What are the stages of evolution in Greek philosophy?

By Sunil Kumar

Here’s a chronological list(note many different texts will have the same information in either exhaustive or lesser detail and various interpretations on significance depending on the writer’s preferences).


Around 600 BCE; the Greek cities of Ionia(name given in ancient times to central region of Anatolia’s Aegean shore(now in Turkey) were intellectual and cultural leaders in the Grecian world and noted traders in the Mediterranean.

Miletus; the southernmost Ionian city(now Balat, Turkey) was the wealthiest city in the Hellenic sphere; and considered to be the centre of the Ionian awakening.

Among the first group of Greek philosophers is a triad of Milesian thinkers: Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. Their main concern was to come up with a cosmological theory purely based on natural phenomena.

Their approach required the rejection of all traditional explanations based on religious authority, dogma, myth and superstition. They all agreed on the notion that all things come from a single “primal substance”: Thales believed it was water; Anaximander said it was a substance different from all other known substances, “infinite, eternal and ageless”; and Anaximenes claimed it was air.

Pythagoras(famous for the theorem originally proposed by Baudhayana) is considered one of the Ionian thinkers but outside the Milesian school: he was originally from Samos, an offshore Ionian settlement.

His approach combines science with religious beliefs, something that would have caused horror among the Milesian school. His philosophy has a dose of mysticism, probably an influence of the Orphic tradition.

Atomism began with Leucippus and Democritus. Among the ancient schools, this approach is the closest to modern science: they believed that everything is composed of atoms, which are indestructible and physically indivisible.


About 500 BCE, the Greek city-states or poleis were still largely divided.

They had a common language and culture, but they were very often rivals. Slavery was a very important part of the socio-cultural context in this ancient Mediterranean world.

Some years earlier, Athens implemented a socio-political innovation by which all free male citizens had equal rights regardless of their origin and fortune. They named it democracy. Note that by free; they meant non-slaves who were lesser compared to the bigger population who were.

Before the time of democracy, government decision-making was in the hands of a few, often aristocratic and noble families. Democracy allowed all free citizens to be part of the important decisions of the polis.

During court hearings, for example, prosecutor and accused had to appear in court in person, never through lawyers, and the failure or success of the process relied largely on rhetorical skills and any citizen could be subject to a court hearing. This period, therefore, saw the beginning of the Sophist school.

The Sophists were intellectuals who taught courses in various topics, including rhetoric, a useful skill in Athens. Because they taught in return for a fee, the Sophists’ schools were only attended by those who could afford it, usually members of the aristocracy and wealthy families.

In a way, the Sophists represented the new political era in Athenian life, especially because they were linked with the new educational needs.

Caught in the clash between cultural conservatism and innovation, we find a peculiar character: Socrates, the pivotal figure in Greek philosophy and the wisest among Greeks at his time according to the oracle of Delphi. Like the Sophists, Socrates enjoyed teaching, but unlike the Sophists he never requested a fee in return and lived a life of austerity.

He either underestimated or ignored most of the topics that were popular among his predecessors. Before the time of Socrates, philosophers’ main concern had been the physical world and how to explain it naturally. However, Socrates set in motion a new approach by focusing entirely on moral and psychological questions.

His methodology sought to define key questions such as: what is virtue? what is patriotism? what do you mean by morality? As a result of this, most of his debates ended up with even more questions, the central issue unanswered, and the disputers’ ignorance on many topics revealed, since he invariably proved that the words being used by his contenders were actually abstract terms with an empty meaning.

By combining a humble spirit (he never claimed to be any wiser than anyone else) and a strict agnosticism (he said he knew nothing) with a method that challenged conventional assumptions and an intolerance for unclear thinking,

Socrates gradually earned enemies from various sectors of Athenian society. He was, consequently, put on trial and condemned to death.


Plato and Aristotle are the two most important Greek philosophers. Their work has been the main focus of interest for students of philosophy and specialists.

This is partly because, unlike most of their predecessors, what they wrote survived in an accessible form and partly because Christian thought, which was the dominant thought in the Western world during the Middle Ages and early modern age, contained a high dose of Platonic and Aristotelian influence.

Plato had many philosophical interests including ethics and politics but he is best known for his metaphysical and epistemological ideas. One of his most influential insights is the Theory of Ideas: to Plato, notions like virtue, justice, beauty, goodness, etc., would not be possible unless we had some direct knowledge of these things in an earlier existence. (Like India; belief in reincarnation).

We are born into this world with an imperfect memory of these Forms. In that ideal world of Ideas, one can experience the real Forms which are perfect and universal. Our world is an imperfect parody of the Platonic flawless and superior world of Ideas. A knowledge of these Forms is possible only through long and arduous study by philosophers but their eventual enlightenment will qualify them, and they alone, to rule society.

Aristotle, a student of Plato for almost 20 years, was the tutor of Alexander. Aristotle’s interests covered a wide scope: ethics, metaphysics, physics, biology, mathematics, meteorology, astronomy, psychology, politics and rhetoric, among other topics.

Some of the components of Aristotelian logic existed long before Aristotle such as Socrates’ ideas on exact definition, argumentative techniques found in Zeno of Elea, Parmenides and Plato, and many other elements traceable to legal reasoning and mathematical proof. Aristotle’s logic system consists of five treatises known as the Organon. His thought was revered in the Western world until Galileo; the scientist came along in the “Renaissance” period and proved that most of his theories were flawed and not in line with empirical evidence.

The Hellenistic age(323 B.C – 31 B.C)

During the Hellenistic age, four philosophical schools flourished: the Cynics, Sceptics, Epicureans and Stoics. During this time, political power was in the hands of the Macedonians.(Alexander and his descendants).

Therefore, Greek philosophers abandoned their political concerns and focused on problems of the individual. Instead of trying to come up with plans to improve society, their interest was how to be happy or virtuous.

The Cynics rejected all types of conventions: marriage, manners, religion, housing, and even decency.

The Sceptic philosophical school systematized old doubts: the senses caused troubles to most philosophers except some rare exceptions like Plato who simply denied the cognitive value of perception in favour of his world of ideas.

On top of the scepticism of the senses, the Sceptics added moral and logical scepticism. Epicureanism claimed that life was about pursuing this world’s pleasures. (Like a few schools in ancient India).

They only believed in the material world, a belief which attracted the opposition of the Stoics.

Stoics said that everything that happens is due to divine providence, therefore, whatever misfortune occurs, a stoic will accept it without complaint. Stoics rejected Aristotle’s views on the relevance of bodily and material goods to human happiness.

Achieving happiness, stoics said, is not important, what is actually important is to pursue happiness since the outcome of our attempt is not fully under our own control.

If you want to read more; here’s the source:

Greek Philosophy

This entry was posted in Books, Culture, Geography, Languages, Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *