Ancient philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A130-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 24, 2024, from

1. Main features

‘Ancient’ philosophy is that of classical antiquity, which not only inaugurated the entire European philosophical tradition but has exercised an unparalleled influence on its style and content. It is conventionally considered to start with Thales in the mid sixth century bc, although the Greeks themselves frequently made Homer (c.700 bc) its true originator. Officially it is often regarded as ending in 529 ad, when the Christian emperor Justinian is believed to have banned the teaching of pagan philosophy at Athens. However, this was no abrupt termination, and the work of Platonist philosophers continued for some time in self-imposed exile (see Aristotle commentators; Neoplatonism §1; Simplicius §1).

Down to and including Plato (in the first half of the fourth century bc), philosophy did not develop a significant technical terminology of its own – unlike such contemporary disciplines as mathematics and medicine. It was Plato’s pupil Aristotle, and after him the Stoics (see Stoicism), who made truly decisive contributions to the philosophical vocabulary of the ancient world.

Ancient philosophy was above all a product of Greece and the Greek-speaking parts of the Mediterranean, which came to include southern Italy, Sicily, western Asia and large parts of North Africa, notably Egypt. From the first century bc, a number of Romans became actively engaged in one or other of the Greek philosophical systems, and some of them wrote their own works in Latin (see Lucretius; Cicero; Seneca; Apuleius). But Greek remained the lingua franca of philosophy. Although much modern philosophical terminology derives from Latinized versions of Greek technical concepts, most of these stem from the Latin vocabulary of medieval Aristotelianism, not directly from ancient Roman philosophical writers.

Citing this article:
Sedley, David. Main features. Ancient philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A130-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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