Philosophy of the Ancient World Analysis


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Philosophy of the ancient world covers a broad range of subjects. It was usually not separate from religion, mythology, and other aspects of culture. The following are major schools of these philosophies.

Greek philosophy

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Western philosophy can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophy. It started in Greece and the Greek-speaking parts of the Mediterranean, which now includes parts of Italy, western Asia, and Egypt. “Philosophy” in Greek means “love of wisdom,” and those engaged in philosophy were considered wisdom-lovers. It is conventionally believed that Greek philosophy started in the mid-sixth century b.c.e. with Thales of Miletus, who conjectured that the origin of the world is water. Early Greek philosophers were mostly concerned with the nature of reality. Parmenides, in the early fifth century b.c.e., argued that reality is one and unchanging, whereas Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 540-c. 480 b.c.e.) argued that change is the nature of the world. According to Heraclitus, everything is flux, and one cannot step into the same river twice. Greek philosophy culminated in the works of Plato and Aristotle.

Socrates and Plato

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Socrates (c. 470-399 b.c.e.) is considered the first philosopher in the West to shift the focus of philosophy from the natural world to human values. He did not write for fear that written words would dogmatize philosophical thinking. What is known about Socrates comes from the writings of his student Plato (c. 427-347 b.c.e.). Plato’s works are mostly in the form of dialogues; Socrates is usually the main interlocutor in these dialogues. Socrates believed that philosophy aims to know truth, but he believed that true knowledge comes not from experience of the physical world but from the soul of the individual. Pursuit of knowledge is taking care of the soul, which is immortal and hence more important than the physical body. The function of the philosopher is that of the midwife in helping individuals “recollect” their own knowledge from their souls. Socrates was charged before an Athenian popular court of being “impious” toward the Olympian gods and corrupting the youth through his critical conversations with them and was sentenced to death. After refusing friends’ help to escape, he died from drinking hemlock at age seventy. He was probably the first person who died for the sake of free thinking and free speech.

After Socrates’ death, Plato established the Academy in Athens to teach philosophy. Plato developed the theory of forms to account for reality. He argued that because the physical world is imperfect and changing, it cannot be the...

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Although Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.) was a student of Plato’s, he disagreed profoundly with his teacher. Aristotle outrightly rejected Plato’s theory of forms. Instead, he believed in the reality of the physical world. Aristotle is known for his theory of substance, believing that the world consists of various independent entities that he called “substances, ” which in turn are made up of form and matter. Aristotle’s view of the soul is different from that of Socrates because Aristotle believed it is a living force that exists not only in humans but also in other living organisms. The human soul is, however, different from the rest because it possesses intellect, enabling human beings to engage in rational thinking. Aristotle advocated an ethics of virtue, in which humans are to develop various virtues in order to achieve their teleological goals. Politics as a science aims to describe a society that embodies these virtues in individual and social life. In logic, Aristotle is best known for his formulation of the deductive theory of syllogism.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Founded by Zeno of Citium (c. 336-334 to c. 265-261 b.c.e.) and later developed by Roman philosophers, Stoicism was once the most influential philosophy of the Hellenistic age. Stoicism views the universe as a rational harmonious organism planned by God and governed by its own rational soul. Among all creatures, the ones that most closely approximate the total universe are rational beings, which include humans and gods. Stoic ethics prescribes the doctrine of living according to the benevolence and orderliness of the universe. The means to achieve such a life is virtue.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Ancient Indian culture was a product of the integration of the Aryan culture and the indigenous culture after the Aryan people moved into the Indus Valley around 1500 b.c.e. One major characteristic of Indian philosophy is that philosophy and religion are closely connected.

Hindu philosophy

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Hindu philosophy, an important part of Hinduism, began with speculations and argumentation in such Hindu scriptures as the Vedas, the Upanisads, and the Bhagavadgītā. The issues discussed included the origin and nature of the universe, gods, and human life. One central issue was the relation between the self (ātman) and the ultimate reality (brahman). The Vedic scriptures assert that the two are identical. Hindu philosophers generally viewed the Vedic scriptures as revelation and accepted the identity of ātman and brahman. However, this does not mean that everyone realizes this identity. Often the individual confuses the real self, which is identical to brahman, with the empirical self, which is full of earthly desires. Studying philosophy is a way to achieve this final realization of ātman-brahman.

Hindu philosophy was later divided into numerous schools. The Sāmkhya school advocated a dualistic theory of reality. It held that there are two kinds of reality: the spiritual principle purusha, which is the ultimate self, and nature or prakriti, which is the material that constitutes the empirical self. Sāmkhya developed an evolutionary theory of the universe in terms of these two principles. The Yoga school accepted most of Sāmkhya’s theories, including the evolution theory, but added that the evolution process started because of a god’s intervention. Yoga primarily focused on the practical aspect of the realization of ātman-brahman. Its goal was to liberate people from various forces of bondage that prevent them from attaining spiritual liberation or moksa, and its practice incorporates spiritual, moral, and physical disciplines.

The Nyāya school is most known for its five-step syllogism of inference. It includes the proposition (“Yonder hill has fire”), the reason (“Because it has smoke”), the example (“Whatever has smoke has fire, for example, a stove”), the application (“Yonder hill has smoke such as is always accompanied by fire”), and the conclusion (“Therefore yonder hill has fire”). The Vaiśeśika school believed the universe had a pluralistic realism, fitting the world into seven categories: substance, quality, motion, generality, particularity, inherence, and nonexistence. The Vedānta school focused on the issue of the ultimate reality and developed different theories of the relation between reality and appearance.

Jaina philosophy

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Jainism took shape in the sixth century b.c.e. Like Hindus, Jains believed that suffering in the world is caused by individuals’ karmic matter, which pollutes the soul, namely the negative effect generated by one’s previous deeds. The goal in life is to purify the soul in order to gain spiritual liberation. Jaina philosophers divided the world into two fundamentally different kinds of substances, jiva, the soul, and ajiva, matter. The two are mixed in the world; every instance of ajiva has jiva in it. In the case of human beings, the goal is to separate the soul from ajiva. The Jain’s way to liberation includes fourteen stages of purification. They are most known for their moral principle of ahimsā or “nonhurting/nonviolence.” Jaina philosophy maintained that reality is many-sided and that one’s knowledge is necessarily limited by one’s perspective, and therefore knowledge of reality is always imperfect perspective (naya) knowledge.

Buddhist philosophy

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Buddhism originated in the sixth or fifth century b.c.e. with Siddhārtha Gautama (c. 566-c. 486 b.c.e.), who was later known as the Buddha. Its central teaching is the Four Noble Truths: That there is suffering, that the cause of suffering is desire, that the extinction of suffering is by the extinction of desire, and that the way to the extinction of desire is the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path, as directed by the Buddha, consists of right view, right determination, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Like later Buddhists, early Buddhists did not believe in an independent self even though they accepted the doctrine of reincarnation as the Hindus and Jains did. Buddhist philosophers argued that one’s self passed to later lives in a way similar to the way a flame passes from one candle to another. They also developed a theory of interdependent arising. They maintained that things in the world always exist conditionally; because anything’s existence depends on other things, nothing has its own reality. This view was later further developed by such schools as that of Pure Consciousness.

Philosophy of China

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Since its beginning, Chinese philosophy has been concentrating on human values. This concentration is probably the result of philosophy’s arising in the sixth century b.c.e. when the society fell into chaos and solutions were being sought to restore social order. Numerous philosophical schools vied for dominance: The Legalist school advocated harsh punishment as a cure to disorder in society, and the Moist school prescribed universal love. In the end, only two schools survived and maintained their influence, Confucianism and Daoism. Along with Buddhism, which was brought to China at the beginning of the first century c.e., these two philosophical schools have provided the backbones of Chinese civilization.

Confucian philosophy

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

This school of philosophy was founded by Confucius (551-479 b.c.e.) and developed and revised later by various individuals including Mencius (c. 372-c. 289 b.c.e.) and Xunzi (c. 298-c. 230 b.c.e.), the naturalist Confucian. Confucian classics include the Lunyu (later sixth to early fifth centuries b.c.e.; The Analects, 1861), Menzi (first transcribed in the early third century b.c.e.; English translation in The Confucian Classics, 1861; commonly known as Mencius), Liji (compiled first century b.c.e.; The Liki, 1885; commonly known as Classic of Rituals), Yijing (eighth to third century b.c.e.; English translation, 1876; also known as Book of...

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Daoist philosophy

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The two most important Daoist philosophical canons are the Dao De Jing (possibly sixth century b.c.e., probably compiled late third century b.c.e.; The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality of “the Old Philosopher, Lau-Tsze,” 1868; better known as the Dao De Jing) and the Zhuangzi (traditionally c. 300 b.c.e., compiled c. 285-160 b.c.e.; The Divine Classic of Nan-hua, 1881; also known as The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 1968; commonly known as Zhuangzi, 1991). The word dao literally means “road” or “way.” In Daoism, it means the source and principle of everything in the universe. It is not anything concrete, tangible, or fixed, although it is at work in everything. The Dao De Jing describes it using such words as “soft,” “quiet,” and “empty.” Between yin and yang, Daoism is usually taken as emphasizing the yin. Its doctrine of reversal states that, if pressed hard, everything will turn to its opposite.

The Daoist attitude toward life and the world is best summarized in the doctrine of wuwei, or the principle of “noncontention.” According to the Dao De Jing, wuwei is to be “waterlike,” to follow the flow of nature and not to oppose it. A waterlike person is reserved, flexible, and willing to go to low places but at the same time always finds ways to demonstrate his or her strength and accomplishes his or her goals. Daoism embraces a laissez-faire political philosophy. It promotes a small state and discourages the use of force. Its moral philosophy is directly opposed to that of Confucianism.

Although Confucianism believes in rebuilding social order by strengthening moral code, Daoism minimizes the role of moral code. Instead it encourages a low-key approach by reducing people’s desires. A similar opposition can be found in Confucian and Daoist attitudes toward knowledge. While Confucian philosophy takes learning and increasing one’s knowledge as an important aspect of self-realization, the Daoist “low-desire” approach extends to learning and knowledge as well. Daoists seem to believe that Daoist wisdom does not need knowledge and that becoming sophisticated in learning can be harmful to the individual. Daoism advocates the unity and harmony between humanity and nature and discourages the human tendency to separate from nature. It is arguably one of the most original environment-friendly philosophies. Usually taken as a complement to Confucianism, Daoism was second only to Confucian philosophy in influence in Chinese history.

Philosophy of Africa

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

There are few written records on philosophy in sub-Saharan Africa in ancient times. Philosophical thought, however, may be inferred from religious practices and beliefs as evidenced in archaeological discoveries.

In sub-Saharan Africa, many peoples shared a belief in an afterlife. Human existence included two stages, one on earth and the other an eternal existence. Individual souls were connected through a lineage to a founding ancestor’s soul. The ancestral souls would not be extinguished as long as lineage groups on earth continued to perform rituals in their names. This belief obviously played an important role in ancient African societies.

Philosophy in Mesoamerica

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Popul Vuh (n.d.; Popul Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiché Maya, 1950), a sacred work of the ancient Maya in Mesoamerica, indicates philosophical reflections in the early times. It describes the beginning of the world as empty sky and calm water, without humans, animals, birds, fishes, trees, or stones. There was no motion or sound but pure darkness and quietude. The gods created the human beings and other things.

Additional Resources

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Chan, Wing-tsit, trans. and ed. A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Coplestone, Frederick. Greece and Rome. Vol. 1 in A History of Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1989.

Jones, W. T. A History of Western Philosophy: The Classical Mind. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

Monanty, J. N. Classical Indian Philosophy. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, and Charles Moore, eds. A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957.