Ten Ancient Greek Philosophers you should definitely know

  1.  THALES (624-546 BC) Born in Miletus. One of the ‘Seven Sages’. He is considered to be no less than the father of Philosophy. He believed that all natural phenomena should be explained using scientific methods, and even managed -using astronomical observations- to predict a solar eclipse!
  2. PYTHAGORAS (570-496 BC) Born in Samos island. He believed that the only way to discover the secrets of the universe is to use mathematics. Famous for one of the most fundamental theorems of geometry, as we all know. All musicians in the world should thank him too: he laid down the basic principles of music theory including scales, modes and harmonies.
  3. DEMOCRITUS (460-370 BC) Nicknamed as the ‘laughing philosopher’, he is super-famous for introducing his incredible ATOMIC THEORY. ‘Different arrangements of atoms give rise to the various macroscopic substances in the world’. Not bad for someone that lived 24 centuries ago…
  4. SOCRATES (469-399 BC) Socrates is so important that all the philosophers that lived before him are just called ‘pre-Socratic’. On a day that will live in infamy, the Athenian Democracy put him to death. Famous for his Socratic Method of Teaching, he believed that “The un-examined life is not worth living.”
  5. PLATO (427-347 BC) Plato was one of Socrates’ students and after the execution of his teacher, he created the most famous institution of higher learning in History: the Academy. Alfred Whitehead wrote: “The safest general characterization of the philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
  6. DIOGENES (404-323 BC) One of my favorites. Foul-mouthed, always ready to criticize hypocrites and show-offs he founded the famous Cynic school. Once he passed outside the house of an Athenian who was of  a notoriously bad character and had a sign installed over his porch: ‘NO EVIL MAY ENTER HERE’. Diogenes knocked on the door and asked that guy: “How did YOU get in?”
  7. ARISTOTLE (384-322 BC) The great G.Hegel once declared: “Since then no man like Aristotle has ever been born. Nor will ever be born. Aristotle was referred to as just ‘THE Philosopher’, the realization that a single mind created so much scientific work and ideas so influential, is still difficult to grasp. From the creation of logic to the method that we use to write essays in school it’s him that you should thank (or blame…)
  8. EPICURUS (341-270 BC) Born on Samos island his philosophical school and ideas became immensely popular in the Roman times. He believed that the aim of philosophy is not all these things that Plato and Aristotle told us. The important question that we should ask is how to achieve happiness. His answer was: by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. And for the Epicureans, the highest pleasure was obtained by knowledge, friendship, and living a virtuous and temperate life.
  9. EPICTETUS (50-120 AD) The personification of Stoicism. Born as a slave, he was to become a saint-like figure for the Greeks and the Romans. Poor, homeless he struggled with super-human energy and dedication to ease the pain of the sufferings of humanity through his teachings, reminding us that “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
  10.  HYPATIA (370-415 AD)  1000 years of Greek Philosophy end with a heroic woman from Alexandria. Head of the University and Library of Alexandria, Hypatia was a lone beacon of light to the fast approaching Dark Ages. Her areas of specialization, like conic sections and Diophantine equations, remain important for learning math, in applied mathematics, and as tools in physics and other disciplines in science.

all 10

 

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What makes us moral? (The Euthyphro Dilemma)

In a lesser known book of Plato, we find Socrates in the Athenian Agora coming across Euthypro – a soothsayer he knew well – and the two men engage in a short conversation just outside the Royal Stoa. After sharing their news, the two men engage in an argument about morality.

Their conversation ended abruptly after Euthyphro felt a bit cornered and found an excuse to leave Socrates with the promise to finish their discussion some other time. Well… Can you blame him? It’s not just that Socrates wouldn’t let go easily… It’s also that the challenge Euthyphro was facing was a difficult one and remains so up until today.

Socrates asks Euthyphro whether something is moral because God commands it, or does God command it because it is moral? This simple question of Socrates has exercised tremendous influence in the history and study of morality.

The Royal Stoa was where the King Archon had his office. He was the official responsible (among others) for religious matters

The Euthyphro dilemma is technically an argument against the divine command theory, aimed at disproving God’s existence by raising an issue of morality. This isn’t of course explicitly declared by Socrates but I’m sure people like Epicurus would smile and nod when reading this part of the book. On the other hand, some religious people reject it as a ‘false dichotomy’ (google that) but this is actually up until today a persisting problem which also applies to meta-ethics.

Relax… We’re not going to embark on this now. I’m going to focus on an interesting detail that is somewhat irrelevant: the place that this conversation took place. Would you believe that we can pinpoint today the spot that Socrates was hanging out when he met Euthyphro?

Remains of the Royal Stoa today, outlined with red

 

Let’s see how the dialogue starts…


Euthyphro: Why have you left the Lyceum, Socrates? and what are you doing in the Royal Stoa? Surely you cannot be concerned in a suit before the King Archon, like myself?

Socrates: Not in a suit, Euthyphro; impeachment is the word which the Athenians use.

Euthyphro: What! I suppose that someone has been prosecuting you, for I cannot believe that you are the prosecutor of another.

Socrates: Certainly not.

Euthyphro: Then someone else has been prosecuting you?

Socrates: Yes.

Euthyphro: And who is he?

Socrates: A young man who is little known, Euthyphro; and I hardly know him: his name is Meletus, and he is of the deme of Pitthis. Perhaps you may remember his appearance; he has a beak, and long straight hair, and a beard which is ill grown.

Euthyphro: No, I do not remember him, Socrates. But what is the charge which he brings against you?

……………..

The conversation goes on. So, as we read, this dialogue takes place just outside the ‘Royal Stoa’ (Basileios Stoa). Guess what. -This stoa was excavated by American archaeologists and the traces of the building are there today! The first steps of the stoa have been unearthed.

Few passers-by today notice that quiet corner next to the busy Adrianou street but -unknowingly- countless people have had their drinks next to those same steps that Socrates was sitting, waiting for his turn outside the Royal Stoa.

Cicero’s end: why did he just ‘let go’?

HOW EMOTIONS CAN DECIDE THE COURSE OF HISTORICAL EVENTS

The inglorious end of Cicero had always been a stain in the pages of Roman political history. He met his end out in the Italian countryside (near modern-day Gaeta), slaughtered by Roman sword.  Marc Antony saw the return of the proscription as an opportunity to eliminate his most powerful enemy. In the end, he had Cicero’s hands cut off and nailed on the rostra (the speakers’ platform) at the Forum. A symbolic but utterly barbaric act. Such was the end of the last honest defender of the Roman Republic and her democratic principles.

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero

Marcus Antonius
Marcus Antonius

Escape or surrender?

The tragic events of that winter of 43 BC have been discussed quite thoroughly over the centuries. But there’s one detail that is overlooked:

-Oddly enough, most scholars ignore the fact that Cicero had the option to escape but in the end he didn’t. He could actually have saved himself by resisting arrest. Still, it was his decision to stay, even though he was in the act of fleeing! He offered himself to be put to death. -Why?

This appears to have been a spur-of-the-moment decision… Cicero knew that Antony was coming after him and he planned his escape beforehand. So it’s easy to understand that his aim was to continue his political struggle, defending the Republic.

Arch of Septimus Severus
Part of the Roman Forum. On the right of the Arch of Septimus Severus, is where the Rostra was located.

Sadness and grief

What made him change his mind and decided to give up after he was tracked? The most obvious answer is that he felt (for different reasons) so disappointed that he decided to give up. His bad psychological state can only be explained if we take into account an -otherwise neglected detail of Roman history of the period: the unexpected death of Cicero’s daughter, Tullia. Just a year earlier, in the winter of 47–46 B.C.E. he went through a painful divorce with his wife, Terentia. He re-married but his new wife was pathologically jealous of Tullia, a reality that saddened Cicero even more. The loss of his daughter in the following summer, was an event too tragic for him to cope with.

He was so grief-stricken that he couldn’t find comfort in anything. His two most favorite things in the world- books and friends- failed to provide him with any consolation. He tried very hard. His friends were worried. They tried to help as best as they could. Cicero threw himself into a sea of philosophy and books. Yet, nothing could ease the pain in his heart. His childhood friend, Titus Pomponius Atticus, tried to comfort him the best he could by inviting Cicero to his estate that included a huge library. All was in vain. Cicero declared, “my sorrow defeats all consolation”.

Cicero - Palace of Justice, Rome
Cicero – Palace of Justice, Rome

A moment’s decision?

The loss of his only daughter, his dear Tulliola as he liked to call her, made him care less and less about all the other things that he was passionate in the past. It’s easy to understand why he decided to finally give up. His whole perception of life had changed. For him, it made no sense to resist being arrested and to survive. ‘What’s the point?’ he must have asked himself when Antony’s executioner found him. His life had little purpose now, that’s why he ordered his servants not to resist and he let himself to be put to death.

His life had recently lost all meaning. How do we know? Cicero himself tells us in one simple phrase. He wrote to Atticus: “I have lost the one thing that bound me to life”.

Maybe this explains everything.

G. Kokkos

Oscar Wilde – Euripides

A Vision

TWO crownèd Kings, and One that stood alone

  With no green weight of laurels round his head,

  But with sad eyes as one uncomforted,

And wearied with man’s never-ceasing moan

For sins no bleating victim can atone,

  And sweet long lips with tears and kisses fed.

  Girt was he in a garment black and red,

And at his feet I marked a broken stone

  Which sent up lilies, dove-like, to his knees.

  Now at their sight, my heart being lit with flame

I cried to Beatricé, “Who are these?”

And she made answer, knowing well each name,

  “Æschylos first, the second Sophokles,

  And last (wide stream of tears!) Euripides.”

Oscar Wilde .  Poems.  1881.

euripides

Euripides. The last of ‘The Marvelous three’ Athenian theatre play writers. The most rebellious one. His criticism on religion -and the Olympian Gods in particular- and his attacks on traditional, social and moral values were infamous, earning the dislike of many of his fellow citizens. Even one of the most open minded audiences of the ancient world, the Athenians, had trouble understanding him.

Later he became immensely popular.  Theatre goers and play writers alike since then, bow before his talent and unprecedented boldness.

As Oscar Wilde explains:

“For though Euripides has not the Titan strength of Aeschylus, that Michael-Angelo of the Athenian stage, nor the self-restraint and artistic reserve of Sophocles, yet he has the qualities that are absolutely and entirely his own. His broad acceptance of the actual facts of life, his extraordinary insight into the workings of the human mind, his keen dramatic instinct for scene and situation, and his freedom from theological prejudice, make him the most interesting of studies. He was a poet, a philosopher and a playwright……..

…….He saw indeed that men and women as they are, are more interesting than men and women as they ought to be. He never tried to make humanity real by exaggerating its proportions. He cared little for giants or for gods. the sorrows of mortals touched him more than all the gladness of Olympus”

Plato was walking along the road…

…when a friend stopped him and said “My friend, I must tell you something bad I heard about one of your students.”

Plato said, “First answer me the three tests of knowledge. One, have you personally checked if this thing is true?” “No” the friend answered. “Then two,” said Plato, “Will this knowledge make me happier?” “No”. came the reply. “Then there is one final test to determine if I need this knowledge my friend.” said the master. ” Is it to my students’ advantage that I know it?” “Alas no.” came the reply.

“Then pass on your way my friend and do not tell me this thing.” said Plato and walked off smiling. This is why he was the greatest Philosopher of all, and also why he never found out that Aristotle was shagging his wife.

Epictetus

 

Epictetus (50-120AD)
Epictetus (50-120AD)

“Difficulties are things that show people who they really are!”
A slave born in Hierapolis that was to become a saint-like figure for the Greeks and the Romans. Poor, homeless he struggled with super-human energy and dedication to ease the pain of the sufferings of humanity through his teachings. One of his gratest fans was Marcus Aurelius himself!

Centuries later, the US Navy Admiral James Stockdale was able to retain his sanity during capture in a Viet Cong POW camp by relying on the philosophy of Epictetus…