I’ve been listening to Stephen West’s podcast Philosophize This! some lately. In Western Civilization 101 we were tasked with writing a seven ish page essay describing our own picks for the seven wonders of the ancient world. I decided to pick seven important philosophers. *Pro tip: use block quotes.
(photo by David Krabill)
*Pick 7 wonders from the time period of pre-history to 1683/Religious Reformation to make your own list*
Seven Wonders of Ancient Ideology
When examining the time period spanning from the earliest human civilization to the religious reformation in 1683, one finds an innumerable collection of men and women who shaped the course of history in important ways. From the time of Noah and Abraham through the emperors of Rome and rulers of ancient Africa, people have lived remarkable lives in which their decisions and actions left impressions upon not only their own time but also that which came after. Yet of all these great rulers, citizens, warriors, and nobility, perhaps none have been so fundamentally important as the ancient philosophers. In this essay I will examine seven ancient proponents of ideology who live on in history books, whose legacies and contributions to modern thought live on thousands of years after they are gone from the earth.
Democritus was a Greek philosopher who lived from 460 to 370 B.C. and is considered a part of the atomist pluralist school of philosophers. He appears on this list of seven influential thinkers because of his ideas concerning atoms. Democritus was far ahead of his time, even if the people of his day weren’t able to see so. There is an ancient riddle that proposes the situation of a runner moving towards a finish line. The riddle supposes that there is a measurable distance between the runner’s starting position and the finish line, and that that distance can be covered in a certain, measurable amount of time. The riddle requires that we half the distance to the line, thereby halving the time it takes to reach the line. It follows then that you could also half that remaining distance and time, and divide it in half again, and so on. Eventually, there would be only an infinitesimally small space standing between the runner and the finish line. But as long as it is possible to continue dividing the remaining space in half, the runner can never quite reach his goal and the end of the race: it must go on indefinitely.
Democritus hypothesized that there indeed was a point at which the remaining space could no longer be cut in half. He said that there was a unit in nature which was the substance of everything, a very small building block of sorts. Stephen West from the podcast Philosophize This! says that,
Democritus is the guy that believed that everything we see in the world consists of atoms and void. [He didn’t] think that that process of cutting things in half can go on forever…and there must be some fundamental, unchanging, eternal building block of stuff that can explain the uniformity of the world and everything in it. That building block is the atom. (West)
This theory, proposed in its rough form in around 400 B.C., would lay the foundation for great advancements in metaphysics and science in general. Although Democritus could obviously not grasp the full importance of his idea and the weight it would carry for thousands of years, he was able to articulate the basis of atomic theory.
Pythagoras lived from 582 to 507 B.C. and is said to have coined the term philosophy meaning love of wisdom. He is the founder of the Pythagorean school and often attributed with the discovery of what is referred to as the Pythagorean Theorem which states that in every right triangle: a2 + b2 = c2. According to an article titled “Pythagoras” in The Columbia Encyclopedia,
He . . . established a secret religious society or order similar to, and possibly influenced by, the earlier Orphic cult. Since his disciples came to worship him as a demigod and to attribute all the doctrines of their order to its founder, it is virtually impossible to distinguish his teachings from those of his followers. The Pythagoreans are best known for two teachings: the transmigration of souls and the theory that numbers constitute the true nature of things. The Pythagoreans were influential mathematicians and geometricians, and the theorem that bears their name is witness to their influence on the initial part of Euclidian geometry. They made important contributions to medicine and astronomy and were among the first to teach that the earth was a spherical planet, revolving about a fixed point.
While it is not clear exactly who ought to be credited with these great discoveries, we can be sure that the ideas put forward by Pythagoras and his group of followers have been significant for the world of thought. It is interesting to note that, “Pythagoras and his followers really innovated the idea of studying mathematics solely for the sake of intellectual satisfaction” (West). Pythagoras not only coined the word philosophy, he also lived a life which led him in a pursuit of that love of knowledge.
Hippocrates is recognized as the father of medicine (“Hippocrates”). He was born in 460 B.C. on the island of Cos in Greece and died in 370 B.C. Remembered less for his actual practices than his ideology, Hippocrates is thought to be the first to separate superstition from scientific observation in the field of medicine. He is revered also for the Hippocratic Oath, a document which he probably did not write, but one that lives on in the modern medical world and serves as an accepted ethical code for the field of medicine. Whether or not he was the author does not change the importance of this work, an oath that is still quoted at graduations and taken by those who practice medicine. Plato was a peer of Hippocrates and mentioned him at least twice in his works. An article written by Wesley Smith states that, “Plato’s second reference occurs in the Phaedrus, in which Hippocrates is referred to as a famous Asclepiad who had a philosophical approach to medicine” (Smith).
Hippocrates believed that, “…the goal of medicine should be to build the patient’s strength through appropriate diet and hygienic measures, resorting to more drastic treatment only when the symptoms showed this to be necessary” (“Hippocrates”). The movement away from the belief that sickness was of a completely divine cause is a very important aspect of the evolution of modern medicine. By seeking rational explanations for widely observed but not understood health problems, men and women like Hippocrates have been able to better understand how the body works and the diseases which plague it. Searching of this kind was what led to Alexander Flemming’s groundbreaking discovery of penicillin in 1928.
Aristotle was born in Stagiros in northeastern Greece in 384 B.C. He lived until 322 B.C. and is considered the father of the scientific method. At the age of seventeen he enrolled in Plato’s school in Athens where he remained for nearly twenty years, first as a student and then as a teacher (Howell). Around 343 B.C., Aristotle became a part of the court of King Phillip of Macedonia. Here he taught the king’s son, Alexander, who would inherit the throne a few years later after Phillip’s assassination.
An article called “Aristotle” written for the Encyclopedia of Political Communication says that,
Aristotle’s extant writings indicate that, like Plato, he was interested in the good life, which Aristotle defined as human happiness (eudaimonia) or human flourishing. However, Aristotle rejected Plato’s approach to gaining the knowledge (epistēmē) necessary to understand how to live the good life. Aristotle . . . insisted that only the knowledge gained through the human senses could be considered true knowledge. Thus, Aristotle’s pragmatic empiricism: collecting, classifying, and systematizing data that were accessible through the human senses. That which motivated Aristotle to study plants and animals . . . also apparently impelled him to examine the forms of reasoning men used in efforts to persuade others as well as the political systems men had created to govern their fellows (“Aristotle”).
Aristotle is also remembered for his idea of the golden mean. This is the idea that the good life meant living a moral life between excess and deficiency. He thought this approach of finding the middle ground ought to be applied to every aspect and dilemma of life (“Aristotle”).
Plato was born in Greece around 428 B.C. and died in the city of Athens around 348 B.C. He was the student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle, yet he is best remembered The Republic, a story which proposes that humanity dwells within an intellectual cave and only a few ever succeed in freeing themselves to live in the “sunlight of reality” (Cumo). Plato founded the a school which became known as the Academy. According to an article concerning the life of Plato, “Over its years of operation, the Academy’s curriculum included astronomy, biology, mathematics, political theory and philosophy” (“Plato”).
Plato is remembered in part for his ability to synthesize different, seemingly unrelated ideas to form coherent, philosophically sound arguments. An article from the World History Encyclopedia states that,
Whereas Socrates seems to have concerned himself with learning how to live an ethical life, Plato wanted to understand how proper conduct related to politics, law, mathematics, and science. If all knowledge was part of a system, then every insight was related to every other insight no matter how disparate they might seem (Cumo).
Cumo’s article goes on to state that, “All subsequent philosophy owes a debt to Plato” and that, “[Plato] is arguably the best-known philosopher of antiquity and, with the possible exception of Jesus, the best-known person from the ancient world” (Cumo). It is clear that Plato’s work and the work which his life gave birth to has been essential for the success of democracy and rational thought in both the ancient and modern world. His commentaries on the use of reason for the furthering of fair and just societies which focus on the rights of their individual citizens has established a foundation upon which later generations have built their great democracies (“Plato”).
Socrates is perhaps the most well-known philosopher of all time. His notoriety and influence is so vast that all other philosophers are categorized in terms of whether they lived before or after him; thus the term ‘Pre-Socratic’. Born to a Greek stone mason in 469 B.C., Socrates entered into a world where physical grace and beauty were glorified. Yet later he would be known as the man who walked through the city barefoot, long-haired, and unwashed. This refusal to accept the ideology and value system of his peers became the catalyst to a life of questioning that would change the world of philosophy forever. One article about Socrates suggests that, “His lifestyle—and eventually his death—embodied his spirit of questioning every assumption about virtue, wisdom and the good life. (History.com)”
In an episode concerning Socrates and the Sophists on his podcast Philosophize This!, Stephen West said,
He never started a university, he never lived in a castle, he never even wrote any of his thoughts down, he didn’t believe written text was the way to do philosophy anyway…to Socrates the ONLY thing philosophy was, was discussion, questioning and argument. His particular brand of it was called The Socratic Method (West).
In 399 B.C., Socrates was charges with corrupting the youth of Athens. A vote was taken among 500 jurors, and the narrow majority of 280 found him guilty. An article written about the death of Socrates says that,
Before drinking, without any protest, the cup of hemlock that would bring about his death, Socrates had one last philosophical conversation with his disciples, in which he argued for the immortality of the soul and the nature of human existence as a constant struggle between the body and the mind. The lasting value of this conversation, however, goes beyond the substance of Socrates’ arguments, as Plato’s Phaedo exalts the pattern of philosophic life consummated in Socrates’ death to a transcendent ideal for all people (Conrad et al.).
Socrates once said of an encounter with another man,
I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know (Socrates).
This knowledge of his own mortality and inability to know the full truth is what led Socrates to develop a method which would live thousands of years longer than him. His refusal to accept the widely held beliefs of his time is what has propelled Socrates into infamy and forever changed the field of philosophical thought.
Jesus Christ (1.)
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a city about six miles south of Jerusalem, shortly before the death of Herod the Great (4 B.C.). In his later years he lived in Galilee where, after being baptized by his cousin, he began his ministry. While there are no records of any of Jesus’ writings, the accounts of his disciples, which recount many of his parables, teachings, and actions, remain central to Christianity. Because of the vast number of people worldwide who believe that Jesus Christ was the divine Son of God, He is undoubtedly the most influential character in ancient history. His birth, life, and death fulfilled the promise of the long-awaited Messiah as predicted in the Bible by writers thousands of years before his time (Isaiah 7:14, Micah 5:2, Isaiah 42:1-4, Jeremiah 31:31). Much about Jesus is still debated. An article titled “Jesus of Nazareth” states that, “Results [from studies done concerning his life] have varied widely, from the view that there never was any person called Jesus of Nazareth to the Christian confession that he was and is the Son of God” (Norris).
No summary can do justice to the importance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as portrayed in the accounts written by his disciples. His teachings were revolutionary in his day and remain so today. Ideas like loving your enemies and returning evil with kindness do not fit into any central ideologies at any point in history. He claimed that he had come to forgive the sins of those who would believe regardless of their social standing or moral depravity. Luke 4 records an account of Jesus in the temple,
And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll . . . and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (NIV Bible, Luke 4:16-21).
Christians today often quote the apostle Peter who, when asked about who he believed Jesus was, said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (NIV Bible, Matthew 16:16).