The Great Philosophers: Elder wisdom, Thinkers, and Creators Since Antiquity

Some say there’s nothing new under the sun. Maybe we don’t need to go that far — but we should definitely appreciate the voluminous contributions of the ancient thinkers and great philosophers of antiquity, who figured out a dizzying array of complicated concepts long before the modern era.

We have much to learn from our ancestral teachers. Here’s a place to start — which shall grow over time as the knowledge is passed down yet again, age unto age. Things that stand the test of time are valuable, no matter what the currency of the day.

The Great Philosophers

NameKnown forBornDiedWhere livedInfluenced
St. Thomas AquinasSumma Theologiae12251274Italy
Anaxagoras
Hannah Arendt
Aristotle384 BC322 BCGreece
Marcus AureliusRoman emperor and Stoic philosopher who advocated for cultivating an ethos of impermanence and doing one's duty.121180Roman Empire
Avicenna9801037Persia
Francis Bacondeclaring that human intellect and reason are means of discovering the truth: "Knowledge is powerβ€œ15611626England
Roger BaconMost celebrated European scientist of the Middle Ages.12201292
Pierre Bourdieu
Jeremy Benthamfather of Utilitarianism17481832England
Daniel BernoulliSwiss mathematician widely credited for pioneering the field of statistics17001782Switzerland
Jacob Bernoulli
Jean Boudin15301596France
Louis Braille18091852France
Brunelleschi
Joseph Campbell
Andrew Carnegie18351919Scotland, America
Cicero
Marquis de CondorcetFrench philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist who played a key role in transforming European society from feudalism to modern secular democracy.17431794FranceThomas Jefferson
ConfuciusConfucianism -- a system of ethics and morals to guide "right" behavior551 BC479 BC
Marie Curie
Leonardo da Vinci14521519Italy
Charles Darwin1882England
Democritusbasic theory of the atom: a fundamental building block unit of all things that itself is not divisible (although later we would discover even smaller particles, the atom is still essentially the most basic building block)460 BC371 BCGreece
RenΓ© Descartescogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am15961650France
Alexis de Tocqueville
DiogenesThe most famous of the Cynics, a school of philosophy founded in Athens c. 400 BC, advocating the pursuit of happiness through avoiding the unnecessary temptations of material goodsGreeceZeno
EmilΓ© Durkheimanomie β€” concept of lack of a shared moral order. Normlessness.
Albert Einstein
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Empedocles
Epicurus341 BC270 BCGreece
Erasmus14661536
Euclid
Michael Faraday17911867
Enrico Fermi
Foucault
Sigmund Freud18561939
John Kenneth GalbraithConcept of countervailing power β€” that collective worker power is needed to balance against growing corporatism in the economy
Galen130200
Galileo
Siddharta GautamaThe Buddha; achieving enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in India563 BC483 BCIndia
Ghiberti
Johann GutenbergInvented the printing press, democratizing the dissemination of information for the first time.13941468
JΓΌrgen Habermaspublic opinion / public sphere
Friedrich Hegel17701831Germany
Martin Heidigger18891976Germany
Heraclitusposited that change or flow is the most basic character of nature; that the world is characterized by opposites; and that God or "logos" is the essence of nature's constant flux and source of all things535 BC475 BCGreece
Herodotusfirst historian; first journalist; first foreign correspondent480 BC425 BC
Hippocrates
Thomas Hobbes15881679England
Homer
David Hume17111776Scotland
William James
Thomas Jefferson17431826America
Carl Jung18751961
Immanuel Kant17241804Prussia
John Maynard Keynes
SΓΈren Kierkegaard
Thomas Kuhntheory of scientific paradigms and paradigm shifts
Lao Tzuthe Dao de Ching and philosophy of Daoism6th c. BC6th c. BCChina
Lamark17441829France
Gottfried Liebniz16461716Prussia
Vladimir Leninthe Russian Revolution of 1917 that overthrew the tsarist regime
Carolus Linnaeus17071778Sweden
John Lockephilosophy of liberty and natural rights16321704England
Martin Luther
James Madison
Karl Marx
John Stuart Mill18061873
MoziAn ethical philosophy advocating the caring for everyone equally470 BC391 BCChinaLegalism
Mohammad570632
Isaac Newtongravity and the laws of motion16421727
Friedrich Nietzsche18441900Germany
Alfred Nobel18331896
Georgia O'Keeffe
Thomas PaineBritain; America
Parmenidesearly Rationalist; believed our perceptions are an illusion shielding us from true reality, which is only discernable via human reason515 BC445 BCGreecePlato
Louis Pasteur18221895France
Petrarch13041374
Philo of Alexandria
PlatoPlatonic Forms427 BC347 BCGreeceAristotle
Pliny2379
Marco Polo
Neil Postman
ProtagorasRelativism490 BC420 BCGreece
PythagorasThe Pythagorean theorem570 BC495 BCGreeceParmenides
Rabelais14831553France
John Rawls
Jean-Jacques Rousseau17121778France
Jean-Paul Sartre19051980France
Arthur Schopenhauer17881860Poland
Joseph Schumpeter
SenecaRhetoric teacher and Stoic philosopher55 BC37 ADRoman Empire
Adam Smith
SocratesWidely considered a founder of philosophy; the dialectic method, among much else469 BC399 BCGreecePlato
Spinoza
Nicholas Nassim Taleb
Thalesposited water as being the basic material of the cosmos624 BC546 BCMiletus, Greece
Theocritus
Thucydides460 BC400 BCGreece
Edward Tufte
Virgil
Vitruvius
Voltaire16941778France
James Watson
Max Weber
Ludwig Wittgenstein18891951Austria
ZenoFounder of the Stoic school of philosophy in 4th c. BCE Greece and Parmenides's most famous student.Greece

Freedom is a liberal idea

The right wing is full of contradictions — a defining trait, almost. Chief among them is this bit of cognitive dissonance:

  • hatred of liberals
  • love of “freedom”

You can’t have this both ways, philosophically speaking. The entire concept of individual liberty (hint: it’s right there in the name!) is a core insight of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment Inspired the United States

This 18th century philosophical movement grew large in Europe, predating the French Revolution of 1789 and influencing heavily the American Revolution. Resting on the then recent revolutions in science, math, and philosophy including the works of Descartes, Galileo, Kepler, and Leibniz, The Enlightenment has its roots in 1680s England with the political philosophy of John Locke.

Locke argued that human beings are capable of self-improvement via rational thought and accumulated experience. His philosophy was a break with traditional assumptions that knowledge came only from authorities, and that truth was opaque and unknowable. Working in the same era as Isaac Newton, Locke’s ideas about human nature were highly informed by the Scientific Revolution well underway by this time. The two strains of philosophy have a common commitment to reason and empiricism at their core.

Political ideas of The Enlightenment

You can appreciate why any number of authorities would find the radical ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers potentially threatening — their age-old power structures were in jeopardy. It represented the democratization of knowledge, removing a dependency of the less powerful upon the powerful as a singular source of truth. The church, monarchy, and aristocracy were all on the chopping block — sometimes literally — during this age of philosophical and political revolutions.

The following philosophical and political ideals emerged from The Enlightenment:

  • Reason is the primary source of authority and legitimacy. Phenomena can be examined in the real world to understand more about how things work and what is true. Everything should be subject to critical examination, versus simply being taken on faith.
  • People have natural rights, and prime among them is liberty — or freedom to pursue the kind of life they so choose, without infringing upon the natural rights of others.
  • Equality is the concept that all members of a nation or society are equal members and have equal standing in terms of their political influence and power. These are expressed in the American concept of equality before the law (14th Amendment), free speech, and one person/one vote.
  • Progress as the collective project and meaningful unifying force for a nation or group. The goal is to create better societies and better people by discarding outmoded traditions and embracing rationalism.
  • Religious tolerance as a rational way to prevent civil unrest. Appears in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) and in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
  • Consent of the governed is one of several foundations of liberal thought from philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who stated that to be legitimate, political power must be representative and agreed to by the people bound by it.
  • The social contract is a foundational concept from both John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, extending the consent of the governed and placing it as the true basis for governmental authority.
  • Constitutional government has its underpinnings in a 1748 work by French judge and political philosopher Montesquieu, The Spirit of Law. This tome is the principle source for the concept of separation of powers in government as a system of healthy checks and balances to protect political liberty.
  • Fraternity in a philosophical sense is concerned with an ethical relationship between people, based on love and solidarity as the foundation for how individuals in society should treat each other.
  • Separation of church and state is a logical outgrowth of freedom of religion. The idea is older, but its introduction to the United Sates is attributed to Thomas Jefferson who declared the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause to be about building a “wall of separation between church and state.”
  • Property rights as a natural outgrowth of natural rights and labor (Locke).

Freedom is self-determination, but is not unlimited

The history of political philosophy reveals the evolution of Enlightenment thinking over the course of centuries, and how the ideas underpinning our government have deep roots. Freedom isn’t a new idea, and it does come with some caveats.

The first caveat is that freedom cannot be unlimited if we are to have a civil society. As Hobbes put it, if men are left to their natural state our lives will be “nasty, brutish, and short.” Also, we cannot preserve equal rights for all citizens if some members of society are allowed to trample on the rights of others.

That’s why the concept of liberty is so important. It’s important to our democracy, and it’s important to our day to day lives and how we treat each other. Freedom and liberty are similar and we often use these words interchangeably, but there is a very important distinction between them.

Liberty flows from equal rights

Liberty means that I have freedom, but only insofar as I don’t intrude upon your freedom. I must respect your rights and not invade your sovereign boundaries of life and property. For all persons are created equal, and the rights of one another shall not be infringed.

Political liberty has its foundations in Greek philosophy and was closely linked with the concept of democracy. Aristotle and Plato among others planted the seeds that would later be picked up by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and John Stuart Mill — giving us our modern concept of liberty today.

Funny how you never see any Libertarians volunteering to…

fund or maintain civic necessities such as:

  • clean water delivery
  • sewage removal
  • electricity generation and delivery
  • garbage and recycling removal
  • public safety
    • police forces
    • fire protection
    • emergency response
    • flood control
  • a justice system
    • courts
    • jails
  • transportation
    • road planning and construction
    • bridge planning and construction
    • street lights
    • traffic lights
    • driver licensing
    • airports
    • railroads
    • subways
    • buses
    • parking
    • snow plowing
  • mail service
  • sidewalks
  • parks and recreation
  • schools
  • libraries
  • property and county records
  • land surveys
  • research and development
  • public health
    • hospitals
    • pollution control and remediation
    • food supply testing
  • legislation

Arguments for an open world

For friends of the Open Society who, like me, would prefer not to block the movement of people, ideas, and trade — some arguments for an open world:

  • Trade agreements are net contributors to economic growth
  • Immigrants are net contributors to economic growth
  • Money spent on the security industrial complex economy has low ROI vs. education, infrastructure, and research spending
  • A diversity of ideas more likely leads to the best outcomes vs. a paucity of ideas
  • Companies with more women leaders are more profitable
  • The more the merrier!

It’s the opposite of tribalism

Philosopher Karl Popper defined an open society as being opposed to a tribal or collectivist society — one driven by magical beliefs and magical thinking. He theorized that because all knowledge is provisional, we should always remain open to alternative points of view that may offer new information and perspectives. Critical thinking is paramount, as individuals are confronted with personal decisions that have no ready-made ritual to apply to their solution.

Values of an open world:

  • cultural and religious pluralism
  • humanitarianism
  • equality
  • political freedom
  • critical thinking in the face of communal group think

Theory: Libertarians are the Narcissists of the Far-Right

I’ve been reading John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” and reminded of the quintessential liberal definition of the term:

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

— John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
(emphasis mine)

It seems to me that Libertarian proponents tend to make a systematic error in portraying liberty as only commensurate with the first part of Mill’s description: essentially interpreting it as, “I should be able to do whatever I want, and have no constraints placed upon my person by the government whatsoever.” The idea of “cancel culture” is a reflection of this ideal, whereby the right wing complains that moral constraints that apply to everyone should not apply to them.

This mentality misses completely the essential boundary established by the second part of Mill’s quote: that doing what one wants has limits attached, and that those limits are a proscription on engaging in activities which either harm others, or deprive others of their own rights in pursuit of liberty. An essential part of the social contract, the concern for others’ rights naturally stems from concern for your own — as the collective will bands together to guarantee our rights in common, everyone has a stake in preserving the system.

Harm

Being fixated with avoiding taxation, the Libertarian will proclaim that the government is coercing him out of his hard-earned monies — but this fails to recognize the real harm being done to the lower classes by the deprivation of funds to support the basic level of public goods required to preserve life at a subsistence level as well as social mobility: the essence of the American dream.

In short, Libertarian dogma tends to be singularly focused on the self-interest of the upper classes without any attendant regard to the rights of others that may be trampled on by either class oppression or the capturing and consolidation of political power in the hands of the wealthy. It fails systematically to recognize the perspective of the “other side,” i.e. those who are harmed by the enactment of the Libertarian ideology — much as a narcissist lacks empathy — and with it, the capability of seeing others’ perspectives. You could in some ways consider it yet another form of denialism, as well as a cousin or perhaps even sibling to authoritarianism.

The Libertarian-narcissist Venn diagram is practically a circle.