348/347 BCE)

Plato-c.-424-BC-c.-348-BC
Source: Wikimedia Common

Plato was an ancient Greek philosopher who wrote arduously during his lifetime. He was a student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle.

His writings are all but conversations and dialogues between Socrates and his pupil, going by the title of the pupil’s name such as Meno, the Parmenides, the Phaedo, etc. 

The whole of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes of Plato. Plato developed ‘Idealism’ which means that the objects of thought are the actual reality.

Plato transcended the philosophy of Cosmology of how the world is made and went on to traverse the branch philosophy called Epistemology of how we acquire knowledge of things.

He posited, through his Allegory of the Cave, that the Logos makes up the whole of the universe and it is the very nature of the world.

Logos is a Greek word that can be translated into mind, thought or the good. In other words, Plato assumed that the universe was eventually good, represented by the Sun in his Allegory of the Cave.

This proposition also implies that every form of the world, conceived in the minds of humankind, is the ideal form pictured in our mind. 

Perhaps the first philosopher with all the writings intact, Plato is the most widely known, studied and revered person of the world.

He founded Academy, the primary school of higher education in Western Philosophy and taught many pupils who later succeeded him. 

2. Aristotle (384 BCE-322 BCE)

Aristotle is undoubtedly one of the most influential thinkers who later earned the title of ‘the master of those who know’, ‘Aristotle the wise or simply, ‘The Philosopher’.

He has contributed to many fields, including logic, epistemology, political theory, ethics, etc. At the early age of 17, he was sent to Athens to learn in the Academy of Plato, who was his teacher.

He soon compounded as a great thinker who advocated that all humans have a desire to know under their rational mind. Thus, creating a theory called the Virtue Theory.

Virtue theory reflects the fixed nature-an essence-and the way we flourish is by adhering to that nature.

It was termed as ‘proper functioning’ by Aristotle. He argues that nature has instilled in us a quality to become virtuous. As social and rational animals, we have to prosper and grow and become socially amicable. 

1. Socrates (470 BCE- 399 BCE)

Born to a working-class family in ancient Greece in about 470 BC, before teaching philosophy, Socrates was a stonemason and a participant of three military campaigns.

Although I claim him to have been a stone trader’s son, his biography and life, to begin with, is very sketchy.

Socrates never wrote any book by himself and whatever information we gather are embedded in the writings of Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes, a contemporary of Socrates. 

In the dialogues of Plato’s books, we find Socrates advocating the importance of philosophy and finding the right way we ought to live our life.

He mentions that the true essence of our life is our soul (devoid of any religious connotations), and this is the fundamental question we need to be accountable to. According to Socrates, it is the quality of our soul that determines the quality of our life.

And our primary purpose is to become virtuous to attain the highest degree of goodness in our life. He is always found quoting self-knowledge and philosophical inquiry in almost all the writings of Plato.

Let it not be presumed that he thought of himself as the most learned man or commanding edicts to his followers.

Socrates always considered himself an ignorant, who had very little knowledge of things and was voraciously curious.

He questioned everything and everyone, and in true Socratic fashion, the method of finding answers by examining arguments is now what we call the ‘Socratic Method’, which is an integral part of teaching in the universities.

Thus, in the words of Plato, Socrates was a very just man and the wisest man to have graced Athens at that time, whose legacy continues till the date without practically having written anything independently. 

Conclusion 

Thus culminates an ode to the philosophers of ancient Greece who deterred from dogmatic lifestyle and belief of the then Greek period and became known as pioneers of contemplation, reason, science, logic and ethics.

Their history is the one that we cannot obliterate for they have influenced the manifold philosophers to become non-conformists and overall, great thinkers. 

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Cite this article as: Sandhya Ghimire, "Top 10 Ancient Greek Philosophers," in HistoryTen, May 21, 2020, https://historyten.com/greece/ancient-greek-philosophers/.
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