|The Concept of Life in Ancient Greek Philosophy and its Relevance Today
Dr. Evgenia Mylonaki
“All men have opinions, but few men think.”
No prerequisites required. Meeting time , Class Room
Office hours: (at the Faculty Lounge 3rd Floor Main Building) & by appointment
Cell phone number (only for emergency calls):
Assigned course texts will be distributed to students by the CYA librarian or found online on moodle. Reserved texts are located in the library. You will be notified about them on the first day of class. Some of the assigned books will be read in their entirety and some in part.
1. Plato: Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Republic
2. Aristotle: Parts of Animals, Movement of Animals, Generation of Animals, De Anima, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics
4. Immanuel Kant: Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals
5. J. S. Mill: Utilitarianism
6. Michael Thompson: The Representation of Life
7. Jonathan Lear: Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation
8. Jonathan Coetzee: The Lives of Others
9. Iris Murdoch: The Sovereignty of the Good
10. Michel Foucault: The Birth of Biopolitics
The aim of this class is to explore the concept of life in ancient Greek philosophy and its relevance today.
In the first part we will explore the first systematic account of the concept of life which is Aristotle’s. To do this we will examine Aristotle’s understanding of nature as having its own ends, his understanding of life as genus and as species, his account of the logic of life and his distinction between forms of life [vegetative(plants), senstitive(animals), rational(humans)].
In the second part we will see that the concept of life plays a crucial role in the formation of the ancient Greek philosophy of ethics, politics and culture, and that this philosophy of life is both an influence and an alternative to modern and contemporary philosophies of ethics, politics and culture.
To achieve the aim of this class we will do the following work:
1) In the first part we will read extended passages from Aristotle’s physical, biological, logical and metaphysical works.
2) In the second part we will: a) read extended passages or whole books from Aristotle’s and Plato’s ethical and political works, b) read extended passages or whole books from modern and contemporary philosophical works, and c) Watch, read and discuss contemporary works of art which themselves communicate the philosophical ideas we will be discussing as we move along.
Some of these works we will discuss on site, in the areas where Socrates, Plato and Aristotle did philosophy.
It is the ambition of this class to present ancient Greek philosophy as both a philosophy of life and as a living philosophy.
The objective of this class is to enable all of us to do philosophy together. Philosophy in Greek (philosophia) means “love of wisdom.” How is it possible then to “do” the love of wisdom? Things we “do” are activities, and love is an emotion, you might think. But for the Ancient Greeks, to love is to engage in a certain sort of activity. And thus to “do philosophia” is to engage in a certain sort of activity that aims at wisdom. Different philosophers have had different conceptions of just what this aim – i.e. wisdom - consists in.
In this class you will be able to:
Familiarize yourselves with philosophy as a discipline.
Understand how to ask philosophical questions and how to argue for philosophical positions. Identify, construct and evaluate philosophical arguments. Find arguments in philosophical texts and formulate objections against them.
Gain familiarity with some of the most important texts of western thought.
Explore the Platonic and the Aristotelian conception of what sophia (wisdom) consists in, in practical matters – i.e. in ethics and politics.
Build your own thoughts both on the subjects themselves and on the philosophers´ thoughts about them.
Communicate these thoughts to each other.
Question these thoughts with a view to getting closer to the truth.
Think of how these thoughts apply to contemporary problems and discussions.
And finally, explore alternative conceptions of yourselves and your actions.
Regular class attendance will be essential since this will be a discussion oriented class.
The rule at CYA is that students are to attend all sessions of all the courses in which they
are enrolled unless they are prevented from doing so by a compelling reason such as
illness. An unsatisfactory attendance record in a given class is defined as more than 3
unexcused absences. Absences will not exempt a student from the completion of all work
for each class. The student assumes the responsibility for requesting assistance from the
instructor for making up work missed and for becoming informed as to what s/he missed.
In the case of absence, please inform the instructor and the Director of Academic Affairs.
Participation is absolutely essential to this class. To read philosophy, one does not need others. To think about philosophy, one does not need others either. But to do philosophy, we cannot but do it together. To do this we need to:
Engage with the others
Be respectful of the others
Be open to criticism
Rule: No-one is allowed to look down on anyone in this class. Lack of respect and tolerance will not be tolerated. I will at all times make sure that this rule is not broken.
No violation of academic integrity will be tolerated (e.g. Crib notes, “glancing over at a friends paper”, plagiarism, downloading papers from the internet, etc.) for whatever reason. All such violations will be reported to the Director of Academic Affairs. Please consult the Student Handbook.
You will be asked to turn in one weekly 1-2 page free report or reaction to the readings of the upcoming class that will be delivered to my email address every sectiona day before the first or the second class of the week. The reports will be briefly commented on and returned to you but not graded separately. You will be graded just for turning them all in on time. You will get an A+ if you’ve turned them all in on time and an F if there is more than two reports unjustifiably missing or written in such a manner as to convey that the reading was not actually done.
You will also be asked to write a midterm paper of 3 to 5 pages and a final paper of 5 to 7 pages. The deadline for the midterm paper will be on the 25th of October and the deadline for the final paper will be on the 13th of December.
The option of re-writing will be open only for midterm papers. (The particulars of the process will be discussed in class.) Guidelines for writing a paper will be discussed in class as we move on and you turn in more reading reports. Paper topics will be selected freely by you, after prior consultation with me.
Class participation was discussed above.
There will be no exams for this class.
Grading will not be used as punishment, but it will be used as recognition of work, passion, engagement, willingness to get better and help others, capacity to communicate thoughts, etc. It will therefore also reflect possible lack of work, passion, engagement, etc.
Class participation: 30% of the grade.
Weekly reports: 20% of the grade.
Midterm paper: 15% of the grade
Final papers: 35% of the grade.
*Subject to possible revisions
Sep 8 - Introduction to Class
Sep 10 – Aristotle, Physics BK II
Sep 15 – Aristotle, Metaphysics BK IX
Sep 16- 20 FT: Crete
Sep 22 – Aristotle, History of Animals BK I and Parts of Animals BK I
Sep 24 - Michael Thompson, The Representation of Life
Sep 29 – Aristotle, On the Soul BK II and Movement of Animals
Oct 1 - Movie - Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Oct 6 – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, BK I
Oct 8 - On site class on Plato’s Republic, BK I and IV in Plato’s Academy
Oct 12 Monday - Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals
Oct 13-17 FT: Peloponnese
Oct 20 – Kant and Mary Midgley, Beast and Man, Mary Shelley, Frankestein
Oct 22 – J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism
Peter Singer, The Liberation of Animals
Oct 25 – deadline for mid-term papers
Oct 27 - Jonathan Coetzee, The Lives of Animals
Oct 29 - Jacque Derrida, The Animal that therefore I am
Nov 3 – Socrates in the Apology, the Crito and the Phaedo
Nov 5 – Heidegger, Being and Time
Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Nov 10 – Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good
Plato, Republic BK VI and VII
Nov 12 - Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good
Plato, Republic BK VI and VII
Nov 17 – Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope in the Age of Cultural Devastation,
Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics BK II
Nov 19 Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope in the Age of Cultural Devastation
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics BK II
Nov 20-29 Fall Recess
Dec 1 - Plato, Republic, BK I and II
Dec 3 – Aristotle, Politics, BK I and III
Dec 8 – Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics
Dec 10 - Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics
Dec 13 – Deadline for Final Papers
*Subject to possible revisions
1st section– Introduction: The Concept of Life as a Philosophical Idea
In this we will examine how the Concept of Life first appears in questions of ethical, political and cultural significance, such as the following:
What is the place of ethics in our life? What is it to live an ethical life?
In what sense is our life similar to and different from the life of plants and animals?
Can one live one’s life in a way that is wrong?
What is it to have a way of life at all? What is it for a way of life to come to an end?
Should life be the object of politics?
And we will first introduce the Concept of Life as a potential subject matter for philosophy.
2nd section– Introduction to Fundamental Aristotelian Concepts
In this section we will introduce and explore some fundamental Aristotelian concepts. In particular, we will read excerpts from two of his books, the Physics and the Metaphysics and try to come to familiarize ourselves with his conception of nature, his account of form and matter and his account of potentiality and actuality. These will give us the conceptual tools necessary to understand his account of Life and Human Life.
* Read: Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics
3rd section– Aristotle’s Biological Works and Philosophy of Biology
In this section we will familiarise ourselves with Aristotle’s conception of Life in general. In particular we will read passages from his so-called biological works and try to reconstruct his understanding of the concept of Life, while focussing on particular discussions in the philosophy of biology in Aristotle, such as his distinction between genos (genus) and eidos (species) in living beings, his teleological explanations, etc.
* Read: Aristotle’s Parts of Animals, Movement of Animals, History of Animals
4th section– Aristotle’s Forms of Life – The Concept of Bios
In this section we will examine Aristotle’s account of the psyche, the soul, as the form of the body, and as what is responsible for a form of life, a bios and we will explore his distinction between three forms of life, the vegetative, the sensitive and the rational form of life. The first, he thinks, we share with plants, the second with animals and the third is the one that is peculiar to us, human animals. In this section we will also see how this conception of a form of life is a logical conception.
* Read: Aristotle’s De Anima
Michael Thompson, The Representation of Life
*Watch: Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life
(We will discuss how this film presents the idea that our life is always within the context of and arising out of living nature.)
5th section– Ethical Life in Ancient Greek Philosophy
In this section we will explore the role that a conception of Life and Human Life (such as Aristotle’s) plays into the Ancient Greek conception of ethics. In particular, we will see how the conception of the Human Soul (i.e. the Human Form of Life) that Aristotle shares with Plato shapes their respective conceptions of the aim and shape of ethics, by reading passages from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Plato’s Republic.
* Read: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
We will discuss Plato’s Republic on site in Plato’s Academy.
6th section– Ethical Life in Modern Philosophy
In this section we will see how the ancient Greek conception of ethics above contrasts with the modern conception of Ethics in the hands of Imannuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. In particular we will see how in their ethical works there is a switch from the concept of a Form of Life to the concept of a Rational Being. In a sentence we could say that we will explore the contrast between an Ethics of Life and an Ethics of Rule.
*Read: I. Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals & Critique of Practical Reason
J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism
7th section– The Animal and the Human Living Being
In this section we will explore the issue of our relation to our animality.
In the first part we will explore different conceptions of the sense
in which we too are animals, starting from Plato and Aristotle,
and we will see degeneration of this idea into the idea of
The Beast Within Man.
In the second part we will explore the issue of our living relation to animals and the duties and obligations that arise thereof.
*Read: Plato, Republic (the parts of the soul)
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (the parts of the soul)
Mary Midgley, Man and the Beast
*Read: Jonathan Coetzee’s , “Our Lives with Animals”
Derrida’s The Animal that therefore I am
*Read: Mary Shelley’s Frankestein
Jacques Derrida with his cat
8th section– The idea of a (Wrong) Way of Life in Plato and Existentialism
In the first part of this section we will explore the first philosophical appearances of the idea of a way of life in the Socratic account of the philosophical way of life in his Apology and his Crito and in Plato’s Phaedo. And in the second part we will examine the tranformation of the idea of a wrong way of life in the hands of the existentialist philosophers, and in particular in the hands of Heidegger and his conception of authenticity.
*Read: Plato’s Apology, Crito & Phaedo
Heidegger’s Being and Time *Read: Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich
We will discuss Socrates’Apology and the Crito on site in the area where he was sentenced to death and died.
9th section– A Platonic Answer to the Existentialist Problem of the Meaning of Life
In this section we will see how a major figure of 20th century moral philosophy and literature, Iris Murdoch reverted to Plato’s conception of the good in the Republic to argue against the existentialist transformation of the aim of human life in her book, The Sovereignty of the Good. We will also read abstracts from Aristotle’s Poetics to further highlight the core of the criticism.
*Read: Plato’s Republic
Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good
10th section– An Aristotelian Answer to the Problem of the Death of a Way of Life
In this section we will explore how the Aristotelian conception of the ethical life, or virtues as the excellent practices of a way of life, contributes to the understanding of the problem of what it is for a way of life to come to an end and what an individual human being can do and hope for in the face of such a devastation. To do this we will read Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation.
*Read: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation.
Dorothea Lange, Woman of the High Plains
“If You Die, You’re Dead–That’s All.” Texas Panhandle,
1938, Gelatin silver print, 1960s
11th section– Political Life in Ancient Greek Philosophy
In this section we will explore the role that the Concept of Life and Human Life plays in Politics in the hands of Plato and Aristotle. In particular we will explore Plato’s and Aristotle’s account of the origin of the political community (polis) in Plato’s Repubic and in Aristotle’s Politics and the role that the Concept of Life plays in their accounts.
*Read: Aristotle’s Politics
*Read: Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus
We will discuss Aristotle’s Politics on site in Aristotle’s Lyceum.
12th section– Political Life in Contemporary Philosophy
In this section we will explore Michel Foucault’s conception of free market politics as aiming at governing Life directly. In this section we will see the transformation of the ancient Greek concept of Human Life as the Life of Politics to the free market conception of Human Life as the Politics of Life; or else, in Foucault’s terms the conception of Biopolitics.
*Read: Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics
*Read: Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics
Robert Gober, Untitled, 1992