Ancient Philosophy

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edit index Ancient Philosophy

Ancient Western Philosophy

The key figure in transforming early Greek philosophy into a unified and continuous project - the one still being pursued today - is Socrates, who studied under several Sophists and then spent much of his life, we are told, engaging everyone in Athens in discussion trying to determine whether anyone had a very good idea what they were talking about, especially when they talked about important matters like justice, beauty and truth. He wrote nothing, but inspired many disciples. In his old age he became the focus of the hostility of many in the city who saw philosophy and sophistry, interchangeably, as destroying the piety and moral fibre of the city; he was executed in 399 B.C.

His most important student was Plato, who wrote a number of philosophical dialogues using his master's methods of inquiry to examine problems. The early dialogues demonstrate something like Socrates' own fairly inconclusive style of inquiry. The "middle" ones develop a substantive metaphysical and ethical system to resolve these problems. Central ideas are the Theory of Forms, that the mind is imbued with an innate capacity to understand and apply concepts to the world, and that these concepts are in a significant way more real, or more basically real, than the things of the world around us; the immortality of the soul, and the idea that it too is more important than the body; the idea that evil is a kind of ignorance, that only knowledge can lead to virtue, that art should be subordinate to moral purposes, and that society should be ruled by a class of philosopher kings. In the later dialogues Socrates figures less prominently, and the Theory of Forms is cast in doubt; more directly ethical questions become the focus.

Plato founded the Academy of Athens, and his most outstanding student there was Aristotle. Possibly Aristotle's most important and long-lasting work was his formalization of logic. It appears that Aristotle was the first philosopher to categorize every valid syllogism. A syllogism is a form of argument that is guaranteed to be accepted, because it is known (by all educated persons) to be valid. A crucial assumption in Aristotelian logic is that it has to be about real objects. Two of Aristotle's syllogisms are invalid to modern eyes. For example, "All A are B. All A are C. Therefore, some B are C." This syllogism fails if set A is empty.

After Aristotle, philosophy became increasingly disorganized, but flourished during the Hellenistic period.


Socrates (470 B.C. - 399 B.C.), an (Athenian) philosopher, became one of the most important icons of the Western philosophical tradition. His made his most important contribution to Western thought through his method of enquiry. See the article on him for more information.


Plato (c. 427 BC - c. 347 BC), an immensely influential classical Greek philosopher, studied under Socrates and taught Aristotle. His most famous work, The Republic (Greek Politeia, 'city'), outlines his vision of "an ideal" state. He also wrote The Laws and many dialogues featuring Socrates as the main participant. Plato became a pupil of Socrates in his youth, and - at least according to his own account - attended his master's trial, though not his execution. Unlike Socrates, Plato wrote down his philosophical views and left a considerable number of manuscripts. See the article on him for more details.


Aristotle, known as Aristoteles in most languages other than English (Aristotele in Italian), (384 BC - March 7, 322 BC) has, along with Plato, the reputation of one of the two most influential philosophers in Western thought.

Their works, although connected in many fundamental ways, differ considerably in both style and substance. Plato wrote several dozen philsophical dialogues - arguments in the form of conversations, usually with Socrates as a participant - and a few letters. Though the early dialogues deal mainly with methods of acquiring knowledge, and most of the last ones with justice and practical ethics, his most famous works expressed a synoptic view of ethics, metaphysics, reason, knowledge, and human life. Predominant ideas include the notion that knowledge gained through the senses always remains confused and impure, and that the contemplative soul that turns away from the world can acquire "true" knowledge. The soul alone can have knowledge of the Forms, the real essences of things, of which the world we see is but an imperfect copy. Such knowledge has ethical as well as scientific import. One can view Plato, with qualification, as an idealist and a rationalist.

Aristotle, by contrast, placed much more value on knowledge gained from the senses, and would correspondingly better earn the modern label of empiricist. Thus Aristotle set the stage for what would eventually develop into the scientific method centuries later. The works of Aristotle that still exist today appear in treatise form, mostly unpublished by their author. The most important include Physics, Metaphysics, (Nicomachean) Ethics, Politics, De Anima (On the Soul), Poetics, and many others. See the article on Aristotle for more discussion.

Ancient Eastern Philosophy

In the east, and particularly in China, less emphasis was laid upon materialism as a basis for reflecting upon the world and more on conduct, manners and social behaviour as is evidence in Taoism and Confucianism.

Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article "Ancient_philosophy" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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