[Editor’s Note: This is the 7th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]
No discussion of the history of education would be complete without contemplating the ancient Greek philosophers, upon whose work many modern ideas were built. The classical period of intellectual thought extended from the 7th century BCE till the beginning of the Roman Empire in the first century CE.
Though containing many different schools of philosophical thought, the ancient Greeks distinguished their work from other early forms of philosophical and theological theorizing by placing an emphasis on reason as opposed to the senses or the emotions.
Before the end of the 5th century BCE, philosophers were scattered across small islands and cities in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Unfortunately, few of their written works have survived to the present day. It wasn’t until the end of the century, when Plato became a known figure, that ancient Greeks began transmitting philosophical teachings in text form. Some of the most common themes discussed include the principle of reality, what is good, what is the life that’s worth being lived, the distinction between appearance and reality, and the distinction between philosophical knowledge and layman’s opinion.
There were five major schools of thought.
Plato (427-347 BCE) was a student of Socrates, the first of the central figures of ancient philosophy, and the earliest author for whom we have considerable quantities of his work. Plato wrote about nearly all major philosophical issues and is probably most famous both for his theory of universals and for his political teachings, though he also studied ethics, virtue, justice, and general human behavior. Following in Socrates’ footsteps, he became a teacher and inspired the work of the next great Greek philosopher, Aristotle.
Plato established a school in Athens, known as the Academy, at the beginning of the fourth century BCE, which remained open until 83 CE. As a teacher, he inspired the next great philosopher, Aristotle, though those who followed him in chairing the Academy helped contribute to the popularity of his name, but they didn’t always help develop his ideas. For example, when Arcesilaus of Pitane took over in 272 BCE, the Academy became famous as the center for academic skepticism, the most radical form of skepticism, and not one promoted by Plato.
Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was a student of Plato and, though interested in ethics, also studied many of the sciences, including physics, biology (creating the foundation for modern-day zoology), and astronomy. Perhaps his greatest achievement was an essential contribution to the development of logic, especially the theory of syllogism.
In 335 BCE he founded a school in Athens, the Lyceum, which allowed him to disseminate his teachings more readily. The works that survive to this day were first edited and collected around 100 BCE and exercised tremendous influence upon later Western thought, as well as Indian traditions. While it appears Aristotle may have written some texts for a broader public, none of them have survived.
Around 300 BCE in Athens, Zeno of Citium created the philosophy of stoicism, which is centered on a metaphysical principle developed by Heraclitus, among others. Its core beliefs are that reality is governed by logos (reason), what happens is necessary, and the goal of human philosophizing is the achievement of a state of absolute tranquility obtained through the progressive education to independence from one’s needs.
A stoic doesn’t fear any bodily or social condition, having trained not to depend on any specific passion, commodity, or friendship. And while he may seek pleasure, success, or long-standing relationships, he won’t live for them. Stoicism greatly influenced the development of Western philosophy, with some of its most devoted sympathizers being Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the economist Hobbes, and the philosopher Descartes.
Epicurus taught that a life worth living should be spent seeking pleasure; the question is, though, which forms of pleasure? Since its inception, Epicureanism has often been misunderstood as a doctrine preaching the indulgence of the most voracious bodily pleasures, but that’s not accurate. Epicurus was known most of all for his moderation in all things. His indulgences were rather directed towards the cultivation of friendships, as well as any activity that elevated the spirits, such as music, literature, and art.
Another facet of Epicureanism was its metaphysical principles, chief among them that our world is only one out of many possible worlds and that what happens does so by chance.
Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360 BCE – c. 270 BCE) is the earliest known philosopher of ancient Greek skepticism. He appears not to have written any texts nor to have attributed any relevance to the most basic and instinctive habits. He viewed the suspension of judgment as a way to achieve a freedom from disturbance that, by its nature, could lead to happiness. His goal was to keep each human’s life in a state of perpetual inquiry. Indeed, Merriam-Webster defines skepticism as “an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity” — the suspension of judgment.
Its most extreme form is, as we’ve seen, academic skepticism, first formulated by Arcesilaus of Pitane. It states there’s nothing that should not be doubted, including the very fact that everything can be doubted.
We can see elements of all these schools of thought in modern intellectual debate, in the very way we perceive the world, and, indeed, in the questions we ask about our place in the universe.
Next week: China
To read part 1: Introduction, click here.
To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.
To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.
To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.
To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.
To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.
 Borghini, Andrea. (August 27, 2020). “The 5 Great Schools of Ancient Greek Philosophy.” ThoughtCo. Retrieved from www.thoughtco.com/five-great-schools-ancient-greek-philosophy-2670495.
 National Geographic Society. (March 15, 2019). “Greek Philosophers.” Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/greek-philosophers/.