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Genius of the Ancient World

Historian Bettany Hughes travels to India, Greece and China on the trail of three giants of ancient philosophy: The Buddha, Socrates and Confucius.

  • Duration 5 mins
  • Updated Wednesday 25th October 2017
  • Posted under TV, Philosophy
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Buddha, Socrates and Confucius

All three philosophers lived, between the 6th – 5th BC, during a period of unprecedented, and intense, intellectual development.

They were trailblazers, whose radical ideas signaled a key change in human consciousness. They embodied the shift, from a reliance on the supernatural, as the sole way to explain humankind’s place in the cosmos, to one where rational argument and logical reasoning offered new, exciting possibilities.

Their game-changing ideas came about in response to huge changes in society; growing urbanisation, advances in technology, flourishing trade and large-scale wars.

In a rapidly changing world, they were the first people to apply reason, to crucial existential and socio-political questions, which are still as urgent and relevant today, as they were then:
  • Do material things make us happy?
  • What is justice?
  • How do we live a good life?

Drawing on archaeology, and expert opinion, Bettany follows in the footsteps of these great figures, in her quest to unpack their philosophy, in the context of their age.

She reveals how, even though their ideas came about two and half thousand years ago, their thinking still shapes, and continues to provide solutions to, our own lives.

Here on OpenLearn you can dig deeper into the subject:

This series first airs on Wednesday 5th August 2015 on BBC Four. For more information please see

Meet the Philosophers

The Buddha



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Episode 3 – Confucius

Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC Confucius is considered the first Chinese thinker to take a systematic, philosophical approach to the social, political and moral challenges of his world.

Born in a chaotic, violent age, he believed that harmony could be restored through the example of the sage rulers of history.

A great innovator, he commandeered rituals and traditions of the past, to form a compelling philosophical vision.

A pioneer in education, he attracted a loyal band of students, and tried to instill his principles of moral excellence and self-cultivation in China’s rulers.

He died without seeing his goal achieved. But eventually his philosophy became the bedrock of Chinese culture.

Drawing on archaeology and expert opinion, Bettany investigates this inspiring figure.

Episodes in this series

Episode Description
Episode 1 – Buddha In this first episode, Bettany investigates the revolutionary ideas of the Buddha. Read more
Episode 2 – Socrates In this second episode, Bettany investigates the revolutionary ideas of Socrates. Read more
Episode 3 – Confucius In this third episode, Bettany investigates the game-changing ideas of Confucius. Read more




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