Ancient Greek language & the first philosophers (Part I & II)

Discussing key fragments of the first philosophers whose discovery of the meaning of nature began the traditions of philosophical and scientific inquiry that influence Plato, Aristotle and beyond.

A two-part course taught by Martin Black in collaboration with the Independent School of Philosophy.

  • Two 6-week courses suitable for beginners
  • Including an elementary introduction to the ancient Greek language
  • No previous knowledge of the Greek alphabet or the Greek language is required.
  • No previous knowledge of these philosophers is required.
  • If you have some previous training in Ancient Greek language, then please consider Learning Greek with Plato.
  • All course materials will be provided in PDFs for each class.
  • $120/$60 or less if you become a member of the Platonic Academy


BOOKINGS NOW OPEN for Spring 2024
Starting Monday 19 August in Carlton (+online)


Course Outline

Part I: Thales to Heraclitus

Ancient Greek writings stand at the head of the major traditions of poetry, philosophy, history, political theory, mathematics, philology, theology, literary criticism, and many other disciplines (even the words describing them derive from the Greek). Learning the Ancient Greek language opens up the broader horizons of the original sense of the terms that describe our own world. In particular, our world is dominated by science, an activity that is dependent upon the discovery of the notion of nature (physis, φύσις) by the early Greek philosophers.

This course will discuss key fragments of thinkers from Thales down to Heraclitus, the first great philosopher of whose works we have substantial remains. He has been a vital influence on thinkers from Plato down to Heidegger, and we will devote a number of sessions to his thought.

Language: We use the key words of the first philosophers to introduce the Ancient Greek language and to investigate the original meaning of philosophy.

Session 1.1 | Introduction

Outlining the course, including the context within which philosophy emerged, the notions of nature and the importance of the first philosophers for modernity.

Language: introducing the study of language, the alphabet and parts of speech.

Session 1.2 | Nature as the ground of philosophy and science

Discussing the accounts of the teaching of Thales, who is reputed to be the first philosopher. Thales thought out the implications of nature and became the model of the theoretical human being.

Language: some key words, the three noun declensions, -ω verbs in the present tense

Session 1.3 | Nature and poetry

Discussing fragments of Anaximander and Xenophanes, who worked out in different ways what the nature of things must be if the world is to be intelligible.

Language: the clause as an element of speech, 1st and 2nd declension nouns, -ω verbs in the future tense, conjunctions and prepositions.

Session 1.4 | Nature and reason (logos)

Reading key fragments of Heraclitus, whose ambiguous description of a world in flux (that yet has an intelligible order) has attracted sustained attention from Socrates to Heidegger.

Language: -ω verbs: the aorist tenses

Session 1.5 | Heraclitus on nature and reason continued

Reading more fragments of Heraclitus

Language: combining clauses into simple and compound sentences

Sixth Session | Appraisal of Heraclitus and his legacy

An overall discussion of Heraclitus with some appraisals by later thinkers including Xenophon, Bacon and Heidegger.


BOOKINGS NOW OPEN for Part I in Summer Term 2023
from Tuesday, 14 February in Carlton (+online)


Part II: Parmenides to Socrates




The second part of this course will start with Parmenides, and the thinkers who followed him down to Socrates. Parmenides marks a watershed in the history of thought for bring attention to the deepest questions of being and intelligibility, questions which have had a decisive influence on classical and modern philosophy.

Language: continuing the introduction to the ancient Greek language using words and sentences of the first philosophers.

Session 2.1 | Introduction

Discussing the importance of Parmenides and the opening lines of Parmenides’ poem.

Language: reviewing the parts of speech, the 1st and 2nd declension nouns and adjectives and of the -ω verb in the present, future and aorist tenses, also introducing the participles and infinitives of the -ω verbs.

Session 2.2 | Parmenides

Considering the three paths of inquiry and the question of the identity of being and mind and also the phenomenal cosmos and the teaching of his poem as a whole.

Language: revising and consolidating the material from session 2.1

Session 2.3 | Anaxagoras

Aristotle praised Anaxagoras among the pre-Socratics as sounding like a sober man among drunk for his introduction of mind into the cosmos: we will see what use he made of it.

Language: combining clauses into simple and compound sentences, -ω verbs in the perfect tense, -μι verbs in the present tense.

Session 2.4 | Empedocles

Discussing the great statesman and philosopher who seemed to anticipate modernity in positing power over nature as the end of science.

Language: revising and consolidating material from session 2.3

Session 2.5 | Philolaus

Considering key fragments of the Pythagorean who influenced the Platonic understanding of philosophy.

Language: combining clauses into complex sentences and subordinating conjunctions.

Session 2.6 | Nature and self-knowledge

Reading a excerpt from Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates explains his departure from previous philosophy and natural science and discusses the meaning and significance of the first philosophers. We also consider why later thinkers consider this passage telling of a pivotal moment in philosophy.

Language: final revision