's Ancient Civilizations of the World/Philosophy

Greek PhilosophersEdit

Greeks of the Classical period asked questions about the existence of the gods, the ethical standards that should shape and guide political life, where humans fit into the universe, and the role they played in developing the aforementioned standards.


The sophists were a category of teachers or itinerant intellectuals who specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric for the purpose of teaching arete—excellence, or virtue—predominantly to young statesmen and nobility for money. The practice of charging money for education and providing wisdom only to those who could pay led to the condemnations made by Socrates, through Plato in his Dialogues, as well as Xenophon's Memorabilia. Through works such as these, Sophists were portrayed as "specious" or "deceptive", hence the modern meaning of the term.

Since most of these sophists are known today primarily through the writings of other philosophers, particularly opponents such as Plato and Aristotle, it makes it difficult to assemble an unbiased view of their practices and beliefs. Still, all sophists employed rhetoric to achieve their purposes, generally to persuade or convince others. Some even claimed that they could find the answers to all questions.

Its main representatives were:

  • Protagoras (490-420 BCE), who created a major controversy during ancient times through his statement that "man is the measure of all things". This idea was revolutionary for the time and contrasted with other philosophical doctrines that claimed the universe was based on something objective, outside the human influence. He believed all human institutions derived from custom and invention rather than nature, and that there was no absolute truth; truth was relative. And,
  • Antiphon (480-411 BCE) believed to be a precursor to the natural rights theory.



The Classical period is the age of Socrates (c. 469 BCE-399 BCE). A citizen of Athens, Socrates disagreed with Protagoras's relative truth. In fact, he disagreed with the idea of sophists in general, believing instead in absolute moral principles that guided human life. His goal of discovering these moral absolutes led to his questioning Athenians about ethical standards. This activity, combined with shifting political circumstances, ultimately led to his prosecution by an Athenian jury.

Socrates is widely acknowledged for laying the foundation for all following Western philosophy. In spite of his importance in the evolution of thought, Socrates remains a largely enigmatic figure to historians. Much of what we know about his life and teachings come from the dialogues of his student, Plato. Even then, Plato perhaps created an idealized figure of his mentor that did not entirely reflect reality. Although, it is widely considered that Socrates was not a fictional character created by Plato, as other Greek writers of Plato's generation wrote extensively about the philosopher, including Aristotle, Xenophon and Aristophanes.

Socrates' life coincided with the decline of Athenian hegemony in the Greek world, exacerbated by the defeat of Athens at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. In the wake of this defeat, Socrates lead the intellectual argument against Athenian democracy. Socrates had long made a reputation of acting as a social critic by questioning almost everyone and everything in Athenian society, including himself, in order to lead to improvement. Socrates held that the wisest men are, paradoxically, the ones that are aware of and acknowledge their own ignorance. In the case of criticizing Athens, he believed that his sharp words would create a more just society.

Socrates' death was immortalized by the French Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David

Socrates got in trouble for his role as a philosophical provocateur and the Athenian state tried him for the corruption of the minds of Athenian youth, as well as for not believing in the Greek pantheon of Gods (debate remains to this day whether Socrates was a monotheist, or if this particular aspect was overemphasized during the medieval era to reconcile Socratic philosophy with Christian theology). Even during his trial, Socrates acted in a way to goad the state: when Socrates was asked to propose his own punishment, he suggested a wage paid by the government and free dinners for the rest of his life instead, to finance the time he spent as Athens' benefactor. Thus, he was convicted and sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing the poisonous hemlock plant. There seems to be evidence that shows that Socrates could have escaped Athens and his own death, however to his end his philosophy guided him. As a provocative philosopher he did not believe he would fare better off outside of Athens, nor did believe in fearing death. Nonetheless, Socrates' intellectual method of asking questions lives on to this day.

The Socratic Method and Philosophy

The Socratic Method describes the dialectical system devised by Socrates to examine moral concepts of "Good" or "Justice". Socrates believed that to understand big concepts such as these, one needed only to ask a series of questions. In essence, Socrates held that one must continually question what one believes and what one assumes to know. Socratic thought holds that ones "knowledge" is never absolute and impervious to faulty assumptions. Better hypotheses to problems are found by eliminating the ones that can be contradicted and falsified.

Socrates' philosophy, though difficult to discern from that of Plato, especially since Socrates was more interested in asking questions than answering them (claiming to lack the real knowledge to do so). In short, one could say that Socrates promoted a philosophy of questioning and self improvement, which went against much of Athenian society's emphasis on the pursuit of material wealth and respecting traditional knowledge, particularly religious.


The Renaissance artist Raphael made this depiction of Plato, from his painting "The School of Athens" (1511). Raphael modeled Plato's appearance on that of Leonardo da Vinci.

Plato (424/423 BCE – 348/347 BCE) was the most famous student of Socrates and was the mentor to Aristotle. For many scholars, Plato's importance to the development of Western philosophy was even greater than that of his mentor. Apart from being a philosopher on a wide variety of topics, Plato founded the Academy in Athens, considered the first center for higher learning in the Western world.

Like Socrates, Plato believed in absolute moral, or ethical, standards and notions. In Plato's thought, these absolutes are known as Forms, which constitute actual reality. What humans experience in daily life are shadows and merely imitate the reality of the Forms. Nevertheless, humans have the capacity to uncover the absolute truth and reality of Forms, a task accomplished first and foremost through the soul. The soul, which is already inscribed with this knowledge, initially joins the body when Reason guides the individual in reclaiming this knowledge, thus overcoming the material world of the body's daily experience. Plato explored these ideas in the Academy, where beauty, justice, and goodness were discussed.

The Republic

Plato's Republic includes some of his most important ideas on government and justice. Meaning "System of Government," the Republic outlines the need for an enlightened oligarchy to rule over common men, contending that the latter's self-interest hamper their ability to obtain the knowledge of universal truth. In this ideal society, social classes are distinguished by their ability to comprehend the Forms. The highest class, composed of "guardians," rule and are educated in metaphysics, astronomy, and mathematics. The guardians are helped by the class immediately blow them, composed of "auxiliaries," that defend the state. At the bottom are the "producers" who provide daily sustenance and material objects to the state. Membership in the guardian class is not restricted by sex and men and women of this class lived in shared housing. This highest class did not form nuclear families, but rather copulated with a variety of members of the opposite sex to produce the best offspring. The offspring were then raised together and looked after by special caretakers. The ultimate achievement for a guardian was to reach the point of knowledge that allowed one to rule as a philosopher-king.

Aristotle Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was a student of Plato, as well as the teacher to Alexander the Great. Aristotle established the Lyceum for discussion of his ideas, which differed from Plato's. He saw the material world and the Forms of Platonic thought as being interlaced rather than distinct from one another. Knowledge of the Forms, then, can be found in nature and is derived from observation of the material world rather than reflection on and of the soul. This thought led Aristotle to become a great and meticulous classifier of objects and subjects of thought.

Aristotle's writings were the first to create a comprehensive system of Western philosophy, encompassing morality, aesthetics, logic, science, politics, and metaphysics. He developed a system to distinguish arguments based on logic and those based on persuasion, insisting that arguments be based on rationality rather than metaphysics. Among the subjects he applied the principles of observation and rational explanation to are biology, zoology, botany, medicine, anatomy, rhetoric, politics, and ethics. In ethics, he strove to develop practical habits to control passions and instincts, which he believed led to self-control and happiness. Some of the views he drew in his writings justified inequalities of his day, including slavery, which he regarded as natural and contended resulted from the lack of rationality in the souls of slaves. His faulty biological observations caused him to assert the natural inferiority of women to men, casting women as incomplete males and passive in the procreation process.

Aristotle's views on the physical sciences profoundly shaped medieval scholarship, and their influence extended well into the Renaissance, although they were ultimately replaced by Newtonian physics. In the zoological sciences, some of his observations were confirmed to be accurate only in the 19th century. His works contain the earliest known formal study of logic, which was incorporated in the late 19th century into modern formal logic. In metaphysics, Aristotelianism had a profound influence on philosophical and theological thinking in the Islamic and Jewish traditions in the Middle Ages, and it continues to influence Christian theology, especially the scholastic tradition of the Catholic Church. Aristotle was well known among medieval Muslim intellectuals and revered as المعلم الأول - "The First Teacher". His ethics, though always influential, gained renewed interest with the modern advent of virtue ethics. All aspects of Aristotle's philosophy continue to be the object of active academic study today.

Last modified on 22 June 2013, at 00:17