It’s no understatement to say that ancient Greece set the foundations for many of the concepts, institutions, and philosophies that we enjoy in the modern day. Even if you’ve never picked up a book discussing the writings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, they continue to have a powerful influence on your life, even if you don’t realize it. If you’ve ever been in a class where the teacher constantly asked students questions that forced them to think and analyze what they said, you can thank Socrates. Or if you’ve ever looked at your diet as it relates to your overall health, Hippocrates may be largely responsible. Ancient Greek philosophers promoted revolutionary ideas in a wide range of subjects such as mathematics, science, politics, and more.
The impact of these philosophers is almost immeasurable. This article aims to provide a quick overview so you can being learning about their individual accomplishments. In this article, learn about 10 ancient Greek philosophers and the legacies they left behind that shaped our world for the better.
Famous Greek Philosophers and How They Changed the World
1. Socrates (c. 469-399 BC) – Father of Western Philosophy
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”Socrates
When it comes to Western philosophy, many point to Socrates as its founder. Socrates developed a brand new approach to thought focused on probing critical questioning aimed at revealing truths about the world and the universe. His method of philosophical inquiry, now known widely today as the Socratic method, involved engaging people through dialogue to question assumptions, contradictions, and accepted wisdom. This was all done in order to unravel a person’s preconceptions. Socrates himself wrote nothing, but thanks to his student Plato in the famous Socratic dialogues, we have access to many of his teachings.
By constantly questioning Athenian virtues and unexamined assumptions through revolutionary Greek philosophy, Socrates made a lot of enemies in his day, leading to a death sentence for supposedly corrupting the youth and undermining society’s traditions. But his martyrdom only made his influence grow and spread. Socrates laid the foundations of what we know as moral philosophy and demonstrated revolutionary new ways of open-minded, critical thinking about examining life, values, ethics, and beliefs.
2. Plato (c. 428-348 BC) – Father of Idealism
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”Plato
As Socrates’s student, Plato found inspiration in his teacher’s lessons and later founded the prestigious Academy in Athens—one of the first organized schools in all of Western civilization. Through his immersive Socratic dialogues and other writings, Plato shared Socrates’ methods and philosophy with the world while exploring a range of questions on reason, ethics, politics, and the nature of knowledge.
Plato taught about the famous allegory of the cave, which emphasized how true reality is often obscured by imperfect human perception made more difficult through our own limitations. He cast a vision of an ideal society governed by enlightened philosopher-kings possessing greater wisdom and moral character than the rest of society. His Theory of Forms claimed that the material world we live in contains imperfect reflections of ideal forms like Truth, Beauty, and Justice, which in turn exist on a higher plane of reality. Plato’s concepts bridged metaphysics and ethics, while establishing some of the core foundations for the entire discipline of Western philosophy.
3. Aristotle (384-322 BC) – The Versatile Polymath
“Is happiness to be acquired by learning, by habit, or some other form of training? It seems to come as a result of virtue and some process of learning and to be among the godlike things since its end is godlike and blessed.”Aristotle
Much like Plato was a student of Socrates, Aristotle was Plato’s pupil, and similar to Plato, Aristotle founded his own school in Athens called the Lyceum where he taught the Rhetorical Triangle, a way to improve a person’s persuasive skills. He pioneered the formal study of logic while also creating one of the world’s first known taxonomic classification systems categorizing all living organisms. While Plato focused on the intangible and ideal, Aristotle aimed to accurately describe the natural world by developing systems of rules that could be applied universally to natural phenomena.
Aristotle’s analysis and categorization of various forms of government and political institutions established him as one of the founding figures in political science. Aristotle also conceived of virtue as a balance between two extremes—an ethical perspective that helped shape many modern ideas concerning moderation. As one of the most famous Greek philosophers, he also produced works spanning metaphysics, biology, physics, zoology, linguistics, rhetoric, ethics, politics, and more. Aristotle’s insights also had a profound impact in shaping Islamic, Christian, and Jewish thought for centuries.
4. Sophocles (c. 496-406 BC) – Master of the Stage
“All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.”Sophocles
Among classical Greece’s most acclaimed dramatists, Sophocles explored themes such as the conflict between fate and free will, the struggle against unstoppable forces, and the relationship between humanity and indifferent godly beings. Iconic tragedies like Oedipus Rex and Antigone used dramatic irony and intricate plots to vividly depict characters grappling with moral quandaries, taboos, and tragic circumstances that they had little control over.
Sophocles contributed to the golden age of classical Greek theatre and penned over 120 plays in his lifetime. However, only seven complete tragedies survive in whole as of this day. His philosophical depth, psychological complexity, and mastery of dramatic writing, staging, and more established him as a giant of drama. Many playwrights, such as William Shakespeare, were influenced by his works even centuries later. His works still resonate with audiences today nearly 2,500 years after his death.
5. Thucydides (c. 460-399 BC) – Father of Scientific History
“Most people, in fact, will not take the trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear.”Thucydides
The Athenian historian and military general Thucydides is considered to be the founder of scholarly historical analysis. He methodically documented the Peloponnesian War in his chronicle History of the Peloponnesian War. In his writings, he critically analyzed the causes and key events in an empirical manner, focusing on factual evidence and testimony. By doing this, he pioneered several methodological precedents in historiography aimed at uncovering deeper universal truths about human nature.
Thucydides promoted a data-driven approach free of emotions, which contrasted sharply with the more embellished histories that were more common and often tried to mytholigize events. His accurate analysis of the disastrous Sicilian Expedition also provided fascinating insights into the reckless decision-making that ultimately caused Athens to lose the war. His revolutionary work established history as a meaningful field for future scholarly inquiry.
6. Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BC) – Father of Medicine
“As to diseases, make a habit of two things—to help, or at least, to do no harm.”Hippocrates
It isn’t hyperbole to say that Hippocrates dramatically revolutionized the practice of medicine, and his influence is still felt to this day. He established medicine as a formal profession when he founded the first medical school with the mission of training physicians in a standardized manner. Hippocrates was the first to promote a rigorous application of clinical observation, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment.
His famous Hippocratic Oath on professional conduct and ethics changed medicine and remains a source of inspiration for physicians across the globe in the modern day. Hippocrates also accurately described symptoms and made critical early strides in disease categorization. Additionally, he established the practice of holistic healing focused on a patient’s broader health. His medical texts preserved invaluable knowledge and set professional standards that have shaped the practice of Western medicine for millennia.
7. Euclid (c. 300 BC) – Father of Geometry
“The laws of nature are but the mathematical thoughts of God.”Euclid
Known for establishing geometry as a mathematical practice, Euclid authored Elements, a 13-volume work showcasing fundamental geometric proofs and principles that became the most widely published mathematical text in history. His systematic approach introduced a new mathematical rigor to geometry by establishing key conceptual building blocks. Some of these aspects include axioms and postulates combined with a deductive framework for geometric proofs.
Elements eventually became the main textbook used for teaching mathematics for over 2,000 years lasting from Hellenistic Alexandria to the European Renaissance. Euclid’s writings provided an early model for the formalization of mathematics through the use of definitions, theorems, and deductive proofs. While Euclid did build on earlier Greek mathematicians, his work organized geometry into a core deductive system of mathematics.
8. Archimedes (c 287-212 BC) – Mathematical Genius
“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”Archimedes
The brilliant work of Archimedes led to incredible advanced discoveries in mathematics, engineering, and physics over 2,000 years ago. Of his many accomplishments, he developed highly accurate approximations for pi, pioneered numerous theorems vital to calculus, established the fundamental mathematics of hydrostatics, and formulated laws of levers and mechanics that would define much of the scientific world for centuries.
His ingenious inventions included lever systems capable of moving colossal objects and clever machines that soldiers used to defend his native city of Syracuse. Archimedes even created an early version of calculus to solve problems. His passion for problem-solving led to his “Eureka” insight about buoyancy displacement while he was bathing. Considered one of the greatest mathematicians of antiquity, Archimedes combined brilliant theoretical science with clever practical inventions far ahead of his time.
9. Pythagoras (c. 570-490 BC) – Father of Numerology
“There is geometry in the humming of the strings. There is music in the spacing of the spheres.”Pythagoras
Another mathematical giant, Pythagoras may be known for the famous Pythagorean theorem on right triangle ratios, but his contributions extended far beyond math into music theory, mysticism, and discovering the hidden philosophic meanings behind numbers. Like many of the Greek philosophers on this list, he founded a school, only this one was dedicated to exploring the deeper cosmic, ethical, spiritual, and mystical dimensions that underlie numbers and mathematics.
The Pythagoreans, as they came to be called, created a novel approach to inquiry by synthesizing mathematics, music, philosophy, and metaphysics. They believed the inherent order, patterns, and relationships governing numbers reflected deeper universal truths about nature and the cosmos in general. Pythagoras predates many of the famous names above, but his school in southern Italy influenced Plato and countless later philosophers and mathematicians intrigued by his work with numerology.
10. Democritus (c.460-370 BC) – Father of Atomic Theory
“Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.”Democritus
When looking at the theories he created, it becomes clear that the philosopher Democritus was truly ahead of his time. Democritus theorized that all matter in the universe is composed of infinitely small, indestructible particles called atoms moving in empty space. This became a conceptual precursor to modern atomic theory. According to this theory, differences among materials and their properties result entirely from variations in the configurations, motions, and combinations of these atoms.
Democritus also developed an empirical methodology focused on observation and learning from one’s sensory experiences. However, as often happens to brilliant minds, his atomic theory was largely ignored and forgotten until the modern era when scientists expanded on it and conclusively proved atoms do exist as Democritus had claimed. Democritus’s idea of an ordered cosmos governed by natural causes pointed the way toward modern physics and chemistry.
Learn More From the Greats
The above list of ancient Greek philosophers only scratches the surface. Many others, such as Thale of Miletus and Alexander the Great, are worthy of study in how their contributions made an impact for the rest of the world. These incredible thinkers had an effect on nearly every human field of study—drama, astronomy, history, philosophy, science, mathematics, and more. Their views of reality and reasoning created an undeniable ripple effect that transformed the world in ways we still see and feel.
One school of thought worth further exploration is Stoicism. This school of thought founded by Zeno of Citium in ancient Greece teaches people the importance of self-control and acceptance of the moment. You can get started on your study of Stoicism by checking out these Stoicism quotes.
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