Course Intro for Ancient and Medieval Philosophy

Course Intro for Ancient and Medieval Philosophy

Dr. Ari Santas’

Intro Notes for


I. Philosophia

The term 'philosophy' is a transliteration of the Greek word φιλοσοφία, which itself is a compound word composed of the two concepts, φιλειν and σοφία.

  • φιλειν is a verb which means to love or pursue
  • σοφία is a noun which means wisdom

The word φιλοσοφία was first used to describe the activities of a group of people we now call the Presocratics, who were mostly interested in cosmological and cosmogonical questions.

  • σοφία had a general meaning of wisdom, but most often referred to "theoretical wisdom" (later on, Aristotle fixes the meaning of this term to mean this exclusively)

There is something unique about the first humans labeled as philosophers. Philosophy started out as reasoning, reflection and independent study of the cosmos (of "theoretical" questions).Later on, this approach to inquiry is systematically broadened by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to include moral and political questions.There is some controversy as to whether the Greeks, who coined the term, were the origin of the enterprise. John Burnet argues in Early Greek Philosophy, that though there were certainly influences from Egypt and Babylon, these were prescientific bodies of knowledge (pp. 18-24).

In any case, it is clear that the Presocratic philosophers undertook the task of understanding their word by the use of careful observation, methodical reasoning, and rigorous discussion and debate. This approach was a break from tradition and in many ways a challenge to existing beliefs and practices, which is why so many of them got into trouble with their own people. Perhaps the simplest way of characterizing this shift is that it was a movement away from mythological explanations towards the scientific. In sum:

  • unlike their predecessors, the Presocratics did not ground their positions on authoritative views or traditions of the past
  • rather, they sought to improve upon the opinions of the past by critical examination and (often biting) criticism

By the fourth century B.C. philosophy is a fully stretched umbrella of sciences, ranging from mathematics to morals.

There are a number of themes that run through this period. I identify six below as follows:

  1. The Search for First Principles
  2. Permanence or Flux?
  3. Many or One?
  4. The Nature of Soul
  5. Theology: Many or One? Anthropomorphic or Amorphous?
  6. Politics and Morals

II. Themes in Presocratic Philosophy

A. The Search for First Principles

  • What is the archē (ἀρχή)?
  • ‘Archē’ is a term used by Aristotle used to describe basic or fundamental principle, but the term means many things in ancient Greek: beginning, origin, basic element or principle, (political) rule. It derives from the verb ἄρχω, which means ‘I begin.’
  • The Milesian Philosophers
  • Thales: the archēis water (ὕδωρ)
  • Anaximander: the archē is indefinite (άπειρων)
  • Anaximenes: the archē is air (ἀήρ)
  • Heraclitus: the archē is fire (πῦρ)
  • Later on:
  • Plato's Forms: a plurality of transcendent primary principles serve as first principles (archē = eidos, idea)
  • Aristotle's essences: primary principles (archē) are in the things themselves (τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι = the what it is to be))

B. Permanence or Flux?

  • Heraclitean Flux: nothing ever stays the same
  • Parmenidean Permanence: nothing ever changes
  • Sophistic Relativism: there is no truth, only human convention
  • Platonic Dualism as synthesis: there is permanence and truth in a transcendent world; and flux and opinion in this earthly realm
  • Aristotelian revision: yes, but permanence and truth are found on this earth

C. Many or One?

  • monism: there is fundamentally only one thing
  • dualism: there are fundamentally two kinds of things
  • pluralism: there are fundamentally many things

D. The Nature of Soul (ψυχή)

  • soul as breath (πνεύμα)
  • is it the mover (animator) of things?
  • is it separate from the body?
  • is it immortal, persisting after the body dissipates?

E. Theology

  • polytheism/monotheism question (many or one?)
  • nature of divinity (human-like or not?)
  • god(s) as first mover(s)

F. Politics and Morals

  • Νόμος (culture) or Φύσις (nature)?
  • Science, Religion and Morality: what is the connection?
  • Living according to Nature (beginning of Natural Law Theory)