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Why did philosophy start in ancient Greece?

The ancient Greeks had a broad democratic cultural tradition that encouraged individual independence of mind, the questioning of authority, and disagreement among peers.

The sea-faring, trading, and warring nature of the ancient Greeks was conducive to the development of intellectual cosmopolitanism among the privileged classes in this slave-owning society. From the Pre-Socratics on, Greek philosophers were not merely thinkers, but also men of action, capable of leadership and civic involvement. Moreover, the Greeks were warlike and valued the virtues of combat, such as courage and honor. When it came to polite interaction, they did not hesitate to voice disagreement, a trait conducive to philosophical debate, as well.

What was Greek wisdom?

Although Western philosophers have always turned to ancient Greece as the source of philosophy as they know it, the ancient Greeks themselves had a view of wisdom that was broader than philosophy. The so-called "Seven Wise Men of Greece," who flourished between c. 620 to 650 B.C.E., included only one philosopher: Thales of Miletus. (The other wise men were statesman and politicians or practical leaders of men.) The sayings associated with the Seven Wise Men of Greece are:

• Thales of Miletus: "To bring surety brings ruin."

• Solon of Athens: "Nothing in excess."

• Chilon of Sparta: "Know thyself."

• Bias of Priene: "Too many workers spoil the work."

• Cleobulus of Lindos: "Moderation is impeccable."

• Pittacus of Mytilene: "Know thin opportunity."

• Periander of Corinth: "Forethought in all things."


Who were the Pre-Socratics?

The Pre-Socratics (the term simply means those philosophers who came before Socrates) came from outlying Greek city-states located on islands far from Athens, which was the cultural center of ancient Greece. Their ideas circulated widely among Greek intellectuals all over the civilized Western world. In chronological order, the main Pre-Socratics were: Thales (c. 624-c. 546 b.c.e.), Anaximander (c. 610-c. 546 b.c.e.), Anaximenes of Miletus (580-500 b.c.e.), Pythagoras (c. 575-495 b.c.e.), Heraclitus (535-475 b.c.e.), Anaxagoras (c. 500—428 b.c.e.), Parmenides (n.d.), Zeno of Elea (c. 490—430 b.c.e.), Empedocles (c. 490—430 b.c.e.), Leucippus (n.d.), and Democratus (c. 460-c. 370 b.c.e.). They were well-educated men who had enough leisure time to ponder deep questions.

What are the main Pre-Socratic texts?

There are no surviving texts of the Pre-Socratics, and very little is known about their lives. What is known comes to us from the writings of other philosophers, beginning with Plato (c. 428-c. 348 b.c.e.) and Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.), their contemporaries, and especially Aristotle's student Theophrastus (371-c. 287 b.c.e.). For example, the writings of Heraclitus (535-475 b.c.e.) consist of "fragments," and there are only 450 enduring lines from Empedocles (c. 490-430 b.c.e.). Because we have no primary sources, we can't be certain how much of what is related about the Pre-Socratics is skewed by the biases of their interpreters.

What was new about the thinking of the Pre-Socratics?

The Pre-Socratics looked for natural explanations of natural facts and events, instead of relying on mythological accounts of the actions of the gods to explain the nature of our existence. Because of this approach, the Pre-Socratics can be regarded as the first Western scientists, even though, today, many of their theories sound quaint compared to contemporary science.

The writings of Theophrastus, one of Aristotle's students, helped philosophers learn about the Pre-Socratics (iStock).

The writings of Theophrastus, one of Aristotle's students, helped philosophers learn about the Pre-Socratics (iStock).

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