PHIL 350 Ancient Philosophy

Fall Semester 2011 | DAY


INSTRUCTOR  Mark McPherran, WMX 4623



  • T. Irwin, Classical Thought, Oxford University Press, 1988
  • P. Curd, R. McKirahan, A Presocratics Reader, Hackett, 1996
  • C.D.C. Reeve, The Trials of Socrates, Hackett, 2002
  • A. Nehamas & P. Wood, Plato's Symposium, Hackett, 1989
  • Inwood & Gerson, Hellenistic Philosophy, Hackett, 1998
  • S. Lombardo, Hesiod's Works and Days and Theogony, Hackett, 1993
  • G.M.A. Grube, Plato's Phaedo, 2nd Ed., Hackett
  • T. Irwin/G. Fine, Aristotle: Introductory Readings, Hackett, 1996
  • Plus xeroxed handouts provided by the Professor



This course explores the history of early Greek philosophical thought -- the Great Conversation' among the first leading thinkers of the Mediterranean who contributed to the development of world culture (such as it is). We begin by examining the emergence and development of scientific and philosophical inquiry out of mythological patterns of thought as initiated by Thales (c. 625 BCE ) and his Presocratic successors (e.g., Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Democritus). The course then surveys the work of the Greek Sophists (e.g., Gorgias, Protagoras), continuing on to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenistic thinkers (mainly Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics). The course is presented as an ongoing dialogue between successive historical figures about various perennial philosophical issues; at the same time, relevance to current philosophical discussion and contemporary life will be considered (e.g., the Euthyphro concerns the issue of the relation between religion and morality; the Crito addresses the issue of civil disobedience).

That should sound interesting. However, given the nature of the course, you might already be asking yourself the question: How can the seemingly simplistic thought of ancient thinkers be meaningful to people of the present moment, people who have forgotten, or rejected, most of the ancient world's assumptions and views?' My response to this concern is this: we should, of course, acknowledge that the ancients were wrong about all sorts of important things. That is why, for example, college science professors do not put Aristotle's On Generation and Corruption or his Meteorology on their course reading lists. Nevertheless, for pedagogical reasons college instructors often do assign what we now count as philosophically-relevant texts (e.g., in ethics), even if we think that those works also contain a lot of false leads' (in order that students might become familiar with the roots of some philosophical problem and work through some of the more basic bad' positions or provocative confusions relevant to that issue, and so forth). In addition, we sometimes assign a text because we think that it contains a true or at least, a plausible position or insight, albeit in nascent form; one that has yet to be fully captured by modern thinkers. So, arguably, these ancient thinkers articulate views that are relevant not only because of their impact on our intellectual history, but because they encapsulate points of view from which modern thinkers may still profit. I also think that the ancients can teach us something that some modern philosophers and intellectuals seem to have forgotten; namely, that philosophy can have a lot to do with is, on the ancient conception, supposed to have a lot to do with how one lives and experiences one's everyday life.

 Finally, philosophy is conducted through dialogue, and so a good way into philosophy is to engage in a dialogue with its past. It usually does a thinker little good to go off into a corner to reflect alone on the nature of reality, knowledge, or morality (and so on). We stand on the shoulders of the philosophers of the past, and their views are a good place to begin, both to avoid old mistakes and to take advantage of their considerable powers of thought. The ancient world is sufficiently different from ours that in that antique mirror we can see ourselves through fresh eyes. Yet there are enough similarities between the ancients and ourselves to make fruitful dialogue possible.

 So, then, I want to stress the potential usefulness of this course and its material. To recover our past is to recover a part of ourselves, to become more aware of what and who we are. To a certain extent those who neglect this task are never fully themselves, because they live unconscious of the source and determination of their own thoughts and actions; moreover, they cannot adequately locate contemporary events and their own place in them. Real freedom involves intellectual liberation from such chains; knowing what has been tried, and what failed or succeeded, and what conceptual structures we have in our heads as a result. Only by understanding those things can we sort out in full awareness the meaning and value of the knowledge we may acquire, our times, and our own lives as they unfold.

 Imagine, then, if you will, that each of our texts has the following preface:

It depends on those who pass
Whether I am grave or treasure,
Whether I speak or am mute.
On you only this depends:
Friend, enter not without desire. -- P. Valéry

 There are many kinds of desire that Valéry could be referring to here. But if you at least have the desire to learn something about the nature of our intellectual history and thus, something about yourself as well and you are willing to trust the idea that these texts are not only records of past thoughts but are repositories of what continues to live inside of us now, then this could be an excellent class for you to take.



  • two take-home exams - 5-10 typed pages - 30% each
  • take-home final exam - 30%
  • participation - 10%


Note: Prerequisites: Phil 100 or 150.