Title: "Bringing Ancient Philosophy to Life: Teaching Aristotelian and Stoic Theories of Responsibility", Teaching Philosophy, 20/1, 1997, 1-17.
Author: Priscilla K. Sakezles
Date: March 2002
Reviewer: John Sellars
 It is sometimes difficult to excite undergraduates with certain ancient philosophical ideas, such as Presocratic first principles, which seem irrelevant to their lives. However students are invariably fascinated by the problems surrounding free will and responsibility. Thus the author suggests that an interesting way to teach ancient philosophy is to arrange the material around this philosophical topic. A further advantage of doing so is that it enables one to include material from Hellenistic philosophy, a period often neglected in the teaching of ancient philosophy.  The author teaches a course devoted to the debate between Aristotle and the early Stoics concerning moral responsibility and 'being able to do otherwise'.
 The great advantage of this approach is that it makes these ancient philosophers relevant to the philosophical concerns of the students and to wider modern philosophical debates. For example, these ancient ideas may be applied to modern problems such as the extent to which drug addicts should be held responsible for their actions.  Specific examples can easily be found in the media and used as an introduction to the course.
The key passage from Aristotle relevant here is Nicomachean Ethics 3.1-5, which may be prefaced by 2.1-6 if one has time.  Aristotle specifically addresses the question concerning responsibility for one's actions when one is drunk, a topic directly relevant to the life of a typical undergraduate.  Also relevant is the role of habit in character formation and the extent to which this complicates straightforward attributions of responsibility for one's actions.  This introduces the concept of determinism and so forms a bridge to the Stoics.
The Early Stoics
One of the reasons for the neglect of the early Stoics in ancient philosophy courses is the fragmentary nature of the surviving evidence.  However recent anthologies make the relevant texts available, the most appropriate being Inwood and Gerson's Hellenistic Philosophy. The Stoics are both materialists and determinists who argue that the world is a single network of necessary causes in which everything is fated to happen as it does.  However they still affirm that an individual's actions contribute to the outcome of events and so are the first compatibilists or soft determinists. [...]
 Both positions are a little extreme but the contrast between the two creates a good atmosphere for discussion. Essays usually focus more on the students' own beliefs than explication of the ancient ideas.  Modern articles on determinism are also mentioned and students are encouraged to read them.
This course could easily be expanded, by including material from Democritus, Plato, or Epicurus.  Alternatively, Aristotelian and Stoic material could be incorporated into a general course on free will and responsibility.  The key task, however, is to bring to life ancient philosophical material and to avoid falling into 'ancestor worship'.
There is much in this paper that deserves to be commended. There is also a considerable amount of helpful material outlining the various philosophical positions that I have not attempted to summarise here. The author's comments regarding the relative neglect of Hellenistic philosophy in ancient philosophy courses are particularly welcome. Here, teaching practice has not kept up with the vast amount of research that has been done in this area in the last three decades. I think it is fair to say that, especially in philosophy departments, ancient philosophy teaching is usually limited to the Presocratics, Plato (with the Republic centre-stage), and selections from Aristotle (or alternatively just the Nicomachean Ethics). Although the Presocratics are often approached simply as the background necessary to understand Plato, there is no specific philosophical narrative unifying this fairly typical syllabus (no doubt there are exceptions).
The particular value of the author's course outline is the way in which historical material is approached thematically rather than chronologically. Having said that, the move from Aristotle to the Stoics (and then perhaps to Epicurus) is a broadly chronological development. Yet the organising principle of the course is a specific philosophical question and, moreover, a philosophical question that is immediately engaging for an audience of new undergraduates. No doubt other themes could also be used for other ancient philosophy courses but I suspect that few will be as engaging as the one outlined here (the pleasure versus virtue debate and the search for the happy life are perhaps promising options).
Beyond Aristotle and the Stoics the author notes Democritus, Epicurus, and Plato as other sources that could also be included. Further options might be Socrates in the Apology ('virtue is knowledge', implying that the vicious should not be punished as their actions are merely the product of ignorance) and the extended treatments of determinism in the treatises On Fate by Cicero and Alexander of Aphrodisias. However one of the virtues of the author's current proposal is that it focuses upon very short, if dense, extracts and so gives the students time to read these texts closely rather than be overwhelmed by lots of material. It would, I think, be a mistake to try to pack too much of this sort of material into one course.
The author's preferred sourcebook for the Stoics, Inwood and Gerson, is significantly cheaper than the most obvious alternative, Long and Sedley, which is perhaps too advanced for first year undergraduates. It is also worth noting that there has recently been a second expanded edition of Inwood and Gerson, making this collection even more attractive as a textbook. Another alternative is the recent thematic anthology of ancient texts by Irwin, which, in its section devoted to free will, includes Atomism, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics.
This site was created by Dr John Sellars for the PRS-LTSN, 2002.