Greek and Roman Philosophy Research Paper

This sample Greek and Roman Philosophy Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. Free research papers are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality research paper on history topics at affordable price please use custom research paper writing services.

Greek and Roman philosophy evolved in the ancient world amidst inquiry about the nature of reality and the relationship between reason and emotion. Plato and his student Aristotle (and their disagreement about Plato’s Theory of Forms) are perhaps most recognizable in the modern world, but the claim of Heraclitus (fl. 510–490 BCE)—that wisdom is gained by understanding how reason guides the world— characterizes all subsequent Western philosophical thought.

Philosophy, derived from the Greek “love of wisdom,” is the rational inquiry into the truths and principles of existence, knowledge, and ethics. It includes cosmology, natural history, ethics, epistemology, and politics. The root of Western intellectual heritage, Greek and Roman philosophy developed in an atmosphere of contentious debate, and investigated key intellectual questions: the nature of reality; and relationships between logic and reality, knowledge and skepticism, reason and emotion. Most original writings are lost; of the Greeks, only Plato’s and Aristotle’s survive. Most Greek philosophy is at best partially reconstructible from later, often hostile, writers whose brief extracts usually lack context.


Early Greek philosophy, labeled “Pre-Socratic” despite the inclusion of thinkers contemporary with Socrates, originated circa 600 BCE in Miletus in Ionia (Turkey), a wealthy Greek port town where thinkers encountered Near Eastern innovations in medicine, agriculture, mathematics, and astronomy. This contact inspired Milesian philosophers to ask new questions about the world. What are the ingredients, composition, and operation of the natural world? Is phusis (nature) one thing or many? What is the process of change whereby things come into being, pass away, and are transformed from one thing to another? Eschewing magic, gods, and the personification of nature, philosophers explained existence according to observable principles in nature. Three Milesian material monists—monism puts forth the belief that one fundamental substance is the arche (original source) of all existing matter—offered slightly differing interpretations. Thales (fl. 600–545 BCE) theorized water as his arche, perhaps from observing the generative nature of moisture (seeds require water to germinate). Anaximander (fl. 580–545 BCE), believing that water was too specific, proposed a substance containing all the opposites, thicker than fire but finer than air, indestructible, indeterminate, intermediate, infinite—to apeiron (the boundless). Anaximander, hypothesizing a mechanism to explain how matter interacts, significantly suggested that material objects are separated from to apeiron through condensation and rarefaction. Anaximander’s pupil Anaximenes (fl. 555–535 BCE), who posited air as his arche but retained Anaximander’s principle of condensation and rarefaction, adapted this paradigm of a unified theory of matter and energy. The monists (rightly) believed matter cannot be created or destroyed, only altered.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (fl. 510–490 BCE) shifted the focus of Greek philosophy from cosmology to epistemology. For Heraclitus, repudiating empiricism, logos (reason) is the organizing principle of the cosmos, and fire is either the arche or the catalyst effecting change. The principle of Strife maintains equilibrium in sensible matter and enables change in the world. Heraclitus raised a question that would dominate future thinkers. Is change possible? If so, how does change in matter happen? His claim—that wisdom is gained through understanding how logos guides the world—characterizes all subsequent philosophy.

Ensuing thinkers developed pluralistic physical systems. Empedocles (fl. 460–430 BCE) suggested a four-element theory (earth, water, air, fire), favored by Aristotle. Change results from the oscillating forces of Love and Strife: when the universe tends to total Love, the elements are completely mixed; when Strife dominates, the elements are completely separated. Democritus (fl. 440–380 BCE) proposed the atomic system, promoted by the Epicureans: the sensible world consists of void (nothingness) and atoms, uncutable building blocks of nature, potentially infinite in size, shape, and texture. Anaxagoras (fl. 480–430 BCE) posited the radically pluralistic (and stridently rejected) system of seeds, wherein a portion of everything exists in everything, evoking Anaximander’s to apeiron.

Although thinkers continued to debate cosmology, focus turned towards ethics and epistemology. The Pythagoreans in southern Italy fostered two distinct schools (fifth century BCE): mathematicoi and acousmaticoi. The mathematicoi (the knowers) advanced a physical system of numerical atomism: all things derive from number, and the properties of number determine the properties of matter, a nascent step towards deductive proof. In contrast, the acousmaticoi (the listeners), emphasizing mysticism and authority, were likely influenced by Thracian or Scythian shamanism. The acousmaticoi adhered to a communal, ascetic lifestyle, promoting strict ritual purity (especially abstinence from bloodshed), wherein adherents remained free from pollution to enable the soul to rise to its true and god-like state. Xenophanes (c. 520 BCE) was the first Greek to form a concept of a cosmic god (evolving into Plato’s Demiurge and Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover) and to contemplate the distinction between opinion and knowledge systematically. Satirizing anthropomorphism and polytheism, he wrote, “if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw, and could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their gods like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.”

Parmenides (fl. 490–450 BCE), promoting abstraction, categorically denied the value of empiricism. Believing that there exists only being, a single, unmovable, unchangeable entity, Parmenides distinguished between reality (The Way of Truth) and appearances (The Way of Seeming). Change is impossible; existence is timeless and static. In contrast, the world of appearances is deceitful, human interpretations of nature are fallacious (as Heraclitus thought), and apparent change in the world is illusory. Significantly, Parmenides, who had studied under Pythagoreans, employed deductive “proofs”—carefully structured arguments leading from “correct” initial assumptions to incontrovertible conclusions—influencing future rational dialogue.

Philosophers responded in various ways to Parmenides’s assertions about change. Zeno (c. 490–430 BCE), whom Aristotle called the “Father of Dialectic,” employed paradoxes to explore Parmenides’s claims. In the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Zeno suggested that the fleet-footed hero could never overtake the sluggish tortoise since Achilles must first cover half the distance traveled by the tortoise. Since it is impossible for Achilles to traverse an infinite number of points (Zeno assumed that space is infinitely divisible), the tortoise will always remain some distance ahead. Aristotle criticized Zeno’s premise as faulty.


The sophistic movement of the fifth century BCE represented a new intellectual approach: traveling scholars taught intellectual skills, especially rhetoric and persuasion, for money, hence, as Plato argued, debasing those skills. The Sophist Protagoras (fl. 460–420 BCE), famously claiming that “Man is the Measure of All Things” (quoted without context), promoted an epistemology of relativism—a belief is true provided it appears true to the believer—which Plato refuted.


In tackling questions of cosmology, ethics, epistemology, and the nature of phusis, and in directing attention to rules of reasoning, argumentation, and theory-assessment, Plato (427–348/7 BCE) is the culmination of the Pre-Socratic achievement. Plato studied under Socrates, who wrote nothing, but firmly shifted philosophy to politics and ethics. Plato is as influential for his thought as for his genre: in his dialogues he never appears as a speaker, but writes as several different characters (Socrates being the most persuasive and influential); the tactic distances Plato from the views of his interlocutors and forces the reader to engage actively with complex and sometimes inconclusive issues instead of passively accepting Plato’s authority.

Plato believed that order in the universe was beauty (ta kalon, literally “the beautiful) and that things displaying order are worth studying. Plato also proposed the first systematic teleological account of the cosmos, constructed according to plan by the Demiurge, a benevolent and rational Craftsman who, with the best arrangement in mind, imposes order externally. To answer Parmenides’s rejection of change, Plato proposed the Theory of Forms. Incorporeal, insensible, changeless, and knowable, Forms exist eternally and changelessly, in contrast with the changing world of becoming. Objects in the sensible world are merely shadows of idealized Forms, for example, no two tables are ever alike to the smallest detail (knots, warping), and no sensible table will ever replicate the ideal. Sensible tables, nonetheless, partake of the ideal (shape, materials, function). Hence, both change and stability are genuine. The Allegory of the Cave, in Republic book 7, illustrates the theory.

The difficulty of ascertaining Plato’s authentic ideas (presented ambiguously in the dialogues) gave rise to two major Platonic traditions. His school at Athens, the skeptical Academy, active until the first century BCE, argued against other philosophical views without advancing original views of its own. Later Platonists sought to study and further Plato’s ideas systematically.


Plato’s most famous student was Aristotle (384–322 BCE), mentor of Alexander the Great (Alexander of Macedon), and a scholar who maintained absolute ascendancy over European science until the seventeenth century. Extant are Aristotle’s unpolished lectures delivered at his school in Athens, the Lyceum. Rejecting the mathematization of nature, Aristotle established methods of research and inquiry, favoring empirical observation and deductive argument.

Rejecting Plato’s theory of Forms, Aristotle argued that objects could be understood only through knowledge of function and that sensible objects were reducible to four causes: (1) formal—received by a thing (shape); (2) material—the thing underlying a form (for example, marble); (3) efficient—effecting change (for example, a sculptor); (4) final—the purpose served by the change (for example, beautification or patronship). The final cause takes priority over but does not exclude the others: a saw’s purpose determines its material (iron) and form (shape). Properties (for example, color, weight, texture) cannot exist independently from their objects, and objects are composites of form (hardness, color) and matter (rock, wool): for example, there are no perfect dogs, just individual dogs, some with droopy ears, others with short tails. Aristotle avoids the Parmenidean problem of change in arguing that change occurs not from non-being to being but from potentiality to actuality: seeds are potential plants, and growth occurs by addition. Change occurs with respect to substance (birth or death), quality (wax softens with heat), quantity (growth and diminution), place (motion). Change and motion can be traced back to the natures of things: it is the nature of an acorn to become an oak tree.

Hellenistic Philosophy

Under Alexander the Great, a new spirit of internationalism expanded cultural possibilities, especially at centers of learning that attracted students from the entire Greek-speaking world. Philosophical schools flourished in Athens and Alexandria, and writings were formalized into three genres: (1) successions (lineages of teachers and pupils, including major and minor figures); (2) doxographies (systematic accounts of views of different philosophers on certain topics, arranged to demonstrate contradictions or differences between schools); (3) treatises on schools of thought (summaries of a school’s main doctrines).

Two schools of thought prevailed: Epicureanism and Stoicism. Both shared the same aims: to secure happiness, and to be free from anxiety and fear. Both taught that irrational fears derive from ignorance of the causes of natural phenomena. Both considered the study of physics and ethics essential in eradicating irrational fears and achieving the summum bonum (the highest good), and they agreed that the purpose of philosophy is to obtain peace of mind. The schools disagreed on details of physics and methods of seeking the summum bonum.


Epicurus (fl. 310–270 BCE) reflected the Hellenistic spirit of individualism and self-expression in a culture where there remained few opportunities for political career and government involvement. Epicurus’s system of philosophy, ethics, and physics, taught at the “Garden,” his school in Athens, was derived from atomism. Augmenting Democritus’s atomism, Epicurus asserted that atoms move constantly downward but are occasionally subjected to “swerve,” enabling collisions (resulting in compound objects), hence reconciling conflicts between teleology (fate) and free will. Epicurus believed in a materialistic cosmos strictly guided by the properties and arrangement of atoms, whereby all phenomena could be explained.

Epicureanism has its most eloquent expression in the Latin poet Lucretius (c. 90–55 BCE) whose epic poem On the Nature of Things preserves Epicurus’s teachings. Lucretius asserted the materialistic nature of the world. Only atoms and void endure. Atoms and void account for change in the world. Sensible objects (including the human soul) are created from and destroyed back into constituent atoms. Individual atoms can recombine to create any number of sensible objects or living creatures. That atoms exist is provable by observation: wind can be felt; water evaporates; metal and stone erode. All phenomena, including disease and extraordinary natural phenomena (lightning, thunder, earthquakes, rainbows, volcanoes, magnetism), can be explained by the properties of atoms. The greatest good is ataraxia (freedom from anxiety), achieved only through study of natural philosophy to counter superstition and fear caused by ignorance. Learning and study cannot eradicate natural inclinations but can rearrange the soul’s atoms so that humans may live in a state of ataraxia.


Zeno (c. 334–262 BCE) founded a school in Athens at the Stoa poikile (painted porch), which gave the school its the name. Stoicism sought to conform private and political existence to an orderly cosmos. Following Aristotelian physics (plenum, mutable and transmutative elements, natural motion), Stoics believed that everything is in contact with a fiery divine soul, and that elements derive from and will return to fire. Change and movement occur through pneuma (soul, spirit), binding the cosmos via tonike kinesis (kinetic tension) which in turn imposes cohesion and equilibrium with simultaneous motion in opposite directions.

The Stoics adapted the ethical system of the Cynics, whose followers interpreted the dictum “live according to Nature” with extreme primitivism. Stoics maintained that emotions are always bad, the only good is virtue, and virtue alone is sufficient for happiness. Virtue includes fulfilling obligations to the state (for example, political life). Consequently this duty-based philosophy flourished among obligation-obsessed Roman intellectuals, including Cicero, Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BCE / 1 ce–65 CE), and the emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE).

Roman Initiatives

Philosophy largely remained the purview of Greek intellectuals. Until the mid-first century BCE Romans, who expelled philosophers from the city by praetorian edict (in 161 BCE), rejected Greek philosophy as unpractical, distracting, and disruptive. Romans eventually found Greek ethics attractive but eschewed speculation and mathematics. Cicero promoted mathematics only for sharpening the wits. Greek philosophy became Romanized with its emphasis on politics, ethics, and duty.

Cicero (106–43 BCE), heavily influenced by the skeptical tendencies of Platonism, made philosophy accessible to a Roman audience. He summarized the major philosophical schools and mined Roman history for examples of appropriate conduct and illustrations of philosophical arguments. Developing a Latin philosophical vocabulary, Cicero invented Latin words (essentia, qualitas, and moralis; essence, quality, and moral in English) to translate Greek concepts. He employed philosophy politically, hoping to defend and revive the Republic through renewed commitment to virtue among the ruling classes, motivated by desire for fame, wealth, and power.

Cicero prominently influenced later philosophers: Augustine (354–430), turned from sin to philosophy and God by Cicero’s (now lost) Hortensius; Thomas Hobbes (1588–1649) and Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733), arguing against moral skepticism; David Hume (1711–1776), whose Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was modeled on Cicero’s De natura deorum (On the Nature of the Gods); and John Locke (1632–1704), whose political philosophy is reflected in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.


The final stage in ancient philosophy was with Neoplatonism (a modern term), the dominant philosophical system of the late antique world. It deeply influenced Christianity, Byzantine, and Islamic philosophy, and Renaissance Humanism (with the interest of the fifteenth-century thinkers Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Marcilio Ficino). Incorporating Aristotelian logic, Stoicism, and mysticism, Plotinus (204–270 CE) aimed simply to elucidate Plato’s philosophy and defend Platonism against Peripatetic and Stoic critics. But his interpretations, especially regarding the nature of the soul, evolved into an original scientific philosophy of religion. Investigating the relationship between soul and body, Plotinus posited three underlying, intelligible, and divine substances: the One (identifiable with the Form of the Good of Plato’s Republic book 6, the ultimate cause of the sensible world); the Intellect; and the Soul, from which everything else transpires. Plotinus identified the human self with the transcendent, intellective soul (not the embodied soul which enlivens the body). The highest goal of existence is the soul’s return to the One through henosis (unity).

His student Porphyry (c. 233–305 CE) published Plotinus’s writings and wrote commentaries on them. Porphyry’s student Iamblichus (fl. 300–327 CE), incorporating Pythagoreanism, argued that the connected soul pervades the body. Theurgy, hence, is necessary to liberate the soul from the pollution of the body. Later Neoplatonists include Proclus (411–485 CE), who sought to systematize all Greek philosophy, and John Philoponus (490–570 CE), whose commentaries on Aristotle provide continuity between the Greco-Roman, Islamic, and Renaissance traditions.

Despite the emperor Justinian’s closure of the Academy in 529 CE, Greek and Roman philosophy endures, as thinkers continue to address questions raised by Greco-Roman philosophers and engage with their answers.


  1. Annas, J. (2000). Ancient philosophy: A very short introduction. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press.
  2. Annas, J. (2003). Plato: A very short introduction. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press.
  3. Barnes, J. (2000). Aristotle: A very short introduction. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press.
  4. Dillon, J., & Gearson. L. P. (Eds.). (2004). Neoplatonic philosophy: Introductory readings. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett.
  5. Fieser, J., & Dowden, B. (2016). Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved June 13, 2016, from
  6. Kirk, G. S., Raven, J. E., & Schofield, M. (Eds.). (1983, 1999). The presocratic philosophophers, 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Long, A. A., & Sedley, D. N. (Eds.). (1987). The Hellenistic philosophophers. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2016). Retrieved June 13, 2016, from

See also:

Free research papers are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom research paper on political science and get your high quality paper at affordable price.


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655