What Is Ancient Philosophy?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
Socrates.
Socrates.

Ancient philosophy refers to a broad historical period in which the basic concepts of many modern philosophies were founded and defined. In Western culture, ancient philosophy usually refers to theories from the Greco-Roman period dating between the 5th century BCE and the 4th century CE. In Eastern history, ancient philosophy covers roughly the same period, but encompasses many more schools of thought, including the origins of Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, the Indian Vedas, and the Yoga Sutras. Ancient philosophy is still studied today, since most modern methods of philosophical thought are still based on the principles defined during this long period.

A statue of Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, an ancient Eastern philosophy.
A statue of Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, an ancient Eastern philosophy.

In Western history, the period of ancient philosophy is best known for the teachings of three Greek philosophers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates is at once the best known and most elusive of ancient philosophers, since no text written by him survives or is even recorded as existing. Instead, Socrates is best known through the extensive writings of his student, Plato, who made his teacher the star of most of his philosophical texts. Aristotle, a later student of Plato, greatly expanded on Plato's teachings, and is considered one of the most important voices in the development of European, Judaic, and Islamic philosophy.

The ancient Greek city state of Athens attracted many early Western philosophers.
The ancient Greek city state of Athens attracted many early Western philosophers.

The principles of ancient Western philosophy vary greatly depending on the source. The application of logical discourse to philosophic theory is held as an important concept by Socrates and Plato, while Aristotle focused heavily on the translation of philosophical principles into practical use. Defining and implementing a code of ethics that would lead a person to total metaphysical balance was a major focus of most Western ancient philosophy.

Plato, along with Socrates and Aristotle. is one of the three most influential ancient Greek philosophers.
Plato, along with Socrates and Aristotle. is one of the three most influential ancient Greek philosophers.

In the Middle and Far East, ancient philosophy also developed extensively though the same time period. In China, Confucianism and Taoism both developed as a set of rules and beliefs meant to guide personal behavior and the structure of society. Indian classical philosophy, which considerably pre-dates the much of Western philosophy, split into at least eight major disciplines: six centered on Hindu-related beliefs, Jainism, and Buddhism. Throughout Eastern cultures, theories of ancient philosophy frequently combined religious and practical ethical teachings in a seamless method, whereas Western philosophy tended to split the two concepts.

Aristotle is considered one of the most important voices in the development of ancient philosophy.
Aristotle is considered one of the most important voices in the development of ancient philosophy.

The study of classical philosophy remains relevant in the modern era for several reasons. In terms of history, the writings of classical philosophy provide detailed insights into the lifestyles and circumstances of ancient cultures. Justice and legal scholars study ancient philosophy, since most modern legal and justice systems are based on principles that originated during this rich philosophical period. Additionally, the study of ancient philosophy serves as a reminder of how long humans have asked important metaphysical and ethical questions, and may give solace to those seeking for answers to these poignant concerns.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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    • Socrates.
      Socrates.
    • A statue of Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, an ancient Eastern philosophy.
      A statue of Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, an ancient Eastern philosophy.
    • The ancient Greek city state of Athens attracted many early Western philosophers.
      The ancient Greek city state of Athens attracted many early Western philosophers.
    • Plato, along with Socrates and Aristotle. is one of the three most influential ancient Greek philosophers.
      Plato, along with Socrates and Aristotle. is one of the three most influential ancient Greek philosophers.
    • Aristotle is considered one of the most important voices in the development of ancient philosophy.
      Aristotle is considered one of the most important voices in the development of ancient philosophy.