The Period of Study

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.

Texts for the Course

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, these text 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.

The Final Grade

Your final grade for the lecture course (not the online course) is determined by a midterm and final examination, ten writing assignments, and class participation.

  • The examinations are each worth 25% of your total grade.
    The final is not cumulative, but the discussion in the second half of the semester is not fully understandable apart from the discussion in the first half the semester.

  • The writing assignments are each worth 4% of your total grade.
    They are short, no more than a page or two. They are graded on a pass/fail basis.

  • Class participation counts for 10% of your final grade. 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, but it is the best way to learn.

There are no quizzes. There are no term papers. There is no extra credit, but I am more than happy to help students with independent projects.

You should consult the lecture and examination schedule frequently. I post news about the class there.

Level of Difficulty

The history of ancient philosophy is both a fascinating and a difficult subject.

For many things in life, it is possible to go a long way without much understanding (as indicated by the graph relating level of expertise to accomplishment), but this is not true for the history of philosophy. For the history of 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.

1. The period of study is roughly a thousand years long. The texts number in the many thousands of pages. It is hard to consider, let alone understand, all this material in a short amount of time. It is impossible in the space of a single semester.

2. The history of ancient philosophy is a study in history. The goal is to understand what the ancients thought, even if the distance in time makes these thoughts now seem implausible, which is often the case. The method is to consider (from within the proper historical and cultural context) what remains of what they wrote, which is often fragmentary. This 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.

3. The history of ancient philosophy is a study in history, but it is also a study in philosophy. It is impossible to understand the history of philosophy without some understanding of philosophy, and philosophy is not an easy subject.

The obstacles to understanding are significant, but they are not insurmountable. The focus in this course is on the main lines of thought that unify ancient philosophy and drive it forward. This makes many of the historical and philosophical details fall into place naturally. Further, a focus on the main lines of thought provides the context necessary for more advanced work.

Despite the difficulty, the history of ancient philosophy is a 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. Not everyone shares my attitude, but in teaching the course, I have found that the majority of students enjoy the course and often find themselves wanting to know more about ancient philosophy and about the ancient world more generally.

Website for the Course

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 reading the book and the ancients themselves. The most efficient way to do well in the course is to do the reading and ask questions when you don't understand. This almost always works. If it doesn't, let me know so that 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 "Texts for the Course" section above, 'supplementary' 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.


If you have a question, and you should have questions, please ask me in lecture or post a question. Asking questions is a good way to learn. It also helps the class, 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 or post a question, email me directly. Further, if you are on campus, feel free to stop by my office: Lattie F. Coor Hall, room 3356.

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,, www.public.asu/~blackson