Thursday, January 5, 2023

Please read Greek philosophy with me - Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, dog men, people jumping in volcanoes

Greek philosophy, readalong #2.

This idea got more interesting the more I thought about it, but had more organizational problems, plus the greater problem that I do not think of philosophy as a strength of mine.  My solution has been to convert the project into literature.

Is philosophy a branch of literature?  I treat it that way.  Philosophers, generally, do not.  As I progress this year perhaps this distinction will become clearer to me, or perhaps it will disappear.

I have organized nine months of reading – does that ever seem like plenty – along conventional historical lines like in many histories of philosophy and in the valuable Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (3rd century, probably) by Diogenes Laertius.  Each month I will work on a school or writer.  At the end of the month, I will write about a key text, giving the project a readalong-like quality, although anyone can read whatever seems interesting, obviously.  Ignore me except to the extent that I am useful.

Picking a text can be a challenge.  Among the dozens of Greek philosophers active from the 6th century BCE up to the Christian era we have intact, substantial texts for four of them: Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, and Theophrastus, and his are mostly about botany.  Everyone else exists only in fragments, or not at all.  Of course some, like Socrates, did not write anything.  What is a philosopher, anyways?

Here is what I want to read:

January: The Presocratics. The texts: the fragments of Heraclitus and Empedocles.  We will at first embrace the fragment.

The birth of philosophy in western Anatolia and spread to Italy.  Science and mysticism; forbidden beans and jumping in volcanoes.  Heraclitus and Empedocles both lead the pack in the substantial number of fragments and are particularly important to later literature.  Democritus, the inventor of the atom, was tempting, as was Pythagoras, as I understand it not actually the inventor of the Pythagorean theorem.

Tomorrow I will post some advice on how to read these writers.

February: Presocratics and Sophists.  Texts: Euthydemus and Theaetetus, Socratic dialogues by Plato.  The former is about the Sophists; the latter about the Presocratics.

March: Socrates.  Texts: Plato’s pieces about the death of Socrates, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo. 

Xenophon fits here, with his own Socratic dialogues and his Recollections of Socrates.

April: Plato.  Text: The Republic.

I am spreading Plato over many months because I hope to read lots of his work along the way.  I think of him as a significant literary artist.  We’ll see how much I get read.  Most Platonic dialogues (not The Republic) are quite short.

May: Aristotle.  Text: The Nicomachean Ethics.  The obvious literary choice after Poetics

June: Cynicism.  Text: the fragments of my hero Diogenes and selected satires of Lucian.  A number of Greek philosophers are exemplars of turning a severe personality disorder into a coherent ethical system.

Lucian is one of those writers who opened up later writers for me.  He solved mysteries.  He is a satirist and fantasist, not a philosopher, if there is a difference.

July: Epicurianism.  Text: On the Nature of Things (1st C. BCE) by Lucretius.  This is an epic cosmological poem, a masterpiece of Latin poetry, and also the grand presentation of Epicurian ideas.

August: Stoicism.  Text: I don’t know.  The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is the obvious one.  On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero?  Something by Seneca?  All, again, Roman.  Stoicism and Epicurianism turned into major, long-lasting schools of thought, yet barely a scrap of writing by the founding philosophers has survived.

September: Plutarch.  Texts: some relevant essays, like “On the Daimon of Socrates.”  Plutarch is Greek, at least, not a philosopher but rather the inventor of the familiar essay.  He often wrote about philosophical subjects.  I thought it would be valuable, perhaps refreshing, to end with a more deliberately literary figure.

I hope to read a lot more than the texts I have indicated.  My plan is to write some kind of reading journal on Fridays, discussing whatever I have been reading.  Tomorrow, for example, I will write about reading Diogenes Laertius and Presocratic fragments.

Please feel free to suggest modifications and alternatives.  I don’t know who else is really interested in this, even at the level of reading one book.  I know that I sure am interested.


  1. I am very interested, honestly, you tend to think no one else is interested, but I just love this blog. I get so much out of it. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for that thought. It is so nice to hear. As you might guess, foolish as it is I am already thinking about what to do next. What project would be even more niche?

  3. Now there's a question. I have no idea, but will give it some thought. I love the idea of "more niche" though. That is an excellent starting point. My other project this year is reading all of Shakespeare's plays in chronological order. It really shows the way he grows as a playwright. It's a nice contrast to the Greek stuff we have been reading. I am interested in reading Ovid as a result.

  4. Yes, Ovid! What a good idea. Let's have an Ovid readalong. Starting in January, or earlier?

    Metamorphoses certainly, and I would recommend starting with the short Heroides. And then knowing myself I'll read more, but those are the core.

    1. Whenever. I'm up for it anyway, perhaps November, or whenever you are ready.

  5. I'll think about a schedule. How I hate imposing schedules, but Metamorphoses invites it.

  6. I'm sorry to learn that you're ill, and glad to see you're writing again. Don't forget that Marlowe translated Ovid. There's a pairing for you! (Doug Skinner)

  7. Thanks. I think I've just read the more famous bits of Marlowe's Ovid - Elegy 5 certainly. I should read the whole thing. Good idea.