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Early Greek Philosophers

Scientists and Great Thinkers From Ancient Greece


Certain early Greeks from Ionia (Asia Minor) and southern Italy, saw the world around them and asked questions about it. Instead of attributing its creation to anthropomorphic gods, these first philosophers, broke tradition and sought rational explanations. Their speculation formed the early basis for science and natural philosophy. See: Early Greek Philosophy.

Here are ten of the earliest and most influential ancient Greek philosophers in chronological order.

1. Thales

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The founder of natural philosophy, Thales was a Greek Pre-Socratic philosopher from the Ionian city of Miletus (c. 620 - c. 546 B.C.). He predicted a solar eclipse and was considered one of the 7 ancient Sages.

2. Pythagoras

Bust of Pythagoras at the Vatican Museum, in Rome.
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Pythagoras was an early Greek philosopher, astronomer and mathematician known for the Pythagorean theorem, which geometry students use to figure the hypotenuse of a right triangle. He was also the founder of a school named for him.

3. Anaximander

Anaximander was a pupil of Thales. He was the first to describe the original principle of the universe as apeiron or boundless and to use the term arche for beginning. In the Gospel of John, the first phrase contains the Greek for "beginning" -- the same word "arche".

4. Anaximenes

Anaximenes was a 6th century philosopher, a younger contemporary of Anaximander, who believed that air was the underlying component of everything. Density and heat or cold change air so that it contracts or expands. For Anaximenes, the earth was formed by such processes and is an air-made disk that floats on air above and below.

5. Parmenides

Parmenides. From "School of Athens," by Raffaello Sanzio.
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Parmenides of Elea in southern Italy was the founder of the Eleatic School. His own philosophy raised many impossibilities that later philosophers worked on. He distrusted the evidence of the senses and argued that what is cannot have come into being from nothing so it must always have been.

6. Anaxagoras

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Anaxagoras, who was born in Clazomenae, Asia Minor, around 500 B.C., spent most of his life in Athens where he made a place for philosophy and associated with Euripides (writer of tragedies) and Pericles (Athenian statesman). In 430 Anaxagoras was brought to trial for impiety in Athens because his philosophy denied the divinity of all other gods but his principle, the mind.

7. Empedocles

Empedocles was another very influential early Greek philosopher, the first to assert the four elements of the universe were earth, air, fire, and water. He thought there were two contending guiding forces Love and Strife. He also believed in transmigration of the soul and therefore vegetarianism.

8. Zeno

Zeno is the greatest figure of the Eleatic School. He is known through the writing of Aristotle and Simplicius (A.D. 6th C.). Zeno presents 4 arguments against motion which are demonstrated in his famous paradoxes. The paradox referred to as "Achilles" claims that a faster runner (Achilles) can never overtake the tortoise because the pursuer must always first reach the spot the one he seeks to overtake has just left.

9. Leucippus

Leucippus painting
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Leucippus developed the atomist theory, which explained that all matter is made up of indivisible particles. (The word atom means 'not cut'.) Leucippus thought the universe was composed of atoms in a void.

10. Xenophanes

Born around 570 B.C., Xenophanes was the founder of the Eleatic School of philosophy. He fled to Sicily where he joined the Pythagorean School. He is known for his satirical poetry ridiculing polytheism and the idea that the gods were portrayed as humans. His eternal deity was the world. If there was ever a time there was nothing, then it was impossible for anything ever to have come into being.

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