Philosophy and Literature of the Ancient WorldThe Greeks have exerted enormous influence over the development of Western civilization. There are two accomplishments in particular, participatory republic politics and philosophy, for which we are especially in their debt.
Beyond their historical importance, the Greeks are arguably the very peak of Western civilization, in terms of the quality of their politics, literature, art, poetry, and philosophic thought. We therefore read these texts not as historical artifacts, but as works that contain thoughts of lasting importance on the most basic questions human beings face. By returning to their writings and confronting them directly, we can learn important truths still relevant for our lives today.
Apotheosis of Homer
Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey
These two epic poems were the chief religious texts in ancient Greek society, and as such, were instrumental in shaping Greek character. Each centers on one of the great heroes of the Trojan War.
Achilles in battle
The first, the Iliad, tells the story of Achilles, who was considered the greatest of the Greek warriors, but who fell into a heated conflict with Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces. Through its vivid portrait of Achilles, the conflicted and complicated hero at the center of the work, the book raises questions about what true human excellence is, about the role that a commitment to virtue and virtuous action plays in the best human life, and about friendship and devotion to others. Homer’s portrait of the gods is also of particular importance. The Iliad was a key source by which the Greeks learned about the gods; for us, that portrait can serve as a window into Greek culture, and also as an occasion to reflect on what gods are, and how the Homeric understanding of them differs from other religious teachings.
Ulysses and his dog
The Odyssey raises many questions similar to those raised in the Iliad, but through the lens of a different hero, Odysseus. While Achilles is famous for his honesty, Odysseus is famous as the “man of many ways,” a clever and prudent liar. Despite and even because of that, he proves to be one of the great heroes of the Trojan War, and indeed, it was his great invention and deception, the Trojan Horse, which ultimately brought victory to the Greeks. The Odyssey tells the tale of Odysseus’ long journey home, with his many extraordinary adventures and terrible sufferings. The poem all but invites the reader to compare Odysseus to Achilles, and to examine which of the two better embodies a virtuous life – unless perhaps Homer means to point to some other possibility, beyond both of his two great heroes.
Beyond their importance for reflecting on these basic questions, these two poems are of course also immensely exciting and filled with many memorable images, humorous flourishes, and other charms. They are a perfect place to begin for anyone who wishes to learn about Greek culture and thought, or more simply, to learn about what it means to be human.
Recommended Translation: Richmond Lattimore, University of Chicago Press
Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannos and Antigone
The Antigone takes up the story of Oedipus’ daughter. Antigone is one of the most memorable heroines of classical antiquity. The play begins in the wake of a revolution instigated by one of her brothers against the other, who refused to yield the kingship of Thebes, as they had agreed. In the battle, both brothers died. The new Theban king, Antigone’s uncle Creon, has decreed that the brother who revolted was a traitor to his city and should not receive a proper burial. Antigone stands up to her uncle, by choosing to bury her brother in accord with the ancestral law, as she understands it. The dialogue that ensues between Antigone and Creon raises the basic question of what the root of human morality is, and what duties we have to the gods, to our families, and to our political communities.
Recommended Translation: The Theban Plays: "Oedipus the Tyrant"; "Oedipus at Colonus"; "Antigone"
Translated by Peter J. Ahrensdorf, Thomas L. Pangle
Socrates in a Basket
Despite its humorous façade, the Clouds is a very perceptive account of Socrates’ life written by one of his closest friends. At its core, it offers an important and influential account of the life Socrates lived, and how that life appears from the point of view of the political community. It shows the profound effect that an encounter with Socrates had on so many young students, and, with comic flourish, raises the genuinely difficult and troubling question of whether that effect could be dangerous.
Recommended Translation: in Thomas and Grace Starry West,
Four Texts on Socrates
(Cornell University Press)
Xenophon, The Education of Cyrus
Recommended Translation: Wayne Ambler, Cornell University Press The Education of Cyrus
Plato, Apology of Socrates
Socrates and Plato
Recommended Translation: Thomas and Grace Starry West,
in Four Texts on Socrates, Cornell University Press
After the first book, in response to further questions posed by his friends, Socrates goes on to provide an account of the famous “city in speech.” He envisions a different kind of political life, which rests on a radically different basis than did the cities he knew in ancient Greece. Probably not intended to be the basis of an actual political reform, Socrates’ account of this city serves to explore the limits of politics, that is, what kinds of political arrangements are possible, given the character of human beings. It includes extended discussions of many fundamental parts of political society, including the military, the family, the education of the youth, and the religious beliefs of the community It culminates, in Books VI and VII, with one of the most memorable pictures of philosophy ever painted, in the celebrated image of the cave.
It is impossible to do justice to a book of this breadth and depth in such a short summary. It is absolutely essential reading for anyone at all interested in politics or philosophy, and one that should be revisited continually throughout one’s whole life.
Recommended Translation: Allan Bloom, Basic Books
Recommended Translation: James Nichols, Jr., Cornell University Press
Recommended Translation: Seth Benardete,
University of Chicago Press
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
Recommended Translation: Robert Bartlett and Susan Collins,
University of Chicago Press
Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics
Plato and Aristotle
Also of particular interest is Aristotle’s discussion of the principle of contradiction, which holds that it is impossible for the same thing both to be and not to be, in the same respect, at the same time. Proving such a basic and simple claim proves exceptionally difficult: How can one establish a claim which itself seems to be the unstated first premise of all knowledge? Aristotle’s attempt to do so is found in Book IV of the Metaphysics.
Recommended Translation: Joe Sachs, Green Lion Press
Aristotle, The Poetics
Aristotle’s Poetics is often regarded as the most important work of literary theory ever written. It provides his statement on tragedy, providing both a rich account of what tragedy is as a literary form and the effect that it has on its audience. The Poetics is essential reading for those who want to think about the nature and the importance of great literature. The Poetics can be supplemented with Book VII and especially VIII of Aristotle’s Politics, where he talks about the place of poetry and drama in the best political community.
Recommended Translation: Seth Benardete and Michael Davis,
St. Augustine’s Press
Aristotle on Poetics
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides’ History tells the story of the great war fought between the Spartans and the Athenians in the latter part of the 5th Century BC. As a historical resource about that time and place, Thucydides’ work is unparalleled. But the work is much more than that: Through his account of the war, and especially through the speeches he composes for the various participants in it, Thucydides offers basic reflections on moral and political questions that are still relevant today.
We suggest the following questions to help guide your reading. What is the nature of Athenian imperialism, and is it justifiable? The most famous part of the book is Pericles’ funeral oration: does it represent Thucydides’ own view of the best kind of political life, or are there reasons to call it into question? What are the respective virtues and vices of the Athenians and the Spartans, the one with its enterprising spirit and addiction to innovation, and the other with its firm adherence to traditional laws? What does this comparison suggest about the best way to form a city? And finally, what happens to ordinary rules of right and wrong when they are placed in the crucible of a long, bloody war?
The Landmark Thucydides,
Robert Strassler and Ricard Crawley
Plutarch was a Greek historian who later became a Roman citizen. Though he lived later than the other authors we have considered, his Lives provides one of the very best sources for understanding the history of ancient Greece, while coupling them with lives of great Romans. Though all of the Lives present important historical facts about the Greeks and the Romans, and contain very prescient insights into human character and political life, there are some that are particularly useful for beginners. The lives of Lycurgus and Solon—the great lawgivers of Sparta and Athens, respectively—provide deep insight into the character of the two leading cities in ancient Greece, up until the time of Alexander’s conquest. They also invite a comparison between the two, each of which has its own particular concatenation of virtues and vices.
Other lives of particular interest include Plutarch’s lives of Alcibiades, Pericles, Julius Caesar, and Cato the Younger.
Recommended Translation: John Dryden, revised by Arthur Hugh Clough
Plutarch: Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans
Additional readings of interest:
Aeschylus, The Oresteia
Aristotle, The Physics
Herodotus, The Histories