Greek philosopher busts

History of Philosophy

Wisdom from the Ancients through the Renaissance

“Know thyself.” ~ Socrates

Most of Western thought started with the Greeks of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. The word philosophy originates from the Greek word philosophia, which literally means "the love of wisdom." Originally the term was applied to all intellectual endeavors. Each civilization has had unique schools of philosophy, arrived at through cultural evolution of consciousness and independent discovery.

There are a number of approaches to philosophy. Because the term is so broad and deals with organized systems of wisdom, it is impossible within the scope of this writing to cover all approaches. I will, however, write about those that I consider to be fundamental and the genesis of subsequent schools of wisdom. Other systems of knowledge have evolved into their own separate disciplines, such as the sciences and mathematics, but in my opinion, the following comprise the all-important foundation: logic, self-reflection, metaphysics, epistemology, rationalism, empiricism, political and social philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, and skepticism. It’s important to note here that many philosophers’ ideas fit into more than one school of psychological thought.


A major component of philosophy is logic, which was studied in several ancient civilizations prior to the Classical Greeks, including Egypt, India, China and Persia. Logic is the study of various modes of reasoning used in determining the validity or ineffectiveness of a given point or position. While philosophy, science, and mathematics all use logic, they differ; science and mathematics are based on the use of the scientific method for confirming validity. Since philosophy is ethereal, it does not have that option.


Human self-reflection is part of the philosophy of consciousness. It is a quality of human nature to self-reflect. This exercise of introspection and the capacity and a willingness to learn from experience is the essence of self-growth. The degree to which individuals engage in this determines their maturity. Self-reflection leads to inquiry into the human condition and the essence of humans as a whole. In the late 19th century this philosophy evolved into the social science of psychology. I think this philosophical view is best expressed in Abraham Maslow’s, Toward a Psychology of Being.


Metaphysics attempts to identify and clarify reality is. In other words, metaphysics covers everything that is or is thought to be real; the universe in general and the earth in particular. It is what we are aware of through the senses and exists independently of us. Aristotle relates this concept to causality. Ontology, the term used to describe the nature of being, deals with questions concerning what exists or can be said to exist; and how such entities can be grouped within a hierarchy and subdivided according to similarities and differences. The existence or non-existence of God and its form is a metaphysical discussion that has been, and continues to be discussed.


This is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge. It focuses on analyzing the nature of knowledge, how it is acquired, the possible extent to which a given subject or entity can be known and how it relates to the ideas of truth, belief and justification, the latter of which is the reason that someone holds a particular belief or set of beliefs.


Rationalism concerns itself with gaining knowledge in ways that are independent of sensory experience. It is understood to be those theories derived through logical conclusions based on concepts and knowledge. Reason provides the additional information needed to draw valid conclusions. Empiricism, on the other hand, are theories arrived at through observation and the experience of the senses which is the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge. Skepticism is primarily about knowledge, not belief. Philosophical skepticism is an overall approach that requires all information to be well supported by evidence. If it can’t be proven; it cannot be accepted as true. Empiricism is skeptical of rationalist arguments. Empiricists state that all faith-based philosophy is without merit. The various fields of science and mathematics evolved from empiricist philosophy.

Political Philosophy

Political philosophy is the study of such topics as liberty, jurisprudence, justice, law, politics, ownership, and individual and collective rights. Jurisprudence is largely concerned with the structures of state and government and their functioning. It deals with the correct form of government, the enforcement of a legal code by the legitimacy of the authority of government, what rights and freedoms it should protect and why, what form it should take and why, what the law is, and what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any, and when it may be legitimately overthrown, if ever. Obviously this subject has as much relevancy today as it did two and a half millennia ago.

Social Philosophy

Social philosophy is the study of human behavior from the social contract, criteria for revolution, from the functions of everyday life to the effects of science on culture. There is often an overlap between the questions addressed by social philosophy, ethics and aesthetics. Ethics studies the moral behavior in humans, and how one should act and to resolve questions dealing with human morality. This includes such issues as right and wrong, good and evil, virtue or right conduct, and justice in individual and social conduct.


Aesthetics studies the concepts of beauty and harmony. Other forms of philosophy-- including political and social philosophy, as well as ethics -- have evolved into the academic discipline of social science. All share intimate connections with other disciplines in the social sciences. More broadly, scholars in the field define aesthetics as ‘critical reflection on art, culture and nature. ‘Nature’ in this context refers to the phenomena of the physical world, and also to life in general, from the subatomic to the cosmic.

The Origins of Philosophy

The history of philosophy tracks the evolution of thought throughout history, starting with religion, philosophy, and related fields that significantly contribute to modern science, mathematics, and the social sciences. Philosophy, particularly as derived from the Classical Greeks two and one half millennia ago, is the foundation of modern thought in the Western World. It is also the flash point between modernity and traditional ways of doing things. I take the optimistic position that Western rationalism with Eastern thought relative to the harmony of nature and the cosmos are converging into a global view of humans as stewards of the planet in harmony with all things.

In early civilizations, philosophy was primarily concerned with advocating self-awareness and empathy for others which was usually couched in religiosity. Seeking self-truth and empathizing as the way to self-insight existed in cultural traditions throughout the ancient world. It can be found in ancient Egyptian teachings, in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain teachings in India, Confucius in China, Zoroaster in Persia, the ancient Greeks in Europe, in the Jewish Torah, the Christian Bible and the Muslim Koran.

The earliest body of philosophy recorded is found in the Persian religion. Zoroastrianism emerged out of the prehistoric Indo-European religious systems dating back to the early second millennium BCE. Zarathustra, or Zoroaster as he is known in the West, was the earliest known person to create a system of belief that examined what it is to be human and how to conduct one’s life. He was the earliest known person to ascribe to a monotheistic religious belief of a Supreme Being/Creator, a heaven and hell, the forces of ‘light’ and ‘darkness,’ or good and bad that was impacted by personal conduct.

The basics of both Buddhism and Jainism are right conduct and detachment from worldly things as ways toward enlightenment. Life should be led by moderation in all things and empathy for others. Buddhism believed that salvation came from following the guidelines for conduct embodied in the Four Noble truths and the Eightfold Path.

In China four philosophies developed during the ‘Warring States’ period. This period was marked by frequent violence and war and these philosophies were founded to cope with the environment of that time. Kongzi, (known in the West as Confucius, 551–479 BCE), was the first thinker to relate ethics to political order. The philosophy of Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. Confucius's thoughts were further developed into an official system that was the basis of the legal and administration system for much of subsequent Chinese history. Another Chinese philosophy of that time was Legalism, founded by Shang Yang, the statesman attributed to laying the foundational principles that eventually ushered in the unification of China under the Qin Dynasty. Like Confucianism, Legalism’s emphasis was on political psychology. Unlike Confucius, Shang Yang believed in power, not virtue. It was further developed by Li Si as a realist reform-oriented philosophy meant to strengthen government and reinforce adherence to the law. Shang Yang advocated the belief that all people are fundamentally flawed and that stringent laws and harsh punishments are required to keep them in order. He also recommended family as a basis for ideal government. He espoused the well-known principle "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself," an early version of the Golden Rule.

Two other Chinese philosophies were Taoism and Naturalism. Both of these were concerned with the dualism of nature. Taoism, founded by Laozi in the fifth century BCE saw the ‘Tao’ as the force that governed the universe and all of nature. He believed that there was a balance between opposite forces of yin and yang with the Tao as the whole, which in turn is greater than the sum of its two parts. The Naturalists defined the duality of nature as yin (passive, cool/dark, female) and yang (active, hot/light, male). These forces are not in conflict with one another but depend on each other for balance. By extension, social groups and governments must also be in balance or they cannot exist for long. Due to their philosophical similarity, Naturalism merged into Taoism.

For 2,500 years, Greek philosophy has been the basis of Western thought and civilization. Before this, thinkers set the stage for the great philosophers of Classical Greece. The development of critical, speculative, and skeptical thought originated with the Greeks in the sixth and fifth century BCE and became the foundation of Western philosophy and culture. But ideas do not start in a vacuum. Egyptian thought, for example, had a strong influence on the ancient Greeks.

The main difference between ideas that originated from Egypt or from any previous cultures was that they were based within the context of mythology and religion that could not be verified and had to be accepted on faith as true. The Greeks radically changed that basic premise through their understanding of natural laws and the realization that all things were intrinsically knowable. Humans, for example, were thought not to be part of a Divine Plan the purpose of which was not to be questioned. The Athenian philosophers began the tradition of rational inquiry. They posed questions which Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle later attempted to answer. They indirectly determined the course of the Western intellectual process. Above all, they began the tradition of rational enquiry independent of authority, whether human or divine, and which insists that observation and inference are the twin pillars of knowledge.

The Pre-Socratic, or classical, philosophers rejected traditional mythological explanations of the phenomena they saw around them in favor of more rational explanations. They asked questions about ‘the essence of things,’ which we now know as the study of Cosmology, i.e., the origins and eventual fate of the universe; the nature of reality; and what happens after death. Other philosophers concentrated on defining problems and paradoxes. Later philosophers rejected many of the answers the early Greek philosophers provided, but continued to place importance on their questions. Their early studies later developed into separate disciplines, such as science, mathematics, psychology, economics, and political theory. Instead of asking what made the world, they asked what the best way to live in it was. Whereas pre-Socratic philosophy had been based on theory, Socrates was concerned about its practical applications.

Foundations of Western Philosophy

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle established the foundations of Western philosophy and science in Greece in the 6th century BCE. Socrates turned philosophy to human questions. He is known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Xenophon and Plato. Socrates (469-399 BCE) did not record his teachings. We rely on knowledge of his ideas through Plato's Dialogues. His main contributions were to the field of ethics and to establishing the Socratic Method of inquiry, which is the process of asking a series of questions to students and to draw out answers so as to gain insight on issues. Socrates also made important and lasting contributions to the fields of logic and epistemology, asking what knowledge is, how it is acquired, and the possible extent to which a given subject or entity can be known. In the West, logic was established as a formal discipline by Aristotle, who gave it a fundamental place in philosophy.

Plato (427-348 BCE) founded an Academy in Athens, which was the first institute to create a school of higher education. Socrates, his teacher, had a large influence on his thinking and teachings. Plato wrote Dialogues that were imaginary conversations covering such topics as government, education, justice, virtue, and religion. Because Socrates never wrote, what we know of his ideas is through Plato, Aristotle and others. Plato, in his Republic, wrote that the best form of government was one run by “philosopher-kings.” Plato established the Academy, where he taught students to systematically pursue philosophical knowledge.

The third great philosopher of classical Greece was Aristotle (384–322 BCE). His works contain the earliest known formal study of logic. Logic was established as a formal discipline by Aristotle, who gave it a fundamental place in western philosophy. Aristotle was a universal genius whose expertise spanned a significant number of different subjects. He was the first to create a comprehensive system of Western philosophy, including not only philosophy but also zoological sciences and politics. He profoundly shaped medieval scholarship, and the Renaissance until his school of thought was replaced by Isaac Newton’s in the 17th century. His Nicomachean Ethics is widely considered one of the most important historic philosophical works. The influence of his ideas and approach remains strong in providing a foundation for much Western philosophy to this day. Having been previously explored in Plato’s works, Aristotle used the Socratic Method of questioning, on how men should best live their lives. In his Metaphysics, he described Ethics as practical rather than theoretical, in the original Aristotelian senses of these terms. To Aristotle, ethics was about how individuals should best live, while the study of politics was from the perspective of a law-giver, looking at the good of a whole community. Aristotle’s work was, therefore, not only contemplation about good living, but the creation of good living. In that way, it is connected to Aristotle's other practical work, Politics, which similarly aims at people becoming good.

Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Neo-Platonism

The Roman culture basically incorporated “everything Greek” into their own culture, including philosophy. Roman philosophy was primary a combination of Greek philosophy often with religious overtones. During the Roman Empire, Epicureanism and Stoicism were the most popular philosophies, especially the latter. Inspired by the teaching of Socrates, Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno and was influential throughout the Greco-Roman civilization. Stoicism is represented by the writings of Seneca, Cornutus, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius. As a Stoic, Aurelius believed that the best life is a moral life of tranquility, moderation and acceptance. The Stoic doctrine that each person is part of God and that all people form a universal family helped break down national, social, and racial barriers and prepare the way for the spread of Christianity. The Stoic doctrine of natural law, which makes human nature the standard for evaluating laws and social institutions, had an important influence on Roman and later Western law. The basic tenants of Stoicism are that the universe is fundamentally rational and that life should be conducted rationally and accepted events as they come with tranquility, and purpose. It stressed duty and held that through rational thought one should do well in the world. Spock, in Star Trek, was a stoic.

Epicureanism was founded by the Greek philosopher Epicurus who created a philosophy based on ethics based upon the achievement of pleasure and happiness. However he viewed pleasure as the absence of pain and the fear of death. It stressed duty and held that, through reason, mankind can come to regard the universe as governed by fate and, despite appearances, as fundamentally rational, and that, in regulating one's life, one can emulate the grandeur of the calm and order of the universe by learning to accept events with a stern and tranquil mind and to achieve a lofty moral worth. The overall aim of Epicurean philosophy was to promote happiness by removing the fear of death. Epicurus believed that natural science is important only if it can be applied in making practical decisions that help humans achieve the maximum amount of pleasure, which he identified with gentle motion and the absence of pain

Skepticism insisted that wisdom lay within the awareness of the extent of one’s own ignorance. The Skeptics concluded that the way to happiness lies in a complete suspension of judgment. In the first century AD, the Jewish-Hellenistic philosopher Philo of Alexandria combined Greek philosophy, particularly Platonic and Pythagorean ideas, with Judaism in a comprehensive system that led to Neo-Platonism, as well as Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mysticism. Philo insisted that the nature of God so far transcended human understanding and experience as to be indescribable; he described the natural world as a series of stages of descent from God, terminating in matter as the source of evil. He advocated a religious state, or theocracy, and was one of the first to interpret the Old Testament for the Gentiles.

From the 4th century BCE to the rise of Christian philosophy in the 4th century AD, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Neo-Platonism were the main philosophical schools in the Western world. These schools were a blend of Classical Greek philosophy blended mainly with ethics and religion. This was also a period of intense intercultural contact, and Western philosophers were influenced by ideas from Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism. After the Greek and Roman civilization, Western philosophy is conventionally divided into Medieval, Modern, and Contemporary eras. The Medieval period runs until roughly the late 15th century and the Renaissance. The Modern includes everything from Post-Medieval through the specific period up to the 20th century. Contemporary philosophy encompasses the philosophical developments of the 20th century up to the present day.


In the Middle Ages, Aristotle had a profound influence on philosophical ideas of both Jewish and Islamic traditions as well as a major influence of Christian theology. This is especially true of the scholastic tradition of the Catholic Church. Scholasticism attempted to reconcile Christian theology with classical and late antiquity philosophy It is defined partly by the need to integrate Church doctrine with secular learning. Some of the main figures of scholasticism include Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas's Summa Theologica is considered the pinnacle of scholastic, medieval, and Christian philosophy, which heavily influenced medieval philosophy.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics indirectly became critical in the development of all modern philosophy as well as European law and theology as synthesis between Aristotelian ethics and Christian theology became widespread. Through the influence of the Muslim philosopher Averroes, Aristotle became the most important philosopher in Moorish Spain. The most important version of this synthesis in the rest of Western Europe was that of Thomas of Aquinas. In synthesizing Christian theology and Aristotelian teaching, Aquinas contends that God's gift of higher reason, manifested in human law through the Divine. It had great influence at the beginning of modernity.

In philosophy, the Renaissance covers the period from 1400 to 1600, when Plato and Neo-Platonism were revived due to the availability of Latin translations, and the revival of ancient systems of thought such as Stoicism and skepticism. The key thinkers of the early Renaissance were Desideratum Erasmus and Martin Luther. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was the founder of modern political science, specifically political ethics. Similar to the philosophy of the power of the state to that of the earlier Legalists in China, Machiavelli, in The Prince, was far greater nuanced in the suggested application of power. By the end of the Renaissance, however, the significant figures were scientific thinkers, especially Nicolas Copernicus, a mathematician and astronomer, and Galileo Galilei, a central figure in the scientific revolution.

The modern world saw the evolution of philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries. René Descartes is considered the “Father of Modern Philosophy” because he broke with traditional Scholastic/Aristotelian philosophy of the time and developed a philosophy based on mechanistic sciences. The Age of Reason and The Age of Enlightenment idea of rationality in the works of John Locke on natural law, Montesquieu’s ideas of the division of power equally among three branches of government, Voltaire on individual freedom, and Rousseau on the Social Contract and popular sovereignty, led to the American Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and the French Revolution. New economic philosophies developed with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto that still impact us today. Psychology as a separate branch of philosophy started in the late 19th and early 20th century with Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung and continued in the philosophies of Adler, Maslow, Jantsch, and Bronowski.

As I have tried to show in this article, philosophy is both a quality of human nature and as such, is as pervasive in our lives today as it was in ancient China, India or Greece. How we see our world, how we conduct ourselves, and how we determine how we will act is just as relevant today. Before change can be manifested in the world those ideas must first be realized in our minds. This is Philosophy.