Flawed But Brilliant Ancient Philosophers

Any ancient culture will have its own special wise man who wrote or taught about or lived a life exemplifying what that society thought important. These flawed characters had a permanent wide-ranging impact, despite any contemporary obstacles or personal quirks.

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Painting of Aristotle with book by Raphael Sanzio. 1510-11.

User Image Editor / CC / Flickr

Aristotle (384-322) had 3 main theaters of fame. He taught world conqueror Alexander the Great at the court of his father Philip of Macedonia; he studied with Plato at the Academy in Athens where he later founded his own school the Lyceum; in the Middle Ages, his philosophy was used by Christian theologians and so was copied and transmitted to the modern era. Aristotle's largely practical philosophy isn't neatly categorized into ethical, political, natural, or whatever since he wrote about such a variety of topics. He is a source on the Athenian constitution. He developed logic. He wrote about zoology and biology. Aristotle made many mistakes and was not named the successor of Plato.

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Painting of Confucius Presenting Gautama Buddha to Laozi.

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

One could almost say the biggest problem Confucius, Kongzi, or Master Kung (551-479 B.C.) has ever faced is the fortune-cookie version of him in the 20-21st century, like the "Confucius, say" jokes. However, in his own time, Confucius was aware of his distinct lack of success probably because of personality flaws. He knew his philosophy deserved better and it frustrated him. After he died—not immediately since his detractors outlived him, but a few centuries later—the teachings of Confucius became the dominant social and political philosophy in China.

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Pythagoras, coin made under emperor Decius.

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Pythagoras was a 6th century B.C. Greek philosopher known from legends about him and an important theorem in geometry. Women were among his adherents. Pythagoras didn't write his own material but appears to have been a character. He is credited with not just vegetarianism, but a rejection of beans because he thought the inevitable bodily noise emitted during the digestive process was the bean's soul trying to escape. He also believed souls were reborn in new bodies. He may have had contact with the Buddha, who doesn't make this list only because he doesn't seem flawed.

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An angel beaming light into a person's chest.
NYPL Digital Gallery

Solomon is an important figure in the Old Testament from the 10th century B.C. and king of Judah and Israel. Considered wise, he sat in judgment in cases of disputes of his subjects. He is credited with writing the Biblical books Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. Solomon was a womanizer. Not only was he infatuated with his Egyptian wife, in addition to being the husband of hundreds of other women, but he allowed his 700 wives and 300 concubines to practice their native religions, which led him into idolatry. Since his wisdom, wealth, and success were credited to Yahweh, abandoning his religion was a major issue.

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Illustration of Solon

Solon, counted by the ancients as one of the 7 sages, was a great compromiser. A lyric poet, Solon was the first Athenian literary figure whose name we know. His laws regarding women were strange, but his compromise solutions for the problems of rich and poor kept Athens going and were a step towards the development of Athenian democracy. He is known for his wisdom when speaking with Croesus who was immensely wealthy and successful. Solon wouldn't call Croesus one of the happiest men because only time would tell. It did. Croesus lost his city to Cyrus.