Scuola di Atene The School of Athens

A Brief Introduction to Ancient Greek Philosophy (Hippocrates, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle)

Philosophy derives its name from Philo or love for Sophia (knowledge). Philosophy is the mother of all theoretical and natural sciences, be it medicine, art, music, mathematics, etc. By studying philosophy, one will be able to understand the future. The analogy is that the future is visible by climbing on the shoulders of a giant who can look forward. Thus, a person is able to understand the context of the philosopher in which he is living. Understanding philosophy helps a person understand history and society.

Hippocrates Healing Sick Boy : News Photo
Hippocartes healing a sick boy Source: Getty Images



In ancient Greece, the concept of Greek fatality was in full swing. What it meant was that nobody could change his destiny. Greek mythology was based on gods such as Zeus, who controlled the destiny of every man. Even when an earthquake took place, Greeks used to think that some god was upset with them. Interestingly, these gods often had fights with each other. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi had inscribed on its entrance ‘Know Thyself’, meaning thereby that you first know your destiny and then enter the Temple. If anybody thought that he could change his destiny, then he was not fit to enter the temple. The Greek Tragedy was that if some zealous hero wished to change his destiny with his own efforts, he would always fail.

Natural Philosophers rose with the passage of time, who opined that the Greek fatality was wrong. Nature has its own laws which govern natural incidents on the Earth. Early Greek Philosophers explained that earthquakes occur due to the water in which the world floats or some change in the air in which the Earth was suspended.

The second area which Natural Philosophers affected was medicine. Conventional Greeks thought that when a god was angry with some man, the man became sick. However, natural philosophers theorized that, for example, influenza (common cold) struck a person when it was because of the malign ‘influence’ of some star. In this milieu, rose a person named Hippocrates who is considered the first doctor in the Greek Society. He said that there was a balance between four humors in a human’s body that controlled the health of a person’s health. He looked for natural causes of a person’s disease. Even today, doctors take the Hippocratic Oath to save human life.

Socrates - Quotes, Death & Facts - Biography
Picture of Socrates Source: Dreamstime


No study of Philosophy is complete without the examination of the ideas of philosophy by Socrates. The amazing fact about Socrates is that he authored no text, wrote no books, and left no textual evidence of his ideas. All his ideas have reached down to us through the writings of his pupils, Plato and Xenophon.

Socrates was born in Athens, part of Greece, c.47-399BC. He was the first moral philosopher that we know of. The most famous aspect related to Socrates is the Socratic Method. In this method, Socrates is in search of the meaning or definitions rather of abstract concepts such as justice, freedom, bravery, etc. He would go out into the marketplace and start asking for definitions of abstract concepts of justice, freedom, fairness, unfairness, and so on. It would not be wrong if we called Socrates ‘The Father of Philosophy’.


To understand Socrates, we must understand who the Sophists were. Sophists were trained in the art of oratory and teaching philosophy to the common man. It would not be wrong to say that if a person wanted his son to learn philosophy, he would hire a Sophist who would do the job. Obviously, there were no universities or schools at that time serving the purpose of teaching philosophy that the Sophists used to teach philosophy throughout Greece and between the Greek Colonies, they were very much aware of every local custom and tradition of every area of the aforementioned places. Socrates was not a democrat. He used to think that only the best minds should be allowed to rule society.


Socrates used the dialectal method to teach philosophy. According to him, “Doubt is the Origin of Truth”. Dialectical Question means di=two (which is thesis and anti-thesis). If thesis and anti-thesis are opposed to each other, then philosophy comes into play and tries to find the answer. For example, Socrates went into conceptual analysis such as what is bravery? The answer intuitively would be when one tries to correct wrongdoing? Socrates would further ask to define wrongdoing?. The questioning will continue till a plausible definition is reached. This is known as the Socratic Method of questioning. He used to ask moral questions such as justice, fair play, courage and then used the Socratic Method to find out whether the premise on which a concept is based is right or wrong.

The Death of Socrates. Socrates was a Greek philosopher from Athens who is credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy  and as being the first moral royalty free stock photos
Socrates drinking hemlock Source: Dreamstime

Death of Socrates

Sparta and Athens were at war with each other. Sparta and Athens fought the Peloponnese wars. Sparta won the war and they chose thirty elites from Athens to rule. When the rule of thirty ended, Athens got freedom. Socrates participated in the war on the Athenian side. Subsequently, Socrates was charged with heresy and corrupting the youth of Athens. In our times, to adjudicate a case, a juror panel of around 12-15 days is selected. However, in the Athenian days, a jury of 500 people was selected. A man from every walk of life was selected. The indicted had to prove his innocence in front of this jury. There were two punishments for a proven offender: either go into exile or drink poison. Socrates, instead of mellowing down, adopted an aggressive tone and chose to drink the hemlock.

Socrates never went into isolation. He used to go out into the market and catch hold of someone and ask him to define freedom. He used to play the role of a student and chose the person whom he was questioning as the teacher. The famous saying inscribed on the entrance of the Temple of Apollo “Know Thy Self” applies here that a person who has never examined himself has wasted his life.

The charge leveled against Socrates was that he was corrupting the youth of Athens by questioning Greek mythology. He said there were no gods in the heavens. He was chided many times to stop indulging in this practice, but he did not stop. He was told to drink the hemlock, which he happily did.

Socrates never wrote anything but his dialogues have been brought down to us by his pupil, Plato. Plato formed his own Academy to propagate the ideas of Socrates. 

Revisiting Plato

Plato’s Theory of the cave deserves special mention here. According to this theory, Man is facing the wall of a cave in which he sees images. However, these images are visible through a candle. The actual object is behind one’s back, of which shadows are cast on the face of the cave. As opposed to Aristotle, Plato theorized that the world we live in is an ideal world and not a materialistic one. The objects of the world are special and there is an ideal world.

As far as politics is concerned, Plato wrote The Republic in which there was the concept of philosopher-kings. Plato believed that only philosophers had the knack of running the affairs of the state. He set out the whole regimen of the Republic which included physical exercise as well. The body has its own needs and appetites, but the supreme being was the mind and logic which only philosophers possessed for the creation of a harmonious society.

Plato’s Communism

The rulers of society were Platonic Communists who could not own any property. However, the rest of the people could own property. The Platonic Communism was based on the idea that children of the elite were taken away from their mothers as they had to be trained to take important decisions for society. Philosophical knowledge was based on the Spartan model of governance.


Aristotle was a smart pupil of Plato and was Alexander’s mentor. He opened a school of philosophy known as The Lyceum. His teaching style was peripatetic i.e he taught while walking. He turned Plato’s theory upside down. He said that the material world was the current world. What he meant was that if we see a horse, we describe it as an animal that has four legs and, thereby, this animal is known as a horse. Aristotle believed in particulars rather than universals. Thus, there is enough evidence that Aristotle was a materialist.

Ibn Rushd: Defender of thought | News | Al Jazeera
Defender of thought-Ibn Rushd Source: Al-Jazeerah

Ibn Rushd was greatly influenced by Aristotle. Ibn Rushd believes in the Collective Soul and that there is no individual soul. He also believed that this universe has existed forever and will continue to exist forever. Thirdly, Ibn Rushd believed that only intellectuals could understand philosophy.

These three ideas did not go down well within Orthodoxy. Even the Christian Orthodoxy ganged up against Ibn Rushd. As scholastic activity grew in Paris, somebody had to explain Aristotle’s idea to the rest of the world. All these ideas were the product of the deliberations of the House of Hikmah built by Caliph Haroon-ur-Rashid.

As these ideas grew in the face of stiff resistance from the teachings of Al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd’s ideas fell out of favor in the Middle East. The clergy started opposing Ibn Rushd’s ideas and opined that these teachings were taking people out of the pale of Islam.

Quote of Marcus Aurelius Source:Pinterest

Stoicism is a school of philosophy that advocates that emotions and feelings make people commit mistakes and lead them to wrong decisions. They say that using your intellect over emotions keeps the decision power robust and strong. They argue that one should lead an ascetic lifestyle. We should make rational decisions in the light of logic and decisions. One should concentrate on knowledge to lead a proper life. Stoics were so much in favor of leading an emotional life that they banished all emotions from human life. For them, the highest virtue is that one should achieve the best possible life by using one’s mind and reason. They stressed that the highest virtue is leading a life based on reason.

Stoics, undoubtedly, were against emotions and feelings. But they never said that one should live in rags. They propounded a good, decent life chiefly governed by rationality. The Stoic virtues were: Wisdom, courage, justice and temperance (abstinence from alcohol in simple words).

Stoics were so attracted to knowledge that they called themselves Citizens of the World. They hated calling themselves only Greek philosophers. Ideas flowing from all parts of the world i.e. India, Rome, etc. were their domain.

The best part of Stoic philosophy was that they were against slavery. They believed in Natural Law and opined that all human beings were created equal. Then why discriminate against a certain section of society? i.e. slaves. Living in that age where slaves were treated as mere commodities, Stoics stressed that slaves should be freed.

Stoicism was the dominant philosophy of Rome. Some of the famous Stoics included Marcus Aurelius, Cicero and other notable figures. Stoics, though not only impacted Christianity, but later on they affected the Muslim schools of thought too. The basis premise was that humanity is sacred and should be respected.

Also Read Disenchanted with the Masses: Plato and the Athenian Democracy

Conclusion of Genesis of Philosophy

In this blog, we covered Hippocrates, the first doctor of medicine. Then we covered the teachings of Socrates, who can easily be called the Father of Philosophy. He was the first moral philosopher. He was in search of the truth and he was in love with the knowledge that he had drunk the hemlock. Plato and Xenophon wrote down Socrates’s dialogues for posterity. Then we revisited Plato and Aristotle and their conflict with each other’s ideas. We had a debate between universals and particulars respectively. We also shed some light on Ibn Rushd’s ideas and then discussed the Stoics. Aristotle can easily be termed as the first scientist in the philosophical tradition. Although almost all of Aristotles’ theories have been discredited, he is undoubtedly the first natural scientist in the Greek strand of thought. His theories might be wrong, but at least he made the right decisions in the right direction. He could only glean knowledge from the sources available at that time. To his credit, at least he attempted to study nature. Stoicism was discussed by those who were against emotions and feelings. They advocate that feelings, emotions, etc. lead to wrong decisions. Only a reasonable and rational mind can help the mind achieve the right decisions in life. We will take up the further study of the evolution of philosophy in subsequent blogs.

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