Dr. Deborah Achtenberg
Mon., Wed., Fri.
In this course, we will read, think about and discuss the views of some important ancient Greek philosophers on ethics, or the human good, and physics, or the nature of things.
According to Homer, the god Poseidon was angry with Odysseus and so caused his raft to capsize before he reached the shore. The pre-Socratic philosophers do not accept this sort of explanation. Instead, they suggest that we look to the material constituents of nature to understand natural events. What are the raft and sea made out of? With this rejection of a religious account, philosophy begins. The pre-Socratics ask not 'who did it' but 'what is it made out of'. In addition, they turn to their own knowledge and do not simply accept traditional stories.
Matter is not sufficient to account for events, however, since events sometimes have a certain regularity. Certain types of seeds regularly grow into certain types of trees. Thus, some pre-Socratic philosophers suggest that we need more simply than matter to explain events; we also need to suppose the existence of non-material principles. Heraclitus calls this sort of principle the logos. The world is in flux, but there is a logos in the flux--a principle, a limit, of which we can give an account. There's a logos of the tree's growth, for example.
The Pythagoreans think those principles are numbers. Just as the intervals of the musical scale have numerical correlates, so all of nature is governed by number. Plato adds to those numerical principles qualitative ones that he calls 'forms' or 'ideas'. The world is pervaded by quality, according to him--quality which cannot simply be reduced to quantity. There's a 'form' of the tree's growth. Acorns grow into one form--oak--not another.
Plato also thinks the world is pervaded by value. You cannot understand a cup, for example, unless you know what it is good for, its function. You cannot understand a human action unless you know the goal the person is aiming at in engaging in it. A comprehensive account of things, according to him, requires an understanding of what things are good for, of what he calls the good.
The Sophists disagree with him. When you call some matter in a certain form a cup, you are simply describing the interest you have in the cup. Similarly, when someone calls an action just, they are simply expressing their view that it serves their interests, particularly that it serves the interests of whoever is strong. Plato responds: A broken cup is not really a cup. There are principles of justice to which we can appeal when we disagree with a tyrant's claim that whatever he wishes to do is in fact just.
Aristotle develops Plato's view. The principle of something's growth is the end towards which it develops. Living beings move by nature towards an end which is in them, from the very first, as potential. We do not understand a living being unless we understand its developed stage: we don't understand acorns unless we know they grow into oaks nor human actions unless we understand the goal at which they aim. We do not understand artifacts unless we know that they have the structure they do to serve some function the artificer had in mind. Moreover, human beings only achieve human excellence and lead a flourishing life if they develop their potential. An excellent human being is one who develops that potential--both our emotional and our rational potential. He or she leads a flourishing life only if they not only develop their human potential, but also get a chance to exercise it in important activities together with others. A flourishing life thus has as its condition the existence of a well-developed city. Human beings are by nature political, Aristotle says.
The atomists return to the materialist views of the first pre-Socratics, but in a more sophisticated form. The ultimate constituents we need to explain things are not simply earth, air, fire and water, but uncuttable elements called atoms. The Epicureans and Stoics think nature is a machine. They turn away from the Aristotelian notion of a flourishing life of excellent activity together with others in a well-governed city. The Epicureans suggest instead that we seek a contented pleasure which results from detachment from the world. The Stoics, on the other hand, suggest a certain detachment that results from self-acceptance and love of humankind as a whole. All souls, the Stoics say, are part of one universal soul. Hence we ought to expand our love so that we take the whole universe to be our city and all human beings our fellow citizens.
Topics: ethics (the human good) and physics (the nature of things)
Cohen, Curd and Reeve, editors. Ancient Greek Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, translators. Plato: Phaedrus. Cornell University Press.
David Ross, translator. Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nicholas P. White, translator. Epictetus: The Handbook. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
Requirements: two quizzes, two papers and two examinations.