PHIL 301: Ancient Philosophy

I. The Pre-Socratics


I. Introduction

A. Role

B. What we’re doing and why

1. Start at the beginning with Thales and then go up through Plotinus, with Plato and Aristotle as our major figures.

2. Why?

a. Life and death issues that are still with us today.

1. Content – Is there a God? Is there a real moral order?

2. Methodology – What is the best way to think effectively about reality?

b. The advantage of doing it historically – address questions in metaphilosophy like

1. Why are we bothering to do philosophy? The original starting assumption!  And where you end up has a lot to do with where you started. Most of our guys in here will say it’s to lead the good and happy life. If it’s not making you happy, you’re not doing it right.

2. See how ideas on different topics fit together.

c. The advantage of looking at the beginning…

1. Issues are clearer when you see folks beginning to set them out – you can appreciate the “bones” of the arguments.

2. Encourages creative thinking about the issues – not already in a well-worn path, a “rut”.

C. Style – lecture and discussion.

D. Requirements (Look at your syllabus)

1. Tests

2. Quizzes

3. Opinion/argument papers

-- 93-100 =A, 90-92=A-, 87-89=B+, 83-86=B, 80-82=B-, etc. except that the D- will be 55-62.

4. Participation



THALES (7th – early 6th, BC)

I. Everything is made of water

A. An inauspicious beginning? It sure doesn’t look like that!

B. Well, in terms of material constituents, what is everything made of?

II. Why does he say this? (This is the interesting part.)

A. Becoming!

1. NOT blinking into being and out of being. (Why not? It’s just not what we think happens, and indeed it’s conceptually impossible or at least very difficult.)

            2. So something has to stay in existence throughout the change.  

3. Why does there have to be some sameness underlying EVERYTHING? (P.1)(Note that here we’re reading Aristotle’s history of philosophy.)

(Note that the methodology is to assume that what we all take to be the case, is indeed the case, and then to wonder about it. What must obtain in order for our common view to be correct. We need a theory to explain how what we assume happens, happens.)

B. So here’s what we have so far.

            1. A method for doing philosophy (and science).

2. A method that involves looking at the empirical evidence, assuming a standard understanding of the empirical evidence, and then theorizing about it.

3.  A sort of balance between appearance and reality. In this case, the appearance is not false, but it does not capture all that needs to be said about reality. At least as Aristotle expresses it

4. An underlying unity.

C. Why pick water?



A. Agrees with Thales that there must be an underlying unity.

B. The indefinite boundless (p.2). Why is this better than saying it’s all water?

C. How do you get different things?  The I. B. is in ordered motion.

(A natural law!!!)



A. Agrees with Thales that there must be an underlying unity.

B. Air

C. Agrees with Anaximander that there must be Ordered motion.

C. But what explains the fact that different things have different properties? “…rarity and density…” (p.3)

(Qualities are a product of quantities!)



A. We do math in order to purify our souls. Reincarnation.

(n.b.! This does not entail that the soul is immaterial. The concept of the literally “immaterial” does not seem to have surfaced yet.  You begin to get it with Anaxagoras and Plato. So, while the Pythagoreans seem to be thinking of soul and body and two different and separable things, this is not soul(mind)/body dualism as we might think of it today.)

B. (p.5, A) What there is is mathematical entities. Points and lines and shapes are the actual, material, constituents of the cosmos.

C. Why say this? Evidence from music. (p.5,B)

C. Cosmos! (Order)

(One of the great divides! In answer to the question, “What is this?”, the Milesians focus on the matter, the stuff out of which the universe is made. The Pythagoreans focus on the structure, the order)



A. Constant Change (11A, the “other waters”…)

B. Yet, the Milesians were right that there must be an underlying unity.

C. Fire. (11B)

D. Order (10B)

--Another great divide, the ubiquitous order requires an explanation, a cause sufficient to the effect. Order implies an orderer. But order can only be the result of mind, reason.

E. So it’s all logos, reason, god. (10A) (Pantheism)



A. The Argument

1. Thought and being are the same (13A)

2. You can’t think nothing.

3. It is not possible for nothing to be. (13B)

B. The conclusion – the One – (14A’) -- Everlasting

1. no substantial change (14A)

2. no space (14B), no motion

3. a plenum (14C)


MELISSUS (Describes – as Simplicius has it -- the One a bit more clearly than Parmenides does.)

A. No change (15A)

B. No rearrangement (16A)(!!!)

C. No “empty”, so no motion. (16B)

D. No rare and dense (like Anaximenes had said) (16C)


ZENO (We just don’t have time to do much with him.)

A. Your senses are big, fat liars. (The millet seeds – 18A)

B. It cannot be the case that anything is divisible. (18B)

The argument, let’s do it as…

-- reductio ad absurdum

1. X is divisible.

2. The division goes on forever.

3. Therefore X is composed of an infinite number of particles.

4. Either the particles do have magnitude or they don’t.

5. If they do, then X is infinitely large – which is absurd.

6. If they don’t, then X has no magnitude at all – which is absurd.

7. Therefore, Our original assumption, Premise 1, if false.


Goal is to answer what we will call "Parmenides' Problem": Parmenides was right to say that there cannot be any absolute coming into or passing out of being. But obviously there is change and motion, so we need to reconcile the two.

A. Everything is constituted of little particles, so small we can't see them. The particles get rearranged, but they they never come into or pass out of being. (Parmenides would say there's a problem already.)

B. The particles are of earth, air, fire, and water.

C. Two principles of motion, Love and Hate.

D. Evolution and survival of the fittest. 



Still working on Parmenides’ Problem.

A. Anaxagoras is happy with little particles…they don’t come into or pass out of being.

B. He has a complaint against Empedocles, similar to the one I suggested that Parmenides would raise. What about the “carrotness” of the carrot…the essence or form or nature?

C. Things are homoiomerous.

            1. An object is what it is due to the kind of the plurality of particles.

            2. Everything has some of everything in it.

            3. And this is true of the particles themselves (!).

D. The large and the small.

E. Agrees with Heraclitus that order requires an orderer. However introduces the idea that Mind is NOT the physical stuff, or a kind of physical stuff at all. Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo complains that Anaxagoras didn’t do anything with this splendid        idea.



STILL working on Parmenides’ Problem.

A. Atoms (means “un-cuttable”). Except for size and shape, each atom has the properties of Parmenides’ One.

1. Homogenous – no parts

2. Everlasting

3.  Infinite in number

B. How is it that they move?

1. The void. A “not-being” that “is”.

2. A motion (Aristotle is irritated that it is just a brute phenomenon.)

C. “Middle-sized objects” come into and pass out of being as the atoms get rearranged.

 D. The human condition

            1. Our actions are determined. They are the effect of a chain of causal necessity stretching back infinitely.

            2. Sense data, atoms striking our sense organs.

            3. Our thoughts are atoms and the void.

            4. No soul, no afterlife.

            5. We should try to be cheerful. Live pleasantly. Is pleasure found in indulging our bodily desires to excess?

E. No god.

1. The Principle of Parsimony (Ockham’s Razor)

            2. Naturalism vs. Theism

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS WITH ATOMISM (And, mutatis mutandis, with contemporary naturalism) You can, of course, just say that these are not problems.)

I. Does it solve Parmenides’ Problem? What about the carrotness of the carrot? One way to deal with this – seems like what the atomists would say – is reductionism. There is no carrotness.

            A. The world of “middle sized” objects is an illusion projected by the atoms.

            B. This means you!!!

II. We assume that we can access the truth (to some extent) by observing the physical world carefully and by thinking well in general.

A. If we can’t, then we have no reason at all to accept that atomism is true.

B. But our senses and our cognitive processes are just atoms and the void.

1.Where, in that picture, can you find any connection between the “knower” and the “known”, or any explanation or theoretical description at all, such that we access truth?

2. Add evolution? Huge and very debatable assumption: Having true beliefs is an evolutionary advantage.

            C. (A corollary of B) It is difficult to see what would allow us to distinguish good from bad thinking in that it is all fundamentally the same phenomenon.

III. Freedom? My atoms made me do it…so I’m not the sort of thing that can be subject to praise and blame.

IV. Value? An objective moral order?  By “objective moral order” I mean that there are moral truths. So, e.g. “It is wrong to torture small children for fun.” is actually about torturing small children for fun. It’s not about our beliefs or feelings or social norms or whatever. And it’s TRUE!!! (I.e. It is the sort of claim that is true or false.)

            A. The atomists can give an explanation for why I believe that it is wrong to torture small children for fun.

            B. But what, in atoms and the void, can ground or explain or allow a theoretical understanding of the TRUTH of “It is wrong to torture small children for fun”?



I. Protagoras

A. “Man is the measure of all things,…” apparently means that we cannot access any objective truth. The best we can do is to say that “truth” is what appears to each of us.

B. Why bother to do philosophy? “To make the weaker argument the stronger.”  O.K., but why? $$$!

II. Gorgias

A. Helen is not at fault – p.32. (Note especially the power of words.)

B. “But even if it should be comprehended, it cannot be expressed to another.” Logos


Sohists continued --

“Laws” versus “nature”

1.) Is there an objective moral order transcending the laws of the city and to which they should conform, or are the laws conventional? Hobbes, Rawls, and many contemporary folk say the latter.

2.) If you could get away with it, would it be more advantageous for you to behave unjustly?

What is “justice”? Sophists seem to take justice to be obedience to the laws of whatever city you are in.

III. Antiphon

A. 1.) Conventional and 2.) Yes! Laws are contrary to nature.

B. Examples – no preemptive strike, etc. (p.39)

C. If laws protected those who obeyed them, okay, but they don’t.

IV. Critias – God

V. Anonymous Iamblichi

A. More positive about laws…The benefit all the citizens. (But they’re still conventional.)

B. Could some super strong, smart person succeed in gaining advantage by disobeying the laws? No because everybody else would gang up on him.

C. But if that’s the reason he shouldn’t run rough-shod over everyone, then suggests that IF he could get away with it, that would be okay – most advantageous for him. Hitler, Stalin, Mao? (The latter two died in bed.)

--- Conventionalism contrary to the traditional view in this country. Natural Human rights. Possibility of a (really!) bad law, suggests a standard for good and bad which transcends the law. Civil disobedience.


PHIL 301            Ancient Philosophy               PAPER #1


Instructions and topics for 2-page paper.  Paper is due to me in class on September 26, or on paper or electronically before then.  Failure to comply will result in a 0 grade for this paper, unless you have spoken to me and received an extension.

Paper must be no more than two pages of double-spaced text, with 12-pt font, and one inch margins. If you choose to consult outside sources – the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for example – you may do so. If you do this, be sure to include end notes for these sources on a separate page. I don’t care what form the end notes take, but they must include enough information that I can QUICKLY AND EASILY look up the source. So, for example, if you cite a book, you must include page numbers. I am just as happy if you do NOT consult outside sources, but it’s up to you.

Two pages is very short, so you will need to write in a clear and well-organized fashion. Give your paper an informative title, and state at the beginning what it is you are going to claim or argue. All of the topics involve attacking or defending some claim, so you will need to state your reason(s) for your conclusion(s) succinctly.  

Some hints. You might want to start by not worrying about how concise you have to be. Write what feels comfortable and then go back and edit to get it down to size.  If you are new to philosophy, read your paper out loud slowly and ask if what you’re saying makes sense. You are being asked to agree or disagree with a claim, and in philosophy it is okay to write in the first person (“I think…”). You must give reasons for your views.  There are all kinds of “reasons” in philosophy. These include but are not limited to empirical data including the findings of science and ordinary experience, common intuitions, conceptual analysis (e.g. when Parmenides concludes all kinds of things about the world from the claim that there is no nothing), whether or not claims internal to a view are consistent with one another, whether or not a claim entails an absurdity, whether or not a claim can be developed coherently. Concrete examples are often useful.  And in philosophy it is perfectly okay to say, “I assume that X…” and then go from there.  If you have questions about how to proceed, feel free to ask! 


1. Pick one of Zeno’s paradoxes that we did not look at in class, explain it, and then try to solve it, or offer a possible solution and explain why that solution does not work and the paradox remains.


2. Aristotle complains that the atomists don’t explain where the everlasting motion in the universe comes from, but he does not complain that they don’t explain where the atoms come from.  What , in general, would be a principled way of distinguishing the sort of thing that needs to have some sort of causal explanation for its origin, from the sort of thing that does not? (You can relate your discussion to Aristotle or not as you wish.)


3. (Thanks, Khaled) One might suggest that Heraclitus offers a kind of middle-ground between Anaxagoras’ theism which proposes a transcendent mind as the source of order in our universe, and naturalism, which I defined as the view that the only reality – all there is – is what constitutes the subject matter of the hard sciences.  Explain and defend or attack some Heraclitean view of God.


4. In class Rogers argued that atomism and its present-day descendent, naturalism, are difficult to reconcile with our common intuition that there is a genuine, objective right and wrong in the universe.  Explain a possible reconciliation and defend or attack it.


5. Gorgias gives a number of arguments for the claim that nothing exists and if it did we couldn’t know it. Pick one of these arguments and see if you can make ANY SENSE out of it.