Ancient philosophy

Bust of Socrates in the Louvre
Source: Eric Gaba (User:Sting),, Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

(Marble bust of Roman origin (1st century BC) representing Socrates, copy of a lost bronze (by Lysippus).)

The term ancient philosophy generally designates the philosophy that was born in the 7th century BC, and which developed with Socrates and Plato, as well as Hellenistic philosophy, and his successors in the Roman Empire. It thus applies to a so-called “Western” philosophy, which roughly corresponds to Greco-Roman Antiquity – the wisdoms or philosophies of other civilizations (China, India, etc.) are generally not included under this term. This term also includes what an important part of the history of philosophy considers to be the origins of philosophy, namely the pre-Socratic thinkers, the first of which date from the middle of the 7th century BC.

Understood in this sense, the cradles of ancient philosophy are located in Ionia (Asian Greece) at the level of the Mediterranean coast of present-day Turkey, and in what is called Magna Graecia, the south of Italy.

Source: Public domain

(Copy of a bust of Plato, from the end of the 4th century BC. Vatican Museums. )

Ancient philosophy is also characterized by the existence of schools, or currents, the main ones being neo-Platonism, Cynicism or Skepticism, Epicureanism and Stoicism.

In Europe, the spread of Christianity through ancient Rome marks the end of the so-called Hellenistic period, and brings us to the beginning of medieval philosophy – which is marked in a major way by a re-discovery, and consequently a re-interpretation, of ancient philosophy, in particular through what has been called the translatio studiorum.

In Europe

  • The pre-Socratic philosophers: The Presocratics are philosophers who lived from the middle of the 7th century BC until the time of Socrates. They have in fact participated in the origins of philosophy.
  • Greece’s “golden age”
    • The three classical Greek philosophers
      • Socrates: Socrates is considered the father of Western philosophy because he centered his philosophy solely on the human being, thus setting himself apart from the studies of presocratic thinkers on nature. He was also the initiator of the methods which will remain those of philosophy, by questioning the definition of certain notions, and by developing dialectical examinations.
      • Plato: Socrates is at the heart of Plato’s philosophy, his “conceptual slave”; he is the principal Socratic. The written dialogues are a display of famous figures of the time and of the theatrical setting that the philosopher previously exercised. However, the author has this peculiarity that he does not give himself a role in his own texts; it is true that for the most part, he is not the direct witness.
      • Aristotle: Of the works of Aristotle, only about fifty have come down to us out of the 400 that he would have written. He was interested in everything he could study, and we can divide his philosophy into three parts: theoretical philosophy, practical philosophy and poietic philosophy. The theoretical part (that is to say “which has as its object the disinterested search for knowledge and truth”) is in turn divided into physics, mathematics and theology; practical philosophy in economics, ethics, politics and rhetoric; poietics includes all the activities that produce a work.
    • Ancient philosophical currents
      • Socratic schools: Usually and not without implicit denigration, the Socratic schools are divided into “small Socratics” and “large Socratics” (Plato and Aristotle). The schools of the “little Socratics” are as follows:
        • Cynicism takes over the moral ideal of Socrates. A philosophical movement founded by Antisthenes but whose most representative member is Diogenes of Sinope, was so named for several reasons.
        • Cyrenaism regains its practical meaning. A school founded by Aristippus of Cyrene, has for doctrine hedonism. Hedonism is a moral of pleasure.
        • The megaric School. It was created by Euclid of Megara during the 5th century BC. We have nothing left of this philosophical school, nevertheless it played a leading role in the development of Western logic and metaphysics.
        • The School of Elis or Eretria is considered the school most faithful to the teaching of Socrates. Little is known about the school of Elis, other than that it came to be called the school of Eretria through Menedemus. This school disappeared after him, and only a few traces remained. She was the most faithful to the teachings delivered by Socrates.

        Of the four Socratic schools that will emerge, it is the cynical movement that will last the longest. However, all of them prepared the philosophical movements of the Hellenistic period.

      • Schools of the Hellenistic period
        • Stoicism. The Stoic school was created by Zeno of Kition in the 4th century BC. Its name is derived from “Stoa Poïkile” because the school was located near the Pécile portico, in the Agora of Athens. It is also called the school of the Portico.
        • Epicurus’ Garden. Epicurus (-341 / -270), founder of the School of the Garden and of a philosophy of the happiness of the individual (misinterpreted later) based on the simple and fundamental pleasures of life.
        • Skepticism
  • Roman period
    • Jewish and Christian Philosophy

In Asia

  • Babylonian philosophy: Babylonian philosophy has its roots in a Mesopotamian wisdom ahead of its time, which embodies certain philosophies of life, in particular morality. These Mesopotamian modus vivendi echo through Mesopotamian religion as well as Babylonian literature (dialectics, dialogue, epic, folklore, hymns, song lyrics, prose and proverbs). These various forms of literature were first classified by the Babylonians, and their reasoning and rationality (logos) developed beyond mere empirical observation.
  • Persian philosophy: There are ancient relationships between the Indian Vedas and the Meded Avesta. The two main traditional Indo-Iranian philosophical families were determined by two fundamental differences: in their implications for the position of human beings in society and their view of the role of man in the universe. The first charter of human rights by Cyrus II (also known as Cyrus the Great) is seen as a reflection of the questions and thoughts expressed by Zarathustra, and developed in Zoroastrian schools of thought.
  • Indian philosophy: Indian philosophy is classified into two categories: the āstika philosophy which recognizes the authority of the Vedas and the upanishads which are the conclusion of it; it is about the six orthodox schools which are the Mīmāṃsā, the Nyāya, the Vaiśeṣika, the Vedānta and the Yoga and Nastika philosophies which reject the authority of the Vedas among which are the Cārvāka, ājīvika, Jainism and Buddhism.
  • Chinese philosophy
    • Confucianism comes, as the name suggests, from Confucius, one of the greatest Chinese thinkers, who later split into two schools.
    • Taoism has for founder a semi-legendary character Lao Tseu, who has similarities with Indian thought as by the existence of a universal being the Tao and the sage was to resemble him by detaching himself from the world.

Pre-Columbian philosophy

The pre-Columbian societies are animist, polytheist and / or naturalist sounding, they conceive a quantity of more or less inferior gods in which we find an attribute of the Universal Being. We can compare the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Hindu conception, to see that this system was related to those mentioned above. Along with the way of life inherent in Hinduism, for example, we find in pre-Columbian systems this pattern of a universal Soul (Brahman in India), of a Whole in which men go out and return. This of course according to the different gods of the many civilizations present.

  • Mesoamerica
    • Maya: The Mayan civilization spread in the time of the 3rd millennium BC before sinking in the 16th century AD. With the little information that has come down to us so far, it is difficult to conclude anything conclusive about a Mayan philosophy; in question the autodafés which followed the Spanish conquests from 1541, trying to make disappear their religion.
    • Aztec: The Aztec civilization had the largest Mesoamerican empire that ever existed, from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, until the landing of the Spaniards and the assassination by them of the last emperor in 1525.
  • South America
    • Inca: Philosophy as understood does not apply to Inca civilization, just as it is difficult to define an African philosophy. The main cult was devoted to the sun, but not only: the Incas, like the animist religions, had deities called huacas (“spirit”), which were found associated with places, natural formations, trees. … The sun being the keystone of the system, we find a certain kinship with polytheism.
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