CAC1015 : How Should I Live? An Introduction to Ancient Moral Philosophy

  • Module Leader(s): Dr David Creese
  • Owning School: History, Classics and Archaeology
Semester 1 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


The question about how people should live their lives vexed the ancients as much as it does people in the modern world. Such fundamental questions as ‘are the gods listening?’ and ‘am I really responsible for all my actions?’ sparked philosophical debates which were felt in wider society and reflected in plays and other arts.

In this module we shall consider the range of issues Greeks and Romans thought people should consider in trying to answer the question ‘how should I live?’. We shall examine the ancient arguments about whether human beings have a specific function, whether there is such a thing as justice and what it might be, what happiness is and how we can achieve it, and what role a ‘soul’ might play in the choices we make in our lives. We shall examine the conflicting positions on these subjects put forward by different philosophical schools, consider the historical background to the debates between them, explore some of the ways in which these debates had an impact on the wider intellectual culture of Greek and Roman antiquity, and evaluate the extent to which the views these thinkers advocated were normative or subversive, pragmatic or idealistic, a reflection of their society's conception of the good life or a radical criticism of it.

This module therefore aims to give students the opportunity to gain a solid introduction to the intellectual traditions of the Greeks and Romans in the field of ethics, with emphasis also on the connections between ancient discussions of moral philosophy and political theory, religion and psychology. Throughout the module students will address questions about life from both ancient and modern perspectives, and will be equipped with the historical background necessary to contextualise the debates and consider their relevance in both ancient and modern times. Students will be encouraged to read and engage with the arguments through the primary philosophical works and secondary literature on these works. The module will enable students to develop skills in critical reading, discussion and debate, and the construction and evaluation of arguments.

Outline Of Syllabus

The module will proceed chronologically, considering in turn the views of Plato, Aristotle and the Hellenistic and Roman philosophers on key themes in ancient moral philosophy (e.g. is morality teachable? what does it mean to do right by other people? what would a just society look like? how can we be happy? what is the point of love and sex? are there eternal consequences for wrongdoing? do the gods care how I live?).

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion741:0074:0045% of guided independent study
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture221:0022:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading741:0074:0045% of guided independent study
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching101:0010:00Seminars
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesWorkshops21:002:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesDrop-in/surgery21:002:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study161:0016:0010% of guided independent study
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

Lectures are used:
•       to introduce ancient authors and key information about their approaches to the philosophical questions under discussion
•       to encourage critical reading of the texts by means of close reading of selected passages
•       to stimulate development of listening and note-taking skills
•       to recommend secondary readings relevant to the interpretive problems raised, and highlight essential arguments and controversies in these readings
•       to challenge students to reflect on the logical foundations of their own ethical ideas in the light of ancient arguments that may appear foreign to them
Seminars are used:
•       to allow students to discuss a prescribed piece of secondary literature in a small group, in a conversation structured by seminar questions distributed in advance
•       to give students the opportunity to articulate their own arguments about an aspect of ancient moral philosophy
Surgeries are used:
•       to offer students the opportunity to consult teaching staff about preparing their coursework essay and revising for the exam, and to benefit from hearing the answers to others’ questions

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Description Length Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Written Examination1201A75N/A
Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Essay1M251500 words
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

The examination is designed to test breadth of knowledge and reading. The essay is designed to assess students’ skills in critical reading and use of evidence, and their ability to construct coherent, logical and interesting arguments about a single topic in ancient ethics.

Submitted work tests intended knowledge and skills outcomes, develops key skills in research, reading and writing.

All exchange students at Newcastle University including Erasmus, study-abroad, exchange proper and Loyola are warmly encouraged to do the same assessment as the domestic students unless they have compelling reasons not to do so. If this is the case, they are offered the option of writing one 3,000 word essay to be handed in by 12.00 p.m. of the Friday of the first week of the assessment period. This will replace all assessment work required of domestic students. If they wish to take up this option, students need to discuss it with their module leader, having checked with their home university that the new assessment will be accepted by them.

Students who opt for the alternative assessment because they will have to leave Newcastle University before the assessment period (excluding Erasmus students, who are contractually obliged to be at Newcastle until the end of the semester) should hand in their 3000-word essays before they go away. If this is not possible, they should tell the School exchange coordinator that they are going to submit their essays in absentia, then submit their essays through Blackboard and email copies of the essays to the School Office ( Any essay received after the deadline will be considered as a late submission.

Reading Lists


Disclaimer: The University will use all reasonable endeavours to deliver modules in accordance with the descriptions set out in this catalogue. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information, however, the University reserves the right to introduce changes to the information given including the addition, withdrawal or restructuring of modules if it considers such action to be necessary.