Philosophy in the Ancient World

A portrait of the Greek philosopher Antisthenes (c. 450-370 BCE), founder of the Cynic school of philosophy. Roman copy of a lost Greek original c. 300 BCE. (British Museum, London). / British Museum, Creative Commons

Philosophical systems developed first in the East, and a working outline proceeds from Mesopotamia to Rome and on to the present.

By Dr. Joshua J. Mark
Professor of Philosophy
Marist College


The word philosophy comes from the Greek philo (love) and sophia (wisdom) and so is literally defined as “the love of wisdom”. More broadly understood, it is the study of the most basic and profound matters of human existence. The topic of exactly when and where philosophy first began to develop is still debated, but the simplest answer is that it would have begun – at any place in the distant past – the first time someone asked why they were born, what their purpose was, and how they were supposed to understand their lives. The term philosophy may apply to a formalized secular or religious system of thought, a personal construct, or a communal understanding of proper attitude and conduct, but in each case, the purpose of the system is to answer such questions.

Philosophical systems are thought to have developed first in the East, and a working outline proceeds from Mesopotamia to Rome and on to the present:

  • Egypt by c. 4000 BCE: depictions of gods and the afterlife appear on tomb walls
  • Mesopotamia by c. 2150 BCE: written form of the philosophical narrative of The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • India c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE: the Vedic Period
  • Persia by c. 1500 BCE: development of Zoroastrianism
  • China c. 1046-256 BCE: the Zhou Dynasty
  • Greece c. 585-322 BCE: Time of Thales of Miletus to the death of Aristotle of Stagira
  • Rome c. 155 BCE onwards: Beginning with the arrival of Stoicism in Rome.

Philosophical systems would continue in Europe during the Middle Ages (c. 476-1500 CE), primarily focused on Christian teachings, and would develop further during the Renaissance in the West. In the East, Islamic scholars after the 7th century CE as well as those of other faiths continued to develop their own systems. Philosophical schools have continued on this same trajectory up through the modern day as people continue to ask the same fundamental questions as their ancient ancestors and work to develop systems of thought to answer them.

Historical Overview

A philosophical system may develop independently but usually is a response to religion; when religion fails to fully answer a people’s questions or address their needs, the people turn to philosophy. People’s existential questions traditionally have been answered by the development of religious systems which assured them of the existence of supernatural entities (gods, divine spirits, one’s departed ancestors) who created them, cared for them, and watched over them. These belief structures, institutionalized as part of a culture, work to form a cohesive cultural understanding of one’s place in the world and the philosophies which developed in response to that understanding either sought to explain it more clearly or replace it with a new paradigm.

Although it is impossible to determine, it seems probable that philosophy was already established in Egypt by c. 4000 BCE, the date depictions of gods and the afterlife of the Field of Reeds first begin appearing on tomb walls. It developed in Mesopotamia at some point before the time The Epic of Gilgamesh was committed to writing between c. 2150-1400 BCE. In India, philosophy develops during the Vedic Period between c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE with the Upanishads. At about the same time, Zoroaster (c. 1500-1000 BCE) was developing his philosophic vision in ancient Persia while, in China, philosophy is first committed to writing during the time of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE) and later developed during the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 772-476 BCE) and the Warring States Period (c. 481-221 BCE) in the time associated with the Hundred Schools of Thought.

A Qing Dynasty print showing Confucius presenting Gautama Buddha to the philosopher Lao-Tzu. / Photo by Lucas, Flickr, Creative Commons

Philosophy in the West begins in the Ionian Greek colonies of Asia Minor with Thales of Miletus (l. c. 585 BCE) who inspired the later writers known as the Pre-Socratic philosophers whose ideas would then inform and influence the iconic works of Plato (l. 428/427-348/347 BCE) and his student Aristotle of Stagira (l. 384-322 BCE) which form the foundation of Western philosophical thought. Roman philosophy developed from the Greek after the arrival in the city of Diogenes of Babylon (l. c. 230 – c. 140 BCE) in 155 BCE, a stoic philosopher from the Athenian school founded by Zeno of Citium (l. c. 336-265 BCE) whose system was inspired by Socrates. Stoicism would afterwards become the most popular philosophical system in Rome and inform aspects of Christian philosophical systems which came later.

Philosophy in Egypt and Mesopotamia

The earliest philosophical system seems to have developed in Egypt as a response to the religious vision of a paradise after death known as the Field of Reeds, a mirror image of one’s life on earth, where the souls of the justified dead would live eternally. The question which seems to have inspired Egyptian philosophy is how one should live in order to ensure a place in this paradise. Evidence of the development of an answer to this question comes from tomb paintings c. 4000 BCE instructing people on where they came from, why they existed, and how to live well and attain paradise.

Egyptian philosophy developed the concept of ma’at (harmony and balance) as the central value by which one could live the best life and be assured of paradise but then addressed itself to the aspects of the soul, the concept of immortality, the possibility of reincarnation, and the nature of the divine.

This is a raised and colored relief within the interior of the Temple of Beit el-Wali, Lake Nasser, Aswan, Egypt (c. 1276 BC). On the left, Ramesses II makes an offering of the goddess Ma’at to the god Amun. / Photo by Terry Feuerborn, Flickr, Creative Commons

In Mesopotamia, the people understood themselves as co-workers with the gods. As in Egypt, the gods had created humanity and humans owed them a debt of gratitude which was paid through worship and proper behavior. In keeping with other ancient religious systems, the Mesopotamians understood their gods as operating on a quid pro quo (“this for that”) basis, which worked well as long as the individual felt the agreement was being honored, but when it seemed to fail, one naturally questioned its validity, and this sort of existential crisis inspires philosophical inquiry.

This situation is illustrated in The Epic of Gilgamesh in which Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, loses his best friend, Enkidu and embarks on a quest to find an escape from inevitable death. His story has been interpreted as a parable of philosophical development in that there is no evidence that Gilgamesh questions his relationship with the gods until the death of Enkidu which requires answers his religious beliefs cannot provide.    

Indian Philosophy

In India, philosophy developed in response to the Vedas, the scriptures of Hinduism (known as Sanatan Dharma, “Eternal Order”, to adherents), in the form of the Upanishads (the earliest written c. 800-500 BCE). The Vedas were understood as the emanations of the Universe, the literal words of God, and the Upanishads were composed to clarify and explain aspects of this message.

Kena Upanishad, verses 1.1–3, partially 4 (opens with salutations to Ganesha). The thick text is the Upanishad scripture, the small text in the margins and edges are an unknown scholar’s notes and comments in the typical Hindu style of a minor bhasya. / Photo by Ms Sarah Welch, Wikimedia Commons

Around 600 BCE, a social and religious reform movement in the region resulted in the development of other philosophical systems which rejected orthodox Hinduism. These included the materialist school of Charvaka (c. 600 BCE), the system of Jainism (formulated by Mahavira/Vardhamana, l. c. 599-527 BCE), and Buddhism (founded by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, l. c. 563 – c. 483 BCE). Although Jainism and Buddhism would later take on religious dimensions, they were originally philosophical schools of thought, although it should be noted there was no distinction between “religious” and “philosophical” thought in Asia at that time nor is there in the present.   

Persian Philosophy

Persian philosophy was almost certainly already developed before c. 1500 BCE as evidenced by the Avesta (Zoroastrian scriptures) which draws on concepts from the polytheistic Early Iranian Religion. Zoroaster conceived of a new religious paradigm of a single god, Ahura Mazda, creator and sustainer of the universe, whose supernatural adversary was Angra Mainyu (also known as Ahriman), the lord of darkness and chaos.

A Faravahar or Frawahr symbol in a Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd, Iran, one of the symbols adopted by Zoroastrianism. This symbol represents a winged guardian or fravashi, an angelic being of the Zoroastrian religion. / Photo by ninara, Wikimedia Commons

The question left unanswered by Zoroaster’s construct, however, was the source of evil and suffering in the world since Ahriman was understood as a created being and Ahura Mazda, who had no evil in him, as the source of all creation. This problem encouraged the development of the philosophical school of Zorvanism, sometime in the late Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-330 BCE) which claimed Zorvan, god of Infinite Time, created both Ahura Mazda and Ahriman and these two brother-deities were locked in an eternal struggle which human beings had no choice but to take sides in. One’s purpose in life was the exercise of free will in deciding to devote one’s self to the cause of good or evil.  

Chinese Philosophy

The Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period in China were times of chaos as the Zhou Dynasty was declining, and Chinese philosophy was developed in response to this disorder. The early texts of Confucianism are thought to have been composed during the Zhou Dynasty and later developed by the sage Confucius (l. 551-479 BCE). Confucianism was only one belief structure of many which developed during this time referred to as the Hundred Schools of Thought and which included many others including Taoism (founded by Lao Tzu c. 500 BCE) and Legalism (founded by Han Feizi, l. c. 280-233 BCE).

These schools, and the many others, differed from each other significantly but were all an attempt to establish order in a time of chaos. The traditional understanding of Tian (heaven) as maintaining order through a mandate which legitimized a monarch’s rule could no longer be sustained as the monarchs of different states fought each other for supremacy. Chinese philosophy, then, was initially a response to social disorder as well as the failure of religious belief to explain the world and reassure people of a divine plan.  

Greek Philosophy

Greek philosophy began in the 6th century BCE with Thales of Miletus who initiated it with the question “What is the basic ‘stuff’ of the universe?” (Ancient Philosophy, 8). Thales’ inquiry seems an anomaly because of the religious beliefs of his time which seem to have been meeting the needs of the people. Ancient Greek religion held that the gods had created the world and human beings and, as with other world religions of the time, questioning this basic premise was not appreciated nor encouraged. Thales seems to have avoided problems with the religious authorities by never denying the existence of gods, but this does not explain his initial impulse. Scholars suggest that, since he studied at Babylon, he most likely drew on Mesopotamian and Egyptian philosophies in formulating his own.

A head of Thales of Miletus, sheet from a drawing book, with an inscription in Greek: “ΘΑΛΗΤΟΣ ΜΙΛΗΣΙΟΥ”. / British Museum, Creative Commons

Thales established the Milesian School, considered the first philosophical school in the West, and was followed by Anaximander (l. c. 610 – c. 546 BCE) and Anaximenes (l. c. 546 BCE) who rejected Thales’ claim that the First Cause was water and suggested their own. Philosophical thought then developed through the efforts of the other Pre-Socratic philosophers, finally culminating in the works of Plato and then of Aristotle. Later thinkers, notably Plotinus (l. c. 202-274 CE), would develop these concepts further in establishing the foundation of Western Philosophy.  

Branches of Philosophy

The areas of interest of modern-day philosophy apply equally to the East and West but the names by which they are known were developed by the Greeks. Although various schools may break some into sub-sections, the branches of study are:

Metaphysics – The Study of Existence, so named for Aristotle’s work on the subject. Far from being a definitive term in Aristotle’s day to denote the study of philosophy or religion, the term ‘metaphysics’ was given to Aristotle’s book on the subject by his editor who placed it after his work ‘Physics’. In Greek, meta simply means ‘after’, and the title was originally only meant to clarify that the one piece came after the first. However that may be, the term has since been applied to the study of first causes, underlying form of existence, and definitions concerning the meaning of time and even the meaning of “meaning”.

2nd century AD marble bust of Aristotle (Museo Nazionale Romano,Palazzo Altemps,Rome). / SquinchPix, Creative Commons

Epistemology – The Study of Knowledge (from the Greek episteme, knowledge, and logos, word). Epistemology asks how one knows what one knows, what exactly is ‘knowledge’, how can it be defined, and how can one know that the meaning one defines a word by will be the meaning another person will understand. Epistemological questions do not seem to have concerned the ancients until the subject is addressed by the Pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece and Plato after them.

Ethics – The Study of Behavior/Action (from the Greek ta ethika, on character), a term popularized by Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics, which he wrote for his son, Nichomachus, as a guide to living well. Ethics is concerned with morality, how one should live and upon what basis to make decisions. Ethics was a central concern of all ancient philosophies from Mesopotamia onwards in trying to determine the best way for people to live, not only for their own self-interest but the interests of the wider community and, finally, in accordance with the will of the gods.

Politics – The Study of Governance (from the Greek polis, city, and politikos, meaning  ‘that which has to do with the city’). Far from simply being concerned with running a government, however, politikos also has to do with how to be a good citizen and neighbor and what one should contribute to one’s community. This branch, like all the others, was first definitively examined and popularized in the works of Aristotle in the West but questions concerning how one should best live with one’s neighbors and what is owed to the community go back thousands of years to Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Persian, and Indian texts.

Aesthetics – The Study of Art (from the Greek aisthetikos, sense/sentience, or aisthanomai, to perceive or feel). Aesthetics concerns itself with the study of beauty, perception of beauty, culture, and even nature, asking the fundamental question, “What makes something that is beautiful or meaningful ‘beautiful’ or ‘meaningful’?” Both Plato and Aristotle give answers to this question attempting to standardize objectively what is ‘beautiful’ while the famous Greek Sophist Protagoras (l. c. 485-415 BCE) argued that if one believes something to be ‘beautiful’ then it is beautiful and that all judgments are and must be subjective because any experience is relative to the one experiencing it.

These branches were not defined in this way until the time of the Greeks, but the questions they ask and seek to address were voiced by peoples throughout the Near East, South Asia, and all over the ancient world.


Plato attributed the vision of his philosophy to his teacher, Socrates, who wrote nothing himself. Almost all of what is known of Socrates’ life and teaching comes from Plato and another of Socrates’ students, Xenophon (l. 430 – c. 354 BCE). Whether Plato’s work accurately reflects Socrates’ teachings is unknown and will never be known, but scholars generally believe that it does, more or less, and that Socrates is the foundational figure of Western Philosophy. Following his martyrdom in 399 BCE, his followers established their own schools, and the works of Plato and Xenophon were copied and spread throughout the Mediterranean. One copy of Xenophon’s Memorabilia was acquired by Zeno of Citium who would go on to establish the Stoic School in Athens based on Socrates’ vision.

Stoicism would travel to Rome via the philosopher Diogenes of Babylon and would influence the thought of Epictetus (l. c. 50 – c. 130 CE), the most famous Stoic philosopher, whose works would establish Stoicism as the most popular philosophy of ancient Rome, even to the point of informing the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE). Stoicism’s claim that there was a natural force (the logos) which was the First Cause and which maintained the universe would contribute to the philosophical concepts of Saint Paul the Apostle (l. c. 5-64 CE) in formulating his vision of Christianity which informs the epistles and gospels of the Christian New Testament.

Philosophy continued to develop, hand in hand, with religion through the Middle Ages and on into the present day. Medieval philosophy sought to explain the world, in the West, according to the Jewish and Christian belief systems and, in the East, in accordance with the Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic visions. In the present day, philosophical schools and movements continue to develop in response to religious beliefs, accepted knowledge, or traditional understanding in any area when these authorities fail to fully address the higher needs of the people.


Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 10.16.2020, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.



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