Why Greek Philosophy Still Matters

26.06.2020 |

Episode #10 of the course Ancient Greek philosophy by Dr. Will Buckingham


Hello again, and welcome back for the final lesson in our Greek philosophy course. In this lesson, we’re going to look at why Greek philosophy still matters.

You may have already found that many of the ideas we have explored in this course are strangely familiar: They are still current today, even if in slightly modified form.

For example, Greek philosophy talks about the difference between appearance and reality and asks how we can be sure that we know what we think we know. It tackles questions about skepticism and whether knowledge is impossible. It asks cynical questions about what is natural and whether we are better off living the life of a dog or a mouse. It recommends that we free ourselves from passion and cultivate apatheia. It weaves theories about atoms and how they make up the fabric of the universe. Some of these terms—skepticism, cynicism, apathy, atom—have taken on different meanings in the contemporary world. But they are all a part of how we think today, and can all be traced back to the ancient Greek world.

In this final lesson, we’re going to look more closely at the question of why Greek philosophy still matters. Here are three good reasons that it is worth studying Greek philosophy, more than 2,500 years after it first flourished:

1. Greek philosophy helps us understand why we think the way that we do today.

2. Greek philosophy challenges us to live differently: It helps us find new solutions to contemporary problems.

3. Greek philosophy is awesomely interesting.


Understanding Why We Think Like We Do

We often take the way that we think for granted. But one of the fascinating things about studying philosophy is that you realize that the way we think has a history. For many of us, even if we have never heard of Plato or Aristotle, our thinking is shaped by how they thought about the world.

For example, imagine that your friend is on a dating app. You ask them what they are doing, and they say that they are looking for their “soul mate” or their “other half.” The source of this idea is none other than Plato. Some of the most powerful stories we tell ourselves about romantic love originally come from a myth in Plato’s dialogue, the Symposium. In this myth, human beings were once double-humans: with four hands, four feet, and two heads. But the god Apollo cut them in half, and now all of us are incomplete, longing to reunite our other half.

Studying the philosophical traditions of which we are a part can help us understand the roots of our own thinking. But it can also help us think differently. Once we know where our ideas come from, once we understand their origins, we can question them better. Maybe, whatever Plato says, we’re not so incomplete. Maybe what our friend is looking for on the dating app—a “soul mate”—just doesn’t exist. Maybe they don’t need another half to feel complete.


Challenging Us to Live Differently

Greek philosophy is full of untapped resources for finding solutions to contemporary problems. These problems are not just theoretical, but practical. In ancient Greece, philosophy was more than a way of thinking about the world: It was a way of life. The insights of the Greek philosophers can help us find ways of navigating through our lives today.

The cosmopolitan cynics can help us work out what it means to live in a world of strangers and how to cultivate a sense of belonging to not only a particular place but also the cosmos as a whole. The skeptics can help us hold our ideas more lightly and be more modest about the limits of our knowledge. The epicureans can help us appreciate pleasure more and learn how to cultivate pleasure—without incurring too many hangovers. The stoics can tell us about how to deal with the troubles that life throws at us, without being derailed.


It’s Awesomely Interesting

But one final reason it is worth plunging into Greek philosophy is that it is just awesomely interesting! Over the last ten lessons, I’ve introduced thinkers who, over 2,500 years ago, asked fascinating questions about human life, who told strange stories and myths, and who sought to provoke each other, and us, to think and live differently. Studying Greek philosophy isn’t a matter of reading dusty texts about a dull and dismal past. It is an insight into the complex and deeply strange lives of people in the past and how they, like us, grappled with the problems of human life. It is an insight into the complexity and strangeness of our own lives here in the present.


Going Further

I hope that this course has provoked your interest and that you want to explore more. The traditions of philosophy in Ancient Greece are incredibly rich and diverse. You are at the end of this short course, but you are only at the beginning of your discovery of Greek philosophy. So, what are you waiting for? Dive in! Once you get the philosophy bug, who knows where you will end up? I wish you good luck on your quest.


Recommended reading

For more serious study, try Ancient Greek Philosophy: From the Presocratics to the Hellenistic Philosophers by Thomas A. Blackson.


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