Ancient Greek Philosophy

From the Presocratics to the Hellenistic Philosophers

The Period of Study

Ancient philosophy begins in 585 BCE with Thales of Miletus. It ends in 529 CE.

585 BCE is the year a solar eclipse occurred that Thales predicated. 529 CE is the year the Christian Emperor Justinian moved against heresies and tried to support Christianity by prohibiting non-Christians from working as teachers on any subject.

One way to divide Ancient philosophy into parts for study is to recognize three subperiods:

This course is limited to the developments in the first two periods.

There is no attempt to consider the secondary literature, but in the end sections of the lecture notes, I do sometimes include excerpts from the work of Michael Frede (1940-2007). He was a leader in the field, and his research has shaped my understanding of Ancient philosophy.

The Language in the Period

"These Phoenicians who came with Cadmus and of whom the Gephyraeans were a part brought with them to Hellas, among many other kinds of learning, the alphabet, which had been unknown before this, I think, to the Greeks. As time went on the sound and the form of the letters were changed. At this time the Greeks who were settled around them were for the most part Ionians, and after being taught the letters by the Phoenicians, they used them with a few changes of form. In so doing, they gave to these characters the name Phoenician (Φοινικήια), as was quite fair seeing that the Phoenicians had brought them into Greece" (Herodotus, Histories 5.58.2).

The Phoenician city of Byblos (now in Lebanon) was the center of the papyrus trade. The city takes it name from the Greek for "papyrus" (the plant, Cyperus Papyrus), βύβλος. This word also means "roll of papyrus." βιβλίον ("book") is a diminutive of βύβλος. τὰ Βιβλία is "the Bible." (The word 'paper' comes from πάπυρος, which also means "papyrus.")

"Do you think you are accusing Anaxagoras, my dear Meletus, and do you so despise these gentlemen and think they are so unversed in letters as not to know, that the books (βιβλία) of Anaxagoras the Clazomenian are full of such utterances" (Plato, Apology 26d)?

“Then one day I heard a man reading from a book (βιβλίου), as he said, by Anaxagoras..." (Plato, Phaedo 97b).

"And they produce a bushel of books (βίβλων) of Musaeus and Orpheus..." (Plato, Republic II.364e).

"Here is the book (βιβλίον)..." (Plato, Theaetetus 143b).

The city of Byblos is is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It is one of the world's oldest cites. It has existed from about 5000 BCE.


Map of Greek dialects
Map of Greek Dialects

The Greek language belongs to the Indo-European family of languages. This family consists in the languages spoken in the geographical area. Greek belongs to the Hellenic subgroup. The earliest Hellenic dialect for which there is surviving evidence is Mycenaean Greek. It dates to about 1450 BCE and is preserved in inscriptions in what is called Linear B. Literacy was lost in about the 12th century BCE when the Mycenaean civilization collapsed. Early in the 8th century BCE, the Greeks relearned how to write. This time, however, instead of using the Linear B script the Mycenaeans used, they adopted the letters the Phoenicians used.

Homer's poems the Iliad and Odyssey were written in the new Greek alphabet in about the 8th century BCE. (They previously had been transmitted orally.) These poems tell stories that are something like memories of life in the Mycenaean world before the Greek Dark Ages (about the 12th to 8th century BCE). As such, they are a mixture of fact and fiction.

The Iliad is set in the final year of the Trojan War in which the Achaeans (who were part of the Mycenaean civilization that dominated Greece before the Dark Ages) fought the Trojans and laid siege to their capital city, Troy (located in what is now Turkey).

The Odyssey follows Odysseus home after Troy falls in the tenth year of the siege.

The language from Homer to Plato (4th century BCE) constitutes Classical Greek. Ionic and Attic are its most important forms. Ionic was spoken along the west coast of Asia Minor. The earliest prose writers wrote in Ionic. This, for example, is the dialect of Thales, the medical writer Hippocrates, and the historian Herodotus. Attic is a subform of Ionic Greek. It is the dialect of Athens in the time of Socrates in the 5th century BCE.

Attic Greek is the dialect most widely used to teach ancient Greek in schools today. The cultural importance of ancient Athens to subsequent civilization contributed to the survival of works in the Attic dialect. The playwrights Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, and Aristophanes wrote in this dialect. So did the historians Thucydides and Xenophon, the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and the orators Lysias, Isocrates, and Demosthenes.

The dialects initially were the languages of parts of the Greek world, but some of them became the languages of forms of writing. The Iliad and the Odyssey are a mixture of Ionic and Aeolic. This mixed dialect became the language of poetry written in hexameters. Hesiod, for example, a Boeotian, used this mixed dialect for his hexameter poetry. The influence of Thales of Miletus and the early Ionic prose writers caused later prose writers to use the Ionic dialect. Doric became the language of choral lyric poetry. The Athenian tragedians used it in the choral portions of their tragedies and used Attic as the language of the other parts.

Attic Greek evolved into Koine Greek.

Philip II established the Attic dialect as the official language of Macedon (in northern Greece). Alexander the Great (Philip's son) took this language with him in his conquests that spread Hellenism through out the ancient world. The Attic dialect, in this way, became the basis for Koine Greek, which was the dominant form after the 3rd century BCE.

Philip II of Macedon, 382-336 BCE.

Alexander III of Macedon, 356-323 BCE.
This was the "common" (κοινή), everyday form of the language of the people during the Hellenistic Age. It is also the language in which the New Testament of the Christian Bible was written, and it is the language Thinking which the Old Testament was translated from older Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts.

For academic research in the history of Ancient philosophy, it is necessary to know some ancient Greek. To do well in this course, this knowledge is not necessary. In the lecture notes, I do mention Greek words and phrases and talk about their meanings. Some of these words sound like and have etymological connections to English words, and these connections as well as the meanings of the Greek words themselves are often interesting.

The History of Philosophy

The history of Ancient philosophy and philosophy are different disciplines. Whereas the discipline of philosophy aims to solve philosophical problems, the history of Ancient philosophy does not. It is a ἱστορία or "inquiry" that attempts to explain why the Ancient philosophical tradition came into existence and why it developed the way it did.

Although the history of Ancient philosophy and philosophy are different disciplines, the history of philosophy cannot proceed without knowledge of philosophy. We want to understand what motivated the Ancient philosophers to think that what they thought was true, and this means that we must know some philosophy. In part, this is why historians of philosophy study philosophy. They want to understand the history of philosophy.

The Texts are the Primary Evidence

After the Roman General Sulla sacked Athens in 88 BCE as part of the First Mithridatic War, philosophers had to rely more on the texts themselves for continuity with their traditions. This resulted in an effort to produce canonical editions and commentaries. Much of this work began to go out of circulation in about the third century CE.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, 138-178 BCE.

The First Mithridatic War was a conflict between Rome and the Kingdom of Pontus (ruled by Mithridates VI).

Athens had ceased to be independent in the 4th century.

It is not easy to figure out what the Ancient philosophers thought.

Only a fraction of texts about the Ancients and their world have survived, and some survived in a form that makes them unreliable. Further, in some cases, most notably for Socrates, we are completely dependent on what others have written for what the philosopher thought.

Despite these obstacles, we have a fair idea of what some of the more central Ancient philosophers thought. Often what we are missing are details that might not have existed.

An example helps to make this idea a little clearer.

Socrates did not record his thoughts, but others wrote about him. Plato was one of these authors. In his Apology, Plato features a character named Socrates and makes him defend himself against charges that were brought against the historical Socrates. The city of Athens executed Socrates in 399 BCE. In this defense, the character says that he will not give up φιλοσοφία even if this will cost him his life.

From Plato's depiction of Socrates, we can conclude that the historical Socrates thought that φιλοσοφία was extremely important. What we do not know is exactly how Socrates understood this φιλοσοφία he would not abandon. We can (as we will see) fill in the picture to some extent, but at some point we cannot make it any more detailed. The surviving texts just do not give us these details, and the reason might be that Socrates himself did not have these details completely worked out in his mind. Thinking often is like this.





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