Image: Aristotle's Constitution of Athens, papyrus now in the British Library (Papyrus 131; further details).
The aim of this course is to introduce you to some of the foundational names, texts, and ideas of early Greek philosophy and, by extension, to the foundational ideas of Western philosophy as a whole. The first half will examine some of the earliest philosophers active before Socrates, while the second half will introduce Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
1. Heraclitus (Change and Continuity)
We shall begin by looking at the ideas of Heraclitus of Ephesus (Asia Minor, modern Turkey), active around 500 BC, focusing on his claim that everything is continually changing. This is captured in his famous saying ‘you cannot step into the same river twice’. We shall consider what the implications of this might be. If nothing remains the same from one moment to the next, can we really know anything? This will lead us to Cratylus, a follower of Heraclitus, who pushed this idea to its limit.
2. Parmenides (The Nature of Being)
Parmenides of Elea (Italy) wrote a poem about the nature of existence. What does it mean to say something ‘is’? Can being come from non-being? Is anything ever created or destroyed? His poem is the earliest extended piece of rational argument in Western philosophy and laid the foundations for rationalist metaphysics.
Zeno of Elea was a follower of Parmenides. He is reported to have written 40 paradoxes all aimed at showing that motion is impossible. Four of these survive, recorded in Aristotle’s Physics. Given that motion appears to be a fundamental feature of the natural world, what led Zeno to argue against it? Do his paradoxes work in undermining our belief in motion? Should we trust our reason over our senses? These are all questions we shall consider.
Democritus of Abdera (northern Greece) is credited as one of the founders of atomism. As a theory, atomism can be seen as an attempt to reconcile the seemingly conflicting insights of Heraclitus and Parmenides: i) everything is changing and ii) nothing can be created or destroyed. But, if everything is merely the product of chance collisions between atoms, it also has significant implications for how we understand the world and our place within it.
5. Protagoras (Man is the Measure)
One feature of atomism was an attempt to draw a distinction between appearance and reality. This concern with appearances was taken up by Protagoras (also from Abdera) who reflected on the way in which people often have conflicting perceptions and hold conflicting values. This introduces the problem of relativism. If every perspective is equally valid, are we able to choose between them? If not, what happens to the ideas of truth and falsehood?
6. Socrates (The Task of Philosophy)
Probably the most famous Greek philosopher of all, the Athenian Socrates was deeply concerned by the problem of relativism raised by Protagoras and other sophists. Motivated by a desire to live a good life, he first needed to know what a good life is, which in turn meant knowing what goodness is. Does anyone know what goodness is? In this session we shall examine Socrates’ quest for such knowledge and his reflections on what he thought philosophy was all about.
Plato was inspired by the example of Socrates, making him the central character in his dialogues. He continued and developed Socrates’ pursuit of knowledge about goodness and virtue. Is virtue a form of knowledge? If it is, can it be taught? If not, what hope is there to live a good, virtuous life?
Continuing his pursuit of knowledge, Plato wonders how it is that some people appear to know things that they have never been taught. Were they born with this knowledge? This leads him to entertain the possibility that some knowledge is acquired before birth, that the soul is immortal, and that things like Goodness exist as Ideas or Forms encountered by the soul before birth. On this model, learning is simply recollection.
Aristotle was Plato’s most gifted student, studying with him in the Academy for 20 years. He was also, it is usually supposed, critical of Plato’s account of Forms. However, he did not reject the concept altogether. This week we shall examine how Aristotle thought about forms as on type of cause alongside matter, efficient causes, and final causes. Two key concepts for this week will be hylomorphism and teleology.
We conclude by looking at Aristotle’s reflections on what it means to be a good human being. If, like Aristotle, one does not accept Plato’s account of Forms, what other ways might there be to ground our understanding of goodness? Aristotle’s wider interests in biology will become key for understanding his theory of ethics.