Department of History
University of California, Irvine
Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker

Lecture 2.  Greeks and Romans.


Worldviews of the Ancient Greeks

The Greek World
in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE

Pre-Socratic Philosophers
First Principles
To account for   which the Greeks called...
stability in the world... find what is fundamental, constant and unchanging...
diversity in the world... find what is different, what changes, and how it changes; this will reveal the rules or agencies that control the change process...
pattern in the world... use these rules to organize the fundamentals into a "neat array"...
The Ionians
Thales of Miletus
640-546 BCE
Anaximander of Miletus
The Boundless
Pythagoras of Samos
Anaximenes of Miletus
Heraclitus of Ephesus
Parmenides of Elea (c. 480 BCE)

What is, IS--and cannot NOT BE.

Something that IS cannot become what it IS NOT.

Conundrum:  If there is only ONE first principle, how can we account for the diversity we observe in the world?

  • What can we know for certain? 
  • How can we distinguish it from matters of opinion? 
  • Is the diversity in the observed world real?  Or is it only an illusion? 
  • When something appears to change into something else, where does that new thing come from?
  • Did it already exist?  In what form? 

"...it is right that you should learn all things, both the persuasive, unshaken heart of Objective Truth (The Way of Truth), and the subjective beliefs of mortals (The Way of Seeming), in which there is no true trust.  But you shall learn these too:  how, for the mortals passing through them, the things-that-seem must 'really exist,' being, for them, all there is."

--On Nature by Parmenides

Responses to Parmenides' Challenge

Anaxagoras (500-428 BCE)

There are as many elements as there are things that exist.


Empedocles (490-430 BCE)

Agents of love and strife (attraction and repulsion) act on 4 elements (earth, air, fire, water) to produce diversity observed in the world.

We can know about the world because we are made of these elements.


Atomists (460-370 BCE) e.g. Leucippus, Democritus

There is only one element--That Which Is (Atoms).

But That Which Is Not is also real (the Void).

Atoms and the Void interact (through random motion and collisions) thus producing all the diversity observed in the world.

We can know about the world through our senses when atoms impinge on us.

The Athenians

The School of Athens (1509-1511), by Raphael [Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520)]
The central figures are Plato (left) and his student Aristotle (right).  Socrates is the fourth figure standing to the left of Plato.

Socrates (470-399 BCE)

Marked end of ancient thinking and beginning of progressive classical Greek thought.

After  Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), Athenians faced political crisis:

How is the state to be governed?

  • Is there such a thing as virtue?
  • Are laws of justice divine or man-made?
  • Can we teach laws?
  • Can we teach men to be just?

Cosmos and Polis are related:  use methods for obtaining knowledge of the natural world to gain better understanding of and mastery over human affairs.

Plato as the young pupil of Socrates
Plato (429-348 BCE)

Two worlds:

Real world Ideal world
  • always in flux
  • always constant
  • knowledge obtained directly through the senses
  • knowledge revealed by jogging memories already in the soul
  • result:  a likely story
  • result:  truth

Mathematics (geometry) bridges these two worlds and makes the Ideal world accessible to human understanding through reason.

"No one may enter here [The Academy] who is ignorant of mathematics."--Plato

(subjects comprising the necessary education for all citizens and civic leaders)






number in space

number in time

number in motion


Plato's "Likely Story" about the Structure and Substance of the Natural World

The Timaeus


Events in the Life of Aristotle (384-322 BCE)
384 BCE born in Stagira
c. 366 began studies with Plato at the Academy in Athens
c. 347 after Plato's death, joined his former student, Hermeias, in Atarneus where they formed a group patterned after the Academy
c. 343 moved to Mytilene on the island of Lesbos
c. 342 invited back to Stagira to serve as tutor to Alexander, the 13-year-old son of Philip of Macedon
c. 334 returned to Athens, where he established the Lyceum, his own philosophic circle
c. 323 after Alexander's death, fled Athens and settled in Chalcis on the island of Euboea
322 BCE died after a brief illness
Treatises Attributed to Aristotle
Logic -- What, how and why of reason
  • Categories
  • On Interpretation
  • Prior and Posterior Analytics...
Inanimate things -- What, how and why of the material world
  • Physics
  • On the Heavens
  • Meteorology...
Animate things -- What, how and why of living things
  • On the Soul
  • On the History of Animals
  • On the Parts of Animals
  • On the Generation of Animals
Philosophy -- What, how and why of social interaction
  • Metaphysics
  • Ethics
  • Politics...

Aristotle's Critique of Plato

Postulating the existence of two worlds (Real and Ideal) --

  • does not resolve the Parmenidean conundrum
  • it only doubles the problem by giving us two ontological systems to explain
The Form (Idea, blueprint) of a thing (its user's manual for achieving its function, purpose or goal) --

  • is not an abstract representation that exists in some inaccessible thought-space
  • it is embedded in the thing's tangible natural world being....
The form of an oak resides in the acorn -- the future roots, trunk, branches, leaves and even acorns are all there:  all potential just waiting to be actualized.

Mathematics --

  • is not the sole path to scientific knowledge
  • is a model for reasoning, but is limited in its usefulness when applied to the natural world
  • is useful in gaining knowledge of the heavens, optics, perspective...
  • is not useful for investigating living things

Living things --

  • do not adhere to rigid patterns of behavior
  • require a new model for reasoning, one based on what is probable, not just what is certain
  • this kind of reasoning also is scientific (beautiful), as is the study of animals
Fundamentals of Aristotle's Natural Philosophy
All matter is made of two parts:

    hyle (HOO-lee)--basic fundamental stuff
    qualities--characteristics superimposed on hyle

Terrestrial Elements
Cold and Dry
Cold and Wet
Warm and Wet
Warm and Dry

Tension and balance generated by opposing qualities (wet vs. dry; cold vs. warm) is behind all change observed in terrestrial world.

Celestial Element
Quintessence, or aether
Aristotle's First Principles
Arché motion (not a material substance)
    • change of state (growth, decay, death, size, shape...)
    • change of position
Physis opposition
    • cold vs hot
    • wet vs dry

Physics of the Celestial realm

The celestial element (quintessence) has no opposing qualities.

  • quintessence is perfect and immutable 
  • a celestial body moves forever according to its perfect nature in a perfect circle at constant speed 
  • any sensory evidence to the contrary is illusory

Physics of the Terrestrial realm

Each terrestrial element (earth, water, air, fire) has a natural place or state.

  • some amount of each element is present in every body
  • therefore, opposing qualities are always at work
  • if a body (animate or inanimate) is removed from the natural place or state of its predominant element (violent change), it will naturally strive to return where it belongs (natural change)
  • if a body's natural qualities become imbalanced (violent change), it will naturally seek a more suitable place or state for itself given its new nature (natural change)

An animate body is constantly appropriating and organizing resources from its environment in order to actualize its potential as defined by its Form.

It must become what it is to be.


To know a thing is to understand four basic things which cause it to be as it is:

material cause ingredients what a thing is made of
[table: wood, glue, nails...]
[tree: wood, sap, leaves...]
[human: flesh, blood, bones...]
formal cause blueprint pattern into which it fits
[table: stable legs supporting a sturdy flat surface]
[tree: root structure; trunk; branches...]
[human: symmetrically arranged limbs, trunk, head...]
efficient cause means how it is made, or happens
[table: carpenter; tools; physical labor]
[tree: seed; gardener; planting]
[human: sperm; father; copulation]
final cause purpose why it is made; its purpose
[table: to provide a space for working, eating, storing...]
[tree: to offer shade, fruit, nesting space for birds...]
[human: to sense; to reason; to reproduce...]
Hellenistic Period (323-31 BCE)

After the death of Alexander (356-323 BCE):

  • Greek language and culture spread throughout the known world
  • Commerce became international
  • Museum established in Alexandria
    • intellectual center of known world
    • literature, mathematics, astronomy, medicine
    • library containing over 400,000 scrolls
The Alexandrians

(Hellenistic Period--Greek influence)

Euclid 330-260 BCE Mathematics
ˇ wrote The Elements
Aristarchos 310-230 Astronomy
Archimedes 287-212 Engineering
Eratosthenes 276-194 Math/Astronomy
ˇlibrarian at Alexandrian Museum
ˇmeasured size of Earth
Hipparchus 190-120 Astronomy
ˇmapped the heavens
ˇstudied Babylonian records
ˇdiscovered Earth's precession


(Roman Empire--Greeks)

Hero fl. 62 CE Optics
ˇ studied reflection and refraction
ˇ constructed automated gadgets
Ptolemy fl. 125 Astronomy/Cartography
ˇ wrote Almagest; The Geography
Galen 131-201 Medicine
ˇ wrote On the Natural Faculties

Roman Empire--Romans

Cicero 106-43 BCE statesman/orator
ˇ wrote de Natura Deorum
ˇ popularized Greek ideas
Lucretius 98-55 poet/philosopher
ˇ wrote de Rerum Natura
ˇ promoted reliance on reason over superstition
Vitruvius fl. 1st c. BCE architect
ˇ wrote de Architectura
Frontinus 40-103 CE engineer
ˇ wrote book on city water supply
Pliny the Elder 23-79 natural historian
ˇ wrote Naturalis Historia
Go to:
  • excerpt from Plato's Timaeus; and
Weekly Readings
Lecture Notes