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What’s New in… Ancient Philosophy

In the first of our ‘Overview’ series, Mark Daniels describes the latest work on the earliest philosophers.

Ancient Philosophy is the name given to early Greek philosophy starting with the inaugural musings of Thales of Miletus (c 600 BCE), one of the original seven wise men of Ancient Greece, and working forwards historically through Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and then on through the various schools of philosophy such as the Epicurean, Stoics and neo-Platonists. It culminates with such worthies as St Augustine and Boethius (c400-500 CE) whose concerns are usually understood as being more ‘medieval’ in nature (which probably means that they were more interested in the relationship between philosophy and Christianity, rather than in philosophy itself). For some more detail see the Timeline on page 33. Alas, there is no space to give a proper account of the thoughts of these great minds. My purpose here is simply to map out the new work which is being done in the study of Ancient Philosophy today.

The history of the study of Ancient Philosophy is itself interesting, and enables us to put modern scholarship in its context. We will only consider Western Europe, as inclusion of Byzantium and the Muslim world would, again, take too much space. In the late Roman period, the study of Aristotle went out of vogue as Christianity became increasingly dominant; Aristotle’s arguments for the eternity of the world and the demise of our souls after death fitted in poorly with Christian notions of creation and paradise. Fortunately, Aristotle’s logic was saved for the West by the Christian Roman aristocrat Boethius, while in Africa St Augustine of Hippo transmogrified Plato into something Catholic and Orthodox and respectable! In the 1200s Aristotle’s ideas started wafting westwards once more and St Thomas Aquinas made them more palatable for Catholicism – although 5 years after Aquinas’ death in 1274, many of Aristotle’s conclusions were declared heretical by the Bishop of Paris. The Renaissance saw much interest in the debate between the ‘Ancients’ and the ‘Moderns’ in Italy and the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and the Stoics came to life yet again. But the understanding people had of their ideas was quite different to that which we hold today. For example, Plato was held to have written all his works motivated by a single coherent philosophy. The realization that this wasn’t necessarily so probably started with Leibniz. Most experts now see a progression in Plato’s thinking from his early dialogues (such as the Euthyphro), which closely followed Socrates’ philosophy, through the growth of Plato’s own ideas in in his middle dialogues (such as The Republic) to their refinement in his later dialogues (e.g. The Sophist).

Before the Second World War scholars working on Ancient Philosophy focused mainly on Plato and Aristotle with a leavening of Presocratics such as Heraclitus and Parmenides (thanks to Herman Diels – of whom more anon). The philosophers of later antiquity (such as the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Cynics, and all the ancient commentators on Plato and Aristotle) were seen as being of little worth. The Cambridge academic Cornford famously said “We would gladly exchange all 700 works of the Stoic Chrysippus – if we had them – for a single roll of the works of Heraclitus.” Interest in the Hellenistic period (323BCE- 30BCE) was rekindled in the 1950s by Long and Furley from University College London, who wrote on the Stoics and Epicurus and by the scholars Sedley, Burnyeat and Barnes (all Oxbridge), Brunschwig in Paris, and Striker and Frede in the USA who took up cudgels on behalf of the Sceptics. This culminated in the Symposium Hellenisticum in the early eighties.

Ancient Philosophy Now

There are two main areas where new work is being done on Ancient Philosophy. Firstly, there is the unearthing of new material and its translation – What is studied. We have lost a large proportion of the writings of the Ancients. We possess only a tenth of Aristotle’s recorded works and none of his early ‘Platonic’ dialogues. The Presocratics’ works exist only as excerpts embedded in later writings. Much of the work of later philosophers also exists in partial form only. Even so, a mass of untranslated material remains and is currently the subject of intense scholarship. Secondly, there is the way in which ancient philosophy is read and understood – How is it studied. As our knowledge of the ancient world grows apace, scholars have become more sensitive to the nuances of the language the ancients used to discuss philosophy and have also deepened their understanding of the worldview within which ancient philosophers thought and argued. This has enabled a more profound understanding of their arguments and ideas.

What is studied?

There is a great deal of material which has come down though the centuries in one form or another but has never been translated out of the original Greek. While the works of early Greek philosophers up to Aristotle have been translated and are thus available for all to study (and are regularly reprinted too), this is not true of later material. The Greek itself is slightly different from the other texts (and thus standard Greek dictionaries like Liddell and Scott are of little use), and furthermore it mostly exists in the form of commentaries on the works of Aristotle, Plato (to a lesser extent) and others.

At the end of last century, the great classicist Herman Diels of Berlin chased around the world gathering together all the manuscripts he could find of the various Greek commentaries on Aristotle. He published them in the original Greek in some 30 or so volumes totalling 15,000 pages. This vast body of edited but untranslated philosophy is called the Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca (or CAG for short). Diels himself was particularly interested in the Presocratic philosophers, and although these commentaries come from a much later period, many Presocratic works since lost were still available when they were written. Working through them with a fine tooth comb, Diels hunted for quotations from lost Presocratic works, to such good effect that he was able to find out what many Presocratic philosophers had argued. Much of our knowledge of such thinkers as Heraclitus and Parmenides is due to his research.

In 1985 an international team of scholars was assembled at King’s College London, under the leadership of Richard Sorabji, with the aim of translating the CAG into English. The initial impetus came from the US National Endowment for the Humanities under the influence of the great medievalist Norman Kretzman, who persuaded the charity to fund Sorabji’s research. Since then, the Ancient Commentators’ Project has published nearly thirty volumes of translations and made pioneering discoveries regarding the philosophy and the language of the period. The work continues and Sorabji’s team plan eventually to translate nearly half of the CAG.

There are 3 great sets of commentaries on Aristotle: the neo-Aristotelian, the neo-Platonic and the Byzantine. The neo- Aristotelians or Peripatetics devoted themselves to the clarification of the work of their great master. Much of Aristotle’s writing is in the form of lecture notes and was not written for ‘publication’. Commentators such as Alexander of Aphrodisias (c200 CE) tried to explain the ideas of Aristotle and to take them further. On the other hand, the neo-Platonists – some of whom, such as Philoponus, were Christian – wanted to show that Aristotle did not argue with his teacher Plato but held almost exactly the same doctrines. In those days Aristotle’s ‘Platonic’ dialogues (written in his youth, studying under Plato) were still in existence and would have agreed wholeheartedly with the teachings of his master. The neo-Platonic commentaries tried to portray Aristotle as a Platonist and show how his works could be used as an introduction to Platonism (the most famous example is Porphyry’s Isagoge – an introduction to Aristotle’s logic)! The Byzantines followed in the eleventh century under the influence of Imperial intellectuals such as Princess Anna Comnena. Most were neo-Platonic in outlook, although one or two were sensitive to Aristotle’s originality and followed the neo-Aristotelian view.

There is much of value in this material. Obviously, it teaches us much about the history of ideas. We now know that the impetus theory of dynamics which revolutionised medieval physics began not with the bright ideas of William of Ockham in 14th Century England but with Philoponus in 6th Century Alexandria. We also know that the arguments which Aquinas used to rehabilitate Aristotle for Christianity actually came from the neo-Platonic attempts to make Aristotle agree with their master Plato. But, says Sorabji, the commentaries also contain ideas of direct relevance to modern debates. The treatment of concepts such as infinity, space and identity is much more sophisticated than many similar discussions carried on today.

• Debates on how it would be possible for one object to pass through another and the extent to which each would retain their identity or if they would become fused together into a new object are profound and provoking (Simplicius).

• Discussions of whether an infinite space would have an edge are also deeper than their modern equivalents (Alexander of Aphrodisias, Philoponus and Simplicius).

• Consideration of whether we would be better off as rational beings without any emotions – and how impractical such an idea is (Porphyry vs Iamblichus)

• Do animals totally lack reason – or do they possess it but to a lesser extent? Does this have any relevance as to how we should treat them? Should we eat them? (Porphyry)

Let’s just look at just one argument: Aristotle argued that the world must have always existed. His definition of matter was such that matter must always exist as it could not be created from nothing. Furthermore, his God was a ‘thought which thinks itself’, utterly oblivious of the existence of anything other than itself – and utterly incapable of creating the world. Philoponus, one of the neo-Platonic commentators – and a devoted Christian – could not accept this view of God. He also argued against the non-creation of the world, since Aristotle’s definition of infinity meant that it had to be created in time. If the world was eternal, as Aristotle had argued, then as the world carries on to exist for another hour of time, the infinite amount of time since the creation of the world becomes an infinite amount plus one hour. Aristotle argues elsewhere that such treatments of infinity are impossible and ridiculous – and therefore, said Philoponus, the world could not have existed for an eternity.

The research on the CAG is fruitful in other areas too. In Paris and at the Warburg Institute in London scholars are researching the links between Arabic philosophy and the Aristotelian commentators. They have found that a number of works originally believed to be by anonymous Islamic thinkers are actually translations of earlier works in the CAG. Other work is also going on to try and reconstruct the thinking of philosophers between 1-200 CE. Scholars such as Dillon in Dublin and Sharples in London are researching the thoughts of the Middle Platonists and the late neo-Aristotelians who flourished at that time.

How is it studied? The analytics and the continentals

The great sea-change in philosophy in the Englishspeaking world earlier this century saw analytic philosophy becoming dominant and its devotees abandoning some of the traditional concerns of philosophy (such as metaphysics). Philosophy had moved on. The thought of long-dead Greeks was in no way relevant to ‘modern’ philosophers who had concluded that many of the old problems were utterly non-philosophical and a waste of time. This view was eventually overcome by Gilbert Ryle who found that Plato’s later dialogues were actually ‘doing’ analytic philosophy and were thus of some interest after all! Others took up the cudgel and worthies such as Owen and Bostock would pick their way through Plato’s dialogues, analysing his arguments and showing when he fell flat on his face. Of course, when it came to the ‘dream sequences’ – such as the metaphor of the Cave in The Republic – the analytic writers tended to dismiss them as being fun ideas which were not cogently argued but merely asserted without proof (and thus of limited real philosophical relevance). Such views were trenchantly held in the UK, the USA (with one or two notable exceptions such as Leo Strauss in Chicago), Australia and elsewhere. There was a reaction against this. Renewed interest in Platonic and Aristotelian ethics grew under the inspiration of Gregory Vlastos and Martha Nussbaum in the USA and Bernard Williams and Alasdair MacIntyre in the UK. Great attention was focused on Plato’s later dialogues (his more ‘analytic’ ones) and also on Aristotle’s methodology and metaphysics.

On the Continent, thinkers in Germany and France took a quite different approach. Spurred on by scholars such as Gadamer, continental philosophers turned their attention to the mindset against which works such as The Republic were written, and showed how the ideas of Plato etc were innovative and defensible at the time – whilst overlooking any relevance that they might have to the present. Thus, returning to the analogy of the Cave, they would show how the ideas presented changed the patterns of Greek thinking and why they were convincing against the backdrop of philosophy as it was then. (It should be noted that non-analytic Anglo-Saxons such as Guthrie were also interested here). This was accompanied by a deeper analysis of the subtleties of the language used in Greek philosophy and a greater awareness of ambiguities and their consequences in arguments. At the same time, Leo Strauss, a political philosopher at Chicago, tried to show how attention to the personalities portrayed in Plato’s dialogues (generals, tyrants and toyboys) reveals deeper significance in what they said and how Plato’s Socrates responded. He drew deep and disturbing conclusions from what he found, arguing that an esoteric and subversive message was hidden in the arguments. Strauss’s books provoked furious condemnations and led scholars to rebut his views in their own works. About 20 years ago, another continental philosopher, Jacques Derrida wrote La Pharmacie de Platon in which he discussed the puzzles about philosophy as a text, with reference to Plato’s Phaedrus, again provoking controversy amongst the analytics.

The picture today.

Some of these concerns have more recently found their way across the English Channel to our very own Ivory Towers. Myles Burnyeat, possibly the most prominent figure in this field, has started to re-analyse the Platonic dialogues showing far greater sensitivity to the text, greater awareness of the importance of the characters in the arguments and of the methods Plato uses to propagate his ideas. His work has helped stimulate a major rethink in this area. His introduction to the Hackett translation of the Theaetetus has been particularly influential. Terence Irwin at Cornell provoked a major debate about the ethical theories of Socrates and Plato, arguing controversially that Socrates – and to a lesser extent, Plato – was a consequentialist. This led to attempts to disprove his theory (eg by Vlastos) which in turn led to a deeper awareness of the context of Plato’s arguments. Michael Frede, our last Ancient ‘superman’ – now at Oxford, but previously at Princeton – has carefully picked apart dialogues such as the Timeaus and the Sophist, coming up with utterly radical understandings of Plato on Being and non-Being.

The Future

As Richard Sorabji says “It is a tremendously exciting time in Ancient Philosophy.” And there is yet more to come. There are still other texts which have yet to be critically edited and brought to light. These include a number of commentators on Plato: on his Republic and the Timaeus by writers such as Proclus.

Another project beginning to yield fruits is the analysis of a philosopher’s library unearthed from the ashes of Vesuvius at Herculaneum. Excavated at the end of the 18th century, it contained scrolls which were mainly indecipherable at the time (the rolls of papyrus had stuck together and could not be opened – a bit like rolls of soggy toilet paper!). However, it was possible to tell that the library contained the complete works of Epicurus. Amazingly, the initial reaction from scholars back then was disappointment – they had been hoping for something by the playwright Sophocles! Modern research techniques are finally enabling the layers of papyrus to be reconstructed properly (papyrus is made of two layers of reed which are laid diagonally to each other and then stuck together to give strength: to peel them apart you must remove exactly two layers at a time from the roll!). Half of the library is still buried beneath more recent buildings and awaits excavation.

The new understanding of Plato will also lead to new developments – most notably a brand new set of translations of his dialogues which reflect the increased awareness of who says what and how that affects the arguments.


Much of the work being done in Ancient Philosophy probably falls under the description of scholarship rather than philosophy itself. However, other work focuses on why the ancients thought what they did. This offers considerable benefits to modern philosophers – for example, it gives them the chance to examine ethics from a standpoint independent of Kant’s overpowering influence on the subject. Plato expert M.M.McCabe says that this focus on understanding the reasoning of the ancients “antedates some of the moments of revolution in modern philosophy.”

One striking aspect of Ancient Philosophy: “The wonderful thing is that it really mattered to the people who wrote it”, says Raphael Woolf of King’s College London. There was a fervency in the ancient arguments which sometimes seems lacking today. Somehow, somewhere, the enthusiasm which attended these long-dead thinkers as they met together in universities in ancient Greece and Rome and offered up sacrifices to their philosophically-derived gods has dissipated. Maybe we should start offering up oxen again!

This article would not have been possible without Richard Sorabji, Mary Margaret McCabe, Raphael Woolf, Andrew Barker and David Melling. Any mistakes are entirely my own! Mark Daniels.

Ancient Philosophy Timeline

What is the World made of? (Metaphysics)
Thales of Miletus (all is made of Water)
c636 – c546 BCE
Anaximander of Miletus (all is made of the boundless/indefinite)
c610 – 545 BCE
Anaximenes (all is made of Air)
c545 BCE
Heraclitus (you can never step into the same river twice: all changes)
c480 BCE
Logic, Philosophy of Language & more metaphysics
the Ionian school: Parmenides of Elea (nothing can ever change)
c515-c450 BCE
Mysticism, mathematics & geometry
the Pythagoreans: Pythagoras of Samos (all is made of numbers)
c580 – c460 BCE
Rhetoric, ethics, political philosophy
the Sophists (taught rhetoric and how to defend yourself in
Athenian courtrooms):
Gorgias (philosophy of art)
483 – 376 BCE
Protagoras (“Man is the measure of all things”)
c490 – c420 BCE
Socrates (“I am wise since I know I know nothing!”)
c469 – 399 BCE
Systems of Philosophical Thought
Plato (the Republic, the Symposium, the Apology etc)
c428 – 348 BCE
Aristotle (the Metaphysics, the Ethics, Logic etc)
384 – 322 BCE
The philosophical schools
the Cynics (happiness through return to nature)
350 BCE – 200 CE
Antisthenes (friend of Socrates: asceticism is best)
455 – 365 BCE
Diogenes of Sinope (lived in a barrel!) died c320 BCE
the Epicureans (atomic theory, atheists, hedonists)
300 BCE – 200 CE
Epicurus (studied at Plato’s Academy: taught women & slaves)
341 – 270 CE
Lucretius (slave; wrote On the Nature of Things)
95 – 55 BCE
the Peripatetics (Aristotelians)
300 BCE – c250 CE?
Alexander of Aphrodisias (commentator)
wrote c200 CE
the Stoics (reason orders the cosmos)
300 BCE – 200 CE
Chrysippus, Seneca, Emperor Marcus Aurelius
the neo-Platonists (all emanates from God)
300 CE – 1200 CE
Porphyry (introduction to Aristotle’s Logic)
232 – 309 CE
Iamblichus (pupil of Porphyry)
c240 – c325 CE
Saint Augustine (wrote City of God, Confessions)
354 – 430 CE
Boethius (wrote Consolation of Philosophy)
c480 – c524 CE
Simplicius (fled to Iraq in 529 after schools were closed)
wrote after 529 CE
Philoponus (harmonised Aristotle with Christianity)
490 – 570 CE
Plato’s Academy (run at various times by Cynics, neo-P’s et al)
387 BCE – 529 CE
Closing of the Schools of Philosophy by the Christians
529 CE

Finding out more

For a survey of the CAG try reading ‘The Ancient Commentators on Aristotle’ by Richard Sorabji, in Aristotle Transformed, The Ancient Commentators and Their Significance. (1981)

The translations themselves are published by Duckworths in the UK and Cornell University Press in the USA. They tend to cost about £30 each and there are around 30 of them so far. There is a cheaper ‘sourcebook’ in the pipeline which will sell at closer to £10 for each of 3 volumes. If you are interested in the ideas of the commentators try the following book by Richard Sorabji (also Duckworths):
Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science 1987.

How is it studied?

The seminal work of the Anglo-Saxon approach is Gilbert Ryle’s commentary on Plato’s Parmenides. For a more modern (and readable) exposition try Bostock on Plato’s Theaetetus. If you want an interesting comparison you could try reading it with Myles Burnyeat’s excellent commentary on the same dialogue (Hackett publishers).

The seminal work of the continental school is Gadamer’s Truth and Method which is not, alas, particularly readable! The seminal work of the deconstructionist school is Derrida’s La Pharmacie de Platon, which shares the same fault as Gadamer.

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