Socrates is one of the most influential, and also most enigmatic, figures in Western Philosophy. An Athenian who lived at the dawn of both writing and philosophy, if he wrote anything himself it has not survived, and today he is known only for the works of others that mention him. Foremost among these are the works of his student, Plato, similarly influential in philosophy, but also prone to idealize his master.
Socrates was particularly noted for his contributions to the field of ethics, and for his creation of the Socratic Method, a philosophical tool no less useful today than it was 25 centuries ago. He was also, if the writings about him are to be believed, a great fan of irony. He was, of course, executed for heresy, although his trial and death appear to have been the result of political infighting, and thus the charge may not accurately reflect the true reasons for his downfall.
Oddly, not the Platonic Ideal of the philosopher (although in fairness, he would have been the first to point that out), Plato is one of the trio of great Greek philosophers who helped to define Western Philosophy and Science for millennia. The other two were his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle (who was himself the teacher of Alexander the Great).
Plato was born in Athens (although the exact date is unknown – the one I have used here is traditional, but not necessarily correct) to a wealthy family, and given the best education money could buy. Even as a child, he was known for his quick mind. As a younger man, he traveled widely in search of knowledge, and returned to Athens at the age of forty to found the Academy, an institution that would last for nine centuries and train many philosophers, scientists and others from all over the ancient world.
He also left behind a considerable body of writing that helped to define the parameters of philosophy and science until virtually the Renaissance. He also wrote on politics, art and religion. Often, his writings were in the form of Socratic Dialogues, in which Socrates would be the one who espoused the ideas that were actually Plato’s.
The third of the three great Ancient Greek philosophers was the student of Plato (who, in his turn, had been a student of Socrates). The works of Plato and Aristotle were the foundation of science and reason – and for that matter, of theology – for literally hundreds of years. It was not until the Renaissance that their works were surpassed in Western Europe.
Aristotle’s works included foundational texts on logic, politics, ethics, poetry, physics, metaphysics and biology. In addition to being one of the most prolific writers of his era – and this is based only on his surviving works (some of them are lost to us) – he was also a teacher. He taught in Athens and later in Macedon, where his students included Alexander the Great, as well as Ptolemy I (a general of Alexander’s) and Cassander (a later Macedonian king). In his 62 years of life, it appears that about the only thing he didn’t do was sleep…
Best known as the writer of “Leviathan”, Thomas Hobbes was one of the fundamental philosophers in the Western tradition. His understanding of humans as obeying the same physical laws as other matter and motion, remains influential; and his account of human nature as self-interested cooperation, and of political communities as being based upon a “social contract” (a term he created) is one of the basic concepts of modern political philosophy.
Hobbes lived to be 91, and also wrote numerous works of history and science in addition to his better known work as a philosopher.
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As mentioned in:
Bruces’ Philosophers Song — Monty Python
Hegel was one of the most influential philosophers of his time. He built upon the work of Kant, Descartes, Hume and others – his work assumes a familiarity with the writings of many of his predecessors – and Hegel himself was an influence on any number of the philosophers who followed him, notably Karl Marx and Theodor Adorno.
Hegel lived to be 61 years old, and spent most of his adult life studying and writing in a total of eight different German universities. He wrote four books: Phenomenology of Spirit (1807); Science of Logic (published in three volumes: 1811, 1812 & 1816); Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1816) and Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1822).
Schlegel and his brother August were two of the leading members of the Jena Romantics, a group of artists and patrons between roughly 1798 and 1804 who were the earliest influential Romantic movement in Germany. Schlegel would pass through atheism and a firm commitment to individualism in his twenties before converting to Catholicism in 1808.
His contributions to philosophy mostly consist of his promotion of and work to develop the Romantic school in Germany, especially as a critical position from which to analyze art.
Arthur Schopenhauer was born in Danzig, in what is now Poland. The child of a wealthy patrician family, Arthur went to university in 1809, and published his seminal book of philosophical thought (“The World as Will and Representation”) in 1819. However, he struggled to attract students as a lecturer (possibly because he was competing with Hegel), and soon left academia.
Nonetheless, over his 72 years, he continued his philosophical enquiries and published a number of other books, cementing his place in the history of his discipline. But his popularity as a philosopher peaked in the early part of the Twentieth Century (when he was a major influence on the Modernist movement), and has never again attained the same degree of prominence, although there has been a recent upswing of interest in his works.
Of all the great philosophers, none is quite so famous for being, well, a raving loon, as Friedrich Nietzsche.
Born in Rocken, near Leipzig, on October 15, he would become the most famous German philosopher of the 19th century. His best known works include the posthumous “Will To Power”, “Ecce Homo”, “Beyond Good and Evil” and “The Spake Zarathustra”.
Nietzsche was widely seen, in Germany and elsewhere, as a supporter of German militarism – and his work was influential to Hitler and other Nazis (although they were selective in their use and interpretation of him). Later, he was seen as a forerunner of the Existentialists. However, his most lasting contribution to Western culture may be the concept of the Übermensch, or Superman.