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Greek Philosophy: History, Influence & Timeline

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  • 0:01 Ancient Greek Philosophy
  • 0:33 Presocratic Philosophy
  • 1:40 Classical Philosophy
  • 3:17 Hellenistic Philosophy
  • 4:22 Influence
  • 5:02 Timeline
  • 5:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

Considered to be the founders of philosophy, the ancient Greeks used reason and observation to find the answers to life's big questions. In this lesson, we'll examine some of the major figures of ancient Greek philosophy.

Ancient Greek Philosophy

Beginning in the 6th century BCE, there was a flourishing of Presocratic philosophical thought in Greece that would continue through the Classical period and the Hellenistic period. Many scholars argue that the ancient Greeks created the notion of philosophy itself. While ancient Greek philosophy took diverse forms, as a whole it replaced mythical explanations of the world with scientific and logical explanations. A few of the major Greek philosophers will be examined throughout this lesson.

Presocratic Philosophy

As the name suggests, the Presocratic philosophers existed before Socrates and were the first to develop philosophy. Thales of Miletus is considered to be the father of Greek philosophy. Presocratic philosophies were diverse, but they all looked to reason, observation, science, and/or mathematics, instead of mythology, for knowledge of the universe. The Presocratics also searched for a unifying principle that both ordered nature and also explained how change occurred.

The Sophists were one of the most influential groups of Presocratic philosophers. In general, Sophists argued that there is a fundamental distinction between human custom and nature/reality, that truth is relative and is based in one's perception of the world, and that rhetoric had the power to shape reality. Therefore, the Sophists were skeptical of humanity's ability to access objective truth. We could, however, discover how to live properly in our given societies. Sophists charged their pupils money to learn the kind of rhetoric and virtue that would prepare them to live in society.

Classical Philosophy

The Sophists were popular for awhile, but many Classical philosophers, starting with Socrates (5th century BCE), began to criticize the Sophists' skepticism and their practice of getting paid for teaching. Socrates argued that reason, pursued through intense questioning, can in fact decipher truth. The use of reason in this way would make the soul virtuous. Because Socrates looked to reason and not mythology, he was actually considered a threat to Greek tradition and was put to death for his ideas!

Though the Greek government was suspicious of Socrates, he was still an incredibly popular figure. All that we know about Socrates we know from his pupil, Plato. Plato believed that fundamental truth existed beyond our physical world in what he called the Realm of Ideas, and we should devote our minds to studying this realm. Plato further argued that studying this realm would produce wise rulers and virtuous citizens.

Aristotle was Plato's student, but he argued that we could discover truth not just by contemplating the Realm of Ideas, but also by examining the physical world. Aristotle wrote on numerous subjects like political philosophy and poetry, but he is most well known for developing a cohesive system of science and logic used to understand the world. This system, in fact, is an early form of the scientific method, the same basic scientific method we still use today. He argued that when we studied nature using logic, we can determine everything's purpose and cause. When it came to ethics, Aristotle argued that a happy life can be pursued through the use of reason, virtue, and moderation.

Hellenistic Philosophy

The conquest of Greece by Alexander the Great, beginning in 336 BCE, marked the end of the Classical period and the beginning of the Hellenistic period. While the Classical philosophers were optimistic about reason's ability to lead us to truth, the Hellenistic philosophers doubted whether true knowledge of the universe was possible. While the Classical philosophers focused on developing virtue as a means of living a good life, the Hellenistic philosophers instead focused on developing a way to avoid pain.

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