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.
Aristotle’s anti-Platonic metaphysics: the ultimate realities are ordinary objects of our experience, like people and animals. Each of these is a substances, the most fundamental type of being.
Aristotle's Natural Philosophy
Natural substances have matter and form, and natural processes are goal-directed. Every living thing, plants and animals included, has a soul that moves it.
The motion of the universe is eternal and its cause is an eternal unmoved mover, Aristotle’s god. Our goal in life is to achieve happiness, which comes in two varieties: the human happiness we achieve by exercising the virtues of character, and the godlike happiness we achieve when we grasp eternal truths.
Epicureans return to the atomism of Democritus, and find no purpose in nature. Philosophy is a therapeutic practice that removes fear and anxiety and provides us with the tranquility (ataraxia) of the gods.
A providential god is at work in every detail of the cosmos, where everything happens by fate. Our goal in life is to accommodate ourselves to this divine nature by giving up our concern for (but not our pursuit of) worldly objectives.