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Foundations Study Guide: Ancient Greek Philosophy

Foundations Study Guide: Ancient Greek Philosophy

8 Mins
June 25, 2010

introduction to ancient greek philosophy

George Brakas is professor of philosophy at Marist College and author of Aristotle's Concept of the Universal.

Before philosophy for tens of thousands of years, human beings did not see the world as we see it. Why did the Nile rise and flood the fields with dark, fertile soil? Because the Pharaoh had commanded it to. Why did the violent storm destroy the village and its people? Because it wished to. "The world appears to primitive man neither inanimate nor empty but redundant with life.... Any phenomenon may at any time face him, not as 'It,' but as 'Thou.' In this confrontation, 'Thou' reveals its individuality, its qualities, its will. 'Thou' is not contemplated with intellectual detachment; it is experienced as life confronting life....Thoughts, no less than acts and feelings, are subordinated to this experience."

In this profoundly revealing passage from The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, we see all the essential attributes of how the pre-philosophic mind saw the world it lived in, with its implicit metaphysics, epistemology and ethics: The world is a living being, or a collection of living beings; one comes to "know" it the way one comes to "know" another person, by living with him and getting a feel for who he is and what he will do; and one's life centers around or is dominated by this all-powerful and never-fully-understood creature. It is to the lasting glory of the Greeks that they forever liberated the human mind from these shackles.



Greek philosophy, and philosophy itself, begins around 600 B.C. with a man called Thales, reaches its magnificent climax with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and peters out in the twilight of the Roman Empire many centuries later. These three movements of thought define the major periods of ancient Greek philosophy: The time of the philosophers before Socrates, the Presocratics, which spans about 150 years; the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, which spans roughly another 150 years; and the time of the Hellenistic philosophers, by far the longest period, stretching approximately from 300 B.C. to A.D. 500.

The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man is invaluable for anyone wishing to fully appreciate the significance of the contribution made by the Greek philosophers. Although rather dry and academic in places, it presents a fascinating view of the pre-philosophic mind. For the cultural context essential for a sound grasp of Greek philosophy, Zimmern's The Greek Commonwealth may be consulted. For Greek philosophy itself, Jones's The Classical Mind provides the best introduction. Jones is very good at making difficult ideas clear, he includes long excerpts from the philosophers themselves, and he goes to great lengths to place each important thinker or movement in the proper cultural setting. Zeller, a great 19th century German scholar, saw the Greeks as champions of reason over myth and religion and let this view guide his Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy, a short, classic account of Greek philosophy that may still be consulted with profit. Copleston's Greece and Rome, volume 1 of his ten-volume A History of Philosophy, offers a learned and more detailed account of the period.

Once the student has become familiar with the major ideas of the period, he may turn for great edification to Windelband's History of Ancient Philosophy. Windelband emphasizes the connections among the ideas of the period and how they developed—showing how the ideas of individual thinkers form logical systems (to the extent that they do), how these systems developed out of an individual thinker's struggle to solve the problems bequeathed to him by his predecessors, and how his ideas influenced those of subsequent thinkers.


Thales, by asking a very simple question, began an intellectual revolution of the most profound kind. What, he asked, is the one thing to which the great variety of things making up the world may be reduced? Water, he answered. This is of course wrong, but that is not at all important. What is important is the radically new way of looking at the world underlying his question, the view that the great multiplicity making up the world may be reduced to a unity, and that the unit to which this multiplicity may be reduced is itself a part of nature, not a god or other supernatural entity. With this approach, Thales started a tradition rich in theories about the fundamental nature of the physical world—some saying it reduces to one thing but disagreeing about what it was, others saying it reduces to several but disagreeing about what they were.


Pythagoras was the source of a lesser stream of thought during this early period. Deeply religious, he and his followers formed secretive mystery cults devoted to the redemption and purification of the soul. This was achieved by the attainment of wisdom, and in its pursuit they cultivated music, science and mathematics—especially mathematics in its cosmological applications. The cosmos for them was well-ordered, and it was well- ordered because it was a material expression of numbers and numerical relations—just as, on a much smaller scale, the harmonies of a tuned lyre are an auditory expression of numbers and their ratios. The Pythagoreans, although distinguished from other Presocratic philosophers by their mystical bent, share with them the fundamental notion that unity and order underlie the universe and as such are very much a part of the same philosophic and scientific tradition.

The Presocratic philosophers are best approached by first studying a work on the history of philosophy giving a unified account of the entire period, and then studying the individual philosophers of the period in more detail. The account in The Classical Mind serves this purpose, and so do Burnet's Greek Philosophy and, in a more comprehensive manner, Guthrie's A History of Greek Philosophy. We now possess only fragments of the original works from the period, but even the bits and pieces we do possess may be studied with profit. Wheelwright's The Presocratics offers a complete collection of quotations from these thinkers, as well as ancient testimonies about them, and supplements these fragments and testimonies with philosophically relevant passages from Greek religious and medical writings.


Socrates, unlike the philosophers before him, was not particularly interested in the natural world. He was mainly interested in getting a clear grasp of the moral concepts guiding our lives and in the method by which we come to know the truth about them and about anything else. He would often get together with some of the best and brightest young men of Athens to discuss questions such as "What is courage?" or "What is justice?" Someone would propose an answer and would then be subjected to a searching process of question and answer that would expose the contradictions of his position, and this process would go on until an answer was found that would survive such critical scrutiny, if one ever was. Although Socrates never committed anything to writing, his ideas were to have a lasting influence. The nobility of his soul and the force of his intellect deeply impressed many of the young men in his circle, some of whom would carry on his work.

Aristotle, as depicted by Raphael in "The School of Athens" fresco

Plato, an Athenian nobleman, was one of these young men. Disgusted with the butchery and political incompetence of his times, with its moral relativism and skepticism, and profoundly inspired by Socrates, he turned his back on the political career to which he was destined and devoted himself to a life of philosophy. He passionately wanted to construct an ideal state and to place it on a solid moral and metaphysical basis. This basis, he held, was the world of Forms, a world of unchanging, perfect objects existing in some non-natural and non-temporal dimension, a world that is the source of, and more real than, the physical world in which we live. To know, he believed, is to know these Forms, not the perceptible objects around us, and the noblest life that anyone can live is the life of a philosopher, a life devoted to grasping them. Not surprisingly, his ideal state turned out to be one ruled by such philosophers.

Aristotle came down from Macedonia when he was 17 to study in Plato's Academy and remained with him for twenty years. Although profoundly influenced by Plato's ideas, he never—except, perhaps, for a short period of youthful enthusiasm—accepted Plato's basic tenet that there is some other, non-natural world. For him, only the world we live in exists— and he had a passionate love for it, believing that every part of it had a beauty of its own, from the heavenly bodies to the lowliest grub. Knowledge of this world is acquired by allowing our eyes and ears and other senses to perceive it, and by then letting our intelligence go to work on the material provided by the operation of our senses— defining it, analyzing it, and systematizing it. Our intelligence, or reason, is our highest power, and our possession of this power distinguishes us from all other creatures and makes us human. Our aim in life is to be as fully human as possible, to flourish as human beings. More than anything, that means pursuing knowledge as diligently as we can, contemplating it once we have it, and always, so far as humanly possible, letting our actions be guided by it.

The forthcoming Socrates by Williams should prove to be a short and lucid introduction to the life and thought of Socrates, and The Philosophy of Socrates, edited by Vlastos, offers a detailed and learned treatment of the thought of Socrates, containing a collection of critical essays by some of the foremost scholars in that field.

Hare's Plato gives a quick overview of Plato's ideas, and The Collected Dialogues of Plato, edited by Hamilton and Cairns, collects all of Plato's dialogues in a handy and authoritative one-volume edition.

Barnes's Aristotle is a short and very lucid introduction to Aristotle's thought. Randall's Aristotle, a relatively short account of his philosophy, much impressed Ayn Rand and, with some reservations, was recommended highly by her. Ross's Aristotle is in effect a summary of Aristotle's entire system and, because it refers copiously to Aristotle's works for each of the positions attributed to him, is an invaluable guide to the corpus itself by one of the foremost Aristotle scholars of this century. McKeon's The Basic Works of Aristotle is a large but handy one-volume edition of all the most important works of Aristotle. The Works of Aristotle Translated into English, edited by Ross and Smith, is still the best edition of the complete works.

There are also a number of works on more specialized topics in Aristotle by Objectivists or authors sympathetic to Objectivism. Brakas's Aristotle's Concept of the Universal gives a systematic account of one of the most fundamental concepts in Aristotle's philosophy. Gotthelf and Lennox's Philosophical Issues in Aristotle's Biology brings together some of the best work done on Aristotle's biological works, a most important but, until recently, relatively neglected part of Aristotle's corpus. Keyt and Miller's A Companion to Aristotle's Politics collects a number of articles on that area of Aristotle's philosophy.


With the death of Plato and Aristotle most of the life went out of Greek philosophy. To be sure, the schools both had founded continued to exist for centuries, until the Christian emperor Justinian closed them down in A.D. 529; but they had lost their intellectual vitality.

Three new schools of thought were more original and met with considerable success: the Stoic, the Epicurean, and the Skeptic. Their very success, however, was a measure of the growing failure of the ancient world. Economic, political and social conditions became gradually worse, and over time people felt increasingly troubled and insecure. More and more there was a narrowing of the human horizon, a limiting of what it was thought possible for humans to achieve in life. Increasingly people sought, not so much to achieve something positive, but to avoid a negative: to avoid inner disquietude, to feel at peace, to feel—nothing.

The message of the three new schools of thought resonated with this sense of the times, for the main concern of each was to attain this inner peace. Each, however, mapped out a different road toward that end—the Stoics arguing that it was attained through "acceptance of nature," the Epicureans through a life of "repose," and the Sceptics through "intellectual equipoise," a stance achieved when one realizes that there are as many reasons for any given position as there are against it.

The further we get into the late classical period, the more men's thoughts turn inward, the more they lose confidence in the power of reason to answer the fundamental questions of life, and the more appealing another road to peace and salvation will seem: the road mapped out by Christianity.

For the last period of ancient Greek philosophy, long as it is, useful works are not as numerous as for the other two periods. However, Stoic and Epicurean by Hicks, a learned Cambridge classicist, offers a detailed treatment of the three new schools, and each of the following works focuses its attention on one particular school: Arnold's Roman Stoicism, Bailey's The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, and Patrick's The Greek Sceptics.


E. V. Arnold. Roman Stoicism. Cambridge, 1911.

C. Bailey. The Greek Atomists and Epicurus. Oxford, 1928.

Jonathan Barnes. Aristotle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

George Brakas. Aristotle's Concept of the Universal. Hildesheim and New York: Georg Olms, 1988.

John Burnet. Greek Philosophy: Thales to Plato. London, 1914.

Frederick Copleston, S.J. Greece and Rome. A History of Philosophy, volume I. New York: Doubleday, 1985.

Henri Frankfort et al., eds. The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1946.

Allan Gotthelf and James G. Lennox , eds. Philosophical Issues in Aristotle's Biology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

W. K. C. Guthrie. A History of Greek Philosophy, vols. I and II. Cambridge, 1965.

Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1963.

R. M. Hare. Plato. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

R. D. Hicks. Stoic and Epicurean. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910.

W. T. Jones. The Classical Mind. A History of Western Philosophy, vol. I. 2nd ed. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970.

David Keyt and Fred Miller, eds. A Companion to Aristotle's Politics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Mary Mills Patrick. The Greek Sceptics. New York and London, 1929.

Richard McKeon, ed. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, 1941.

John H. Randall, Jr. Aristotle. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.

Sir David Ross. Aristotle, 5th ed. London: Methuen, 1949.

W. D. Ross and J. A. Smith, eds. The Works of Aristotle Translated into English, 12 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912-52.

Gregory Vlastos, ed. The Philosophy of Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1971.

Philip Wheelwright, ed. The Presocratics. New York: The Odyssey Press, 1966.

Bernard Williams. Socrates. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

W. Windelband. History of Ancient Philosophy. 2nd ed. Translated by H. E. Cushman. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1901.

Eduard Zeller. Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy. 13th ed. Revised by Wilhelm Nestle. New York: Dover Publications, 1980.

A. E. Zimmern. The Greek Commonwealth. Oxford, 1931.

George Brakas
About the author:
George Brakas
History of Philosophy