Greek Philosophy – A Brief History Of Classical Greek Ideas

greek philosophyAncient Greek Civilization and its Influences on the Western Way of Life

Western civilization and its ideologies have been influenced by Greek philosophy and its thinking since its inception back in the 4th and 5th century BCE. Greece not only gave the modern Western Civilization its understanding of philosophy, cosmogony and theology but it also imparted greater influences in the areas of governance, social and other forms of science. Classical Greece was a melting of ideas that emancipated from all corners of the ancient world and influenced every aspect of its existence.

Greeks devised advanced mathematics. In fact Greeks used this science to reason and find answers to everything around them. The influence of mathematics in ancient Greece is amazing to note. They knew about the Golden Ratio, which is common in nature, and used it in building magnificent structures. The best example of which is the Parthenon which was built in the 5th century BCE during the Greek Classical Era as a tribute to the patron deity Athena. This eulogy of a bygone era was necessary for the discussion that follows about Greek Philosophy. Because philosophy is something that is at the root of every human pursuit, scientific or otherwise.

Influence of Advanced Eastern Civilizations

Greece would have never become what it was, back in the 5th century, let alone influence modern philosophy, if it did not benefit from the exchange of ideas from some of the most advanced and highly evolved civilizations of the ancient world, namely, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, Assyria and the Hittites. In fact a lot can be attributed to the fact that a majority of the Greek city states of the time were conveniently located just across the Mediterranean Sea, at the other shore of which lied these advanced civilizations of the time.

A majority of the Greek city states not only benefited from original ideas from these much evolved mid-eastern civilizations but they also benefitted through trade. Everything, as it seemed was exchanged across the Mediterranean. However towards the later part, Greece become ‘self-aware’ and started its own blend of thinking leading to its later dominating influence on the way western philosophy and the whole western way of life evolved. Athens was the most dominant of the city states of the time and it also benefited from its close proximity to the Saronic Gulf which made it possible to bring in ideas and materials from across the sea. This is why ancient Athens is often also referred to as the cradle of western civilization. Athens has along with its fertile lands and fertile environment fit for thinking, achieved more than some of the other war-mongering city states in Greece of the likes of Sparta have.

Greek Philosophy

Greek philosophy continued to flourish till the end of the Hellenistic period. Modern philosophers often state that Greek philosophy started much earlier than that. Even as early as in 1500 BCE philosophy was a favorite subject among Greek thinkers. But, it was not until the classical period in Greece that its ideals and ideologies started influencing the western way of thinking and which has survived till today. At a later point, however, and at the end of the Hellenistic period, when Rome brought Greece under its control, it influenced the Roman way of thinking as well. The most striking influence is however, from the Classical Greek era, a period which ended with the death of Alexander the great.

The Role of Athens in Ancient Greek Culture

Athens have been the most dominant of the ancient Greek city states during what is known as the Classical period (the period between the toppling of the last Athenian Eponymous  archon and that of the death of Alexander in 323 BCE). In fact it provides modern philosophers with the largest collection of literary materials from which they can study the influence of Athens in Greece’s socio-political, theological and other scenarios. It is no wonder that some of the greatest philosophical minds ever were all from the classical period in Greece’s history and they all lived and worked in Athens. The importance of Athens and its influence started to dwindle, however, with its increasingly losing struggle against another dominant force in ancient Greece – Sparta.

Ancient Greek Philosophers

Ancient Greek philosophers can be divided into two main groups:

  1. The pre-Socratic
  2. The Socratic.

The pre-Socratic period embodies the work of the ancient thinkers, notable among whom are Miletus (from Thales who started the Milesian School) and Heraclitus.

Classical Greek Philosophers

The Classical Greek philosophers have the highest influence on the western way of thinking and the overall western civilization. Some of the greatest philosophers from this era include Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Socrates (470 BCE – 399 BCE)

Probably the best known among ancient Classical Greek Philosophers and the figure-head of western philosophy, Socrates was a man who was both centuries ahead of his time and a continuous source of trouble for the city-state of Athens. Much of what is known today about Socrates is from his dialogues that were later written down by his students, chief of whom were Plato and Xenophon. To some extent some information is also available from the accounts left by his contemporary Aristophanes. Ironically, it was Aristophanes’ work The Clouds that to some extent ridiculed Socrates’ ideologies and lead to his ultimate trial and death. However modern philosophers and researches don’t take the accounts left by Aristophanes as trustworthy because of the amount of ridicule and false statements that are involved in his depiction of a characters. In that sense Plato who was a student of Socrates also sometimes transgresses the boundaries of reality and went deep into fiction in some of his dialogues. His depiction of Socrates is sometimes hugely exaggerated. The really true and somewhat unbiased account is somewhat attributed to Xenophon.

Socrates rejected the notion that god is omnipotent and he also believed that the upper echelons of power in Athens should be a representation of the best intellectual minds of the time. Because of his radical ideas he came in frequent clashes with the powers that be at Athens. He was finally charged with the crime of polluting the minds of the young Athenians and being a non-believer of the Athenian Gods, something that was punishable by death in ancient Athens. He was tried by jury who found him guilty. Socrates, thus was condemned to death and execution was carried out by having him drink a poisonous potion made of hemlock from a cup.

Socrates’ is best known because for his dialectic methods for understanding the state of mind and what individuals thought about a common question. This method is also known as the Socratic Method, in which one person would ask another a series of questions and through the answers both the person asking the question and the answerer would come to a logical answer. This is also very well described by Plato in the Socratic Dialogues.

Today, modern western philosophy is greatly indebted to Socrates for devising this method back in the 5th century BCE. The method can be to some extent be compared with the process of trial and error in which the wrong methods or in this case the wrong hypotheses are eliminated and at the end the one true or best logical explanation can be arrived at.

Plato (428 BCE – 348 BCE)

Socrates’ student, admirer and a contributor to some of the best literary resources that documents the life and times of Socrates, Plato along with his student Aristotle and his teacher were the leading figures in the development of Greek philosophy. Today, Plato is known for his priceless Socratic Dialogues, his initiation of the Academy in Athens, which promoted free thinking and exchange of ideas on a wide variety of subjects including mathematics, logic, religion and philosophy which ultimately lead to the establishment of the Platonic ideals. Plato has been credited by many modern philosophers as the person to have influenced western thinking and in that sense has been placed ahead of his teacher and mentor Socrates.

Plato came from a well-to-do family who were actively involved in the political scene of Athens. Interestingly Plato after his military services had joined the group known as Thirty Tyrants, the very group that his teacher Socrates had defied and enraged. This group also consisted Charmides his uncle. Plato had some ambitions in the political scene of Athens, but the upheaval brought about by the toppling of the Thirty Tyrants and then later on the trial and execution of Socrates prompted him to leave Attica and travel the world in search for knowledge and to study the work of other master-minds of the time. He traveled as far as Egypt and to Cyrene and to Italy in order to exchange ideas and increase his own knowledge in astronomy, geometry and religion among other branches of studies.

One of the first things that Plato did upon his return from travels after 12 years was to establish the Academy on the hallowed grounds (and according to some mythologies the burial ground) of a Greek Hero Academos. Widely considered to be the earliest European university, the center offered education on a variety of subjects and helped young free thinking minds an environment for exchange of ideas. The school had continued in some form till 529 CE at which point curtains were drawn over it by the last Latin speaking roman emperor of the east, Justinian I.

Plato unlike his teacher Socrates was a prolific writer and left behind no less than 36 dialogues and 13 letters. These speak about the life of Socrates, and Plato’s own deductions on various subjects that he studied over the years.

Aristotle (384 BCE – 322 BCE)

Student of Plato and sometimes considered the first genuine scientist of the west, Aristotle was a prolific writer and an exponent of Platonism. At the age of 17 he joined the Academy in Athens founded by Plato and remained there for almost two decades. Later on he founded his own school the Lyceum, also in Athens. Later on, however, after the death of Plato, he become increasingly involved in the study of Empiricism. Aristotle is also attributed to as the tutor of the then young prince Alexander, son of Philip II of Macedonia who later on came to be known as Alexander the Great. The Macedonian court had always been supportive of Aristotle and that is why when Alexander the Great went on to conquer Athens, he gave permission to Aristotle to start a school there. The Lyceum had, at that time in history, one of the finest libraries filled with manuscripts that contained deductions and works of hundreds of scholars who lived and studied there. Among the many areas that Aristotle touched as a philosopher, scholar and researcher were geology, biology, philosophy, meteorology (which included the sciences of weather as well earthly materials), astronomy, psychology and metaphysics.

Take it to the next level and learn about the life and times of the great Classical Greek Philosophers and  Greek philosophy.