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Hellenistic Philosophy : Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics. The purpose of this book is to trace the main developments in Greek philosophy during the period which runs from the death of Alexander the Great in B.

Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics

These three centuries, known to us as the Hellenistic Age, witnessed a vast expansion of Greek civilization eastwards, following Alexander's conquests; and later, Greek civilization penetrated deeply into the western Mediterranean world assisted by the political conquerors of Greece, the Romans. But philosophy throughout this time remained a predominantly Greek activity.

The most influential thinkers in the Hellenistic world were Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics. This book gives a concise critical analysis of their ideas and their methods of thought. The last book in English to cover this ground was written sixty years ago. In the interval the subject has moved on, quite rapidly since the last war, but most of the best work is highly specialized. Skepticism endured as a philosophical position into the 3rd century CE.

Skeptics aimed to undermine the supposed certainties of all their other philosophical competitors. While this might seem to limit it to making only a negative contribution, Skepticism did at least provide a voice for humility and tolerance, even if the Skeptics themselves did not always practise those qualities. It is difficult to trace any direct lines of influence. Perhaps in some matters faith is what we should hold to, instead of grasping for rational knowledge.

Indeed, maybe faith is better than reason. This is a position known as fideism. Epicureanism was named after its founder. The philosopher Epicurus was born in Samos to a family of Athenian colonists.


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He lived from BCE. Only a fraction of his writings have survived. His writings are very obscure, but it is possible he did not intend to write for a general public. This gathering place became the prototype of Epicurean associations. Epicurus admitted women including courtesans and at least one slave to his circle.

This fact, together with the Epicurean disdain for political affairs, brought ridicule upon Epicurus and his followers. However, even their enemies grudgingly admired their cultivation of friendship. His teaching spread rapidly. Epicurus modified the materialistic philosophy of the 5th century bce atomists, Leucippus and Democritus. Everything is composed of matter, more specifically, of atoms moving in a void. For the most part, they move in regular ways. Their principal movement is to fall down in straight lines. The movements and interactions of atoms suffice for a complete explanation of the world.

Even our knowledge of these things is the result of collisions between atoms.

Hellenistic Thought

Knowledge comes from sense experience. For example, I see a tower because the tower constantly sheds thin films of atoms. If a film hits my eyes, I see the tower. If I repeatedly have such experiences, I become accustomed to the tower.

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A sort of complementary pattern of atoms forms within me. Now, if all knowledge comes from direct encounters between atoms, why do people make mistakes? The Epicurean answer is that sense experience, as sense experience, is always true. If I see pink elephants, I really do see pink elephants. However, I also then need to judge whether quite different atomic films are somehow being confused: is there a possibility that atoms from my bottle of wine are jumbling up the anticipations in my brain, say?

Falsehood, then, has nothing to do with the senses. Falsehood results from hasty judgment, from an inappropriate confidence in reason. If sense experiences are the only avenue of knowledge, then the feelings of pleasure or pain produced by contact with these atoms are the only meaningful gauge of good and evil. The situation is like so: we experience the world through our senses, we may even be able to occasionally predict things, but just as often our reason misleads us and we get whacked across the head by tyche.

Human beings may reason, but that does not imply there is a grand plan behind all that we experience in the world.

Epicurus takes this absence of a cosmic purpose to mean that pleasure is the only good. Indeed, pleasure is the meaning of the good. Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the highest good. Like all other atomic compounds, men come into being when the necessary conditions have been met. They have no creator and no destiny. Their good is pleasure, their highest good a life of secure and lasting pleasure. United by no bond of nature, they form alliances for mutual advantage, and they acquiesce in the restraints of law and government as a protection against injury by their fellows.

DeLacy, 4. The popular misconception is that Epicurean ethics consisted in advocating no-holds-barred self-indulgence. The truth is very different. Although the official Epicurean position was that pleasure was the highest good, Epicurus did have some sense that pleasures could and should be evaluated on a scale. The chief criterion was whether pleasure would be fleeting, and accompanied with pains, or enduring and steady in intensity. Eating until you throw up is probably not a pleasure worth experiencing; worthy pleasures allow the soul to remain calm and untroubled.

Often, abstention and moderation are the best ways to enjoy such serenity. The best way to achieve serenity of soul is to withdraw from the confusion of the mass of society, and surround yourself with fine friends. As DeLacy notes, the Epicureans held that the world has no creator. The Gods exist, we know, because people sense their images, especially in dreams and other unusual states.

However the Gods are so fine that their images are easily damaged or distorted. We cannot decide what they are like simply on the basis of our senses. However, an appropriate use of reason tells us that they must be blessed and serene, exemplifying the state of soul to which we should aspire. But the Gods have no concern with our world and us at all. They are enjoying blissful detachment, rather like the Buddha does in Southeast Asian Buddhism. All you will do is aggravate yourself, causing yourself pain. Many scholars have said that the influence is minimal.

Perhaps this is so in terms of strictly intellectual influence. In terms of practice, though, there are at least overlaps.

For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one becomes hungry and another becomes drunk. Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! I Cor.

Introduction to Epicurus

Perhaps we find an Epicurean influence in early Christian martyrology. Some Epicureans went so far as to say that the wise man could be perfectly happy even when undergoing bodily torture! Stoicism began with Zeno of Citium ca. Zeno began to teach his own doctrines around BCE.

The movement had 3 phases: early, middle, and late Roman Stoa. Refer to the timeline for the periods when each phase flourished.