The philosophy of the ancient Greeks was a wide-ranging discipline, which expanded and systematized the ways in which philosophers thought about logic, ethics, poetry, myth, politics, physics and metaphysics. The Hellenists, including Plato and his student Aristotle, developed a variety of schools or movements devoted to different philosophical lifestyles. These schools evolved, were amplified and consolidated by Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptical thinkers, and greatly influenced prominent figures of Late Antiquity such as Marcus Aurelius, Plotinus, Porphyry, and the early Church Fathers.
Among the most famous ancient philosophers were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. All three produced dialogues, which are still read and studied today in the fields of ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and political thought.
Socrates’s philosophy was characterized by open discussion of philosophical topics, such as justice and morality (Memorabilia, Book I, i.16). However, this openness was not always a popular practice and led to Socrates’s execution.
One of Socrates’s most famous critics was Parmenides, a Platonic rival who also made a significant contribution to Greek philosophy. In his Dialogues, Parmenides challenges Socrates’s concept of the forms–the idea that all material things are essentially the same, unified, and unchanging. For Parmenides, the concept of the forms is too limiting. He believes that all things, whether they are stones, hair, or bits of dirt, are only essentially the same in that they all participate in the form of Largeness.
In contrast, Aristotle’s concept of the forms is more expansive. He posits that each of us participates in a form, a soul, and a divine intellect, and the good of all is to know these forms. The forms are not merely theoretical entities, but immaterial entities that give being to the materials that make up our bodies and world.
For Aristotle, the contemplation of these forms is an activity full of wonder and awe. This is because it gives the philosopher an opportunity to contemplate what he/she knows. The Greek word theoria, for instance, is rooted in the verb for seeing, and it is in this sense that the activity of thinking about what one has found out about astronomy or physics is most wonderful.
Besides the discussion of these forms, Aristotle’s philosophy also included an exploration of the nature of human beings. He argued that women, unlike men, are naturally inferior in reason, but this is not because of their genetic makeup or physical condition.
Another notable figure in Aristotle’s thought was the skeptic Democritus, who believed that all things were in flux and that all of them were subject to cyclical changes. He was an important early philosopher of science, but he was also a critical critic of Platonic and Aristotelian thought.
The ancient philosophers were the first to introduce rigorous logic into the field of philosophy, and the study of their works has continued as a necessary part of modern philosophy. The study of the Classics, which includes works of the Greeks and Romans as well as many other cultures, will provide students with a broad understanding of linguistic, literary, historical, and cultural aspects of philosophy.