Hellenistic Philosophy

The period of the Macedonian empire (including the successor states) in the 3rd century is known as the Hellenistic, and was characterised by subjection and disorder. Fear replaced hope within philosophy, and the predominance of ethics replaced the innocent search for knowledge and truth of the earlier Greek age.  Philosophers asked how mankind could be happy in a world of suffering. During this period four schools of philosophy were founded: the Cynics, Sceptics, Epicureans and Stoics. This post deals with the first three.

The Cynics

The school of the Cynics was founded by Diogenes who was a contemporary of Aristotle. He decided to live like a dog and was therefore called a ‘cynic’, which means ‘canine’.  He rejected all conventions of society and became a beggar. There is a famous story that Alexander the Great visited him and asked if he desired any favour, to which Diogenes replied ‘only to stand out of my light’. His philosophy is based on the belief that the world is bad, so it is best to be independent of it. Worldly goods are precarious and so should be treated with indifference – only subjective goods such as virtue are to be valued, and through this attitude one may be freed from fear. This aspect of Cynicism heavily influenced the Stoics, but the rejection of society did not. It was only later that the word Cynic took on its modern meaning. The followers of Diogenes took it to greater extremes, preaching for example how silly it is to mourn when one’s friends or family die. They did not teach abstinence from good things but rather indifference, and it is easy to see how this might be a convenient doctrine for some, when acting cynically in the modern sense.

The Sceptics

Philosophical Scepticism said that there could never be any logical basis for preferring one course of action over another, and that it is impossible to ever know anything for certain. For some this was reassuring. We are all equally wise or foolish, and there is no point worrying about the future as it is entirely uncertain – best to focus on enjoying the present. One basis for Scepticism was the weakness of deductive reasoning that every argument has to start with a principle that is assumed to be self-evident. If you deny that anything is self-evident then all deductive arguments fall apart. Sceptic teachers were given to deliberately presenting both sides of an argument to demonstrate that there is never a clear answer. While the Sceptics were quite successful in turning people away from their State religions, it offered only doubt and nothing positive. The exception to this was those Sceptics who thought in degrees of probability. While we can never feel certainty, we can at least say that some things are more likely to be true than others.  

The Epicureans

The Epicurean school is name after its founder Epicurus, who believed that the goal of life is a happy life. ‘Virtue’ is a meaningless word, and justice consists in acting in a way which ensures that other people like you. Unusually for a philosopher he believes pleasure of the body is more important than pleasure of the mind (including the pursuit of wisdom and culture). The main benefit of the mind is in learning to contemplate bodily pleasures when not actually experiencing them. However Epicureanism is not Hedonism. In an age of relative scarcity and uncertainty Epicurus wants (for example) to always feel happy in having eaten enough. Having a gluttonous desire to eat means a reliance on external factors and indicates the pain of hunger. Over-eating comes with its own problems. Epicurus lived a simple life and ate only bread and water, except we are told for a little cheese on feast days. He abstained from public life, as it would only lead stress and worries, and to envy from others. One should avoid passionate relationships as the risk of pain is too great. Measured friendships are the best forms of relationship. The prudent and quite life is the surest way to happiness.

Epicurus believed that the two greatest sources of fear are religion and the fear of death. These are related – he believed religion encouraged a fear of the afterlife, because of the risk of going to hell. He also believed that the idea of the gods interfering in our lives was a source of fear, so set out to prove that they don’t. He preached that the soul disperses when the body dies and is no longer capable of consciousness or sensation, meaning that there is no afterlife. Epicurus accepted that the gods exist (on the basis that everyone else did), but said that they were Epicurean by nature. As an Epicurean avoids public life, so the gods avoid meddling in the affairs of people. However, other than a guide to a happy life the Epicureans contributed very little in terms of knowledge and understanding, and had no interest in science. Epicurus was dogmatic, and his followers did nothing to develop his beliefs after he died. Among Philosophers the schools of Stoicism and Neoplatonism were always favoured.

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