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
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
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
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 Avicenna
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
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
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
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 Nazareth.
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 wanted.
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
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
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 Aristophanes.
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, Socrates.
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
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
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 singleprinciple, 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. We could go on about Aristotle, of course, but this list has gone on long enough. Honorable mentions are very many, so list them as you like.

posted by Team Napres


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