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Paper 8: Greek and Roman Philosophy

Aims and objectives

  1. To introduce the variety and scope of ancient philosophy within its historical and cultural context.
  2. To introduce current techniques of philosophical analysis.
  3. To enable students to evaluate sympathetically philosophical positions and arguments with which they may not agree.
  4. To sketch the importance of classical philosophy for the entire Western intellectual tradition.


Scope and structure of the examination paper 2020–21

The paper will be divided into two sections. Section A will contain in the region of 7 questions on the set text (currently: Plato's Phaedo). Section B will contain questions (to give a total in the region of 20 in all) covering topics falling within each of the following four areas:

  1. Early Greek philosophy on principles, being, and change.
  2. Plato’s views on psychology as developed in such dialogues as Symposium, Republic, and Protagoras.
  3. Aristotle - soul, causes, happiness, and the Categories.
  4. Stoics, Epicureans, and sceptics on the good life, knowledge, and fate.

Candidates will be expected to answer three questions of which at least one, and not more than two, must be from Section A.


Course descriptions


(8 L: Michaelmas)

Parmenides’ poem denies the possibility of ‘what is not’, and therefore, he thinks, also of any change and plurality. We will begin by examining Parmenides’ argument, perhaps the earliest Greek example of sustained deductive reasoning. We will continue by looking at the arguments that Zeno devised to show that those who rejected Parmenides’ argument were committed to no less paradoxical claims about the possibility of plurality and motion. Then we will consider responses to Parmenides by later philosophers who wanted to revive the business of cosmology, in particular Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Democritus. We will consider how these thinkers approached questions such as the nature of reality and the possibility of humans acquiring knowledge of it.

It is recommended that you consult A.A. Long (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy (1999), J. Warren, Presocratics (2007), and G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven & M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers (1983, 2nd ed.).



(8 L: Michaelmas)

This course will consider two sets of fundamental philosophical questions. (1) Can we attain knowledge of the world? If so, how? If not, why not? And what sort of life, if any, could we ever live without knowledge and beliefs? (2) Are our actions really free? Or is everything, including our own deliberations, already determined and fated? In eight lectures we will discuss how the main Hellenistic philosophical schools and tendencies posed (and, in some cases, even devised) these questions and tried to answer them, engaging in an exciting debate in which the rival positions constantly influenced and challenged one other.

These lectures are intended to cover the main material relevant to this part of section B of Paper 8.

Most of the main texts and translations, supplemented by extensive comments, are contained in the two volumes of A.A. Long, D.N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge: CUP, 1987. You can familiarise yourself with the protagonists of this course by reading at least the introduction of The Hellenistic Philosophers and the relevant sections of The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (chs. 3, 5, 6, 7), The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism (chs. 5 and 8), and The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Scepticism (chs. 3–6, 7, 8, 11). The monumental The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy (Cambridge: CUP, 1999) contains up to date discussions of most of the themes we will deal with (cf., in particular, chs. 7–11, 14–17).



(8 L: Lent)

Dante called him ‘the master of them that know’; Aquinas called him simply ‘the philosopher’; and Plato ‘the mind’. In these necessarily selective lectures we will look at some important highlights from the thought of Aristotle, including the Categories as well as his theories on causes, soul-and-body and happiness. The Part I philosophy experience cannot be complete without an introduction to the deviser of the most comprehensive, systematic and durable philosophy ever known in intellectual history. At the same time, these lectures are also intended to supply important background for those going on to take philosophy papers in Part II. A good way to get a taste before you start is to read Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle: a very short introduction (Oxford University Press), originally in the Past Masters series.



(12 L: Lent)

The Phaedo is a literary and philosophical classic, portraying Socrates’ final conversation, directly before his execution, as a defence of the soul’s immortality. It contains a series of celebrated but controversial arguments, as well as a myth of the afterlife, and is also a major source for Plato’s Theory of Forms.

Read the text in advance, and bring a copy to the lectures. Recommended:

Greek text, edited by C. Strachan, in vol. 1 of the Oxford Classical Text of Plato (Oxford 1995), or in the edition by C.J. Rowe (Cambridge 1993), which also has a very helpful commentary.

English translation in D. Sedley and A. Long, Plato, Meno and Phaedo (Cambridge 2011), or in D. Gallop, Plato, Phaedo (Oxford 1975). The latter includes an excellent philosophical commentary.

Further reading, and analytic handouts, will be provided at the lectures.



(8 L: Easter)

We will look at the debates of early Greek thinkers - including mathematicians and medics and astronomers, as well as philosophers narrowly construed - about the nature, structure and origins of the world in which we live, and about the proper ways in which to deal with such questions. 

Advance reading: G.E.R. Lloyd, Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle; R. McKirahan, Philosophy Before Socrates (2nd edition); A.A. Long (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy.


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