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 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 and seats for spectators. The word 'stadium' descends from this use.

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 would later frequent and where Plato founded a school (Plato, Lysis 203a). It 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 "of the Academy, Academic." The word 'academic' is from this adjective.

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, 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 Roman 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 it is common for historians of Ancient philosophy to divide the subject into three subperiods: the Presocratic Period, the Period of Schools, and the Period of Scholarship and Syncreticism.

Course Description

This is a course in the history of philosophy.

The aim in the history of philosophy is not to solve philosophical problems. It is to understand what caused the Ancient philosophical tradition and why it developed in the way it did.

The focus in this course is on Socrates and the reaction to him in Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenistic philosophers (Epicurus, the Stoics, and the Academics). This takes us though the Presocratic Period and the Period of schools or the time from 585 BCE to 100 BCE.

The world during this time was very different from the one most of us know. The Ancient philosophers did not have our history, science, or technology, but the concern that most interested them is one we can appreciate. They wanted 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 to know what steps we can take to overcome these obstacles.

Our goal is to understand what the Ancient philosophers had to say about these things.

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. The questions are about basic facts. The quizzes are not timed, and they are open-book.

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 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).

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.

I am happy to work with Barrett students 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 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 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 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 allows mistakes to be corrected as they are discoverd and new material released 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 them 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 holds the page and the right column holds the footnotes for the page. 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 provide a lot of information, and understanding all of it is not necessary for doing well in this course. The prompts are available at the beginning of each module, and I will announce what you need to know for the quizzes before they are due.

I am also available for meetings by zoom. Email me to set up a time.

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