A Primer on Greco-Roman Philosophy
by: Gn. Dionysius Draco

This is a brief overview of classical philosophy, discussing the direct sources and roots of ancient thought. This overview is of course lacking in depth, and fails to mention personalities and philosophers that some may consider remarkable or important, especially the Roman "refiners of the genre". If you have any suggestions for improving this document, or for more in-depth discussion, we refer you to our Forum, or to the links provided below each summary, if possible.

General links:
The Nature Philosophers:


The nature philosophers are generally considered to be the first generation of philosophers in the West, because they were able to put the mythological thinking before them aside, and construct new theories after a rational examination of their world. In their own community, they were often seen as both wise and eccentric, which shows us that the cliché image of the cranky philosopher finds its roots there, too.

What these men also had in common was their quest to find the archè, or the element which forms the basis of reality. They were interested in truthful knowledge rather than being concerned with ethics or society, and were often also mathematicians. Many philosophers of a later date refer to them, and even today, some of their theories are alive and well.

Links: Thales (water)


Exact data on Thales from Miletus is unknown, but it is assumed that he lived in the 7th or 8th century BC, and attained the blessed age of eighty. To illustrate his wisdom as well as his stupidity, it is said that, by predicting next year's harvest and buying land, he was able to earn a lot of money in less than a year, while it is also said that he fell into a pit while walking because he was distracted. What is certain is that his travels, and living in a port town, influenced his life and philosophy. Legend has it that he also predicted a solar eclipse (in 585). Next to being an astronomer, Thales was also a famous mathematician.

Thales thought that the essence of everything was water. According to him, water was responsible – and necessary – for the creation of life, and comprised all other elements. When frozen, water becomes earth; when warmed, it becomes heat; and when damped away, it becomes wind.

Anaximander (apeiron)


Anaximander of Miletus (610–546 BC) was a student, and possibly a relative, of Thales, and took Thales' idea of 'the archè', or the original substance, a step further. He found that Thales' theory of the water lead to an infinite regression; what had brought forth water? And if the earth was supported by water, what supported the water? He thought the answer lay in the creation of two things: the first was the apeiron. The apeiron (the 'Boundless' or indefinitum in Latin) forms the origin of every substance, including the elements, and is both featureless, indefinite and infinite.

Anaximander further thought that the earth was a cylinder, and hung in space motionless, in harmony with the other celestial bodies. His importance was most likely the fact that he formed the beginning of an atomic theory, and was the first to think out a concept similar to gravity, without involving magic or intervention from the gods.

Anaximenes (air)


Anaximenes was, in turn, a student of Anaximander, and believed that the archè was air, taking a step back from his master's theories, and instead focusing more on Thales' original ideas. He thought that the earth was flat, and was able to float because it actually drifted on steam, like a paper sheet can remain adrift of an air current.

In antiquity, Anaximenes was more influential than Anaximander, because of the relative simplicity of his ideas, but later his master gained the upper hand – justly so, many think.

Herakleitos (fire)


Herakleitos was born in Ephesus in the 6th century BC, and differed from the Milesian school because of his original approach. The first element in his philosophy was the unity of oppositions, id est, for example, good and evil are part of the same thing, and are inseparable, because they can't exist without the other. The second element in his philosophy was that everything changes, and nothing remains, because of that eternal conflict between oppositions. He believed the archè to be fire, since it was chaotic in nature, but not random (such as, for example, wind).

Herakleitos never ceased to be influential later, and has had a considerable influence on later philosophers such as Nietzsche. It is also said that his philosophy shows remarkable congruencies with Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism and Taoism.

Pythagoras (number)


Pythagoras (570–497 BC) from Samos (an island in the Aegean Sea) was probably even more of a controversial character than Herakleitos, and united within him a brilliant mathematician, cult leader, philosopher, guru, politician and lunatic. He was the first to discover the nowadays-obvious relationship between mathematics and philosophy, and this shows in his way of thinking. For him, everything was a number, and the cosmos (a concept he first used in this meaning, by the way) was a mathematical construct of perfect harmony. In his cult, which was very strict qua rules, there was a daily practice of mathematics, music and also physical exercise. He was said to be a very charismatic personality. Pythagoras was killed during an uproar in the town he lived in; having the choice to escape through a field of beans or to die, he died. (He loathed beans, because he believed that farting – a process hastened by eating beans – equalled the invocation of dead spirits.)

Despite the fact that he was both a genius and a madman at the same time, Pythagoras remains one of the most important Presocratics, and had a considerable influence on Plato, atheistic mystics, and later, the Freemasonry lodges. Pythagorean cults existed throughout the whole Greek and Roman world, for over a millennium after their leader was long dead (they believed in reincarnation anyway).

The Sophists:


The Sophist "movement" began with the canonisation of rhetoric, which had been an oral tradition until the 5th century BC. Sophists emerged fairly quickly in that period – they were usually grammar teachers, wealthy bon vivants, eccentric personalities, nihilists, demagogues and charlatans.

They were revered by the masses, but loathed by the "serious" intellectuals of their time, who looked down on their rhetorical tricks and their disrespect for the gods. While it is true that many nihilists were agnostic or atheistic, they were also responsible for bringing an element into Western society that would resurge in the Renaissance: humanism. On basis of this anthropocentric perspective, they found it just to strive for wealth, success and other earthly joys, and equalled this to virtue.

Important names include Protagoras, Hippias and Menon. They often appear in Plato's dialogues, too.



The son of a sculptor and a midwife, Sokrates (469-399) would become the archetype of a philosopher. He wandered the streets of Athens, and talked with any incidental bypasser who had the time (and patience) to engage with him in a conversation about a multitude of philosophical topics, such as the gods, beauty and virtue. Sokrates' exact teachings – although he denied having any, because he said he knew nothing – remain unknown, because we have to rely on the written sources of two of his students, Plato and Xenophon. The former later added a lot of his own thoughts while describing his former master, while the latter showed a rather superficial understanding of him.

Sokrates was a controversial personality in his own time, and was often associated with the Sophists, with whom he had continuous discussions. He was eventually charged of asebeia (godlessness) and of corrupting the youth (he had a basis of loyal followers, mainly young male students). Without much resistance from his side, he was sentenced to death.

Although Sokrates claimed to be only aware of the fact that he did not know anything, he definitely had some ideas on the world, and especially morality. He believed strongly in the power of conscience, and was of the opinion that every man and woman is born with all knowledge, but that it has to appear through a method he called maieutism, a combination of sculpting and delivering. Derived from that, he says that a man cannot truly do a wrong thing if he is unaware of it, and he thought of the soul as more important than the body.



Stoicism was founded by Zeno, and named after the stoa, a gallery of columns (comparable to our parks) but with a roof above it, and a more social function rather than a decorative one. Stoics believe in the universal concept of the logos, that guides, directs and creates everything, and is vaguely defined as some sort of etheric fire (from which the gods derive their power). The emphasis is to live in accord with nature and society whilst banning disturbing thoughts and emotions (indifferentia: 'things that don't make a difference') and focus on the power of one's mind to overcome problems and attachments. Stoicism had a considerably large impact on the upper class of Roman society, and many Roman philosophers have been heavily influenced by it, or adapted it in their own system of thought (Seneca, Epictetus, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius). Christianity also adopted many Stoic principles, which later led to the caricature of a Stoic as a robot, which is a far shot from the truth. Later, Stoicism was re-discovered in combination with Skepticism to form one of the bases of the Aufklärung (the Enlightenment) in the 16th and the 17th century, to fade out again in the Age of Romanticism.

  • Stoicism and Shakespeare: examines the influence of Stoicism on the ethical substructure of Shakespeare's plays, characters, and plots. (Also has lots of Stoic classics in English translation!)
  • Stoicism (the movement and its founders; in English)
  • Stoicism and Epicureanism (in English)



The Greek "garden philosopher" Epikouros lay at the foundation of this much misunderstood and misinterpreted movement. Epikouros' main guidelines for a carefree life were to retreat (lathè biosas - "live in the hidden places") and enjoy a modest meal and drink from time to time to mildly satisfy one's natural desires. Society as a whole was not so important, but in turn, the power of friendship was. This voluntary self-exile and enjoying the fruits of life has led to people who mistook Epicureanism for hedonism, while his (poly-)deism was mistaken for atheism. Metaphysically, Epikouros borrowed a lot from Demokritos' atoms theory (even though he consequently denied it).



Probably one of the most influential philosophies of all time, Skepticism now forms the basis of what we would call a thorough scientific experiment. The philosophy as such did not originate this way, however. It is assumed that the Greek mercenary soldier Pyrrho introduced this philosophy. On his many travels he had seen so many customs, practices and philosophies, that he simply concluded that either none of them were true, or that they were all equal (which is the same, actually), radicalising the teachings of the Sophists. Despite its rather agnostical or even mystical nature at first, it soon became a critical way of inquiring about the world with the rational mind and/or empirical evidence, which it still is today.



Although Antisthenes, a pupil of Sokrates, founded Cynicism, the first elaborately recorded one is Diogenes, a student of Antisthenes, and a contemporary of Plato. His nickname was "the dog" (hence the word Cynic, derived from the Greek word kuon (genitive kunos), meaning dog). Many anecdotes have been recorded about him. He was quite a celebrity in Athens, shocking its citizens by walking around nude, sleeping in a ditch and masturbating in public. He was also known for his ad rem answers, and his lifestyle displayed a contempt for snobbishness, politics or anything else that was labelled as "civilized". In spite of his anarchism, he was seen as a wise (but sadly insane) man by Alexander the Great, and had many followers later. What we now call Cynicism is not the type of philosophy that marked Diogenes' lifestyle; much like our current understanding of Epikouros and the Stoa are simplifications, the term "cynic" is often used to designate an opportunistic person without empathy. While there is some truth in it, many true cynics were actually humble people who would not hurt others on purpose, unless they would feel offended themselves.



Another Athenian philosophy. Aristippos, student of Sokrates and the sophist Protagoras, had a simple but logical outlook on life: since life was full of suffering, and in itself worthless, all you could do was to ease the pain and experience as much pleasure as possible. Hedonism (stemming from the Greek word hèdus or "pleasure") was often, and sometimes deliberately, confused with Epicureanism. Many of the Greeks, and even more of the Romans (the upper class, that is) despised it, although it forms an ironic contradiction with the panem et circenses principle that appealed to the primitive hedonistic impulses of the masses to keep them under control.



Platonism is derived from its creator, Plato (427-347 BC). Plato, a student of Sokrates, was the first man to synthesize the previous Greek philosophy before him. Despite his constant denial of it, he was a skilled writer and an avid politician, being akin to Athens' famous archont Perikles. In many famous works and dialogues, mainly about Sokrates (his great example), he expounded his philosophy. According to Plato, a human being is a being that fundamentally longs for what is morally good and aesthetically good, to become one with the world of Ideals / Ideas (of which our world is a mere shadow or faint and imperfect reflection). Our hindrance to reach this is our body and its lusts, but we can overcome this by study, moderation, modesty and concentration. Furthermore, Plato was not only an idealist regarding the human being, but also regarding the state. He is said to be the first utopian and communist. He loathed the Athenian democracy (because, among other reasons, Sokrates was sentenced to death by the uncomprehending masses), and was for a dictatorship of philosophers. His attempts at realizing such a state on the island of Sicily failed three times; three times he was obliged to escape the wrath of the local rulers in Syracuse (Dionysius I and II, successively).

Later, he was quickly adopted by the Christian thinkers, and synthesized into their world view. The world of Ideals equated Heaven, and its Demiurges, the intermediate persons between the etheric, unchanging world, and the changing world, were saints and Christ. Platonism also gave birth to the later Neo-Platonism.



Neoplatonism, as the name says, was a renewed version of Platonism, with Plotinus (201-276 CE) incorporating elements from mystery cults, the Stoa, Aristoteles and allegedly ascetic Eastern influences. It is considered to be the last pagan philosophy before the era of Christianity, although Christian philosophers have also identified Neoplatonism with their own ideas.

Regarding the difference between Neoplatonism and Platonism, I am happy to quote sodalis Marcus Horatius here: "For me the difference between Plato and Plotinus is more one of perspective. Plato was concerned with the development of the Many from the One, or the diastolic movement in the Universe. Plotinus was more concerned with the systolic, his concern is with the return to the One: 'Strive to bring back the god in yourself to the Divine in the universe'". (Porphyry, Vita Plotinus 2.26)

Plotinus further refined the metaphysical system of Plato, and made more subtle nuances and flavours in a previously strong dualistic system. Although it remains dualistic, there is a stronger and more complicated hierarchy within that system, using the One, the Intellect and the Soul as the three key elements.



The last of the three men who would jointly have a massive impact upon Western philosophy was Aristoteles, student of Plato’s Academy. Although he admitted having learnt a lot from his master, he radically disagreed with him on more than a few points. Aristoteles was the teacher of Alexander the Great, and owed some credit to him as his provider of study material from the Middle East. Aristoteles' style is mainly described as boring, cerebral and scientific. He is often compared to Kant, but was probably not the caricature he is often made. According to some sources, Aristoteles also authored books and even theatre plays, but all that he concretely left us were merely study notes he used for his lectures at the school he erected, the lyceum (or Greek lukaion).

His teachings are mainly categorisational. One of his most important viewpoints was that human beings mainly perceive reality through their senses, and recognize (and define) animals, plants and other humans by a definition of shape. Quite often, he can be compared to the positivist rationalists at that. His ethical values are mainly centred around his principle of the middle way, and not to indulge in extremes, which can only harm both the individual and the society. While relatively unpopular in the Dark Ages, Aristoteles regained influence in the Renaissance and during the Enlightment. Nowadays, he is usually seen as Plato's equal in quality of ideas.

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