The ancient philosophical tradition begins in 585 BC with Thales of Miletus. It ends about a thousand years later in 529 AD when the Christian Emperor Justinian prohibited pagans from teaching in the Schools.

This period in the history of philosophy subdivides into three periods of unequal duration and importance:

  • Presocratic Period
  • Period of Schools
  • Period of Scholarship

The focus in this course is the first two periods, or roughly the first 500 years of ancient Greek philosophy. This focus is standard in the sequence of history courses (ancient and modern) required for the philosophy major in most American universities, including Arizona State University.


Details

The primary text for the course is Ancient Greek Philosophy: From the Presocratics to the Hellenistic Philosophers.

We will also read selected passages from the source material for the period of study. For the most part, the texts that constitute this material are available for free in translation on the internet. You may wish to consider certain supplementary texts that contain more modern translations and other information. These texts are not required for the course, but I am happy to discuss them with you if you are interested. They are classics in the field.

Your final grade for the course (during the regular semester, not for the online course or for the summer course) is determined, first of all, by the average of two equally weighted examinations, a midterm and final examination. The final examination is not cumulative strictly speaking, but the discussion in the second half of the semester is not fully understandable apart from the discussion in the first half the semester. In addition to the two examinations, there are regular writing assignments. These are very short, no more than a page or two, and they are graded on a pass/fail basis. The examinations are worth 50% of your total grade. The writing assignments are worth 50% of your total grade. There are no quizzes. However, it is obviously helpful to prepare in advance of lecture by reading and thinking about the texts and the notes. There are no term papers. There is no extra credit, but I am more than happy to help students with independent projects. Regular class participation resolves borderline cases upward. Class participation need be nothing more than asking questions on a regular basis. Asking questions is something you should be doing anyway. That is not always easy in a big lecture class, but it is the best way to learn.

You should consult the lecture and examination schedule frequently. I post news about the class there (during the regular semester, not for the online course or for the summer course).


Course

There is good and bad news about the course: the history of ancient philosophy is a fascinating subject, but it is also a difficult subject.

For many things in life, it is possible to go quite a long way without any real expertise or understanding (as indicated by the graph relating level of expertise to accomplishment), but this is not true for the history of philosophy. For Ancient philosophy, the expertise to accomplishment curve is similar in shape to the one in the graph but is shifted upward considerably along the y-axis.


Ancient philosophy is a difficult subject for many reasons. (1) The period of study (585 to 529) is roughly a thousand years long, and the texts that constitute the primary evidence for this period number in the many thousands of pages. It is hard even to consider, let alone understand, all this material in a short amount of time. And of course it is impossible in the space of a single semester. (2) The history of philosophy is history. The goal is to not to figure out the truth about some philosophical problem. It is to understand what the ancients thought, even if the distance in time makes these thoughts now seem implausible, which is often the case. To understand what they thought, the primary method in the history of philosophy is to consider (from within the proper historical and cultural context) what remains of what they wrote, which is often fragmentary. This method presupposes extensive knowledge of antiquity. Further, even with this knowledge, the texts are frequently obscure. It does not help that they are written in Greek and Latin. For the student who does not know these languages, the translations can pose a problem. (3) The history of philosophy is history, but it is also philosophy. This too can pose a problem. Philosophy is a difficult subject, and it is impossible to understand the history of philosophy without some understanding of the main areas of philosophy.

The obstacles to understanding are thus significant, but they are not insurmountable. The focus in this course is on the main lines of thought that unify ancient Greek philosophy and drive it forward. Thus many of the historical and philosophical details fall into place naturally. A focus on the main lines of thought also has an important additional benefit: it provides the context necessary for more advanced work. So this course is a good introduction for students who intend to take more advanced courses in ancient Greek philosophy.

Despite the difficulty, ancient philosophy is also a truly fascinating subject. Some of the writing is extremely beautiful. Many of the ideas are deeply interesting, and to me there is something wonderfully human about ancient philosophy and the ancient philosophers. I am aware, of course, that not everyone shares my attitude. However, in my (now relatively long) experience in teaching the course, I have found that intellectually curious students enjoy the course and often find themselves wanting to know more about ancient philosophy and the ancient world more generally.

Moreover, students on average receive high grades in the course. One reason for these relatively high grades is that the midterm and final examinations test for the main points covered in lecture and the readings. In this way, the two exams are less difficult than ancient philosophy itself. And of course this is exactly how it should be in an introductory course.


Website

In lecture, I refer to the pages on this website to help focus class discussion.

These webpages highlight some of the more important points in the course, but they are no substitute for coming to class and reading the book. I probably can't stress this enough. The most efficient way to do well in the course is to come to class. Ask questions when you don't understand. Come to class. Ask questions. Read the book. Ask more questions. This almost always works. And if it doesn't, come see me in office hours so we can fix the problem.

To make the webpages presentable, I have not highlighted every link. In particular, I have not highlighted links to less central information; however, if something is in need of further explanation, there is a fair chance that I have linked to the explanation even if the link itself is not highlighted. Hovering uncovers the link by changing the color of the text from black to blue. (So, for example, in the DETAILS section above, 'supplementary texts' is a link.)

I welcome suggestions for additional pages and links, as well as for changes to existing ones. Please report broken links and other problems, such as typos. I know there are typos in the book and on the website, but I have trouble finding them. I appreciate your help in improving the website, and it counts as class participation.


Questions

If you have a question, and you should have questions, please ask me in lecture.

Asking questions is a good way to learn. It also helps the class as a whole, since someone is probably wondering the same thing. If someone asks, I can direct my remarks to the point in question. If you find it difficult to ask in lecture, email me or come to my office: Lattie F. Coor Hall, room 3356.

If you email me with a question, my answer is likely to be brief. I find email a limited medium. I much prefer face-to-face communication.

Please keep in mind that if I disagree with something you say about ancient philosophy, you should not think automatically that I am right and you are wrong. If you think you are right, argue for your point. Arguments in philosophy are good. They serve to clarify the issues in question.




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
blackson@asu.edu, tab.faculty.asu.edu, www.public.asu/~blackson