Do most modern ways of thinking which stem back to ancient times originate in Greece, or have any important ideas come from before that time?

What, if any, was the role of the philosopher in pre-Greek civilizations and how have they impacted proceding events, if at all?


4 Answers 4


There's a linguistic problem with calling things prior to the ancient Greeks philosophies. But leaving that aside, there's three main things I can think of that could be said to have some philosophical content:

  1. Religious texts such as the Jewish Scriptures, which make ethical and metaphysical claims.
  2. The Confucian Analects, The early Daoist texts like the Zhuangzi, which make ethical claims and have implicit metaphysics.
  3. Hammurabi's code and other similar early legal documents, which express value judgments and ideas about society.
  4. One of the most ancient is Kapila, Pre dates Buddha. all Indian philosophy was founded upon him. Many think his influence stretched all the way to Greece. Wiikpedia his name for more info.

To add to Virmaoir's answer The Rig Veda is estimated to date from at least 1100 BCE, possibly earlier. Although mainly a mythological and religious text, it contains passages such as this one:

Then even nothingness was not, nor existence, There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it. What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping Was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?


But, after all, who knows, and who can say Whence it all came, and how creation happened? the gods themselves are later than creation, so who knows truly whence it has arisen?

Whence all creation had its origin, he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not, he, who surveys it all from highest heaven, he knows - or maybe even he does not know.


Taking Ancient Greece to signify the Athens of Plato and Aristotle then there are an agreed upon set of philosophical schools that preceded them; they're usually designated as the pre-socratics and tend to be seen as theorising on cosmology ie metaphysics rather than ethics.

Thus Parmenides and Pythagorus theorising on the One as Permenance; Heraclitus on Change as the only real; Democritus and Leucippus on atoms; Empedocles as forces as contraries and the four elements.

Diogenes Laertius, who wrote the Lives of the Philosophers mentions even then there was a controversy as to whether philosophy originated in Greece or Egypt; and Plato himself, in some of his dialogues mentions that philosophers visited Egypt; so it is likely some influence came through in that direction particularly when one remembers that philosophy wasn't distinguished from mytho-poetic thought; and through the genre of wisdom literature (examples of which are the proverbs in the Hebrew Bible).

Given the linguistic connections between Indo-European languages it's worth noticing that in the Mahabharata that sages and ascetics figure prominently (in a way they don't in Classical Greek myth) and form an axis between Priest and King which predates the notion of the philosopher-king in Platos Republic.

  • Why would Pythagoras and Parmenides and Heraclitus and Democritus and ... not count as Ancient Greeks? May 9, 2015 at 8:53
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    @ypercube: they do; but for most people Ancient Greek philosophy is Plato and Aristotle...that's why I said what I did in my first sentence; besides, though I didn't mention it, all those schools arose outside of the Greek mainland; that's a little like saying during the time of the British Empire philosophy arose in India, Burma and Rhodesia. May 9, 2015 at 9:37
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    Britain-India vs mainland Greece - islands and Ionia is a rather weak comparison. I agree that the first philosophers that come to mind of many are Socrates, Plato and Aristotle but that doesn't mean that they consider pre-socratic philosophers as not part of Ancient Greek philosophy. May 9, 2015 at 9:38
  • @ypercube: well Russell skipped over them pretty quickly; and Whitehead said that Western Philosophy was a foot-note to Plato; I'm just emphasising the status of Miletus and Elea as colonies. May 9, 2015 at 9:58

Buddhism originated at about the same time as ancient Greek philosophers (e.g. Plato from about 425 - 348 BCE, whereas Gautama Buddha sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE), is 'philosophy' and a 'modern way of thinking which stems back to ancient times', yet doesn't originate in Greece.

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