Harvard Classics, Volume 2: Ancient Philosophy

At times a work like the Harvard Classics seems incredibly expansive, but when I realized that Ancient Philosophy had been distilled to a single volume, I realized how much of a surface treatment this truly is.

This volume of the Harvard Classics contains works from three philosophers: Plato, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. This gives excellent coverage to Stoicism, but doesn’t delve deeply into anything else. The works of Plato that are included, Apology, Crito and Phaedo do not delve very deeply into Plato’s philosophy.

The volume opens with three dialogues by Plato covering the trial, imprisonment and death of Socrates in Apology, Crito and Phaedo, respectively. The Apology is Socrates’s testimony at his trial for atheism and corruption of the youth. It serves as the perfect introduction to Western philosophy. Crito is a dialogue between Socrates, now imprisoned, and Crito. Crito urges Socrates to escape from his unjust imprisonment and Socrates explains why it would be immoral to escape into exile. Phaedo, is a dialogue recounting Socrates’s last moments  and the conversation he had with his disciples.

Together, the three serve to introduce some of the fundamentals of Western thought and to raise some of the bug questions. These relatively short works manage to delve into what it means to live as an individual of integrity, how we relate to the society we live in and where we stand in the cosmos. They raise the questions that people have pondered for millennia.

The next author, Epictetus, was a slave living in Italy and later Greece. He was a stoic philosopher and his work: “The Golden Sayings” was collected by his student, a famous historian, Arrian. This collection of short phrases and single thoughts help to define his philosophy quickly and to pack in a ton of content.

Finally we reach “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius. This work is of soecial importance, in my opinion, because it is a reflection of the mind of a person in an incredible position: ruling from the Atlantic to Euphrates and from the Scottish Highlands to the Sahara desert. The philosophy contained within is one shaped by the grave responsibilities he faced each and every day. This work was a collection of very short writings he wrote down for himself. Like Epictetus, this is a work of stoic philosophy. I believe everyone should read Meditations because it is a work that is extraordinarily easy to relate to your own life.

From here, I’m off to read Volume 3, covering essays written by John Milton

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