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
AnaxagorasEarly Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who moved forward ideas about the nature of existencec. 500 BCc. 428 BCGreece, PersiaDiogenes, Plutarch
Hannah ArendtA politically progressive Jewish philosopher, Arendt fled the Nazi regime for America, where she wrote the foundational text on the political psychology of authoritarianism, "The Origins of Totalitarianism" (1951)19061975Germany, America
AristotleStudent of Plato and founder of the Lyceum, he is widely known for his Socratic Method of questioning as a basis for philosophical discussion384 BC322 BCGreeceThe Enlightenment, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante
Marcus AureliusRoman emperor and Stoic philosopher who advocated for cultivating an ethos of impermanence and doing one's duty.121180Roman Empire
AvicennaPersian polymath, father of early medicine, and a key figure during the Islamic Golden Age9801037Persia
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.12201292England
Pierre BourdieuThe French sociologist's work focuses on how upper social classes preserve their social privileges through generations despite the persistent myth of social mobility in post-industrial liberal societies19302002France
Jeremy Benthamfather of Utilitarianism17481832England
Daniel BernoulliSwiss mathematician widely credited for pioneering the field of statistics17001782Switzerland
Jacob Bernoulli16551705Switzerland
Jean BoudinFrench political philosopher known for his theory of sovereignty15301596France
Louis BrailleFrench educator and inventor of the Braille system of reading and writing for the blind18091852France
BrunelleschiItalian architect, sculptor, and designer13771446Italy
Joseph CampbellLiterature professor most known for his work in world mythologies, and the widely observed narrative of the archetypal hero19041987White Plains, NYGeorge Lucas and Star Wars
Andrew CarnegieGilded Age tycoon who made a fortune leading the steel industry in the late 19th century, becoming one of the richest Americans in history18351919Scotland, America
CiceroRoman statesman, orator, philosopher, scholar, lawyer, and skeptic who championed a return to republican government during the dictatorship of Julius Caesar.106 BC43 BCRomeJohn Locke, David Hume, Motesquieu, Edmund Burke
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 BCChina
Marie CurieChemist and physicist whose work on radioactivity earned her a Nobel Prize -- the first woman ever to win the award.18671934Poland, France
Leonardo da VinciThe Italian polymath, painter, engineer, inventor, scientist et al was a giant of the Renaissance. He is often credited as being the greatest painter in th history of art.14521519Italy
Charles DarwinEnglish naturalist most famous for the knowledge of evolution18091882England
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 TocquevilleFrench diplomat, philosopher, historian, and aristocrat best known for his two volume Democracy in America (1835 & 1840), now considered one of the earliest works of sociology.18051859France
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 goods412 BC323 BCGreeceZeno
EmilΓ© Durkheimanomie β€” concept of lack of a shared moral order. Normlessness.18581917France
Albert EinsteinKnown for his theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, Einstein is widely agreed to be one of the greatest physicist of all time.18791955Germany, America
Ralph Waldo EmersonWriter, philosopher, poet, and abolitionist who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century and became a key figure in the American romantic movement18031882AmericaHenry David Thoreau
EmpedoclesGreek philosopher best known for his cosmogonic theory of the four classical elements.494 BC434 BCGreece
EpicurusGreek philosopher and founder of the highly influential school of philosophy bearing his name, Epicureanism341 BC270 BCGreeceJohn Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Jeremy Bentham, Karl Marx
ErasmusA Dutch philosopher and Catholic theologian, Erasmus is acknowledged as one of the greatest minds of the northern Renaissance14661536Netherlands
EuclidGreek mathematician and founder of geometryc. 325 BCc. 270 BCAlexandria, Egypt
Michael FaradayHugely influential English scientist who made numerous contributions to the study of electromagnetism and electrochemistry17911867England
Enrico FermiItalian physicist who emigrated to America with his Jewish wife in 1938 and worked on the Manhattan Project, creating the world's first nuclear reactor and becoming dubbed the "architect of the atomic bomb."19011954Italy, America
Michel FoucaultWidely influential philosopher, literary critic, historian, and activist best known for his theories on the relationship between power and knowledge.19261984France
Sigmund FreudAustrian neurologist who founded psychoanalysis18561939Austria, UK
John Kenneth GalbraithConcept of countervailing power β€” that collective worker power is needed to balance against growing corporatism in the economy19082006Canada, America
GalenGreek physician, surgeon, and philosopher credited with developing the fields of anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, neurology, and logic130200Greece, Rome
GalileoThe Italian polymath is considered the father of modern science, making groundbreaking contributions to the fields of modern physics, observational astronomy, and the scientific method itself.15641642Italy
Siddharta GautamaThe Buddha; achieving enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in India563 BC483 BCIndia
GhibertiSculptor most famous for his creation of the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistry13781455Italy
Johann GutenbergInvented the printing press, democratizing the dissemination of information for the first time.13941468Germany
JΓΌrgen HabermasGerman philosopher and member of the Frankfurt School, his work addresses public opinion and the public sphere through the lens of critical theory1929Germany
Friedrich HegelOne of the most important figures in German idealism and a founding figure in Western philosophy17701831Germany
Martin HeidiggerGerman philosopher and member of the Nazi Party18891976Germany
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 BCGreece
HippocratesGreek physician who is considered the Father of Medicine and known for the Hippocratic oath still in use todayc. 460 BCc. 370 BCGreece
Thomas HobbesEnglish philosopher and founder of modern political philosophy15881679England
HomerAncient Greek poet and author of the epic poems the Iliad and the Odysseyc. 750 BCGreece
David HumeKey Enlightenment philosopher who championed empiricism, skepticism, and naturalism17111776Scotland
William JamesThe father of American psychology18421910America
Thomas JeffersonFounding Father and third president of the U.S., Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence17431826America
Carl JungFounder of analytical psychology18751961Switzerland
Immanuel KantA central Enlightenment thinker who made contributions to epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics among other fields.17241804Prussia
John Maynard KeynesEnglish economist whose ideas profoundly changed the field of macroeconomics and economic policy, now known as Keynesian economics18831946England
SΓΈren KierkegaardDanish poet and polymath regarded as the first existentialist philosopher18131855Denmark
Thomas KuhnPhilosopher of science known for his theory of scientific paradigms and paradigm shifts19221996America
Lao Tzuthe Dao de Ching and philosophy of Daoism6th c. BC6th c. BCChina
LamarkA botanist, naturalist, and taxonomist, the French academic was an early proponent of the idea of evolution 17441829France
Gottfried LiebnizThe German polymath is a key figure in the history of philosophy and mathematics both16461716Prussia
Vladimir LeninFomented the Russian Revolution of 1917 that overthrew the tsarist regime18701924RussiaJoseph Stalin
Carolus LinnaeusThe father of modern taxonomy and inventor of binomial nomenclature for the modern system of naming organisms17071778Sweden
John Lockephilosophy of liberty and natural rights16321704England
Martin LutherKicked off the Protestant Reformation when he broke with the Catholic Church over the practice of indulgences14831546Germany
James MadisonFounding Father and fourth president of the U.S., Madison is known as the father of the Constitution and the author of the Bill of Rights, as well as a co-author of the Federalist Papers with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay 17511836America
Karl MarxHis political theories were so revolutionary he lived in exile much of his life, with his works The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital exerting enormous influence on subsequent intellectual thought and world history18181883Germany, England
John Stuart MillA key thinker in the pantheon of classical liberalism, Mill contributed to political theory, political economy, and social theory among others18061873England
MoziAn ethical philosophy advocating the caring for everyone equally470 BC391 BCChinaLegalism
MohammadArab social and political leader who founded the religion of Islam570632Mecca
Isaac NewtonOne of the greatest scientists of all time, Newton discovered gravity and the laws of motion among much else16421727England
Friedrich NietzscheKey figure in modern intellectual history18441900Germany
Alfred NobelInventor and philanthropist who gave his fortune to establish the Nobel Prize18331896Sweden
Georgia O'KeeffePainter known as the Mother of American modernism18871986America
Thomas PainePolitical theorist and revolutionary whose pamphlets Common Sense and The American Crisis helped persuade the colonists to declare independence from Great Britain17371809Britain; America
Parmenidesearly Rationalist; believed our perceptions are an illusion shielding us from true reality, which is only discernable via human reason515 BC445 BCGreecePlato
Louis PasteurA French chemist and microbiologist who discovered vaccination and pasteurization, Pasteur is considered the father of bacteriology and the father of microbiology18221895France
PetrarchPetrarch's rediscovery of Cicero's letters helped spark the Italian Renaissance in the 14th century13041374Italy
Philo of AlexandriaPhilosopher and theologist who entwined Jewish exegesis and Stoic philosophyc. 20 BCc. 50 ADAlexandria, Egypt
PlatoPlatonic Forms427 BC347 BCGreeceAristotle
Pliny the ElderAuthor, naturalist, and navy commander who wrote encyclopedic works on natural philosophy2379Rome
Marco PoloThe first European to create a detailed history of his voyage to Asia via the Silk Road, including China, Japan, Persia, India, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam.12541324Italy
Neil PostmanThe professor and cultural critic warned against the ill effects of tchnology and is best known for his book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)19312003America
ProtagorasFather of relativism; coined the phrase "man is the measure of all things"490 BC420 BCGreece
PythagorasThe Pythagorean theorem570 BC495 BCGreeceParmenides
François RabelaisA writer, physician, Greek scholar, Renaissance thinker, Rabelais is infamous for his satirical and bawdy humor14831553France
John RawlsMoral and political philosopher known for the thought experiment known as the "veil of ignorance," in which participants make decisions about the society they will live in without knowing a priori which class or social position they themselves would occupy. 19212002American
Jean-Jacques RousseauPolitical philosopher whose concept of the Social Contract inspired the French and American Revolutions, and underpins all modern liberal democracies17121778FranceThe Enlightenment, French Revolution
Jean-Paul SartreA key thinker in the philosophy of existentialism19051980France
Arthur SchopenhauerThe German philosopher was one of the first in the west to embrace Indian philosophy, including asceticism, self-denial, and the concept of worldly illusion. He influenced many other important thinkers and creators of the 19th and 20th centuries17881860PolandLudwig Wittgenstein, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Leo Tolstoy, Herman Melville, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, Richard Wagner, Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler
Joseph SchumpeterAn Austrian emigree to the US, Schumpeter taught at Harvard and popularized the economic term "creative destruction"18831950Hungary, United States
SenecaRhetoric teacher and Stoic philosopher55 BC37 ADRoman Empire
Adam SmithThis Scottish philosopher was a pioneer of political economy, and is widely regarded as the father of economics and the father of capitalism.17231790ScotlandDavid Hume
SocratesWidely considered a founder of philosophy; the dialectic method, among much else469 BC399 BCGreecePlato
SpinozaAn early Enlightenment thinker inspired by Descartes to go on to lead the Dutch Golden Age16321677The Netherlands
Nicholas Nassim TalebThe author, mathematical statistician, and former options trader has written several influential books on probability, uncertainty, and randomness.1960Lebanon, America
ThalesPosited water as being the basic material of the cosmos624 BC546 BCMiletus, Greece
TheocritusCreator of ancient Greek pastoral poetryc. 300 BCc. 260 BCGreece
ThucydidesAthenian historian and general who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War about the conflict between Sparta and Athens460 BC400 BCGreece
Edward TufteProfessor of computer science at Yale and a pioneer in the field of data visualization1942America
VirgilRegarded as one of Rome's greatest poets, Virgil penned the Aeneid, the national epic of ancient Rome70 BC19 BCRomeDante and the Divine Comedy
VitruviusRoman author, architect, and army engineer known for his significant contributions to architecture and designc. 80 BCc. 15 BCRomeThe Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci
VoltaireKey figure in the Enlightenment, Voltaire was famous for his criticism of the Catholic Church and advocacy of civil liberties including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the separation of church and state16941778FranceJean-Jacques Rousseau
James WatsonCredited with discovering the double helix structure of the DNA molecule1928America
Max WeberGerman historian and political economist widely regarded as one of the most important theorists of modern Western society18641920GermanyCritical theory, the Frankfurt School
Ludwig WittgensteinConsidered one of the greatest modern philosophers, Wittgenstein made significant contributions to the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of language, and the philosophy of mind.18891951Austria, England
ZenoFounder of the Stoic school of philosophy in 4th c. BCE Greece and Parmenides's most famous student.c. 495 BCc. 430 BCGreeceSocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes

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.

Libertarianism sees itself in control

It believes its ideology should dominate others despite its extreme minority status. Libertarians want to get the benefits of the social contract and civil society, without having to pay back into the system in proportion to their usage of public resources at scale. The Libertarian political philosophy violates the fundamental, cross-cultural principle of reciprocity — exhibited in societies through the ages.