Consider this a rough syllabus for now of whom we’ll be covering in the pre-Socratic beginnings of our study. As I am literally reading along with you, it’s hard for me to know in advance who deserves how much time. So I’d like to leave myself a little leeway on who we bunch up and who deserves their own day. That way, if once we get to a philosopher and find that he says more than we thought would be relevant, we can take some extra time with him. Or if I skip over something you consider important or inspiring, we can add it in. Therefore, this “syllabus” will just give the general order that we will follow.
There are roughly 20-odd pre-Socratic philosophers in our texts. I say we plan to take two weeks to look them over. That might be a little too long, but it will make the initial reading assignments lighter and more manageable. Plus, taking some time at the beginning here will give everyone a chance to read through the introductions in Copleston, Durant and Russell, find a comfortable study pattern for themselves and get up to speed.
By the end of the first two weeks, we will have covered through Part I (11 chapters, pgs. 1-80) in Copleston and through Chapter 9 (pages 1-73) in Russell. (Durant’s main text does not begin until Plato.)
We will also have read the works of these early philosophers. However, little remains of their actual works. What does remain is called fragments—sometimes as small as only a couple words. The rest of what we know of them is from later philosophers that quoted the pre-Socratics in their own writings, as well as in the tell-all tales that their contemporaries told. All of these fragments and references were compiled in a document called the Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the Fragments in Diels. I’ve found it available free online here. If you would like a hard copy, it is available on amazon.com (in a rather plain, self-published–style paperback). Click the title of the book above to reach it.
The order in which we will tackle the pre-Socratics will be as follows:
- Ionians (Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes)
- fifth-century Pythagoreans (Hippasus, Ion of Chios, Philolaus)
- Atomists (Leucippus, Democritus)
- Diogenes of Apollonia
The Ancilla was originally a supplemental book to an explanatory one by Diels. The Ancilla fragments and references for them are pretty tough reading if you have no other guide to explain or elaborate on them. Unfortunately, I could not locate a new copy of the original Diels book. Of course, Copleston provides some guidance, but not in as much detail as two books I also recommend:
- The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists (Oxford World’s Classics), Robin Waterfield, translator
- Early Greek Philosophy (Penguin Classics), Jonathan Barnes, editor and translator
Both repeat much of the same fragments, but each of them goes into more detail on the philosopher’s life and influences, as well as putting the fragments into context. I recommend using the “Look Inside” feature at Amazon.com to determine whether the books will fit your needs.
Finally, in relation to all the Greek and Roman philosophers, it often helps to understand them if you know more about them personally, about their lives. The compilation books I’ve suggested above do well in providing a cursory look at them. You can also go to the original biographer of the day, Diogenes Laertius’ The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, but be warned, this is no modern-day biography. It’s a tough read, organized in almost scripture form, and practically requiring knowledge of these people and their contemporaries to understand what’s going on. This site, ClassicPersuasion.org, provides a free, nicely formatted version of the book online. (In fact, it’s much nicer than the reprint of a poorly scanned book that I link to on Amazon.com above.)
One ancient that does, however, provide a good read and gives a great flavor of the life and times of the Greek and Roman eras is Plutarch’s Lives Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Modern Library Classics). He focused more on political figures than on philosophical ones, but it was all intertwined. If you haven’t read any Plutarch, try some online first to see if you like it. Taking a short break to read him when you’re having a tough slog through a dense philosophical text can renew your enthusiasm for the era. (He’s my choice for the old question of “If you were stranded on a desert island, what’s the one book–or two volumes–you would want to have with you?”) You can also find Plutarch for free online at MIT’s Internet Classics Archive.
Working our way through the pre-Socratics should give us more of a clue on how quickly or slowly we can move. The sequence we will follow in Copleston after the pre-Socratics is, first, the Sophists and Socrates for up to two weeks, and then we’ll burrow into Plato and Aristotle for quite a while (as in months, not weeks).
In the area of the Sophists, I wanted a bit more than Copleston and Russell, so as with the supplemental pre-Socratic guides, I found a pretty good one for the Sophists: The Greek Sophists (Penguin Classics). Note also that one of the recommended books for the pre-Socratics also included Sophists.
I also have picked up for myself Xenophon’s The Memorable Thoughts of Socrates as a counterbalance to Plato’s version of events.
Once we are closer to Plato and Aristotle, I’ll provide links of online public domain copies of their works. By then you’ll also know if you would like to have a hardback copy of them for your library. If so, here are the links to versions you may want to consider:
- Plato Complete Works
- Complete Works of Aristotle, Volume 1and Volume 2, Revised Oxford Translation, Jonathan Barnes, editor
I know it may seem like I’m giving you a lot of books to read, but I’m just trying to give you options that you can adjust for yourself. Again, none of these supplemental books is required. I just call your attention to them in case your time, interest and bank account would allow for them.
In a similar vein, I also had a tweeter suggest to me yesterday that The Teaching Company has a good intro to philosophy course on DVD called “History of Western Thought.” I’ve never tried their materials before, so I can’t personally vouch for it, but their catalogs of educational DVDs have always been great reminders to me of things I need to learn. Watching a DVD on the topic might help reinvigorate me if I hit a particularly dull, dry patch and my enthusiasm starts to flag. I don’t see a course offers by that exact title, but here’s a listing of their philosophical and intellectual history classes. Many would be apropos to our discussions. The only reason why I’ve never made a purchase is because they are quite pricey. But it’s like getting a college professor to come to you, so…
As I iron out the quirks in trying to get all of this information posted each day, some editions of the Daily Tread may be late. My apologies in advance. I will always try to have something up by 8 am eastern time. If I have been unable to complete my post by then, there will be a Open Thread placeholder to notify you of the approximate time I should have the post up on that day, as well as an open comments section so that you can post your own quote or ponderings to make up for my slackness.
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Speaking of hashtags, it appears that the #tread hashtag is not frequently used, and would be short enough to add to lengthier tweets. If you always add #tread to your Daily Tread tweets, then everyone can search Twitter for #Tread and see the conversational thread there. It appears that #philosophy is a popular hashtag, so you might want to use that tag as well to generate more discussion for our group.
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Now, tomorrow we will begin with a general overview of the pre-Socratics, and on Wednesday, we will start with our first three philosophers: Miletus, Anaximander and Anaximenes.
Till then. Tweet, comment or email me if you have any questions.