What is Ancient Philosophy?
For the purposes of this study I shall use the phrase ancient philosophy to refer to the philosophy of the ancient Mediterranean world, written in either Greek or Latin, between the dates 585 BC (Thales famous prediction of an eclipse) and AD 529 (Justinians closure of the last philosophical schools in Athens). Within this period I shall use Greek philosophy to refer to philosophy from the first Presocratics through to Aristotle; Hellenistic philosophy to refer to philosophy during the period of the Hellenistic Empires (i.e. c. 330 30 BC) and also in first two centuries AD; and Late Ancient philosophy to refer to philosophy from c. AD 200 to the end of antiquity (i.e. Plotinus, the later Neoplatonists, and Augustine). In philosophy departments the teaching of ancient philosophy has often been confined to Greek philosophy, namely the Presocratics, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. However these are the products of only the first quarter of this millennium of philosophical history. Here I shall also address the teaching of not only Hellenistic philosophy but also Neoplatonism and later Latin philosophical authors such as Augustine and Boethius.
There are, however, more substantial issues surrounding the definition of ancient philosophy beyond mere chronological considerations. One might understand the question what is ancient philosophy? as asking how was philosophy conceived in antiquity?. This latter question is usually closely connected to concerns about how an ancient conception of philosophy might differ from conceptions of the nature and function of the modern academic subject.
Some modern scholars of ancient philosophy have been keen to point out the argumentative nature of ancient philosophy and the characteristics that it shares with modern Anglo-American academic philosophy, as if it were necessary to make an apologia for continuing to read ancient philosophical texts. Others have been more concerned to draw attention to the differences between ancient and modern philosophy, paying attention to the existential dimension of the ancient philosophical life. However, broad definitions of ancient philosophy rarely manage to encompass the diverse range of practices characterised as philosophical during the course of such a long period of time. Ancient philosophy included scientific (the Presocratics, Aristotle), argumentative (the dialogues of Plato and Cicero), scholastic (late Aristotelian Commentators), therapeutic (Epictetus, Sextus Empiricus), reverential (Epicureans, late Pythagoreans), mystical (late Neoplatonism), and politically revolutionary (Sophists, Socrates of the Apology) dimensions at various times and in various combinations. Any attempt to capture all of these aspects of ancient philosophy under a single umbrella definition is, I suspect, likely to fail.
Nevertheless, it may be helpful to be sensitive to these sorts of questions in order to have at least some framework within which one might approach ones teaching of ancient philosophy. Such metaphilosophical questions will inform more specifically pedagogical questions such as of what should an introduction to ancient philosophy consist? or what are the most important characteristics of ancient thought of which students should be made aware?.
Next Section: Teaching the History of Philosophy
This site was created by Dr John Sellars for the PRS-LTSN, 2002.