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 Maarten Maartensz:  Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek

 Books - general


Books - Ancient

Under the above heading I give a series bookreferences that concern Ancient philosophy in the West. This concerns Greek and Roman philosophy from - roughly - 500 B.C to 500 A.D.


If you seriously want to understand ancient philosophy, it helps a lot to read some introductions that explain what the Greeks and Romans did and believed and how they lived, and to read not only the originals (translated or not) but also expositions by specialists of them. And it helps to use good editions when one must rely on translations.

Loeb Classical Library: This is a beautiful edition of very many books in Greek and Latin, with the original text on the left page, and its translation on the right page. If you want to delve into classical philosophy or science, these are the volumes to consult. They are hardbound, but of pocketbook size.

Kitto: The Greeks. This is in Pelican, and a thin booklet, but an excellent introduction to what made the ancient Greeks so special.

Gruber: Plato's Thought. I have read quite a few introductions to Plato, and almost all of Plato. Gruber is the best introduction I read.

Farrington: Greek science - its meaning for us. This has the merit of explaining how sensible the Greeks were, in many ways.

Jaeger: Paedia. Jaeger was a German Plato-specialist, and this is in two volumes his interpretation and explanation of Plato. It is thorough and German ("Deutsch-gründlich"), but well worth perusing.

Crossmann: Plato Today. This book was first published in 1937, and written by the same man who edited some eight years later "The God that failed", about communism and the Soviet-Union. In Plato Today he lets Plato critically discuss the political ideologies of the 1930ies. Of course, this is pure and conscious anachronism, but it does show why Plato was then and is now interesting to read.

Bowra: The Greeks. This is Bowra's interpretation of the ancient Greeks. It is well-written and more concerned with art than philosophy, because Bowra was more interested in art than philosophy, but then the Greeks made exceedingly beautiful art as well as great philosophy and mathematics.

Burckhardt: Griechische Kulturgeschichte. This is the 19th century's great Swiss historian Burckhardt's view of the history of ancient Greek civilization. My edition is in three German volumes, but I suppose there will be an English translation somewhere.

Jowett's Plato translation: Plato wrote quite a lot, most of which seems to have survived (unlike the texts of other interesting philosophers, like Democritus of Abdera). Benjamin Jowett translated all of it, and it ended up in two volumes of fine English prose.


Pre-Socratics (East-German ed.)

Plato: Works. I have most of Plato's dialogues in several translations, but the ones I generally like best is Jowett's translation of them, which was done in the 19th century. The edition I have consists of two largish hardbound volumes. All of it is worth reading, not only because it contains the beginnings of very much of Western philosophy, os written in a beautiful style, and contains many neat arguments, but also because some of it, notably in The Republic, is so ludicrous as to be of a Monty Pythonesque quality, and because that Republic contains the roots of communism, fascism and totalitarianism, all supposedly in the interest of all, and because it is Good. Even so, many dialogues are very interesting, and if you have relativistic leanings, reading Theaetetus may do you a lot of good.

Aristotle: 1. Politics. 2. Ethics. 3. Metaphysics. 4. Organon. Aristotle had a great mind and was a pupil of Plato, with whom he disagreed. He wrote a lot in what is reported was a beautiful style, but all of it perished.

What we have of Aristotle survived more or less by accident, was found by the Roman general Sulla, and consists - it would seem - of Aristotle's notebooks and sketches. Though it is not easy to read, and often terser than one would like, it is great philosophy. The Politics is about the government of cities and states; the Ethics about what is good human behaviour; the Metaphysics is about the foundations of the real; and the Organon is about logic, which is a science that originates with Aristotle. There are good editions of the first three in Pelican. Of the Organon I have a rather dry but complete German translation, and those who are interested in it should first read some decent introduction to mathematical logic, since it helps a lot if one knows how to render Aristotle's syllogisms into first-order predicate logic or set theory.

Epictetus: Discourses. Epictetus was a stoic, and the Discourses are the notes of a pupil of his. If you want arguments that help you bear the miseries and pains of life, this is one good source. But there are few consolations, and it is nearly all up to you and your strength of mind and will.

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things. The original - De Rerum Naturae - is a long Latin poem, addressed to a friend of Lucretius, with the aim of curing him of his fears of Gods, divine judgements and other human ills, by argueing along Epicurean lines that there are no Gods to be afraid of. Lucretius aims were mostly scientific, and therefore it is interesting to see how little real science the Romans in fact had while yet many of his explanations are not so bad, in part because his Epicurean philosophy still makes scientific sense in terms of principles (atoms, void, random movements) and in part because Lucretius reasoned well.

Sextus Empiricus: 1.
Against the logicians. 2. Against the physicists 3. Against the Ethicists. Sextus Empiricus was a skeptic, and aimed to bring a kind of happiness or quietude to people ("ataraxia" - peace of mind) by showing them that hardly anything that people claimed was proved indeed was proved. He is worth reading because he was mostly right in what he rejected, and because his texts show there was much subtle reasoning done in antiquity. However, you can achieve most of the same by learning some mathematical logic and then attempting to translate the arguments of philosophers into logic. This may not make you a skeptic, nor give you any special peace of mind, but it will show you that very much of the reasoning even highly intelligent men have relied on, in fact is invalid.




 Last edited: 12 Dec 2011.   Top.