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Philosophy of the Hellenistic Age

by David Penso

The conquests of Alexander the Great had radically changed the social and political conditions of the ancient Greek world. During the fifth century and fourth century B.C.E. philosophy had emerged to deal with radically different societies and their respective concerns. The new concerns became more personal, and Philosophy prior to the Hellenistic era was more mundane in its concerns and was more fixated on affairs d'etat. The Hellenistic philosophers were more concerned with the personal problems in coping with the radical changes, as the elites sought guidance. They primarily sought a philosophy, that would achieve for themselves and their followers eudaimonia or happiness through inner peace and autarkia or self-sufficiency in an ethical system for the necessary personal guidance and they attempted to do so with Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, Cynicism and other ideologies.

To understand the developments in Hellenistic philosophy, previous philosophical developments and concerns need to be understood. Previous philosophy was developed during the Hellenic era of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E. prior to the conquests of Alexander the Great. The first group of philosophers were the pre-Socratics and their main concerns were in seeking knowledge without resorting to mythology and superstition. The Pre-Socratic philosophers wanted to know the basic material of all matter or the physis. They made observations and developed theories based upon such observations, and began the Western scientific tradition. Later philosophers were concerned with justice and politics, which included mainly the ideal polis, or city-state. They included the Sophists, who "agreed human beings were the proper subject of study."1 The Sophists also taught men prepared men for oratory in the polis with logic and the meaning of words. The Sophists didn't merely seek knowledge with philosophy, but also questioned and attacked contemporary conventions such as "traditional beliefs, religion, rituals, myth and even... the laws of the polis."2 A new group of philosophers followed the Sophists, and they sought truth in a wide variety of fields. The first of these philosophers was Socrates, who posed questions and define concepts with general topics to be narrowed down "by continuous questioning, a running dialogue." His pupil, Plato, wrote books with the format of such dialogues on a variety of topics including love, justice, and knowledge. Central to Plato's philosophy is his theory of Ideals or Forms. Plato stated that the true reality or real world is the world, that contains the forms or ideals of aspects in our world. For example this world would contain the ideal of Beauty, while only manifestations of beauty would exist in our world such as a beautiful tree or building. True understanding and knowledge of these Ideals couldn't be perceived with sense-perceptions of seeing and hearing, but philosophers could learn it for it was latent in the mind. The Aristotle, Plato's pupil and successor, differed from Plato and didn't write in dialogues, but rather wrote books on many subjects including botany, ethics, politics, logic, metaphysics. Unfortunately only 33 of his books survive.

However the philosophical pursuits of Aristotle and his predecessors became obsolete with the conquests of the Macedonian ruler, Alexander the Great. When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire, and far Eastern countries, radically new social and political conditions emerged and Greek philosophers sought news means of enduring these sudden changes. The polis became outdated, as vast empires dominated international politics and Greek cities attempted to cope by forming larger states such as the Achaen League and the Aetolian League. Citizens also lived in a world where Tyche or Fortune ruled for their world was full of unrest. There "was no sense of principle or order in the course of things" in this new world, because "continual dramatic vicissitudes of fortune" may cause the same man now on the pinnacle of power and riches" to be "flung down in the mud."3 Greek citizens had become déraciné , or unrooted and lost their personal identity to this new, impersonal world, and philosophers worked to help them cope. The respective philosophies of the Hellenistic era sought to help their followers to successfully achieve ataraxia or "freedom from worry or suffering" to overcome the tribulations caused by Tyche, yet still have a raison d'etre.

One attempt to achieve ataraxia was through alienation from one's society and to acquire eudaimonia or happiness and autarkia or self-sufficiency by the most simple means possible, which was proposed by the philosophy of Cynicism. The three principal Cynic philosophers were Antisthenes, Diogenes Laertius of Sinope and Crates of Thebes. Cynics revolted against their respective societies and became pariahs often voluntarily. He may have worked, although Cynics generally had an aversion to work solely personally, for he merely may have preferred to beg for a living. One of the reasons for their alienation from society was that they considered themselves to be "citizens of the world," which meant that the Cynic was "a member of a universal community or cosmic polity and not to any nation or city. The Cynics were to be entirely independent through paddesia or completely autonomous independence, which enabled them to "resist the coercion of tyrants and to expose the pretensions of 'intellectuals' and politicians." Cynics regarded the generals of contemporary states as "nothing by donkey drivers and soldiers are mindless fools led into battle by bigger fools." Cynics didn't value their ethnic or national origins at all and they wouldn't work for any state or serve in any military. As Diogenes stated, "The only true commonwealth is that which is wide as the universe."4 Cynics were to be kosmopolites in this commonwealth. Any place could be regarded as home for the Cynic.

Cynics did shun civilization, as they sought to live in accordance with nature and pursue only bare necessities. A famous anecdote of Diogenes of Sinope best demonstrated this attitude about necessities or anaidsia. Diogenes had observed that a child was drinking water solely out of his hand and not using a cup. Diogenes threw his cup and and said, "A child has given me a lesson in plainness of living." They rejected unnecessary luxuries such as the cup and extravagances as unnecessary and only sought to acquire only bare necessities. Instead they were to follow anaidsia and practice simplicity and good judgment as Crates stated. Cynics sought deliberate hardship and approved of the Spartan education, so they would become accustomed to potent degrees heat and cold, rather than weakened in facing any meteorological onslaught. As Bion of Borysthenes stated, people were to adapt to their circumstances. Another famous anecdote of Diogenes demonstrated his pursuit solely of basic, natural needs in Plutarch's Life of Alexander,

"The king greeted him [Diogenes] and inquired whether he could do anything for him. 'Yes,' replied the philosopher, 'you can stand a little to one side out of my sun.'5


Another reason for shunning civilization was that they objected to the evils of civilization. Such evils were many for to the Cynic

"the entire human world appears as an immense madhouse and a vertigo-producing series of circus acts, meaning nothing and accomplishing nothing. Empires rise and fall, nations conquer and obliterate other nations. while the soldiers march never knowing the purpose of their marching; politicians shout nonsense in the ears of enthralled party members, while statesmen and leaders repeat worn-out platitudes that appease the multitudes; actors clown aimlessly on the stage for the entertainment of people afflicted by incurable boredom; religions come and go, each one claiming infallibility, while promising salvation to the faithful and damnation to all others; philosophers spin out of their heads amazing cobwebs of mystifying and empty ideas, creating the illusion of knowledge and understanding, but ultimately not meaning or saying anything; rhetoricians and speech writers create the semblance of language in order to confuse and manipulate the masses; scientists aim at the conquest of nature, pontificating about their always changing truths, as if they were a gift of the gods, disrupting the balance of natural world; athletes reap the financial benefits of their undeserved fame and their exalted reputation. In the background millions upon millions of people live secret lives of quiet desperation, moving thoughtlessly from birth to death and mechanically procreating countless similar millions of their likes, all running after empty illusions- the illusions of power, fame, pleasure, knowledge, a long life-and are captivated by blurry images that... are thrice removed from what is real."6


Because the Cynic revolted against these and other evils of civilization, he was

"no less reserved and unambiguous about his dismissal of other kinds of human activities and tendencies: politics, nationalism, militarism, racial and social prejudices, materialism, and the need for possessions, hedonism and egoism, the abuse of language created by deception and lying, and slavery and oppression."7


They generally were to have philanthropia or work in the interests of mankind to alleviate these ills by the personal exhibition of their lifestyle or panëunris. Some Cynics even became extremist and advised people to shun their existence upon Earth and to people that "any of you who may be desirous hang yourselves" or commit suicide in another way.8

Most Cynics didn't completely repudiate the rest of mankind. Generally they had friends, but all of their friends were their fellow Cynics. One reason is that they believed "most people appear to be human but are not."9 Cynics considered most people to be deceptive in their claims of being intelligent and decent, "while in reality they are nothing by camouflaged rascals and ruffians, and are not therefore truly human." Diogenes expressed this Cynical view, when he had left a public bath. He was asked whether there were many people bathing, and responded, "that there were few people but a large crowd of bathers."

The other reason for why Cynics only chose other Cynics as friends is their religious view. Cynics generally spurned contemporary religion. The Cynic had "no patience with polytheistic (and monotheistic) superstitions and beliefs." They were incredulous about religious rituals and considered them to be "games created for the amusement and consolation of the multitude." They didn't attach any values to the theogonies and anthropomorphic tales of gods. Cynics sought to eliminate religious practices by "sarcasm and ridicule, denunciation and condemnation, and by openly flaunting the religious beliefs and practices of the many, no less than by engaging in behavior that is contrary to those beliefs and practices."10 They condemned the state religions, as such cults failed to provide guidance for daily affairs. However Cynics weren't secularists and didn't completely disavow all organized religion. They favored a religion that would provide the need for ritual and emotional stimulus as it occurred in the state cults. Then Cynic philosophers worshipped three deities of Paean, a good of healing both physically and spiritually, Sharing and Nemesis in the 3rd century B.C.E. Later Cynic philosophers believe in a god and considered their beliefs to be of a "higher religiosity" and were to follow Epictetus in his ideals or aidoz for the city of sophoi. They believed, that they were the emissaries of God and as Dag Hammarskjöld expressed, "The lovers of God have no religion but God alone."11 Cynics considered themselves to be new de facto leaders and the only true men of politics and religion. Plato showed this attitude toward Socrates, when he had considered Socrates to be "truly the only political man in Athens(Gorgias 521d), because only he who is capable of making other people political deserves to be called 'political'(Meno 100a)."12 Plato and Socrates had considerred themselves de facto leaders in influencing people and seeking and bringing the true ideas for the polis, which is what made a person truly political.

The Cynics intended to follow Socrates' example by making men into men of politics and into men of religion. They had sought to structure their lives "by reference to clearly conceived goals" and by "under the guidance of a freely chosen purpose" of God rather than by a follower through bogus rituals and other deceptive works of religion. A Cynic's life was supported by "an unshakable conviction of self-sufficiency that makes him independent and self-governing."13

Cynics worked to become the new de facto leaders of the world in enlightening the masses by exhibitionism. They exhibited their belief in plain living, as in

Sometimes subsisting alone in some half-broken tub or under the portico of a temple; sometimes, although rare, living in conjugal union and surrounded by children; at other times, wander from place to place..."14


They would live on a simple diet generally without the "sumptuous meats and delicacies that wealthy gluttons require, but lentil soup, lupines, peas, lettuces, and water, that is the food of the poor, which can be had for almost nothing." The Cynic cared little for the past and was unconcerned with the future and may even commit suicide to quickly end his life, so he wouldn't even simple inconveniences.15 Cynics may have worked to provide for their needs, but they hated working, and prefered to beg.

Cynics failed to become leaders for a new world community and improve the social and political conditions of the Hellenistic era. The Cynics didn't achieve autarkia and failed to work as a coordinated community separate from civilization. Instead they generally became more dependent on the societies, that they spurned and besmeared and the self-sufficency had become a "patent sham." The Cynic, in the last resort, became simply a parasite, that the Hellenistic societies spurned with justified contempt for paying people to whine at them. Peter Green however was wrong about Cynicism merely dying out in the second century B.C.E. Cynicism maintained a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean throughout the Roman republic and after the Roman empire in the west fell. It wasn't popular in the Roman republic, as Roman elite wouldn't accept it, because Cynic panëunris contrasted with gravitas, the Roman value of seriousness of purpose. The Cynic aversion to luxury, anaidsia, contrasted to the Roman taste for luxury Romans, which prevented further Cynic influence. However Cynicism was kept alive during the republic and was particularly appealing to Cato the Elder, who found anaidsia comparable to the Roman value of frugalitas or simple tastes. Cynicism continued to decline in the first centuries B.C.E and C.E. and merely survived in the eastern Mediterranean in obscurity. Cynicism underwent a revival during the second century C.E. of the Roman empire. Dio Chrysostum, a former friend of emperor Trajan was forced into exile under the successor, Domitian, who executed a reign of terror upon philosophers. Dio also sought employment for the poor to alleviate their ills and Cynicism became a philosophy for the urban poorer classes, as they were to be resettled in the rural areas. However poverty wasn't to be resolved by Dio, and only limited work for the poor was to be brought. Oenomaus of Gadara and Eusebrin also contributed to the revival of Cynicism, as they attacked oracles as being worthless and generally refuted prophecy. However Cynicism fell into a decline in the third century and disappeared particularly after the schools in Athens were closed in 529 C.E.16

Other philosophies sought means of finding ataraxia and autarkia, and Stoicism attempted to provide such guidance toward eudaimonia. Zeno of Citium was the founder of Stoicism and his Stoicism, like Cynicism, similarly worked with people, who were alienated from their respective societies and preferred "the disadvantages of life as aliens, second-class residents, legally, politically and socially deprived, but enjoying the stimulus of an intellectual ambience. Zeno called for a complete abolishment of all institutions of the polis, including the temples, law-courts, gymnasia and money.17 Men would be wise in the new society lacking these institutions, that Zeno considered to be divisive and men would become friends without them. They would become a great new family as a community and share all that they had in common, which was similar to the failed Brook Farm community in the eastern U.S.A. in the early 19th century, yet it became stagnant and then broke. There were to be no political or legal struggles in this new community, as they were divided into groups, who lived at each was suited, and had their own overall common law. There were to be no temples or statues of gods, for "the wise man will set no store by them, having a lofty contempt for the products of the manual workers' hands."18

Zeno had also developed an system of ethics for this new society, which was supported by logic and physics. Stoic ethics were designed to seek happiness and just behavior through ataraxia and autarkia. Ataraxia was to be achieved through the eliminating the two main causes of misery and vice, which are Desire and Fear. Desire and Fear worked together, as Fear was in the background and caused of the uncertainty of the Unknown, while Desire "was the propelling force and action was spasmodic, furious, vain-a misery craving for ever disappointed and for ever renewed." Desire and Fear were to be removed to bring ataraxia and happiness was to be found "not in a particular sort of sensation or sum of sensations..., but in an attitude of the Will."19 A person was to control his Will by eliminating Desire and Fear. Indeed "he was to be absolute lord of his own will, but of nothing outside. And his ruling principle was in a right state when it retained its proper condition of pure reason" to attain eudaimonia. Such happiness will be achieved, for the person will have attained inner tranquility and freedom.

The removal of misery by ataraxia was part of the ethical system of Stoicism as Zeno sought a wise man to follow virtue and acquire happiness. Stoicism wasn't deterministic and a man had a will of his own. Zeno had then divided up his ethics into three broad categories in determining virtue from vice, as virtue coincided with vice. The categories were actions done impulsively, good and bad things, and passions.20 Subdivisions of these categories were then made, which were virtue, or the goal of action, the primarily value of the moral action and appropriate acts, and persuasion and dissuasion. A person was to do what is good after learning it and becoming a wise man. There were five stages to becoming a wise man as described in Cicero's book, De Finibus.21 These five stages were to be attained incrementally through a continuous series of acts, as these acts were necessary to provide for the Stoic wise man to learn virtue from vice.

Sophistic inquiry had thoroughly undermined the beliefs in what defined virtue and vice by the Hellenic era and evil had to be redefined for any system of ethics. Stoicism resolved this problem by using the will and encouraging learning through action. Neither evil nor good had not truly been defined, but rather evil will and good will. The Universe decided what is evil will and good will, as it was a living being according to Stoicism and it determined everything by sovereign Reason. The Universe was considered an intelligent entity based upon its own form of reason, which directed everything. It had been dominated by reason for

"'Nothing destitute of consciousness and reason can produce out of itself beings endowed with consciousness and reason: the Universe produces beings endowed with consciousness and reason: therefore the Universe is not destitute of consciousness and reason."22


To go against the reason of the universe was evil will and to be on its side was good will. A person was to be ruled by "'reason[of the universe] and not passion.'" Because the universe only directed good will, nothing bad therefore really happened to a man, as it would provide the learning needed to know virtue and vice.23

However Stoics now encountered a new problem of becoming a wise man. It was through pure reason or being constantly perfect in one's actions, that the wise man constantly followed the good will of the Universe after learning virtue from vice. Stoics had to address what is meant by following one's true nature or reason. They attempted resolve this problem, by adhering to what are described as the "promoted things." Lists of such "promoted things" were given in text-books. For the soul there was "cleverness, skill, intellectual progress, and the like." For the body the "promoted things" included "life, health, strength, good condition, completeness of members, beauty..." and finally "in the sphere of detached things, wealth, repute, gentle birth, and the like."24 (If a person wasn't of noble birth, he may try to prove otherwise.) Stoics were also to avoid things, that weren't promoted such as pleasure in defying the Epicurean school. Stoicism also defined a person in accord with nature by being a friend to all mankind and in doing his duty or kathekonta. Because a person had to be inwardly tranquil and free, he was also to be unfeeling in doing what is right or doing his duty or kathekonta.

The universe itself wasn't with feeling, but entire made up of reason as a substance, for Stoicism uses physics to defend its positions. Zeno had followed the tradition of the Pre-Socratics in believing in "Hylozoïsm," which claimed that the universe is made up of on primary Physis" or material stuff.25 The philosopher Heraclitus believed it to be fire, and Logos, reason, the orderly law governing the process of ceaseless change, as fire causes. Zeno expanded on this theory and stated that God, being the Reason of the Universe and the souls of people are bodies made of an invisible fire or pneuma, and were part of the material world. Everything came from God, and Stoicism became pantheistic through its physics. To make distinctions between God and other beings, and things in the universe and provide significance Zeno had God being active to the rest of creation being passive.26

Stoicism not only used physics, but also used logic to support its system of ethics. The emphasis on logic in Stoicism concerned the principle of certainty. Certainty, or certain knowledge, can be ascertained in a variety of ways including sense perception, although the Sophists had discredited it. Zeno had found the idea of all sense-perception being false to be fallacious, for some sense-perception was clearly reliable in attaining some knowledge, or there can be no basis for knowledge at all.27 External objects enable a person to perceive for they cause disturbances in the surrounding area and give impressions through the disturbances. The impression reveals itself and its cause. Another form of acquiring knowledge is through cognitive perception or via the soul, which receives impressions "as wax receives the impress of the seal."28 Such impressions from the senses, or the soul vary in their clearness and their sharpness as images to an out-of-focus eye. Knowledge is then acquired from the impressions through the Stoic doctrine of kataleptike phantasia, where the impressions leave no room for doubt. The phantasiai are true to objective facts and possess convincing force. Any ideal wise man would be able to acquire all the information from the impressions, which "cannot be shaken by argument.

Stoicism was sensible in its use of logic. Clearly some of our knowledge can be ascertained from sensory perception and from prior knowledge and Zeno stated only a "perfectly, judicious man would never make a mistake. For the Stoic did not apparently mean that he would never adopt an erroneous working hypothesis: only when he did so, he would be fully aware of its hypothetical character, and would therefore make no mental assertion which would be stultified by the event."29 However Stoicism was problematic still in its use of logic, as demonstrated by a trick played by King Ptolemy upon Zeno's disciple, Sphaerus. Ptolemy presented Sphaerus with a pomegranate of wax, and Sphaerus tried to eat it.

"...Ptolemy asked him mockingly whether he had not assented to a false impression. No, Sphaerus answered, he had merely assented to the probability that the fruit offered him by King Ptolemy was a real one."30


However the ideal Wise man would only assent to a kataleptike phantasia and that was the only possible correct interpretation of the impression. If the person made a mistake, the data wasn't at fault according to Zeno, but rather the person's judgment of the impressions. While there was only one correct interpretation, there were many interpretations and a person would have to obtain the most probable. Stoicism was naïve in believing that data couldn't be at fault, and Zeno "confounded the feeling of assurance, the psychological fact, with logical justification." What one feels may be valid and correct may not really be valid and correct. Zeno's motive "was not speculative but practical," and Zeno only sought "means for beating down the objections raised against any dogmatic system at the threshold." A sceptic could refute a Stoic about certain ideas by demonstrating that "no perceptions yielded certain knowledge." Zeno merely dismissed Sceptics "as an offense to healthy human understanding."31 He addressed the problem of ignorance created by scepticism, for it caused an absence of knowledge. A person would only have ill-founded belief or ignorance and Stoicism alleviated this problem by rationally using some perceptions and not all. Stoicism also used logic to formulate five basic patterns of logic in language for further cognitive learning.

As Rome encroached upon Greece, Stoic philosophers sought to conform Stoicism for Romans.32 Chrysippus was the main Stoic philosopher to promote Stoicism, when he wrote an enormous amount of material in its promotion. His systematic defense included "providential determinism, his stress on sound logic, his ethical radicalism, the cumulative impact his work had on subsequent generations."33 Cato the Younger followed the strict, orthodox Stoicism. Panaetius was the first of the philosopher to appeal to Roman audiences. Panaetius went to Rome and became a member of the circle of Scipio and Laelius, where he saw that Stoicism could be made to acquire a "socially prestigious following" from Roman society. Stoicism had allowed for astrology and divination with its pantheism and its claim of the universe being governed by reason. However Panaetius had rejected astrology and divination, and indeed played down "the cosmic aspects of Stoicism generally in favor of practical ethics." He maintained the pursuit for the ideal wise man, but still modified it. . He had altered Stoicism to mainly follow two principles: "first do no injury to another man; and secondly, see the public interest is maintained."1 He mainly advocated that men should follow their rational nature. The first century B.C.E. Stoic philosopher and historian, Poseidonius, continued to make Stoicism suitable to Rome's elite, and eliminated the "over doctrinaire scholasticism" of Zeno. He sought a community of all mankind, as Rome was to embrace "all the peoples of the world" and reflect a commonwealth with God. However Roman society was introduced to Stoicism through Panaetius and Cicero, and Peter Green was wrong in stating that only "exceptional men like Cato who managed, by sheer dint of moral example, to make Stoicism a workable Roman ideal. Stoicism continued into the Roman empire, for Seneca wrote about it and even an emperor, Marcus Aurelius, embraced it.

However Stoicism didn't suffice for most Romans, as it only was influential in the elite classes. Instead it had prepared the way for Christianity. Stoicism's universe was dominated by reason. Christianity went further, for it had given a positive end to the universe being governed by reason, and described it as Love. Christianity followed Stoicism in calling for a world community of mankind and doing one's duty to one's fellow person. Stoicism continued to be an influential philosophy in the Renaissance and even into modern times. Yet Christianity had followed where Stoicism left off, as other philosophies such as Cynicism and Epicureanism ceased to be influential.

Epicureanism primarily sought pleasure for its followers in attaining eudaimonia. Its sole founder and philosopher was Epicurus. Epicurus had written letters, and a system of his principle doctrines or kuriai dokai. Epicurus didn't advocate hedonism in searching for pleasure by any means, but rather sought pleasure through the elimination of pain, for "the limit of quantity of pleasures is the removal of all that is painful." Pleasure would exist, where there "is neither pain of body nor of mind, nor of both at once."35 Pain was caused by disturbances of the appropriate movement or place of atoms in the body. Such pain could be caused by the neglect of fulfilling necessary and natural desires such as for food and clothing. Epicurus first consoled his followers on pain in the body, for as he stated in his fourth doctrine,

"Pain does not last continuously in the flesh, but the most acute pain is there for a very short time, and even which just exceeds the pleasure in the flesh does not continue for many days at once."36


Pain in the mind was the greatest pain and caused by fear. This fear included the fear of the gods, of death or the soul's destiny, about by false beliefs on the nature of things. The fear of death was first overcome by Epicurus in his second doctrine. Death was to completely unimportant, for "that which is dissolved is without sensation," and Epicurus completely disregarded anything without sensation. The fear of the gods, false beliefs in the nature of things was overcome, as Epicureans also used a science in their ideology to overcome these fears. Science was indeed needed for derivation of pleasure. Science saved people from the irrational fears, which were caused by myth. Epicurus had stated in his twelfth doctrine, that a person was able to dispel his beliefs in myth and his fear about the "important matters of most of the universe."37 A person would eliminate suspicions in the universe "of the phenomena of the sky and death," and not be concerned about such abstract matters, for science provides understanding of these phenomena. Epicureans used science to alleviate fear is by following the Pre-Socratic philosopher, Democritus with his view of the physis. Democritus' physis was explained by Lucretius, a devout follower of Epicurus in the first century B.C.E., in his De Rerum Natura, "that nature resolves each object to its basic atoms but does not ever utterly destroy it."2 Even the soul was made up of atoms, and the soul and the body disperse upon death, and there is no after life. Lucretius stated, "No man goes down to Hell's black pit; we need matter for generations yet to come, who, in their turn will follow you, as men have died before you and will die hereafter." Epicureanism had also sought to eliminate fears of the gods and of contemporary religions. Lucretius had explained the rejection of such religions as "many fantasies," that "they invent to overturn your sense of logic, muddle your estates by fear!" People would be "strong resisters" of such religion and dismiss their "everlasting punishments waiting... after death."3 A person would be able to overcome fears of death and the gods through Epicurean ideals rather than through contemporary religions.

Epicureanism also offered an alternative system of ethics from contemporary religions. This system of ethics was entailed in the Epicurean quest for pleasure. There was a connection between pleasure and virtue, for as Epicurus' stated in his fifth doctrine, "it is not possible to live pleasantly without living prudently and honourably and justly.4 Pleasures were never bad things in themselves, but actions that led to such pleasures may have been unethical. Indeed there were differences in pleasure in the Epicurean system in intensity and variability. The pleasures of the flesh are limited, as they don't increase, but are only varied. Sensual pleasure doesn't succeed at all in intensity, for the pain, which is caused by such pleasure, is too great. The pleasures of the mind were also limited "by the reasoned understanding of these pleasures and of the emotions akin to them, which used to cause the greatest fear to the mind." Some pleasures cause too much pain and should be avoided, as are those "due to idle imagination."41

Epicureanism also used pleasure in its views of reality, justice and society. Reality was to be viewed entirely through the senses. Epicurus objected to the Sceptic dismissal of sense perceptions, that if all sensations were to be rejected, than there was no "standard of judgment at all." A person couldn't even condemn the use of the senses. Rejection of the senses collapsed as a circular argument in looking for alternatives. Epicurus then sought to refute the a less sceptical notion of considering some sensations to be false. He rejected the idea of relying on only some senses in his 26th doctrine, by claiming that if any single sensation is rejected, a person will fail " to distinguish between the conclusion of opinion as to the appearance awaiting confirmation" of the sensations and the actual input of the sensations. Because a person will fail to make distinctions between the conclusions from the sensations and the sensations themselves and the person will become confused with all other sensations. Every standard of judgment will be rejected and no knowledge will be learned. If a person affirms all these verifications or rejections of sensory inputs, the person will "not escape error," since the ability to make such judgments will be preserved and a person won't become confused.42 Besides confusion would be detrimental to the attainment of pleasure. In order to "act rightly, we must have a right understanding of the world around us and must therefore refer to our perceptions." After people refer to their perceptions, they can act rightly to acquire pleasure. The guidance from our outer perceptions provides us to prevent pain from the outside world. Our inner perceptions provides us to "be sure that any action we choose is really productive of pleasure and not of pain."43

The guidance from such perceptions not only provides knowledge of reality and consequently pleasure, but also of justice and society. Epicurus merely connected virtue and justice with personal self-interest rather than in the interests of the community. Epicureans had only sought justice in lieu of injustice, although Epicurus claimed that "injustice is not an evil in itself." Instead the fear from injustice was the true evil, as it would create pain. When a person commits an unjust act, he will be in constant fear of being detected in his act and after her has committed it. He can never be sure, that he will escape his crime, "for up to the time of death it cannot be certain that he will indeed escape." A person would not only fear the possibility of being caught for his crime, which would also be a cause for pain. Justice was also sought, because "to obtain pleasure we need 'protection from men.'" Justice was this protection was provided, as a "compact between men," where people would refrain from hurting each other and justice was "a pledge of mutual advantage."44 No justice can be achieved without this mutual compact, for it can only be realized from social relations. Friendship was important to Epicureanism, and not community and justice as a compact between men was to provide friendship. Because social relations and pleasure determined what was justice, justice was relative to respective societies. To provide justice laws had only to be "of advantage in the requirements of men's dealings with one another..." A law is unjust only if it is made "and it does not turn out to lead to advantage in men's dealings with each other" and then becomes no longer "the essential nature of justice." Besides the wise man in Epicureanism was to avoid political life and had not social obligation toward mankind, and had no need of changing laws and promoting justice in respective societies.45

Epicurus then used his notion of law and justice to create new communities apart from mainstream civilization. People were to withdraw, as they were to "procure immunity from their neighbours" and "live most pleasantly with one another like individual atoms."46 They were to "live unnoticed," presumably from the outside world, from which the commune is to separate itself. These communes were socially egalitarian, and admitted both women and slaves. However Epicurean communes failed to be self-sufficient and became even more parasitical and more systematically invested into the rejected societies than the groups of Cynics. As Peter Greene stated in his book, Alexander to Actium,

"What in effect Epicurus had done was to set up a charitable foundation dependent on contributions, or, after a while on the interest of accumulated investments. The Garden [of an Epicurean commune] was thus, in economic terms at least, no more than a subbranch of the commercial society from which Epicurus and his friends professed to have withdrawn."47


Epicurus had sought to create an independent community based upon his ideals of pleasure, and justice, yet failed, and such failures were among the reasons for the rise in the philosophy of Scepticism in the Hellenistic era.

Scepticism had its origins in the Hellenic era, as "in the very effort[to seek knowledge] there came ever and again the revulsion of despair, the sick feeling that the effort was no good, and that there was no winning any real knowledge from the void." Because the dogmas and ideologies had conflicted with each other and often without definitive result, it was difficult to determine what to believe. The Sceptic philosopher Arcesilaus of Pitane, had demonstrated arguments on both sides of an issue and in the issue "could never come to rest in a dogmatic conclusion." He stated that there were no moral distinctions to be made or distinctions to be made between similar things or ideas. Scepticism was first introduced by Pyrrho of Elis and he had taught, that no dogma was to be considered credible due to its main principle of isostheneia. Isosthenia was the principle, that "equal strength on both sides of every question."48 Stoics were to not determine anything, as demonstrative reasoning wasn't trustworthy as proven by isostheneia. However they weren't to disbelieve anything. Sceptics wouldn't deny, that a fire was occurring, when smoke was to be seen. Sensory perception may have been partly credible to the sceptics, for they denied anything not to be directly experienced by the senses. For example, during the Hellenistic era there were no electron microscopes and one couldn't see atoms, so sceptics would deny the existence of atoms, because it was merely dogma. However the problem of determined what to believe, when a person couldn't trust his senses. Arcesilaus had assented to a cognitive impressions. These were to be propositions and not sensory perceptions, and only with true impressions. Carneades attempted to solve the problem with probability. he explained that true knowledge can be only probably found, by matching the input of the various senses to determine what was probably true. Another problem with scepticism was its lack of guidance for ataraxia and how to live to acquire happiness. Sceptic philosophers such as Timon and Pyrrho merely called for conforming to the rules of the respective societies. Later philosophers attempted to incorporate other concepts, but they weren't defined sufficiently, so sceptic philosophers reverted to the early philosophy of Timon.49

The Hellenistic philosophy had attempted to resolve new problems of not being a slave to Tyche and still being an agent in the world, after the old ideals collapsed. The polis had suddenly ceased to be an ideal and serve as a source for an identity. Many people were alienated from their respective cities. They sought from philosophy an alternative means of guidance on how to live, after traditional Greek values were declining, and with all the evils of this new world emerging. Hellenistic philosophy sought the ideal wise man. Cynicism attempted to provide guidance for this new world, by advocating independence from civilization and engaging in deliberate poverty. Stoicism also attempted to provide guidance for attaining ataraxia, autarkia and eudaimonia. A man was to do virtue in following universal reason and doing the promoted things which were axia. After the cosmology of Stoicism collapsed and Stoicism declined in the Roman empire, it left the world its legacy in Christianity. Epicureanism attempted to provide eudaimonia, ataraxia and autarkia through the pursuit of pleasure in the absence of pain. It had a workable system of ethics and justice based upon pleasure through the mutual compact. However Epicureanism collapsed in its inability to achieve autarkia in the real world. Scepticism failed to provide guidance for autarkia, and only called for conforming to the contemporary society, and didn't provide any ethical guidance. It merely sought to deny reality. Hellenistic philosophy was inefficient for ethical guidance of managing a personal life or organizing communities. However it did bring valuable contributions in leading to later philosophy on logic, knowledge of reality, and even leaving a legacy for Christianity, later philosophical inquiry from the Renaissance to modern times and scientific inquiry.

Works Cited

Secondary Sources

Bailey, M.A., Cyril. Epicurus: The Extant Remains. Clarendon Press: Oxford, U.K. 1926

Bevan, Edwyn. Stoics and Sceptics. Clarendon Press: Oxford, U.K. 1926.

Bury, J.B. and Barber, E.A. The Hellenistic Age: Aspects of Hellenistic Civilization. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1970

Ferguson, John. The Heritage of Hellenism: The Greek World From 323 B.C.E. to 31 B.C.E., Science History Publications: New York, NY. , 1971.

Dudley, Donald R. A History of Cynicism: From Diogenes to the 6th Century A.D. Methuen & Co. Ltd.: London, U.K. 1937.

Green, Peter. Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age. University of California Press: Los Angeles, CA. 1990.

Long, A. A. Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics. 2cd Ed. University of California Press: Los Angeles, CA. 1986.

Mckay, John P. and Hill, Bennett D. A History of Western Society: Vol. 1. From Antiquity to the Enlightenment. 5th Ed. Houghton Mifflin Co.: Princeton, NJ. 1995.

Navia, Luis E. Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study. Greenwood Press: Westport, Connecticut. 1996.

Sandbach, F.H. The Stoics. W.W. Norton & Company Inc.: New York, NY. 1975.


Primary Sources

Aristotle, Ethics. Translated by J.A.K. Thomson. Penguin Books: New York, New York. 1976.

Plutarch, The Age of Alexander. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. Penguin Books: New York, New York. 1973

Lucretius, Titus Carus. The Way Things Are. Translated by Rolfe Humphries. Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1968.

End Notes

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