Why Study Ancient Philosophy?

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There are several reasons for studying Ancient Philosophy. It is generally acknowledged that one of the most important factors in becoming a good philosopher is having a firm grasp of the history of our discipline. Many of the ideas proposed by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others have helped set the agenda for much of the subsequent development of Western philosophy by introducing the major problems that have come to define it. Because many of the great controversies of the past often reach into contemporary philosophy, we often find that current ideas cannot be fully understood unless we also understand the historical background that gave rise to them. For example, you cannot study contemporary ethics without having a firm grasp on Aristotle’s virtue ethics, which is now one of the three main schools of normative ethics. Likewise, many ideas in contemporary metaphysics (including substance, causation, and free will) have their roots in Plato and Aristotle. In this way studying Ancient Philosophy is vital for the training for all philosophers alike. Students of Ancient Philosophy are also in a unique position for making valuable contributions to the wider field. Many of the problems raised by the Ancients continue to be our problems. Contemporary philosophers continue to struggle with the problem of universals, the foundations of normative ethics, problems in the theory of knowledge, and the problem of free will.

On the one hand, the student of Ancient Philosophy may find solutions to these problems that have not yet been appreciated by contemporary philosophers. And those solutions may present live and challenging alternatives to those currently in fashion. On the other hand, even where we disagree with those past solutions, there are philosophical gains to be had from reflecting on why we disagree. For those differences can help point us towards our own solutions to the enduring problems. In this way studying Ancient Philosophy can be useful in helping students develop positive philosophical views of their own. Finally, one should not overlook the intrinsic value in studying Ancient Philosophy. The history of our discipline is full of rich and diverse ideas about the world and our place within it that are fascinating and worth understanding in their own right – even where those ideas no longer have contemporary relevance. There is great value to be found in looking at the world from a perspective so different from our own. For many this is the greatest reason for pursuing Ancient Philosophy.