Ancient Greek Philosophy

From the Presocratics to the Hellenistic Philosophers

The Period of Study

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:

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 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 I do sometimes quote the work of Michael Frede (1940-2007) in the end sections of the lecture notes. His discussions are good examples of research in the filed and are a good place to find insight into the most general lines of thought that unify much of 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, 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 the first part of the word 'bibliography' come from 'βύβλος.'

The Bible too, as a group of religious texts (τὰ βιβλία, "the books"), takes its name from 'βύβλος.' The Greek word means "papyrus" and also "roll of papyrus, book." It was often used in this second way for sacred or magical writings.

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

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.

The Greek language changed over time. Mycenaean Greek is the most ancient form. 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 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 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 Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and the playwrights Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.

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

Philip II (4th century BCE) established the Attic dialect of Greek 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 of the language after the 3rd century BCE.

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.

For academic research in the history of ancient Greek 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 is interesting.

The Historical Method

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

After Sulla sacked Athens in 88 BCE, 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. The surviving texts are the primary evidence for understanding ancient Greek philosophy, but if the historian has identified a thought and can find no explanation in the texts for why the philosopher had this thought, 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.

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 is 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 in the United States.

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