Ancient Greece and Alexandria
The word philosopher, or philosophos, was allegedly formulated in the 6th century  by the Greek mathematician Pythagoras (Philos: loving, Sophia: knowledge). The first person to qualify was undoubtedly his teacher Thales, of Phoenician descent, one of a group of thinkers known as the Seven Sages.

In the 3rd century AD the Greek historian Diogenes Laertius assembled all knowledge of the ancient Greeks in ten volumes called Lives and Opinions of the Most Famous Philosophers and a Brief Summery of the Main Doctrines of All Schools. What we know of ancient Greek philosophy comes mostly from this source. It would take too long to list all the philosophers of this prodigious period, but here’s a broad outline.
Ancient Greece


     A system of thought that appeared around the 5th century BC, with the pre-Socratic philosophers who believed the universe was solely made of matter. Materialism is in opposition to spiritualism, where the spirit is considered the only reality though both are ontological doctrines, that is, concerned with the nature of being.

The materialistic philosophers weren’t interested in the possibility of an immaterial, secondary world. They did not disclaim that it could exist but they refused to go down a road they felt would lead nowhere. Everything one had to say about the unknown was supposition. What we think is relative to what we know (in the material world) and anything outside the territory of perceived knowledge cannot be accepted as true. It’s only a perception of the truth.


       A dialogue where two people share opinions through questions and answers, with the idea that man cannot understand the truth right away. Both Socrates and Plato believed that dialectics was the path to true knowledge. The method is founded on the principle of thesis; knowledge of a subject, anti-thesis; knowledge of the opposing view, and synthesis; a global understanding of the subject.

Dialectic Materialism

     Dialectic Materialism is a study of the origins of the spirit based on material, or physical, phenomena. The spirit is not the fixed reflection of nature (as in dogmatic materialism) but a back and forth movement of ideas or “struggle of the opposites.”  Everything material contains opposing elements which creates self-movement. Under the proper conditions this continuous "conflict" creates growth and development. Ideally nature and spirit are ultimately reconciled and become an independent reality as perceived through the body as well as the mind. 

The theory became the socio/philosophical foundation of Marxism, also known as Historic Materialism. Here political evolution is gestated by the “dynamics of history” in an “economic infrastructure” energized by the battle of the classes: the exploited and the exploiters. Marx’s economic theory maintained that injustices born from a capitalistic economy would eventually lead to its downfall, after which there would be a society dictated by the needs of the masses (thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis.)
Pythagorean Theorem
Plato's Cavern
The Pre-Socratic Philosophers

Thales (born 636 BC) was born and lived in Miletus, a prosperous Greek city in Asia Minor. He thought up ways to measure things by their shadows and was the first to use deductive reasoning in mathematics. His mother wanted to see him married but he’d tell her it was too soon until one day he told her it was too late. He preferred to spend his free time on a hill gazing at the stars and people thought he was odd until he successfully predicted an eclipse, determined the distance of enemy boats offshore and made a bundle of money by forcing the price up on beans. After which people left him alone. Thales ultimately decided that everything must originate from one element: water.  

Anaximander was one of Thales’ pupils and may have been related. He didn’t agree with the idea of water as the source of life though he did think that life originated in a moist environment. Water, according to Anaximander, was just one of the elements in the physical world. The originating force had to come from an indefinite substance that he called Aperion. This indefinable core, which came into being through the separation of hot and cold, is a place where people will go back to after death. He anticipated Darwin’s theory of evolution by suggesting that human beings had developed from fish.

Pythagoras (born 582 BC), eccentric genius and creator of the Pythagorean Theorem, turned his beliefs into a secret sect similar to the Orphic cult. He studied mysticism in Egypt and encountered Zarathustra in Persia, who taught him about the theory of duality (opposites set in motion by the forces of good and evil.) Pythagoras maintained that everything was made up of numbers, and that each number had an explicit identity. One is Intelligence, Two is Opinion and so forth. Numbers were also supposed to have therapeutic and esoteric qualities. Pythagoras’ controversial sect (that believed in reincarnation) had a long list of unusual rules (don’t touch white chickens) and a superior attitude that didn’t go well with the local folk. He and his followers were finally chased out of town, allegedly through a field of lima beans.

Heraclites held that the world was governed by fire and called this energy "Logos" (from Greek: the word). He maintained that everything in the universe had to be in constant movement, “Everything is Flux,” and that strife and contradictions cannot be avoided.

Parmenides (born 515 BC) held a totally opposite view, insisting that motion is nothing but an illusion of the senses: “Being is.” He believed the Logos could only be found in the “unique, whole, immobile, and infinite.”

Zeno of Elea, a student of Parmenides, used paradoxes to make his point.  Parmenides and Zeno were advocates of the Eleatic School, which was opposed to the materialistic views of the Ionian School as well as Heraclitus’ concept that everything was in constant movement.

Zeno’s best known paradox is Achilles and the Tortoise, to prove that even a logical argument can lead to false conclusions and that motion is impossible. Motion, according to Zeno, is tied to the physical realm which is dictated by time, and time is a succession of stationary, independent, dots. What we perceive as motion is just an illusion. Aristotle later called him the father of "dialectic reasoning" because of the philosopher’s examination of a universe that wasn’t what it appeared to be.

Anaxagoras (born 500 BC) upheld the theory of a world populated by an infinite number of minuscule “seeds,” each with its unique qualities. He believed that the world was formed by a rotation produced by an all pervading mind he identified as Nous.

Empedocles reasoned that the world was composed of four elements and that the atmosphere had “substance.” He saw changes in quality or quantity as a re-disposition of particles. Movement caused these particles to readjust according to the interaction of two opposing forces: harmony and disharmony.

Leucippus and his pupil Democritus (born 460 BC) had the genial notion that everything was made up of something invisible to the eye that cannot be divided - the atom. In the field of ethics, Democritus preached the pursuit of enlightened self-interest. He was a complicated, controversial character, called the “laughing philosopher” because the follies of men seemed to amuse him.

The atomists believed that the world was made of invisible elements of solid bodies that group together in various densities and into a variety of forms. The heavier atoms fall to the earth while the lighter ones are suspended, at different heights, into the universe. They’re constantly moving, disassembling, colliding and developing into new forms. Their work was dicovered and revived in the 17the century by Gassendi as well as Boyle, Newton and Locke.

Zeno of Citium, a student of Crato the Cynic, founded the stoic philosophy of self-control, harmony in nature, and high moral standards. He taught in Athens for fifty years.

Protagoras came from a poor family and had a job packing wood on a donkey’s back. One day Democritus, noticing the way he balanced the wood, reasoned he must have a predisposition for logic and invited him into his school. Protagoras became an able orator and made some money reading letters until he found work as a teacher in Athens, on the subject of virtue.

It’s documented that Protagoras - who wrote "Man is the measure of all things" - was the first philosopher to be paid for classes in oratory and rhetoric. One of the outstanding traits amongst the philosophers is they never asked for money to teach what they knew. The men who received a fee to teach rhetoric were called sophists - the world’s first lawyers. Protagoras taught and argued cases for forty years. His fees were high and he became very rich.

As an atheist, Protagoras maintained that truth could only be found through human perception: “There is no way of knowing if the gods exist, or don’t exist. There are obstacles that keep me from reaching the truth; either the argument is too vague or life is too short.” The political scene had changed in Athens. Democracy had been replaced with a totalitarian government and, in 416 BC he was condemned for impiety.

Protagoras left Athens on a boat that was shipwrecked off the coast of Sicily, where it’s believed he lost his life. Plato, a student of Socrates, contested his views in his book Dialogues.


Socrates (born 469 BC) first studied his father’s trade as a sculptor, but chose his mother’s work as midwife to describe his method of bringing out the truth in people (dialectics.) He would go to the marketplace and ask questions such as, “What is justice?” He wasn’t selective; men and women of all social levels were coerced into his discussions. Though he accepted the possibility of a perfect place that is not a part of the physical world (he believed philosophers went there after death) it wasn’t his primary concern. Neither were the abounding theories of movement or non-movement a matter of concern. His objective was to make people think for themselves.

His unorthodox ways eventually got Socrates into trouble with the authorities, who’d received complaints he was brainwashing youth. After he was sentenced, one of his followers, Apllodorus, cried that the philosopher was being put to death unjustly. Socrates stopped and asked him, “Would you rather I be put to death justly?”

Seventy at the time of the trial, Socrates didn’t really have to drink the poison. If it was a death sentence for something someone said, the accused was generally given the opportunity to leave. A firm believer in keeping to the rules, Socrates dismissed the idea of exile. From all accounts Socrates’ wife was a real stinker, "Can't live with them, can't live without," he said. His last words, surrounded by his despairing students, were to remind her to pay back a chicken they owed the neighbors.

Socrates encouraged people to eliminate all assumptions and pre-conceived ideas before reaching a conclusion. His technique to arrive at the root of a subject was exploited by a younger group, the Sophists, who used it to make money defending people with legal problems. While Socrates was oblivious to material wealth the Sophists lived an elaborate lifestyle and wore fancy clothes.

His underlying message was simple; if you do the right thing no harm can fall on you. No matter what seemingly hopeless situation one may be in, the real tragedy would be to compromise one’s soul. He didn’t pretend to have any answers. When the Oracle at Delphi announced he was the wisest of men he figured it was because he was the only one who knew he didn’t know anything. 

Plato, student of Socrates (born 427 BC), profoundly marked by his teacher’s death, wrote a series of "Dialogues" to note down Socrates’ way of reaching for the truth. What we know about him comes mostly from Plato, whose writings can be separated into two periods. His early works are discussions on various topics with Socrates as the main protagonist. Later he incorporated views of some of the pre-Socratic philosophers to develop his own theory of a secondary world, independent of the physical world. For Plato, philosophy is the passage into an eternal sphere made of Forms and Ideas and brought up the possibility of a soul that leaves the body after death.
To support his theory Plato used the philosopher Heraclites as an example and maintained that in the material world everything is in a state of becoming. “Nothing is.” What we see cannot be real because the physical world is always changing. The means to attain a perfect condition of divine existence is to be freed of material distractions, even the arts, as possible temptations to hold on to things that will hinder communication with the soul. He was convinced that all knowledge is acquired before birth and that we must focus on recollection. Where Socrates had a proletarian approach to philosophy, Plato took the Pythagorean view where only an elite few could reach the elevated world of Forms. Like Pythagoras, he was fascinated by mathematics and numbers which he saw as unchanging and incorporeal.

Aristotle (born 384 BC) lived over twenty years in Plato’s Academy but was more down to earth than his mentor, stating that philosophy should be used to discern the obvious. He figured people have no use for abstract ideas. They don’t want to know what might be, but what is. “What is being?” To the concept that things can’t exist in their material form because they’re always changing, he’d answer that Socrates was the same person as a young man as when he was an old man. Even if his body was changing he was still the same Socrates. He is the father of deductive reasoning and what is known as classical logic, or “Aristoltelian logic".

Aristotle didn’t adhere to Plato’s idea of reality existing in a separate, immaterial world, stating we can rely only on what we know through experience; anything outside the physical realm is just theory. Nor did he share Plato’s views on art, which he considered essential to the healthy emotional balance of an individual.

In his book Poetics, Aristotle discusses the importance of “poetic tragedy” that he claims helps us appreciate life. “Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete and whole.” When a spectator watches a tragedy he subconsciously identifies with the subject, which allows an emotional release of one’s anxieties. He called this catharsis (meaning: to eliminate.) He noted three unities, or "classical unities" for drama: action, place, and time. None of his plays survive but his theories would later be taken as strict unbending rules. His views on the theatre are reflected in his views on art, which he called an imitation of life.

Of all the philosophies studied in Florence during the Renaissance the Neoplatonists took the lead,
followed closely by the Aristotilians.

The Egyptian Plotinus (born 205 AD), most likely inspired by the sects current in India and Persia, took Plato’s theories to an even higher esoteric level. After studying philosophy in Alexandria, he opened a school in Rome where he taught the values of meditative thought and the importance of giving to those in need. He preached a virtuous life as the way to fulfill man’s true nature.

Plotinus believed that self-realization was not possible through the thought process, but something that happened in the soul when a person was ready to let go of the material world. He described the phenomena as Emanation, where a Divine Mind containing all intelligence sends off rays. Below the Divine Mind - or Logos - is the Soul World, linking the intellect to the physical.

  After Alexander’s death one of his Macedonian generals, Ptolemy I (Cleopatra's ancestor) was appointed as leader was eventally crowned king of Egypt. Under the Ptolemy dynasty (305 BC to 30 BC, 275 years) Alexandria was the largest city in the Mediterranean basin, and the main center for culture. Both Christian and Jewish scholars came to Alexandria for its two libraries that allegedly had 7000,000 scrolls, and for its university. Caesar temporarily controlled the city in 47 BC but the final defeat for the Macedonians came three years later with the Roman Emperor Augustus, and became part of the Roman Empire in 43 BC.

The Alexandrian libraries were destroyed by Roman Emperor Theodosius I, who brutally enforced Catholic dogma. After people in one Greek town rebelled he ordered the massacre of its citizens and the city plundered. Alexandria’s slow decline began when sediment started clogging the main waterway leading to the Nile. The city was restored when the Arab Muslims conquered Egypt around 960, and became the capital of Islam.

Four predominant schools of thought developed in Alexandria from their Greek origins; Cynicism, Skepticism, Epicuranism, and Stoicism.

The Cynics

     The Cynics’ view of life came from the older philosopher Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, who founded his school in Athens in 5th century BC. His adepts avoided earthly comforts, viewed as hindrances to the real goal in life and that is to be virtuous. They believed true values could not be found in social standing or wealth. Integrity and high moral principles are impossible if material possessions are your priority.

The name came from an academy for youth called Cynosarges, where the group would meet. The most well known Cynic is Diogenes, who allegedly lived in a tub. He’d walk the streets in the daytime with a lit lamp in search of “an honest man.” He called himself a citizen of the world and coined the word "cosmopolitan". When Alexander the Great asked the philosopher how he could return a favor Diogenes replied, “Please move, you’re blocking the sun."

The Skeptics

     Though skepticism was an important element in the thinking process of past philosophers (Xenophabes believed we can never be sure to have reached a final truth) it was Pyrrho, one of Alexander’s soldiers, who turned skepticism into a philosophy. He had campaigned with Alexander as far as India, and had seen that what was acceptable and expected in one country was unacceptable in another country. He came to the conclusion that things are not always as they appear and one must never make assumptions.

Skepticism (from Greek: to reflect, or to look about) held that perception through the human senses can only be subjective, determined through personal experience, therefore it cannot mirror reality. Consequently what is true cannot be found in the physical realm. Arcesilaus, circa 250 BC, taking example from Protagoras’ concept of the relativity of knowledge, stated that certitude was impossible. We can only rely on probable knowledge.

Arcesilaus took over as head of Plato’s Academy in Athens, which had been founded in 387 BC. Plato’s academy is identified as Old Academy, which two hundred years. With Arcesilaus it was called Middle Academy, and when the philosopher Carneades took over it was called New Academy

The Epicureans

     Epicureanism is a school of thought founded by Epicurus (born 341 BC) who believed it was simple pleasures that made life worth living. To be at peace with oneself and the world one had to avoid public life and material wealth, and find enjoyment in the company of like-minded people who combined an uncomplicated lifestyle with the study of nature and philosophy. He agreed with the theories of the atomists, contending that atoms form combinations that do not last, like the atoms in a body or in plants. When the plant dies the atoms return to an original source where they have time to restructure themselves.

Epicurus opened a community in Athens where women and freed slaves were included, causing much speculation with the neighbors. Neither did the Catholic Church take kindly to the community. Mainly the popes reproached the Epicureans of not believing in a "Christian God". When Epicurus was thirty-seven he purchased the gardens that became as famous as Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum.

The Stoics

     The first Stoic was Zeno of Critium (born 300 BC) whose teacher was Crates the Cynic. The word stoic means the "Painted Porch", or Stoa Porecile, where Zeno would meet with his students. Zeno called his doctrine the Brotherhood of Man. If people can remain indifferent when they’re insulted or unjustly treated not only does the individual free himself of his chains. Society automatically becomes a better place to live in.

The Stoics saw the Logos as the revitalizing force that guides the universe. As all things developed from this source, it was also called Spermaticos Logos. They believed the cause of suffering is the rift between what we have and what we want. Unfortunately, when we get what we want we want something else. To keep feeling gratified we must go a step beyond only to find that there’s always something missing. They realized judgments come to us through emotions and that emotions are triggered by what we think is true. Since we’re governed by nature’s cycles and cannot change what life deals us, we may as well accept things as they come.

Epictetus, born in Athens, was captured around 100 AD and brought to Rome as a slave. Apparently his owner was so impressed with his unflappable calm he gave the man his freedom. Epictetus lived a life of abstinence and drew up an extensive list of ways man can be happy. He encouraged people to detach themselves from things they cannot change: man is no longer a slave to his emotions when he stops trying to make things happen his way.

-Don’t ask for things to happen the way you want them to happen but accept what happens as it happens, and you will find contentment.

-We are not the ones to determine what our role is in life, where we’re born, who our parents are or how we will die, but we can decide how we want to act out our life.

-It takes as much talent to play the fool with grace as it does to perform as a judge.”

Aristotle tutored Alexander, son of King Philip II of Macedonia, and later returned to Athens where he opened a school in the Lyceum.

His habit of lecturing while walking around the Lyceum gave his school the name of Peripatetic (from peripatos: to walk around).

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