The Period of Study: 585BC - 529AD

Ancient Greek Philosophy begins in 585 BC with Thales of Miletus and ends in 529 AD 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.

These first two periods in ancient philosophy are 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 Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Academic Skeptics.

The focus in this course is on the ancient philosophers themselves, not the scholarly literature about them, but I do sometimes quote from the work of the historian, Michael Frede (1940-2007). His work in my view is a good place to look for insight into the most general lines of thought that run through and unify the ancient philosophical tradition.

The Period of Scholarship

The Period of Scholarship is not a focus in this course, but here it is worth noting that work in this period helped shape the extant primary texts and secondary sources. From about the first century BCE there was an effort to preserve the work of the ancient philosophical schools. When Sulla sacked Athens in 88 BCE, the various groups of philosophers elsewhere around the region were force to rely on the primary texts for continuity with their respective traditions. This resulted in an effort to produce canonical editions and commentaries.

(Much of this work gradually began to go out of circulation beginning in about the third century CE. It seems, for example, that only two hundred years later most of the work of the Stoics had disappeared.)

Method in the History of Philosophy

The history of ancient philosophy is an inquiry. The object of this inquiry is to understand ancient philosophy. One wants to know what ancient philosophers thought and why they had these thoughts.

The history of ancient philosophy is not an inquiry into everything the ancient philosophers thought. It is primarily an inquiry into those thoughts that are significant in ancient philosophy. In this way, the history of philosophy is concerned with the thoughts of the ancient philosophers that enter into the ancient philosophical tradition and that are influential in this tradition.

The surviving texts are the primary evidence for this inquiry. If, however, as very often is the case, the historian has identified a thought but can find no explanation in the texts for why the philosopher had this thought, then the historian 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.

This approach to history and its method helps explain why the history of ancient philosophy is difficult. It requires knowledge of both of the texts and the cultural context in which the ancient philosophers worked. This knowledge is not easy to acquire. The ancient philosophers lived in a very different time, and they wrote in a different language. Historical texts do not provide a complete record of a culture in the best of circumstances, and many of the ancient texts have not survived. This makes it difficult to know the perspective of the ancient philosophers.

Philosophy and the History of Philosophy

Because the history of philosophy is an inquiry into what historical philosophers thought about certain things and why they had these thoughts, it is not an attempt to understand what is true or false with respect to certain philosophical problems. Nevertheless, 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.

(The need to know philosophy is in part why the history of philosophy is located in the philosophy departments in most colleges and universities and why historians of philosophy study philosophy.)

The history of philosophy is an inquiry into history, but it is possible for a historian of philosophy to make a contribution to philosophy. Philosophers sometimes hold views, not so much because they is true but because the philosopher was trained and works in a particular philosophical tradition. In such a case, knowledge of the of the history of philosophy can help correct the mistake.

"[T]he historian of philosophy has more to rely on than contemporary philosophical views. His work, ideally, would have taught him new views that one could take, new reasons for or against old views; he may have discovered there was good reason for views which at first seemed unreasonable. All this work may have substantially changed his notions and his assumptions of what constitutes good reason and of what at least is reasonable. Hence, the historian of philosophy might very well be in a position to diagnose a development in the history of philosophy as an aberration, when, from the point of view of contemporary philosophy, this development seems entirely reasonable. ... [Moreover,] if one studies the philosophy of the past not just as a historian of philosophy, but in all its aspects, one has further resources to fall back on. It may be that at some junctures in the history of philosophy where the historian of philosophy believes he has to diagnose a failure, the failure may be the result of thoughts which themselves are to be explained in good part in terms of some other history. One may even be able to show that this other history interfered with the 'natural' development of philosophical thought at this point, however philosophically reasonable this development may now seem to us" (Michael Frede, "Introduction: The Study of Ancient Philosophy," xxvii).

Greek Language and Culture

For most research in ancient Greek philosophy, it is necessary to know the ancient languages. To do well in this course, this knowledge is not necessary. I do sometimes mention Greek words and phrases and talk about their meanings. Some of these words will sound like and have etymological connections to English words.


Mycenaean Greek is the most ancient attested form of the written Greek language. It is preserved in inscriptions in what is called Linear B, a form of the Greek language that was deciphered only in 1952. The Mycenaean civilization collapsed in about the 12th century. 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 the alphabet used by the Phoenicians. (The Greek historian Herodotus, who lived during the 5th century and was a contemporary of Socrates, called the Greek letters "Phoenician letters" (φοινικήια γράμματα).)

In about the 8th century, the Iliad and Odyssey were written down. These works had been part of the Greek oral tradition. They are a mixture of fact and fiction in a kind of folk memory about life in the Mycenaean world before the Greek Dark Ages (12th to 9th century).

The Greek in writers from Homer (8th century) through Plato (4th century) is "Classical" Greek. It exists in several dialects. The Ionic form 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 is the dialect most widely used for teaching modern students who wish to learn the Greek language. This is due to the importance of Athens in Western Civilization and to the fact that there are a substantial number of important works in this dialect. This is the language of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. It is also the language of the great playwrights Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.)

Because Attic was adopted in Macedon before the conquests of Alexander the Great and the subsequent rise of Hellenism in the ancient world, it became the dialect that evolved into the Koine Greek. 'Koine' (κοινή) means "common" and describes the common, everyday form of the language. The classical form of the grammar was simplified, exceptions were decreased and generalized, inflections were dropped or harmonized, and sentence-construction made easier. Koine was the language not of books but of people and life in the Hellenistic Age. (The Hellenistic Age is the period in history from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 until the end of the Roman Republic in 31 BC. The Hellenistic philosophers (the Epicureans, Academic Skeptics, and the Stoics) flourished in this period until about 100 BCE.)