The Ancient Greek philosophers have played a pivotal role in the shaping of the western philosophical tradition. This article surveys the seminal works and ideas of key figures in the Ancient Greek philosophical tradition from the Presocratics to the Neoplatonists. It highlights their main philosophical concerns and the evolution in their thought from the sixth century BCE to the sixth century CE.
The Ancient Greek philosophical tradition broke away from a mythological approach to explaining the world, and it initiated an approach based on reason and evidence. Initially concerned with explaining the entire cosmos, the Presocratic philosophers strived to identify its single underlying principle. Their theories were diverse and none achieved a consensus, yet their legacy was the initiation of the quest to identify underlying principles.
This sparked a series of investigations into the limit and role of reason and of our sensory faculties, how knowledge is acquired and what knowledge consists of. Here we find the Greek creation of philosophy as “the love of wisdom,” and the birth of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were the most influential of the ancient Greek philosophers, and they focused their attention more on the role of the human being than on the explanation of the material world. The work of these key philosophers was succeeded by the Stoics and Epicureans who were also concerned with practical aspects of philosophy and the attainment of happiness. Other notable successors are Pyrrho‘s school of skepticism and the Neoplatonists such as Plotinus who tried to unify Plato’s thought with theology.
The Western philosophical tradition began in ancient Greece in the 6th century BCE. The first philosophers are called “Presocratics” which designates that they came before Socrates. The Presocratics were from either the eastern or western regions of the Greek world. Athens — home of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle — is in the central Greek region and was late in joining the philosophical game. The Presocratic’s most distinguishing feature is emphasis on questions of physics; indeed, Aristotle refers to them as “Investigators of Nature”. Their scientific interests included mathematics, astronomy, and biology. As the first philosophers, though, they emphasized the rational unity of things, and rejected mythological explanations of the world. Only fragments of the original writings of the Presocratics survive, in some cases merely a single sentence. The knowledge we have of them derives from accounts of early philosophers, such as Aristotle’s Physicsand Metaphysics, The Opinions of the Physicists by Aristotle’s pupil Theophratus, and Simplicius, a Neoplatonist who compiled existing quotes.
The first group of Presocratic philosophers were from Ionia. The Ionian philosophers sought the material principle (archê) of things, and the mode of their origin and disappearance. Thales of Miletus (about 640 BCE) is reputed the father of Greek philosophy. He declared water to be the basis of all things. Next came Anaximander of Miletus (about 611-547 BCE), the first writer on philosophy. He assumed as the first principle an undefined, unlimited substance (to apeiron)itself without qualities, out of which the primary opposites, hot and cold, moist and dry, became differentiated. His countryman and younger contemporary, Anaximenes, took for his principle air, conceiving it as modified, by thickening and thinning, into fire, wind, clouds, water, and earth. Heraclitus of Ephesus (about 535-475 BCE) assumed as the principle of substance aetherial fire. From fire all things originate, and return to it again by a never-resting process of development. All things, therefore, are in a perpetual flux. However, this perpetual flux is structured by logos– which most basically means ‘word,’ but can also designate ‘argument,’ ‘logic,’ or ‘reason’ more generally. The logos which structures the...
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