Greek Philosophy

One of the most unique and wonderful of Greek inventions was philosophy. Philosophy was the special way Greeks attempted to make sense out of the world, in a non-religious way. This means that rather than using myths and stories to understand the world, they would use their intelligence and reasoning skills.

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philosophy“Philo-” means love, and “-sophia” means wisdom, so the word “philosophy” really means “the love of wisdom.” Basically, philosophy is thinking about the world and making sense out of it.

For example, early Greeks began asking the question, “What exists?” They questioned the world around them and tried to make sense out of what they saw. Other, different philosophies were developed, each of which tried to make sense out of the world.

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Eventually, their ideas built upon each other until very complicated philosophies were developed. These early thinkers were so influential that their ideas are still around today, and people still study them in colleges and universities.

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The earliest of Greek philosophers tried to answer the question of what exists by coming up with a number of different ideas.


The Four Elements: Thales, who lived around 600 BC (nearly 2,600 years ago!) determined that everything was made up of water, which he thought was the single primal element. This idea helped one of his students, Anaximander, to come up with his own idea that everything was made up of an element he called the “boundless,” which was divided up into hot and cold, and wet and dry. It was these early ideas that helped later philosophers to classify the entire world according to the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.

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numbersMathematics: Pythagoras, around 530 BC, saw the key to all of existence in mathematics, and thought that the entire world could be explained with numbers. He also developed an advanced system of geometry that we still use today (people still study the Pythagorean Theorem in geometry).

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Atoms: Around 450 BC, there were two philosophers, Leucippus and Democritus, both of whom thought that the world was made up of little particles that were so small we couldn’t even see them. They called these particles atoms, and thought that they made up everything in the universe. Eventually, modern science would prove that these atomic theories were right, even though they were developed thousands of years ago!

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Around the same time as some philosophers were trying to figure out what the world was made out of, other philosophers were trying to figure out people, and how they should live their lives.

The Sophists: Around 450 BC, philosophers known as Sophists thought that “man is the measure” of everything. In other words, they thought that the only things that matter are human beings and the way we see the world. They taught their students that they should use their reason, or intelligence, in order to succeed in life. Sophists also believed that there is an important difference between things that are man-made versus things that are naturally made, and said that natural products were better than man-made ones.

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SocratesSocrates: Socrates, who lived from 469-399 BC, was one of the most influential philosophers of all time. He disagreed with the sophists because they charged their students money, but didn’t teach them how to be ethical. Being ethical means acting in a morally responsible manner, like doing the right thing, no matter what. Socrates was one of the first philosophers to ask the question “What is right and wrong?” His teaching technique, later called the Socratic Method, involved asking his students questions and correcting them, so that they would come up with the right answers.

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Socrates’ Trial and Death: The story of Socrates does not end well. Socrates welcomed any students into his lectures, and so he ended up teaching some students that were enemies of the state. This led some of his enemies in the Greek government to accuse him of being disloyal to the Greek democracy. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to the death penalty. At the age of 70, Socrates accepted his punishment, drank a cup of poison, and died.

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Plato: Socrates didn’t actually write down any of his philosophies or philosophical teachings, so most of what we know about him is through the writings of Plato, who lived from 428-347 BC. Plato was one of Socrates’ most famous pupils, who continued Socrates’ work by writing hundreds of profound and complex dialogues, which illustrated his philosophical viewpoints.

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The Republic: The Republic is the most influential book that Plato wrote, and is still the most widely read philosophical book of all time. In The Republic, Plato examined the question “What is justice?” and wrote hundreds of pages about what the right type of government should be.

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AristotleAristotle: The most famous of Plato’s students was Aristotle, who lived from 384-322 BC, and wrote many influential philosophical works. Instead of focusing on justice, like Plato, Aristotle wrote about all types of learning, such as logic, metaphysics, astronomy, physics, politics, and poetry.

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The Golden Mean: Perhaps one of the most influential ideas if Aristotle’s was that of the Golden Mean, which was the idea of a middle ground between good and bad, and the belief in moderation, or that people should try to maintain a balance between two extremes.

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Greek philosophers all started a new type of thinking. Rather than believing in myths and stories, they began searching for the truth of the world by using their rational thinking. The ideas of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and hundreds of other Greek philosophers, have all remained very important in the development of other new philosophical ideas, as well as science, astronomy, physics, medicine, and mathematics, just to name a few.

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