Philosophy and the Archaic Greek Civilisation

Greece (Ἑλλάς) is the southernmost country in the Balkan Peninsula, and as you’re aware, it has quite the dramatic history. Archaeologists have discovered evidence that shows that the earliest records of civilisation has the Balkans inhabited by two Indo-European people; the Illyrían and the Thracian.

Illyría (Ἰλλυρίς) was a region in the western part of the Balkan Peninsula, and was a collective of tribes that made up the Illyrians. Thracian (Θρᾷκες) was a region in the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula, who was also a collective of tribes. They intermingled with the Greeks and are from whom the Greeks were introduced to the Dionysian and the Orphean cults, that would feature heavily in Greek literature.

Zeus; King of the Gods

The Greeks were renowned for many things ranging from philosophy, science, warriors, doctors, architects, athletes, writers, artists, politicians etc. The list is literally endless and no other civilisation had such an impact on the world. At the time Greece was known as Hellas, and the name ‘Greece’ was actually created by the Romans, but the term Héllēnestic is preferred by scholars. The Héllēnes started spreading their wings all around Europe and parts of Asia which the Romans named as Magna Graeca.

The Greeks all spoke the same language, and all worshipped the same religion; The twelve Olympian Gods, but as philosophy grew, and more thinkers emerged, the idea of an ultimate deity creator was imagined. Despite this, the majority of Greeks were polytheists, and they held the belief that there was a hierarchy with Zeus being the King of the Gods and various others ruled over other domains; ie Poseidon ruled the seas, and Hades the Underworld (Greek Hell). These Gods whilst being allegedly immortal that were not defined as being all-powerful as the Greeks were believers of fate, which they called Mœræ.

The Greek Dark Ages predated the archaic period, and the majority of Greeks lived in farming tribes within small villages. As these tribes grew in size, so did the villages, and they grew into towns. Most eventually started trading in marketplaces (agora), governments were created; and laws came from that. As they grew into cities (poleis), taxes were collected, armies were formed and places like Sparta and Athens emerged, and owners of land had power, which separated the rich from the common folk.

As Greek history goes, the first recognised date was 776 BCE; the year of the very first Olympic Games, and several years later the Phoenician alphabet was born. Maritime trade grew rapidly and enormous wealth began to transform Greece, and with that the introduction of real currency, and Democratic governments were formed in the more populated areas.

The true birth of Greek literature began about 700 BCE with poetry offerings from Hesiod, Archilocus and Sappho. Art and architecture became extremely prominent, with the iconic Ionian designs that are synonymous with Ancient Greece.

Ionian pillar

The Ionian revolution in thought had begun around 600 BCE with Philosophers like Thalēs, Pythagoras, Xenophanes and Parmenides who were the initial leaders in science, mathematics. Aristotle considered Thalēs as the real first modern philosopher, who led the way to freethinking and the understanding of ethics, logic, reason and morality. I covered Philosophical morality previously.

The birth of philosophy

Philosophy (φ) means ‘love of wisdom, and is the study of questions, or thinking about thinking. Why are we here? Do we have a purpose? What makes us human? What are ethics, and do they define us? Very often philosophy brings more questions than answers. Philosophy covers many areas but the Greeks were interested in how a person should live, and how they should treat others (ethics), what is the nature of existence (metaphysics), what is knowledge (epistemology), and how should reason be applied (logic).

Thalēs of Miletus is regarded by many as the ‘Father of science‘, and he was an astronomer, mathematician and the pioneer of scientific philosophy. He was the first to disregard mythology and previous Greek history and advocated the individual thought process of deduction and reasoning. He founded the Ionian school where thinkers such as Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras and Archelaus were described by Aristotle as physiologoi (philosophers of cosmology).

“Know thyself” – Thalēs


Thalēs was the first scientist to conclude that water was the essence of all matter. He was skilled in geometry and used that skill to accurately calculate sizes and distances and understood the process of eclipses that led to other philosophers studying astronomy. He was credited with the five theorems of geometry.

  1. A circle is bisected by its diameter.
  2. Angles at the base of any isosceles triangle are equal.
  3. If two straight lines intersect, the opposite angles formed are equal.
  4. If one triangle has two angles and one side equal to another triangle, the two triangles are equal in all respects. 
  5. Any angle inscribed in a semicircle is a right angle. This is known as Thales’ Theorem.

The big three

Whenever anyone discusses Greek philosophy Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle always get a mention.


Socrates was an Athenian scholar, teacher and perhaps one of the most important and influential of the Greek philosophers. His life was chronicled by the likes of Plato as Socrates wasn’t a writer, he was a speaker and a questioner and sadly that would become his downfall.

Socrates was know for being a fearless soldier as all Athenians were required by law to serve in the military, and was involved in three military campaigns. His time serving in the military was a guide to his philosophy of ethics, where he believed it was a human’s purpose to use reason and logic as opposed to theological, and mystical dogma. He taught that the motivation to gain knowledge gave humans a better understanding of doing what is morally right. His philosophy is essentially what Humanism is based on.

“There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.” – Socrates

Socrates’ passion for knowledge led him to question everything, and this gave him many enemies as they saw him as a trouble maker and a threat to their way of life. In 399 BCE he was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and heresy and stood trial. Instead of pleading innocence as expected, he claimed that his purpose was important to in questioning the establishment. He was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock (biennial herbaceous poisonous plant).


Plato was also an Athenian philosopher and was a student of Socrates. His beliefs were founded on Justice, beauty and equality, and he believed ethics and moral psychology was essential to a decent society. His collection of works included aesthetics, political philosophy, theology, cosmology, epistemology and the philosophy of language. After Socrates’ death he travelled for several years before returning to Athens at age forty where he set up an academy which was essentially the first university.

As well as the obvious influence from Socrates, who Plato wrote about more than once, his students claim he was also heavily influenced by Heraclitus, Parmenides and Zeno, and during his travels the Pythagoreans. In his works, Plato was concerned with the possibility of an afterlife, reincarnation and that a human‘s soul is immortal. In some of his later works he discusses the three main parts of the soul, and the third part, the appetite is what can over rule a person’s judgement.

• A rational part (the part that loves truth, which should rule over the other parts of the soul through the use of reason)

• A spirited part (which loves honor and victory)

• An appetitive part (which desires food, drink, and sex) – Source

He also describes societies as having three main parts.

• Productive (Workers) – The laborers, carpenters, plumbers, masons, merchants, farmers, ranchers, etc. These correspond to the “appetite” part of the soul.

• Protective (Warriors) – Those who are adventurous, strong, brave, in love with danger; in the armed forces. These correspond to the “spirit” part of the soul.

• Governing (Rulers) – Those who are intelligent, rational, self-controlled, in love with wisdom, well suited to make decisions for the community. These correspond to the “reason” part of the soul and are very few.Source

In his most famous book (The Republic) he brings up what’s perhaps the most famous of his theories – the theory of forms (εἶδος (eidos), in which he asserts that the physical world we are in is not thereal worldbut actually a shadow of the realm of forms, which is the spiritual world. Here, unlike the imperfect physical world, everything is perfect and unchanging. In other words, everything in the spiritual world is real, and everything in the physical world is an imperfect imitation.

“Have you ever sensed that our soul is immortal and never dies?” – Plato, The Republic

Plato‘s legacy lived on with his academy surviving almost 300 years after his death, and whilst the west favoured Socrates’ and Aristotle’s influence, Plato was heavily read in the East and has influence in Islamic culture. During the European Renaissance which was essentially a rebirth of the Ancient Greek philosophical movement, and the arts and literature. It was a political and economic rebirth that revolutionised society after the dark ages, and the lack of advancement due to war, and religious ignorance. During this period, Italy started a movement called Humanism which gained momentum by promoting the idea that man was in charge of his own destiny, and at the centre of his own universe.


Aristotle was also an Athenian philosopher and was a student of Plato, who is best known for philosophy of the sciences. This man‘s knowledge was endless and he covered botany, ethics, history, logic, metaphysics, philosophy of the mind, meteorology, political philosophy, psychology and zoology (which he was the pioneer of). The most studied of his works are his theories on logic and ethics, and the philosophy of morality.

After Plato‘s death, he moved from Athens to the island of Lesbos where he studied zoology and marine biology. During this time he made accurate descriptions of insects that were only verified after the invention of the microscope in the 17th century. Much of his work was investigating life in tremendous detail where he successfully classified genus and species that stand accurate to this day. His work adhered to the scientific method where theories are only to be trusted if repeated observations conform.

Apollo Lykeios

At 50 years old he created his own school in Athens, which he named the Lyceum after the God, Apollo Lykeios, where he created a library and enlisted students known as the ‘peripatetics’, where they studied botany, logic, music, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, cosmology, physics, biology, zoology, the history of philosophy, metaphysics, psychology, astronomy, ethics, theology, rhetoric, political history, government and political theory, and the arts. Quite an extensive list, I’m sure you’ll agree. After many years in Athens, he had no choice but to leave due to fears of safety as due to his Macedonian birth, and Athens showing anti-Macedonian views, he fled to Euboea, and passed away the following year.

“Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” – Aristotle

Aristotle’s legacy is without a doubt endless. As well as his theories, his biological research he’s famed for being the tutor of Alexander III of Macedon, Alexander the Great at Temple of the Nymphs at Meiza, who would become king of Macedonia. He is best known for his military campaigns, and the growth of his empire which spread from Northern Africa to India. He managed this in just ten years after succeeding his father, Philip II, at just aged 20. He was never defeated in battle and many historians claim that he’s without question the most successful military general in history.

Hellenistic Period

During the Hellenistic period all the main philosophical schools foundation was reason, despite having different views and opinions. They came into four main categoriesEpicureans, the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Skeptics.

Epicurus was a sage, and a highly influential philosopher who founded the Epicureanism branch of philosophy, which is the pursuit of happiness and pleasure; in other words a form of hedonism, in which to seek pleasure will attain a state of tranquility. This would be achieved through friendship and leading a virtuous life, but everything should be done in moderation, because overindulging in something removed its value.

Antisthenes was a former student of Socrates and is regarded as the founder of cynicism. This involved living a simple life without desires like sex, wealth, power or fame. This freedom of desire was said to be the true path to happiness, and mental clarity by living in unison with nature. Cynicism was adopted by early Christianity, as the Jewish had heavily influences from the surrounding Hellenistic world of the first century.

Stoicism is a branch of philosophy founded by Zeno, who was a Cypriot who set up his school in Athens. Similar to cynicism, stoicism was about teaching happiness by being at one with nature, and the path to happiness can be found through living an ethical life, and were of the belief that virtue is the only good, and desire for wealth and pleasure will only lead to pain and eventual unhappiness, and we should have no need to wish for materialistic possessions.

Skepsis means investigation, and the philosophy of scepticism is devoted to inquiry. As long as knowledge isn’t attained then skeptics won’t affirm or make claims, with the ultimate goal being a life without belief. Among the skeptics were philosophers such as Pyrrho, Timon, Arcesilaus, Carneades, Aenesidemus, and Sextus Empiricus, who suspended judgement, devotion to investigation to acquire truth, and maintained that belief is merely an opinion.

Other notable philosophers

Pythagoras was a pre-Socrates mathematician and philosopher, and is mostly recognised for the Pythagorean theorem in geometry. Not too much is known about him despite his fame, but he created an a philosophy academy which gained much admiration.

“Virtue is harmony” – Pythagoras

Empedocles was perhaps one of the most important and influential pre-Socrates philosophers who was the first to suggest that all matter was made up of four primary elementsEarth, water, fire and air. This was one of the first theories of particle physics, and he also rejected the theory of empty spaces and nothingness, and claimed that an area that seems void of anything will contain particles even if they can’t be observed.

“There are forces in nature called Love and Hate. The force of Love causes elements to be attracted to each other and to be built up into some particular form or person, and the force of Hate causes the decomposition of things” – Empedocles

Anaximander was an Ionian born philosopher who studied at the Milesian school and learned from his master Thales. Upon Thales’ death he became master himself and tutored Pythagoras. He’s the first philosopher to have written down his theories and studies but not much of it remains. He’s credited with being the first true astronomer, and set up a gnomon, which is the part of the sundial that casts the shadow, and he used it to show that the Sun moved and that at different parts of the day the Sun cast shadows in different places.

He was also known for toying with the idea of evolution and that humans descended from something else, and he suggested all life emerged from the sea. He was also one of the first to study meteorology, and geography and he created a map of the known world.

“All beings derive from other older beings by successive transformations.” – Anaximander

Democritus is best known as the laughing philosopher‘, and for his atomic theories, in which atomism was the reason everything stayed together. He also concluded that the universe was a natural phenomenon, and was ultimately governed by mechanistic laws, and without any God’s interference or influence. He was also of the opinion that the universe was full of other diverse worlds.

He wrote about many subjects from physics to medicine, biology to cosmology, mathematics to anthropology, and was also a keen poet. He was also of a strong opinion that a void, or vacuum was actually something, and not nothing, and refused to accept the existence of the number zero.

“Good means not merely not to do wrong, but rather not to desire to do wrong” – Democritus

The legacy of archaic Greece

The Greek culture has had an enormous influence on the world. The origin of many western words came from Greek philosophy, and their politics, arts, architecture, education and science forms a basis for modern civilisation. The Roman Empire took over where the Greeks left off and they borrowed from every corner of Greek culture. They renamed the Greek Gods, they started to philosophise themselves, they adapted the Greek architecture. Due to Alexander the Great’s conquests in Asia and Africa, Greek art and architecture found its way interpreting into Persian and Indian design.

The Greeks were the pioneers of a democratic society, and Draco created a drafted legal system. Their mathematics, sciences and astronomy. They were the first people to realise we orbited the sun, and the Earth has a circumference, that Eratosthenes calculated within 1% of its true accuracy. Euclid was regarded as the father of geometry who created a collection of thirteen books titled collectively as the Elements which studies mathematical science, and started the theory of Euclidean geometry.