Greek Philosophy Essay Prompts & Topics

For each of the four response papers, you must write at least three typed and double spaced pages on a topic of your choice that concerns the material we have covered in the class so far.  Do not spend time summarizing the material, but rather focus on your own thoughts and questions.  You are welcome to use your own life experiences as well as fictional and nonfictional material from outside class.  While you are welcome to reflect on anything you have found interesting, the following are possible topics for your response.

First Response Essay Topics

1)  In the ancient world, we can see traditional beliefs (legends, metaphors, rituals) mixed together with progressive science (physics, biology, psychology).  What does this tell us about ancient and modern human thought?  Has human thought changed over time, or is it still the same as it was in ancient times?  What role did philosophy play in the ancient world, and does it play the same role today?

2)  In the ancient world, we can see anthropomorphic polytheism (many human-like gods) giving rise to de-anthropomorphic philosophical monism (one beyond-human truth).  What does this tell us about human thought?  What does this tell you about your own thinking?

3)  For Pythagoras and Plato, knowledge is something to be kept secret among authorities such that it could not be misused, as the common people are not to be trusted.  For Xenophanes and Heraclitus, the authorities are limited yet think they know, and so they are to be distrusted.  Looking at ancient Greek philosophy, which contains beliefs both familiar and strange to us today, what does this show us about authority and expertise?  Does distinction breed more distance than perspective?

Second Response Essay Topics

1) Pythagoras and later thinkers influenced by him, including Plato, believe that the forms of things can be understood through the use of mathematics, while skeptical thinkers such as Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Zeno and Democritus argue that things always remain unknown to us.  In what way and to what extent can we understanding the forms of things via mathematics?

2) Parmenides argues that difference and motion are an illusion, and Zeno argues that these things can not be understood without paradoxical problems.  Anaxagoras and Democritus both argued that Parmenides was half right about difference being an illusion, but the two completely disagree on whether the unity or difference of things is an illusion.  What do you make of the Eleatic challenge?  Do human efforts to comprehend things as distinct or changing necessarily result in contradictions?  If so, or not, why?

3) Diogenes rejected the conventions of society and chose to live like a dog.  Is his simplicity and obscenity noble or foolish?  Heraclitus says people are mere apes, and should seek wisdom.  Diogenes believes that living as a dog allows us to live by reason rather than passion.  Would living as dogs make us less like apes?

Third Response Essay Topics

1) In Plato’s earlier dialogues, Socrates questions people to show that, while we should continue to pursue wisdom and the good, human understandings are quite limited and we are largely unaware of our ignorance.  In Plato’s later dialogues, Socrates becomes a mouthpiece for Plato’s own Pythagorean and Eleatic view of the cosmos.  Did Plato betray Socrates, like Diogenes believed?  How are skepticism and dogmatism, questioning and answering, to be put in balance with each other?

2) In Plato’s Meno, Socrates leads a boy with no education to solve a geometric problem, and says that this is because what we call knowledge is actually recollection from past lives.  Given that many are skeptical of reincarnation, what does this show us about the human mind, expertise and education?  What are we to make of Plato’s caste system in his Republic if the uneducated can be led to the right answers?  Is the noble lie necessary or not?

3) In Plato’s Parmenides, Socrates is shown via Eleatic arguments that human knowledge of reality contains contradictions.  Is this always the case?  Is Parmenides wise, or a fool?  What does the Parmenides show us about thought and argument?

Fourth Response Essay Topics

1) Unlike his teacher Plato, Aristotle argued that all forms and ideas are manifest in substances, though ideas and gods are superior substances.  Should the ideal be identified with the material, or should the ideal be distinguished from the material?  What problems do we have with each, and which is preferable for investigating the mind and the world?

2) While Aristotle argues in his works on logic that true and false are exclusive, in his works on ethics he argues for the doctrine of the mean, for moderation between extremes.  Are these two positions contradictory, or can they be rectified?

3) Pyrrho, Sextus and other skeptics argue that one should withhold judgement and refrain from beliefs.  Epicurus argued that no one could be a genuine skeptic and live, as action is required for survival.  Does action require belief?  Is pursuing skepticism necessarily paradoxical or fruitless?

4) Epicurus argued that the highest good is happiness, for which he was charged with hedonism by others.  Can Epicureanism avoid hedonism by taking the social and long term view, or is this doomed to fail?  Should the good be equated with or distinguished from happiness?

5) Stoics argue that one should accept one’s fate such that one’s mind conforms to the logic of the cosmos.  This is illustrated with the story of Epictetus accepting but criticizing his master breaking his leg.  Is such acceptance wise for the pursuit of justice, or can it result in injustice?

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