In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek and Roman Metaphysics

  • Introduction
  • The Old Academy

Classics Greek and Roman Metaphysics
Anna Marmodoro
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0232


Metaphysics, in its broadest definition, is about what there is. Its domain is so vast that it is not possible to give an exhaustive but only a representative range of questions it engages with. These are questions about the nature of reality: what its ultimate constituents are; what populates the world in which we live; how the world changes and things interact causally within it; and much more. Metaphysics is as “old” as human thought about nature is. The word itself (even if Aristotle himself did not use it) derives from the title of one of Aristotle’s works. It was an editor (in all probability, Andronicus of Rhodes), at least one hundred years after Aristotle’s death, who titled one of his works “Ta meta ta physika,” meaning literally “the [books] after the physical ones,” where the “physical ones” are the collection of books that we now call Aristotle’s Physics. Like other sciences, metaphysics has aims and a methodology: in very broad terms, its goal is to advance our understanding of reality by analyzing problems and developing explanatory models for them, which are then “tested” against possible counterexamples that the proposed account might not be able to explain. While the domain of interest of metaphysics has continuously evolved since Aristotle’s time, there is continuity between ancient and contemporary metaphysics in subject matter and methodology. The reader interested in this entry might also want to browse the Oxford Bibliographies article in Philosophy “Contemporary Metaphysics.” Acknowledgments: thanks are due to Sophie Cartwright for the research assistance she provided for this work.

General Overviews

Lovejoy 1936 is a seminal, wide-ranging study on ancient metaphysics. Sorabji 1988 is an important and imaginative work exploring ancient physics and metaphysics. Barnes 2011–2015 provides a more recent collection of essays on metaphysics, while Gerson 2010 offers good background.

  • Barnes, Jonathan. 2011–2015. Essays in ancient philosophy. 4 vols. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This diverse collection of essays focuses on ancient metaphysics, logic, and epistemology: Vol. 1, Methods and Metaphysics (2011); Vol. 2, Logical Matters (2012); Vol. 3, Proof, Knowledge, and Scepticism (2014); Vol. 4, Mantissa (2015).

  • Gerson, Lloyd P., ed. 2010. The Cambridge history of philosophy in late antiquity. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An excellent, wide-ranging survey of philosophy from Cicero to the early medieval period, structured chronologically with chapters focusing either on schools or individual thinkers. Very useful background; not specifically about metaphysics.

  • Lovejoy, Arthur. 1936. The Great Chain of Being: A study of the history of an idea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    A seminal work on metaphysics in Plato, Aristotle, and Neoplatonism, including a discussion of the afterlife of ancient Greco-Roman metaphysics; contains exploration of Augustine.

  • Sorabji, Richard. 1988. Matter, space and motion: Theories in antiquity and their sequel. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    Seminal work on ancient physics and metaphysics.

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