Greek Philosophy (Classical)

Greek philosophy or classical philosophy covers the period of thought developed in Ancient Greece from its classical period (499 – 323 BC) to its Hellenic period (323 – 30 BC).

The word philosophy of Greek origin was first coined by Pythagoras and means “love of wisdom” or “friend of wisdom”.

And why is Greek philosophy important? Because it constitutes the basis of current Western thought.

characteristics of greek philosophy

Greek philosophy originates from the classical period of the Ancient Greek civilization between 499 to 323 BC.

The first period is called the cosmological or pre-Socratic period and is characterized by using rational thought to solve problems about nature, this meant using reason, thought, knowledge, and the senses, known as logo.

The second period of Greek philosophy focuses on the problems of man where the ideas of the Sophists and Socrates are confronted.

The philosophical debate that characterizes this period consists of the relativity or universality of concepts such as good and evil.

In this sense, the sophists were skeptical and relativistic, affirming that good and evil, for example, depended on the point of view of each individual. On the other hand, Socrates taught that these concepts are not relative but absolute, and that truth is arrived at through a process of questioning and reasoning.

Classical philosophy lays the foundations for the political and logical discourse of Western thought, which is characterized by the use of rhetoric (sophists) and maieutics (Socrates).

Periods of Greek philosophy

Classical philosophy is generally divided into 2 major periods: the pre-Socratic period and the period of Socrates and the sophists.

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1. Cosmological or pre-Socratic period

The first Greek philosophers are called cosmological, since they question the mysteries of nature and the cosmos that were formerly explained through myths (Greek mythology).

This first period of Greek philosophy, also known as pre-Socratic philosophy, spans the 6th and 5th centuries BC.

The main objective was the search for the primordial, unique and universal principle from which all things were generated, which they called arche. This search was done through knowledge (logos), giving rise to rational thought.

Presocratic philosophy is divided into 2 great schools:

  • monistic schools (6th century BC): its most important representatives being Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras, Heraclitus of Ephesus, Xenophanes, Parmenides and Zeno of Elea.
  • pluralistic schools (5th century BC): in which Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus and Democritus stand out.

2. Period of the Sophists and Socrates

During the second half of the classical period of Ancient Greece, the sophists and Socrates (470 – 399 BC), the latter a disciple of Anaxagoras, emerged. This period is characterized by its intense debates on the perception of knowledge centered on man instead of nature.

The sophists teach to use rhetoric to convince and persuade, since everything is relative and depends on the argument. Its most prominent representatives were:

  • Protagoras: to whom is attributed the phrase “man is the measure of all things”. He was a consultant to King Pericles and believed that everything should be socially useful.
  • gorgias: affirmed that everything is false.
  • Antisthenes: student of Socrates, founds the Cynic school. He was the teacher of Diogenes of Sinope, a noted Cynic.
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On the other hand, Socrates did not agree with the sophists and affirmed that concepts such as good, evil and justice were absolute, reaching them through a process known as the “Socratic method” that consists of 2 steps: irony and the maieutics.

This process would help expose contradictions and generate an inductive argument through dialogue. Socrates taught that life without questions is a life of ignorance and without morality.

Disciples of Socrates

The evolution of Greek philosophy is based on the teachings of Socrates through his disciple: Plato (427 -347 BC). After the death of Socrates in 387 BC, Plato founded the Academy, the institution where Aristotle would be trained.

Plato considers that the only eternal and immutable thing is the world of ideas, taking into account the existence of 2 worlds: the sensible world, of the senses, and the intelligible world, that of ideas. He uses the “myth of the cave” to explain how our senses deceive us and hide the truth. This is also known as Platonic idealism.

The last representative of Greek philosophy as such is the disciple of Plato, Aristotle (384 – 322 BC). He was the teacher of Alexander the Great from 343 BC and in 353 BC he founded the Lyceum. Aristotle differs from Plato by incorporating more naturalistic ideas, concluding that we depend on the senses and experience to learn. This is also known as intellectualism.

Furthermore, Aristotle coins the term eudaimonia which means happiness, which considered it the purpose of every human being.

Other disciples of Socrates founded schools of thought in Greek philosophy that also affirmed that the ultimate goal of man was to achieve happiness. Among them, we can mention:

  • the cynical school: Founded by Antisthenes, despises social and material conventions. They fight not to be slaves to pleasures and believe in life without goals.
  • the garden school: Founded by Epicurus in 306 BC, it states that happiness is reached through the absence of worries, without fear of death and through pleasure governed by prudence.
  • the stoic school: Founded by Zeno of Citium and influenced by the Cynics, it states that happiness is found through the acceptance of fate and duty.
  • the skeptical school: Pirrón de Elis is influenced by the Stoics and affirms that the truth does not exist and happiness is found in abstaining from judgment, apathy being the ideal.
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See also Ancient Greece: civilization, history and culture.