Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are the most well-known Greek philosophers. They are also the most widely taught and most popular.
Not many would dispute this. However, there are many other ancient Greek philosophers who can serve as much value to us in their teachings.
There are others who came before Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and some who were contemporaries that are less well known. Yet, they were nevertheless profoundly important to the development of philosophical teachings.
They lived over 2000 years ago and are in obscurity in popular culture. Still, many of their teachings are deeply relevant to our lives now.
The Pre-Socratic Greek Philosophers
We know the philosophers that came before Socrates as the ‘pre-Socratics’. These were people who laid the foundations of western philosophy and were greatly influential to later philosophical and scientific thought.
During this period, both philosophical and scientific thoughts were beginning to emerge and were pioneered by these individuals. Due to their early state, philosophy and science here are basically the same thing until the disciplines separated and developed as we reach Socrates and beyond.
Nevertheless, we can still garner some great value from the thoughts and ideas of some of these philosophers:
Thales of Miletus (624BC – 546BC)
Thales of Miletus is often considered to be the first philosopher of the west. He is famous for completely changing the way we look at the world. Rather than turning to the answer of deities to explain the various things around us, he chose to adopt a logical approach to explaining his surroundings and the various facets of it.
He used mathematics in his logic and, according to sources, measured the size of the great pyramid and even predicted a solar eclipse. His main theory was that he thought that the primary substance of the world was water and that everything consisted of and was moulded by it.
Despite his ideas being false and out-dated, Thales was curious about the world and his place in it. He was the first person to cement the importance of thinking more deeply about our lives and the world that we reside in. According to Thales, this helps us build a better understanding of who we are.
Heraclitus (c. 535 BC – c. 475BC)
Heraclitus, or Heraclitus of Ephesus, is often considered to be one of the two founders on ontology (as well as Parmenides in the next section) – the philosophical study of being. He placed more focus and attention on this idea, considering existence, reality and our place amongst it.
Heraclitus was one of the first philosophers to advocate the notion of human beings having free will. He also thought that the primary substance of the world was fire. Therefore, due to fire’s dynamic state, the world is constantly changing.
Probably his most famous saying was, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man”.
Perhaps we should remember Heraclitus for his recognition of individual liberty and instilling the idea that constant change is an integral part of our lives. The world is constantly changing around us and so are we. Understanding this can aid us as we navigate an increasingly complex world.
Parmenides (c. 515BC – Unknown)
Although also attributed as a founder of ontology as mentioned, Parmenides, or Parmenides of Elea, had some contrasting views to that of Heraclitus. He believed that the past and the future are set and so, free will is an illusion.
Parmenides is one of the first people to conceive of the theory of determinism. It states that everything that happens in the world and to us is determined by preceding events that are out of our control. Therefore, as we have no control over our lives, we do not have free will.
For sure, this premise is highly controversial and many people in today’s society would disagree with it. Yet, there may be some value that we can take from Parmenides. We don’t have to adhere to determinism to admit that sometimes we are not in control of our lives.
We may often feel frustrated and powerless if certain situations don’t go our way. As a result, we suffer because of it. Accepting that sometimes there are things out of our control, confronting this fact and learning from it may be the best course of action. Parmenides can remind us of this.
Empedocles (c. 494BC – c. 434BC)
One of the last pre-Socratic Greek Philosophers, Empedocles came up with the idea of the four elements: earth, water, wind and fire. He built upon the ideas and theories of those that came before him.
He is also famous for saying that the universe is built around two forces. The first is ‘Love’, which brings everything in the universe together as one unifying entity. The second is ‘Strife’, which pushes everything apart, repelling things apart to separate into the many things that make up the universe.
Empedocles said the world is in an endless cycle of love and strife. This is the state of the universe that we reside in. Although this is quite an abstract concept, it is not too hard to see how the basic notion of this theory is transferable to our lives.
Empedocles may have been the first person to point out, in broad terms, what unites us all and what divides us, what may provide happiness to us and what may plunge us into loneliness and despair.