Antisthenes, cynic. He believed
that virtue demanded withdrawal from
a world that was immoral and corrupt.
Epicurus, Thomas Jefferson's
favorite philosopher, misjudged as a
Zeno. The purpose in life was not happiness, it was to serve God
Some people in Hellenistic society adhered to the school of philosophy called Cynicism, a school of thought some other philosophers saw as hardly worthy of the name of philosophy. The founder of Cynicism was Antisthenes, who was about forty when he watched Athens defeated in the Peloponnesian War. He was a former student of Socrates, and he witnessed the execution of Socrates. Like Plato, Antisthenes was disgusted with the world around him. He had grown tired of what he saw as the worthless quibbling of refined philosophy. He saw himself as a teacher, and he left the company of other philosophers to preach to people in market places, in a manner he thought they could understand. He told people that virtue demanded withdrawal from involvement with a world that was immoral and corrupt.
Antisthenes' best known disciple was Diogenes - decades before Alexander the Great. Diogenes disliked his father's profession: money changing. He rejected chasing after wealth. He found virtue in having few or no possessions, in simplicity and in modest wants. He rejected fame and honor, but his demonstrations of asceticism were so novel to his fellow Greeks that it attracted great attention, and many Greeks came to think of him as extraordinarily wise. In his old age his fame was enough that Alexander visited him and asked if there was any favor he wished, and Diogenes, the story goes, replied that he wanted only that Alexander stand out of his sunlight.
In the Hellenistic times that followed the death of Alexander, a few philosophers adopted the thinking and style of Antisthenes and Diogenes. They wandered from place to place, and at town squares they discussed social conventions and simple virtues. It was with these Cynics that the word cosmopolitan was coined, a word used to signify that they belonged to no state. They advocated salvation from worry and conflict by what some in modern times would call dropping out. They were entertaining to listen to, but Cynicism would forever remain a small and barely influential movement. For most people the call to drop out made no sense: they were already barely able to feed and clothe themselves and their families. The Cynics were little interested in economic realities. Only a few could go about without working, living off what was provided by those who labored in the fields or at other occupations. For most who had to struggle to get by the Cynics must have appeared as much the intellectual babblers that Antisthenes thought other philosophers to be.
Another philosophy that focused on how one should live was Epicureanism. Like the Cynics, Epicureans believed it best to purge oneself of the appetite for power or fortune, and they too favored withdrawal from the corruptions of society. Nevertheless, they wished to keep the wealth and possessions that helped make life pleasant, and most Epicureans were people who had accumulated some wealth.
Epicurus was from an Athenian family from the island of Samos. He went to Athens at the age of eighteen to confirm his Athenian citizenship – the year before Alexander died. Later he took up residence in the city of Mytilene, and there, at the age of thirty, he acquired recognition as a philosopher.
Epicurus was influenced by the materialism of Democritus. He believed that humanity created its destiny without interference from capricious spirits. Religion, he complained, unnecessarily frightened people by describing them at the mercy of gods and demons. He escaped from the unpopularity of atheism by speaking of gods as if they were nature rather than nature's creators. The gods, claimed Epicurus, should be worshiped with neither fear nor hope. And do not fear death, he said, for death is but eternal sleep and the dead feel no pain or torment.
Epicurus addressed the ultimate question about life by claiming that life was worth living. He saw life as possibly joyous – if one had an adequate sensitivity to the world of beauty and good friendships, good health and freedom from drudgery. He believed in the pleasures of contemplation, physical beauty and attachments to others.
Epicurus believed that the driving force of life is the avoidance of pain. He believed that the essence of virtue is avoiding inflicting pain upon others. He believed that the avoidance of pain for oneself and for others should take precedence over the pursuit of pleasure. He advocated self-control to avoid painful consequences. Pleasure, he said, should be adjusted to the equilibrium in one's body and mind. Excessive devotion to the gratification of appetites, he said, produces misery rather than happiness and should therefore be avoided.
Unlike the Cynics, Epicurus and his followers believed in community. Epicurus was political insofar as he saw that it was in the best interest of society that people carry out agreements that promote fellowship. This implied a contractual form of government. But Epicurus and his followers did not advocate group action for social change. They saw political struggle as creating a distress that should be avoided. They advocated civic tranquility and a search for peace of mind. They advocated living unnoticed, abstaining from public life and from making enemies – an approach to politics that suited those living under authoritarian rule who wished to continue living comfortably.
Epicureans questioned various methods of arriving at truth, and in keeping with their basic godlessness the championed an empirical approach, a process of confirmation and disconfirmation. For example, when a person far from you comes closer and closer, you confirm or reject that it is the person you expected it to be. (Humanity would have closer perceiving to do with microscopes and telescopes.)
Epicureanism was to be the avowed philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, who must have found Epicureanism compatible with the Deism popular in his day, which also placed God outside of human affairs. Jefferson was to describe Epicureanism as the most rational philosophical system of the ancients. And his Epicureanism was to find expression in his contribution to the American Declaration of Independence, in its phrase "pursuit of happiness."
The Stoics - Precursors to Christianity
The Stoics rejected Epicureanism, including the belief that one's purpose in life should be to seek happiness. The purpose in life, they held, was to serve God's plan.
At the heart of Stoicism was the phrase "thy will be done." The Stoics believed that God worked in mysterious ways, that humanity was able to see only a tiny portion of God's plan. They explained the existence of evil within this master plan as God exercising people for virtue.
Central to their ethics was the belief that people had to choose between God's purpose and error. The Stoics believed that people exercised virtue by freeing themselves from conceit, by adhering to a humility that would better open them to follow what God had destined for them. This included indifference toward worldly success, rank or status.
The founder of Stoicism was Zeno of Citium, who was seven years younger than Epicurus. On a business trip from his native Cyprus, Zeno arrived in Athens at the age of twenty-two, ten years after the death of Alexander, and there he became involved in philosophical debates and stayed. He embraced the notion of brotherhood of man that came with Alexander's attempt to unite a great variety of people into a single empire. He believed that God was the father to all and that all men were therefore brothers. He was influenced by the dissatisfactions expressed by Cynics, but rather than seeking withdrawal he dreamed of social change. Borrowing a title from Plato, Zeno wrote his own utopia, entitled The Republic, describing a society of people joined voluntarily under divine laws to which everyone consented. In his Republic there would be no need for courts of law, and love and sharing would make money unnecessary. In the place of separate, independent societies his utopia was one great nation bound together by love.
The god of Zeno and the Stoics was a Supreme Being, a divine fire from which came all that exists in heaven and earth, a god the Greeks called Zeus. Stoics tried to explain various gods as one god. And they attempted to explain the myths of various religions as representations of universal truths.
Zeno believed that all humanity had a soul – a divine spark – that eventually returned to divine eternity. The universe, he believed, was in essence a manifestation of godly reason. He saw passion as detrimental to reason and therefore ungodly.
Seeing life as planned by God, Zeno and his followers believed in facing all circumstances with resignation. They believed that one should accept and compose oneself for whatever came one’s way. The Stoics believed that self-discipline was the starting point of virtue and necessary in their contemplation of God. They saw freedom as a state of mind. An individual, they believed, could be free whatever his circumstances, including imprisonment, if he contemplated God. For the Stoics, poverty and slavery affected only the body, and what affected only the body was a matter of lesser importance than that of attitude. The poorest slave, they held, could be a king in his own soul.
Some Stoics actively opposed slavery, and some opposed the power of the wealthy, while others were advisors to kings and saw monarchs as noble servants and as a part of the Divine Plan. Most Stoics believed that the violence that would be involved in overthrowing existing institutions would be worse than existing injustices, and some of them believed that society would improve if people would only obey their rulers. And, in keeping with their belief in the brotherhood of man, some favored change through reason and agreement – as if conflicting interests and conflicting views could be overcome by education or collective revelation.
Among the Hellenized, where freedom to speak and variety in ideas was extensive, one more school of philosophy was bound to emerge. This was Skepticism. The founder of Skepticism was Pyrrhon, who, while campaigning as a soldier with Alexander, had come into contact with a great variety of conflicting beliefs. He saw contrary belief as a source of trouble in the world. He established himself as a teacher in the city of Elis, in the northwest of Peloponnesia. He argued that equally valid arguments could be made on either side of any question and therefore it was best to draw no conclusion about the nature of things. And in rejecting conclusions, Pyrrhon was left with intuition and faith. In Skepticism some found justification for believing in their god or gods, and they practiced religion as insurance against damnation.
Not believing in conclusions, Pyrrhon believed that one should live according to one's circumstances and desires. What mattered, concluded Pyrrhon, was living well and living unperturbed. But the imperturbability that Pyrrhon sought eluded him. He made much money teaching his doctrine of Skepticism, and he spent much time attacking a philosopher named Arcesilaus, whom he believed had copied his ideas and was endangering his source of wealth. [note]
Arcesilaus revived Plato's academy in Athens and left it devoted to Skepticism and the refutation of Stoicism.
A few followers of Pyrrhon supported Skepticism by trying to demonstrate inconsistencies and contradictions in the conclusions of others. They examined the logic of Aristotle and concluded that people could not deduce their way to truth from a self-evident premise. They examined materialist philosophy and concluded that the senses were unreliable and an invalid source of knowledge.
The Skeptics were drawing conclusions about humanity’s inability to draw conclusions, and they were viewing knowledge as absolute rather than as approximation.