Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.22

Thomas A. Blackson, Ancient Greek Philosophy: from the Presocratics to the Hellenistic Philosophers.   Malden, MA/Oxford/Chichester:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.  Pp. xv, 271.  ISBN 9781444335736.  $34.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Christopher Moore, Penn State University (


Ancient Greek Philosophy presents for students a continuous argument about how ancient philosophers assessed the Milesian “inquiry into nature” and how they thought through the relationship between “reason” and “experience.” It reads like careful lecture notes focused “on the development of certain key lines of thought within the [philosophical] tradition.” These notes would be especially useful for those students in free-wheeling discussion classes who desire to read for a coherent narrative or fuller explanation.1

Despite its title and its publisher’s billing, Ancient Greek Philosophy does not aim to be a comprehensive textbook; indeed, it has few special pedagogical properties other than trying to be informative and reiterative. Jargon and dialectics are introduced in no consistent way, and biographical or cultural background is generally presented in quite a lump. This book would have to be assigned alongside primary sources, or additional articles, or some better- organized scene-setting.

Blackson’s modest approach, nevertheless, has many benefits. The book’s main text is short and efficient. The author never wavers from explicating his chosen line of thought. The prose is direct, if workaday. A student could feel, by the end of the semester, that she has learned some concrete themes about an actual discipline. Blackson builds methodically up to statements of doctrine and recapitulates them frequently. He has effectively chosen to focus his undertaking around accounting for various philosopher’s answers to the epistemological-practical question, what does one have to do to become wise. The interpretations of the Presocratics, Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenistics follow dominant developmentalist readings without idiosyncrasy. He regularly succeeds at cutting through complexities to give plausible take-home conclusions.

Blackson writes of Socrates, for example, that his

understanding of the good life was unorthodox. He thought that rationality in human beings was a matter of proper psychological functioning, that the best exercise of reason presupposes knowledge and takes the form of an expertise, that this expertise is practical wisdom about ethical matters, and hence that the life of ethical virtue is the good life for human beings. (70)

About Plato he writes that he

recast the love of wisdom as an exercise of reason in connection with forms. He thought that the human good is psychological organization in imitation of the disincarnate soul. In this state, the soul is free from practical concerns and the need to exercise reason to meet these needs. It is fixed in an exercise of reason that involves knowledge of the forms and hence is fixed in the contemplation of reality itself. … [Still, this] conception remained underspecified and perplexing in certain ways. (153-4)

These are coherent and interesting views. (Blackson doesn’t really query the idea that Plato does not assert views.)

The book begins with a justification for its idiosyncratic structure, acknowledgements singling out Gareth Matthews and Michael Frede, and a five-page introduction giving an historical outline of the sweep of ancient philosophy, some remarks about Socrates and Plato, and a differentiation between the history of philosophy and philosophy itself.

The first full chapter, on the Presocratics, begins like the subsequent chapters: with a several-line outline, a boxed two-paragraph abstract, and a timeline. The Milesians, presented as “the first inquirers,” are said to believe that “humans beings could flourish, and get more and more parts of their lives under control, if they would think about things clearly and systematically.” They believed we should weaken our commitments to the theological tradition. They explained rain, for example, by appeal to premises that bypass “the traditional pantheon of gods.” A problem with appeals to religion is the variability among customs.

The Milesians appealed to the nature of reality. But they had a hard time convincing people that they knew what they were talking about. Parmenides, too, presents a reality at great odds with common experience. These difficulties in adjudicating claims about reality and its appearance, Blackson argues, provided the impetus for philosophical investigation. The latter Presocratics, for instance the atomists, directly confronted misalignments between conclusions drawn from reason and those drawn from experience. Democritus posited distinct modes of judgment, one legitimate and the other illegitimate. This effort was noble, but insufficient, Blackson says; Democritus failed to specify the “cognitive procedures” proper to reason and experience, and he seems not to have worried whether reason is itself dependent on experience, and therefore of dubious epistemic superiority.

Socrates is the object of chapters two and three. Blackson’s thesis is that “in the early dialogues, Socrates again and again searches for a definition in connection with some ethical matter. This emphasis on reason, as opposed to experience, contrasts with the more common idea that the expertise involved in living a good life is a matter of living through situations of the sort human beings encounter as they live their lives.” Chapter two begins with some general remarks about Socrates and some symbolization of “What is x”-type questions. It then discusses parts of the Euthyphro, Apology, and Protagoras. Chapter three, contrasting Socrates with the sophists, returns to the Protagoras and finishes out with a discussion of the three main exchanges in the Gorgias.

Chapter four addresses recollection and the unteachability of virtue in the Meno, talk about forms and immortality in the Phaedo, and the three-part soul of the Republic. Chapter five gives fifteen more pages to the Republic. The four brief chapters on Aristotle cover natures, souls, god, substances, forms, and the relationship between theoretical and practical wisdom. The final chapter, on the Hellenistic schools, takes efforts to show that their views of the good life were “not the same as the one in Plato and Aristotle.”

This very brief summary should show that this book could be rather helpful to any lecturer in Greek philosophy. It provides compressed formulations to use—about knowledge and reason, for example—and ideas about a dialectical continuity among the principal figures of ancient philosophy.

Indeed, I might think that this book would be better for lecturers than for students. The book’s virtues have led to some decisions of presentation that hinder its teaching function. 1. Concision of the main text. The main text wins its brevity by shunting almost all biographical and much explanatory information to footnotes (marked by letters), and nearly all reference to the scholarship to endnotes (marked by numbers).2 For example, each of the first five pages of the second chapter has nearly twice as many footnote words as main-text words. Both footnotes and endnotes frequently rely for their material on long quoted passages from contemporary and recent scholars, either in explanation or corroboration.3

Blackson’s streamlining aims to preserve the integrity of the argument and to speed reading along. It does so at the cost of intimidating blocks of small text. It may also discourage students from dipping into the notes—they are too long and adjunct to the argument—and thus from seeing how cultural or scholarly considerations influence how we should understand our philosophers and their arguments.

A representative moment comes three paragraphs into the discussion of Socrates. Blackson starts a footnote with the big claim: “The quest for the good life was a traditional pursuit among the Athenians, and it remains clearly recognizable and no less important today” (42n.e). He continues the footnote with a sixteen-line summary of the Laches and, in parentheses, a twelve-line quotation from Susan Sauvé Meyer’s Ancient Ethics, the first six lines of which discuss the challenges of thinking that one must be able to speak about virtue to have virtue and the latter six of which discuss the Laches too. Two sentences later in the main text, footnote f defines having wisdom as “not [being] confused about things that typically confuse others.” This is a surprising footnote, since we would expect to find this point, with significant elaboration and evidence, in the main text; after all, Blackson takes Socrates’ métier to be the “love of wisdom.”4

2. Narrowness of focus. Any text about Greek philosophy must leave aside core material. This one seems to leave aside much. It does not talk about the definitions of virtue in the Meno and the Nicomachean Ethics; the ethical and metaphysical debates about to kalon; the connection between Aristotle’s practical and scientific works to his others; the relations between philosophy and mathematics; and the questions of self-knowledge.

3. Directness of prose. Blackson is not much given to illustration, clarification, simile, or changes in voice. He does not often step back to give the contrasting position for the purposes of illuminating the position he’s setting out or showing why a view is worth taking note of. Discussion is not always clear, and does not take adequate note of its audience. Blackson assumes that students will know what it means, for example, when he says that Democritus’ “ontology is far more radical than it may appear” (27), having defined neither ontologies nor radicality.

4. Concreteness of lessons. This book makes no explicit efforts to teach how to philosophize or read philosophical texts. It does depict a high level of reconstructive analysis, and manifests a real curiosity about how people have thought about thinking and knowing. These will be adequate guides for some students. Unlike some approaches to teaching ancient philosophy, however, it does not revel in the play of interpretative possibility, dwell on significant cruxes, build up to questions Socratically—i.e., through mundane concerns, reflect aloud on what the ancient philosophers would hope from their readers, or engage novices with the simultaneous depth and relevance of the philosophy's questions.

5. Nature of philosophy. From the book’s beginning, Blackson regularly translates philosophia as “love of wisdom.” This leads him, somewhat absurdly, to say that Aristotle calls his physical works part of the “second love of wisdom” (154). This gloss is strained and ignores the fact that philosophia is a name and not just a transparent description. Not acknowledging this, Blackson makes imprecise and unsubstantiated claims. He says, for example, that “[i]t is common to have Socrates call himself a ‘philosopher’ and his practice ‘philosophy’” (66n8). In all the dialogues Blackson talks about (which are many hundreds of Platonic pages), Socrates does so only four times, each time with a weird meaning. Socrates’ self-understanding would seem to be an important fact when interpreting how Plato understood Socrates; and Blackson says that his “focus in this book is on the lines of thought that in one way or another pass through him [sc. Socrates].”

I should conclude by reiterating that I enjoyed and benefited from following Blackson’s attempts to trace some continuities of interest and debate in the principal ancient philosophers. I do not think, though, the textbook is the one best-suited for introducing students into ancient philosophy.


1.   Blackson prints the link to his own course; in it students are recommended to read some passages from the presocratics; Apology, Euthyphro, Protagoras, Gorgias, Phaedo, Republic; excerpts from Categories, Physics, Metaphysics, De Anima, and the Ethics; and a very little from an anthology on the Hellenistics.
2.   The two-track note-system is only one of the formatting quirks. The “References” section does not put a dash in place of repeated author-names; this contributes to the book’s overload of words. (There are, for example, twenty-two works by Michael Frede cited, nine by Charles Kahn, five by Terence Irwin, five by John Burnet, four by Christopher Shields, and several each by Annas, Barnes, Cooper, and Long.) When naming books in the notes or in the “Further Reading” sections at the close of each of the five “Parts,” Blackson does not say which press publishes them, and so misses an opportunity to familiarize students with the best sources for scholarship on ancient philosophy.
3.   The first chapter, on the Presocratics, has only about 13 pages of main text, but also 152 lines of small-font footnote text in 18 footnotes and four pages of endnotes in 18 endnotes.
4.   Another weakness of the book is its uneven use of citation. In one important example, Blackson says that Socrates newly introduces a “psychological” view of the person (57). But the only evidence is a broad reference to Homer, a quotation glossing Homeric views of the soul from Burnet, and an unsubstantiated remark about fifth- century attitudes.

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