Ancient philosophy

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The ancient Greece v to 550th Chr.
The Roman Empire around 117

The ancient philosophy was a philosophical-historical epoch. It lasted more than 1100 years, from around 600 BC. ( Thales was born as the oldest representative around 624 BC) to the 6th century AD, when the last Neoplatonists were active. Their main locations were ancient Greece and the Roman Empire .

The philosophy of antiquity was geographically on the Mediterranean limited. Other important philosophical traditions of antiquity were Chinese philosophy (since 1000 BC) and Indian philosophy (since 1000 BC), influential were the cultures of Judaism , ancient Egypt , the Persian Empire and Mesopotamia . In Europe, the philosophy of the ancient world was followed by the philosophy of the Middle Ages .

The ancient philosophers can be roughly divided into different groups. Those who worked before Socrates are known as the pre-Socratics (around 600 to 400 BC). They replaced the worldview , which was shaped by myths and gods at the time , with attempts to explain things in a philosophical and scientific way. The Greek classical period (around 500 to 300 BC) begins with Socrates . At that time Athens was the spiritual center of Greece. Socrates' pupil Plato and his pupil Aristotle became two of the most important and to this day most influential philosophers. The Sophists , the Cynics , the Epicureans , the Cyrenaics and the Stoics can also be counted among the Classics. The philosophy of the Hellenistic period followed the classical period, followed by the philosophy of late antiquity .


The history of philosophy can be divided into periods according to different points of view (time, place, current, etc.). To date, no generally binding classification has been established. The term “pre-Socratics” has gained some acceptance, although some authors count the sophists among the pre-Socratics and others with the Greek classical period. Here is an approximate classification:

Hellenistische Philosophie Griechische Klassik (Philosophie) Vorsokratiker



With Thales of Miletus begins in the 6th century BC The occidental history of philosophy. Like that of all other pre-Socratics, however, his teaching has only been handed down in fragments. It is believed that since Thales began to replace the worldview shaped by myths and gods with more scientific explanations. It fits that Thales was also a mathematician and astronomer . With Anaximander and Anaximenes, Thales is one of the so-called Milesians (also: older Ionic natural philosophers). Aristotle reports that the Milesians tried to find a source ( arche ) of all things. For Thales this primordial ground is said to have been the water, for Anaximander it was the unlimited ( apeiron ) and for Anaximenes the air.

Pythagoras founded in the 6th century BC The philosophical community of the Pythagoreans . Their philosophy was not shaped by the search for a primal substance, but rather by the mathematics that were also carried out . So they saw numbers and mathematical relationships as the key to a comprehensive description and explanation of the world. The Pythagoreans were also politically active and theories in the fields of geometry , music theory , calendar calculation and astronomy .

The literary fragments handed down from Heraclitus are considered difficult to understand. These are sententia-like sentences that are reminiscent of puzzles . He was already called "the dark one" in antiquity. According to Heraclitus, out of fire arises the world which, in all its manifestations , reveals a rational disposition hidden to most people according to the universal law of the Logos . Everything is in a constant, flowing process of becoming , which summarizes superficial opposites in a superordinate unit. The abbreviated formulation “Everything flows” ( panta rhei ) later emerged from this view .

Like Zeno of Elea, Parmenides is one of the Eleates . He distinguishes between what appears to mortals to be true and certain truth. The existence of being and the non-existence of non-being are certainly true. From this it must be concluded that being is unchangeable, since the only form of change for being would be to become non-being. But this is unthinkable and thus the assumption of any form of change in being is mere opinion and pure appearance, in contrast to a comprehension of being by reason.

Democritus led the atomism of Leucippus further by claiming that the whole nature of indivisible units of atoms (atomoi) was composed. Things only seem to have one color or taste, in reality there are only atoms in empty space.

Xenophanes is known for his critical examination of the conventional anthropomorphic idol of his time. Empedocles became known for his doctrine of the four elements , according to which everything consists of the elements fire, water, air and earth. Anaxagoras is considered to be the one who brought philosophy with him when he moved to Athens.

Greek classical


The five decades between the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War were Athens' classic heyday, in which Attic democracy found its perfection. In this phase of socio-political upheaval there was a corresponding need for spiritual orientation, which the sophistic enlightenment sought to cover. The since 450 BC Sophists appearing in the 3rd century BC directed their considerations away from nature towards humans and looked for methods to strengthen the individual mentally and physically. So they taught the youngsters rhetoric and martial arts, but they were not as subtle as they are often assumed to be. Important sophists were: Antiphon , Gorgias , Hippias von Elis , Critias , Prodikos , Protagoras . The famous sentence comes from the latter: "Man is the measure of all things, of whom they are, that they are, and of those who are not, that they are not."

Philosophy thus became a public affair that was pursued on the market square ( agora ) and in interested circles. Here freedom of thought unfolded in peaceful competition ( agon ) through the exchange of views and arguments. Socrates made a special impression that continues to this day with his teaching style and attitude to life. He used to shake his interlocutors in their alleged knowledge by uncovering thought-logical gaps through probing inquiries, in order to then bring new knowledge to light with his partners in ongoing dialogues, a procedure that he called midwifery ( maieutics ). The fearlessness and firmness of his appearance in the trial against him as the alleged corruption of youth and the way in which he accepted the death sentence have made him the archetype of philosophical coping with existence.

Since Socrates himself did not leave anything in writing, his picture in the history of philosophy is essentially determined by his student Plato, who, according to his understanding, recorded the method and the contents of the Socratic teaching in dialogue form and thus passed it on. To this end, however, he developed his own teachings, so that today the Socratic and Platonic parts of this philosophical building, as it is in the Platonic dialogues, are difficult to separate. Plato's allegory of the cave is famous : Without knowledge of the ideas that represent the truth behind things, we are like people who sit in a cave, have never seen the sun and believe our shadows are real, real life. Plato assumed that the ideas existed independently in a higher world. (The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once remarked that all later drafts of European philosophy were basically just footnotes to Plato.)

When Aristotle could only partially agree philosophically with his teacher Plato, he confessed that he felt friendship with Plato, but even more with the truth than with him. While Plato's philosophy was essentially aimed at a doctrine of ideas that transcended our sensual perception of the world , Aristotle sought to comprehensively research the tangible reality of nature and human society and to organize it scientifically. In contrast to Plato, he saw ideas as contained in things and thus gave the real world more weight again. Here he has u. a. for biology and medicine , but also for political empiricism and theory. In his encyclopedic thirst for knowledge as a philosopher he was also a. Dynamics (δύναμις), movement (κίνησις), form and matter . Aristotle founded classical logic with its syllogistics , the systematic of science and the theory of science . The authority that Aristotle still possessed as a researcher and thinker in the European Middle Ages was so great that his name simply stood for the concept of the philosopher.

The Cynics formed a philosophical trend that was primarily oriented towards the poor way of life of Socrates . Its most famous representative, Diogenes of Sinope ("Diogenes in the bin"), is said to have told Alexander the Great, when he visited him and asked what he wanted, "Get out of the sun!"

Hellenism and Roman times

The classical approaches were continued in Hellenism . The Hellenistic “courts of the muses” played a special role. This is how the very influential Alexandrian School arose in Alexandria , while the Peripatetics developed the approaches of Aristotle and the Platonic Academy Plato followed.

At the transition from the 4th to the 3rd century BC With the Stoa and Epicureanism, two philosophical schools emerged, which radiated far beyond the time and place of their origin and marked ethical basic positions for a happy life. Its potential is still by no means exhausted, as more recent publications on happiness and the art of living show. While Epicureanism seeks to promote individual happiness through optimally dosed pleasures and recommends restraint in public affairs, the Stoa opposes the enslavement of the soul in the addiction to the satisfaction of needs, subordinates itself entirely to the control of reason and sees the individual as part of a human community of a cosmic whole, to which there are duties that must be taken into account in action. Stoics are characterized by a fate-affirming attitude in harmony with the order of the universe.

Mediated by Panaitios of Rhodes and Poseidonios , stoic guidelines found their way into the thinking of leading circles in republican and imperial Rome. In contact with the political reality of the Roman Empire , the severity and absoluteness of the stoic initial draft has rubbed off this and that (such as the complete disregard for the body and the emotions). Stoically inspired Romans like Cicero in the time of the outgoing republic and Seneca in the early imperial period included elements from other philosophical schools; Lucretius did the same , but referred to Epicurus. Such an eclecticism, run as its own philosophical direction, may lack originality, but it has undoubtedly increased the practicality and practicality of philosophical teachings. At the zenith of the principate , the stoa became the guideline and meditation basis of the Roman emperor Mark Aurel , the "philosopher on the imperial throne" in his self-contemplations . In the 2nd century AD he became, as it were, the embodiment of the 500 year old Platonic idea of ​​the philosopher called to rule.

The third, along with Stoa and Epicureanism, in number of members far inferior, but historically very important philosophical currents of Hellenism and the imperial era are the so-called skeptical schools. There are three to be distinguished: The older Pyrrhonism , founded by Pyrrhon von Elis , taught a general indistinguishability and indistinguishability of all things and opinions (indifferentialism), from which he v. a. drew ethical consequences. More or less independently of this, an epistemological direction developed later in the Platonic Academy: Arkesilaos , with which the so-called Middle Academy began, taught a strict agnosticism based on Socrates ' model . This was softened by Karneades , the founder of the so-called New Academy, to a kind of theory of probability, which through his successor Philon von Larisa particularly influenced Cicero and was supposed to impress the young Augustine of Hippo . Finally, Ainesidemos , probably a former supporter of the academy, reestablished the long-extinct Pyrrhonism: the new pyrrhonism, the v. a. is described in the writings of the Sextus Empiricus , combined the systematic critique of knowledge of the New Academy with the ethical motivation of the older Pyrrhonism to a skeptical attitude that wanted to end the battle of opinions by abstaining from any knowledge judgment (the so-called epoché ) and precisely because of this Hope to find peace of mind ( ataraxia ) as well as the longed-for bliss ( eudaimonia ).

Late antiquity

In late antiquity , although there were still representatives of directions such as cynicism, Neoplatonism as a philosophical direction was decisive, which also had a stimulating and fruitful effect on the thinking of the Christian church fathers in a mutually entangled process .

The philosophical impulse that had given Rome's ruling elites ethical orientation for centuries flagged as the external pressure on the borders increased and the defense of which tied more and more people and resources; Now more and more men rose to the ranks who came from the military and who often had little understanding for subtle things. Nevertheless, it did not dry up, especially in the eastern part of the empire. The urge of philosophers such as Plotinus and later Proclus for unification (search for the one, the divine) resulted in a return to Plato and a reorientation of the Platonic doctrine of ideas. This resulted in possible links between Neoplatonism and the Christian religion.

Important representatives of ancient Christian apologetics were Justinus the Martyr in the 2nd century , Clement of Alexandria († after 215) and Origen († 253) in the 3rd century and Augustine of Hippo († 430) with his work About the in the 5th century God state . Augustine's thinking reflected the period of upheaval in late antiquity and laid the foundation for the philosophy of the Middle Ages . While the search for the one was still very puzzling in Plato's Parmenides dialogue, the early Christian church teachers believed they had found in God the one (and everything, Hen kai pan ) that solves all riddles. In the 4th century, for example, theurgy , which was sometimes viewed very critically, was very popular.

In the Eastern Roman Empire, important philosophers such as Isidore , Simplikios , who wrote important commentaries on Aristotle, and his teacher Damascius, were still active in the 5th and 6th centuries . There can therefore be no question of a complete decline of philosophy in late antiquity. In the eastern part of the empire, philosophy was also the backbone for non-Christian traditions (which was made clear by the “pagan renaissance” at the time of Emperor Julian , who himself was a supporter of Neoplatonism). But several Christians also emerged as important philosophers, such as Johannes Philoponos in Alexandria in the 6th century or Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius , who was trained in neo-Platonism in the west , whose work Consolation of Philosophy is one of the notable works of the late late antiquity.

The actual closure of the Platonic Academy in Athens by Emperor Justinian in 529 (or a little later) put an end to the philosophical studies there, but the Christianized school of Alexandria continued and only perished as a result of the Persian and Arab wars, the Byzantium in the 7th Century had to exist (see Roman-Persian Wars and Islamic Expansion ). Soon after the middle of the 6th century , the tradition of ancient pagan philosophy died out for good, although in Byzantium the preoccupation with it continued. One of the last important neo-Platonists from late antiquity, the Christian Stephanos of Alexandria , then worked in Constantinople at the beginning of the 7th century.

Afterlife of ancient philosophy

The Christianity that dominated the medieval world view Europe has integrated many elements of ancient philosophy into his teachings. The dogmatic discussions and disputes that shaped late antique Christianity from the 4th to the 6th centuries and gave religion its current form are not understandable without the background of Greek philosophy. From late antiquity to the age of the Enlightenment, however, Christian monotheism no longer allowed ideological pluralism , as it existed in the coexistence of ancient schools of philosophy and religions .

It is thanks to the Greek historian of philosophy Diogenes Laertios from the third century AD that many ancient philosophers were not completely forgotten, despite the destruction of what is probably the most important ancient library in Alexandria : his work remained known to the Middle Ages in Latin translation. For the Latin West, Boethius in particular was of importance that can hardly be overestimated, as he, among other things, brought the rules of Aristotelian logic into a form that was to decisively shape medieval thinking.

Otherwise, after the 6th century, at least in Europe, most of ancient philosophy was forgotten. In the following years, the transmission of ancient philosophy mainly came from Arab-Islamic thinkers such as Avicenna (980-1037) and Averroes (1126-1198), as well as the Jewish philosopher and doctor Maimonides (1135-1204). Via such detours, the philosophy of antiquity, especially that of Aristotle, gradually gained importance again on the philosophy of the Middle Ages with scholastics such as Albertus Magnus († 1280) and Thomas Aquinas († 1274) as well as with early Renaissance thinkers . A second boost took place in the 15th century , when Western scholars traveled to the Byzantine East in the course of the Renaissance and brought with them the manuscripts of ancient Greek thinkers (including Giovanni Aurispa ) or, as Byzantine scholars, fled the Ottomans to the West and acted as intermediaries ancient education in the West.

See also



Overall representations


Prosopographic lexicon

Conceptual dictionaries

Philosophy before Hellenism

  • Helmut Heit: Early Greek Philosophy . Reclam, Stuttgart 2011, ISBN 978-3-15-020337-8 (from Thales to Socrates)
  • Anthony Arthur Long (Ed.): Handbook of Early Greek Philosophy. From Thales to the Sophists . Metzler, Stuttgart 2001, ISBN 3-476-01852-0 .
  • Wolfgang Schadewaldt : The beginnings of philosophy among the Greeks. The pre-Socratics and their requirements . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1978, ISBN 3-518-27818-5 .
  • Christopher Shields: Classical Philosophy. A contemporary introduction . Routledge, London 2003, ISBN 0-415-23397-6 (from Thales to Aristotle)

Hellenistic and Imperial Philosophy

  • Keimpe Algra u. a. (Ed.): The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999, ISBN 0-521-25028-5 .
  • Arthur Hilary Armstrong (Ed.): The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1970 (reprint of the 1st edition from 1967 with corrections; still an irreplaceable standard work; articles almost entirely by leading experts)
  • David J. Furley (Ed.): From Aristotle to Augustine (= Routledge History of Philosophy , Vol. 2). Routledge, London 1999, ISBN 0-415-06002-8 .
  • Lloyd P. Gerson (Ed.): The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity . 2 volumes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2010, ISBN 978-0-521-76440-7 .
  • Andrew Smith: Philosophy in Late Antiquity . Routledge, London 2004, ISBN 0-415-22510-8 .

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This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on November 24, 2005 .