Greek philosophy (-600 to +529) means the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and Romans. It includes such great thinkers as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and many others. It attempted to understand the world through reason alone, which was at once its glory and its ruin.
Socrates was the turning point of Greek philosophy.
Before Socrates Greek philosophers were concerned chiefly with explaining nature. We call them the pre-Socratics. They include Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Anaximenes, the Sophists and many others.
With Socrates philosophy turned to the deeper questions of life, about the nature of man, society, virtue and justice. It was concerned less with the why of the stars and the moon and more with the how to live on earth as good men.
After Socrates five great schools of philosophy arose, here listed with some of their followers, Greek, Roman and even Christian:
- Academics – followed Plato, includes Cicero, Plotinus, Porphyry, Augustine, Boethius.
- Peripatetics – followed Aristotle, includes Aquinas.
- Stoics – includes Cato, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius.
- Epicureans – followed Epicurus, includes Lucretius.
- Cynics – followed Diogenes.
Of these only the first two — Plato and Aristotle — still matter. The rest have become curiosities of history.
In Roman times, philosophy was far more important than it is now: it gave many their bearings, told them what was right and wrong and how best to live. It was almost religion. Philosophy was not just some intellectual game played by eggheads — it was about real questions about real life. In fact, in its early days Christianity found itself fighting Plato more than Jupiter.
We do not see that today because science and Christianity have largely overthrown Greek philosophy in the West. So few now turn to it for answers.
In overturning Greek philosophy, however, both Christianity and Western science have been influenced by the very philosophies they overthrew! And so some of Plato’s thought lives on in Christianity and some of Aristotle in Western science. That is why the West retained its great faith in reason.
Reason was the great glory of Greek philosophy. Its philosophers used reason above all else to explain the world, to work out the answers to the questions of life. This has made it universal, something that speaks to men of any age or country. But reason was also its great weakness. Reason is wonderful and powerful, yes, but it is not enough.
In science, for example, it is too easy to think up different theories to explain the same facts. Reason alone cannot choose the right one. That is why we need observation and experiment too.
When it comes to the deeper questions of life, we probably do not know enough to settle them by reason alone. Those who believe in a revealed religion, like Christianity or Islam, will certainly tell you so: sometimes God has to give us help to lead us on the right road; sometimes we need the faith of a child to follow God down that road because reason alone is not enough.
– Abagond, 2006.