Distinguished Harris Lecture

The annual humanities-wide lecture bringing renowned scholars to northwestern


2013-2014 Distinguished Harris Lecture

John Cooper

Henry Putnam University Professor of Philosophy, Princeton University

Ancient Philosophy as a Way of Life: Socrates

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

4:30PM Harris Hall 108 (1881 Sheridan Road, Northwestern University)


Philosophy today, like most subjects taught in universities, is an intensely theoretical matter: there are philosophical theories of knowledge, of ethics, of metaphysics, of aesthetics and logic.  Philosophy consists of theoretical arguments and analyses.  Western philosophy has been like that all the way back to its ancient Greek beginnings.  Think of Thales’ idea that everything is ultimately water, or Parmenides’ worries about the nature of being—not to mention Plato’s elaborate theory that forms, or ideas, are the true reality lying behind the physical and perceptible world, a world that is just a metaphysical shadow of the forms.  Yet in antiquity many philosophers also did, and taught, philosophy as a way of life: Epicureans and Stoics had sharply conflicting comprehensive world-views, but to be an Epicurean or a Stoic famously also meant living in a quite specific and distinctive way, guided by that Epicurean or Stoic philosophical world-view.  Though nowadays we don’t usually highlight this aspect of ancient philosophies when we teach them, the idea that one might literally live one’s philosophy has an undoubted appeal; it gives philosophy, as a subject for study, a special kind of seriousness.  But what does it mean?  Where did the ancient philosophers who conceived philosophy that way get the idea that philosophy should (somehow) be your way of life?  How did they conceive philosophical theory, that it could be a basis for living?

Interestingly, we don’t find evidence that anyone earlier than Socrates thought of philosophy in that way.  In this lecture I argue that it was Socrates who first pursued philosophy as a way of life, and that all his successors in Greek Phiilosophy who taught and practiced Philosophy as a way of life adopted philosophical views of his that made this conception possible.  I explain these path-breaking Socratic views.


Professor John Cooper: B. Phil., Oxford, 1963; Ph.D., Harvard, 1967.

Joined the faculty in 1981, having taught previously at Harvard and the University of Pittsburgh. He works on Greek philosophy and is the author of Reason and Human Good in Aristotle (1975), Reason and Emotion (1999) and Knowledge, Nature, and the Good (2004), and editor of Seneca: Moral and Political Essays (1995) and Plato: Complete Works (1997).


The Distinguished Harris Lecture, free and open to the public, is made possible by the generous support of the Harris Lecture Fund

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