[Fairly thoroughly edited 3/12/10, 3/3/14, and 3/2/15]



I made the generalization last time that the Greeks made more important contributions to subsequent civilization than any other ancient people.  The Greeks made important contributions to the visual arts, sports, history, political science, etc.  But the single most important contribution of the Greeks to subsequent civilization is philosophy--a contribution so important that it gets its own separate study question for the midterm exam! 

Now many would say "Philosophy?  What use is that?  It leads to nothing but confusion."  Relatively few of my students at Northern ever take a philosophy class, and those who do take philosophy often find it difficult and confusing. The Greeks themselves didn't always trust philosophy. They ended up putting to death one of the most important philosophers, Socrates--forcing him to drink hemlock.  And if you can understand why they did this--well, you are well on your way toward understanding what philosophy is and why it is important.

Philosophy is important in part because it lies at the heart of all other academic disciplines. The world "philosophy" itself comes from Greek words which mean love of wisdom. Your professors, for the most part, are all Ph.D.'s: doctors of philosophy.  Why are chemists, sociologists, biologists, psychologists, and historians Ph.D.'s?  Well, hopefully it's because they are lovers of wisdom.  But also, the Ph.D. designation is a recognition of the fact that, at the basis of each academic field, there are certain philosophical questions, and that any true "expert" in that field has to have a mastery of the philosophical basis of that field.

The Greeks themselves divided philosophy up into three major areas of concern: ontology, epistemology, and ethics.   Every academic discipline looks deeply at one or more of these areas.

Major divisions of philsophy: ontology, epistemology, ethics

"Ontology" comes from the Greek word "ontos," being.  Questions about "what is" and how "what is" came into existence in the first place are ontological questions.  The physical sciences in particularly are all investigations into ontology and ontological questions, but ontology deals with questions also in the realm of metaphysics, questions that move beyond just the physical world.

"Epistemology" deals with the nature of knowledge.  How can we know for certain the things we claim to know?  How do we go about acquiring knowlege/certainty?  All academic disciplines rest on an epistemology  particular to that discipline.  The various scientific methods, the historical method, the methods of the social scientists, etc. are all based on an epistemology appropriate to that particular field.

Ethical questions deal with the proper relationship of human beings one to another--areas obviously core to  the study of humanities and the social sciences.

But aren't these religious questions?  Of course they are, and for much of the earliest phase of human history, religious answers sufficed.  The various cultures had their religious/mythological explanations for the world and for our place it in.  But just as the people of ancient Israel began breaking away from the old mythological explanations of the world around us, many of the Greeks, too, began to find the old mythological explanations insufficient. Particularly this was true for the Greeks of Ionia, the islands and city-states on the west coast of present day Turkey. 

The birth of philsophy: Thales and the Pre-Socratic philosphers

Because of extensive involvement in trade, the Greeks of Ionia came into contact with all sorts of non-Greek peoples--people who had never heard of the traditional Greek gods.  This cast doubt on the traditional Greek mythological picture of the world.  To be sure, the Greeks could simply assume that the non-Greeks believed in the same gods they did, but called them by different names.  However, the myths of the Greeks just weren't easily compatible with the myths of many of those they met.  This seems to have been what set them to looking for non-mythological explanations, and toward the first real philosophy.

The first of the Greek philosophers was Thales of Miletus (c. 600 BC).  According to Aristotle, Thales said that water was the source of all things.  Obviously, this was a step toward answering fundamental ontolgoical questions: Where do all things come from? What are things made of? Thales begins, not with myths, but with an analysis of what the Greeks called "physis," nature--the physical world.  Thales is in a sense then our first physicist--and, with the birth of philosophy, we have, immediately, the birth of another important academic discipline, physics.

Later Greek philosophers found Thales answer less than completely satisfactory.  One speculated that air, not water, was the source of all things.  Another said earth was the source of all things.  Another, fire.  By the time of Aristotle, the Greeks seemed to have settled on the idea that there was not just one, but four different fundamental constituents of the universe: earth, air, fire, and water, the four elements. Now notice that, while today we list more than 100 elements on the periodic table, the Greeks had started us in the right direction more than 2000 years ago.  At the same time, one of the Greeks, a man named Democritus, came up with the idea that there was something even more fundamental than the elements: invisible, indivsable particles that he called "atoms" (from the Greek "a," not, and  "tome," cut = uncuttable).  While today physicists posit particles even more fundamental than what we call atoms (what they call quarks), note that Democritus still has come up with an idea fundamental to physics and to a discipline that wouldn't really get started until the 18th century AD--chemistry.

The early Greek philosphers also investigated another important ontological question: the nature of change--coming up with two very different theories.  One philosopher, Parmenides, said that *nothing* changed.   While things appeared to change, change involved logical contradictions and had to be an illusion.  He and his followers investigated all sorts of paradoxes of motion including what's called Zeno's paradox (nicely summarized here.)

[This, by the way in Zeno of Elea, who died c 430 BC.  Don't get him confused with Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism who lived a century later.]

Note that, while Zeno's paradox is based on a misunderstanding (an infinite series doesn't have to add up to infinity: it can add up to 1, -15, 42, 3.14159, or anything else), Parmenides and Zeno are establishing an important scientific principle.  One cannot assume something is what appears to be, and sometimes reason will show us that things are not at all what the appear to be at first.

Another philospher, Heraclitus, dealt with change very differently.  Heraclitus said *everything* changed constantly: you can't step into the same river twice.  But this souldn't worry us.  Hot things cool off, cold things warm up, etc.  As things change, they are moving toward a natural balance: "things find repose in change," said Heraclitus: obviously, taking an approach very much like that of the Taoists.

But notice that we are running into a potential problem here.  While philosophers like Heraclitus and Parmenides were asking good questions, philosophy wasn't yet leading to solid, universally agreed upon answers.  And, for a time, the influential teachers of the Greek intellectual elite began moving  away from true philsophy toward what we call Sophism.


The Sophists were professional teachers who claimed to be able to teach their students the art of persuasion: essentially, how to win frends and influence people.  The parents of well-born young men, or the young men themselves (particularly in Athens), were willing to pay high sums for what promised to be a very valuable skill.  While the term "Sophist" comes from the same root (sophia) as philosophy, the sophists weren't interested in truth: they didn't exactly believe in truth.  "Man is the measure of all things," said one famous Sophist.  Truth is relative--whatever you can persuade others to believe, well, that's the truth--until they are persuaded to believe something else.

Now one ought to be getting a sense of de ja vu here because the modern academic world has drifted toward sophism once again.  Once again, we've got paid teachers, not searching for truth, but training students how to win friends and influence people--how to get a better career.  It's a rare student (and a rare professor) who sees college as a place to search for truth.  Now, of course, career preparation is well and good: but when accompanied by the notion that truth and morality are relative--changing according to the winds of popular opinion--the underlying foundation of academic study is in real trouble.  And had the sophistic attitude remained unchallenged in Greece, Greek progress in philosophy would have come to a screeching halt.

The man who, more than any other, prevented the complete triumph of the Sophist understanding of the world and "saved" philosophy, was Socrates.


Socrates in commonly considered one of the greatest teachers who ever lived--the greatest, of course, being Jesus of Nazareth.  But while commonly regarded as a great teacher, Socrates never wrote a book or published an article.  He never had a paid teaching position.  He never took a dime for his teacing.  And, if he were brought back to life today, he couldn't get a job teaching at Harvard, Stanford, or NSU.  He lacked the appropriate certification!  There is certainly something wrong with a system that would hire Art Marmorstein and not Socrates or Jesus!

Socrates was important for lots of different things.  First of all, he was important for his method, a method we call "dialectic" (through words, dialogue) or "elenchus" refutation.  Essentially, Socrates would ask for a definition of an important idea (bravery, beauty, piety, justice, etc.).  He would then ask questions that would show weaknesses in the definition.  Then there would be a new definition, and, again, a series of questions showing why that definition would show up.

The result of all this is sometimes frustrating.  In "Euthyphro," a dialogue I used to ask my students to read, the topic discussed is piety. One can finish the dialogue in an hour or so--but, after reading the entire dialogue, there isn't, in the end, any satisfactory definition of what piety is.

Now, at first it might seem that Socrates is moving in the Sophist direction: there is no truth.  But what's really happening here is that Socrates insists that there are two kinds of truths.  Some can be learned easily, just by definition.  When did Constantinople fall to the Turks?  1453.  An easy enough thing to learn.  But other truths don't work this way.  One cannot learn what justice is just by having a definition.  And the same things goes for any of the "higher" truths.  But by looking at things from one perspective, and then another, and then another, one gradually gets a better and better understanding of what that thing is all about. 

[This, by the way, is one of the many reasons outcome-based education is such a tragedy, particularly when applied university level education. Outcome- based evaluations can only measure mastery of  relatively trivial kinds of issues, not the higher-level questions a university education should be about.  And only a rather ignorant sort of person would think that what you are supposed to be gettting out of your general education classes can be measured by something like the CAAP exam.  So why did we get things like the CAAP?  Brought in on ourselves, we did.  As university humanities and social science courses drifted back to the Sophist relative morality and relative truth, the people picking up the tab for higher education weren't very happy: not much point paying for courses that didn't seem to lead anywhere.  Man is the measure of all things has been replace by the idea that quantitive data is the measure of all things.]

Socrates was also important for his answer to the "right makes right" philosophy that had begun to dominate Athens and went hand in hand with the Sophist world view.  Socrates explains that, whenever we harm another human being, we put a blot on our soul.  Now the Greek word we translate as "soul" is "psyche," a word we also translate as "mind."  When one harms another person, violating what we call the Golden Rule, one is violating, not just a moral principle, but a logical principle as well. And what this means is, that, when we harm another, we end up not being able to think clearly anymore, and, especially, we don't think clearly in that area in which we have done the harm.

Take, for instance, that lowest of all types of human being, the seducer, the kind of man who gets a woman in bed by telling her he loves her when all he really wants is a night's fun.  One thinks that it is the woman who is hurt most in such a situation.  But, Socrates would argue, the man has hurt himself even more. He has put a blot on his soul, that is, on his mind.  He will not be able to think clearly--and, particlarly, he will not be able to think clearly about the relationship between men and women.  And he will end up...well, he'll end up as people always do when they insist that black is white, night is day, evil is good: making self-destructive mistake after mistake--and, really, no true human being at all. 

Socrates is also important for his personal example. Notice the way he behaves in the "Apology," the dialogue I asked you to read for class.  Put on trial for corrupting the youth and for blaspheming the traditional gods, Socrates uses his defense, not to try to escape punishment, but as an opportunity to teach.  He accepts an unjust death sentence rather than compromise the truth in any way.  Some Christians would later see in Socrates a "Christian before Christ," and his example was important to some of the early martyrs.

The mark of a truly great teacher is not so much what they can achieve themselves, as what they inspire their students to create, and in this area, Socrates must rank among the greatest teachers of all time.  He had many fine students like Xenophon, one of the finest of Greek writers [though he also had students like Alcibiades and Critias, important figures in Greek history, but not nearly such a credit to their teacher!].


Of all Socrates' students, the most famous a man by the name of Plato.  Well, actually, he wasn't named Plato: that's just what we call him.  Plato is a nickname, probably having nothing to do with philosophy.  In his younger days, Plato was a wrestler--and built like a wrestler--bulging muscles everywhere, with particularly broad shoulders. It was this wrestler's build that gave him his nickname, "Plato," a Greek word probably best translated as "hunk" or "hulk."  Not the kind of thing you usually associate with a philosopher, perhaps.  Nevertheless, Plato was not only a philosopher, but perhaps the greatest of all philosophers.  One modern philosopher said that all subsequent philosophy was nothing more than footnotes to Plato!   Among Plato's contributions are the following:

1.  Preserving the  teaching of Socrates.  While we have other sources for Socrates (particularly Xenophon's Memorabilia and Apology) most of what we know about Socrates we get from plato.

2.  Carrying Socrates teachings ethical teachings much farther.  While Socrates was concerned with individual morality, Plato explores the broader question of what constitutes a just society.  One sees this most clearly in Plato's Republic, a dialogue exploring the question, "What is justice?"  The Republic is the first great political utopia, a work describing an imaginary ideal society.  It is a book frequently assigned in political philosophy classes, and extremely important as a foundational work of political science.

3.  Carrying further Socrates religious ideas.  While Socrates emphasized an inner divine voice as an important guide to conduct, Plato suggests that we also ought to conduct ourselves rightly because, in the end, there will be a day of judgment.  Not only that, we ought to concentrate, not primarily on this physical world, but on the "real" world: the real world being the world of the mind/soul.  The physical world is transient and changing: the real world is the world of eternal and unchanging ideas (sometimes called forms). Even more important is the cource of these ideas/forms: the form of the infinite, i.e., God.  Note how similar some of this is to Christian teachings. Plato's ideas in some ways provided a philsophical background very conducive to the spread of Christianity four centuries later.

4.  Plato's other important contribution:  the establishing of a school, the Academy, a school witch attracted and inspired the best minds from Greek speaking world for nearly 1000 years.  Among those who studied at the academy, a philsopher every bit as influential as Plato himself, Aristotle.


It's important to realize that the Greek idea of philosophy was not nearly as restricted as ours often is today. The philsopophical "love of wisdom" embraced all human knowledge. Particularly this was so for Plato's greatest student, Aristotle.

Aristotle left his mark on virtually every field of thought: biology, political science, physics, literary criticism, etc. Aristotle was so impressive that, in later centuries people were reluctant to challenge his teachings, and, eventually this led to some stagnation--but this hardly Aristotle's fault!  Behind Aristotle's great achievements was an immensely attractive and consistent philophy, derived partly from the teachings of Socrates and Plato, but with a far greater emphasis on the material world and life in the material world.

Aristotle believed that the hunger for knowledge was perhaps the greatest of all motivating forces, "All men by nature desire knowledge."  Lots of teachers wouldn't agree.  I'm not so sure. Would we do without eyes?  Without ears?  Without taste?  Touch?  These are important to us because they give us knowledge.  Further, said Aristotle, our whole purpose in life is to acquire knowledge.  How did he come to this conclusion?

All things, said Aristotle, have a "telos," and end or purpose.  Often, one can tell what that purpose is by looking at that makes that thing unique. Human beings are unique in our ability to reaons, and so, said Aristotle, that must be our purpose.

Aristotle himself was certainly hungry for knowlege about all sorts of things.  He was the great collector and classifier of antiquity, typically approaching a subject by gathering as much information as he could and then classifying and analyzing that information.

His "Poetics" collects various forms of literature: epic poetry, tragedy, and comedy. He describes the basic characteristics of each genre--and paves the way for literary critics for the next 24 centuries!

In botany and zoology likewise he leaves a lasting mark by collecting and analyzing all the plant and animal specimens he can find.

In political science, he concentrates, not on an imaginary society, but on real societies, looking at the way government is structured in Athens, Thebes, Sparta, Corinth, etch.  He classifies this different types of governement and the potential strengths and weaknesses of each.  His "Politics" is, like Plato's "Republic," one of the foundational works of political science, a book that has lasting influence today.

Aristotle eventually broke away from the Academy and established his own school (the Lyceum).  For almost 1000 years, this school would be a rival to the Academy in attracting great minds from all over the Greek-speaking world. 

I need to emphasize that, for the Greek philosophers the most important aspect of philosophy was the practical, how we should live our day to day lives, and above all, how we can be happy.  Aristotle no exception.  His philosophy stressed moderation: "The Golden Mean is best."  "Nothing to excess."   Now this moderation wasn't exactly like what we typically think of as moderation today.  Probably the best way to think of this is as self control.

[Christian theologians, eventually came up with the idea that there were seven cardinal virtues, characteristics we ought to base our lives.  There were three "theological virtues," faith, hope, and love, and four "philosophical virtues," courage, moderation, prudence, and justice.  The first three are emphasized in the scripture.  The other four are derived from Plato and Aristotle, though, of course, supported by the Bible as well.]

Aristotle's philosophy was pretty all-encompassing.  It had a lot to say about ontological questions like the nature of this world and things in it, but plenty of advice for leading a happy life as well.

But happiness is elusive, particularly in hard times, and, as times got progressively tough in the Greek-speaking world, later Greek philosophers developed some philosophical ideas particularly suited to hard-times: that is, to most times in human history! One such: Diogenes.

Diogenes was an advocate of a philosophy called Cynicism.  Cynic comes from kunos, the Greek word for dog.  You want to be happy?  Look at dogs.  Dogs are happy--and if you want to be happy, you should live like a dog. 

 1.  Dogs don't worry about material possessions: they're right!  Diogenes practiced what he preached.  He had only a pouch, a cup, and a staff. One day he saw a boy cupping his hands to drink water. Diogenes shouted out, "Fool!"  Who was the fool?  He was!  He didn't need the cup--and so he threw it away.

 2.  Dogs don't worry about mortgages. Diogenes himself llived in public buildings and slept in tub--pretty much living the lifestyle many of our homeless do today.

 3.  Dogs don't worry about their dignity.  Throw a scrap of food on the ground, they'll go for it.  Food's food!  Diogenes would hang around rich men's banquet tables, begging for food like a dog.  The rich men had great fun treating him like a dog.  Cute, they though, until he acted like a dog in one more way....lifing up his  robe and spraying the assembled banqueters when he felt the need to relieve himself.  Why?  Because....

 4.  Dogs don't worry about other dogs dignity either. When Philip of Macedom came to Athens, he came across the very odd-looking Diogenes and asked, "Who are you?"  "A spy on your greed," said Diogenes.  Later, Alexander deliberately sought out Diogenes to ask if there was anything he could do for him.  Diogenes said, "As a matter of fact, yes. You can move aside. You are standing between me and the sun, and I like the sun's rays on my arms."  Alexander said,  "Don't you fear me?"  Diogenes asked, "Are you a good force or an evil force?'" Alexander replied, " A good force."  "Who fears what;'s good," said Diogenes.  Alexander was impressed.  "If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes."

 5.  Dogs can take disappointment.  If you kick a dog, it yelps then comes right back with a stupid grin.  Diogenes said we too would be happier if we learned how to bear up under disappointments.  His friends one day found him begging at a statue of Zeus.  "What are you doing?" they asked.  "Getting used to disappointment."

 6.  Dogs don't expect too much.  We use the word "cynic" today for someone who takes a dim view of their fellow men. Diogenes was a cynic in this sense as well.  He once lit a lantern in broad daylight, and went through the streetes of Athens obviously looking for something.  What?  "An honest man," said Diogenes.  What he's actually looking for here is a true man: a man worthy of being called a man. Plenty of males, perhaps: but no true men.  Why?   Because people don't work at it.   People work hard to be good athletes, said Diogenes, but  no one works hard at becoming a good man.  Further, people don't care about what's really important.  One day no one was listening to what Diogenes was saying.  He started whistling and attracted a fairly large crowd: and then he launched into a diatribe against them, lambasting them for paying no attention to him when he was talking about important things, and paying lots of attention to his absolutely worthless whistling.

Now you would think Athenians would hate Diogenes more than they hate Socrates.  Not so!  They were proud of their dog-philospher.  When vandals broke his tub, the people of Athens took up a collection--and bought him a new tub!

Why did Diogenes get away with his criticisms?   Partly, it's because Diogenes diffused some of the harsh things he had to say with humor.  One example.   He saw a prostitute's son throwing rocks at crowd. Instead of yelling at the boy, he took him asside and simply said,  "Careful, son.  Don't hit your father."   Then there's my favorite Diogenes line:

Asked why people give money to beggars but not to philosophers, Diogenes said, "People are afraid they might become beggars some day, but nobody is afraid they might become a philosopher!"

Diogenes philosophy the kind of thing that can help you bear up under even the most difficult circumstances.  But the Greeks had even better philosophies for helping people cope with difficult times.

STOICS (founded by Zeno, c. 314--not to be confused with Zeno of Elea above.  This is Zeno of Citium)

The Stoics believed that the universe went through alternate cycles of creations and destruction, and that all things repeated themselves.  Our actions were not one-time affairs, but had echos through eternity.  As a result, it was important to get thngs right.  The Stoics emphasized high ethical standards, and the idea that we ought to treat all mankind as brothers.  These ideas, like those of Plato, helped prepare the way for the very similar teachings of Christianity, and they were important in the multi-cultural society developing as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great.

The Stoics were strong believers in fate: that all things were following a predetermined pattern.  Since external events are beyond our control, what we must do in order to by happy is simply adjust our attitudes toward those external events.  The trick to life is not to get what you want, but to learn to want what you get.  The ultimate goal: to face exteral events with "apatheia" (a=no, pathos=feeling).  No matter what evil comes your way, learn to bear up.  We still talk about a person who can bear pain and suffering as Stoical.  Mr. Spock and the Vulcans, I suppose, would be idea Stoics.  But perhaps the best comparison is with the Buddhists who adopted a very similar philsophy.

Also into the culivation of apatheia, the Epicureans.

EPICUREANS (Founded by Epicurus 342-270)

Epicurus taught that one key to a happy life was to eliminate negative emotions, particularly one of the worst negatives, fear.  Fear is exceedingly unpleasant, and learning to live a life without fear is important. So start with what is for many the greatest fear of all: death.  If you can  handle that, you can handle anything. 

Epicurus had a clever way for handling the fear of death.  He returned to Democritus' idea of atoms.  All there is, said Epicurus,  is atoms and void.  When you are born, your atoms come together.  When you die, your atoms come apart.  What's the big deal?  Further, you won't even know it when you're dead.  You won't be there anymore. A typical Epicurean epitaph: "I was not, I was, I am not.  I don't care."

So, if we don't have to worry about what comes after death, we can concentrate on the here and now.  So what do we with our lives?  We should seek pleasure, which Epicurus considered greatest good.  But while seeking pleasure, we also need to avoid pain.  The problem is, that most pleasures involve some pain, maybe even quite a bit of pain.  And so the Epicureans launched a quest for the pleasure without pain.  What might it be?

Drinking?  Hardly.  There may be some pleasure to it, but then there's the horrible hangover in the morning and the conseuqences of all the stupid things you might have done while drunk.  That can't be the pleasure we're seeking.  Too much pain.
Food? Well, that's more promising, but eating too has it's price. Indigestion from overeating.  Too many excess pounds if you make a pig of yourself too often.  No, the table has its pleasures, but that's still not the pleasure we are seeking.
Sex? No--that doesn't work either. The relationship issues are way too complicated and way too potentially painful for this to be the pleasure without pain we are seeking.

So can one find any pleasure without pain?  Yes!!!  The Epicureans found one!!!  What is it?  The pleasure of learning!  The pleasure your wonderful professors provide for you day after day!  You can learn and learn and learn and learn--lots of pleasure, and no pain.  As you read this, I am giving you what Epicurus said is the greatest of pleasures.

And if you're not getting that--well, at least you're getting an ideal chance to practice that Stoic philosophy--learning to bear up even under the most difficult of circumstances.