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COURSE NAME: "Ancient Philosophy"
SEMESTER & YEAR: Fall 2018

INSTRUCTOR: Silvia Panizza
EMAIL: [email protected]
HOURS: MW 8:30-9:45 AM
OFFICE HOURS: Monday 10-11; Wednesday 10-11

The philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome debated fundamental questions with an imagination, subtlety, and daring that have captured the attention of thoughtful people in every epoch. For example, they considered the nature and origin of the universe, what changes and does not change, as well as what causes change, how perception and reasoning produce knowledge, the relation between the soul and the body, the meaning of justice and beauty, and the nature of the good life. Through a careful reading of selected texts – in the form of dialogues, poems, aphorisms, or treatises – the course will introduce you to the great questions and controversies of ancient philosophy.


What’s the purpose of my life? And of life in general? Does nature aim at something? Who sets the goals? You have probably asked yourself one of these questions at least once in your life. For ancient philosophers, there were foundational questions, all revolving around the notion of purpose or ‘telos’, applied both to human life and to nature as a whole. This concept serves as the unifying theme of the course, which will familiarise you with key figures in ancient philosophy and their lasting influence in what we still think today.


The introductory sessions concern the beginning of philosophical inquiry – the experience of ‘wonder’, as Socrates put it in Plato’s Theaetetus. What is wonder and what is its link with philosophy? Linked to this, we will introduce the historical and cultural context of the course and see what the experience of wonder yielded in the work of some pre-Socratic philosophers.


Then we will open up geographically and examine other ancient philosophical traditions, all part of what has been called (controversially) ‘the axial age’: a time when ground-breaking ways of thinking were developed in different continents. These include the birth of Confucianism in China and of Buddhism in India.


Back in (modern-day) Europe, the central parts of the course will be devoted to the three greatest philosophers of the Western ancient world: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Although Socrates himself wrote nothing (he preferred dialogue, as some of us can understand!) his ideas are represented in many of Plato’s works. Both Socrates and Plato thought that philosophy was one of the central activities of a life worth living, even suggesting that philosophizing was a way of defying death. Aristotle, on the other hand, introduces a more scientific approach, which is more recognizable in philosophical practice today, and the field of ‘teleology’ (the study of purpose as the explanation of phenomena) is heavily indebted to him. Aristotle’s idea of ‘flourishing’ as central ethical principle is one of the most influential moral concepts of all times.


The final part of the course focuses on two well-known philosophical schools, Epicureanism and Stoicism. Famously, Epicurus thought that one’s life should be aimed at achieving pleasure, but the content of this statement and his idea of pleasure are often misinterpreted. According to Stoicism, on the other hand, we should aim at achieving a state of imperturbability or tranquillity by controlling our mind, the only thing, in their view, that we can truly control. The course ends with two days devoted to the developments of the ancient idea of purpose in the contemporary world in two domains: technology, which is introducing previously unimaginable possibilities for human life, and ethics.

By the end of the course you will be able to:

·       Explain and evaluate the views of the main ancient philosophers studied in the course;

·       Critically asses the different conceptions of purpose presented;

·       Outline the developments of ancient philosophical thought from the pre-Socratics to the Stoics;

·       Outline the development and relevance of ancient teleological thinking in some contemporary contexts;

·       Reflectively develop your own reasoned views of these issues, concepts, and arguments;

·       Glean meaning from and interpret primary philosophical texts, and make appropriate use of secondary academic sources;

Do all this in appropriately academic oral and written forms and in individual and group contexts.

Book TitleAuthorPublisherISBN numberLibrary Call NumberComments
What is Ancient Philosophy?Pierre HadotHarvard University Press9780674013735  
Class participationClasses will involve a mixture of lectures, workshops, seminar discussions, group presentations, and other activities. The emphasis will be on helping you to develop your own and others’ views and arguments and your ability to discuss them with others, as well as your understanding of the readings and the positions and arguments presented in them. Your active involvement in discussions and other class activities, based on adequate preparation outside class, is therefore essential. This involves active participation during brainstorming sessions, as well as – importantly – questions and feedback during other students’ presentation. 10%
PresentationEach of you will be asked to deliver a short presentation on an agreed date. Preparation will involve researching the topic you have been assigned to and address the question chosen during the brainstorming. This component assesses: a) your ability to conduct independent research on a small scale, b) your ability to present complex information clearly to a group. You are free to use visual aids, handouts, or neither, as long as the presentation is clear and competent. 25%
One Written AssignmentsOne essays to be handed in on Wednesday 10 October. The essay should be 1500 words long (with a 10% word margin). The questions will be circulated in Week 2 and will be about one of the topics discussed in the first 5 weeks.25%
ExamWeek 15. Written examination. Questions will be circulated on the day. You will be asked to elaborate on any topic in the syllabus. 40%

AWork of this quality directly addresses the question or problem raised and provides a coherent argument displaying an extensive knowledge of relevant information or content. This type of work demonstrates the ability to critically evaluate concepts and theory and has an element of novelty and originality. There is clear evidence of a significant amount of reading beyond that required for the course.
BThis is highly competent level of performance and directly addresses the question or problem raised.There is a demonstration of some ability to critically evaluatetheory and concepts and relate them to practice. Discussions reflect the student’s own arguments and are not simply a repetition of standard lecture andreference material. The work does not suffer from any major errors or omissions and provides evidence of reading beyond the required assignments.
CThis is an acceptable level of performance and provides answers that are clear but limited, reflecting the information offered in the lectures and reference readings.
DThis level of performances demonstrates that the student lacks a coherent grasp of the material.Important information is omitted and irrelevant points included.In effect, the student has barely done enough to persuade the instructor that s/he should not fail.
FThis work fails to show any knowledge or understanding of the issues raised in the question. Most of the material in the answer is irrelevant.


Attendance is crucial to success in this course. Lectures include material not available elsewhere and there is a strong interactive component in discussions, brainstorming and presentations. Your active participation is beneficial to yourself as well as to the progress of the whole group. Since presentations involve material that other students have not researched to the same level, your presentation constitutes a core component of the course. Unjustified absence of the day of your presentation will involve a zero grade for that component of your overall assessment.  

It is your responsibility to inform your instructor if you miss or cannot participate fully in a class for a good reason. Good reasons include illness, unavoidable appointments, religious holidays, and transport strikes, but not trips, guests, or malfunctioning alarm clocks. 
Students who arrive after the roll-call will be counted as absent.

Students who miss fewer than four classes have the opportunity to drop the lowest grade of the first 3 assessments (participation, presentation, essay) and shift the weights to the comprehensive final exam. If you wish to take up this option please discuss it with your tutor in Week 14.

You cannot make-up a major exam (midterm or final) without the permission of the Dean’s Office. The Dean’s Office will grant such permission only when the absence was caused by a serious impediment, such as a documented illness, hospitalization or death in the immediate family (in which you must attend the funeral) or other situations of similar gravity. Absences due to other meaningful conflicts, such as job interviews, family celebrations, travel difficulties, student misunderstandings or personal convenience, will not be excused. Students who will be absent from a major exam must notify the Dean’s Office prior to that exam.
As stated in the university catalog, any student who commits an act of academic dishonesty will receive a failing grade on the work in which the dishonesty occurred. In addition, acts of academic dishonesty, irrespective of the weight of the assignment, may result in the student receiving a failing grade in the course. Instances of academic dishonesty will be reported to the Dean of Academic Affairs. A student who is reported twice for academic dishonesty is subject to summary dismissal from the University. In such a case, the Academic Council will then make a recommendation to the President, who will make the final decision.
John Cabot University does not discriminate on the basis of disability or handicap. Students with approved accommodations must inform their professors at the beginning of the term. Please see the website for the complete policy.


Classes run on Mondays and Wednesdays.

The Monday class consists of a lecture and a discussion/brainstorming session.

The Thursday one includes a workshop/seminar and your presentation.


Week 1: Philosophy Begins in Wonder: the pre-Socratics + Writing workshop (no presentations this week)

Week 2: Indian Ancient Philosophy: Samkhya and Yoga  

Week 3: Philosophy and Immortality: Plato’s Phaedo 

Week 4: Indian Ancient Philosophy: Buddha

Week 5: Chinese Ancient Philosophy: Confucius

Week 6: The Examined life and philosophical method: Socrates  (no presentation) -> Essay due in on Wednesday

Week 7: The Form of Beauty (Plato’s Symposium)

Week 8: The Myth of the Cave (Plato’s Republic)

Week 9: The Idea of Justice (Plato’s Republic)

Week 10: The Final Cause (Aristotle’s Physics)

Week 11: Flourishing or the Good Life (Aristotle’s Ethics)

Week 12: Philosophy as Therapy: The Hellenistic Schools

Week 13: Stoicism and How not to be Perturbed 

Week 14: Revision and Essay Preparation (each student will be asked to prepare a quiz on a specific topic)

Week 15: Exam