Friday, January 8, 2010

Dramatis Personae

Many introductory ancient philosophy courses focus entirely or nearly entirely on Plato and Aristotle. I've done the same thing myself when lecturing. This isn't a co-incidence or a mistake. Plato and Aristotle serve as both the foundation and as the exemplars of ancient philosophy, and rightfully hold such a position in the canon. While a common mistake is that they are often taught as though they are in serious contrast to each other, rather than in continuation, that is a subject I will deal with elsewhere.

A difficulty with this otherwise understandable approach, however, is that it distorts the actual history of ancient western philosophy. Teaching a canon of great books, while of pedagogical value, is simply an inaccurate representation of the history of thought, and often de-contextualizes those great books themselves. It is as though one is reading Hamlet, but removing all the lines except those by Hamlet and Gertrude. Many scenes simply aren't going to make much sense, and one will end up focusing on the few scenes between the two characters.

I will largely discuss Greek and Roman philosophy, from Thales (active approximately 600 B.C.) to the fall of the western Roman Empire (the last emperor, Julian Nepos, died in 480 A.D.). The specific dates are flexible, and I have no serious defense of them, but they serve as a rough temporal boundary of what I call "ancient". Note, however, how long this time frame is, 1100 years. One one extends ancient philosophy between Plato and Aristotle, ancient western philosophy covers another millenium.

What requires more defense is my ethnic restriction to Greek and Rome. While Greek culture and Roman culture were porous, especially in such cosmopolitan ports as Alexandria, there remained within them a significant unity. This unity was as much linguistic as ethnic. "Ancient Greek philosophy" can refer just as easily to the philosophical tradition conducted in the language of ancient Greek, which was spread to much of Asia Minor, Greece and northern Africa after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Greek served as an important medium of communication for philosophers in the "Hellenistic" period, even among non-Greeks.

As Rome rose and Greek faded, especially after the sack of Athens by Sulla in 86 B.C., the Romans self-consciously picked up the Greek philosophical tradition. The Greek and Latin philosophical traditions were intertwined inextricably, and the codification of the translation of philosophical terms by Cicero and others assisted in this process. Many philosophers continued to write in Greek, while Roman philosophy discussed the themes of Greek philosophy. It is this continuity that causes me to treat them as a unity.

As this site is designed for non-specialists, I will spend some time introducing the various players in this philosophical dialogue. Some of the names will look familiar, while others will be less so. The distinction has some artificiality behind it, as there are different opinions within the schools that I am treating as a unity.  However, I will discuss those disputes as they arise.

The Sophists - No group has fared worse in their reputation from the Platonic-Aristotelian focus than the Sophists, who were treated as the antithesis of philosophy by Plato and separate from it by Aristotle.  However, sophists has important philosophical and ethical claims in their own right, and the tradition survived the Platonic onslaught.  It continued in many ways through Isocrates, a contemporary of Aristotle, and into the rhetorical tradition of Rome.  By its nature, rhetoric provides influence commensurate with technique and cultural understanding and enmeshes the rhetor in the values of its contemporaries.  Those who taught rhetoric would often stress the importance of both influence and inculturation, both of which had a tendency to put them at odds with the other philosophical schools.

Plato - Plato is the only individual who will get his own keyword, largely because at least three different groups claimed him as their founder.  Plato's dialogues combine an unwavering belief in the importance of knowledge for goodness, presenting that knowledge as being about eternal forms.  He was the founder of the Academy, whose various phases represent different traditions claiming to be authentically Platonic.

The Perpiatetics - This was the tradition of philosophy that saw its founder as Aristotle, named putatively after the walkways ("peripatoi") at Aristotle's Lyceum.  Their belief in immanent rather than separate forms, and insistence on the intrinsic (if not unconditional) value of certain external goods put them at odds with some of the other schools of their time.  They held and argued for the belief that there were goods other than virtue.

The Skeptics - An important alternative for the ancient philosopher was skepticism.  There were many different forms of skepticism.  The most influential was perhaps the skepticism that arose in the Academy when Arcesilaus, head of Plato's Academy starting in 266 B.C., argued that certainty about the forms is impossible.  Skepticism appears as an ethical position, in so far as the goal of philosophy is to remove our opinions, so that we may live in a state of ("ataraxia") or being undisturbed.

The Eclectics - An important question in any discussion of ethics is what to do with all these various positions that we may or may not completely agree with.  One solution is a kind of syncretism or eclecticism, that argues that, in some important sense, all the theories agree.  Several philosophers argued for such a position, which became popular in the Academy especially in the first century B.C..  They included Philo pf Larissa and Antiochus of Ascalon, and, to a lesser etent, Cicero.

The Stoics - Perhaps the most widespread philosophical school  in the centuries immediately following the founding of Christianity, Stoics argued that the universe is purely material and that it was guided by immanent reason, of which our own reason is only a part.  Their beliefs that virtue is the only good, determinism and the removal of (at least negative) passions distinguished them.

The Epicureans - Materialists like the Stoics, they were in many ways quite different.  They were atomists, who believed that the world was ruled by chance and necessity rather than reason.  They argued that virtue is purely instrumental, and for the sake of pleasure, the only good.  Their view of pleasure, however, was very different from the modern one.  It consisted in a state of "ataraxia", and one lives the most pleasant life when undisturbed by unncessary desires.

Late Platonists - This is the term for what is usually called "neo-Platonists", a term now largely rejected by scholars as a pejoritive.  After the skeptical and eclectic periods of Platonism, the late Platonists set out to systematize Platonic philosophy and resolve many of the puzzles left by the Platonic dialogues.  They dealt in detail with the nature of the forms and of the soul, and of the relationship of those positions to ethics.

The Christians - Christians were a major presence in the Roman Empire for about four centuries, and engaged in philosophical debate with the other schools of thought, often in its own terms.  Many of their positions would be properly considered philosophical, and they presented arguments both in favour of their own positions and against those of the other schools.  They brought with them arguments for the necessity of grace of happiness, and a new set of virtues that built upon the traditional ones.

Painting: "School of Athens" by Raphael


  1. Hello there sir. I am very new to blogging. I've just started my blog on the last month last year. I came to know your blog when I was searching the meaning of 'rhetoric' word last few weeks. That's when I read your well explained and coherent context about philosophical studies.
    I do not know about these Apostles and Romans, et cetera. But, I have the gist of it when I read your discussion on your previous blog which you have abandoned for more than 2 years.
    I'm a second year law student at Nottingham Law School. I want to practice my English language by doing blogs and read internet articles.
    It would be great if you could tell me what's the mistakes that I have done in my blog.
    Sorry for disturbing you.
    Do post some more. Your blog is one of my favorite.

  2. Hello, khairudDEAN. I'm glad to hear that you've enjoyed my blogs.

    I'm not exactly an expert blogger. I was surprised how much traffic I got on The Lyceum, actually.

    However, I did have a look at your blog. My only real suggestion is that it doesn't really have a clear premise. It might be good to just take "fake news" and run with it.

  3. Hi, Daniel. I'm sorry to play the grammar nazi this time, but there are at least two typos in your text that I think you should fix: "One one" should be "Once one", and Perpiatetics should be Peripatetics.

    Keep up your nice work with the blog! :)