Ancient Philosophy: Plato & His Predecessors

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What is philosophy? How does it differ from science, religion, and other modes of human discourse? This course traces the origins of philosophy in the Western tradition in the thinkers of Ancient Greece. We begin with the Presocratic natural philosophers who were active in Ionia in the 6th century BCE and are also credited with being the first scientists. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximines made bold proposals about the ultimate constituents of reality, while Heraclitus insisted that there is an underlying order to the changing world. Parmenides of Elea formulated a powerful objection to all these proposals, while later Greek theorists (such as Anaxagoras and the atomist Democritus) attempted to answer that objection. In fifth-century Athens, Socrates insisted on the importance of the fundamental ethical question—“How shall I live?”—and his pupil, Plato, and Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, developed elaborate philosophical systems to explain the nature of reality, knowledge, and human happiness. After the death of Aristotle, in the Hellenistic period, Epicureans and Stoics developed and transformed that earlier tradition. We will study the major doctrines of all these thinkers. Part I will cover Plato and his predecessors. Part II will cover Aristotle and his successors.


The Milesians & Heraclitus
-Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes and Xenophanes seek the material principle of the cosmos, and arrive at a radical new conception of the gods. Heraclitus distills the essence of their “naturalism” in his riddling slogans.

Parmenides to Plato
-Parmenides poses a fundamental philosophical challenge to all naturalistic inquiry when he denies the intelligibility of change. Later naturalists (Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Democritus) respond to his challenge. Plato’s portrait of Socrates raises questions about the nature of philosophy, its role in public life, and the relation between morality and religion.

Plato on Virtue, Teaching, & Justice
-What is virtue, and how can it be taught? What is teaching anyway, and how could we ever acquire knowledge? Socrates gives a geometry lesson purporting to show that learning is recollection. Why should we act justly? What’s in it for us? An elaborate analogy between a city and a human soul seeks to convince us that crime never pays, even if the criminal can escape detection.

Plato on Reality & Goodness
-The ultimate realities are intelligible Forms, while the world of our experience is only an image of that reality. Goodness is a fundamental feature of the world. Plato’s cosmology: the creation of the universe (complete with a world soul) and the principles of mathematical perfection that structure it at every level.