Ancient Greek philosophy extends from as far as the seventh century B.C. up until the beginning of the Roman Empire, in first century A.D. During this period five great philosophical traditions originated: the Platonist, the Aristotelian, the Stoic, the Epicurean, and the Skeptic.
The Power of Reason
Ancient Greek philosophy distinguishes itself from other early forms of philosophical and theological theorizing for its emphasis on reason as opposed to the senses or the emotions. For example, among the most famous arguments from pure reason we find those against the possibility of motion presented by Zeno.
Before Socrates, Plato’s teacher and a key figure in the rise of Athenian philosophy at the end of fifth century B.C., several figures established themselves as philosophers in small islands and cities across the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Parmenides, Zeno, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Thales all belong to this group. Few of their written works have been preserved till nowadays; this is also because in the ancient Greek world the text was not considered an appropriate vehicle for transmitting philosophical teachings until Plato’s time (the beginning of fourth century B.C.) Favorite themes include: the principle of reality (e.g., the one or the logos); the good; the life worth being lived; the distinction between appearance and reality; the distinction between philosophical knowledge and layman’s opinion.
Plato (427-347B.C.) is the first of the central figures of ancient philosophy and he is the earliest author whose work we can read in considerable amounts. He has written about nearly all major philosophical issues and is probably most famous for his theory of universals and for his political teachings. In Athens, he established a school – the Academy – at the beginning of the fourth century B.C., which remained open until 83A.D. The philosophers who chaired the Academy after Plato contributed to the popularity of his name, although they did not always contribute to the development of his ideas. For example, under the direction of Arcesilaus of Pitane, began 272B.C., the Academy became famous as the center for academic skepticism, the most radical form of skepticism to date. Also for these reasons, the relationship between Plato and the long list of authors who recognized themselves as Platonists throughout the history of philosophy is complex and subtle.
Aristotle (384-322B.C.) was a student of Plato and one of the most influential philosophers to date. He gave an essential contribution to the development of logic (especially the theory of syllogism), rhetoric, biology, and – among others – formulated the theory of substance and virtue ethics. In 335B.C. he founded a school in Athens, the Lyceum, which contributed to disseminate his teachings. Aristotle seems to have written some texts for a broader public, but none of them survived. His works we are reading today were first edited and collected around 100B.C. They have exrcised tremendous influence not only upon the Western tradition, but also upon the Indian (e.g. the Nyaya school) and the Arabic (e.g. Averroes) traditions.
Stoicism originated in Athens with Zeno of Citium, around 300B.C. Stoic philosophy is centered on a metaphysical principle that had been already developed, among others, by Heraclitus: that reality is governed by logos and that what happens is necessary. For Stoicism, the goal of human philosophizing is the achievement of a state of absolute tranquility. This is obtained through the progressive education to independency from one’s needs. The stoic philosopher will not fear any bodily or social condition, having trained not to depend on bodily need or any specific passion, commodity, or friendship. This is not to say that the stoic philosopher will not seek pleasure, success, or long-standing relationships: simply that she will not live for them. The influence of Stoicism on the development of Western philosophy is hard to overestimate; among its most devote sympathizers, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Hobbes, and Descartes.
Among philosophers’ names, “Epicurus” is probably one of those that is most frequently cited in non philosophical discourses. Epicurus taught that the life worth being lived is spent seeking pleasure; the question is: which forms of pleasures? Throughout history Epicureanism has often been misunderstood as a doctrine preaching the indulgence into the most vicious bodily pleasures. On the contrary, Epicurus himself was known for his temperate eating habits, and for his moderation. His exhortations were directed towards the cultivation of friendship as well as any activity which most elevates our spirits, such as music, literature, and art. Epicureanism was also characterized by metaphysical principles; among them, the theses that our world is one out of many possible worlds and that what happens does so by chance. The latter doctrine is developed also in Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura.
Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-c. 270 B.C.) is the earliest figure in ancient Greek skepticism. on record. He seems to have written no text and to have held common opinion in no consideration, hence attributing no relevance to the most basic and instinctive habits. Probably influenced also by the Buddhist tradition of his time, Pyrrho viewed the suspension of judgment as a mean to achieve that freedom of disturbance that sole can lead to happiness. His goal was to keep each human’s life in a state of perpetual inquiry. Indeed, the mark of skepticism is the suspension of judgment. In its most extreme form, known as academic skepticism and first formulated by Arcesilaus of Pitane, there is nothing that should not be doubted, including the very fact that everything can be doubted. The teachings of ancient skeptics exercised a deep influence on a number of major Western philosophers, including Aenesidemus (1st century B.C.), Sextus Empiricus (2nd century A.D.), Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Renè Descartes, David Hume, George E. Moore, Ludwig Wittgenstein. A contemporary revival of skeptical doubting was initiated by Hilary Putnam in 1981 and later developed into the movie The Matrix (1999.)