I recently asked on Literature Stack Exchange, What percentage of clay tablets found in Mesopotamia contain literature? and was only able to define an upper limit 4% literature in the overall corpus texts from the Ancient Near East.

However, the corpus of Greek texts from Antiquity that have come down to is has been researched over a much longer period of time and has been passed down under circumstances that are very different than those for clay tablets and other cuneiform texts. (Scribes made conscious selections when deciding what to copy by hand and what not, whereas physical and chemical processes (and occasionally worms) make no distinction between the content of clay tablets.) Moreover, literature (when strictly defined as fiction) is a different genre than philosophy.

(Sidenote: According to the article Über ägyptische Lexikographie by Carsten Peust (Lingua Aegyptia, 7, 2000) Ancient Greek is the only language from Antiquity that has a bigger text corpus than Akkadian, which is roughly on a par with Latin.)

This leads me to the question, What percentage of extant Greek texts from Antiquity constitute philosophy? For the purpose of this question, I assume Wikipedia's definition of Ancient Greek philosophy, i.e. from 6th century BC until the end of Roman rule in Greece. Also according to Wikipedia, Ancient Greek philosophy "dealt with a wide variety of subjects, including astronomy, mathematics, political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, ontology, logic, biology, rhetoric and aesthetics."

  • Since this question is not about a philosophical question, I was not entirely sure whether I could post it here. Should it be considered off-topic, feel free to migrate it to Literature Stack Exchange.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 19:27
  • I don't think you're going to find a definitive answer to this question (in part because of ambiguities in the statistical question itself). But maybe you can make an estimate from here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_literature Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 21:32
  • Not sure if anybody researched such statistics, but maybe you can run your own search using the Greek texts' repositories linked by the Illinois library. What counts as philosophical can be identified from IEP bibliography of primary sources. There is an ambiguity as to whether we compare text sizes or numbers of works, and even then, does the entire corpus Aristotelicum count as a single work or multiple ones.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 10:31
  • The title and the question in bold differ. Please correct the one you do not mean. Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 15:08

1 Answer 1


This question is hard to answer for at least two reasons. In the first place, a considerable amount of the pre-socratic philosophical material surives in fragments. There is no clear-cut decision procedure for whether, say, a number of related Heraclitian fragments amount to 'literature'. These fragments are not literature in the sense in which, say, a Platonic dialogue is literature.

Secondly, the plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides contain philosophical themes and ideas. For example, Sophocles' 'Oedipus Tyrannos' (Oedipus Rex, Oedipus the King) exactly illustrates a shame morality as opposed to a guilt morality, to use E.R. Dodds' distinction in The Greeks and the Irrational (1951). Oedipus is shamed and morally contaminated by the mere fact that he has killed his father and married his mother even though neither act was done knowingly with intention. Is 'Oedipus Tyrannos', then, a philosophical play and therefore philosophical literature? I should be inclined to say that it is, but the idea of philosophical literature is too soft-edged, insufficiently determinate, to decide the matter uncontroversially.

You have raised an intriguing and penetrating question. I wish I could do it better justice.

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