Ancient Greek Philosophy

From the earliest times, the Greeks asked questions about the world that surrounded them.

They thought a lot about the nature of cosmos and what it was made of; where we – and everything else – came from; and what happens when we die.

The Greeks also discussed morality, love, beauty, art, and other interesting subjects.

  • Greek philosophers disagreed with the idea that everything in our lives comes from gods. Instead, they talked about human reason, wisdom, and morality.

  • The word philosopher means the one who loves wisdom.

The Early Philosophers: the Pre-Socratics

  • All the philosophers who gave their theories before Socrates were known by this collective term, but there were many differences between them.
  • The pre-Socratics didn’t give lectures or write books. They just tried to find answers about the questions that bothered them.
  • They sometimes wrote down their ideas, but few of them were preserved. All we have are some fragments that later writers, such as Aristotle, included in their works.
  • Thales and Anaximander from Miletus thought about the four elements. Thales concluded that the one core element behind everything was – water.
  • Anaximander went a step further and drew a map of the universe.
  • Other philosophers started asking themselves why we live and die, and what the nature of existence is.
  • Parmenides from Elea concluded that everything exists all the time in one form or another. He believed in reincarnation (rebirth).
  • Heraclitus from Ephesus stated that the world – and everything in it – is in a constant state of change.
  • The famous mathematician Pythagoras explained his notion of reincarnation. The key word was metempsychosis or the movement of souls.
  • Empedocles also believed in metempsychosis – and that the world was made of fire. He died by jumping into a volcano. He apparently believed he would return in another form.


  • The most famous ancient philosopher created a new kind of philosophy.
  • Socrates never wrote about his ideas. All that we know about them came to us through the writings of his students and admirers, such as Plato.
  • Instead of the origin of cosmos and the possibility of reincarnation, Socrates taught about morality.He questioned the way people behave and tried to explain why people behave in certain way. Socrates believed that everyone should at least try to the right thing and to do well.
  • Socrates claimed that he knew nothing. Instead of lecturing his students, he asked them questions.At the end, the person he questioned would come up with a conclusion that was often just the opposite of what they believed before. The Socratic Method is called maieutic.
  • Socrates was hugely unpopular for his teachings and actions, and was eventually sentenced to death.

The Sophists

  • The sophists made considerable money by using Socratic Method.
  • Their interest was not to find out the truth; they used maieutic to win arguments.
  • Rich people hired sophists to train them and their children in public speaking.
  • Since the Greek lived in democracy and power was gained by voting, sophists helped their clients become more popular and get more people vote for them.


  • Plato was a student of Socrates who eventually became even more famous than his teacher.

  • Plato was disappointed by the way Athenians treated Socrates, and he left the city when his teacher died. He returned 40 years later and founded the Academy.

  • This philosopher wrote a lot, and many of his work still survive and are translated to many languages.

  • His writings have a form of dialogue and the main character in all of them is Socrates.

  • Plato was particularly interested in epistemology (the theory of knowledge), justice, and art.

  • His most famous work is The Republic. It is a dialogue that introduces the idea of an ideal state, ruled by philosophers – the wisest ones, who have both the wisdom and self-control, and who are capable of ruling in the interest of the whole community.

    Plato also examined justice and presented a theory of forms.

  • The theory of forms says that the world we live in is merely a copy of reality.

    The only thing that truly exists is the ideal forms. All we see is just shadows and copies of the real thing.

  • Since art mimics the visible reality, and a work of art is just a copy of a copy, Plato came to the idea to banish art from his ideal state.


  • Aristotle wasn’t the citizen of Athens, but he graduated from Plato’s Academy. Much later, he founded his own academic institution called the Lyceum.
  • Unlike previous philosophers, Aristotle was not interested in abstract ideas as he was in the knowledge that we can gain by our senses. That’s why we say his philosophy is empirical.
  • He was interested in many spheres of thought and science, including ethics, logic, politics, medicine, botany, and literary criticism.
  • Aristotle believed that measure (the golden mean between the extremes) was the key to a happy life and good behavior.


Was there a pre-Socratic school of thought?

No, pre-Socratic is a collective term for all the ancient Greek philosophers who appeared in the period before Socrates.

Did ancient Greek believe in reincarnation?

At least some of them did, including the famous philosophers Pythagoras and Empedocles.

Since they used the same method, what was the difference between Socrates and the sophists?

Socrates apparently had good intentions – he was seeking the truth – while the sophists made their arguments appear as truth, and they sold that skill to everyone who could afford it.

What is the difference between Plato’s ideal state and the city-state of Athens?

Athens was a democracy; power was a subject to public voting and the opinion of the public could be easily manipulated (by the sophists, for example).

Plato’s ideal state was imagined to be ruled by a wise philosopher-king.

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