Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.08.58

Christopher Shields, Ancient Philosophy: a Contemporary Introduction. Second edition (first edition published 2003). Routledge contemporary introductions to philosophy.   New York:  Routledge, 2011.  Pp. xiii, 245.  ISBN 9780415896603.  $36.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Gary Hartenburg, Saint Katherine College (

Table of Contents.

In Ancient Philosophy, Christopher Shields skillfully presents and evaluates rational reconstructions of important arguments from the ancient philosophers. At a time filled with handbooks, dictionaries, guides, and encyclopedias of ancient philosophy, it is refreshing to sit down to a coherent, single-author account of the arguments of the ancient philosophers from the Presocratics through the Hellenistic age.

The book is a new edition of Shields’s Classical Philosophy (2003),1 and the additions include an entirely new sixty-page chapter on Hellenistic philosophy and smaller additions to existing chapters: some new material on Zeno’s paradoxes (19–20), a new section on Plato’s images of the line and cave (100–106), and new sections on Aristotle on virtue and akrasia (150–156). Apart from the additions for the new chapter on Hellenistic philosophy, the lists of suggestions for additional reading at the end of each chapter (and at the end of the book) were not, so far as I can tell, updated, with the exception of an entry for Shields’s 2007 book on Aristotle (reviewed in BMCR).2 Those who are looking for an up-to-date list of good material on ancient philosophy will be disappointed by this oversight, but the readings Shields lists are all solid recommendations.

The book consists of five chapters, one each on the Presocratic philosophers, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenistic philosophers. Each of the chapters is devoted to an explanation of the main arguments of the philosopher in question. There is very little space given to discussion of the historical context of the philosophers or the literary contexts of their works. The book does not require the reader to have any knowledge of the Greek language. In the few places where Greek words are mentioned, they are transliterated, and Shields is careful to explain their philosophical significance.

In chapter 1 (“Philosophy before Socrates”), Shields covers the arguments of Thales, Anaximander, Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, Democritus, and Protagoras. His main interest in this chapter is to trace the Presocratic philosophical positions and arguments concerning the nature of reality and our knowledge of it. (This line of inquiry predominates in the book as a whole, too.) For example, Shields explains why Thales’s suggestion that everything is water was an attempt to answer the question “What is there?” in an explanatorily fruitful way, while remaining consistent with Thales’s common sense observations. Shields also argues that contemporary philosophers have many things in common with Thales’s philosophical methodology even though “we do not think that water is the basic stuff” (4). According to Shields, Thales, like many philosophers after him, does not accept the deliverances of sense perception without question and is even ready to reject them if they run contrary to “scientific systematicity” (4).

Chapter 1 ends with an extended discussion of Protagorean relativism. This section in particular highlights both a strength and a weakness of the book. The strength is the clarity with which Shields lays out an argument for Protagorean relativism. According to Shields, Protagoras’s argument is a development of the atomists’ argument (discussed in the prior section) for the conclusion that perceptual qualities are not in objects themselves (24). Protagoras’s argument simply extends the atomists’ argument about physical qualities to the realm of morality. In Shields’s words, the argument for Protagorean relativism runs as follows:

(1) If S1 perceives some action x to be F (e.g., euthanasia to be morally permissible) and S2 perceives that same x to be not-F (euthanasia to be morally impermissible), then neither F nor not-F is a property of x in itself.
(2) It often happens in perception that S1 perceives x to be F and S2 perceives x to be not-F.
(3) Hence, moral qualities are not in actions themselves.

Laying out the argument in this way allows the reader to see the premises and the conclusion and assess the argument’s soundness. What is not so clear is how Shields draws this argument from the text of Protagoras. In fact, the only text of Protagoras cited by Shields in this section is Diels Kranz 80 B 1, which is simply the statement that “a human being is the measure of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not” (quoted by Shields on 27). The way in which Shields gets from that statement to the argument summarized in (1)–(3) above is opaque to the reader, nor is it clear how justified we are in saying that Protagoras considered his argument an extension of the atomists’.3

A curious omission from chapter 1 is Pythagoreanism. Perhaps Shields does not discuss it because the Pythagoreans’ interests and methodologies cannot be plotted easily on the Presocratic line of inquiry into the nature of reality and our knowledge of it that Shields draws from Thales to Protagoras. Perhaps it was omitted for other reasons, but because Plato, for one, drew from the Pythagorean tradition it would have been preferable if it could have been addressed.4

Chapter 2 concerns the philosophical positions of “Socrates.” In a footnote at the beginning of the chapter, Shields discusses the problem of discerning what the views of the historical Socrates were, and after mentioning the writings of Aristophanes and Xenophon he comes to the conclusion that “Although it would be imprudent to be overly secure about doing so, it is nonetheless reasonable to regard Plato’s Socratic dialogues as intended to represent the views of the historical Socrates” (58–59). Those who disagree with Shields’s position on this will therefore have to think of chapter 2 as representing not the views of the historical Socrates but of the character Socrates presented in the early dialogues of Plato.

The main concerns of chapter 2 are the Socratic elenchus and the Socratic view of akrasia. Shields uses the examples of Meno and Euthyphro to illustrate different ways in which Socrates refutes his interlocutors. In the case of Meno, Socrates shows that Meno’s account of virtue does not even include all the uncontroversial examples of virtue. In the case of Euthyphro, Socrates shows that even though at least one of Euthyphro’s accounts of piety includes all the uncontroversial examples of piety, it is nonetheless defective because it does not state what it is that makes all pious things pious. Shields’s discussion of the Socratic elenchus in these two cases is both easy to follow and insightful. The same is true for his discussion of the Socratic view of akrasia.

Chapter 3 is about Plato. Because of the position Shields takes about the historical Socrates in chapter 2, chapter 3 is really about the Plato of the middle and late dialogues. And because Shields does not discuss the Sophist, Statesman, or Philebus at all, the chapter is centrally about Plato’s theory of forms as expressed in the Republic (and, to a lesser extent, the Phaedo) and critiqued in the Parmenides. The first main part of the chapter (72–85) is a discussion of some arguments for the existence of the forms. Shields’s discussion is helpful because it addresses in a clear way a question at the forefront of a reader’s mind: Why should I think that these Platonic forms are real? As in chapter 1, Shields’s goal is to represent Plato’s arguments as at least worthy of genuine consideration, and, in my view, he succeeds. Also included in chapter 3 are extended discussions of Plato’s accounts in the Republic of justice, the soul, and the form of the good.

The organizing principle of chapter 4 is Aristotle’s account of causation; in particular, the four causes—material, formal, efficient, and final—are explained and, as usual, Shields culls a number of arguments from Aristotle to encourage the reader to take Aristotle’s ideas about causation seriously. Here again Shields’s attention to the arguments of an ancient philosopher is helpful to the student. For example, although introductions to ancient philosophy explain what Aristotle means by “matter” and “form,” few of them explain why Aristotle might have thought formal causes are real. Shields helpfully canvasses the Aristotelian corpus for the arguments Aristotle gives in favor of formal causation, and his clear presentation of them helps the reader to see that Aristotle’s position is not a matter of speculation. Shields’s discussion of final causation leads him to a lengthy discussion of Aristotle’s ethics, which enables the reader to see how systematic Aristotle’s philosophy is. The chapter also includes a discussion of Aristotle’s response to the Socratic account of akrasia and closes with a brief discussion of Aristotle’s account of homonymy, which is a kind of précis of Shields’s 1997 book on Aristotelian homonymy.5

The final chapter, on Hellenistic philosophy, covers the Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics. The first section focuses on Epicurean ethics, with special attention given to Epicurus’s argument that fearing death is irrational. The second section covers Stoicism, and it, too, focuses on ethical considerations. In particular, Shields discusses at length the Stoic conception of living in accordance with nature and the Stoic conception of the emotions as false beliefs. The chapter closes with a section on the ancient arguments for and against skepticism.

One of the virtues of Ancient Philosophy, which has been mentioned a few times above, is the care Shields takes to make the arguments of the ancient philosophers as compelling as he can to the reader. The new material in the section on Zeno, for example, is a reasoned exhortation to readers that they not simply shrug off Zeno’s arguments against the possibility of motion. As Shields says, “A reader does not refute Zeno by putting down this book and walking away: that is, rather, a way to ignore Zeno” (20). One suspects that Shields’s attention to this point stems from years of teaching this material to students who are disinclined to take the impossibility of motion very seriously. Ancient Philosophy is a better book because of the evident care Shields displays to encourage his readers to consider at least some of the positions of the long-dead ancient philosophers as live options.


1.   Christopher Shields, Classical Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction (London: Routledge, 2003).
2.   Christopher Shields, Aristotle (London: Routledge, 2007).
3.   In BMCR 2008.03.06, in his review of Shields’s Aristotle (2007), Ian Halim made a similar criticism of Shields’s procedure. In Aristotle, however, Shields presents arguments from the texts of Aristotle, which are for the most part complete. In the case of Protagoras (and the Presocratics and, to a lesser extent, the Hellenistic philosophers), the texts are fragmentary, and the possibility of reading too much into a philosopher’s argument is not negligible. This point is not meant to discredit Shields’s treatment of the ancient philosophers, but in a book that takes pains to encourage beginning students of ancient philosophers to take the arguments of the ancient philosophers seriously, it would have been helpful if he could have made it clearer how in each case he moves from the ancient text to the reconstructed argument he presents in Ancient Philosophy.
4.   In any case, Plato’s Timaeus, which expresses his most overt debts to Pythagoreanism, is never mentioned in Ancient Philosophy, and the relation of Pythagorean philosophy to the line of inquiry Shields outlines is not raised.
5.   Christopher Shields, Order in Multiplicity: Homonymy in the Philosophy of Aristotle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2012
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 20:44:28, Thursday, 30 August 2012