Course Syllabus

Death of Socrates - banner 3b

Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates (detail), 1787 (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

PHIL 208-01 History of Philosophy Ancient to Medieval
Fall 2021
Department of Social Science & Cultural Studies
Pratt Institute
Professor Roy Tsao




In this unit of Phil 208, we will focus our attention on major works by Plato and Aristotle — the two ancient Greek philosophers of greatest importance to the subsequent history of philosophy.   Through them, we will also encounter the earliest beginnings of philosophy in the West.  In the writings of Plato we will find   a vivid portrayal of his hero, Socrates- who wrote nothing himself, and also a representation of the teachings of the contemporaneeous Pythagorean school (whose founder was apparently the first to use the term ‘philosophy’ to name a distinctive intellectual practice). And in Aristotle, too, we will find discussion of other, earlier figures (whose writings now are lost).

The special importance of Plato and Aristotle to the later history of philosophy lies partly in the fact they each founded long-lasting schools, which disseminated their writings and teachings over succeeding centuries in the Greek-speaking world of the eastern Mediterranean, and partly in their profound influence on the development of philosoplhical thinking in other cultures over succeeding centuries.  Plato’s doctrines were familiar to Hellenistic Jewish writers of Alexandria, and his writings were highly regarded by the leading philosophical writers of classical Rome.  His concepts and doctrines had a profound impact on early Christian thinkers of both the Western and Eastern halves of the Roman world - and their medieval successors as well, both in Western Christendom, and Bzyantium.  Aristotle’s influence, too, traveled far: though not nearly so influential in the West for many centuries, his writings were discovered  and avidly studied by Arabic-speaking philosophers during the flourishing of classical Islam, first in Damascus and Baghdad and later in Morocco and Spain.  Through that route, Aristotle later came to the notice of medieval Christian thinkers as well— among whom his prestige later became so great that the poet Dante Alighieri would describe him as “the master of those who know.”

The works of Plato and Aristotle we will be reading in this course have been selected partly on account of that subsequent influence, but mainly on account of their inherent  philosophical interest.   Plato’s works take the form of reported or enacted conversations — known as “dialogues” — which typically feature Socrates as a principal speaker.  While always encompassing extended passages of detailed argumentation, these dialogues are  often also intriguingly open-ended, and at times elusively inconclusive.  By contrast, Aristotle  (who began as a student in Plato’s Academy, and later left to found his own school),  committed his philosophy to paper in a very different form.    His surviving writings are in the form of topical treatises in which he first  considers and weighs extant opinions  concerning a given aspect of the topic, and then elaborates a complex account of his own.  Though much drier than Plato’s, Aristotle’s works reward close study for their unprecedented degree of conceptual precision, and scrupulous attention to issues of method in philosophical inquiry. 

 In the course’s first unit,  we read a few short dialogues which are believed be among Plato’s earliest, and which show Socrates engaged in the practice of relentless questioning   that  made him so controversial figure in his native Athens.  Of these, the most famous  is the so-called Apology of Socrates, consisting largely of Socrates’ speech in self-defense when put on trial for allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens. The other two, Euthyphro and Protagoras, depict him engaged in examining the purported knowledge of self-styled experts in matters of duty and virtue.  

 After this introduction to (Plato’s) Socrates, our second unit takes up works of Plato and Aristotle which provide more systematic attention to the nature of knowledge, the capacities of the human mind/soul, and the basic constitution of reality. We begin this unit with Plato’s Phaedo, a dialogue in which Plato has Socrates present a series of arguments concerning these issues in the context explaining his conviction that a philosopher needn’t fear (bodily) death.  From there we turn to Aristotle’s very different approach to closely-related questions  in the treatises known to posterity as Physics (= Nature), Metaphysics, and On the Soul.  (We’ll be reading only short selections from these works.)  

In the latter half of the course - comprising the third and fourth units - we give more sustained attention to two major works: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Plato’s Republic.   In very different ways, these two works undertake wide-ranging investigations of the nature of  the good in human life and the conditions for its attainment.   

Plato Academy Mosaic - detail 4.png 
Plato's Academy.  Mosaic (detail), First Century C.E., Pompeii  (National Archeological Museum, Naples).



The course will be conducted as a seminar.  Weekly sessions will be held remotely  on Thursdays at 2pm,  via Zoom.  (Meeting information and links may be found on the Zoom tab of the course site menu on Canvas.)  Announcements, assignments, and other information will be disseminated electronically through Canvas.



Regular attendance  in the weekly sessions on Zoom is required for all students.  A student who is absent from more than one session will be subjected to penalty for the attendance and participation portion of the course grade. Missing two consecutive sessions, or three or more sessions overall, will put a student in jeopardy of failing the course. 


Class Participation:
Students are expected to come to each session prepared to participate in discussion of the week’s reading assignment, and may be called upon individually to comment on particular aspects in the text,  or to offer  responses to any discussion questions posted in advance. (This does not mean you are expected to come to class with a confident understanding of everything in the text. It suffices for you to be ready to bring up for discussion whatever particular points  in the text that you find confusing or perplexing.)  If you are  not  able to prepare sufficiently for  a given week’s session, you may request privately to be excused from participating that week, on the understanding that this should not be a regular occurrence.

Written Work:
Written work for the course will take the form of a  short expository essay (750-1000 words)  for the first unit; weekly online discussion posts for the second unit; and  essays of 1500-1800 words each for the third and fourth units respectively. 


Course grades will be assessed on the following basis:

• Session Attendance &  Participation: 10% 
• Unit 1 Short Expository Essay (750-1000 words): 10%
• Unit 2  Weekly Discussion Posts: 10% 
• Unit 3 Essay (1500-1800 words): 30%
• Unit 4 Essay (1500-1800 words): 30%


All of the reading assignments for the course will  be made available to students in digital form through the Pratt Institute Library.   Links for each assignment will be posted on the main content page for each unit on the course’s Canvas site.  The assigned texts (in the translations used) are all found in the following editions: 

• Aristotle, A New Aristotle Reader, ed. J.A. Ackrill.  (Princeton, 1987) .   
• Plato, Complete  Works, ed. John Cooper (Hackett: 1997).  

 [The same translations of Apology, Euthyphro, and Phaedo (by G.M.A. Grube) are also found in Plato, Five Dialogues, trans. Grube (Hackett, 2002); the translation of Republic  (by Grube & C.D.C. Reeve) has also been issued as a separate paperback (Hackett, 1992).]

Office hours will be held  via Zoom on Wednesdays, from 4pm - 6pm, by appointment.   Please make an appointment via the Calendar feature on Canvas.   I will also be available to meet with students in person at the Pratt Brooklyn campus throughout the semester, at times/locations to be announced.   - RT



Aristotle Teaching. 
Detail from illuminated manuscript of  Hebrew translation of Moses Maimonides'
Guide for the Perplexed (written in Arabic, c. 1190 C.E.)
produced by Ferrer Bassa in Barcelona, c. 1348 C.E.  Aristotle is shown holding an astrolabe.
(Copenhagen, Royal Library)


Please see the main content page for each unit for hyperlinks to the assigned texts, along with other information pertinent to each week’s assignments.

9/2   [preliminary session]


UNIT 1: Plato's "Socratic" Dialogues

9/9         Plato, Apology
               Plato, Euthyphro 

9/16       Plato, Protagoras

Unit 1 Essay Due  Mon 9/20


UNIT 2: Plato &  Aristotle: Knowledge, Nature, and Metaphysics

9/23       Plato, Phaedo

9/30*     Aristotle,  Physics,  Bk II, chs. 1-3, 8
                                optional:  Aristotle, Metaphysics, Bk. IV, chs. 1-2; Bk.  XII, chs. 1-3   
 *Note: there will be no Zoom session this week. Students will instead be assigned to watch a pre-recorded lecture.

10/7      Aristotle,  On the Soul: Bk I, chs. 1-2, 4; Bk. II, chs. 1-5, 12; Bk. III, chs. 3-4, 9-10

• Unit 2 Online Discussion Posts Due on  Mon 9/27, Mon 10/4, and Mon 10/11


UNIT 3    Aristotle's  Nicomachean Ethics
10/14      Aristotle, Politics:  Bk. 1, chs. 1-2
                 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics:  Bk. I, chs. 1-8, Bk. II, chs. 1-2

10/21      Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics:  Bk. II.1-9;  III.1-7, 10-12; IV.1, 3, 6, 9; V.1-2, 8-9, 11; VI.1-7, 12-13 

10/28      Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics: Bks. VII.1-14; VIII.1-3, 6, 8, 9, 11; IX, 4-6, 8-10; X, 1-4, 6-9.

Unit 3 Essay Due: Mon 11/1. Mon 11/8.

UNIT 4     Plato's Republic

11/4         Plato, Republic, Bks. I-II (to 369c)

11/11       Plato, Republic, II-IV

11/18       Plato, Republic, V-VII

[11/25 -  Thanksgiving holiday - no class]

12/2        Plato, Republic, VIII-IX    

12/9        Plato, Republic
                 Aristotle, Politics: II.1-5, III.10-15 

Unit 4 Essay Due: Friday, 12/17.


Socrates and Two Disciples.  Detail from early thirteenth-century (C.E.) illuminated manuscript of Abu al-Wafa' Al-Mubashsir ibn Fatik's Maxims and Aphorisms of the Sages, written in Egypt in 1049 (C.E.).   (Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul).