10 Ancient Philosophers that Influenced the World

Here is a list of 10 great philosophers from the ancient world. These men have laid the foundations for modern philosophy, and their works are still read today. They have provided guidance and wisdom to people down the centuries and changed the way that people have understood the world. These philosophers and their teachings influenced politics, religion, and science. They are still shaping the way that we understand life and the world to this day.

Democritus (460 - 370 BC)

Statue of Democrite

Democritus was an ancient Greek philosopher and he and his teacher are credited with the development of the atomic theory. This stated that the world was ultimately made of indivisible and tiny elements known as atoms. Democritus was a materialist and believed that the world was ultimately made of atoms. He offered a materialistic explanation of the world, and he did not refer to Gods or spirits. Democritus was one of the first materialists in history and his approach was very influential and helped to lay the foundations for modern science.

Heraclitus (535 - 475 BC)

Statue of Heraclitus

Heraclitus was from an aristocratic family and was something of a recluse. He appears to have lived in the Ionian City of Miletus in modern Turkey. He held that the world was in a constant state of flux and change and compared it to a fire. His philosophy is encapsulated in his saying that “No man steps in the same river twice,” For Heraclitus, there was no need for Gods to explain the world. The universe was based on the tension between opposite forces, which came to together or are in conflict to explain the constant change. Heraclitus was a champion of reason, and he believed that the senses are often deceived. The actual teachings of Heraclitus are open to different interpretations because they are so cryptic, and this has earned the epitaph ‘The Obscure’.

Lao Tzu (c. 600 - 531 BC)

Statue of Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu was the founder of the Chinses philosophical school of Taoism. There is some debate as to if he was a historical figure. Some believe that he lived during the 6th century BC and possibly earlier. Lao-tzu was a wandering teacher who blended philosophy and mysticism. There are many legends about his life and death. His surviving writings are all concerned with the ‘Way’. He held that the ‘Way’ or Tao was a cosmic force that flowed through the universe. People needed to live in harmony with the Tao by learning to live in a spontaneous way, and this would lead to their happiness and ultimately a better world. Lao Tzu is revered by his followers, and he is a god-like figure. Today Taoism in China has many aspects of religion.

Thales (624 - 546 BC)

Statue of Thales

Thales is regarded as the father of Greek philosophy and indeed of founding western philosophy. He is viewed as the first philosopher because he did not try to explain the world through myths and references to the gods. He was from Ionia (modern Turkey) and also interested in astronomy and he was the first to predict an eclipse. Thales had the revolutionary idea of seeking to understand the world through a natural process. Thales believed that the world could be explained rationally. Thales believed that one type of matter was responsible for the origin of all things in the world and that this was water. Many believe that Thales was also one of the founding fathers of science.

Confucius (551 - 449 BC)

Statue of Confucius

Confucius is the best known Chinese Philosopher. He lived and taught during a period of disunity and war in China, known as the ‘Warring States’ period. Confucius was a well-known teacher in his time and called on people to live a virtuous life. He was interested in politics and ethics. Confucius believed that respect for tradition and moderation was essential for the good life and good government.

Marcus Aurelius (AD 121 - 180)

Statue of Marcus Aurelius

This Emperor was also a great philosopher, and he wrote many of his works while on his endless military campaigns. Marcus was Emperor during a time of crisis for the Roman Empire. He was a member of the Stoic School of Philosophy. Marcus did not found the school but was arguably its greatest representative. Marcus believed that the world was structured and ordered and was based on reason (logos). The philosopher believed that if men had self-control and were not led by their emotions that they could live in harmony with the universe. The Stoics argued that one should not repay hatred with hate. If people lived in accordance with the world and by controlling their emotions and living reasonably, then they would be ethical and content.

Epicurus (341 - 270 BC)

Statue of Epicurus

Epicurus was a Greek philosopher. Born on the island of Samos he and his family were forced to flee to Athens. He lived and taught in Athens, and was able to attract many followers, who he would speak to in his garden. He found a Philosophical School and his followers accorded him god-like status. For Epicurus, the Gods did not have any interest in human affairs. However, he believed that people could live a life free from fear and even be happy. Epicurus taught that people should live rationally and understood that there was nothing to fear from death and the gods. Once they had, they would be able to enjoy the simple things in life and live happily.

Aristotle (384 - 322 BC)

Statue of Aristotle

Aristotle was a pupil of Plato and was for a time the tutor of Alexander the Great. Aristotle came from the north of Greece and moved to Athens, as a young man. He succeeded Plato as head of the Academy until he was forced into exile by a party in Athens. He was a polymath and wrote on many subjects such as science, politics, and literature. He is best known as a philosopher. Aristotle argued that everything is matter. He explained movement in the world as a result of things achieving their ‘telos’ or end. With regard to ethics, he believed that men could attain happiness or ‘eudemonia’ by cultivating their character and developing their virtues. Aristotle also contributed greatly to logic. He is highly influential to this day.

Plato (424 - 328 BC)

Statue of Plato

Plato was an Athenian and lived all his life in that city. He was a well-known teacher, and he found a famous school, the Academy. Plato is believed to have served as an advisor to the tyrant Dionysus of Syracuse. Plate taught that what we call reality is only a shadow or copy of the real. He also wrote a book, ‘The Republic’ outlining the ideal society and type of government. He had many followers, and they came to be known as Platonists. Plato has been widely influential since his own time.

Socrates (469 - 399 BC)

Statue of Socrates

The most well-known ancient Greek Philosopher of all time. He was an extraordinary character and would wander the streets of Athens, discussing philosophy with people. He did not write anything. What we know about his teachings are handed down to us in the writings of his pupils. His death at the hands of the ancient Greek democratic system has passed into legend. Socrates believed that philosophy should study life. He was the founder of ethics and he believed that good was knowledge. If people knew what was good, they would not do anything wrong.

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