Philosophy — Ancient


Hellenistic Philosophy

After Alexander’s conquests a new pessimism descended upon Greek thinkers. Alienated from the centre of government and no longer in control of their own political destiny, they turned inward and developed what Bertrand Russell has called a ‘philosophy of retreat’. The optimistic intellectual ambition of Plato and Aristotle was a thing of the past. In the Hellenistic world, philosophical questions became primarily ethical, in particular the problem of how to live well in difficult circumstances. The different schools all advocated a detachment from daily affairs and offered the hope of achieving tranquillity (ataraxia) in a troubled world. This pessimistic philosophy was in turn adopted by the Romans who had little original to add, but who were thankful for any consolation as their empire slowly declined.

The Hellenistic philosophers can be conveniently grouped into the four schools of the Cynics, the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Sceptics. In the end it would be Stoicism that proved most attractive to the ancient world, but for three centuries after Alexander’s death each of the schools offered a new interpretation of the ‘examined life’ advocated by Socrates.


The Cynics saw themselves as direct descendants of the Socratic tradition. The founder of the Cynical school, Antisthenes, was a close friend and student of Socrates: he too emphasised virtue and reason, was suspicious of metaphysics and cultivated indifference to the trappings of wealth and power. Poverty and simplicity were a shortcut to virtue and served to redefine the goal of the ethical life. But it was Antisthenes’ disciple Diogenes who took the Cynical philosophy to its most striking and memorable extreme.

Diogenes was the son of a money-changer who had been imprisoned for defacing the coinage. Seeking a life of virtue, Diogenes set out to deface the ‘sham coinage’ of conventional morality. Like Antisthenes, he argued for a simple and self-sufficient life in accordance with nature, which he defined as the opposite of social convention. The stories of his anarchic lifestyle are well-known: he lived in a tub without possessions, and when Alexander the Great met him in Corinth and asked if there was anything he could do for the famous philosopher, Diogenes replied: Get out of my light. Insisting that what is natural cannot be shameful, he defecated in the theatre and masturbated on the street. During the day he wandered around with a lantern searching in vain for an honest man. He was indifferent to wealth, power and social obligations and displayed only contempt for academic philosophy and metaphysics.

The term ‘Cynic’ derives from the Greek word for ‘dog-like’: the lifestyles of Antisthenes and Diogenes gave rise to the insult but the Cynics themselves enjoyed the associations, barking at passers-by. Cynicism was more of a rebellion than a philosophy, but it introduced some radical new ideas into the discussion of ethics. When Diogenes was asked where he came from, he replied: I am a citizen of the world (kosmopolites). By rejecting the customs and political identity of the city-states of Greece, he paved the way for a broader sense of human community. This idea, and some of the more palatable Cynical attitudes, would soon evolve into Stoicism (and would later come to influence Rousseau).


The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, was originally a pupil of Crates the Cynic. He taught in the painted colonnade (stoa poikile) in the agora at Athens, from which the Stoics took their name. The doctrines of Stoicism did not remain constant over time, although many of them can be attributed to Chrysippus in the third century, but like the Cynics they saw themselves as the heirs of Socrates, emphasising a simple life lived according to virtue. The death of Socrates, particularly his calm and reflective attitude in the face of execution, remained a model for Stoic virtue.

The philosophy of Stoicism was grounded in an understanding of physics. The Stoics were thoroughgoing materialists insisting (against Plato) that nothing incorporeal exists. Taking their cue from Heraclitus, they believed that all matter emerges from fire: the physical universe came into being from fire and will return to fire in a general conflagration. This process is cyclical, and the universe will continue to come into being before being consumed again. The Stoics were, accordingly, determinist: the cycle is governed by natural laws, understood as fate or providence. God determines this providence and is part of the material universe, the primal fire or reason (logos). A good life is therefore one lived in harmony with nature and reason, accepting without complaint the natural laws of the universe. This materialist account would deeply influence Spinoza in the seventeenth century.

From such physics the Stoics derived an austere ethical code. Virtue is the sole intrinsic good, and a virtuous life is one lived in agreement with nature. Humans are free to choose this path and embrace the well-ordered plan of the universe. Since all things are determined, it is not rational to resent or delight in them, and accordingly the Stoics disdained all passions and cultivated an indifference to pain and pleasure, sickness and health, wealth and power. When a life could no longer be lived in agreement with nature – in serious illness, or under threat of execution – it was rational to commit suicide. This indifference to personal circumstances made the Stoics ideal politicians: cosmopolitan, unswayed by egoistic concerns and able to guide the state in its ‘natural’ direction. Once a person has freed themselves from irrational concern for the events of their life, they will live in tranquillity. In practice, this usually meant a sternly ascetic existence with few material pleasures.

The Stoic lifestyle appealed to the puritanical Romans and the most complete accounts of Stoic philosophy come from the Roman period. Seneca, tutor and later adviser to the Emperor Nero, advocated a virtuous life free from passion and the dangers of ambition. The excesses of Nero, and Seneca’s involvement in them, sit uneasily with the philosopher’s beliefs (as Seneca himself acknowledged). In the end, he was implicated in a conspiracy against the Emperor and committed suicide. Two other significant adherents of Stoicism were the Greek slave Epictetus who taught in Rome, and the later emperor Marcus Aurelius. It is remarkable that both a slave and an Emperor could find consolation in the same principles of living well, and testament to the broad appeal of this somewhat joyless philosophy.


The most successful rival to the Stoic school in this period was Epicureanism which placed pleasure at the heart of the good life. Epicurus established a philosophical community in Athens called the Garden around the end of the fourth century and welcomed all comers, including slaves, children and prostitutes. Epicureanism advocated a life of pleasure, free from fear of death and religious superstition, and like Stoicism was based on a materialist physics.

Epicurus adapted his physics from the atomism of Democritus. The universe is composed of atoms moving in a void, and everything can be explained by mechanistic forces. Humans, however, are free to control their own fate. There is of course no room for the Gods in such a mechanistic universe, although Epicurus allows that they exist. But they inhabit a separate realm in perfect tranquillity and accordingly have no concern for humans. Providence is mere superstition and religious rituals are futile. In such a universe it makes no sense to fear the Gods – who are unaffected by favour or anger towards mankind – nor to fear death, which is simply a dissolution of the atoms of the body and soul. For Epicurus, religion and death are the two main sources of anxiety in human life.

Unlike the Stoics, the Epicureans recognised pleasure as the only intrinsic good. But not all pleasures are equal: ‘moving’ pleasures involve the satisfaction of urges such as hunger and are basically sensual; but the best pleasures are ‘static’, involving satisfaction and the absence of desire. Likewise, mental pleasures are generally more profound than bodily pleasures, and should therefore be preferred. By living prudently and simply with modest desires, and liberating oneself from fear, absolute tranquillity can be attained. Despite the term’s modern connotations, ancient Epicureans were more concerned with freedom from pain than the indulgence of the senses. The best way to achieve equilibrium is through the quiet pleasures of friendship and contemplation, rather than the violent motions of desire and gratification. Virtue consists in prudence and the avoidance of resentment or envy: as a result, Epicureans shunned politics as a career and generally avoided sexual activity.

The most complete account of Epicureanism that survives is the great philosophical poem of Lucretius from the first century, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe). Lucretius elegantly and powerfully restates the key ideas of Epicurus’ philosophy: his atomistic physics, his critique of religious superstition and his materialist account of death. But even with such a persuasive advocate, Epicureanism never truly gripped the Roman mind and it remained the choice only of a cultivated few, unlike the more popular Stoicism.


When Arcesilaus became the head of Plato’s Academy in the third century, he returned to the teachings of Socrates. By engaging in questioning dialogue and insisting upon his own ignorance, he sought to demonstrate that nothing could be known for certain. Arcesilaus became notorious for arguing both sides of every question with equal conviction, and thus became the founder of Scepticism. Academic Scepticism, as this form became known, was developed more coherently a century later by Carneades who, like his predecessor, openly attacked the Stoics.

Some time in the first century, Aenesidemus became dissatisfied with the Academy’s dogmatic approach to Scepticism and sought to revive a more radical form based on the teachings of the third-century Pyrrho of Elis. Accordingly, this became known as Pyrrhonian Scepticism. Supposedly Pyrrho had achieved a godlike state of calm by developing an indifference to belief and opinion, to the extent that his friends needed to stop him walking off cliffs or in front of carriages. Pyrrhonian Scepticism, like the other Hellenistic schools, sought to provide tranquillity (ataraxia) through its teachings: but the Sceptics chose epistemology rather than ethics as their field of operations.

The later Sceptic Sextus Empiricus tells the story of the painter Apelles who grew so frustrated at his inability to portray the flecks of foam on a horse’s mouth, he threw his sponge at the painting: the impact of the sponge produced exactly the effect he was striving for. Scepticism advocates the same attitude towards knowledge and, more radically, belief: throw in the towel, stop trying to make sense of all the competing claims, and tranquillity will follow ‘as a shadow follows its object’. The Sceptics amassed a huge number of arguments to achieve this end. The fallibility of the senses and the limits of perception; relativist arguments, for instance that manure is repellent to humans but delightful to animals; the meeting of opposites (so wine is both fortifying and debilitating); the subjectivity of values like beauty; and so on. These epistemological arguments, when fully appreciated, imply that no belief is more persuasive than its opposite. You may as well try to believe that the number of stars in the sky is an even number. False beliefs lead to desire and fear: by removing the error and suspending judgement, the torments of desire and fear evaporate and tranquillity is achieved.

Since for the Sceptic all judgement has been suspended, this leads to the practical question of how to live. Every lifestyle demands some ethical and practical judgements. The Sceptics, like the Cynics, were indifferent to social conventions, but in the absence of any better lifestyle were prepared to follow custom. What marks the Sceptics as different is their epistemic attitude. For instance, worship at the temple was acceptable as long as no religious belief was involved. Most Sceptics were happy to live in accordance with appearances, but without developing dogmatic beliefs. Practice is less important than inner tranquillity.


Within a few centuries the Hellenistic schools of Greece and Rome would be eclipsed by the rise of Christianity. The new religion absorbed many ideas from Greek philosophy, notably the Platonic distrust of the mortal world, and the Hellenistic detachment from earthly pleasures and honours. But the theories of the philosophers were too rarefied, and perhaps too pessimistic. In the end, it was the simpler message of salvation through faith that would triumph.


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