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Ancient Greek Philosophers Who Excelled in Athens

Socrates, one of the most prominent Greek philosophers lived in Athens
Many ancient philosophers from Athens considered this city to be the center of their thriving intellectual activity. Socrates Address, Louis Joseph Lebrun, 1867. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Many ancient philosophers from Athens considered this city to be the center of their thriving intellectual activity.

Their profound insights persistently influence our comprehension of ethics, politics, metaphysics, and the core inquiries concerning human existence. These luminaries and philosophers from Athens laid the foundation for Western philosophy and left an enduring imprint on the realm of intellectual thought.

Socrates, Father of Western Philosophy, Sentenced to Death in Athens

Socrates, often considered the father of Western philosophy, was deeply intertwined with Athens throughout his life. Credit: Leonidas Drosis / CC-BY-SA-4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Socrates, often considered the father of Western philosophy, was deeply intertwined with Athens throughout his life.

Being an Athenian since his birth around 470 BC, he focused on ethics and morality, advocating the practical application of philosophy based on human reason rather than dogma. Socrates believed that self-knowledge was the gateway to wisdom, empowering individuals to make wiser choices for their happiness. The philosopher emphasized to the people of Athens that true satisfaction lies not in acquiring more but in learning to value less.

The philosopher gained renown for his distinctive Socratic Method, which involved thought-provoking questioning, often exposing the shortcomings of his opponents. This approach earned both admiration and criticism.

Athens, where his brilliant mind flourished, also became the stage for his tragic end. In 399 BC, Socrates faced trial in this city on charges of corrupting the youth and impiety. Despite his defense, the jury sentenced him to death, marking a dramatic conclusion to his lifelong connection with the city.

Due to a religious festival, his execution was postponed for thirty days. During that time, his distressed friends made unsuccessful attempts to persuade him to flee Athens. However, on his final day, Plato recounts that Socrates “appeared both happy in manner and words as he died nobly and without fear.”

He accepted the cup of brewed hemlock offered by his executioner, strolled until his legs grew numb, and then lied down among his companions, patiently awaiting his end.

Plato, Philosopher of Athens and Student of Socrates

Plato, the renowned student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle, was born in Athens in either 428 or 427 BC. Credit: Public Domain

Plato, the renowned student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle, was born in Athens in either 428 or 427 BC. Unlike many other ancient philosophers, Plato’s work has been passed down to us in a complete collection rather than fragments.

Plato is a central figure in the development of idealist philosophy. He contended that only fundamental entities possess true perfection, while all else is tainted by the passage of time, human influence, or external factors. He believed that “human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge.” Plato further contributed to the immortality of the soul through four distinct arguments and employed dialectics, a method of argumentation.

This dialectical approach was subsequently adopted by thinkers such as Aristotle and Bruno. In addition to his philosophical ideas, Plato devised his own blueprint for an ideal state. It involved the division of labor and restricted personal property. In addition, Plato envisioned philosopher-kings as leaders due to their proximity to truth and abstract concepts.

Plato’s Academy, founded in 387 BC on the outskirts of Athens, is considered the world’s first university. The philosopher played a central role in its establishment, hosting informal gatherings with fellow thinkers prior to its formal recognition in the mid-380s BC. While not a modern university, the Academy covered diverse subjects such as philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, politics, and physics. It was located in a historically significant garden and was attended by an exclusive group of intellectuals.

Aristotle, Student of Plato and Teacher of Alexander the Great

Aristotle and Alexander the Great
Although this great philosopher was not from Athens, this city became the main place of his prosperity. Credit: Public Domain

Aristotle, a pivotal figure in the history of philosophy, made lasting contributions to ethics, logic, metaphysics, politics, and various scientific fields. As a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great, he played a significant role in shaping Western thought.

A key departure from Plato was Aristotle’s rejection of the idea of autonomous, independent ideas. He believed ideas were reflections of the material world, with reality grounded in the sensory world we perceive. Furthermore, Aristotle introduced the concepts of matter and form, with matter as the foundational cause of existence and form defining an object’s identity.

He viewed humans as social beings, with the state existing to ensure citizens’ happiness, particularly those who owned property and participated in governance. He believed that “the only stable state is the one in which all men are equal before the law.”

Although this great philosopher was not from Athens, this city became the main place of his prosperity. Namely, Aristotle founded the Lyceum there, a philosophical school that rivaled Plato’s Academy. The Lyceum attracted students from across the Greek world and became a center of intellectual activity. Aristotle became famous with his teaching method, underlying that “those who know, do. Those who understand, teach.”

His commitment to scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge is exemplified by the collection of manuscripts assembled at the Lyceum, one of the earliest great libraries in human history.

Zeno and His Stoic School of Philosophy

Zeno of Citium was born around 335 BC in Citium, Cyprus. However, the philosopher primarily worked and excelled in Athens until his death, probably in 263 BC. He was a significant Hellenistic philosopher and is renowned for establishing the Stoic school of philosophy.

This school profoundly impacted Hellenistic and Roman philosophical and ethical thought. Upon his arrival in Athens around 312 BC, he studied under various philosophers and attended Academy lectures.

Zeno’s philosophical system encompassed logic, theory of knowledge, physics, and ethics, with a strong emphasis on the latter. He taught that true happiness resulted from aligning one’s will with the divine reason that governs the universe.

The philosopher believed that “well-being is realized by small steps, but is truly no small thing.” While his numerous writings have not survived in their entirety, fragments of his works reveal his impactful ideas.

Epicurus, Philosopher Who Established a School in Athens

Epicurus head sculpture
Epicurus was a Greek philosopher born in 341 BC on the island of Samos in an Athenian family. Credit: Richard Mortel / CC-BY-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Epicurus was a Greek philosopher born in 341 BC on the island of Samos in an Athenian family. Later in his life, Athens would bring him fame and numerous students.

Epicurus founded a philosophy centered around simple pleasure, friendship, and retirement. He established philosophical schools that thrived from the 4th century BC to the 4th century AD.

Epicurus believed that the ultimate goal of all actions was to achieve personal pleasure, equated with tranquility. He emphasized limiting desires and dispelling the fear of gods and death to attain this state. In this light, the philosopher noted that a person “who is not satisfied with a little is satisfied with nothing.”

At eighteen years of age, Epicurus undertook military training in Athens and was likely influenced by Plato and Aristotle. He later returned to Athens, where he established a school known as “The Garden,” distinct for its simplicity, acceptance of women and slaves, and avoidance of political involvement. He wrote extensively and maintained correspondence with students, focusing on both philosophical and social matters.

Epicurus’ writings influenced philosophers and thinkers throughout history from Lucretius to Cicero. His ideas on atomism also experienced a revival in the 17th century through the work of Pierre Gassendi.

Proclus, Philosopher Opposing Christianity

Proclus was born around 410 AD in Constantinople and passed away in 485 AD in Athens. He was one of the last prominent Ancient Greek philosophers and played a significant role in spreading Neoplatonic ideas across the Byzantine, Islamic, and Roman worlds.

Proclus pursued his philosophical education in Alexandria. Furthermore, he studied under the guidance of eminent philosophers, including Plutarch of Athens and Syrianus.

The philosopher ardently opposed Christianity while fervently defending paganism. He insisted that “everything is overflowing with Gods.” As a Neoplatonist idealist, he posited that thoughts constituted the core of reality, with tangible entities existing merely as appearances.

He held the so-called “One” as the ultimate reality, representing both God and the Good, thereby unifying his ethical and theological frameworks.

Besides his philosophical work, this Greek philosopher became famous in Athens and beyond thanks to his works that were of a wide scope. Namely, he authored a variety of non-philosophical texts, including those on astronomy, mathematics, and grammar.

Protagoras, Philosopher Who Was Exiled From Athens

Another prominent Greek philosopher from Athens was Protagoras. An eminent Greek Sophist, he was born around 490 BC and was known for his significant influence on moral and political thought. Athens played a special role in his destiny since it was there that he spent most of his life.

Protagoras taught as a Sophist for over forty years, claiming to impart “virtue” for everyday life. His famous dictum, “Man is the measure of all things,” underscores the relativity of perceptions and, to some extent, judgments to individuals. This perspective led him to conclude that absolute truth was elusive, as what one deemed true, another might consider incorrect.

This philosopher from Athens gained wealth and renown from his teachings and was even appointed as a lawgiver for the Athenian colony of Thurii in Italy. Despite adopting conventional moral beliefs, he expressed agnosticism toward the gods in his work “Concerning the Gods.” Eventually, he faced accusations of impiety, witnessed the public burning of his books, and was exiled from Athens.


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