Timeless Quotes from the Ancient Greek Philosophers



“The School of Athens,” by Raphael. Vatican Museums. Credit: Public domain

When searching for an inspirational quote, one need look no further than the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers. The insights these men shared with the world resonate even in our modern times today, and will live forever our consciousness.

Let’s take a look at some of the best quotes by some of the most famous Greek philosophers, which are sure to make you reflect on life’s many issues, and maybe even change the way you think.

Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippos, c. 330 BC, with modern alabaster mantle. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Aristotle

The brilliant Greek philosopher of the 4th century BC is known for his belief that humans are responsible for creating their own virtues and that we develop them as we interact with other humans. We therefore form habits, and this is what makes it hard for humans to change our ways – we are creatures of habit.

However, this does not consign us to lives that are predetermined by rote — we can create positive and virtuous habits just as easily as negative ones, he believed.

“Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.”

Aristotle also said “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

In a much more romantic vein, the great philosopher and student of Plato also had this hauntingly lovely insight, which doubtless remains as true today as ever:

“Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.”

Known as the “Laughing Philosopher,” this is often how Democritus has been depicted throughout the ages. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Democritus

Democritus was a mathematician, physicist, ethicist and philosopher who lived in the 5th century BC. A near contemporary of Socrates, his works also included those on the study of cosmology. He often spoke of his belief that the best way for society and individuals to achieve tranquility was by only biting off as much as can be easily handled and not concerning ourselves with things that are not essential.

Known throughout history as the “Laughing Philosopher” (for his humor when contemplating human folly), he was responsible for coining the terms “Abderitan laughter,” which means a scoffing, dismissive type of laughter, and “Abderite,” meaning a scoffer.

The great thinker reduced the universe into a simple sentence, which may perhaps give us the correct perspective on the world when we become overwhelmed with current events today: “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is just opinion.”

Socrates. Statue in front of the Academy of Athens. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Socrates

Socrates is perhaps the best-known philosopher of ancient times. Born in 470 BC, living until 399 BC, he is credited for being one of the founders of Western philosophy. He was also the first moral philosopher of Western ethical thought, also referred to as “virtue ethics.” Some of his most well-known quotes include the following:

“False words are not only evil themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.”

“An unexamined life is not worth living.”

And another, which surely makes many of us pause: “Worthless people live only to eat and drink; people of worth eat and drink only to live.”

Perhaps most surprisingly, the great thinker, who doubtless was one of the most brilliant men to ever live, also gave this gem of humility to the world: “One thing I know, is that I know nothing. This is the source of my wisdom.”

Roman copy of a portrait bust by Silanion for the Academia in Athens (c. 370 BC). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Plato

Plato, born in approximately 428 BC, living until 347 BC, was one of Socrates’ brightest students and went on to become the founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the entire Western world. He is considered to be the most pivotal figure in the development of the Western tradition of philosophy.

He summed up humankind’s eternal quest for knowledge in his saying:

“Man is a being in search of meaning.”

On his own quest for knowledge of the universe and human nature, he came to the realization that “The worst of all deceptions is self-deception.”

Plato also said: “No man should bring children into the world who is unwilling to persevere to the end in their nature and education” and “Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.”

“Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.”

And he also had his lyrical side of course, saying “Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back.”

And perhaps most reassuringly of anything ever said by one of the ancients, Plato also gave the world this insight: “Nothing in the affairs of men is worthy of great anxiety.”

Heraclitus

Heraclitus, given the face of Michelangelo, is portrayed sitting apart from the other figures of Greek history in Raphael’s masterpiece “The School of Athens.” Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A Greek philosopher of the late 6th century BC, Heraclitus is best known for his doctrine of change being central to the Universe. He also coined the term Logos (λόγος) in Western philosophy, explaining its meaning as being both the source and fundamental order of the Cosmos.

Giving us today perhaps a bit of insight into how we might deal with the chaos around us, this great philosopher was the first to say “There is nothing permanent except change.”

He also stated such truths as “Big results require big ambitions” and “Character is destiny.”

 

 

Engraving of Thanles of Miletus, from “The Illustrated World History.” Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thales

Better known as Thales of Miletus, this thinker was an ancient Greek philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and ethicist who also lived during the 6th century BC. He was interested in a vast array of subjects and traveled far and wide in his life, spending time in Egypt.

In what may or may not be a an accurate story, Diogenes reported that Thales never married, telling his mother as a young man that it was “too early to marry, and as an older man that it was too late.”

But Thales contributed an enormous gift to the world of today in that he is recognized as being one of the first people to have made the gigantic mental leap of not using mythology to explain the world and the universe — and instead turning to scientific theories to explain natural objects and phenomena. Of course, this thought process was the most important precursor to modern science as we know it today.

He also gave us these gems: “The happy man is the one who has a healthy body, a wealthy soul and a well-educated nature.”

“Nothing is more active than thought, for it travels over the universe; and nothing is stronger than necessity, for all must submit to it.”

“Time is the wisest of all things that are; for it brings everything to light.”

The Greek General and statesman Pericles. Roman copy of a lost Greek original. Vatican Museums. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pericles

Pericles, undoubtedly one of the greatest statesmen and generals in Greek history, also was known as a promoter of the arts and literature, and it is mostly due to his efforts that Athens acquired the reputation of being the educational and cultural center of the ancient Greek world.

But despite his many lasting achievements, which included the construction of the Parthenon and most of the other buildings atop the Acropolis, he left tender words which serve as a reminder of what is truly important in life, saying “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

 

 

 

Epictetus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Epictetus

This Greek philosopher from the Stoic school lived after the time of the ancients but had a great deal to add to their sphere of knowledge. Born a slave in 50 AD in Hierapolis, Phrygia (present-day Pamukkale, Turkey) he showed a passion for learning and began to study philosophy in Rome with the blessing of his wealthy owner, Epaphroditos, who was a secretary to the emperor Nero.

His teachings came to be written down and published by his pupil Arrian in his works “Discourses” and “Enchiridion.”

As might be understood by his life experiences, Epictetus believed that all external events are beyond our control; we should accept whatever happens to us calmly and dispassionately. However, he maintained that individuals are nevertheless responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.

This most improbable of philosophers gave the world such stoical insights as “Control thy passions, lest they take vengeance on thee.”

He also said “The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.” Perhaps most meaningful of all, he also believed “Only the educated are free.”