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 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 Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Academic Skeptics.
This course is about the ancient philosophers, not the scholarly literature about them, but I do sometimes quote from the work of Michael Frede (1940-2007). In my view, his discussions are a good place to look for insight into the most general lines of thought that run through and unify much of 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 began to go out of circulation 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 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.
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.
This methodology in the history of ancient philosophy explains why the subject is difficult. It requires knowledge of both 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 take up the perspective of the ancient philosophers.
Philosophy and the History of Philosophy
Because the history of philosophy is an inquiry into what past philosophers thought and why they had these thoughts, it is not an attempt to solve 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. 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.
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 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. (The Greek historian Herodotus, who was a contemporary of Socrates (5th century BCE), called the Greek letters "Phoenician letters" (φοινικήια γράμματα).)
(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.))
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 from Homer (8th century BCE) through Plato (4th century BCE) 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 those who wish to learn the ancient language. This is due to the importance of Athens and to the fact that there are a substantial number of important works in this dialect. Attic is the dialect of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and the playwrights Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.)
Because 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, Attic was the dialect that evolved into "Koine" Greek. 'Koine' (κοινή) means "common" and describes the common, everyday form of the language. The grammar of Classical Greek was simplified, exceptions were decreased and generalized, inflections were dropped or harmonized, and sentence-construction made easier. Koine Greek was the language of the 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 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.) Koine Greek is also the language the New Testament of the Christian Bible and is the language into which the Old Testament of the Bible was translated from older Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts.