10 Essential Works of Greek Philosophy

These ten works of Greek Philosophy have shaped the course of Western thought and remain a rich source of inspiration and knowledge in a variety of fields.

Sep 5, 2023By Rhianna Padman, BA Classics

greek philosophy essential works


One of the most significant intellectual traditions in human history, Greek philosophy has had a momentous influence on the development of Western thought. The tradition emerged in ancient Greece in the sixth century BCE and continued to flourish well into the Hellenistic era and beyond. Greek thinkers, ranging from the pre-Socratic philosophers through the Stoics, Epicureans, and Neoplatonist, have made revolutionary ideas and arguments that have influenced how we perceive the world and our place within it. At the heart of Greek philosophy is a commitment to reason and inquiry as the means to understanding the nature of reality and the human condition. It has been characterized by a deep curiosity about the world and a commitment to the search for truth.


1. The Republic by Plato

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The Republic by Plato, via Onedio


The Republic is recognized as one of the most significant philosophical texts in the Western tradition. In this work, Plato (ca. 428 – 348 BCE) examines issues such as the nature of justice, the ideal society, and the function of the philosopher in contemporary civilization.


The dialogue occurs between Socrates and several other speakers, structured around a series of arguments about the characteristics of this ideal society. Plato proposes a vision of a utopia in which the rulers are philosopher-kings who are guided by reason to pursue the common good rather than their self-interest. He also examines the nature of the human soul, the relationship between the individual and the state, and the importance of education and the cultivation of virtue.


2. The Apology by Plato 

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The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David, 1787 via The Metropolitan Museum


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The Apology is centered on the trial of Socrates, who was accused, among other accusations, of corrupting the youth and failing to honor the gods of Athens. In the dialogue, Socrates defends himself against these allegations, arguing that his actions were unharmful and that his teachings were beneficial to the city.


Utilizing various rhetorical techniques, Socrates presents a defense of his philosophical beliefs and values, including the pursuit of wisdom, the importance of critical self-examination, and the value of individual conscience over public opinion. The dialogue concludes with Socrates being convicted and sentenced to death. He accepts his fate calmly, demonstrating steadfast adherence to his principles even in the face of unfair punishment.


3. The Symposium by Plato

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Plato’s Symposium, by Anselm Feuerbach, c. 1869, via Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe


The Symposium takes place during a… symposium, a traditional type of entertainment in ancient Greece where guests would engage in intellectual discourse while drinking. The speeches, which range from humorous to deeply philosophical, delve into different aspects of love, including its physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. The central figure of the conversation is Socrates, who challenges the other speakers to transcend preconceived notions of love and uncover its true nature.


Socrates argues that love is more than just an emotion or a feeling; it also serves as a means of accessing higher knowledge and understanding. He suggests that true love is more than simply a physical attraction between individuals; but also involves a spiritual or intellectual connection.


4. Phaedo by Plato

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The School of Plato by Johann Gerhard Huck, 1795 via The British Museum


The story of Socrates’ execution day is told in Phaedo, framed as a series of conversations between Socrates and his followers where they engage in a discussion about the nature of the soul and the possibility of its immortality. According to Socrates, the soul is immortal and separate from the body. The body is merely a temporary vessel for the soul, which continues to exist after the body dies. The group turns to discuss the idea of the Forms, abstract concepts that exist beyond the physical world, with Socrates arguing that the Forms are more real than physical objects. The dialogue then shifts to how the physical world and the world of ideas relate to one another, introducing the idea that the former is superior to the latter.


As the dialogue draws to a close, Socrates’ followers become emotional, knowing that this will be the last time they will see him alive. Nonetheless, Socrates remains calm convinced that death is only the soul’s severance from the body. The dialogue brings up significant issues regarding the nature of human existence and the purpose of life.


5. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle 

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Aristotle by Francesco Hayez, 1811 via Wikimedia Commons


Nicomachean Ethics is a significant work in Aristotelian philosophy that explores the nature of ethics and morality. Organized into ten books, it examines different aspects of moral life including the nature of virtues, the role of reason in ethical decision-making, and the importance of friendship and community. According to Aristotle (ca. 384 – 322 BCE), obtaining eudaimonia, or a state of flourishing and well-being, can only be attained through the cultivation of virtues and the pursuit of moral excellence. The text continues to be a major contribution to philosophical history, and the ideas it contains have had a profound effect on the evolution of ethical theory and conduct.


6. De Anima by Aristotle 

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Souls on the Banks of the Acheron, by Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, 1898, via Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria


A fundamental text of Aristotle’s philosophy, De Anima, studies the nature of the soul and its purposes. It is divided into three books, each of which focuses on a distinct aspect of the soul, such as its various faculties and powers, the nature of perception and imagination, and the role of intellect in human cognition. Aristotle’s work has had a considerable influence on the growth of Western philosophy and psychology, particularly his theories on the connection between the mind and body, perception, and cognition. His views on the nature of knowledge and understanding are still the subject of much scholarly study and controversy.


7. Poetics by Aristotle 

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Aristotle with a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt, 1653 via The Metropolitan Museum


Aristotle’s Poetics is a famous work that examines the nature of literature and the fundamentals of dramatic art, having a significant impact on the development of literary theory and criticism, and its ideas continue to influence the study and production of drama. Each chapter discusses the different aspects of the art of poetry, such as the nature of tragedy, plot, and character elements, as well as language and style. Aristotle argues that tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude, and it has the ability to evoke emotions such as pity and fear in its audience. He emphasizes the significance of plot, character, and language in creating a successful tragedy and suggests that the tragic poet aims to produce a work that is both pleasing and instructive.


8. Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius 

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Portrait of Diogenes Laërtius, 1872 via The British Museum


Each of the ten books of Diogenes Laertius’ monumental work is separated into pre-Socratic, Socratic, and Hellenistic periods, containing biographical and anecdotal material on notable philosophers from those periods. The work discusses a wide range of subjects, including political philosophy, epistemology, metaphysics, and the major philosophical schools of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Academics. Despite criticism for its lack of critical rigor and occasional inaccuracies, the work is, however, a valuable resource for learning about the lives and ideologies of numerous significant ancient thinkers. In addition, it provides valuable insights into the philosophical and cultural background of ancient Greek philosophy.


9. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

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Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius by Eugène Delacroix, 1844 via Wikimedia Commons


Meditations was originally written in Greek, the dominant language of intellectual discourse in the Roman Empire at the time, written by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 CE). The work has significantly impacted the development of Stoic philosophy and sheds light on the ethical and moral values of the time. Meditations was most likely written privately as a collection of thoughts and philosophical speculations rather than with the intention of publishing.


The nature of the ego, the use of reason, the value of virtue, and the inevitable nature of death are just a few of the many subjects that Aurelius discusses. His reflections are often framed in terms of his own experiences as a ruler and a soldier, and he frequently returns to the Stoic notion of acceptance of one’s fate. He stresses the value of leading a virtuous life and suggests that an individual’s thoughts and actions should be guided by reason and a sense of moral duty.


10. The Enneads by Plotinus

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Portrait of Plotinus, 350-370 BCE via Bloomsbury Collections


Plotinus is considered the founder of Neoplatonist school of thought. He lived during the Roman Empire during the 3rd century CE and wrote in Greek. Plotinus’ Enneads is split into six groups of nine treatises each and covers a wide range of topics, including metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, and theology. Plotinus claims that the ultimate reality is a transcendent One, which is beyond all language and conceptualization. The material world is a mere reflection or emanation of this ultimate reality. The nature of the human soul, the role of virtue in the pursuit of happiness, and the relationship between the individual and the divine are among the topics also discussed in The Enneads.


Plotinus places a strong emphasis on the transcendence of the material world and the value of mystical contemplation in achieving spiritual enlightenment. The text has greatly inspired Western philosophy, especially the works of Augustine and other Christian theologians.

Author Image

By Rhianna PadmanBA ClassicsRhianna is a recent Classics graduate from the University of Exeter. Her studies mainly focused on Ancient Greek and Latin, allowing her to explore in depth a range of ancient texts. She is especially interested in mythology, language, and psychology, with her dissertation focusing on applying Freudian psychoanalysis to Homer’s Odyssey. During her year abroad at the University of Malta, she developed a keen passion for traveling. Since her time in Malta, she has been to Italy, Croatia, Indonesia, and Thailand, and she plans on many more places to visit!