Ancient Greek Philosophy

From the Presocratics to the Hellenistic Philosophers

The Period of Study

Ancient 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. One way to begin to understand the main lines of thought in this thousand year tradition is to divide it into three subperiods:

This course covers the first two periods, or about 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. This is the time of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, 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 27 BCE. The Hellenistic philosophers (the Epicureans, Academics, and the Stoics) flourished in this period until about 100 BCE, the date that traditionally marks the end of the Period of Schools. (the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Academics).

We will not concern ourselves with the secondary literature about the ancients, but in the end sections of the lecture notes, I do sometimes include excerpts from the work of Michael Frede (1940-2007). His works are good examples of research in the field and are a good place to find insight into the lines of thought that run through the ancient philosophical tradition.

The Language in the Period

"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 (Φοινικήια, substantive in Ionic = "letters"), 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 "papyrus" (the plant, Cyperus Papyrus) and for "roll of papyrus, book." The word 'book' comes from 'βύβλος.' (The word 'paper' comes from πάπυρος, which is also Greek for "papyrus.")

The Bible too, as a set of religious texts (τὰ βιβλία, "the books"), takes its name from a use of 'βύβλος.'

"Do you think you are accusing Anaxagoras, my dear Meletus, and do you so despise these gentlemen and think they are so unversed in letters as not to know, that the books (βιβλία) of Anaxagoras the Clazomenian are full of such utterances" (Plato, Apology 26d)?

“Then one day I heard a man reading from a book (βιβλίου), as he said, by Anaxagoras..." (Plato, Phaedo 97b).

"And they produce a bushel of books (βίβλων) of Musaeus and Orpheus..." (Plato, Republic II.364e).

"Here is the book (βιβλίον)..." (Plato, Theaetetus 143b).

The city of Byblos is is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It is one of the world's oldest cites. It has been continuously inhabited since about 5000 BCE.


Map of Greek Dialects

The Greek language belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, where this refers to geographic areas these language were spoken. Greek belongs to the Hellenic subgroup. The earliest Hellenic dialect for which there is surviving evidence is Mycenaean Greek. It dates to about 1450 BCE and is preserved in inscriptions in what is called Linear B. Literacy was lost in about the 12th century BCE when the Mycenaean civilization collapsed. Later, in the 8th century BCE, the Greeks relearned how to write. This time, however, instead of using the Linear B script the Mycenaeans used, they adopted the alphabet the Phoenicians used.

In the 8th century BCE, the Iliad and Odyssey were written in this alphabet. (They had been transmitted orally previously.) 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 language from Homer (8th century BCE) to Plato (4th century BCE) is "Classical" Greek. Ionic and Attic are the most important forms. Ionic was spoken along the west coast of Asia Minor. The earliest prose writers wrote in Ionic. It is the dialect of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaxagoras, of the medical writer Hippocrates, of the historian Herodotus. Attic is a subform of Ionic Greek. It is the dialect of Athens in the time of Socrates in the 5th century BCE.

Attic Greek is the dialect most widely used for teaching ancient Greek to those who wish to learn the language. This is due to the cultural importance of ancient Athens. This importance contributed to the survival of works in this dialect. Attic Greek is the dialect of the playwrights Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes, of the historians Thucydides and Xenophon, of the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and the orators Lysias, Isocrates, and Demosthenes.

The dialects were first the languages of specific parts of the Greek world, but some of them became the languages of certain forms of writing. The language of the Iliad and the Odyssey is a mixture of Ionic and Aeolic. This mixed dialect became associated with poetry written in hexameters, and Hesiod, a Boeotian, used this mixed dialect in his hexameter poetry. The influence of the early Ionic prose writers caused later prose writers to adopt this dialect. Doric became the language of choral lyric poetry, and it was used by Athenian tragedians in the choral portions of their tragedies, while the language of the rest of the plays remained Attic.

Attic Greek evolved into what is known as "Koine" Greek.

Philip II established the Attic dialect as the official language of Macedon (in northern Greece). Alexander the Great (Philip's son) took this language with him in his conquests that spread Hellenism through out the ancient world. The Attic dialect, in this way, became the basis for Koine Greek, which was the dominant form after the 3rd century BCE.

Philip II of Macedon, 382-336 BCE.

Alexander III of Macedon, 356-323 BCE.
This is the "common" (κοινή), everyday form of the language and 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.

For academic research in the history of ancient philosophy, it is necessary to know some ancient Greek. To do well in this course, this knowledge is not necessary. In the lectures, I do occasionally mention Greek words and phrases and talk a little about their meanings. Some of these words sound like and have etymological connections to English words, and these connections and the meanings of the ancient Greek words themselves are interesting.

The History of Philosophy

The history of ancient philosophy and philosophy are different disciplines. Philosophy aims to solve philosophical problems. The history of ancient philosophy does not. It is an inquiry into what philosophers from the past thought and why they had these thoughts.

Philosophy and the history of philosophy different disciplines, but the history of philosophy cannot proceed without knowledge of philosophy. It is necessary to have some understanding of the discipline to understand its history. Just as it is necessary to have some understanding of, say, mathematics to understand its history, it is necessary to have some understanding philosophy to understand the history of philosophy. In part, this is why historians of philosophy study philosophy and why courses in the history of philosophy are typically listed as courses in philosophy departments in most colleges and universities in the United States.

After the Roman General Sulla sacked Athens (which had ceased to be independent in the 4th century BCE) in 88 BCE as part of the First Mithridatic War, philosophers were forced to rely on the texts for continuity with their 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.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, 138-178 BCE.

The First Mithridatic War was a conflict between Rome and the Kingdom of Pontus (ruled by Mithridates VI).
The surviving texts are the primary evidence for what the ancient philosophers thought. To understand these texts, it is necessary to know the language and cultural context in which the ancient philosophers worked. Even given this knowledge, though, we will sometimes not know what these philosophers thought. Not all the texts have survived, and some have survived in a form that makes them unreliable for understanding the details of what a philosopher thought. Further, in some cases, most notably in the case of Socrates (who did not leave a textual record of what he thought), we are dependent on what others have written. Finally, philosophy, unlike, say, a story in the news about the weather, is rarely straightforward to understand.





move on go back