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Philosophy as the Art of Living: Ancient and Modern Views


Module description

Philosophy has been with us for thousands of years, ever since abstract thought became possible. Records of early philosophy come from around the globe. The tradition of the history of philosophy in the West focuses on the expansion of the discipline in Ancient Greece from the sixth century BC onwards and its continuation into the Roman world.

In this module we explore one key theme in almost all philosophical ponderings from the very earliest times: our place in the world, and particularly why what the world is like and how it operates matters to the way we lead our lives. If philosophy is to function as an art of living, it will have to teach us several things. We are human beings, but what is it to be human? How do we differ from or resemble other natural things? Given what we are like, and given the similarities and differences between us and other kinds of things, what do we have to do to live well? And finally, how, if at all, can philosophy help us to live as well as humans can? 

First we focus largely on early Greek philosophy, beginning with the ideas found in certain so-called pre-Socratic writers. Next, we will explore aspects of the philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, followed by discussion of slightly later schools of thought which took a more radical or sceptical bent in both the Classical world and in India.

We then turn to the so-called early modern period - the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries - in which philosophers such as René Descartes, Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, Thomas Hobbes, Mary Astell, John Locke, Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, Benedict de Spinoza and David Hume debated all these questions. We shall discuss some of their answers, along with the arguments they gave for them.

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • understand theories and concepts deployed by major thinkers in Classical Greece and India and of the early modern period, and identify the principles and concepts underlying their different approaches
  • identify ways in which philosophical positions have evolved over time through debate and continue to be subject to reinterpretation, by considering ancient and modern accounts of the self and our place in the natural and social worlds
  • apply taught criteria for evaluating philosophical arguments in historical context concerning what it is to be human, the relation between humans and nature, how human beings can live well and how the nature of the world matters to the way we should live our lives.