I heard the claim that Ancient Greek philosophers were generally rich guys who had too much free time on their hands and hence engaged in philosophy, while most people at the time lived very difficult lives and had to work hard in order to survive.

So, are there any known examples of Ancient Greek philosophers who came from poor or mediocre families?


I recognize that details of several Ancient Greek philosophers’ lives are not well-established. However, I was able to find some relevant information.

It seems that, indeed, several Ancient Greek philosophers came from rich backgrounds. One such example is Plato, who apparently belonged to an aristocratic and influential family. Another one is Aristotle. While it is true that his parents died when he was about thirteen, his father was the personal physician to King Amyntas of Macedon, and it is speculated that he spent time within the Macedonian palace while growing up.

It seems that some Ancient Greek philosophers were trained in a certain trade. For instance, it is believed that Socrates was trained as a stonemason, which was the profession of his father. However, I do not know if such philosophers really had the need to practice the trade in order to make money.

I am aware that Pythagoras decided to adopt an ascetic lifestyle and lived with his students in a place that resembled a monastery. However, that does not necessarily mean that he came from an underprivileged background or that he had to work hard.

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    I mean, Epictetus was born into slavery? – Joseph Weissman Aug 12 at 20:12
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    @JosephWeissman But did he really have to work hard like most people at the time? I know it seems weird to ask this about a slave, but I'm not aware of how life for someone like him would have been. His wealthy owner gave him permission to study philosophy under Musonius Rufus, so I can't make out how his life was like. – hb20007 Aug 12 at 20:16
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    Epictetus lived in Roman empire, not ancient Greece, but Diogenes the Cynic is famous for living in a barrel, criticizing "rich guy" habits of Athens and extolling poverty as a virtue. – Conifold Aug 12 at 21:44
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    @Conifold Epictetus was presumably an ethnic Greek, not a Roman, even if he lived under Roman occupation – b a Aug 13 at 21:14

As noted above Epictetus was born a slave, and he was an "ancient" Greek, though after the classical period. Diogenes was born to an affluent family but lived on the streets as a homeless social scourge and was also, briefly, a slave. There were many later Cynics who followed his example, so one did not necessarily need wealth to ponder the cosmos, though many of these street "Cynics" were probably not much in the way of philosophers.

Though both Plato and Aristotle did believe that freedom from labor was essential for philosophizing, Socrates himself seems to have been fairly poor and worked, I believe, as a stonecutter. As you note, it is a bit hard to tell. The Sophists who were Socrates' forebears and contemporaries were itinerate teachers for hire, and though some reputedly grew wealthy by teaching, many may have come from humble beginnings.

More to the point, slavery sustained the Greek societies that could afford the "freedom" to indulge the "love of wisdom." So philosophy arose inside a democratic hothouse within a stark class system. What was expensive, apparently, was a proper teacher in rhetoric, Sophism, geometry, and such. So it is important to note that Socrates did not charge for his displays of dialectic. And the whole idea of rhetoric and philosophy as forms of influence did open up a social sphere of power that was not based in family, might, or wealth.

What Karl Jaspers calls the Axial Age was a great shift in human culture partly characterized by the emergence of "poor wandering teachers" like Socrates, Jesus, or Buddha as world-historical figures in stark contrast to the older culture of warriors, wealth, and dynastic power. I believe Jacques Ranciere wrote a book on the class origins of philosophy from a Marxist perspective, but I can't find it on my dusty shelves at the moment.

In any case, the structure of the slave-powered Polis, the scarcity of books, the vicissitudes of war, and other factors make the comparison with our modern situation difficult. While philosophy in Plato's day was notoriously the hobby of young wealthy men, most seeking political wiles, it was not necessarily a practice for which wealth was a prerequisite.

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  • The claim wandering itinerant teachers alone 'made' the axial age is problematic. The oral tradition of works like the Illiad, the Vedas, & the Old Testament/Torah tells us scholars existed, with extensive discussion & exegesis. Surely a better candidate is access to relativelh cheap & portable means of recording things, which meant each book didn't have to have it's own temple & clerics to survive. – CriglCragl 2 days ago
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    I didn't say "made" I said "characterized." While this is still a gross simplification, the so-called "Axial Age" was a period in which literacy was spreading, so basically literate but oral "teachers" were also recorded and thus historically influential. There were also rich wandering teachers like Gorgias. My point was that these teachers need not be rich to practice or spread philosophy. I have no idea when such teachers became common, but it's an interesting topic. A classic, related work is "Prelude to Plato" by Eric Havelock. – Nelson Alexander 2 days ago

Cleanthes (about 330-230 BC), the second head of the Stoa (Stoic school), was known for his poor origin. He is said to have been a big strong man, and a hard worker, both physically and mentally. He made a living as a boxer at first. As he joined Zeno’s school, the Stoa, he supported himself by drawing water from wells and watering gardens in Athens.

Cleanthes, son of Phanias, was a native of Assos. This man, says Antisthenes in his Successions of Philosophers, was at first a pugilist. He arrived in Athens, as some people say, with four drachmas only, and meeting with Zeno he studied philosophy right nobly and adhered to the same doctrines throughout. He was renowned for his industry, being indeed driven by extreme poverty to work for a living. Thus, while by night he used to draw water in gardens, by day he exercised himself in arguments: hence the nickname Phreantles or Well-lifter was given him.

Diogenes Laertius, Lives 7.168

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