Famous philosophers have sought to understand the human condition for centuries. It is surprising how much these giants of the past had to say that has influenced modern society.
Here are some words of wisdom from some of the most famous philosophers of all time.
Aristotle was one of the most famous philosophers and a pioneering figure in the history of philosophy. His ideas have significantly shaped Western culture.
He had something to say on just about every subject, and modern philosophy almost always bases its ideas on the teachings of Aristotle.
He argued that there is a hierarchy of life, with humans at the top of the ladder. Medieval Christians used this idea to support a hierarchy of existence with God and the angels at the top and man in charge of all other earthly life.
Aristotle also believed that a person could achieve happiness through the use of the intellect and that this was humanity’s greatest potential. However, he also believed that being good was not enough; we also have to act on our good intentions by helping others.
Confucius is one of the most famous philosophers in Eastern history.
We think of democracy as a Greek invention, however, Confucius was saying similar things about politics and power at the same time.
Although he defended the idea of an emperor, he argues that the emperor must be honest and deserve the respect of his subjects. He suggested that a good emperor must listen to his subjects and consider their ideas. Any emperor that did not do this was a tyrant and their not worthy of the office.
He also developed a version of the golden rule stating that we should not do anything to someone else that we wouldn’t want to be done to ourselves. However, he extended this idea in a more positive direction, suggesting that we must also endeavour to help others rather than just not harming them.
Epicurus often gets misrepresented. He has gained a reputation for advocating self-indulgence and excess. This is not a true portrayal of his ideas.
In fact, he was more focused on what leads to a happy life and was against selfishness and over-indulgence. However, he did not see the need to suffer unnecessarily. He argued that if we live wisely, well and justly we will inevitably live a pleasant life.
In his view, living wisely means avoiding danger and disease. Living well would be choosing a good diet and exercise regimen. Finally, living justly would be not harming others as you would not want to be harmed. Overall, he argued for a middle road between indulgence and excessive self-denial.
Plato asserted that the world that appears to our senses is defective, but that there is a more perfect form of the world that is eternal and changeless.
For example, though many things on earth are beautiful, they derive their beauty from bigger idea or concept of beauty. He called these ideas forms.
Plato extended this idea to human life, arguing that the body and soul are two separate entities. He suggested that while the body can only perceive the poor imitations of the big ideas, such as beauty, justice and unity, the soul understands the bigger concepts, the forms, behind these mere impressions.
He believed that the most enlightened people were able to understand the difference between what goodness, virtue or justice is and the many things that are called virtuous, good or just.
Plato’s teachings had a profound influence on later Christian ideas helping to explain the division between the soul and the body. They also helped support the Christian idea of a perfect heaven and an imperfect world that is a mere imitation of that glorious realm.
5. Zeno of Citium
While you may not have heard of this philosopher, you have probably heard of Stoicism, the school that he founded.
Zeno argued that when we suffer, it is merely an error in our judgement that causes us to do so. He advocated an absolute control over our emotions as the only way to achieve peace of mind. Stoicism argues that strong emotions such as rage and grief are flaws in our personality and that we can overcome them. He suggested that our world is what we make of it and, when we give in to emotional weakness, we suffer.
In some ways this chimes with the Buddhist philosophy that we create our own suffering by expecting things to be different from how they are.
Stoic philosophy argues that when we do not let anything upset us, we achieve perfect peace of mind. It suggests that anything else only makes things worse. For example, death is a natural part of life, so why should we grieve when someone dies.
He also argued that we suffer when we desire things. He suggested that we should strive only for what we need and nothing more. Striving for excess does not help us and only hurts us. This is a good reminder for us living in today’s consumerist society.
6. Rene Descartes
Descartes is known as “the Father of Modern Philosophy.”
One of the most famous philosophers of the modern era, he argued for the superiority of the mind over the body. He suggested that our strength lies in our ability to ignore the weaknesses of our bodies and rely on the infinite power of the mind.
Descartes’s most famous statement, “I think, therefore I am” is now virtually the motto of existentialism. This statement is not meant to prove the existence of the body, but that of the mind.
He rejected human perception as unreliable. He argued that deduction is the only reliable method for examining, proving and disproving anything. Through this theory, Descartes is primarily responsible for the scientific method in the form we have it today.
We owe many of our ideas to the famous philosophers of the past. Some of them we may not agree with, but it is certainly true that they have influenced western society for centuries. Our religious, scientific and political structures have been profoundly influenced by these deep thinkers and we are still experiencing the influence, whether good or bad, today.