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Philosophy: Ancient GreekThinkers

The types of issues that the first Greek philosophers looked at were more like what scientists look at today – questions like how did the universe begin, how did humans come to be, what makes an earthquake? The way that they approached these issues is the start of the long path that leads to modern science. Fairly soon, though, people investigating these issues came to realise the immense power of argument – how logic can draw opposite conclusions to the senses. One group who enjoyed debates and arguments was the Sophists (which means "wise men"). They taught people how to argue for anything, regardless of whether or not their cause was worthy. Other philosophers turned to mysticism and the gods for answers – Pythagoras was one of these. He also believed that the study of mathematics could reveal a lot about nature, especially the relationships between numbers; for example, the relationship between the lengths of the sides of a triangle.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

The three most important Greek philosophers are Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Socrates, whom we only know about from later sources (especially Plato) and not from his own writings, claimed to know nothing himself. He would specialise in finding people who claimed to have knowledge – for example, politicians, poets and craftsmen – and ask them many questions. Invariably, he ended up finding contradictions in what they believed and showing them that they did not know as much as they thought. He claimed that he was wiser than everybody else because he knew that he knew nothing, whereas they knew nothing but thought that they really knew things. In the end, he made many enemies in Athens and was sentenced to death for impiety and "corrupting the youth".

Socrates' most important pupil was Plato, who startes his own philosophical school. Among Plato's most famous beliefs is his "theory of forms" – the belief that for every type of object and quality there is a perfect example in the immaterial world, called a "form". Things in this world have the qualities they do because they partake in these forms.

Aristotle was Plato's pupil, but somewhat more scientifically minded. He wrote hundreds of books on many different topics. He founded a rival school to Plato's, on the opposite side of Athens. One of his techniques was to break topics down into smaller topics and different ways of looking at and ordering things through categories and hierarchies. It is said that he was the tutor of Alexander the Great.

Later Greek Philosophy

Much of later Greek philosophy tended to be focused on how to live one's life. The Stoics and Epicureans emphasised in different ways the importance of emotionally separating from people and objects as a preparation for loss or death. The Skeptics believed that you could never be sure of anything – so they suspended their judgements. They believed this led to peacefulness and freedom from disturbance. The Cynics tried to make do with as few possessions as possible. They lived in public spaces and begged for food. They tried to toughen themselves against every eventuality – for example, Diogenes used to beg for food from statues in order to practise getting nothing.

The Romans admired Greek philosophy, and their own philosophers tended to continue the ideas of the Greeks. Indeed, Greek philosophy is still studied as part of philosophy courses in many universities around the world today.

Quotes from Philosophers

Socrates says:
"The unexamined life is not worth living."
"This man, O humans, is the wisest: the one who, like Socrates, has learnt that, with respect to wisdom, he is in truth worth nothing."
"People do wrong through lack of knowledge."

Plato says:
"In setting up an [ideal] country, we should not focus on giving any one group an especially good life, but on giving the greatest possible life for the community as whole."

Aristotle says:
A person has a good life if he or she is "one who brings about complete goodness and who possesses sufficient external goods – and not for a short time, but throughout life."
"It would be strange if the purpose of life were amusement, and we were to put in all that effort and suffer all those bad things for the whole of our life for the sake of amusement."
"Nature does nothing in vain."
"Man is by nature a political animal."
"It is more necessary to make people's desires equal rather than their possessions, and this is impossible without sufficient education enforced by the laws."

Philosophy: Ancient Greek Thinkers
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Religion, Ritual and Worship
Athenian Politics and Government
Greek Architecture: then and now
Greek Art: Vase painting and sculpture
Education in Ancient Times
A Trip to the Theatre

 


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