Ancient Greek philosophy

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Welcome to the Ancient Greek Philosophy learning project, part of the School of Philosophy.


I will illustrate my meaning, Theodorus, by the jest which the clever witty Thracian handmaid is said to have made about Thales, when he fell into a well as he was looking up at the stars. She said, that he was so eager to know what was going on in heaven, that he could not see what was before his feet. This is a jest which is equally applicable to all philosophers. For the philosopher is wholly unacquainted with his next-door neighbour; he is ignorant, not only of what he is doing, but he hardly knows whether he is a man or an animal; he is searching into the essence of man, and busy in enquiring what belongs to such a nature to do or suffer different from any other. (Plato: Theatetus, 174 A, translated by Benjamin Jowett)

Philosophy may be seen as one of the products of a vital human impulse that has probably given rise to religion and science as well. From as far back as history can take us, we have strived for ultimate truths about life and existence.

Philosophy is usually described vaguely as the study of fundamental questions. Therefore, other great general fields of inquiry, like Science ("How did that happen? Can we change it?") and Theology ("What is God like? How can we change His mind?") can be seen as offshoots of the same source.

In Western culture (Occidental, as opposed to Oriental) we generally study the history of Western philosophy, which we trace back to the Greeks, who first used the word philosophy, and who first began to organize such an inquiry in a systematic way in our culture. One of the problems with this method is that it tends to minimize the effects of other ancient civilizations on Western thought, which was greatly influenced by the cultures in Egypt and Mesopotamia. It also walls off an entire parallel development of Eastern philosophy which, though dealing with similar questions, made use of profoundly different methods. Ironically, the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia can probably be considered closer to Eastern than to Western thought.

But we have to start somewhere, and that will be the traditional approach. The reader can find an overview of Eastern thought in the Eastern Philosophy course.