Three Main Hellenistic Philosophies of Life

Note: This is an essay I wrote when I was in college and still a baby philosopher. I wrote this essay back in 2015 for my Ancient Philosophy course.

Epicureanism

Epicureanism is a philosophy based on the teachings of Epicurus. He was an atomic materialist, and he followed the teachings of Democritus. Epicurus was born on the Greek island of Samos in the Aegan. He spent most of his life in Athens and it is there where he founded his school. Epicureanism has been considered a form of hedonistic philosophy. Epicureanism is considered to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and liberation from fear as well as absence of suffering (aponia.) It is the combination of these two things that can lead to happiness. It is for this reason that it is considered to be hedonistic, in so far as it states that pleasure is a telos, a goal to be reached, and that in order to be happy there has to be an absence from pain or suffering.

The school of Epicurus was called “The Garden” and along with skepticism, and stoicism, it became one of the three main Hellenistic philosophies. Epicurus advocated living in a way where the maximum goal was to reach pleasure. It was also recognized for its absence of divine law, rules or principles. Epicurus argued that fear of death was in many respect irrational and a waste of a person’s time. In fact, he wrote:

“Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.”

EPICURUS

He basically says that there is no point in worrying so much about death. We are either here or we are not, and once we are not we probably won’t even realize, so why suffer at all? Even if one is constantly afraid of death, there is nothing that can be done to change the fact that we are all going to die, so if you can’t change that then why worry at all? He also believed that the point of philosophy was to help get rid of this fear. According to Nigel Warburton: “Epicurean’s teachings were a form of therapy. Epicurus aim was to cure his students of mental pain, and to suggest how physical pain could be made bearable by remembering past pleasures. When he was dying and in some discomfort, he wrote to a friend about how he managed to distract himself from his illness by recalling his enjoyment of their past conversations.”

I disagree with Epicurean’s philosophy. I do not think that our goal should be to always feel pleasure. Also, the brain does not work that way, we feel scared, and upset for reasons and sometimes for even evolutionary purposes. Sometimes feeling scared of something could potentially save your life. If we were in a constant state of pleasure, we would possibly risk feeling some very useful emotions.

Skepticism

Skepticism is the western philosophical tradition that states that we can never arrive at any sort of knowledge. I will be focusing on Sextus Empiricus text to explain skepticism. In his first chapter, he talks about the difference between the dogmatists, the academics, and the skeptics. When it comes to truth claims, Sextus Empiricus tells us there are three ways of thinking about them. Those who “claim to have discovered the truth, others have asserted it but can’t comprehend it, while others go on inquiring.” Those who claim to have discovered the truth, Epicurus explains, are the dogmatists – such as Plato, Aristotle, etc. The academics treat it as the inapprehensible, and the Skeptics are the ones who keep on looking. In chapter 4, he describes skepticism as “an ability or mental attitude, which opposes appearances of judgments in any way whatsoever, with the result that, owing to the equipollence of the objects and reasons thus opposed, we are brought firstly to a state of mental suspense and next to a state of “unperturbedness” or quietude.” He then goes on to explain that suspense is a mental state where one neither denies, nor affirms anything, and that quietude is having an untroubled soul.

There are several types of skeptics. Dogmatic skeptics, such as Aristotle and Plato, were philosophers that believed that they understood how knowledge works and they had a theory for it. Academic skeptics were dogmatic but in the opposite sense as in, we can never know what knowledge is. Pyrrhonists weren’t so concerned with philosophy for epistemological usage. Rather they saw skepticism as a way of life. For these skeptics their goal is ataraxia which is being free of disturbance, and this can be reached with epoche which is the suspension of judgment. On chapter 33, he makes a distinction between the skeptics and academics. He uses Plato as an example of a philosopher that has been called a dogmatist. He claims that Plato was not really a skeptic. Plato leaves the door open to certain truth claims, he has affirmations in his texts, and skeptics suspend judgment of everything, which is why Sextus Empiricus gets to the conclusion there is a difference in philosophies.

Stoicism

According to Epictetus text, The Enchiridion, Epictetus was the son of a woman slave, born between 50 and 60 A.D. at Hieropolis in Phrygia. He started giving classes to students from Athens as well as from Rome. This book is about Epictetus’ philosophy as a way of life, and is also considered to be a summary of his main ideas of Stoic philosophy. One of the teachings in chapter five is: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things. Thus death is nothing terrible, the terror consists in our notion of death. When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed, or grieved, let us never impute it to others, but to ourselves—that is, to our own views. It is the action of an uninstructed person to reproach others for his own misfortunes; of one entering upon instruction, to reproach himself; and one perfectly instructed, to reproach neither others nor himself.”

I whole heartedly disagree with this teaching. I would argue that in life, there are things that are disturbing in and of themselves despite the views we take of things. So for example, someone getting an illness, that is an external factor that will cause distress in a person’s life, despite them having a positive or negative attitude. One can maybe choose how to handle X situation in life but that does not mean that it doesn’t cause some form of suffering. Also, there are people who should be held accountable for their actions, and I would argue that there are things that could possibly be reproachable about oneself or others. Facing life without a display of feelings during hardships, is I think a very unhealthy way to live it.Write an essay based on the assigned readings by and about Aristotle. Again, use quotations where appropriate.

Work Cited:

Cook, Vincent. “Letter to Menoeceus.” Epicurus – Letter to Menoeceus. Epicurus.net, n.d. Web. 05 May 2017.

Warburton, Nigel. A Little History of Philosophy. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. Print.

Sextus, Empiricus. “Outlines of Pyrrhonism.” Summary/Reviews. Prometheus Books, 1990, n.d. Web. 06 May 2017.

Epictetus. “The Enchiridion.” The Internet Classics Archive | The Enchiridion by Epictetus. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2017.