Ancient Philosophers

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Ancient Philosophers." ThoughtCo, Jul. 1, 2017, Gill, N.S. (2017, July 1). Ancient Philosophers. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Ancient Philosophers." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 24, 2017).
of 12


Anaximander From Raphael's The School of Athens.
Anaximander From Raphael's The School of Athens. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The early Greek philosophers saw the world around them and asked questions about it. Instead of attributing its creation to anthropomorphic gods, they sought rational explanations. One idea the Pre-Socratic philosophers had was that there was a single underlying substance that held within itself principles of change. This underlying substance and its inherent principles could become anything. In addition to looking at the building blocks of matter, the early philosophers looked at the stars, music, and number systems. Later philosophers focused entirely on conduct or ethics. Instead of asking what made the world, they asked what was the best way to live.

Here are a dozen of the major Presocratic and Socratic philosophers.

DK = Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker by H. Diels and W. Kranz.

Anaximander (c. 611 - c. 547 B.C.)

In his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertes says Anaximander of Miletus was the son of Praxiadas, lived to about the age of 64 and was a contemporary of the tyrant Polycrates of Samos. Anaximander thought the principle of all things was infinity. He also said the moon borrowed its light from the sun, which was made up of fire. He made a globe and, according to Diogenes Laertes was the first to draw a map of the inhabited world. Anaximander is credited with inventing the gnomon (pointer) on the sundial.

Anaximander of Miletus may have been a pupil of Thales and teacher of Anaximenes. Together they formed what we call the Milesian School of Pre-Socratic philosophy.

of 12


Anaximenes. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Anaximenes (d. c. 528 B.C.) was a Pre-Socratic philosopher. Anaximenes, together with Anaximander and Thales, formed what we call the Milesian School.

of 12


Empedocles. PD Courtesy of Wikipedia

Empedocles of Acragas (c. 495-435 B.C.) was known as a poet, statesman, and physician, as well as a philosopher. Empedocles encouraged people to look upon him as a miracle worker. Philosophically he believed in the four elements.

More on Empedocles

of 12


Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse.
Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Heraclitus (fl. 69th Olympiad, 504-501 B.C.) is the first philosopher known to use the word kosmos for world order, which he says ever was and ever will be, not created by god or man. Heraclitus is thought to have abdicated the throne of Ephesus in favor of his brother. He was known as Weeping Philosopher and Heraclitus the Obscure.

of 12


Parmenides From The School of Athens by Raphael.
Parmenides From The School of Athens by Raphael. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Parmenides (b c. 510 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher. He argued against the existence of a void, a theory used by later philosophers in the expression "nature abhors a vacuum," which stimulated experiments to disprove it. Parmenides argued that change and motion are only delusions.

of 12


Leucippus painting
Leucippus painting. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Leucippus developed the atomist theory, which explained that all matter is made up of indivisible particles. (The word atom means 'not cut'.) Leucippus thought the universe was composed of atoms in a void.

of 12


Thales of Miletus
Thales of Miletus. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Thales was a Greek Pre-Socratic philosopher from the Ionian city of Miletus (c. 620 - c. 546 B.C.). He allegedly predicted a solar eclipse and was considered one of the 7 ancient Sages.

of 12

Zeno of Citium

Herm of Zeno of Citium. Cast in Pushkin Museum from original in Naples. CC Wikimedia User Shakko

Zeno of Citium (not the same as Zeno of Elea) was the founder of the Stoic philosophy.

Zeno of Citium, in Cyprus, died in c. 264 B.C. and was probably born in 336. Citium was a Greek colony in Cyprus. Zeno's ancestry was probably not entirely Greek. He may have had Semitic, perhaps Phoenician, ancestors.

Diogenes Laertius provides biographical details and quotations from the Stoic philosopher. He says Zeno was the son of Innaseas or Demeas and a pupil of Crates. He arrived in Athens at about the age of 30. He wrote treatises on the Republic, life according to nature, the nature of man, appetite, becoming, law, passions, Greek education, sight, and much more. He left the cynic philosopher Crates, took up with Stilpon and Xenocrates, and developed his own following. Epicurus called Zeno's followers Zenonians, but they became known as Stoics because he delivered his discourses while walking in a colonnade -- stoa, in Greek. The Athenians honored Zeno with a crown, statue, and the city keys.

Zeno of Citium is the philosopher who said that the definition of a friend was "another I."

"This is the reason why we have two ears and only one mouth, that we may hear more and speak less."
Quoted by Diogenes Laërtius, vii. 23.

of 12

Zeno of Elea

Zeno of Citium or Zeno of Elea. The School of Athens, by Raphael, courtesy of Wikipedia

The depictions of the two Zenos are similar; both were tall. This portion of Raphael's The School of Athens shows one of the two Zenos, but not necessarily the Eleatic.

Zeno is the greatest figure of the Eleatic School.

Diogenes Laertes says that Zeno was a native of Elea (Velia), the son of Telentagoras and pupil of Parmenides. He says Aristotle called him the inventor of dialectics, and the writer of many books. Zeno was politically active in trying to get rid of a tyrant of Elea, whom he managed to take aside -- and bite, possibly taking off his nose.

Zeno of Elea is known through the writing of Aristotle and the medieval Neoplatonist Simplicius (A.D. 6th C.). Zeno presents 4 arguments against a motion which are demonstrated in his famous paradoxes. The paradox referred to as "Achilles" claims that a faster runner (Achilles) can never overtake the tortoise because the pursuer must always first reach the spot the one he seeks to overtake has just left.

of 12


Socrates. Alun Salt

Socrates was one of the most famous Greek philosophers, whose teaching Plato reported in his dialogues.

Socrates (c. 470–399 B.C.), who was also a soldier during the Peloponnesian War and a stonemason after, was renowned as a philosopher and educator. In the end, he was accused of corrupting Athens' youth and for impiety, for which reasons he was executed in the Greek manner -- by drinking poisonous hemlock.

of 12


Plato - From Raphael's School of Athens (1509).
Plato - From Raphael's School of Athens (1509). Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Plato (428/7 - 347 B.C.) was one of the most famous philosophers of all time. A type of love (Platonic) is named for him. We know about the famous philosopher Socrates through Plato's dialogues. Plato is known as the father of idealism in philosophy. His ideas were elitist, with the philosopher king the ideal ruler. Plato is perhaps best known to college students for his parable of a cave, which appears in Plato's Republic.

of 12


Aristotle painted by Francesco Hayez in 1811.
Aristotle painted by Francesco Hayez in 1811. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Aristotle was born in the city of Stagira in Macedonia. His father, Nichomacus, was the personal physician to King Amyntas of Macedonia.

Aristotle (384 - 322 B.C.) was one of the most important western philosophers, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. Aristotle's philosophy, logic, science, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and system of deductive reasoning have been of inestimable importance ever since. In the Middle Ages, the Church used Aristotle to explain its doctrines.