Ancient Greek Philosophy (PHIL 210, Section 002)

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Instructor: Jason Rheins. This course meets on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 2:00 – 2:50 p.m. in Caldwell 105.

In this course we will be looking at the beginnings of western philosophy as it emerged in ancient Greece from the 6th to 4th centuries BCE. The first two weeks of the class will cover the earliest systematic and logical world-views of the “Presocratic” philosophers and the traditional background of Greek myth and culture from which they were departing, sometimes radically. For the majority of the course we will consider the two greatest philosophers in the Western canon and arguably the most influential thinkers in history: Plato and Aristotle. In weeks three through eight of the course we will cover Plato, the endlessly creative Philosopher-Artist who invented the field of “philosophy”, much as we now know it (i.e. as an integrated system of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics). In weeks nine through fifteen we will cover his most brilliant student and greatest rival, Aristotle, the Philosopher-Scientist par excellence. In the final week we will take a brief look at the most unique post-Aristotelian philosophical school: Epicureanism.

In the course of our survey we will be looking at among the most influential and original answers to some of the most important and persistent questions in the philosophical tradition:

Concerning Reality: what is its basic nature? What is more real, the particular, but changing things that we perceive around us, or the abstract objects of timeless knowledge? Is the world we perceive real and orderly, or is it a chaotic flux, perhaps a reflection of some higher, imperceptible kind of being? Is the universe eternal or is it created? Does it operate according to natural principles, the providence of gods concerned with our well-being, or is it only the random results of atoms colliding in a void? Are there gods, and do they matter?

Concerning Knowledge: Can we gain knowledge about the world, or is recognition of our own ignorance the best that mortals can achieve? If we can gain knowledge is it to be obtained through the use of the senses, reason, both? Can we reach definitions and general principles necessary for science?

Concerning Human Nature: What is the soul, and what is its relationship to the body? Can the latter persist without the former? Do the passions and desires of our bodies such as for gaining pleasure and avoiding pain clash with the better parts of our nature or can our intellects and emotions be in harmony.

Concerning Being Good and Living well: Are there naturally good and bad ways for humans to function, or are codes of behavior strictly matters of custom? What is virtue or human excellence? Does it behoove us to consistently act virtuously? Can anyone be happy without doing so? Does justice lead to happiness, and can being wise go any way towards guaranteeing our happiness? What should we seek in life? Pleasure, knowledge, an excellent character?

Concerning the State: What does justice look like between human beings in a state? What is the best kind of government? Should the state be ruled only by wise elites or should it be governed more democratically? What is the role of law within a good state? Is the purpose of the state to make its citizens better people, and, if so, should it control what ideas they are exposed to in art and literature?

Concerning Literature and other Art forms: Should art be ‘mimetic’, i.e. should it represent objects in the world by imitating them? Does this make inherently illusory and misleading, or does this enable it to deal universally with general features of the human condition? What purpose does art serve, and must it depict on morally positive content? Does the portrayal of evils corrupt the observer, and if so, should art be censored?

Jason Rheins’s webpage