Piety and the gods in ancient philosophy

4/23. Reading: Harald Thorsrud's paper on skeptical piety. Paper (Taylor). Any paper topic below that we did not get to on Tuesday, or:
  1. Thorsrud argues (against Annas) that ordinary religious believers in the ancient world do have convictions of the sort that the skeptic suspends judgment on. Explain and evaluate his argument for this.
  2. Thorsrud argues that there can be piety without belief. Explain and evaluate one of his arguments concerning this claim

For 4/21. Reading: selections from Sextus on the skeptics and the gods, plus Julia Annas' paper on ancient skepticism and ancient religion. Papers: (Weldon, Petrison):
  1. Sextus gives arguments that are supposed to induce suspension of judgment regarding the existence and nature of the gods. Describe and evaluate the success of his strategy.
  2. Although he suspends judgment about the gods, Sextus claims that the skeptic will live piously. Explain and evaluate Sextus' arguments for this.
  3. Annas argues that, given the nature of ancient religion, Sextus claim that the skeptic can be pious without having beliefs about the gods is plausible. Explain and evaluate one of her arguments regarding this claim.
  4. Annas claims that "philosophical theology is not directed towards removing or reforming ordinary religious beliefs." Explain and evaluate her argument for this.
  5. Annas claims that " Sextus' claim that scepticism in this area leaves you with ordinary life has, it seems, no application to the two most likely modern replacements for the ancient pagan." Explain and evaluate her arguments for this.
For 4/14 and 4/16. Readings: Inwood's chapter on Stoic ethics, and The Handbook of Epictetus. For 4/16, read the selections from Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism

Papers topics (Tuesday, Utiashev and Candelario, Thursday Ward:

  1. Explain and evaluate one of the themes of Stoic ethics as put forward by Inwood. This can include 'living consistently with nature' (and the nature of the Universe), assimilating yourself to God, what the Sage's freedom consists in, the role of Zeus' will in ethics, and the role of 'reservation' in Stoic ethics.
  2. Explain and comment either on one of the themes or concepts common in Epictetus' Handbook (such as how to use impressions, what is in our power, the role of God in ethics, living in accordance with nature, how to deal with the death of family members, etc.) or one of the entries in particular.

For 4/9. In addition to looking back over readings below, also read the pdf of the Stoics on moral responsibility. In addition to paper topics below, you may write on one of the Stoics' arguments for why having everything fated is compatible with people being morally responsible for their actions.
For 4/7. Readings: On-line selections from Aristotle and Cicero on Bivalence, fate, and freedom. Papers:

Explain and evaluate one of the arguments in the readings for one of the following:

  1. (Epicurus and/or Aristotle) If all statements about what would happen in the future were either true in advance or false in advance, then deliberation and action would be in vain. Therefore, we should reject bivalence.
  2. If the present motions of everything were determined without exception from the past motions of atoms (their weight and collisions alone), then we would be subject a fate in an unacceptable way.
  3. Having the atoms occasionally swerves helps us to escape this fate.
  4. To escape this consequence, we should posit that not all statements are either true or false.
Or, if you wish:
  1. Explain why Carneades thinks that bivalence has no fatalist consequences. Do you agree with him?
  2. Explain why Carneades thinks that not even Apollo can have knowledge of everything that will happen in the future. Do you agree with him?
  3. Explain why Chrysippus thinks that the 'lazy Argument' fails, and why not even causal determinism has fatalistic consequences. Do you agree?

For 3/31 and 4/2. reading: selection from Long and Sedley on Stoic theology.

Papers (T Weldon and Petrison, TH Ishikawa and Taylor)

Explain and evaluate one of the arguments or positions in the readings. For what it's worth, an easy way to get 'into' the Stoic position is initially to think of it as akin to the position of Plato's Timaeus, but minus the Forms and the Demiurge, identifying God with the world and God's mind with the world-soul. Possible topics include:

For 3/24 and 3/26. Reading: The selection from Long and Sedley on the Epicurean Gods, as well as chapter 16 ("The gods") of Epicureanism, which starts on p. 155.

Papers (Tuesday, Bisig and Weldon, Thursday, Candelario and Garnett). Write something about the gods. Topics include

3/12. Reading, Benjamin Rider on Epicurus on death and the value of lives. Papers (Bingle, Utiashev).

Rider claims that the Epicureans argue that the fears of death are based on incorrect views about what makes life valuable. Evaluate one these arguments, either on whether you think that Epicurean argument that Rider presents is cogent, or whether it is (in fact) an Epicurean argument. Or say something about the type of therapeutic argumentative strategy that the Epicureans are employing, according to Rider.

for 3/10. Reading: Thomas Nagel, "Death." Papers (Taylor, Ward):
For 3/5. Reading: Lucretius on the fear of death. Papers (Petrison, Skarpness)

Explain and evaluate one of the arguments Lucretius gives against the fear of death. Alternatively, pick something else in the reading to discuss: for instance his analysis of afterlife fears as projections of fears of sufferings in this world.

For 3/3. Reading: Lucretius on the mind its mortality..

Papers (Candelario, Ordway).

Explain and evaluate the argument in the readings for one of the following:

  1. Why the mind is a part of the person and not a harmony.
  2. Why the mind (aka the soul) is corporeal/bodily. (Alternatively: why it cannot be something incorporeal.)
  3. Why the soul cannot survive the death of the body.
  4. Why death is annihilation (lot of different arguments; pick one).
  5. Why the way in which the mind grows and changes along with the body shows that it is mortal
  6. Why there is no pre-birth existence
  7. Why I wouldn't survive my death even if my mind and spirit did .

For 2/26. Continue Lucretius. Readings DRN Book 5 lines 55-234, book 6 lines 43-95, 239-422.

Papers (Ishikawa, Bisig): Explain and evaluate something Lucretius says, for instance,

For 2/24. Readings from Lucretius - prologue and account of formation of the cosmos. (DRN Book 1 lines 1-135, Book 2 1023-1174, book 5 416-508. For a quick summary of Epicureanism, you might found the following page helpful, esp section 3 on metaphysics.

Papers (Garnett, Bingle): Explain and evaluate something Lucretius says, for instance,

For 2/19. Read Hal Thorsrud's paper on what is human in Aristotle's ethics. Paper Taylor and Weldon): Pretty wide open. Feel free to evaluate either, (i) Thorsrud's interpretation of one of the two accounts by Aristotle of human nature (and hence of human flourishing) qua interpretation of Aristotle, (ii) the strengths or weaknesses of either (or both) of these accounts qua accounts. You can also write on (iii) which of the two accounts of happiness you find preferable (and why), or (iv) Thorsrud's contention that Aristotle was right to be conflicted about our nature and hence to advance inconsistent accounts of our flourishing. Assignments
For 2/17. Book VII, chapters 1-3, Book X, chapters 6-8, and Nagel's article on Aristotle on eudaimonia.

Papers (Petrison and Cherry): Pretty wide open. Any of the following:

For 2/12. Reading: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Book I chapter 13, Book VI chapters 1-8 and 12. Papers (Candelario, Ward.)
  1. Aristotle claims that one can be prudent but not wise, and vice-versa. Explain and evaluate his arguments.
  2. Aristotle claims that prudence is not the most excellent science. Explain and evaluate his reasons for thinking this.
  3. What are the respective roles of prudence and wisdom in attaining happiness, according to Aristotle? Explain and evaluate what he says.
  4. Wide open: explain and evaluate something else in the readings.

For 2/10. No new reading: continue discussing readings from 2/5. papers (Bisig, Utiashev), same as below.
For 2/5. Read Metaphysics Lambda chapters 7-10 and Stephen's Menn's paper, "Aristotle and Plato on God as Nous and as the Good." Papers:
  1. Explain and evaluate Aristotle's account of what the divine life is like.
  2. How does God move the heavens for Aristotle? How does this differ from how God moves the heavens for Plato? What you make of Aristotle's explanation?
  3. Menn argues that both Plato and Aristotle view God as nous, but they conceive of the activity of nous differently. Explain the distinction Menn makes and explain which conception (if either) you prefer and why. (Alternative: explain why you disagree with Menn's take on either Plato or Aristotle.)
  4. Menn argues that both Plato and Aristotle view God as good, but they conceive of the way in which God is good differently. Explain the distinction Menn makes and explain which conception (if either) you prefer and why. (Alternative: explain why you disagree with Menn's take on either Plato or Aristotle.)
  5. Explain and evaluate something else from the readings.

For 2/3. Read the afterlife myth in the Gorgias, the Myth of Er in the Republic and Annas' paper "Plato's Myths of Judgement." (You may skip Annas' discussion of the Phaedo myth.) Papers: write about one of the myths and/or Annas' paper on Plato's myths of judgement. Some questions regarding this that you may wish to address:
For 1/29. Reading: John Armstrong's paper (available at the philpapers archive), Laws book X 899a-907c, and the digression in the Theatetus (172a-177c). Optional reading: Sandra Peterson's paper on the Digression, particularly section 6. (Some of the points I'll make about this material will draw from her paper, and it contains interesting points about Socrates' methods, but I won't presuppose that people have read it.)


Explain and evaluate either one the theses about the nature of God (in either the Theatetus or Laws), the manner in which we should strive to become like God (in either dialogue), or more generally about how one ought to live one's life. You may either look at one of the dialogues in isolation, or compare the two. if there is something in particular from Armstrong's paper you want to comment on, you may do that also.

1/27. Reading: Timaeus, 27c-56c, plus Broadie's paper. Paper:

Pretty wide open; explain and evaluate something from the reading. Possible topics include:

For 1/22. Read the Euthyphro and Vlastos' article, "Socratic Piety" (on Desire2Learn). If you're not familiar with it, the following summary of the Euthyphro objection to the divine command theory may be useful.

Response paper topics:

  1. Look at one the definitions of piety that Euthyphro offers, or that Socrates offers on his behalf: Explain on what grounds Socrates objects to this definition. Do you find the objection convincing? Why, or why not?
  2. Consider Socrates' objection to the following definition of piety: "What all the gods hate is impious, and what all the gods love is pious." (9d) Does his objection show that a Divine Command theory of ethics is false: that is, a theory according to which morally wrong actions are wrong because God prohibits them, and morally obligatory actions are obligatory because God commands them? Why, or why not? Defend your answer against objections.
  3. Vlastos claims that if we look, we can discern a positive Socratic version of piety in the Euthyphro, whereas the introduction to the dialogue says that Socrates "has in advance no answer of his own to test out or to advocate." Either write about which view seems to be the proper understanding/interpretation of the text, and why, or about the cogency of 'Socratic piety' as an understanding of what piety is, apart from issues of its adequacy as an interpretation of the Euthyphro (and related dialogues).

1/20. Please read McPherran's article on Socrates' divine sign. You may also read (optionally) the dubious Platonic dialogue the Theages. Paper topics:
  1. Explain and evaluate one of McPherran's claims about Socrates' divine sign. You may either evaluate it as a interpretation of the text (does McPherran get the text right?) the reasonableness of what McPherran attributes to Socrates / the gods. (E.g., if we assume that McPherran is right about the text, then is what Socrates does, or what he believes about the gods, justifiable / reasonable?) Some possible claims include:
  2. McPherran claims that Socrates' reliance on the daimonion can be reconciled with his commitment to rational justification and argument. Explain and evaluate one of his argumetns for this claim.
  3. McPherran claims that Socrates' claim that he gains knowledge via his divine sign is consistent with his avowal of ignornace. Explain and evaluate his argument for this claim.

For 1/15. Read the Apology, and Burnyeat's article, "The Impiety of Socrates." (on Desire2Learn):

No reading response papers. We will concentrate on Burnyeat's article. Please post either (i) a question about Burnyeat, or (ii) a question about something in the Apology itself , or (iii) a brief summary and analysis of one of Burnyeat's arguments for why there is some reason to find Socrates guilty of the charges against him or (iv) a discussion of something else Burnyeat says.

Return to the piety and gods in ancient philosophy course web site.
Return to the main page.

Send e-mail.