History of Ancient Philosophy

PHI 328. Syllabus. Welcome to the Course!

At Arizona State University, PHI 328 (History of Ancient Philosophy) satisfies a requirement for the Philosophy BA and satisfies the H (historical awareness) and HU (humanities, arts and design) core areas in the General Studies Requirement for a baccalaureate degree.

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.

Terracotta Panathenaic Prize Amphora
Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora. It is attributed to the Euphiletos Painter and dated to about 530 BCE. The image is of the reverse.

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

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

The Greek adjective ἀκαδημικός means "relating to the Academy, Academic," and the English word 'academic' is its descendant.

The English noun 'cult' comes from the Latin cultus ("a laboring at, care, cultivation"). Religion or religio in the Ancient world is the "cultivation of the gods" (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods II.8-9, II.72).

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.

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.")

"[The politician Cimon] was the first to beautify the city [of 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 politician and general. He was involved in the rebuilding of Athens after the Persians destroyed it in 480 BCE in the Greco-Persian Wars.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 BCE.
Toward the end of his life, Cicero wrote a series of works to present the philosophy of the schools in his native Latin.

Pliny the Elder, Roman author and naturalist, 1st century CE. His nephew (Pliny the Younger) reports in his Letters that Pliny the Elder died in the pyroclastic surge in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.

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

In Letter X.96, a letter Pliny writes in 112 CE, he reports his encounter with Christians and asks Trajan how he should deal with their refusal to participate in the imperial cult that gave the emperor divine status.

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

Pausanias, traveler and geographer, 2nd century CE.

Diogenes Laertius, a biographer, 3rd century CE.

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

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

Vincent van Gogh, Large Plane Trees, 1889.
Ancient philosophy refers to the philosophical discussion in the Greek and Roman world from 585 BCE to 529 CE. There are different ways to divide this period for study, but a common way is to recognize three subperiods: the Presocratic Period, the Period of Schools, and the Period of Scholarship and Syncreticism.

Course Description

This course is in the history of philosophy. The aim in the history of philosophy is not to solve philosophical problems. It is to understand why the philosophers in the period thought what they did.

The period in this course is from about 585 BCE to about 100 BCE. This the time from the Presocratic Period though the Period of Schools. Within this roughly five hundred years of Ancient philosophy, our focus is on Socrates and the reaction to him in Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, and the Academics.

These philosophers lived in a world very different from the one most of us know. In the 5th century BCE, about fifteen hundred cities with surrounding territories existed in the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions. Rarely did their territories exceed a hundred square miles or their populations number more than a few thousand. Their economies were mostly agricultural. They did not have our history, science, or technology.

From within this context the truth appeared different to these philosophers than it does to us now, but the concern that dominated their lives does not. They wanted to understand the human condition, the obstacles it poses for living the best life a human being can live, and the steps there are to overcome these obstacles.

Course Assignments

The letter grade (A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, D, E) for the course is a function of the grade 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.

For each of the five modules in the course, there is a set of prompts. Your answers to each prompt should be about one 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 are for sharing your thoughts about the reading in the module. Short, hard to understand answers receive no credit.

The numerical grades for the 5 quizzes (10 points each), 10 prompts (4 points each), and 5 debriefing sessions (2 points each) sum to 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).

There is no extra credit, but I am happy to help students with independent projects.

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, which you must adequately document.

I work with Barrett students on Honors Enrichment Contracts. Email me in the first week of the semester.

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 rely completely on the lecture notes. They are linked through this syllabus.

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. We attribute certain thoughts to them and try to show that they had these thoughts given what they wrote. Once we know what the Ancient philosophers thought, we try to understand why they had these thoughts.

Course Lecture Notes

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 away from the old publishing model. The lecture notes are easy to change.

The lecture notes too are an effort on my part to make the history of Ancient philosophy more accessible. The cloud service provider I use is Digital Ocean. The server I rent from them is in San Francisco.

I use Tufte CSS to style the lecture notes and this syllabus. There is a main column and sidenotes on the right. Links are underlined, match the text in color, and do not change color on mouseover or when clicked.

It is not necessary to understand every word in the lecture notes to do well (get an A) in this class. The prompts and quizzes are about the central ideas. The additional links and information are for the benefit of those who have the time and interest to work toward a more complete understanding of Ancient philosophy.

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