Top 10 Greatest Philosophers In History

This list examines the influence, depth of
insight and wide-reaching interest across many
subjects of various “lovers of wisdom,” and
ranks them accordingly. It should be noted,
first and foremost, that philosophy in its
traditional sense was science – philosophers
(like Aristotle) used rationality to come to
scientific knowledge of the world around us. It
was not until relatively modern times that
philosophy was considered to be separate from
the physical sciences.

10 John Locke

The most important thinker of modern politics
is the most directly responsible for Thomas
Jefferson’s rhetoric in the Declaration of
Independence, and the rhetoric in the U. S.
Constitution. Locke is referred to as the “Father
of Liberalism,” because of his development of
the principles of humanism and individual
freedom, founded primarily by #1. It is said
that liberalism proper, the belief in equal rights
under the law, begins with Locke. He penned
the phrase “government with the consent of
the governed.” His three “natural rights,” that
is, rights innate to all human beings, were and
remain “life, liberty, and estate.”
He did not approve of the European idea of
nobility enabling some to acquire land through
lineage, while the poor remained poor. Locke is
the man responsible, through Jefferson
primarily, for the absence of nobility in America.
Although nobility and birthrights still exist in
Europe, especially among the few kings and
queens left, the practice has all but vanished.
The true democratic ideal did not arrive in the
modern world until Locke’s liberal theory was
taken up.

9 Epicurus

Epicurus has gotten a bit of an unfair
reputation over the centuries as a teacher of
self-indulgence and excess delight. He was
soundly criticized by a lot of Christian
polemicists (those who make war against all
thought but Christian thought), especially
during the Middle Ages, because he was
thought to be an atheist, whose principles for a
happy life were passed down to this famous set
of statements: “Don’t fear god; don’t worry
about death; what is good is easy to get; what
is terrible is easy to endure.”
He advocated the principle of refusing belief in
anything that is not tangible, including any
god. Such intangible things he considered
preconceived notions, which can be
manipulated. You may think of Epicureanism as
“no matter what happens, enjoy life, because
you only get one and it doesn’t last long.”
Epicurus’s idea of living happily centered on
just treatment of others, avoidance of pain and
living in such a way as to please oneself, but
not to overindulge in anything.
He also advocated a version of the Golden Rule,
“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without
living wisely and well and justly (agreeing
‘neither to harm nor be harmed’), and it is
impossible to live wisely and well and justly
without living a pleasant life. “Wisely,” at least
for Epicurus, would be avoidance of pain,
danger, disease, etc.; “well” would be proper
diet and exercise; “justly,” in the Golden Rule’s
sense of not harming others because you do
not want to be harmed.

8 Zeno of Citium

You may not be as familiar with him as with
most of the others on this list, but Zeno
founded the school of Stoicism. Stoicism comes
from the Greek “stoa,” which is a roofed
colonnade, especially that of the Poikile, which
was a cloistered piazza on the north side of the
Athenian marketplace, in the 3rd Century BC.
Stoicism is based on the idea that anything
which causes us to suffer in life is actually an
error in our judgment, and that we should
always have absolute control over our emotions.
Rage, elation, depression are all simple flaws in
a person’s reason, and thus, we are only
emotionally weak when we allow ourselves to
be. Put another way, the world is what we
make of it.
Epicureanism is the usual school of thought
considered the opposite of Stoicism, but today
many people mistake one for the other or
combine them. Epicureanism argues that
displeasures do exist in life and must be
avoided, in order to enter a state of perfect
mental peace (ataraxia, in Greek). Stoicism
argues that mental peace must be acquired out
of your own will not to let anything upset you.
Death is a necessity, so why feel depressed
when someone dies? Depression doesn’t help. It
only hurts. Why get enraged over something?
The rage will not result in anything good. And
so, in controlling one’s emotions, a state of
mental peace is brought about. Of importance
is to shun desire: you may strive for what you
need, but only that and nothing more. What
you want will lead to excess, and excess
doesn’t help, but hurts.

7– Avicena

His full name is Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd
Allāh ibn Sīnā, the last two words of which were
Latinized into the more common form in
Western history. He lived in the Persian Empire
from c. 980 AD to 1037. The Dark Ages were
not so dark. Aside from his stature as a
philosopher, he was also the world’s
preeminent physician during his life. His two
most well known works today are The Book of
Healing (which has nothing to do with physical
medicine) and The Canon of Medicine, which
was his compilation of all known medical
knowledge at that time.
Influenced primarily by #1, his Book of Healing
deals with everything from logic, to math, to
music, to science. He proposed in it that Venus
is closer than the Sun to Earth. Imagine not
knowing that for a fact. The Sun looks a lot
closer than Venus, but he got it right. He
rejected astrology as a true science, since
everything in it is based on conjecture, not
evidence. He theorized that some fluid deep
underground was responsible for the
fossilization of bone and wood, arguing that “a
powerful mineralizing and petrifying virtue
which arises in certain stony spots, or emanates
suddenly from the earth during earthquake and
subsidences…petrifies whatever comes into
contact with it. As a matter of fact, the
petrifaction of the bodies of plants and animals
is not more extraordinary than the
transformation of waters.”
This is not correct, but it’s closer than you
might believe. Petrifaction can occur in any
organic material, and involves the material,
most notably wood, being impregnated by silica
deposits, gradually changing from its original
materials into stone. Avicenna is the first to
describe the five classical senses: taste, touch,
vision, hearing and smell. He may have been
the world’s first systematic psychologist, in a
time when people suffering from a mental
disorder were said to be possessed by demons.
Avicenna argued that there were somatic
possibilities for recovery inherent in all aspects
of a person’s body, including the brain.
John Stuart Mill’s five methods for inductive
logic stem mostly from Avicenna, who first
expounded on three of them: agreement,
difference and concomitant variation. It would
take too long to explain them in this list, but
they are all forms of syllogisms, and every
philosopher and student of philosophy is
familiar with them from the beginning of
education in the subject. They are critical to the
scientific method, and whenever someone
forms a statement as a syllogism, s/he is using
at least one of the methods.

6 Thomas Aquinas

Thomas will forever be remembered as the guy
who supposedly proved the existence of God by
arguing that the Universe had to have been
created by something, since everything in
existence has a beginning and an end. This is
now referred to as the “First Cause” argument,
and all philosophers after Thomas have wrestled
with proving or disproving the theory. He
actually based it on the notion of “ού
κινούμενον κινεῖ,” of #1. The Greek means
“one who moves while not moving” – or “the
unmoved mover”.
Thomas founded everything he postulated
firmly in Christianity, and for this reason, he is
not universally popular, today. Even Christians
consider that, since he derived all his ethical
teachings from the Bible, Thomas is not
independently authoritative of any of those
teachings. But his job, in teaching the common
people around him, was to get them to
understand ethics without all the abstract
philosophy. He expounded on #2′s principles of
what we now call “cardinal virtues:” justice,
courage, prudence and temperance. He was
able to reach the masses with this simple, four-
part instruction.
He made five famous arguments for the
existence of God, which are still discussed hotly
on both sides: theist and atheist. Of those five,
which he intended to define the nature of God,
one is called “the unity of God,” which is to say
that God is not divisible. He has essence and
existence, and these two qualities cannot be
separated. Thus, if we are able to express
something as possessing two or more qualities,
and cannot separate the qualities, then the
statement itself proves that there is a God, and
Thomas’s example is the statement, “God
exists,” in which statement subject and
predicate are identical.

5 Confucius

Master Kong Qiu, as his name translates from
Chinese, lived from 551 to 479 BC, and remains
the most important single philosopher in
Eastern history. He espoused significant
principles of ethics and politics, in a time when
the Greeks were espousing the same things.
We think of democracy as a Greek invention, a
Western idea, but Confucius wrote in his
Analects that “the best government is one that
rules through ‘rites’ and the people’s natural
morality, rather than by using bribery and
coercion. This may sound obvious to us today,
but he wrote it in the early 500s to late 400s
BC. It is the same principle of democracy that
the Greeks argued for and developed: the
people’s morality is in charge; therefore, rule by
the people.
Confucius defended the idea of an Emperor,
but also advocated limitations to the emperor’s
power. The emperor must be honest and his
subjects must respect him, but he must also
deserve that respect. If he makes a mistake, his
subjects must offer suggestions to correct him,
and he must consider them. Any ruler who
acted contrary to these principles was a tyrant,
and thus a thief more than a ruler.
Confucius also devised his own, independent
version of the Golden Rule, which had existed
for at least a century in Greece before him. His
phrasing was almost identical, but then
furthered the idea: “What one does not wish for
oneself, one ought not to do to anyone else;
what one recognizes as desirable for oneself,
one ought to be willing to grant to others.” The
first statement is in the negative, and
constitutes a passive desire not to harm others.
The second statement is much more important,
constituting an active desire to help others. The
only other philosopher of antiquity to advocate
the Golden Rule in the positive form is Jesus of

4 Rene Descartes

Descartes lived from 1596 to 1650, and today
he is referred to as “the Father of Modern
Philosophy.” He created analytical geometry,
based on his now immortal Cartesian coordinate
system, immortal in the sense that we are all
taught it in school, and that it is still perfectly
up-to-date in almost all branches of
mathematics. Analytical geometry is the study
of geometry using algebra and the Cartesian
coordinate system. He discovered the laws of
refraction and reflection. He also invented the
superscript notation still used today to indicate
the powers of exponents.
He advocated dualism, which is very basically
defined as the power of the mind over the
body: strength is derived by ignoring the
weaknesses of the human physique and relying
on the infinite power of the human mind.
Descartes’s most famous statement, now
practically the motto of existentialism: “Je
pense donc je suis;” “Cogito, ergo sum;” “I
think, therefore I am.” This is not meant to
prove the existence of one’s body. Quite the
opposite, it is meant to prove the existence of
one’s mind. He rejected perception as
unreliable, and considered deduction the only
reliable method for examining, proving and
disproving anything.
He also adhered to the Ontological Argument
for the Existence of a Christian God, stating
that, because God is benevolent, Descartes can
have some faith in the account of reality his
senses provide him, for God has provided him
with a working mind and sensory system and
does not desire to deceive him. From this
supposition, however, Descartes finally
establishes the possibility of acquiring
knowledge about the world based on deduction
and perception. In terms of the study of
knowledge therefore, he can be said to have
contributed such ideas as a rigorous conception
of foundationalism (basic beliefs) and the
possibility that reason is the only reliable
method of attaining knowledge

3 Paul of Tarsus

The wild card of this list, but give him fair
consideration. Paul accomplished more with the
few letters we have of his, to various churches
in Asia Minor, Israel and Rome, than any other
mortal person in the Bible, except Jesus
himself. Jesus founded Christianity. But without
Paul, the religion would have died in a few
hundred years at best, or remained too insular
to invite the entire world into its faith, as Jesus
Paul had more than one falling out with Peter,
primarily among the other Disciples. Peter
insisted that at least one or two of the Jewish
traditions remain as requirements, along with
faith in Jesus, for one to be counted as
Christian. Paul insisted that faith in Jesus is all
that is required, and neither circumcision,
refusal of certain foods or any other Jewish
custom was necessary, because the world was
now, and forevermore, under a state of Grace in
Jesus, not a state of Law according to Moses.
This principle of a state of grace, which is now
central to all sects of Christianity, was Paul’s
idea (if not Jesus’s), as was the concept of
God’s moral law (in Ten Commandments) being
innately understood by all men once they reach
the age of reason, by which law God will hold all
men accountable on his Day of Judgment.
He is especially impressive to have systematized
these principles flawlessly, having never met
Jesus in person, and in direct opposition to
Peter and several other Disciples. Many
theologists and experts on Christianity and its
history even call Paul, and not Jesus, the
founder of Christianity. That may be going a bit
too far, but keep in mind that the Disciples
intended to keep Christianity for themselves, as
the proper form of Judaism, to which only Jews
could convert. Anyone could symbolically
become a Jew by circumcision and obedience
of the Mosaic Laws (every one of them, not just
the Big Ten). Paul argued against this, stating
that as Christ was the absolute greatest good
that the world would ever see, and Almighty
because he and the Father are one, then the
grace of Christ is sufficiently powerful to save
anyone from his or her sin, whether Jewish,
Gentile or anything else. If the religion were to
have lasted to present day without Paul’s
letters championing the grace of Christ over the
Law of Moses, Christianity would just a minor
sect of Judaism.

2 Plato

Plato lived from c. 428 to c. 348 BC, and
founded the Western world’s first school of
higher education, the Academy of Athens.
Almost all of Western philosophy can be traced
back to Plato, who was taught by Socrates, and
preserved through his own writings, some of
Socrates’s ideas. If Socrates wrote anything
down, it has not survived directly. Plato and
Xenophon, another of his students, recounted a
lot of his teachings, as did the playwright
One of Plato’s most famous quotations concerns
politics, “Until philosophers rule as kings or
those who are now called kings and leading
men genuinely and adequately philosophize,
that is, until political power and philosophy
entirely coincide, while the many natures who
at present pursue either one exclusively are
forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will
have no rest from evils…nor, I think, will the
human race.” What he means is that any
person(s) in control of a nation or city or city-
state must be wise, and that if they are not,
then they are ineffectual rulers. It is only
through philosophy that the world can be free
of evils. Plato’s preferred government was one
of benevolent aristrocrats, those born of
nobility, who are well educated and good, who
help the common people to live better lives. He
argued against democracy proper, rule by the
people themselves, since in his view, a
democracy had murdered his teacher,
Plato’s most enduring theory, if not his political
theories, is that of “The Forms.” Plato wrote
about these forms throughout many of his
works, and asserted, by means of them, that
immaterial abstractions possess the highest,
most fundamental kind of reality. All things of
the material world can change, and our
perception of them also, which means that the
reality of the material world is weaker, less
defined than that of the immaterial
abstractions. Plato argued that something must
have created the Universe. Whatever it is, the
Universe is its offspring, and we, living on
Earth, our bodies and everything that we see
and hear and touch around us, are less real
than the creator of the Universe, and the
Universe itself. This is a foundation on which #4
based his understanding of existentialism.

1 Aristotle

Aristotle topped another of this lister’s lists,
heading the category of philosophy, so his rank
on this one is not entirely surprising. But
consider that Aristotle is the first to have
written systems by which to understand and
criticize everything from pure logic to ethics,
politics, literature, even science. He theorized
that there are four “causes”, or qualities, of any
thing in existence: the material cause, which is
what the subject is made of; the formal cause,
or the arrangement of the subject’s material;
the effective cause, the creator of the thing;
and the final cause, which is the purpose for
which a subject exists.
That all may sound perfectly obvious and not
worth arguing over, but since it would take far
too long for the purpose of a top ten list to
expound on classical causality, suffice to say
that all philosophers since Aristotle have had
something to say on the matter, and absolutely
everything that has been said, and perhaps can
be said, is, or must be, based on Aristotle’s
system of it: it is impossible to discuss causality
without using or trying to debunk Aristotle’s
Aristotle is also the first person in Western
history to argue that there is a hierarchy to all
life in the Universe; that because Nature never
did anything unnecessary as he observed, then
in the same way, this animal is in charge of that
animal, and likewise with plants and animals
together. His so-called “ladder of life” has
eleven rungs, at the top of which are humans.
The Medieval Christian theorists ran with this
idea, extrapolating it to the hierarchy of God
with Man, including angels. Thus, the angelic
hierarchy of Catholicism, usually thought as a
purely Catholic notion, stems from Aristotle,
who lived and died before Jesus was born.
Aristotle was, in fact, at the very heart of the
classical education system used through the
Medieval western world.
Aristotle had something to say on just about
every subject, whether abstract or concrete,
and modern philosophy almost always bases
every single principle, idea, notion or
“discovery” on a teaching of Aristotle. His
principles of ethics were founded on the
concept of doing good, rather than merely
being good. A person may be kind, merciful,
charitable, etc., but until he proves this by
helping others, his goodness means precisely
nothing to the world, in which case it means
nothing to himself.

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