History of Ancient Philosophy

PHI 328. Syllabus. Welcome to the Course!

The dates that mark the beginning and end of Ancient philosophy are conventional. In 585 BCE, a solar eclipse occurred that Thales of Miletus predicted. In 529 CE, to protect the Empire from corruption, the Christian Emperor Justinian prohibited pagans from teaching.

At Arizona State University, PHI 328 (History of Ancient Philosophy) satisfies a requirement for the Philosophy BA, H and HU in the Maroon, and GCSI in the Gold General Studies Requirement for a baccalaureate degree.

Terracotta Panathenaic Prize Amphora
Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora. It is attributed to the Euphiletos Painter and dated to about 530 BCE. The image is on what The Met calls side 1 of the amphora.

A "stadion" (στάδιον) is 600 Greek feet and the distance of a foot-race. The most famous was on a track in the sanctuary of Olympia where the Olympic Games were held (Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.8.1). The word for the race came to be used for the track together with the seats for spectators. We see this history in the word stadium.

The Panathenaic amphorae contained olive oil and were given to victors in the Panathenaic Games. The oil was from a sacred grove of olive trees in the Academy, a place Socrates frequented and where Plato founded the school named for its location (Plato, Lysis 203a). This was an area of land about a mile northwest of Athens (Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.29). It took its name from Academus, who was the object of cult worship (Plutarch, Theseus 32; Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Philosophers III.7).

The adjective ἀκαδημικός means "of the Academy, Academic." From this adjective comes he word academic.

The noun cult comes from the Latin cultus ("a laboring at, careing for, cultivation"). Religion consisted in cults focused on the gods (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods II.8).

In a siege of Athens in 87-86 BCE, the Roman general Sulla "laid hands upon the sacred groves, and ravaged the Academy, which was the most wooded of the city's suburbs, as well as the Lyceum" (Plutarch, Sulla 12).

The Lyceum was the site of the school Aristotle founded. Like the Academy, it was an area outside the city walls that became a place for intellectual discussion.

The Panathenaea (the Greater and the Lesser) were festivals the Athenians hosted in honor of the goddess Athena. They celebrated the Greater Panathenaea every four years, in the third year of the Olympiad. (They thought of it as a πεντετηρίς (a festival celebrated "every five years") because they counted inclusively: "Festival . 2 . 3 . 4 . Festival.")

"Cimon was the first to beautify Athens with the so-called liberal (ἐλευθερίοις = "fit for a free man") and elegant resorts which were so excessively popular a little later [in the time of Plato and Aristotle], by planting the market-place with plane trees [Old World sycamores], and by converting the Academy from a waterless and arid spot into a well watered grove, which he provided with clear running-tracks and shady walks" (Plutarch, Cimon 13.8).

The adjective ἐλευθέριος translates into Latin as liberalis.

"The first plane-trees that were spoken of in terms of high admiration were those which adorned the walks of the Academy" (Pliny the Elder, Natural History XII.5).

Cimon (6th to 5th century BCE) was an Athenian στρατηγός. He was involved in the rebuilding of Athens after the Persians destroyed it in 480 BCE in the war between the Greeks and the Achaemenid Empire.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 BCE.
Toward the end of his life, he wrote a series of works to present the philosophy of the schools in his native Latin. These works are an important source for the Hellenistic philosophers, as most of their writings did not survive.

Pliny the Elder, Roman naturalist, 1st century CE.
He died in the pyroclastic surge in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE (Pliny the Younger, Letters VI.16).

Pliny the Younger (1st to 2nd century CE), Roman Lawyer and Imperial Magistrate under the Roman Emperor Trajan.

In a letter to Trajan (Roman emperor 98-117 CE), Pliny the Younger reports his encounter with Christians and asks how he should deal with their refusal to participate in the imperial cult that gave Trajan divine status (Letters X.96).

Plutarch, Platonist, 1st to 2nd century CE.

Pausanias, traveler and geographer, 2nd century CE.

Diogenes Laertius, a kind of biographer, 3rd century CE.
He is the primary source for our knowledge of Epicurus.

vase ἀμφορεύς,
amphoreus, noun, "two-handled jar with a narrow neck."

ἀμφί ("on both sides")
φορεύς ("carrier"))

Vincent van Gogh, Large Plane Trees, 1889.

Theophrasus (371-287 BCE, head of the Lyceum after Aristotle) reports that one plane tree in the Lyceum sent out roots a distance of 33 πήχεις (On Plants 1.7.1).

A πῆχυς is the length of a Greek forearm, point of the elbow to end of the middle finger.
Ancient philosophy is the traditional name for an extended philosophical discussion that took place in the Greek and Roman world in the period from 585 BCE to 529 CE.

Course Description

The history of Ancient philosophy is part of a discipline called the history of philosophy.

This discipline does not aim to solve philosophical problems. The history of philosophy tries to understand why philosophy came to exist and changed over time in the ways it did.

Because this takes so much work to know, courses in the history of philosophy have a focus. The focus in this course is on the time from the beginning of Ancient philosophy in 585 BCE to the end of the Period of Schools in about 100 BCE. This is when Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenistic philosophers (Epicurus, the Stoics, and the Academics) lived.

When we are thinking about the philosophical discussion that took place, we will see that the world appeared very differently to the Ancient philosophers than it does to us. They knew nothing of our science or technology. Their culture was different from ours.

This guarantees that many of their beliefs are going to appear false to us, but the question about happiness they tried to answer is one we still ask. They tried to understand the human condition. They wanted to know the obstacles it poses for living the best life a human being can live, and they wanted do know how they could overcome these obstacles.

In the history of philosophy, moreover, true and false beliefs both need explanation. We want to understand why the Ancient philosophers came to believe what they did. For the beliefs that appear false to us, the explanation requires us to get inside the minds of people who lived in the world as it appeared before we acquired the beliefs that give us our perspective.

Course Assignments

The letter grade (A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, D, E) for this course is a function of the grades on 5 quizzes (50% of the total grade), 10 prompts (40%), and 5 debriefing sessions (10%).

For each of the five modules in the course (Presocratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hellenistic Philosophers), there is a quiz. Each quiz consists of ten multiple-choice questions. They test for knowledge of basic facts. The quizzes are not timed. You have two attempts.

For each of the five modules in the course, there is a set of prompts. Your answers to each prompt can be no more than a page in length. The grade for each answer is pass or fail.

For each of the modules in the course, there is a debriefing session, These sessions provide you with the opportunity to share your thoughts about the reading in the module.

The grades for the 5 quizzes (10 points each), 10 prompts (4 points each), and 5 debriefing sessions (2 points each) determine the letter grade for the course: A+ (100-97), A (96-94), A- (93-90), B+ (89-87), B (86-84), B- (83-80), C+ (79-77), C (76-70), D (69-60), E (59-0).

I do not accept late work unless the student provides a good reason. If you are going to submit work late, I accept more reasons as good reasons if you contact me before the due date.

I give incompletes only to accommodate serious illnesses and family emergencies.

I work with students on independent projects and on Honors Enrichment Contracts.

Textbook and Readings

The textbook for the course is Ancient Greek Philosophy: From the Presocratics to the Hellenistic Philosophers. It is not required. You can easily rely completely on the lecture notes.

The readings (linked through the lecture notes) are translations of some of the surviving texts.

These texts are the primary evidence we use to understand what the Ancient philosophers thought and why they had these thoughts. We attribute certain thoughts to them, and we try to show that they had these thoughts given what they wrote or others wrote about them.

Course Lecture Notes and Videos

The lecture notes for the course extend and sometimes correct the textbook.

The textbook is fixed in time. The lecture notes are not. They are works in progress. This is one of the great advantages of moving to the new publishing model. It is possible to correct mistakes as they are discovered and release new material as it becomes available.

The lecture notes are explanations of the texts and part of an effort to make Ancient philosophy more accessible. I host the notes on a server I rent from DigitalOcean.

I use Tufte CSS to style the lecture notes and this syllabus. In this style, the center column functions as a page in a book. The right column contains footnotes. Links are underlined, match the text in color, and do not change color on mouseover or when clicked.

In addition to the lecture notes, there are videos. In the videos, I present the material in a more conversational style and show how to use some online resources for Ancient philosophy.

The lecture notes and videos contain a lot of information. You do not need to understand all of it. The focus in the quizzes and prompts is on basic facts about Ancient philosophy.

I host periodic zoom group sessions and meet individually with students by zoom.

Contact Information

Thomas A. Blackson, Philosophy Faculty
School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies
Lattie F. Coor Hall, room 3356
PO Box 874302
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ. 85287-4302

Email: blackson@asu.edu

Academic Webpage: tomblackson.com
History Webpage: history-of-ancient-philosophy.com