10 Most Famous Ancient Greek Philosophers
From Socrates to Aristotle, here are 10 of the most famous philosophers of ancient Greece:
Socrates (c. 470 BCE – 399 BCE)
Socrates is highly regarded as one of the first ancient Greek philosophers. He is also seen as the founder of Western philosophy, having personally influenced several renowned philosophers, including fellow great philosophers Plato and Xenophon.
Born in Deme Alopece, Athens, Socrates was obsessed with morality and moral philosophy, making him the first major moral philosopher. He reasoned that philosophy should rank over all other disciplines, and that life is only worth living when one consistently devotes himself/herself to a life of logical reasoning, examination and thinking. To him, a life without the pursuit of philosophy had no value.
Unlike his students, Socrates did not write down any of his thoughts. It’s been stated that he most likely could not write. We got to know of him and his ideas through the accounts of his students and other classical writers that lived after the great philosopher’s death. Of all those accounts, Plato’s dialogues are perhaps the most comprehensive as it contains clearer details of who the enigmatic philosopher was.
Following Socrates legendary trial, where he was convicted of impiety (asebeia) and corrupting the youth of city, Socrates was sentenced to death in 399 BCE. According to one of Plato’s Socratic dialogue the Apology of Socrates, the great philosopher was found guilty of mocking and disrespecting Athenian belief system and the pantheon of gods. The male-citizen jurors (the dikasts) overwhelmingly voted that he be executed by drinking a beverage laced with hemlock (a very poisonous herbaceous flowing plant also known as Conium Maculatum).
According to Socrates, life is worthless without happiness, and true happiness can be obtained through intellectual reasoning and always questioning everything, including examining one’s own life.
Socrates is most famous for his monumental contributions in the Western classics, particularly in the area of ethics and epistemology. As a result those contributions, as well as the immense influence he had on philosophers across different eras and different the world, many scholars consider him one of the greatest philosophers to ever exists.
Did you know: Socrates is credited with developing some very important philosophical ideas, including social gadfy, Socratic dialogue, Socratic Method, Socratic paradox and Socratic questioning?
Plato (c. 428 BCE – 348 BCE)
In addition to being Socrates’ most famous pupil, Plato is famous for being the astounding philosopher who tutored another great philosopher called Aristotle. He is primarily known for his many dialogues, where his master/tutor Socrates appears as a major character
He comes in second on the list of greatest Greek philosophers because he sought to build on the works of Socrates in understanding what reality is all about. Like his master Socrates, Plato used the Socratic Method to dig deep into what constitutes knowledge, morality and virtue.
Born in Athens, Greece, during the Classical Greece period (5th and 4th centuries BCE), Plato is credited with so many notable works, including Plato’s dialogues (Apology, Euthyphro, Phaedo, and Crito), The Symposium and a host of other developments in ethics, cosmology, metaphysics, politics and aesthetics.
His most famous contribution to philosophy came in his theory of Forms, which is also known as Pure Reason. Another stellar achievement of Plato came in the form the Academy – Plato’s school for higher learning and the advancement of intellectual discussion and reasoning. As a result of his immense achievements in the development of philosophy, he is commonly revered as an instrumental figure in the foundation of Western philosophy. Along with the likes of Socrates and Aristotle, Plato is credited with laying the ground works for spirituality and Western religion.
Regarded as the founder of Western political philosophy, Plato conducted extensive studies into what makes up the “Perfect state”. He found out that the core ingredients of such a state were wisdom, courage, self-discipline and justice.
Some notable and great philosophers that had the honor of studying under Plato in the Academy include Aristotle, Xenocrates, Speusippus, Heraclide Ponticus, Eudoxus of Cnidus, and many others.
Read More: Answers to popular questions about Plato
Greek philosopher Antisthenes was a disciple of Socrates. His contribution to philosopher came in the form of his works in ethics and virtue. It’s been stated that his works led to the founding of Cynic philosophy. Such was his enthusiasm for philosophy and logical reasoning that Antisthenes took daily walks all the way from Peiraeus to Athens in order to listen to the teachings of Socrates.
Antisthenes was praised for his wits and ability to use words in ways that only a few ancient Greek philosophers could do. And like Socrates, he believed that a life without virtue was not worth living. He therefore maintained that pleasure was unnecessary. This can be seen in his statement “I’d rather be mad than feel pleasure”.
Antisthenes sphere of interests included logic, physics, ethics and a host of other subjects.
Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher whose views profoundly influenced scholarship in the medieval era, was born in 384 BCE in Stagira, Chalcidice. His place of birth lies about 34 miles east of Thessaloniki, Greece. His father was called Nicomachus, the physician to King Amyntas of Macedon. Owing to his father’s profession, Aristotle got introduced to human biology and medicine at a very young age.
Desiring to expand his knowledge in philosophy and other disciplines, a teenaged Aristotle moved to Athens to enrol at Plato’s Academy. He stayed in the Academy for about two decades, learning from other great philosophers and mathematicians. In c. 348 BCE, he left the Academy after he was overlooked for the director position of the Academy. The position went to Plato’s nephew and philosopher Speusippus.
While living on the island of Lesbos, Aristotle and his student Theophrastus conducted extensive research works in botany and zoology.
His association with Alexander the Great, arguably the greatest military leader who ever lived, began in 343 BCE, when he was invited to the court of Philip II of Macedon. Aristotle tutored Philip’s son Alexander in a host of subjects. He also served as the principal of the royal academy of the king. In addition to Alexander, the likes of Ptolemy and Cassender were tutored by Aristotle. Both pupils would later become kings.
Although Alexander followed in his father Philip’s footstep in conquering other lands, it was Aristotle who shaped the young mind of Alexander, encouraging him to be a territory-hungry military leader. Owing to Aristotle’s bias towards Persia, the philosopher counselled the young Alexander to be ruthless towards the Persians and conquer lands in the east.
Aristotle pursuit for philosophy is what pushed him to establish his own school in Athens in 335 BCE. The school, which was called the Lyceum, was slightly modelled on similar structures and intellectual pursuits as that of Plato’s Academy. And like his master Plato, Aristotle penned down numerous dialogues, most of them were written during his 12-year stay at the Lyceum. Those writings of Aristotle contributed immensely to fields such as logic, economics, rhetoric, mathematics, biology, botany, physics, ethics politics, medicine, and metaphysics.
Aristotle’s influence on Western philosophy is as palpable as the likes of Socrates, Hippodamus, and Plato. Such was his influence on medieval scholars and philosophers that he was given the epithet “The First Teacher”.
Xenocrates (396/5 BCE – 314/3 BCE)
Ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Xenocrates is generally considered as one of the greatest philosophers to hail from his era. A devout student of Plato, Xenocrates served as the head (“Scholarch”) of Plato’s Academy in Athens from 339 BCE to 314 BCE.
Born in Chalcedon (modern day Kadıköy, Istanbul, Turkey) in 395/5 BCE, Xenocrates took on Plato’s ideas and teachings and injected mathematics into them. His most famous work came in the distinguishing of Plato’s forms of beings into three – the intelligible, the sensible, and opinion.
According to Xenocrates, the prevailing forces that governed the universe were duality and unity. He considered those two forces as gods that resides in everything in the universe. Aside from his mathematical contributions to the study of logic, epistemology, physics and metaphysics, he wrote extensively about how happiness could be realized through virtue. Many of Xenocrates philosophical ideas had strong influence on the likes of Polemon and Crantor.
Aeschines of Sphettus (c. 425 BCE – c. 350 BCE)
Aeshines was a follower of Socrates, and he was present at the trial and execution of Socrates. Aeshines’ works in philosophy appear in his dialogues, which similar to that of Plato has Socrates as the main speaker. Some examples of his Aeshines’ Socratic dialogues include Alcibiades, Telauges, Rhinon, Callias, Aspasia, Axiochus, and Miltiades.
Although Empedocles is perhaps the least known philosopher on this list, his contribution to the philosophy was extremely important. A pre-Socratic philosopher, Empedocles was in a Greek city in present day Italy known then as Akragas, Magna Graecia. This philosopher is most famous for coming out with the cosmogonic theory that states that there are four classical elements in the universe. According to Empedocles, those four elements are fire, air, earth and water. He went on to state that combination of love and strife separated the four elements.
Some of his main interests included epistemology, cosmogenesis and ontology. He worked on concepts about reincarnation.
One of Empedocles’ greatest influences came from the famous Ionian Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (c. 570 BCE – 495 BCE). As such Empedocles was an avid follower of Pythagoreanism. In turn, Empedocles had strong influence on Socrates and Socratic philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.
Did you know: In addition to being opposed to the killing of animals for food, Empedocles was against animal cruelty of all kinds, including animal sacrifice?
Aristippus of Cyrene (c. 435 BCE – c. 356 BCE)
A student of Socrates, Aristippus was born in Cyrene, Ancient Libya, hence his name. Aristippus is regarded as the originator of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, which states that intrinsic good is pleasure. Followers of Aristippus philosophy welcomed the concept of positively enjoyable sensations, which is sometimes known as ethical hedonism. One of his most ardent followers was his daughter Arete.
Theophrastus was a close associate and pupil of Aristotle. Born in Eresos on the Greek island of Lesbos, Theophrastus famously succeeded Aristotle as the leader of the Peripatetic school. He served as the school’s head for close to four decades. Many of the works Theophrastus conducted in the school went on to have tremendous influence on not just Western philosophy but also on early Islamic philosophy.
This ancient Greek philosopher was mainly interested in botany, logic, grammar and language, metaphysics, and ethics. Due to the extensive works he conducted, alongside Aristotle, in botany, many have called him the father of botany. According to Theophrastus, one’s happiness largely depends on a number of factors, most importantly virtue.
Also, Theophrastus was famous for his ability to smoothly and eloquently express himself. His master Aristotle praised him for this ability of his, calling him ‘godly phrased’. His immense contribution in advancing the study of philosopher was honored by the city of Athens as he was given a public funeral.
Hippodamus of Miletus (498 BCE – 408 BCE)
Even though Hippodamus of Miletus was more commonly known for his works in architecture and urban planning, he still came out with some very astounding philosophical reasoning and teachings. Many of his ideas would influence philosophers such as Aristotle, Hesychius and Theano.
Revered as “the father of European urban planning”, Hippodamus of Miletus came out with a number of ideas that promote sound government. His writings sought to explain how a sound urban planning could promote rational social order. This philosopher also held the belief that citizens that developed beneficial things for the society should receive the highest reward from the society.
Other honorable mentions
- Heraclides Ponticus – a Greek philosopher, mathematician and astronomer famous for proposing that the Earth rotates on its axis. Other subjects that he studied include music, physics, history and rhetoric.
- Philip of Opus – a student of Plato at the Academy. He served as the editor of Plato’s last dialogue, the
- Speusippus (c. 408 BCE – 339/8 BCE) – a famous ancient Greek philosopher and the nephew of Plato who succeeded Plato at the Academy. Even though he was a pupil of Plato, Speusippus rejected Plato’s Theory of Forms.