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Practical Philosophy: The Greco-Roman Moralists

Professor Luke Timothy illuminates the down-to-earth advice provided by the Greco-Roman moralist on how to live a solid, happy life.
Practical Philosophy: The Greco-Roman Moralists is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 55.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course Excellent survey of Greco-Roman moralists and how they were influenced by Aristotelianism, Platonism, Stoicism and Epicureanism as well as other philosophical cross-currents of Antiquity. Professor Johnson does an excellent job at quoting primary source material, providing historical context and explaining influences of the various thinkers in a manner that is both engaging and clear. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2023-02-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent and Well Presented The Greco-Roman Moralists is an area that I found very interesting when earlier in my educational career I had time for only a smattering. Generally I am grateful for this and other wonderful courses from The Teaching Company.
Date published: 2021-09-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fills a need. I always wondered how philosophy developed after Plato and Aristotle. This course does an excellent job of filling in the gaps in my knowledge on philosophy in the Hellenistic era. The professor breaks it all down so you can get a grasp of the various schools easily. (It's more than Stoicism) He has command of the issues and makes the lecture fly by. This is a course I enjoy very much. I actually listen to it to unwind before going to bed. So, if you would like to know what philosophical schools existed in ancient Rome, this course is for you.
Date published: 2021-06-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Dullness of “Practical” Philosophy Professor Johnson offers his course as a cure for what he considers neglect among classical scholars of “practical” philosophy, meaning ethical philosophy that people could practice in their everyday lives by cultivating habits of virtue rather than vice. He argues that such philosophy filled an important need during the Roman Empire, when people no longer enjoyed local self-determination and local cults could no longer measure up to the huge and impersonal universal state. It was an era, says Johnson, when influential men could not imagine improving government, so instead concentrated on improving themselves. Several of the characters will be familiar to you if you have studied Roman history, such as Cicero, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Plutarch and perhaps Epictetus. Others are comparatively obscure, such as Lucian of Samosata, Dio Chrysostom and Musonius Rufus. Still others are prominent Jews, Josephus the historian and Philo of Alexandria. I call the course dull because most of its heroes said much the same things. Practice self-restraint, set a good example for others, keep your body fit, and develop virtuous habits. In opposition to Epicureans they advised against pursuing pleasure and in favor of remaining engaged in society and government. I make an exception for Lectures 18 and 19. They interested me because they showed how even Jewish thinkers committed to the God of Israel and the Mosaic Law defended their beliefs by resorting to Greco-Roman philosophy. Such is the power of cultural hegemony. Although Professor Johnson argues that practical philosophy appealed to all ranks in society, including slaves like Epictetus, Roman history suggests that it was irrelevant to how men and women lived their lives. The ideal of self-control didn’t stop crowds from demanding gladiatorial games, rich men from seeking public influence or armies from rebelling against emperors. Reason had little to do with the continuing vitality of local religious cults and mysteries. The meditations that Marcus Aurelius wrote up for his own use didn’t stop him from leaving the empire to his worthless son Commodus. Even two of Johnson’s philosophers came to a bad end because they got into political trouble. Cicero, a former consul, was murdered on orders from Marc Antony after making hostile and vituperative speeches against him. Seneca was banished for adultery by Emperor Claudius and then executed by Nero for supposed participation in a conspiracy. These facts, and not an unfair preference for epistemology or ontology, might be why historians have neglected “practical” philosophy. Still, the course is a cheap download, so there’s little harm in getting it if you’re interested in ancient history or philosophy.
Date published: 2019-11-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The voice of reason Overall, I think this is a great course. Professor Johnson explains things clearly though at times, he will make a statement without fully explaining why. For example, he states it is a paradox that only the wise are happy. I realize this is not always true but I would have appreciated a fuller explanation to see what his insight on the statement is. I feel like I learned a lot about the Greco-Roman moralists. I liked Professor Johnson’s voice.
Date published: 2019-04-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Platitudes and Glittering Generalities Prepare to hear such things as "Only the wise man is happy" and that that is somehow a "paradox". Prepare to be enthralled by such insights as "People should be dutiful and moral", "People should not seek base forms of pleasure", "Friendship is good", "Philosophers aren't perfect men", "Don't fear death", "You can be old and happy", "Old and young men alike must pursue virtue" and "Don't be a slave to your emotions." I didn't learn anything from this sparkly fluff and I am amazed at the positive reviews. The speaker emphasizes something in every single sentence he speaks and consequently, there is no emphasis; he is, despite my greatest efforts at attention, as easy to tune out as the rythmic sounds of city traffic: lots of honking and engines revving but utterly predictable. I listened to one of the lectures three times, but could not remember anything useful. Maybe listeners feel smart that ancient philosophers agree with modern people's common sense morality, but there is truly no profound substance or wisdom here. For all the talk about a "philosophers duty to openly oppose conventional beliefs", the speaker himself has proved to be the furthest thing from a philosopher.
Date published: 2016-10-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent and exciting If I had had this professor as an undergraduate student, I might very well have majored in classics and plunged myself into the learning of ancient Greek. He is that good! What I liked most in the course was the extent to which he made the intellectual world of the Greco-Roman period come alive, with its various factions and figures, as well as the literary modes in which people couched their ideas at the time. Most of the time, the translations of ancient works that he offered us were extremely vivid and relatable from today's perspective. I have just one small complaint. The course covers the time period from the second century BC to the second century AD (or BCE and CE respectively, if you prefer). Unfortunately the professor often gave dates without specifying whether they were before or after the year zero. For someone who already had a very clear idea of when Plato or Cicero or Nero lived, this would not have been a problem. But it was disconcerting for me. If you're like me, you may need to keep the course book handy while listening to look up various dates in the timeline contained there. I took this course wanting to understand more about the Stoics, and got that plus quite a lot more. Definitely a worthwhile use of my listening time.
Date published: 2016-09-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very educational I purchased this course while taking some philosophy classes at the university. This course really helped flesh out the other things I had been learning. Very enjoyable.
Date published: 2016-09-02
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Imagine a course that teaches you not only how to think like the great philosophers


Luke Timothy Johnson

I strive to make philosophy accessible and lovable to everyone. If everyone embraced philosophy, the world would be a much better place.


Emory University

Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. Professor Johnson earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Yale University, as well as an M.A. in Religious Studies from Indiana University, an M.Div. in Theology from Saint Meinrad School of Theology, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. A former Benedictine monk, Professor Johnson has taught at Yale Divinity School and Indiana University, where he received the President's Award for Distinguished Teaching, was elected a member of the Faculty Colloquium in Teaching, and won the Brown Derby Teaching Award and the Student Choice Award for teaching. At Emory University, he has twice received the On Eagle's Wings Excellence in Teaching Award. In 2007 he received the Candler School of Theology Outstanding Service Award. His most recent award is the 2011 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for the ideas set forth in his 2009 book, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity. Professor Johnson is the author of more than 20 books, including The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels and The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, which is widely used as a textbook. He has also published several hundred scholarly articles and reviews.

By This Professor

Great World Religions: Christianity
The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation
The World of the Greco-Roman Moralists

01: The World of the Greco-Roman Moralists

This opening presentation introduces the Greco-Roman moralists through a comparison between the ancient Roman Empire and the new American Empire. The moral philosophers look less like academic philosophers of today than they do the talk-show therapists who haunt contemporary media.

33 min
How Empire Changed Philosophy

02: How Empire Changed Philosophy

Greek philosophy found its distinctive voice in the context of the city-state, but the late Roman republic and early empire were different worlds. The rich sense of local culture and of citizen participation that had marked Athens was now subordinated to the structures of empire. For those in the middle of society, the result was sometimes alienation and anomie.

31 min
The Great Schools and Their Battles

03: The Great Schools and Their Battles

The sages of the early empire agreed that a virtuous life was the best life, but disagreed on the best way of accomplishing virtue. To some extent, their differences were based in the various schools of philosophy that grew up in Greece. Each had distinctive opinions concerning reality, truth, and virtue. The most influential traditions for the Greco-Roman moralists were Stoicism and Cynicism.

31 min
Dominant Themes and Metaphors

04: Dominant Themes and Metaphors

Greco-Roman philosophers teach in many literary modes, including letters, discourses, biographies, and collections of maxims. Certain themes and metaphors constantly recur. The first is athletic: The quest for virtue is perceived as an Olympic contest. The second is medical: Virtue is health and vice is illness. The philosopher, not incidentally, is the physician of the soul.

31 min
The Ideal Philosopher—A Composite Portrait

05: The Ideal Philosopher—A Composite Portrait

What should the philosopher be like? Those committed to the pursuit of wisdom emphasized inner qualities of character. Proteptic discourses by Dio Chrysostom, Epictetus, Lucian of Samosata, and the emperor Julian provide a composite portrait of the ideal philosopher.

31 min
The Charlatan—Philosophy Betrayed

06: The Charlatan—Philosophy Betrayed

The polemical attacks of philosophers were directed not only at members of rival schools or at sophists who spoke publicly for pay. Their greatest scorn and contempt were reserved for charlatans (goetai), those who claimed the name of philosopher, but whose behavior did not match their professed ideals. A particularly sustained and effective dismantling of a charlatan is Lucian of Samosata's Proteus Peregrinus.

30 min
Philosophy Satirized—The Comic Lucian

07: Philosophy Satirized—The Comic Lucian

Lucian of Samosata (120–200 C.E.) is one of history's great humorists, the ancient world's equivalent of Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain. In his savage attacks on the pomposities of pretend philosophers, Lucian most resembles the American journalist, H. L. Mencken. As his tractates Nigrinus and Demonax demonstrate, he also had a great respect for what he considered to be an authentic philosophical spirit.

31 min
Cicero—The Philosopher as Politician

08: Cicero—The Philosopher as Politician

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.) is one of the best-known figures of Roman antiquity, because of his public career as a politician, and his extensive private correspondence. While not entirely admirable in his own character, he shows us the real-life struggle between high ideals and human frailty.

31 min
Seneca—Philosopher as Court Advisor

09: Seneca—Philosopher as Court Advisor

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C.E.-65 C.E.), like Cicero, was fundamentally a scholar, and attained the consulship (57 C.E.). His greatest role was as tutor to the young man who would become the emperor Nero, to whom Seneca directed his best thoughts on the virtuous government and kingship (for example, On Clemency). Seneca composed many letters and essays approached from the perspective of Roman Stoicism.

31 min
Good Roman Advice—Cicero and Seneca

10: Good Roman Advice—Cicero and Seneca

No aspect of life was so highly valued in Greco-Roman culture as friendship. The first part of this presentation investigates Cicero's great treatise, On Friendship. The second part draws lessons from a comparison of Cicero's and Seneca's treatment of old age.

31 min
Musonius Rufus—The Roman Socrates

11: Musonius Rufus—The Roman Socrates

Cicero's contemporary Musonius Rufus is virtually unknown to us, even though he enjoyed a huge reputation among his fellow philosophers. His fame had something to do with his impressive virtue. From the fragments of his discourses that remain, we see that he was at once rigorous and humane, remarkably open to the capacity of women to learn, yet traditional in his perception of their social roles.

31 min
Dio Chrysostom—The Wandering Rhetorician

12: Dio Chrysostom—The Wandering Rhetorician

Dio of Prusa (45-115 C.E.) is unusual among the Greco-Roman moralists, because he spent part of his life as one of their rivals. His great eloquence earned him the name Chrysostom (golden-tongue). In mid-life, he experienced a dramatic conversion to the philosophical life. His orations provide a lively portrait of the many public speakers competing for attention in Hellenistic cities, as well as the qualities distinguishing the real philosopher from the charlatan.

31 min
Dio Chrysostom—Preaching Peace and Piety

13: Dio Chrysostom—Preaching Peace and Piety

As a public speaker who traveled from city to city, Dio had the opportunity to address issues of civic and not simply individual virtue and vice. His pleas for concord between cities evoke some of the other major themes of ancient philosophy. Dio is an example of a philosophical monotheism that developed independently within Greco-Roman culture.

31 min
Epictetus—Philosopher as School Teacher

14: Epictetus—Philosopher as School Teacher

Epictetus (c. 50-120 C.E.) is recognized as one of the great moral teachers of any age. Born a slave and suffering from lameness, he was freed sometime after the death of Nero (c. 68), but was banished from Rome by the emperor Domitian in 89 or 93. He founded a school for young, would-be philosophers in Epirus. This first presentation on Epictetus focuses on his life and his manner of teaching through the lively discourses known as "diatribes."

30 min
Epictetus—The Stotic Path to Virtue

15: Epictetus—The Stotic Path to Virtue

Epictetus's discourses show how Stoic philosophy was constantly put in service of moral transformation. In this presentation, we learn the basics of Stoic doctrine as communicated to his students by Epictetus, and especially the personal twist he puts on logic, physics, and ethics.

31 min
Epictetus—The Messenger of Zeus

16: Epictetus—The Messenger of Zeus

The Greco-Roman philosophers remind us that high moral standards and religious convictions do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Epictetus stands out for his personal religious fervor. His understanding of the true Cynic is as a messenger of God to humans, to turn them from vice and toward virtue.

30 min
Marcus Aurelius—Meditations of the King

17: Marcus Aurelius—Meditations of the King

Among the most attractive representatives of ancient moral philosophy is the emperor, Marcus Aurelius (121-180 C.E.). His sole literary work, the Meditations, was composed while he was engaged in his military campaigns. It shows how democratic the ideals of philosophy were within the empire, embracing both the slave Epictetus and the emperor Marcus, whose personal circle also included philosophers of various schools, all dedicated to the life of virtue.

31 min
Jews Thinking Like Greeks

18: Jews Thinking Like Greeks

The power and persuasiveness of Hellenistic moral philosophy is nowhere more evident than in its impact on Jewish thinkers of the imperial period. Greek-speaking Jews in Palestine and the Diaspora, although regarding their ancestral traditions as older and better, nevertheless adopted the perspectives of Greek philosophy. In his Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus describes Jewish sects in terms of philosophical schools.

31 min
Philo—Judaism as Greek Philosophy

19: Philo—Judaism as Greek Philosophy

The synthesis of Judaism and Greek philosophy found its most prolific expression in the writings of Philo Judaeus of Alexandria (15 B.C.E.-50 C.E.). A member of a wealthy and influential Jewish family, Philo was also thoroughly steeped in Hellenistic culture. He unhesitatingly interpreted Jewish traditions from the perspective of Greco-Roman philosophy.

31 min
Plutarch—Biography as Moral Instruction

20: Plutarch—Biography as Moral Instruction

Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-146 C.E.) lived under the emperors Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian, a time when the Roman Empire enjoyed some of its best and most stable government. His life was correspondingly placid and productive. We review his major ethical writings, "The Moralia" and "The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans."

31 min
Plutarch and Philosophical Religion

21: Plutarch and Philosophical Religion

As an official functionary in a cult, and a man generally dedicated to traditional practices, Plutarch provides insight into the way a sympathetic philosopher viewed religion during the empire's most stable period. This presentation considers some of his general views before considering some of his treatises dealing specifically with religious issues.

31 min
Plutarch on Virtue and Educating Children

22: Plutarch on Virtue and Educating Children

The ancient moralists disputed how virtue was acquired, but most agreed that it involved some form of "prokope," or progress, that resulted from the cultivation of habits. No one had a better grasp of the difficulties of this process than Plutarch. We consider his tractate "On Progress in Virtue" and his treatise "On the Education of Children."

31 min
Plutarch—Envy, Anger, and Talking Too Much

23: Plutarch—Envy, Anger, and Talking Too Much

If the Greco-Roman moralists were adept at describing virtues, they excelled in their depictions of vice. Plutarch's "Moralia" is filled with precise and subtle examinations of human failing. We gain some acquaintance with his opinions of three vices discussed broadly by ancient philosophers: anger, envy, and garrulousness.

31 min
The Missing Page in Philosophy’s Story

24: The Missing Page in Philosophy’s Story

The Greco-Roman moralists remind us of the deeper issue that has traditionally been at the heart of philosophy: how to live well as a human being. The Greco-Roman moralists tend to be neglected by scholars in spite of their importance. The story of philosophy might look different if the page dealing with them were read more carefully.

31 min