Introduction to Greek Philosophy

Course No. 4477
Professor David Roochnik, Ph.D.
Boston University
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Course No. 4477
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Course Overview

The first philosophers in Western history—the ancient Greeks—asked the most fundamental questions about human beings and their relationship to the world. More than 2,500 years later, the issues they pondered continue to challenge, fascinate, and instruct us. Is reality stable and permanent or is it always changing? Are ethical values like justice and courage relative? Or are values "absolute"—simply and forever right and true? What is justice? What is happiness? How shall we best live our lives?

An Introduction to Greek Philosophy beckons you to join this eternal discussion. For that is what this subject truly is: a conversation among thinkers that has continued through the centuries and remains accessible to us today. You find it constantly stimulating, sometimes controversial, and nearly always remarkably relevant.

A Hunger for Reasons, not Myths or Beliefs

Professor David Roochnik has organized this series of 24 lectures as a "dialectical" approach (the word comes from the Greek dialegesthai: to converse). The philosophers are presented as if they were participating in a conversation. In this way, the course unfolds in a manner similar to the actual development of Greek philosophy.

In this course, you study the development of Greek philosophy, meet its major thinkers, and explore the issues and ideas that concerned them. For example the first real philosophers were the Presocratics—literally, the philosophers who lived before Socrates. They included Thales of Miletus (585 B.C.E.–?), Anaximander (610–546), Anaximenes (approx. 550), Xenophanes (approx. 570) and Pythagoras (approx. 570–500).

The Presocratics rejected myth and divine inspiration—such as had been embodied in the works of Homer and in Hesiod's creation story, the Theogony—as valid explanations of reality. Instead, they insisted that true understanding always requires a logos, a rational explanation (hence such English words as "psychology" and "biology").

The Presocratics were concerned with issues such as identifying the arche or "Being": the thing that is the origin of all other things. They also introduced sophistic relativism, the notion that truth, goodness, and all other values were relative, depending entirely on the person or group that held them. This concept would become a major point of debate for the Greeks and for the ages.

Are We Footnotes to Plato?

The heroes of this course, and certainly of Greek philosophy, are Plato (429–347 B.C.E.) and his student, Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.). Unlike the Presocratics, who wrote too little, Plato and Aristotle were prolific authors. Both argued against relativism and instead were staunch objectivists who believed that certain important values were absolutely and universally true. And both left a staggering mark on history.

Alfred North Whitehead, the great 20th-century British philosopher, said, "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." In the Middle Ages, Aristotle was held in such high esteem that he was simply known as "the philosopher."

Among Plato's many contributions to philosophy is his ingenious device for the examination of ideas: his written dialogues. In them, Plato never uses his own voice. Instead, the dialogues take place among a changing cast of characters, and Socrates is the most notable among them. The effect is to invite us to take part in the conversation and, ultimately, to become philosophers.

You study Plato's dialogues as well as his notion of the Forms. This was his response to relativism and proposed that every virtue and value has an absolute and perfect Form, which humans understand even before birth.

Greek philosophy can be said to culminate with Aristotle, who wrote treatises on a breathtaking range of subjects. He is said to be the first to view knowledge as being divided into specific disciplines such as biology or astronomy. The university was later modeled on this approach. More than any other philosopher, Aristotle synthesized the views that preceded him.

For Aristotle, one value was foremost and was contained in everything, from the tiniest organisms to the phenomena of fire to human beings: purpose. Everything has a purpose that can be recognized and objectively defined, and that gives meaning to life. You explore the details and rationale of Aristotle's teleological—or purposive—world-view, one of the most significant in history.

An Invitation to Think

In this course, you not only learn about Greek philosophy but, to some extent, how to do it. Professor Roochnik emphasizes that Greek philosophy is ultimately not about facts or answers but about the give-and-take of ideas.

By the end of these lectures, you will understand how Greek philosophy still heavily influences our view of life. We live today, Professor Roochnik maintains, at a time that is shaped by Presocratic, relativistic philosophy. Contemporary thinkers, and often the average person, have great difficulty finding objective truth or meaning in life.

What have we lost in turning away from the world of Plato and Aristotle—a world where everything has a place and a purpose and life is saturated with value and meaning?

On the other hand, what would we lose if we returned to that world?

These are a few of the many questions that will give you ample food for thought. For the Greeks, that was the greatest feast of all.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    A Dialectical Approach to Greek Philosophy
    The approach of this course is "dialectical." The development of Greek philosophy is presented as a conversation between thinkers who respond to each other. The purpose is to invite the student to enter the dialogue that the Greeks began, and that continues to this day. x
  • 2
    From Myth to Philosophy—Hesiod and Thales
    Thales is generally regarded as the first philosopher of the West. He claimed to have rationally discovered the origin (archê) of all things: water. With this claim, he fundamentally broke with the myth-makers of the past. x
  • 3
    The Milesians and the Quest for Being
    Thales and two other philosophers from Miletus— Anaximander and Anaximenes—agreed that the world has an origin (archê) that can be comprehended rationally. They disagreed, however, as to its nature. This dispute about Being was the first debate in Western philosophy. x
  • 4
    The Great Intrusion—Heraclitus
    Heraclitus of Ephesus (540–480) offered a daring response to the dilemma of Being and Becoming: he eliminated Being. According to Heraclitus, nothing is stable or permanent. But if reality is unstable, how can it have a rational explanation? x
  • 5
    Parmenides—The Champion of Being
    Parmenides of Elea (c. 515–440) responded to Heraclitus by eliminating Becoming. His was a supremely rationalist position that rejected "appearance" (doxa)—what the world seems like to our eyes, ears and other senses—as totally unreliable and philosophically worthless. x
  • 6
    Reconciling Heraclitus and Parmenides
    Much of Greek philosophy in the fifth century attempted to reconcile the conclusions of Heraclitus and Parmenides. This lecture discusses three such efforts, by Democritus of Abdera (c. 460), Anaxagoras (500–428) and Empedocles (493–433). x
  • 7
    The Sophists—Protagoras, the First "Humanist"
    The Sophists, a group of thinkers who lived in the fifth century, were professional teachers who traveled from city to city. This lecture focuses on Protagoras of Abdera, the first humanist in the West. He was a relativist for whom the distinctive feature of human beings was language, especially when applied to political deliberation and debate. Thus, he taught rhetoric, the art of speaking well. x
  • 8
    Socrates wrote nothing, and what we know of him comes from the writings of others. He was interested in ethical concepts, and sought definitions to such questions as "What is justice?" and "What is courage?" His basic concern was how a person could live a good life. x
  • 9
    An Introduction to Plato's Dialogues
    Plato wrote some 25 dialogues, a few of them (the Republic and the Laws), quite long. Only a small portion of Plato's writings will be addressed in this course. These themes will be selected with one consideration: How did Plato respond to his predecessors, the Sophists and the Presocratics? x
  • 10
    Plato versus the Sophists, I
    Plato was profoundly opposed to the relativism of the Sophists. He believed that the idea that "human being is the measure of all things" was philosophically, morally, and politically pernicious. This lecture examines in some detail one argument the philosopher used against his Sophistic opponents. x
  • 11
    Plato versus the Sophists, II
    Another strategy that Plato used against the relativism of the Sophists was the self-reference argument. In this sort of refutation, a position is used against itself. In the Theaetetus, Socrates uses the self-reference argument against Protagoras and Heraclitus. x
  • 12
    Plato's Forms, I
    In another dialogue, The Meno, Socrates asks his Sophistic opponent: "What is virtue itself?" This question demands a universal definition that embraces all the particulars. This is "The Form of Virtue," a crucial Platonic concept that will be explained in some detail. x
  • 13
    Plato's Forms, II
    Why should anyone believe that there are Platonic Forms? This is a profound question in the debate about relativism. In Plato's dialogue the Phaedo, Socrates shows that the Forms cannot be derived from experience. Instead, they are "recollected." This lecture will explain what this means. x
  • 14
    Plato versus the Presocratics
    Plato was a fundamentally different kind of thinker from the Presocratics. They were phusiologoi, natural philosophers, interested mostly in giving an account of nature (a logos of phusis). By contrast, Plato was most involved with questions concerning the value and meaning of human life. For Plato, the world was saturated in value. x
  • 15
    The Republic—The Political Implications of the Forms
    The Forms played a crucial role in Plato's political thinking. This lecture turns to the "Parable of the Cave" in the Republic to consider the political implications of the Forms. The regime Plato seems to recommend is quite authoritarian. The ultimate authority, however, is not a man, but wisdom itself. x
  • 16
    Final Reflections on Plato
    By focusing on Plato's critique of the Sophists and the Presocratics, these lectures have positioned him to enter into the major philosophical debates of today. Contemporary thought has two dominant worldviews: the scientific, which is the legacy of the Presocratics, and the relativistic, whose representatives today are descendants of the Sophists. In rejecting both, Plato offers a compelling middle way that is still viable. x
  • 17
    Aristotle—"The" Philosopher
    Aristotle's influence on Western civilization was monumental. He was so dominant that in the Middle Ages he was simply called "the philosopher." Unlike Plato, Aristotle gave systematic answers to the questions asked in each of these fields. This lecture covers some general characteristics of Aristotelian theory, and begins to discuss how it is both similar to, yet fundamentally different from, the modern conception of science. x
  • 18
    Aristotle's Physics—What is Nature?
    This lecture introduces Aristotle's Physics, his study (or theory) of nature. Aristotle appreciated the groundbreaking efforts of his predecessors, the Presocratics, but thought they put too much emphasis on material elements. As a student of Plato, Aristotle insisted that "form" was a crucial part of natural beings. His view is called "hylomorphism," a doctrine in which both matter (hulê) and form (morphê) play an essential role. x
  • 19
    Aristotle's Physics—The Four Causes
    The Physics presents Aristotle's doctrine of the four causes: the efficient, the material, the formal, and the final. Aristotle's final cause implies that natural beings, not just humans, have purposes. This is Aristotle's "teleological" conception of nature, and is essential to understanding his view of the world. x
  • 20
    Why Plants Have Souls
    The Aristotelian idea that plants have souls sounds preposterous to modern ears. However, Aristotle's conception of soul (psychê) is so radically different from what we associate with the word that, in fact, his position can be philosophically defended. x
  • 21
    Aristotle's Hierarchical Cosmos
    Aristotle conceives of a hierarchically ordered cosmos in which things have their place. The heavens are, quite literally, above the earth. They are higher, better, more perfect than things that are below the moon (sublunar). On earth, animals are higher than plants, and human beings are the highest animal of all. Religious thinkers later used this argument to prove the existence of God, but Aristotle's God is different from that of the monotheistic tradition in important ways. x
  • 22
    Aristotle's Teleological Politics
    Aristotle applied his teleological conception of the world not just to physical objects, but to politics as well. He argued that the human being is by nature a "political animal." According to Aristotle, human beings naturally form communities, which reach their zenith in the city, the only community that exists "for the sake of living well." Some of Aristotle's political views, such as on slavery or the purpose of marriage, are shocking and controversial to a contemporary audience. x
  • 23
    Aristotle's Teleological Ethics
    Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics also reflects a teleological view of nature. This is illustrated by his conception of "happiness." For him, happiness is a kind of work. Human beings, like all animals, have a "proper function," or telos, which defines their potentialities. Those who fully actualize that nature are happy. Those who do not are unhappy (regardless of how they feel about themselves). x
  • 24
    The Philosophical Life
    What can we learn today from Aristotle's conception of the theoretical life—the life spent studying the world? While the technological achievements of modern science are extraordinary, they risk blinding us to what it means to be human. Aristotle, with his commonsensical view of experience, keeps us connected to human life as it is actually lived. This is a lesson desperately needed in the contemporary world. x

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Your professor

David Roochnik

About Your Professor

David Roochnik, Ph.D.
Boston University
Dr. David Roochnik is Professor of Philosophy at Boston University, where he teaches in both the Department of Philosophy and the Core Curriculum, an undergraduate program in the humanities. He completed his undergraduate work at Trinity College, where he majored in philosophy, and earned his Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Roochnik was awarded Boston University's Gitner Award in 1997 for excellence in teaching...
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Introduction to Greek Philosophy is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 57.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I have found this set of lectures very interesting and informative. I am not well versed in this area and Professor Roochnik does an excellent job of presenting and explaining the material. He is very good about maintaining his objectivity and is quite clear when his opinion MAY slightly bias the presentation (although it rarely seems to). I would heartily recommend this work.
Date published: 2020-02-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great intro Very happy I bought this lecture series. Large body of work explained well and it’s beautiful how it’s tied to modern philosophy
Date published: 2019-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear and fascinating I am about halfway through this course, but it is already one of my favorite Great Courses Philosophy series. Please find a way to do more courses with Professor Roochnik! His presentation is authoritative without being stuffy and the content is extremely interesting. His presentation on the Pre-Socratics shows how relevant they are to our modern world. For the first time, I have a real appreciation for their contribution to Western Philosophy.
Date published: 2019-04-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Putting some Greek philosophy on your Plato! This is my third course that I have listened to from the Great Courses. Overall, I am satisfied with Prof. Roochnik's course and I felt I learned a decent amount about Greek philosophy. Audio courses emphasize a speaker's delivery, and Prof. Roochnik has a clear voice that is easy to listen to and he does not have any distracting delivery issues. He does tend to circle back to points that he was making earlier in the lecture, which I know is a technique to aid memory, but doing this too often tends to slow down the momentum of the point he is making and shortens the time he has to make other points. What I liked about this course was that Prof. Roochnik is very well versed about Greek philosophy and has a passion for sharing his subject matter. Especially on Plato, and at times on Aristotle, the lectures were quite thrilling. Furthermore, the dialectical approach that the professor sets up for the course works very well, we get to see how each of the Greeks that he introduces us to would think about what their Greek counterpart would think of the same idea. The two lectures on Plato versus the Sophists were the most interesting lectures in the course. I only knew a minimal amount about the Pre-Socratics, which were covered heavily in this course. A few drawbacks of this course for me were that some of the lectures seemed "padded", by which I mean it didn't seem like he talked about that much new content in the specific lecture, but instead just reviewed what we previously learned, or only had a few sprinklings of new ideas. Also, I would have liked more schools of Greek philosophy covered, such as the Stoics, Epicureans, or even a bit on the Cynics or Skeptics. By only including four main Greek thinkers or schools of thought, I felt it was a bit more limited than I would have liked. I understand that this was an introduction to Greek philosophy, and I enjoyed this introduction. After an introduction, the next step is to build upon what you have learned and delve in more deeply. Thanks to Prof. Roochnik, I now feel ready to do so.
Date published: 2019-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview I shan’t say much except that Roochnik’s approach — his dialectical method by which he compares each philosopher with the ones whom he discussed previously — is very well thought through and clearly presented. For me, it was a review of ideas I had studied many years before, and I was very pleased with what I received from this superb teacher. I highly recommend it. That said, it is a shame that the company now makes it available only in an audio download format; therefore, I should like to recommend that they make it available again in a CD version, complete with a hard copy of the very useful course guidebook.
Date published: 2019-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Introduction to Greek Philosophy This tape is a great introduction to Greek philosophy . The professor is very clear about a complex topic. He takes it a step at a time. He pares the material down to what is significant without clogging up the conversation with too much detail. His voice is easy to listen to. He speaks clearly and succinctly, and then when finished with a train of thought pauses for just a moment. This is very useful to the listener who then has time to switch gears. He repeats important definitions or points. This is very helpful, not annoying, as the repetition occurs quite a ways down the line at a point where the listener really needs a little reminder of a previous definition . The professor is very down to earth and unpretentious. I am enjoying this tape very much and, as someone starting from point zero, I am learning very much.
Date published: 2018-09-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I like the course but I prefer whrn you can access the courses directly from your list. I had to buy RealPlayer because I do not have iTunes in my PC.
Date published: 2018-07-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absolutely superb lectures! After the fifteen minutes of the first lecture, I was not sure I wanted to continue. Professor Roochnik is more methodical than eloquent, and his lectures often seem on the verge of coming to a complete halt as he seems to struggle to find the right words. To my great surprise and delight, Professor Roochnik has turned out to be one of my favorite lecturers. In my opinion, his dialectical approach to teaching Greek philosophy is brilliant. I had already read much of Plato and Aristotle, and was quite familiar with the Pre-Socratics as well. Nonetheless, this professor made me understand Greek philosophy in a whole new systematic light and as part of a living tradition. He convincingly argues that the debates among the Greeks between the materialists like Thales, the Sophists, and the Platonists are still being debated by modern philosophers to the present day. Of course, I understood that Greek philosophy is still enormously influential, but Professor Roochnik helped bring clarity and focus to my general understanding. I did not expect to get so much out of these lectures. Highly, highly recommended.
Date published: 2018-06-02
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