Lucius Annaeus Seneca, better known as Seneca the Younger (4 BC – 65 AD) was a Roman philosopher, writer and statesman who is probably best known for being a tutor and advisor to emperor Nero. By the mid-1st century CE, he established himself as one of the most influential people of the Roman world but his influence turned out to contribute to his premature death. In year 65, Nero forced him to commit suicide for his alleged involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate the emperor. Whether he was really conspiring against the last Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty remains uncertain.
Seneca created his best works in the last three years of his life although he was highly productive throughout his life. His most significant works include tragedies and philosophical dialogues but he was also interested in natural sciences. In 62, he wrote a scientific book titled Naturales quaestiones but other than discussing various theories, he didn’t offer any original solutions.
The surviving works by Seneca include: Tragedies (10 in total): ~Hercules Furens (The Madness of Hercules) ~Hercules Oetaeus (Hercules on Oeta) ~Phaedra ~Oedipus ~Agamemnon ~Thyestes ~Medea ~Troades (The Trojan Women) ~Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women) ~Octavia According to most scholars, Octavia is highly unlikely to have been written by Seneca, while many also question some other Senecan tragedies, especially Hercules Oetaeus (Hercules on Oeta).
British economist, public servant, and philosopher John Stuart Mill is considered a linchpin of modern social and political theory. He contributed a critical body of work to the school of thought called liberalism, an ideology founding on the extension of individual liberties and economic freedoms. As such, Mill himself advocated strongly for the preserving of individual rights and called for limitations to the power and authority of the state over the individual. Mill was also a proponent of utilitarianism, which holds that the best action is one that maximizes utility, or stated more simply, one that provide the greatest benefit to all. This and other ideas found in Mill’s works have been essential to providing rhetorical basis for social justice, anti-poverty, and human rights movements. For his own part, as a member of Parliament, Mill became the first office-holding Briton to advocate for the right of women to vote.
Mill’s Big Ideas ~Advocated strongly for the human right of free speech, and asserted that free discourse is necessary for social and intellectual progress; ~Determined that most of history can be understood as a struggle between liberty and authority, and that limits must be placed on rulership such that it reflects society’s wishes; ~Stated the need for a system of “constitutional checks” on state authority as a way of protecting political liberties.
Mill’s Key Works ~On Liberty and the Subjection of Women (1859, 1869) ~Utilitarianism (1861)
Historian, social theorist, and philosopher Michel Foucault, born in the riverfront city of Poiltiers, France, dedicated much of his teaching and writing to the examination of power and knowledge and their connection to social control. Though often identified as a postmodernist, Foucault preferred to think of himself as a critic of modernity. His service as an international diplomat on behalf of France also influenced his understanding of social constructs throughout history and how they have served to enforce racial, religious, and sexual inequality. His ideals have been particularly embraced by progressive movements, and he allied with many during his lifetime. Active in movements against racism, human rights abuses, prisoner abuses, and marginalization of the mentally ill, he is often cited as a major influence in movements for social justice, human rights, and feminism. More broadly speaking, his examination of power and social control has had a direct influence on the studies of sociology, communications, and political science.
Foucault’s Big Ideas ~Held the conviction that the study of philosophy must begin through a close and ongoing study of history; ~Demanded that social constructs be more closely examined for hierarchical inequalities, as well as through an analysis of the corresponding fields of knowledge supporting these unequal structures; ~Believed oppressed humans are entitled to rights and they have a duty to rise up against the abuse of power to protect these rights.
Foucault’s Key Works ~The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966) ~The Archaeology of Knowledge: And the Discourse on Language (1969) ~Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975)
Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli is at once among the most influential and widely debated of history’s thinkers. A writer, public office-holder, and philosopher of Renaissance Italy, Machiavelli both participated in and wrote prominently on political matters, to the extent that he has even been identified by some as the father of modern political science. He is also seen as a proponent of deeply questionable — some would argue downright evil — values and ideas. Machiavelli was an empiricist who used experience and historical fact to inform his beliefs, a disposition which allowed him to divorce politics not just from theology but from morality as well. His most prominent works described the parameters of effective rulership, in which he seems to advocate for leadership by any means which retain power, including deceit, murder, and oppression. While it is sometimes noted in his defense that Machiavelli himself did not live according to these principles, this “Machiavellian” philosophy is often seen as a template for tyranny and dictatorship, even in the present day.
Machiavelli’s Big Ideas ~Famously asserted that while it would be best to be both loved and feared, the two rarely coincide, and thus, greater security is found in the latter; ~Identified as a “humanist,” and believed it necessary to establish a new kind of state in defiance of law, tradition and particularly, the political preeminence of the Church; ~Viewed ambition, competition and war as inevitable parts of human nature, even seeming to embrace all of these tendencies.
Machiavelli’s Key Works ~Discourses on Livy (1531) ~The Prince (1532) ~The Art Of War (1519–20)
Prussian-born (and therefore identified as a German philosopher), Kant is considered among the most essential figures in modern philosophy, an advocate of reason as the source for morality, and a thinker whose ideas continue to permeate ethical, epistemological, and political debate. What perhaps most distinguishes Kant is his innate desire to find a synthesis between rationalists like Descartes and empiricists like Hume, to decipher a middle ground that defers to human experience without descending into skepticism. To his own way of thinking, Kant was pointing a way forward by resolving a central philosophical impasse.
Kant’s Big Ideas ~Defined the “Categorical imperative,” the idea that there are intrinsically good and moral ideas to which we all have a duty, and that rational individuals will inherently find reason in adhering to moral obligation; ~Argued that humanity can achieve a perpetual peace through universal democracy and international cooperation; ~Asserted that the concepts of time and space, as well as cause and effect, are essential to the human experience, and that our understanding of the world is conveyed only by our senses and not necessarily by the underlying (and likely unseen) causes of the phenomena we observe.
Kant’s Key Works ~Critique of Pure Reason (1781) ~Critique of Judgment (1790) ~The Metaphysics of Morals (1797
A Danish theologian, social critic, and philosopher, Kierkegaard is viewed by many as the most important existentialist philosopher. His work dealt largely with the idea of the single individual. His thinking tended to prioritize concrete reality over abstract thought. Within this construct, he viewed personal choice and commitment as preeminent. This orientation played a major part in his theology as well. He focused on the importance of the individual’s subjective relationship with God, and his work addressed the themes of faith, Christian love, and human emotion. Because Kierkegaard’s work was at first only available in Danish, it was only after his work was translated that his ideas proliferated widely throughout Western Europe. This proliferation was a major force in helping existentialism take root in the 20th century.
Kierkegaard’s Big Ideas ~Explored the idea of objective vs. subjective truths, and argued that theological assertions were inherently subjective and arbitrary because they could not be verified or invalidated by science; ~Was highly critical of the entanglement between State and Church; ~First described the concept of angst, defining it as a dread that comes from anxieties over choice, freedom, and ambiguous feelings.
Kierkegaard’s Key Works ~The Concept of Dread (1844) ~Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Volume 1 (1846) ~Practice in Christianity (1850)
Greek philosopher and teacher Plato did nothing less than found the first institution of higher learning in the Western World, establishing the Academy of Athens and cementing his own status as the most important figure in the development of western philosophical tradition. As the pupil of Socrates and the mentor to Aristotle, Plato is the connecting figure in what might be termed the great triumvirate of Greek thought in both philosophy and science. A quote by British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead sums up the enormity of his influence, noting “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Indeed, it could be argued that Plato founded political philosophy, introducing both the dialectic and dialogic forms of writing as ways to explore various areas of thought. (Often, in his dialogues, he employed his mentor Socrates as the vessel for his own thoughts and ideas.) While he was not the first individual to partake of the activity of philosophy, he was perhaps the first to truly define what it meant, to articulate its purpose, and to reveal how it could be applied with scientific rigor. This orientation provided a newly concreted framework for considering questions of ethics, politics, knowledge, and theology. Such is to say that it is nearly impossible to sum up the impact of Plato’s ideas on science, ethics, mathematics, or the evolution of thought itself other than to say it has been total, permeating, and inexorable from the tradition of rigorous thinking itself.
Plato’s Big Ideas ~Expressed the view, often referred to as Platonism, that those whose beliefs are limited only to perception are failing to achieve a higher level of perception, one available only to those who can see beyond the material world; ~Articulated the theory of forms, the belief that the material world is an apparent and constantly changing world but that another, invisible world provides unchanging causality for all that we do see; ~Held the foundational epistemological view of “justified true belief,” that for one to know that a proposition is true, one must have justification for the relevant true proposition.
Plato’s Key Works ~The Republic (380 BCE) ~The Laws (348 BCE) ~Plato: Complete Works
Friedrich Nietzsche was a poet, cultural critic, and philosopher, as well as possessor of among the most gifted minds in human history. The German thinker’s system of ideas would have a profound impact on the Western World, contributing deeply to intellectual discourse both during and after his life. Writing on an enormous breadth of subjects, from history, religion and science to art, culture and the tragedies of Greek and Roman Antiquity, Nietzsche wrote with savage wit and a love of irony. He used these forces to pen deconstructive examinations of truth, Christian morality, and the impact of social constructs on our formulation of moral values. Also essential to Nietzshe’s writing is articulation of the crisis of nihilism, the basic idea that all things lack meaning, including life itself. This idea in particular would remain an important component of the existentialist and surrealist movements that followed.
Nietzsche’s Big Ideas ~Favored perspectivism, which held that truth is not objective but is the consequence of various factors effecting individual perspective; ~Articulated ethical dilemma as a tension between the master vs. slave morality; the former in which we make decisions based on the assessment of consequences, and the latter in which we make decisions based on our conception of good vs. evil; ~Believed in the individual’s creative capacity to resist social norms and cultural convention in order to live according to a greater set of virtues.
Nietzsche’s Key Works ~The Birth of Tragedy (1872) ~The Gay Science (1882) ~On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo (1887, 1908)