History of Ancient Philosophy

PHI 328. Syllabus. Welcome to the Course!

PHI 328 (History of Ancient Philosophy) satisfies a requirement for the Philosophy BA and satisfies the H (historical awareness) and HU (humanities, arts and design) core areas in the General Studies Requirement.



The dates that mark the beginning and end of Ancient philosophy are conventional. In 585 BCE, a solar eclipse occurred that Thales of Miletus predicted. In 529 CE, to protect the Empire from corruption, the Christian Emperor Justinian prohibited pagans from teaching.

Terracotta Panathenaic Prize Amphora
From the Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora, c. 530 BCE. Attributed to the Euphiletos Painter. (The "stadion" (στάδιον) was a sprint over the distance of 600 Greek feet. The most famous course was in the sanctuary of Olympia (Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.8.1.))

The Panathenaic amphorae contained olive oil and were given to the victors in the Panathenaic Games.

The oil was from a sacred grove of olive trees in the Academy (Ἀκαδήμεια) (a place Socrates would later frequent and Plato would later found a school.

The Academy was an area of land about a mile northwest of Athens (Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.29). It took its name from Academus (Ἀκάδημος), a hero from Greek myth who was the object of a cult in Athens (Plutarch, Theseus 32; Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Philosophers III.7).

The word 'cult' derives from the Latin cultus. For the understanding of religio as the "cultivation of the gods," see Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods II.8-9, II.72.

In the siege of Athens (87-86 BCE), the Roman general Sulla "laid hands upon the sacred groves, and ravaged the Academy, which was the most wooded of the city's suburbs, as well as the Lyceum" (Plutarch, Sulla 12).

The Lyceum (Λύκειον) was the site of Aristotle's school.

The Panathenaea (Παναθήναια) were festivals (the Greater Panathenaea and the Lesser Panathenae) the Athenians hosted in honor of the goddess Athena. The Greater Panathenaea was celebrated every four years, in the third year of the Olympiad. (The ancient Greeks thought of it as a πεντετηρίς ("a festival celebrated every five years") because they counted inclusively: "Festival . 2 . 3 . 4 . Festival.")

"[Cimon] was the first to beautify the city [of Athens] with the so-called liberal (ἐλευθερίοις) and elegant resorts which were so excessively popular a little later [in the time of Plato and Aristotle], by planting the market-place with plane trees [Old World sycamores], and by converting the Academy from a waterless and arid spot into a well watered grove, which he provided with clear running-tracks and shady walks" (Plutarch, Cimon 13.8).

"The first plane-trees that were spoken of in terms of high admiration were those which adorned the walks of the Academy" (Pliny the Elder, Natural History XII.5),

The adjective ἐλευθέριος translates into Latin as liberalis.

Cimon (6th to 5th century BCE) was an Athenian statesman and general. He was involved in the rebuilding of Athens after the Persians destroyed it in the war in 480 BCE.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman statesman, 106-43 BCE. Toward the end of his life, he wrote a series of works to present the philosophy of the schools in Latin.

Pliny the Elder, Roman author and naturalist, 1st century CE. His nephew (Pliny the Younger) reports in his Letters that Pliny the Elder died in the pyroclastic surge from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.

Pliny the Younger, Roman Lawyer and Imperial Magistrate under Trajan, 1st to 2nd century CE. He wrote hundreds of letters. (Letter X.96 is interesting for its account of the Roman attitude toward Christians during the pagan era.)

Plutarch, Platonist, 1st to 2nd century CE.

Pausanias, traveler and geographer, 2nd century CE.

Diogenes Laertius, a biographer, 3rd century CE.



vase ἀμφορεύς, amphoreus, noun, "two-handled jar with a narrow neck."

ἀμφί ("on both sides") + φορεύς ("bearer, carrier"))








Vincent van Gogh, Large Plane Trees, 1889.
Ancient philosophy is the very beautiful, roughly thousand-year-long philosophical discussion that took place in Athens and in other parts of the ancient Greek and Roman world. It began in 585 BCE and ended in 529 CE. Within this discussion, historians recognize three periods: the Presocratic Period, the Period of Schools, and the Period of Scholarship and Syncreticism.

Course Description

The focus in this course is on the first two periods, or about the first 500 years of ancient philosophy. Within this focus, the concentration is on Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenistic Philosophers (the Epicureans, Stoics, and Academics). This focus is standard in the sequence of history courses required for the philosophy major in most American universities.

The approach in this course is historical. Philosophy is not an inquiry into the past. It is an attempt to solve philosophical problems. The history of philosophy does not have this aim. Its aim is to understand what the philosophers thought about certain matters, why they had those thoughts, and how these thoughts figure in the history of philosophy and other histories.

This course meets online and is conducted through the Learning Management System that Arizona State University uses for its online programs, but most of the materials (the lecture notes and most of the texts) that comprise the course are freely available on the internet. The remaining texts are available through the ASU library with an ASURITE ID.

This syllabus and the lecture notes are in the Tufte CSS style. In this style, links are underlined, match the body text in color, and do not change on mouseover or when clicked.

Course Objective

The objective in this course is to provide the student with an understanding of the most important developments in the first two of the three periods of ancient philosophy.

These developments are interesting for what they show about the human experience in the ancient world and for the insight they provide into ourselves. Many of our most characteristic ways of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world have their origin in the work of the ancient philosophers. Understanding how these ways of thinking entered the philosophical tradition, why they replaced older ways of thinking, and whether they entered the tradition with assumptions we no longer accept, helps us see our ways of thinking for what they are.

Course Assignments and Grade

The letter grade (A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, D, E) for the course is a function of the grade on 5 quizzes (50%), 10 prompts (40%), and 5 debriefing sessions (10%).

There is a quiz for each of the five units of the course (Presocratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hellenistic Philosophers). Each quiz consists of ten multiple-choice questions.

There is a set of prompts for each of the five units of the course. Answers to each prompt should be about one page in length. The grade for each answer is pass/fail.

There is (what the LMS shell designers call) a "debriefing" session for each of the units of the course. These sessions are for sharing thoughts about the reading in the unit.

The 5 quizzes (10 points each), 10 prompts (4 points each), and 5 debriefing sessions (2 points each) sum to determine the letter grade for the course: A+ (100-97), A (96-94), A- (93-90), B+ (89-87), B (86-84), B- (83-80), C+ (79-77), C (76-70), D (69-60), E (59-0).

There is no extra credit, but I am happy to help students with independent projects.

Late work will not be accepted without good reason. Incompletes are given only to accommodate serious illnesses and family emergencies, which must be adequately documented.

Course Textbook and Readings

The textbook is Ancient Greek Philosophy: From the Presocratics to the Hellenistic Philosophers.

The readings are selected passages in the texts from the period of study. They are the primary evidence on which our knowledge of ancient philosophy depends. Most are freely available in the Perseus Digital Library and elsewhere on the internet. The remaining texts are in the Digital Loeb Classical Library and are available through the ASU library with an ASURITE ID.

Course Lecture Notes

There is a set of lecture notes for the course. These notes are to be read in conjunction with the textbook and the selected passages in the source material from the period. Links to this source material (in the Perseus Digital Library and elsewhere) are included in the lecture notes.

The server is in San Francisco. DigitalOcean is the cloud infrastructure provider.

I welcome suggestions for additional notes and links, as well as for changes to existing ones to clarify them, correct outright mistakes in the interpretations, fix broken links, or correct other problems, such as typos (which I know exist but are difficult for me to find).


Contact Information

Thomas A. Blackson
Philosophy Faculty
Lattie F. Coor Hall, room 3356
School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies
PO Box 874302
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ. 85287-4302
Email: blackson@asu.edu
Academic Webpage: tomblackson.com