The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas

Philosophy and Literature of the Ancient World

The Greeks have exerted enormous influence over the development of Western civilization. There are two accomplishments in particular, participatory republic politics and philosophy, for which we are especially in their debt.

Beyond their historical importance, the Greeks are arguably the very peak of Western civilization, in terms of the quality of their politics, literature, art, poetry, and philosophic thought. We therefore read these texts not as historical artifacts, but as works that contain thoughts of lasting importance on the most basic questions human beings face. By returning to their writings and confronting them directly, we can learn important truths still relevant for our lives today.

Apotheosis of Homer

Apotheosis of Homer

Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey

These two epic poems were the chief religious texts in ancient Greek society, and as such, were instrumental in shaping Greek character. Each centers on one of the great heroes of the Trojan War.

Achilles in Battle

Achilles in battle

The first, the Iliad, tells the story of Achilles, who was considered the greatest of the Greek warriors, but who fell into a heated conflict with Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces. Through its vivid portrait of Achilles, the conflicted and complicated hero at the center of the work, the book raises questions about what true human excellence is, about the role that a commitment to virtue and virtuous action plays in the best human life, and about friendship and devotion to others. Homer’s portrait of the gods is also of particular importance. The Iliad was a key source by which the Greeks learned about the gods; for us, that portrait can serve as a window into Greek culture, and also as an occasion to reflect on what gods are, and how the Homeric understanding of them differs from other religious teachings.

Ulysses and Dog

Ulysses and his dog

The Odyssey raises many questions similar to those raised in the Iliad, but through the lens of a different hero, Odysseus. While Achilles is famous for his honesty, Odysseus is famous as the “man of many ways,” a clever and prudent liar. Despite and even because of that, he proves to be one of the great heroes of the Trojan War, and indeed, it was his great invention and deception, the Trojan Horse, which ultimately brought victory to the Greeks. The Odyssey tells the tale of Odysseus’ long journey home, with his many extraordinary adventures and terrible sufferings. The poem all but invites the reader to compare Odysseus to Achilles, and to examine which of the two better embodies a virtuous life – unless perhaps Homer means to point to some other possibility, beyond both of his two great heroes.

Beyond their importance for reflecting on these basic questions, these two poems are of course also immensely exciting and filled with many memorable images, humorous flourishes, and other charms. They are a perfect place to begin for anyone who wishes to learn about Greek culture and thought, or more simply, to learn about what it means to be human.

Recommended Translation: Richmond Lattimore, University of Chicago Press

Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannos and Antigone



Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos may be the most famous tragedy ever written. It tells the story of Oedipus, ruler of Thebes, and the discovery of the horrible crimes which he unknowingly committed. The play raises questions about the role of fate and chance in human life, about the nature of moral responsibility, and about how human beings should view themselves in relation to gods whose will is often hard to fathom.

The Antigone takes up the story of Oedipus’ daughter. Antigone is one of the most memorable heroines of classical antiquity. The play begins in the wake of a revolution instigated by one of her brothers against the other, who refused to yield the kingship of Thebes, as they had agreed. In the battle, both brothers died. The new Theban king, Antigone’s uncle Creon, has decreed that the brother who revolted was a traitor to his city and should not receive a proper burial. Antigone stands up to her uncle, by choosing to bury her brother in accord with the ancestral law, as she understands it. The dialogue that ensues between Antigone and Creon raises the basic question of what the root of human morality is, and what duties we have to the gods, to our families, and to our political communities.

The Theban Plays

Recommended Translation: The Theban Plays: "Oedipus the Tyrant"; "Oedipus at Colonus"; "Antigone"
Translated by Peter J. Ahrensdorf and Thomas L. Pangle

Aristophanes, Clouds

Socrates in a Basket

Socrates in a Basket

Aristophanes’ Clouds is the earliest available account of the figure of Socrates. It was publicly performed in Athens during Socrates’ life, and he even mentions it in Plato’s Apology as one cause of his bad reputation. The play itself is a hilariously funny — and at times, rather raunchy — lampoon of Socrates: He famously and ridiculously makes his first appearance hanging in a basket, saying, “I tread on air and contemplate the sun,” and every reader comes away with a strong impression of his ridiculousness. What is it, then, that makes this play worthy of continued study?

Despite its humorous façade, the Clouds is a very perceptive account of Socrates’ life written by one of his closest friends. At its core, it offers an important and influential account of the life Socrates lived, and how that life appears from the point of view of the political community. It shows the profound effect that an encounter with Socrates had on so many young students, and, with comic flourish, raises the genuinely difficult and troubling question of whether that effect could be dangerous.

Four Texts on Socrates

Recommended Translation: in Thomas and Grace Starry West,
Four Texts on Socrates
(Cornell University Press)

Xenophon, The Education of Cyrus

Bust of Xenophon


Xenophon was Socrates’ other great student. While his works are less obviously brilliant than Plato’s, Xenophon is a first-rate thinker who acquired a very deep understanding of politics from his own experiences and from Socrates, an understanding which be brings to bear through his various works. The Education of Cyrus tells the story of Cyrus the Great, and the massive expansion of the Persian Empire under his rule. It prompts readers to try to form an assessment of Cyrus, both as a political ruler and as a human being. In doing so, they will be forced to face questions about how politics and empire work, and what motives, both just and unjust, might drive a person to seek to conquer the world.

The Education of Cyrus

Recommended Translation: Wayne Ambler, Cornell University Press The Education of Cyrus

Plato, Apology of Socrates

Socrates and Plato

Socrates and Plato

Plato’s Apology is an excellent place to begin a study of Socrates. It offers a dramatic account of the defense speech that Socrates made at his trial, when he was brought up on charges of corrupting the youth, not believing in the city’s gods, and introducing new gods. Socrates was convicted and put to death by the Athenian assembly. But even as he failed to persuade the jury of his innocence, Socrates’ speech, which reaches a peak in his claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” has persuaded many readers of the intrinsic worth of Socrates’ quest and his way of life, and has raised deep questions about what that life really means. It is one of the best places to begin a study of Plato.

Recommended Translation: Thomas and Grace Starry West,
in Four Texts on Socrates, Cornell University Press

Plato, Republic

Plato's Republic

Plato's Republic

Plato’s Republic is one of the most famous and important philosophic books ever written. It begins with a direct and very profound consideration of the most basic questions of political philosophy: What justice is and whether it is good. Through the conversations Socrates has with three different interlocutors, Plato presents the single best introduction to the question of justice ever written.

After the first book, in response to further questions posed by his friends, Socrates goes on to provide an account of the famous “city in speech.” He envisions a different kind of political life, which rests on a radically different basis than did the cities he knew in ancient Greece. Probably not intended to be the basis of an actual political reform, Socrates’ account of this city serves to explore the limits of politics, that is, what kinds of political arrangements are possible, given the character of human beings. It includes extended discussions of many fundamental parts of political society, including the military, the family, the education of the youth, and the religious beliefs of the community It culminates, in Books VI and VII, with one of the most memorable pictures of philosophy ever painted, in the celebrated image of the cave.

It is impossible to do justice to a book of this breadth and depth in such a short summary. It is absolutely essential reading for anyone at all interested in politics or philosophy, and one that should be revisited continually throughout one’s whole life.

Republic of Plato

Recommended Translation: Allan Bloom, Basic Books

The Republic of Plato

Plato, Gorgias



Plato’s Gorgias depicts a conversation between Socrates and Gorgias, a famous teacher of rhetoric, as well as two of his students. The dialogue begins with a discussion of what rhetoric is, how one properly uses it, and whether a teacher of rhetoric also needs to be a teacher of justice. It then becomes an intense debate over whether one ought to be just. In particular, Socrates stakes out his famous claim that it is always better to be wronged than to do wrong. That claim is subjected to powerful critiques from Gorgias’ students, both of whom argue at times that it is preferable to do injustice if one gains from it. Socrates powerfully defends his claim, and is able to show that both students are more deeply concerned to be just than they believed they did. This book helps the reader to understand Socrates’ view of justice, and the hold that justice has on the human heart, even for those who don’t seem to care about it at all.

Plato Gorgias

Recommended Translation: James Nichols, Jr., Cornell University Press

Plato, Symposium

Plato's Symposium

Plato's Symposium

Plato’s Symposium is the classic philosophic statement on human love, and especially, erotic love, that is, what it means to fall in love with another person. The dialogue itself consists of a series of speeches in praise of love. The centerpiece of the dialogue is the disagreement between Aristophanes (the poet of the Clouds, who is presented as a character in this dialogue) and Socrates. Aristophanes holds that erotic love is love of one’s other half, and what lovers long for is a permanent fusion with their beloved. Socrates’ speech suggests that love is the desire to possess the good for oneself forever, and that it finds its best possible fulfillment in philosophy. It thus forces readers to face the question of which of the two accounts is truer to what love really is, and, connected to that, what place love ought to have in the economy of human life.

Plato Symposium

Recommended Translation: Seth Benardete,
University of Chicago Press
Plato's Symposium

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Nicomachean Ethics

Nicomachean Ethics

The Ethics is Aristotle’s great statement on the good life for human beings. It includes extensive considerations of happiness (Book I and X), the virtues (Book II-VI), and friendship (Book VIII-IX). What most distinguishes Aristotle’s work is his account of moral virtue, which he treats as something which is chosen for its own sake, and which is the core and peak of a happy, human life. Readers from many different eras and traditions have found the Ethics to inform and to elevate their own thinking about how to live.

Nicomachean Ethics

Recommended Translation: Robert Bartlett and Susan Collins,
University of Chicago Press
Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle, Metaphysics

Plato and Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle

The Metaphysics is the most foundational part of Aristotle’s philosophy. In it, he explores such basic questions as the nature of being, and what is required for humans to be able to know anything at all. Though the book as a whole is very dense and difficult to read without guidance, there are parts that are more accessible and of very great interest. The first two chapters in Book I present a brief but impressive account of the emergence of philosophy. Aristotle states his famous claim that all human beings by nature desire to know, and that the highest human activity is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

Also of particular interest is Aristotle’s discussion of the principle of contradiction, which holds that it is impossible for the same thing both to be and not to be, in the same respect, at the same time. Proving such a basic and simple claim proves exceptionally difficult: How can one establish a claim which itself seems to be the unstated first premise of all knowledge? Aristotle’s attempt to do so is found in Book IV of the Metaphysics.


Recommended Translation: Joe Sachs, Green Lion Press
Aristotle's Metaphysics

Aristotle, The Poetics



Aristotle’s Poetics is often regarded as the most important work of literary theory ever written. It provides his statement on tragedy, providing both a rich account of what tragedy is as a literary form and the effect that it has on its audience. The Poetics is essential reading for those who want to think about the nature and the importance of great literature. The Poetics can be supplemented with Book VII and especially VIII of Aristotle’s Politics, where he talks about the place of poetry and drama in the best political community.

Aristotle on Poetics

Recommended Translation: Seth Benardete and Michael Davis,
St. Augustine’s Press
Aristotle on Poetics

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War



Thucydides’ History tells the story of the great war fought between the Spartans and the Athenians in the latter part of the 5th Century BC. As a historical resource about that time and place, Thucydides’ work is unparalleled. But the work is much more than that: Through his account of the war, and especially through the speeches he composes for the various participants in it, Thucydides offers basic reflections on moral and political questions that are still relevant today.

We suggest the following questions to help guide your reading. What is the nature of Athenian imperialism, and is it justifiable? The most famous part of the book is Pericles’ funeral oration: does it represent Thucydides’ own view of the best kind of political life, or are there reasons to call it into question? What are the respective virtues and vices of the Athenians and the Spartans, the one with its enterprising spirit and addiction to innovation, and the other with its firm adherence to traditional laws? What does this comparison suggest about the best way to form a city? And finally, what happens to ordinary rules of right and wrong when they are placed in the crucible of a long, bloody war?

The Landmark Thucydides

Recommended Translation:
The Landmark Thucydides,
Robert Strassler and Ricard Crawley

Plutarch, Lives

Plutarch Lives

Plutarch Lives

Plutarch was a Greek historian who later became a Roman citizen. Though he lived later than the other authors we have considered, his Lives provides one of the very best sources for understanding the history of ancient Greece, while coupling them with lives of great Romans. Though all of the Lives present important historical facts about the Greeks and the Romans, and contain very prescient insights into human character and political life, there are some that are particularly useful for beginners. The lives of Lycurgus and Solon—the great lawgivers of Sparta and Athens, respectively—provide deep insight into the character of the two leading cities in ancient Greece, up until the time of Alexander’s conquest. They also invite a comparison between the two, each of which has its own particular concatenation of virtues and vices.

Other lives of particular interest include Plutarch’s lives of Alcibiades, Pericles, Julius Caesar, and Cato the Younger.

Plutarch Lives of Grecians and Romans

Recommended Translation: John Dryden, revised by Arthur Hugh Clough
Plutarch: Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans

Additional readings of interest:

Aeschylus, The Oresteia

Aristotle, The Physics

Euripides, Hippolytus

Herodotus, The Histories