The Ancient Roots of Modern Thought



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LBS 760—The Ancient Roots of Modern Thought Mondays 8:20—10:00 Adjunct Professor Matthew Keil Matthewadamkeil@gmail.com

Course Description and Scope

This course is designed to be something of an introduction to the Greco-Roman origins of the western intellectual tradition. We will be examining the philosophical heritage of the West by reading primary sources in translation with an eye both to how these systems of thought interacted with each other, and, in time, with Judaism and Christianity, being adopted and transformed in subsequent ages. What we shall see is that even though these authors are very old indeed, nevertheless their ideas are anything but remote, and, in fact, many questions and concerns we have as 21st century Americans can find their answers in the wisdom of these ancients.

Since the subject is so vast however, we must select an organizing principle around which to select and group our authors, and one that will provide for the maximum amount of both depth and breadth. The Greco-Roman moral philosophers, that is, those writers of philosophical literature who lived during the Roman Empire around the years 31 BC to 293 AD, provide an ideal lens through which to examine the thought of the classical world in that, on the one hand, they stand at the receiving end of the traditions of Greek philosophy developed during the Classical and Hellenistic periods, and, also, they look forward to, indeed, influencing heavily, the ideas of later times. This mid-point in the development of ancient thought therefore, will give many opportunities for us to explore both what came before and after it.

Yet on a deeper level, these thinkers are also an ideal introduction for us into the realm of ancient philosophy because they are profoundly practical. Our society today, now perhaps more than ever, yearns for answers to life’s deeper questions. We are awash in information, and yet starved for wisdom; we are given every luxury of food, pleasure, and entertainment, yet chronic illness, depression, and lack of purpose are everywhere to be found. This situation though, is nothing new, and to a remarkable degree, it is very similar to that in which the authors whom we shall be studying found themselves. How can a person be good, when the world all around seems bad? How can someone be wise when the surrounding culture is so foolish? How can anyone be healthy when the social atmosphere is so sick? What, in the end, is the real purpose of our lives?

These questions are appropriate for 21st century Americans to ask, and they were without question those asked by the Greco-Roman philosophers whom we shall be studying. Our course together therefore, will be a chance both to learn the answers to which they themselves came, and, hopefully, to find our own.

Class Schedule and Readings

Monday August 27 Historical Overview of Classical Greece; Plato. Read for next class: The Symposium of Plato.

September 10 Plato Read for next class: Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle.

September 24 Aristotle: il maestro di color che sanno Read for next class: De Rerum Natura of Lucretius, excerpts.

October 1 Historical Overview of the Hellenistic Age; Epicureanism and Stoicism. Read for next class: De Officiis II of Cicero.

Wednesday October 10 Historical Overview of Imperial Rome; Cicero. Read for next class: De Amicitia of Cicero.

October 15 Cicero: Statesman as Philosopher Read for next class: De Brevitate Vitae of Seneca.

October 22 Seneca : Philosopher as Court Adviser Read for next class: De Vita Beata of Seneca.

October 29 Musonius Rufus: The Roman Socrates. Read for next class: The Apology of Socrates. Mid-term paper due.

November 5 Epictetus: The Free Slave Read for next class: The Discourses, chs. 1-16.

November 12 Epictetus Read for next class: The Discourses, chs. 17-26.

November 19 Marcus Aurelius: The Philosopher King Read for next class: Fourth Book of Macabees.

November 26 Philo of Alexandria Read for next class: De Alegoriis Legum by Philo.

December 3 Plutarch: Philosopher as Polymath Read for next class: De Invidia et Odio by Plutarch.

December 10 Plutarch Read for next class: De Cohibenda Ira by Plutarch.

December 17 Saint Augustine: Philosopher and Saint. Final paper due.

Midterm Paper Topics (minimum 5 pages):


  1. Pick two or three themes or subjects, such as friendship, self-control, or human happiness, and compare and contrast their treatments among the different authors read so far.

  2. What changes in philosophy can you see between that of the Classical Age (namely, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle), and those of the Hellenistic Age (that is, Epicureanism and Stoicism)? What social/historical influences might have contributed to this change of emphasis?

  3. Comment on the proposition that the constant reminder of one’s mortality in Seneca leads to an enhancement of life rather than its diminishment. How do other authors read so far deal with this theme?

Final Paper Topics (minimum 7 pages):

  1. How does Plutarch’s discussion of hate and envy differ from what one would expect from a Christian discussion, based, for instance, on the Sermon on the Mount?

  2. Why is the distinction between what is in our control versus what is not so critical to the Stoic understanding of wisdom? Discuss, making reference to several authors.

  3. Epicureanism and Stoicism are typically viewed as diametric opposites, but do you see any common ground? Did any of the authors whom we have read see any points of connection?

Rubric for Grading:

Midterm essay 30%



Final essay 50%

Class participation and evidence of weekly readings 20%


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