Philosophers have been shaping the world and our school of thought for thousands of years and are still very much relevant in our world today. The greatest philosophers of all time have left us with abundant resources that help us understand the human psyche and the world around us. Before we get to some of the most famous philosophers, let’s look at what philosophy entails.
What is Philosophy?
Originating from the Greek words meaning “love of wisdom,” philosophy can be considered the study of knowledge, existence, and reality.
Philosophers’ ideas circulate around ethics, nature, aesthetics, metaphysics, being, logic, knowledge, and theory. Since philosophers take into consideration human existence, their lessons last beyond their time. This is why the teachings of the top ten philosophers still hold true to this day.
Top 10 Philosophers
Let’s take a look at some memorable teachings and background information about some of the greatest philosophers of all time.
Aristotle, one of the most famous Greek philosophers, was also a polymath who lived in Ancient Greece in 384-322 BC. He was taught by another famous philosopher, Plato.
Aristotle is often referred to as the first scientist in history. He is responsible for at least 200 treatises, and approximately 31 of those are still in circulation today. His work focused on disciplines, philosophy of mind through ethics, political theory, aesthetics, and rhetoric, along with non-philosophical works about empirical biology; he was very well known for his theories on plant and animal observation, which were very detailed.
Today, he is most remembered for the first logic, or systematic treatment of principles of correct reasoning, along with identifying the three main methods of rhetoric: ethos (ethics), pathos (emotions), and logos (logic). He also developed the theory of deduction, or as we call it today, syllogism.
Lao-Tzu, another top ten philosopher, developed a theory that is strongly connected to Taoism. He authored the main book on Taoism around 500 BCE in Ancient China. Taoism focuses on the balance of animals and humans and how they should coexist in the universe.
He also believed in spiritual immortality, in which your soul does not die, but instead, becomes one with the universe after death. The chi (or qi) is the energy that guides the universe, and he believed that we should exist in harmony.
Taoism is also where the balancing of forces, known as the yin and yang, is derived from; this idea focuses on matching forces, such as light and dark, hot and cold, and action and inaction, portraying how the opposites work together to make sense of the world.
In the 8th century CE, Taosim became the religion of the Tang dynasty. Up until they were banned in the Communist takeover of 1959, Taoism was one of the main religions of China, existing alongside Confucianism and Buddhism.
3. John Locke
John Locke, who lived in Europe in the 17th century, was an Oxford academic who also researched medicine. He is best known for his work regarding Enlightenment, along with his developments in liberalism.
Locke strongly believed in all persons’ rights to life, liberty, and property, and refuted the divine right of kings. He also believed that if a ruler does not adhere to individuals’ rights, the people had the right to remove the king by force. First and foremost, he believed that a government’s duty is to exist for the people.
4. Karl Marx
Karl Marx was a German philosopher in the 1800s who developed Marxism. Marxism focuses on the social, political, and economic theory that there is a struggle between the working class and capitalists.
He strongly believed that one day the working class would overthrow the capitalist class in a revolution that would allow the working class to seize control of the economy. He is known for being a strong advocate for communism.
Confucius, a philosopher from China that lived from 770 – 481 BCE, believed in living life around ethical and moral social standards. He is remembered for wanting to make education available to all and established teaching as an actual career. (It looks like the University of the People and Confucius have something in common: we both believe in making education accessible for all).
He also established Confucianism, which is a school of belief revolving around personal ethics and morality. The four main principles of Confucianism are referred to as his ethics. They include: justice, beneficence, non-maleficence, and respect for autonomy. His five constant virtues that are most referred to are benevolence, righteousness, trustworthiness, propriety, and wisdom.
6. Ralph Waldo Emerson
More recently, an American philosopher, lecturer, abolitionist, and essayist by the name of Ralph Waldo Emerson left his mark on society. He is best remembered for his essay on “Self-Reliance.”
Living in the 1800s, he much resembled British Romantic contemporaries in the sense that he too believed in the strong connection between God, man, and nature. His work is life-changing as it really inspires the reader to trust their own judgment above all else.
7. Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant is a well-known modern philosopher that lived from 1724-1804 near the Baltic Sea and is remembered for his Critiques of Practical Reason, Pure Reason, and the Power of Judgement.
He preached that measuring whether actions are right or wrong depends on whether or not we have fulfilled our duty rather than what the consequences of our actions are. By using his fundamental law of morality, he concludes that moral reason overrides any other sort of reason.
Epicureanism was founded by Epicurus, who lived from 341 – 27 BCE. He was a sage and Greek philosopher who was highly influential. He believed that the goal of human life revolved around happiness, resulting from the absence of mental disturbances and physical pain.
His philosophy was that happiness was the highest good of human living and that it was defined by the pursuit of pleasure, not the pure exercise of reason. He also believed that anxiety was derived from irrational desires, and by eliminating the fear of punishment and death, you could relieve yourself of anxiety and find happiness.
Often referred to as the founder of Western philosophy, Socrates was a Greek philosopher from Athens. He was the first to be considered a moral philosopher of ethical tradition of thought. He has no texts and is remembered mostly for his posthumous accounts of Xenophon and Plato, his students.
He gave way to the rise of Socratic dialogue, a literary genre all about teaching through asking questions. In 399 BC, he was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth and failing to acknowledge the city’s official gods.
10. Friedrich Nietzsche
Another German philosopher makes it on the list. Friedrich Nietzsche greatly impacted the western world by sharing his writings on multiple subjects, spanning from science to art, culture, history, and everything in between.
One of his main philosophies is known as nihilism, the idea that everything lacks meaning, including life itself. The existentialist and surrealist movements that followed his time were also built on the aforementioned idea.
Final Thoughts (No Pun Intended!)
It is apparent that many of these ideas and philosophies are still very much referred to in modern-day society. It is because of these philosophers that we have been able to really study humanity and the way we communicate with ourselves, each other, nature, and God.
The greatest philosophers of all time have paved the way for our thinking and allowed us to ask ourselves questions in ways we may never have thought to. They have left us with guiding principles for the way we carry ourselves in society, our ideas of government, poetry, education, math, science, and all the ways in which we inquire more about the world.