Ancient Greece as the Origin of Western Philosophy: Key Figures
Philosophy as an academic discipline can trace its origins back to ancient Greece. During the 6th century BC, early Greek philosophers known as the pre-Socratics began engaging in rational speculative inquiries into the origin and basic structure of the universe, as well as the idea of natural laws governing the physical world. This marked the beginning of natural philosophy in the West, which would later evolve into the formal study of both nature and thought known today as philosophy. Here we explore some of the most influential ancient Greek philosophers and the lasting impacts of their ideas.
Socrates (469-399 BC) is widely considered one of the founders of Western philosophy. As recounted by his student Plato, Socrates’ method of elenchos, or cross-examination, set the example of critical thinking that has come to define philosophical inquiry (Plato, 2005). By questioning his fellow Athenians on their purported knowledge or virtues, Socrates demonstrated that true wisdom lay not in what one thought one knew, but in knowing that one knew nothing at all. His emphasis on examining life, existence, and morality through reasoned discussion, rather than accepting things at face value, established philosophy as an active process rather than a set of conclusions.
Plato (427-347 BC) expanded on Socrates’ ideas through his Socratic dialogues, which remain some of the most widely studied philosophical texts in history. In works such as The Republic and The Symposium, Plato explored questions of justice, love, knowledge, and the ideal form of government through the character of Socrates and other speakers (Plato, 2008). Plato’s theory of forms proposed that the true essence of reality is made of nonphysical, perfect forms or ideas, and that the physical world we perceive is merely an imperfect reflection of these forms. This metaphysical theory became hugely influential on later Western thought.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a student of Plato who would go on to establish his own school of philosophy known as the Lyceum. Aristotle authored influential texts on logic, metaphysics, ethics, biology and many other fields that represented the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy (Aristotle, 1995). His treatises categorized and analyzed different aspects of reality through a systematic use of reasoning and empirical methods. Aristotle’s works contained the seeds of many ideas that underpin the natural sciences today, such as formal logic, the study of species, and the role of causality and formal cause in natural processes. He aimed to develop an encyclopedic understanding of knowledge itself.
The pre-Socratic, Platonic, and Aristotelian philosophical traditions laid the groundwork for virtually all subsequent Western thought. From medicine, science and politics to art, ethics and theology, Greek philosophy provided a framework and vocabulary that shaped intellectual pursuits in Europe and countries with European cultural influence for over two millennia (Shields, 2016). Its emphasis on reason as the path to truth and betterment of self and society continues to define the Western philosophical tradition today. Ancient Greek thinkers raised questions and formulated theories that still resonate in academic discourse and influence modern life.
 Plato. (2005). Five dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub.
 Plato. (2008). The republic. London: Penguin Classics.
 Aristotle, & McKeon, R. (1995). The basic works of Aristotle. New York: Random House. research essay writing service.
 Shields, C. (2016). Ancient Greek philosophy: From the Presocratics to the Hellenistic philosophers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.