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jaketheripper's avatar

Where should i start my study of greek philosophy?

Asked by jaketheripper (2773points) March 9th, 2010

I feel the need to have a decent knowledge of classical greek philosophy (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc) where should I start. I am in the middle of taking a class that surveys classical Greek and Christian philosophy, and I know there are plenty of pre-Socratic philosophers but I don’t want to waste my time learning something that isn’t beneficial. So at what philosopher should I stop taking overviews and begin reading the real stuff? Also should I read **everything** by Plato and Aristotle? Should I do it chronologically? If you know of a good collection of works I would like to know about it

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15 Answers

davidk's avatar


lilikoi's avatar

Why not just pick the one you’re drawn to the most? Why not just grab one of their books, whichever you find first, and just start reading? There is no single good place for everyone to start. Learning is always beneficial. If you don’t like what you’re reading just move on to the next.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

I happen to have a MA in liberal arts, so I’ve read a lot of philosphy. Let me, first, applaud your decision to study classical philosophy. It has a lot to teach us.

It’s just my opinion, but I would start with Socrates/Plato. I link them that way, because what we have of Socrates has come to us through Plato. I don’t think you have to read everything Plato wrote. I would highly recommend The Republic. It is a world-changing piece.

Aristotle is harder to pin down. There’s so much he wrote which still resonates today. There’s Poetics, Nicomachean Ethics, and Physics. Be warned. When I studied them, I could read 50 pages of Plato in the time it took me to read 10 pages of Aristotle. The latter is dense. There’s a lot of meat there.

davidk's avatar

For a solid, linear approach that paints the larger picture in remarkably few pages I would recommend:

Jeruba's avatar

If I were answering this question for myself, I think I would look for those who are philosophical ancestors of more modern philosophers who interest me. Beyond the ones you’re mentioned, I would ask who the classical influences were on contemporary thinkers to whom I felt most drawn.

I would also do a careful comparison of translations before I chose one to delve into. I looked closely at a half dozen or more translations of Plato’s Republic a couple of years ago when I was doing some research, examining their handling of the same passages and seeing what nuances I seemed to miss in one treatment and what ideas came out more clearly in another’s. There is always a tough choice between a more literal and less literary translation that tells you what the author really said and a more evocative one that gives you the aesthetic feel of it. I ended up choosing one that had a more archaic style but seemed to me to convey the flavor of a Socratic dialogue better than something that seemed aimed at making it as accessible as possible for a young 21st-century student, which I am not. A good companion to the readings to use alongside might be valuable.

aeschylus's avatar

This might interest you (I have a degree from here)

I recommend beginning with Homer, Hesiod, and the Historians (Herodotus and Thucydides). The Iliad and Odyssey held the same place as the bible for Greek culture, and the historians present a unique look into the political and ideological background on Greek philosophy burst onto the stage. You also may find the philosophers difficult if you have not done some geometry with Euclid. They refer often to geometric metaphors taken from mathematicians like Euclid. High school geometry will not be very helpful for understanding greek philosophy, as you will find out for yourself.

Once you have perused these, I would recommend starting with Plato’s Theatetus, Gorgias, Republic, Apology-Crito-Phaedo (they form a kind of trilogy), symposium and Meno. The Parmenides, Sophist and Timaeus are a little more esoteric and weird, if you ask me. Not good starting places. I recommend you read the Nichomachean Ethics for your first Aristotle, since it is the most inspiring and accessible, as well as a good model for his style of inquiry. There is a canonical approach to Aristotle that starts with the “logic,” or “organon,” and then goes to the Physics, Metaphysics, On the Soul, Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric, and Poetics. For translations, I recommend Eva Brann for Plato (especially the Phaedo), and Joe Sachs for Aristotle. Where you cannot find these, I recommend using a solid, 19th century translation, like the Jowett for Plato. Another good Aristotle translator is Apostle.

If you ever have any interest in pursuing this, I have found Aristotle to make a lot more sense in Greek. Translations of his works either use a lot of latin terminology or use tons of compound words and glossaries. In his own language, he is one of the clearest writers there is.

If that sounds like too much junk, just start with the apology-crito-phaedo trilogy, then move to the Theatetus and Symposium. Then read Nichomachean Ethics; go from there. Hope this was helpful.

Ulitimately, I have to agree with Iilikoi. You just kind of have to dive in. Pick one book, and read it. If you like it, read more. Good luck!

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@aeschylus : Your link doesn’t work. Where is your degree from?

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

I would think Athens, Greece would be an excellent place to start ~

aeschylus's avatar

@hawaii_jake St. John’s College, in Santa fe/Annapolis

Sorry about that broken link.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@aeschylus : I’m a Johnny, too! I graduated from the G.I. in Santa Fe in 1996! What a small world.

aeschylus's avatar

@hawaii_jake That’s hilarious. I thought we were a dying breed. Happy to know you’re on fluther. Did you do the eastern classics program?

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@aeschylus : No, I did the regular Western program, and we are a dying breed.

I could tell by your very thorough answer that you were a Johnny.

Jeruba's avatar

Off topic: @aeschylus and @hawaii_jake, I worked with a woman who had attended your alma mater. She told me about its unusual program. I was impressed and later looked up the school online and read all about it. I would have liked to send one of my sons there, but that was not the right direction for them. I actually wished I had gone there myself. I think it would have been an ideal program for me.

elenuial's avatar

I tend to go in for the really weird and wacky stuff, like Thales and Anaximander. Plato and Aristotle get all the citations because they make the most sense in retrospect for contemporary Europeans (and, you know, were the foundations of almost all Western thought until last century). Still, they were outliers. The Greeks believed and philosophized on some really wacky stuff.

For similar reasons, I’m a fan of Plato’s “Symposium.” There, one of the dialogicians makes the claim that we’re actually only half-people because the Gods hate us, and that’s why we have sex.

Also, if you want to mix some crazy math in there, look up what you can about Pythagoras and his cult. He didn’t just do that triangle theorem!

lilikoi's avatar

This is where I’m about to start.

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