History of Greek & Roman Philosophy (PHIL*2140)
Term: Fall 2014
Ancient Athens produced the two philosophical thinkers that tower over all who came before and all who came after: Plato (c.427-c.347 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). These thinkers, from the period of the flourishing of ancient Greek culture, effectively invented the practice of philosophy that has shaped and transformed Western culture and, indeed, world-culture. The Greek philosophers were especially concerned with describing accurately the nature of reality, and then trying to understand the place of the human being within reality. We will begin with the works of Plato’s student, Aristotle, (who was himself supposedly the teacher of Alexander the Great), for the systematic study of nature and our place in it. We will consider in particular the odd way that the human being seems both to fit and not to fit within the world of nature. This issue will become especially clear when we study the political domain, which, according to Aristotle, supplies our proper environment. We will draw upon Thucydides (460-395 B.C.), another great Athenian thinker, to investigate the distinctive character of the Athenian invention of “democracy,” and its consequences. From here, we will move, finally, to Plato himself, and focus on his study of the distinctive activities that fulfill the human soul, and especially his study of how these do and do not fit comfortably in the political world. We will conclude with the Roman philosopher Seneca (c. 4BC to AD 65)—the advisor to the Roman Emperor Nero—to see how the Greek philosophical perspective has developed and been transformed in dealing with the realities of political life in the time of the Roman Empire. We will supplement our study with the reading of two of the great Greek tragedies: Antigone, by Sophocles, (which will help us to reflect on the nature of political life, and how it relates to other aspects of life) and Hippolytus, by Euripides, (which will help us to reflect on the nature of desire, and how it relates to other aspects of life). We will also read a short excerpt from Tacitus, to help us to understand the shift from government in the form of democratic republics to government by an emperor.
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