Ancient Greek Philosophy

From the Presocratics to the Hellenistic Philosophers

The Period of Study: 585 BCE - 529 CE

Ancient Greek Philosophy begins in 585 BCE with Thales of Miletus and ends in 529 CE when the Christian Emperor Justinian moved against heresies and tried to support the orthodox faith by prohibiting pagans from acting as teachers on any subject. This roughly thousand year tradition contains three main subperiods of unequal duration and importance:

  • Presocratic Period
  • Period of Schools
  • Period of Scholarship

This course covers the first two periods, or roughly the first 500 years.

This period is the traditional focus of the ancient philosophy course required for a philosophy major in most colleges and universities in the United States. The best known ancient philosophers lived and worked in the second of these two periods. This is the time of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and the Hellenistic philosophers The Hellenistic philosophers take their time from the time in which they lived, the Hellenistic Age, the period in history from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 until the end of the Roman Republic in 31 BCE. The Hellenistic philosophers (the Epicureans, Academic Skeptics, and the Stoics) flourished in this period until about 100 BCE, which is the traditional end of the Period of Schools. (the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Academics).

We will not read any of the secondary literature about the ancients. I do, however, sometimes quote from the work of Michael Frede (1940-2007). His discussions are a good place to find insight into the most general lines of thought that unify much of the ancient philosophical tradition.

Method in the History of Philosophy

The object of the history of ancient philosophy is to understand ancient philosophy. It is to know what ancient philosophers thought and why they had these thoughts, but the history of ancient philosophy is not an inquiry into everything the ancient philosophers thought. It is primarily an inquiry into the thoughts that are significant in ancient philosophy. In this way, the history of ancient philosophy is concerned with the thoughts of the ancient philosophers that enter into the ancient philosophical tradition and that are influential in this tradition.

When Sulla sacked Athens in 88 BCE, the various groups of philosophers elsewhere around the region were forced to rely on the texts for continuity with their respective 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. The surviving texts are the primary evidence for the history of ancient philosophy but if the historian has identified a thought but can find no explanation in the texts for why the philosopher had this thought, then he tries to place the philosopher within a broader historical context in which it would have been natural for the philosopher to have the thought in question.

Philosophy and the History of Philosophy

The history of philosophy is is not an attempt to solve philosophical problems. It is an inquiry into what past philosophers thought, but it should not be supposed that the history of philosophy can proceed without knowledge of philosophy. It is necessary to understand the discipline to understand its history. Just as it is necessary to understand, say, mathematics to understand its history, it is necessary to understand philosophy to understand the history of philosophy. In part, this why historians of philosophy study philosophy and why classes in the history of philosophy are typically listed as classes in philosophy in most colleges and universities.

A History of the Ancient Greek Language

"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 of Phoenician, as was quite fair seeing that the Phoenicians had brought them into Greece" (Herodotus, historian, contemporary of Socrates (5th century BCE), Histories V.58).

The Phoenicians lived on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. The Phoenician city of Byblos (located in what is now Lebanon) was the center of the papyrus trade. βύβλος is Greek for "the Egyptian papyrus, Cyperus Papyrus." (The Greeks also used πάπυρος for papyrus. The word 'paper' comes from πάπυρος. The words 'book' and part of the word 'bibliography' come from βύβλος.)

Mycenaean Greek is the most ancient attested form of the written Greek language. It is preserved in inscriptions in what is called Linear B and was deciphered in 1953. The Mycenaean civilization collapsed in about the 12th century BCE. Literacy was lost. Eventually, though, the Greeks relearned how to write. This time, however, instead of using the Linear B script used by the Mycenaeans, they adopted in the 8th century BCE the alphabet used by the Phoenicians.

In about the 8th century BCE, the Iliad and Odyssey were written down. (They previously had been transmitted orally.) These works contain stories that are something like memories of life in the Mycenaean world before the Greek Dark Ages (about the 12th to 9th century BCE). As such, they are a mixture of fact and fiction. (The Iliad is set in the final year of the Trojan War. The Trojan War is the war of the Achaeans (who belonged to the Mycenaean civilization that dominated Greece) against the Trojans. (The ancient city of Troy is in what is now Turkey.) The siege of Troy lasts ten years. The Odyssey follows Odysseus home after Troy falls.)

The Greek language from Homer (8th century BCE) to Plato (4th century BCE) is known as "Classical" Greek. The Ionic dialect was spoken along the west coast of Asia Minor. Attic Greek is a subform of Ionic. This was the language of Athens, the birthplace of Socrates.

Attic Greek is the dialect most widely used for teaching those who wish to learn the ancient language. This is due to the cultural importance of ancient Athens. This contributed to the survival of a substantial number of works in this dialect. Attic Greek is the dialect of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and the playwrights Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.

Attic Greek evolved into what is known as "Koine" Greek. The Attic dialect was adopted in Macedon (in northern Greece) before the conquests of Alexander the Great and the subsequent rise of Hellenism in the ancient world. This is the "common" (κοινή), everyday form of the language. Koine Greek is the language of the people during the Hellenistic Age. It is also the language the New Testament of the Christian Bible and the language into which the Old Testament was translated from older Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts.

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