Socrates (c. 469-399 BCE)
“As for me, all I know is that I know nothing” – a famous quote describes the humble and modest attitude of one of the most famous Greek Athenian philosopher, Socrates. Mostly known to the world through the dialogues and works of his students and followers like Plato and Xenophon, he was one of the founders of Western philosophy. Plato portrayed him as the foremost contributor in the field of ethics. According to Plato, Socrates led to the foundation of concepts like Socratic irony and the Socratic Method, or elenchus.
Socratic Method is still a commonly used tool for wide range of discussions in classrooms and law school discourses. This method includes asking series of questions not only to bring individual answers, but also to encourage fundamental insights to the current issue. Socrates also made important contributions to the fields of epistemology and logic. The influence of his ideas can be clearly seen during the Renaissance and the Age of Reason in Europe, where various paintings and literary works reflected his views. His legacy was continued by his famous students and followers like Plato, Xenophon, Antisthenes and others.
Plato (c. 428-348 BCE)
Plato was an ancient Greek philosopher who played an important role in the development of Western philosophy. As a scion of a rich and aristocratic family, he received good education under renowned teachersincluding Socrates. Although initially he wanted to join politics, the execution of Socrates changed his mind and he left Athens for twelve years, visiting places around the Mediterranean Sea, studying under different teachers. It was during this period that he first started writing. That Plato was immensely influenced by Socrates is evident from his body of works created during this period.
Ultimately, he returned to Athens and set up the first organized school in the western civilization. It soon turned into a center of excellence and many well known scholars, including his famous pupil Aristotle, became associated with it. Plato never stopped writing; his masterpieces like ‘The Republic’ and ‘Theory of Forms’ were created during his later years. Along with Socrates and Aristotle, Plato is credited to have laid the foundations of Western philosophy and science. Fortunately, most of his works have survived intact for over 2,400 years although few of his predecessors’ works remain extant.
Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE)
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and scientist, better known as the teacher of Alexander the Great. He was a student of Plato and is considered an important figure in Western Philosophy. Famous for his writings on physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology, he is considered much ahead of his time. His writings constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy which includes views about morality and aesthetics, logic and science, politics and metaphysics. This system became the supporting pillar of both Islamic and Christian scholastic thought.
It is even said that he was perhaps the last man who had the knowledge of all the known fields at that time. His intellectual knowledge ranged from every known field of science and arts of that era. His writing includes work in physics, chemistry, biology, zoology, botany, psychology, political theory, logic, metaphysics, history, literary theory and rhetoric. One of his greatest achievements was formulating a finished system also known as Aristotelian syllogistic. His other significant contribution was towards the development of zoology. It is true that Aristotle’s zoology is now obsolete but his work and contribution was unchallenged till the 19th century. His contribution towards almost all subjects on earth and its influence makes him one of the most famous and top personalities of all time.
Thales (c. 624-546 BCE)
Thales, better known as Thales of Miletus, was an ancient Greek philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and businessman, born in the seventh century BCE in the area now known as Asia Minor. Recognized as one of the Seven Sages of Greece, his main contribution lies in trying to provide scientific explanation behind worldly phenomenon that had been hitherto explained by mythological beliefs. For this, Aristotle had called him the first philosopher in Greek tradition. Unfortunately, neither his works nor any contemporary source has survived.
Available information about this pre-Socratic philosopher comes mainly from the writings of Greek historian Diogenes Laërtius, who flourished in the 3rd century AD and had quoted Apollodorus of Athens, who lived around 140 BCE. Because of the time gap, it is very difficult to assess his works or give any personal details about him. Indeed, modern scholars have now started casting doubts on numerous acts and sayings that had been attributed to Thales. All said and done, there is no doubt that Thales was a multi-dimension figure, much revered in his own time and thereafter.
Democritus (c. 460-370 BCE)
Democritus was a renowned Ancient Greek philosopher who is respected by many modern scientists and scholars for formulating the most accurate early atomic theory of the universe. One of the best known pre-Socratic philosophers, he was influenced by Leucippus of Miletus and had proposed revolutionary ideas which were in conflict with those by Socratic philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. What distinguished him from his contemporaries is the fact that he had visited many distant countries during his early life and shared ideas with scholars around the world, which might explain his rationalism, humanism, and love of freedom.
Much of his work has been lost or available only as fragments, because of which the exact expanse of his knowledge might never be known. For the same reason, it is often difficult to distinguish his work from that of his mentor Leucippus, whose mere existence has been denied by Epicurus, the philosophical heir of Democritus. However, the philosophies and doctrines he covered can be tracked via numerous citations of his works by many later scholars, which point to the fact that he wrote over seventy books on natural philosophy. Based on the precision of many of his philosophical ideas, many consider him the ‘father of modern science’.
Heraclitus (c. 535-475 BCE)
Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher who was an independent thinker and unlike other ancient philosophers, he is not considered to belong to any particular school of thought. Born into an aristocratic family, he described himself as self-taught and was unsparing in his criticism of his predecessors and contemporary thinkers and philosophers. He was a loner who suffered from bouts of melancholia which prevented him from completing several of his works. His personality was characterized by a general contempt for mankind which coupled with the obscure nature of his works earned him the nickname the ‘Weeping Philosopher’.
The ambiguous nature of his writings makes them open to several interpretations that are often of conflicting nature. He believed in the ever changing nature of the universe and the unity of opposites. His works have been influential in the development of the concept of ‘Logos’ which he considered a principle of order and knowledge. Regarded as one of the most important pre-Socratic philosophers, he was famous for departing from the accepted norms and traditions of his days and criticizing the generally accepted conventional wisdom of others who were deemed to be “wise” men by the society. Even though his own work was influenced by the works of his predecessors, he is regarded as a unique thinker who contributed immensely to the development of Western Philosophy.
Pythagoras (c. 570-495 BCE)
Pythagoras was an Ionian philosopher and mathematician, born in sixth century BC in Samos. Most of the information available today has been recorded a few centuries after his death and as a result, many of the available accounts contradict each other. However, this much is certain that he was born to a merchant from Tyre and had studied under various teachers since his early childhood. When he was around forty years old, he left Samos. Some say he went to Egypt to study under the temple priests and returned after fifteen years while others say that he went straight to Croton to open a school.
Nonetheless, it is certain that his main place of activity was Croton and there he set up a brotherhood and made important contribution to mathematics, philosophy and music. His followers, known as Pythagoreans, maintained strict loyalty and secrecy. Another established fact is that Pythagoras travelled extensively. Some accounts also claim that he went to India to study under Hindu Brahmins. Contradiction also exists about his death; but there is unanimity that he was hounded and killed by his enemies. .
Anaxagoras (c. 500-428 BCE)
Anaxagoras of Clazomenae was an ancient Greek philosopher credited to be the first person to bring philosophy into Athens. He was a philosopher of nature and is best remembered for his cosmology. Even though ancient Greece had given birth to several great minds like Pythagoras even before Anaxagoras’ time, it was Anaxagoras who introduced the concept of philosophy to the Athenians. He was born in Ionia where he spent his early life observing nature and studying natural elements and forces. Such was his love for the sciences that in spite of hailing from a wealthy family he renounced all the riches and dedicated his life to gaining and imparting knowledge.
Even though he lived thousands of years ago, he accurately stated that the moon did not produce its own light, but reflected the sun’s light. He claimed that the sun was a mass of molten metal and had correctly given the reason behind the occurrences of eclipses. He moved to Athens—the center of Greek culture—around 480 BC and played a pivotal role in influencing the scientific and cultural development of the city. He is believed to have written several texts though only a few fragments of his works have been preserved.
Epicurus (c. 341-270 BCE)
Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher and one of the prominent philosophers in the Hellenistic period. He was the founder of the school of philosophy called Epicureanism. World is still unknown to the majority of his work as there are only few fragments and letters left out of the 300 original works of Epicurus. The most of Epicurean philosophy was known to the world through his followers and commentators. The basic purpose of Epicurean philosophy was to acquire a happy and tranquil life, which was characterized by ataraxia which was complete freedom from worry and aponia, or absence of pain.
One more feature required for the attainment of happy life was to live a self-sufficient life surrounded with friends. According to him, pleasure and pain are the measures of good and evil and death is the end of body and the soul, hence there is nothing to fear. He taught that the Gods couldn’t punish or reward humans and man should not worry about life. He further taught that universe is infinite and eternal and atoms are responsible for events that took place in the world.
Protagoras 490 BCE – 420 BCE
Protagoras was a Greek philosopher, thinker and teacher. He is considered as the most famous of Greek Sophists. In fact, he is attributed for inventing the role of a professional Sophist. He is the one who introduced the contemporary dialogue on morality and politics to Athens and taught on subjects like, how human beings ought to manage their personal affairs and manage their household in the most efficient way, how to run the social affairs and most importantly, how to contribute to the society in general through one’s words and actions.
In his role as a Sophist, which he continued for over 40 years, he continually raised the questions whether or not virtue is something that can be taught. He also professed relativism, which meant that truth is an individual based concept as what is true for one person can be false for another, depending on their varied perceptions. He was also a propagator of agnosticism and got into trouble with the Athenians as he claimed his skeptic thoughts over the existence of God in his book ‘On the Gods’.