Introduction to Greek Philosophy

Course No. 4477
Professor David Roochnik, Ph.D.
Boston University
Share This Course
4.7 out of 5
52 Reviews
69% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 4477
No Streaming Available Unavailable

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.

Hide Full Description
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

Lecture Titles

Clone Content from Your Professor tab

What's Included

What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Audio Download Includes:
  • Download 24 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 104-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Glossary

Enjoy This Course On-the-Go with Our Mobile Apps!*

  • App store App store iPhone + iPad
  • Google Play Google Play Android Devices
  • Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Tablet + Firephone
*Courses can be streamed from anywhere you have an internet connection. Standard carrier data rates may apply in areas that do not have wifi connections pursuant to your carrier contract.

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...
Learn More About This Professor
Also By This Professor


Introduction to Greek Philosophy is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 52.
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
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoy the classes These classes are very interesting and informative as I listen to them.
Date published: 2018-02-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great adventure Great introduction to the Presocratics, about whom I had rather sketchy notions before the course. To be honest, I had thought they were rather trivial but Prof. Roochnik shows how revolutionary they really were. I mainly bought the course because I have never been able to appreciate Socrates, because I thought he was nothing but the worst of the sophists with his obviously flawed and leading arguments and his silly notions of eternal Platonic ideas, not to mention the fascistic tendencies of The Republic, but this course made me discover the dialogues as beautiful works of imaginative literature by Plato in which Socrates is a literary character. I also find Aristotle fascinating and Prof. Roochnik, who is a great explainer and has a very pleasant, relaxed presentation conducive to reflection greatly increased my understanding of the Aristotelian texts that I had already read and has inspired me to read those I haven't. I would definitely recommend this course to anybody interested in the subject.
Date published: 2018-01-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wait a minute, is philosophy actually fun?? I am a total beginner. I actually started watching another Teaching Company philosophy course along side of this one but I will not say which one because it would be unfair since I'm too close to the beginning of that one. But the other course seems like I am in college and Frasier Crane is teaching the course, there is a lot of fancy long winded sentences, and even if I don't get lost I have the feeling of "Ok I really wanna get philosophy down, so pay attention!!" Conversely this course feels like my next door neighbor is teaching me philosophy in our everyday language! My reaction is more like "Hey this is a really cool story!!" This course was fun. I can't be happier with the way that the course is organized. He sets everything up like a mock debate between philosophers from different time frames as if they were in the same room. But he doesn't start off as if they are all in the same room he introduces each new 'Mock Debator' one at a time like NBA players being introduced before a playoff game. And the way he introduces them is in sequence of both time and 'New' philosophical ideas...the philosopher that he starts off with is Thayles. He builds the progression of philosophical ideas from the ground up, after he introduces each new philosopher he then gives you the mock debate format where he pits them against the philosopher(s) already introduced prior. I thought it was a spectacular layout. In the total beginning he even gives a quick recap for the worldview that Thayles was born into, so that we're not thinking about Thayles as if he lived in a vacuum. He gives a brief summery of how the pre-Socrates philosophers (Thayles & company) were preceded by the tradition of Greek poems & storytelling myths that were taught for the purpose of conveying lessons. And the professor is humble about his statements, he's the type of professor who says things like "For argument's sake we'll call Thayles the 1st philosopher" or "We THINK that philosopher 'B' was the student of philosopher 'A' but we're not positive." (Not exact quotes I'm just giving you the gist of his style). So after Thayles he'll get into a student of Thayles and he'll explain the rationale for why that philosopher chose to disagree with Thayles on this point or on that point (even if the 2 usually agreed with each other). This continues down the line. I found myself saying several times "Ahh that is a clever alternative line of thinking!!!" As I said previously the course was fun. So far I feel like the other course is a course that I'll have to listen to a 2nd time because there's a lot of information. Conversely this course makes me feel like I GET TO listen to it again. I wish this professor did more philosophy courses!! I also don't think that the way this course is organized JUST makes it fun, I also think it's a great game plan to get people to understand philosophy more clearly because it goes in order.
Date published: 2017-12-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascniating and beautifully taught I have heard many TGC courses on Greek Philosophy: the current Professor’s other course dedicated exclusively to Plato’s republic, Professor Bartlett’s course “Masters of Greek thought” dedicated to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and Professor Surgue’s course on Plato’s dialogues. Hands down, I found professor Roochnik to be by far the most profound, clear and insightful presenter to these topics and I enjoyed his courses immensely. The current course is a general introduction/survey of ancient Greek philosophy. The first part which is dedicated to the “Pre-Socratics” is just in this vein: a no-frills, not particularly profound survey of the major figures and their thoughts. Once he gets to Socrates, and even more so to Plato he shifts gears altogether and one gets an absolutely insightful and beautifully taught set of lectures that expose many of the subtleties, ironies and beliefs of Platonic thought. I particularly enjoyed this part because he presented Plato not only as a Philosopher but also as a master poet. Professor Roochnik was very thorough in presenting the beauty and profundity of Plato’s work both artistically and analytically. Most of all, I enjoyed his discussions on Plato’s use of irony. Not only does this produce in many cases highly comical situations, it is also very affective in not letting you understand what Plato’s personal opinion is. As Professor Roochnik explains, perhaps this was Plato’s intent to begin with, since this allows a way of forming the closest thing to a real dialogue between the reader (twenty five centuries removed) and Plato. As for the last part regarding Aristotle – I admit that I found this to be a bit of a slog and it is certainly not my favorite part of the course, though there were some parts that were very interesting here as well. Overall this has been a wonderful course. The Professor’s teaching style, especially in the lectures on Socrates and Plato is among the ones I enjoyed most in TGC so far. It was not only fascinating but highly enjoyable and I’m glad I decided to hear it.
Date published: 2017-06-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not relevant I was very disappointing b/c most of the material / philosophies presented are no longer relevant in the face of modern science. Even the Roochnik made this point. So instead of being challenged by enlightened thought, I kept finding myself saying how easily I could refute their beliefs. Thus I generally found it to be a waste of my time.
Date published: 2016-11-27
  • y_2018, m_12, d_14, h_19
  • bvseo_bulk, prod_bvrr, vn_bulk_2.0.9
  • cp_1, bvpage1
  • co_hasreviews, tv_3, tr_49
  • loc_en_US, sid_4477, prod, sort_[SortEntry(order=SUBMISSION_TIME, direction=DESCENDING)]
  • clientName_teachco
  • bvseo_sdk, p_sdk, 3.2.0
  • CLOUD, getContent, 11.43ms

Questions & Answers

Customers Who Bought This Course Also Bought