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Philosophical Background of the Hellenistic Age

Hellenistic1 philosophy in contrast with the philosophy of Plato, which focused on the affairs of the polis, concentrated on the individual and his personal welfare. In general, Hellenistic philosophy recommended that the individual, in order to attain happiness, attempt to manage only what was for him personally manageable, his own character and thoughts. Man must become self-sufficient and not rely on anyone or anything outside himself for his well-being. Also, he must adopt an attitude toward external events which will result in attaining ataraxia 'imperturbability' (i.e., 'peace of mind'), the goal of most Hellenistic philosophies.

1The word "Hellenistic" comes from the verb hellenizein, which means 'to speak Greek' and also 'to Hellenize', that is, to make a non-Greek Greek. Because Alexander the Great had conquered the non-Greek East as far as India and had introduced Greek culture into that area, modern scholars have given the name 'Hellenistic' to the period of Greek history and culture following his death in 323 B.C. extending down to 146 B.C. when begins the period of Roman domination.

In the Hellenistic period various philosophies were devised in order to help man achieve happiness. The most popular was Stoicism. The founder of Stoicism was a Cypriot named Zeno (335-263 B.C.) who came to Athens in 313 and taught in a public colonnaded hall called the Stoa Poikile 'Painted Porch', from which his philosophy acquired its name. The doctrines of Zeno's philosophy aimed at the typically Hellenistic ideals of peace of mind and self-sufficiency and viewed man first and foremost as a member of the human race and secondarily a citizen of a particular polis.

Stoicism adopted a physical theory of the universe in part derived from that of the Presocratic Heraclitus. The basic stuff of the universe is not inert matter, but a living creative fire which contains the seeds of all creation. This fire pervades the whole universe in greater and smaller amounts. Higher forms of existence have more of it while lower forms, less. In its purest form it is identified with Reason and God, who is sometimes called Zeus or Jupiter, his Roman counterpart. Although Stoicism uses these traditional names which usually designate an anthropomorphic divinity, its concept of divinity is entirely non-anthropomorphic. The existence of the other gods is not denied, but they are often interpreted symbolically as natural phenomena (e.g., Apollo = the sun), as natural substances (Hera [Juno] = air; Poseidon [Neptune] = the sea) or as human feelings (e.g., Aphrodite [Venus] = sexual urges).

The divine rational fire of the universe is also identified by the Stoics with Fate. Under the influence of Babylonian astrology Stoicism adopted the idea of the sympathy of the universe. According to astrology, what happens in one part of the universe affects what happens in another part. Man as a microcosm of the universe is affected by what happens in the heavens. This suited well the Stoic doctrine that man, whose soul consisted of a portion of the divine fire, was governed by the universal divine fire, which plotted out in advance human events. The most important difference between astrological fate and Stoic fate, however, is that the former is viewed pessimistically while the latter is seen optimistically as a rational and providential principle. Stoic providential fate is best summed up in the modern saying: "Everything turns out for the best". Thus, human events which seem bad are only apparent evils; if the ultimate purposes of God were known, they would be seen as leading to some good. Man must learn to adjust to and accept what happens; to resist divine providence (i.e., whatever happens) is wrong and useless. The only result of such resistance is loss of peace of mind. Willing cooperation with the Divine Will is the only sensible course of action and the essence of Stoic virtue.

The teachings of the early Stoics emphasized that man must learn to deal with whatever happens to him, whether good or bad, by eliminating the passions which disturb his soul, such as fear, greed, grief and joy. He must attain a state of apatheia 'a complete lack of feeling' in order to achieve peace of mind. This unrealistic demand on human nature was characteristic of the extreme idealism of early Stoicism, which aimed at creating a limited utopian community of perfect wise men who alone could achieve these high ideals. The Greek Stoic philosopher Panaetius (c.185-109 B.C.), however, made Stoicism a less exclusive philosophy embracing the whole human race by rejecting the doctrine of apatheia without diminishing the importance of self-control and by emphasizing the equality and brotherhood of all men on the basis that every man's soul is derived from the divine rational fire. On a visit to Rome Panaetius became friendly with Publius Scipio Aemilianus, the conqueror of Carthage, who was at the head of a group of prominent philhellenic Romans known today as the Scipionic Circle. In this way the more humane values of Panaetius's version of Stoicism became popular among the Romans, who as a pragmatic people had little use for Greek philosophical idealism. Stoicism remained the dominant philosophy at Rome until the arrival of Christianity and even had a strong influence on the new religion.

Second only to Stoicism in popularity was the philosophy of Epicurus (341-270 B.C.), the son of an Athenian schoolteacher, who established his school at Athens in a garden attached to his house. For this reason Epicureanism was often referred to as the philosophy of "the Garden". Epicurus's associates (including women and slaves) lived together in his house in a philosophical community linked by close friendships isolating themselves from civic affairs and sharing an almost ascetic way of life. Epicurus was a prolific writer, but most of his works are lost including his major work On Nature.

Epicureanism shared with other Hellenistic philosophies the emphasis on the individual rather than the state, peace of mind, and self-sufficiency, but what set it apart was its common-sense approach to life. Since man naturally seeks pleasure and avoids pain, Epicurus identified man's chief good as pleasure. This emphasis on pleasure earned Epicurus a bad reputation both in ancient and modern times, which survives in the archaic meaning of the word 'epicure' as a person devoted to the pleasures of the senses and to luxury. This is a misunderstanding of Epicurus's teachings; he was not a hedonist in the pejorative sense of the word. He saw pleasure as the absence of pain and pain as an unsatisfied desire for pleasure. But not every desire had to be satisfied. Epicurus divided bodily pleasures into three categories: 1) physical and necessary (e.g., food, drink, clothing, shelter) 2) physical and not necessary (e.g., sex) 3) neither physical nor necessary (e.g., luxurious clothing or any luxury): #1 must be satisfied, #2 must be enjoyed prudently and #3 must be avoided. Pain, therefore, will only result when desires for pleasures of the first category are not satisfied. But perhaps even more critical to human happiness, according to Epicurus, is the avoidance of mental pains, which typically ruin human happiness: anxiety caused by involvement in public affairs, remorse brought about by a guilty conscience and the fear of the gods and of death. To avoid these pains is to experience pleasure of the mind and thus achieve ataraxia.

Epicurus supported his moral teachings with the physical theory of atomism, which he borrowed from the Presocratic philosopher Democritus of Abdera. His interest in atomism is not at all speculative but quite pragmatic. Epicurus saw in atomism an explanation of the origin of the universe that eliminated the gods from the world2 and proved that the soul was mortal. If man accepted atomism, then he would not be subject to those two great fears, which are most destructive of human happiness: the fear of the gods and of punishment in the afterlife.

2But this is not to say that Epicurus was an atheist. He believed that the gods exist in the interspaces between the innumerable worlds and, because they have no involvement with the world and the troublesome life of mankind, are models of Epicurean ataraxia.

Epicurus takes a purely utilitarian view of virtue, which he sees as secondary in importance to the avoidance of pain. Any virtue which brings pain is not to be practiced. On the other hand, we can most often avoid serious mental pain by being virtuous, because when we do wrong, we are tortured by remorse. In Epicurean ethics justice is not the all-encompassing moral principle presented by Plato, but a simple agreement among men not to harm or be harmed. In this light, justice is basically an effective means of diminishing the possibility of pain by agreeing not to inflict pain on others in return for not suffering pain.

Despite the Roman poet Lucretius's attempt in his poem On the Nature of the Universe to win his fellow citizens over to Epicureanism, this philosophy did not gain a large number of adherents at Rome. The Romans were a very religious people and religion was an essential part of the political structure at Rome. The political process with its extensive use of augury was predicated on the assumption that the gods were involved in the affairs of the Romans. The generally puritanical Romans also regarded with suspicion a philosophy which was so concerned with pleasure. Finally, Epicurus's recommendation of withdrawal from public life was not likely to earn his philosophy wide acceptance among an aristocracy which saw politics as a worthy and noble endeavor. With the advent of Christianity, Epicureanism met with even more hostility. Epicurus's teachings that the soul is mortal, that the world is the result of a chance combination of atoms, that there is no providential god and that the chief good is pleasure were totally at odds with Christian doctrine.

Table of Contents > Next Section: Lucretius' On the Nature of the Universe

 

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