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Explain and describe the three chief schools of philosophy during the Hellenistic Age: the Cynic, the Stoic, and the Epicurean.

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  1. madhu.mukherjee.946
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    A. CYNICISM One of the first Hellenistic schools to emerge is that of Cynicism, which emphasized denying established conventions and following one’s natural inclinations. Cynic philosophers taught through deliberately shocking speech and action, thereby conveying their condemnation of traditional social values such as wealth, reputation, pleasure, property, family duties, and religion. The earliest Cynic philosopher, an Athenean named Antisthenes (c. 444-365 BCE), studied under Socrates and was present at his execution. But unlike Plato who was inspired by the content of Socrates’ teachings and his dialectic method, Antisthenes was attracted to Socrates’ “in your face” attitude and learned from him “the art of enduring, and of being indifferent to external circumstances”—that is, an independent way of living. While none of Antisthenes’ writings survive, he is credited with a number of startling sayings that reflect his defiant attitude towards social convention, such as “I would rather go mad than feel pleasure.” He was once criticized for associating with disreputable men, and he responded “Physicians also live with those who are sick, but they do not catch fevers.” Plato once spoke poorly of him and Antisthenes replied “It is a royal privilege to do well, and to be ill spoken of.” Once he was asked why he had so few disciples, and he replied “Because I drove them away with a silver rod.” When asked why he criticized his pupils with harsh language, he said “Physicians too use severe remedies for their patients.” Diogenes the Dog Antisthenes’ most famous pupil, and the one who gave the most distinct character to the school of Cynicism, was Diogenes (412-323 BCE), who came to Athens from the city of Sinope on the north coast of what is now Turkey. He was exiled from his home town when he and his father defaced the coinage of that city—an act of disrespect which in our times would be the equivalent of burning the flag. Someone once criticized him for being exiled, and he responded, “You wretched man, that is what made me a philosopher!” In Athens he continually pestered Antisthenes to take him on as a student, eventually provoking the master to raise his stick to hit him. Diogenes put his head under the stick and said, “Strike, for you will not find any stick hard enough to drive me away as long as you continue to speak.” Antisthenes then took him on. As with his teacher, none of Diogenes writings survive, but an array of stories about his peculiar views and behavior give us a picture about what he believed. He lived as a beggar in the streets of Athens, sometimes residing in a barrel. He spent his days criticizing his fellow Athenians for their shallow lifestyles and blind adherence to social conventions that removed them from living freely according to the principles of nature. He said of himself that he adopted the same type of life as Hercules, preferring nothing in the world to freedom. He ignored subjects like music, geometry and astronomy, holding them to be useless and unnecessary. Someone once criticized him for philosophizing without possessing any knowledge; he responded, “If I only pretend to wisdom, that is philosophizing.” The most famous story about him is that he walked around during the daytime with a lit candle saying “I am looking for a genuine man.” His point was that few people lived as they should, try as we might to find them. This message is reflected in another story where, when returning from the Olympic games, someone asked him whether there was a great crowd there; he replied, “Yes, a great crowd, but very few men.” A running theme in Diogenes’ philosophy was contempt for luxury. He said, “things of great value were often sold for nothing, and things worth nothing sold for a great price.” When a famous general asked Diogenes to dine with him, Diogenes said “I would rather lick up salt in Athens than enjoy a luxurious table with him.” Once he saw a child drinking out of his hands, and so Diogenes threw away his cup and said “That child has beaten me in simplicity.” He also threw away his spoon when he saw a boy scoop up his food with a crust of bread after breaking his eating utensil. While rejecting luxuries, Diogenes warned about dismissing all pleasures since, paradoxically, people get a sense of pleasure from ascetic lifestyles. For, just as people who live in luxury grow accustom to it and resist losing it, so too do people feel a kind of pleasure in their contempt for pleasure. Legend has it that Alexander the Great once met him, saying “I am Alexander, the great king;” Diogenes replied “And I, am Diogenes the dog.” Another version of the story relates that Diogenes was sunbathing and Alexander, who was nearby, said, “Ask any favor that you want from me”; Diogenes then requested that Alexander step to the side since he was blocking the sun. Athenean citizens seem to have had a love-hate relation with him. On the one hand, he would boldly confront anyone he saw, mocking them for ordinary things. For example, when someone had dropped a loaf of bread and was too ashamed to pick it up again, Diogenes tied a cord round the neck of a bottle and dragged it through the streets while following the man, just to heckle him for his pride. Similarly, when he saw an untalented man tuning a musical instrument, he said to him “Aren’t you ashamed to be arranging proper sounds on a wooden instrument, and not arranging your soul to a proper life?” There are also numerous stories about people hitting him. Once a man struck him with a broom, and said, “Watch it!” so Diogenes struck him back with his staff and said “Watch it!” On the other hand, at least some citizens found him endearing and when a youth had broken Diogenes barrel, they beat the young man and gave Diogenes another one. Diogenes acquired the nickname “the Dog”, and in fact the name “cynicism” itself derives from the Greek word for “dog”. While it’s not clear how the designation “dog” originated, it may have been as simple as the fact that Diogenes was a vagabond, just like a stray dog. Someone once asked him what he did that made people refer to him as a dog, and he replied with a witty but unhelpful answer “Because I nuzzle up to those who give me anything, and bark at those who give me nothing, and bite the scoundrel.” He was regularly ridiculed by people for his nickname, as when he was once eating in the marketplace and bystanders kept yelling “Dog” at him. He replied “It is you who are the dogs, who stand around me while I am at dinner.” Once, too, some boys circled around him and said “We are watching out so that you don’t bite us;” he responded, “Don’t worry, a dog does not eat the meat of cows.” One time at a banquet some of the guests threw him bones, as if he was a dog; he responded by lifting his leg and urinating on them just as a dog would. Diogenes was in Athens while Plato was still alive, and the two did not get along well together. Plato once called him a dog, and Diogenes responded “I certainly am, for I have wandered back to those who sold me.” Plato defined a human being as a “featherless biped”; Diogenes subsequently produced a plucked chicken and said “Here is Plato’s human being.” This prompted Plato to add to his definition that a human being is a featherless biped “with broad flat nails.” Once Diogenes stood under a fountain, where bystanders were pitying him; Plato was also there and said “If you really want to show pity for him, just walk away” since he was only acting like that to gain a disgraceful reputation. While traveling to another city, Diogenes’ ship was captured by pirates and he was sold into slavery. When the slave auctioneer asked him what he was skilled at, Diogenes said “At governing people,” and, pointing to a well-dressed buyer, he said “Sell me to that man, for he wants a master.” The man indeed purchased Diogenes, put him in charge of his estate in the city of Corinth and had him tutor his son. He died at age 90 by holding his breath because, as his friends reported, he wished to escape the remaining portion of his life. A statue of a dog was placed on his grave. B. EPICUREANISM The founder and namesake of the Epicurean school was Epicurus (341–270 BCE), who adapted the Atomistic views of Democritus and held that happiness is achieved through pleasure. Epicurus was born on the island of Samos—just off of the Turkish peninsula—which at the time was a colony of Athens, thus giving him Athenian citizenship. He began his study of philosophy at the young age of 14 under the teaching of Democritus, and his Athenian citizenship required him, at age 18, to complete two years of military training. Being in Athens during this time allowed him the opportunity of hearing Greek philosophers who were there then, particularly Aristotle. He traveled for some time, perhaps learning from other philosophers, and, returning to Athens, he bought a house and establish his school, known as The Garden, which was located just outside of the city, and close to Plato’s Academy. He remained at The Garden with his followers for the rest of his life. A most significant difference in his school was that they accepted women. Unlike with the Pythagorean school, Epicurus did not allow his followers to communally own their property, since he believed this showed a distrust of one another. There are reports of him harshly criticizing virtually every other philosopher of the time, calling Aristotle a glutton and drug dealer, the Cynics the enemies of Greece. At the same time, he was reputed to be kind towards everyone, with so many friends that “they could not be contained in whole cities.” Epicurus’ teaching so influenced society that we use the term “Epicurean,” which has now strayed to mean luxurious living, rather than his philosophy that sought tranquility first of all through simple living. At 72 years of age, Epicurus died of kidney stones, making as a final request that his students remember his teachings. He authored over 300 works, written in a plain and easy to follow style, containing no quotations from other philosophers. 37 of these were specifically on natural philosophy. Of his writings, only three short letters of his survive, which summarize his views. In addition to these, there is an important book-length exposition of his philosophy by the Roman poet Lucretius (c. 99-55 BCE), titled On Nature. Atoms, the Slight Swerve, and Free Will Epicurus philosophy of nature is an adaptation of the Presocratic Atomistic theories of Leucippus and Democritus. According to the classic Atomism, the only things that exist are atoms in a vacuum of empty space; they are continually moving, or at least vibrating, and have different sizes and shapes. Epicurus describes the basic features of the atoms here: The atoms are in a continual state of motion. Among the atoms, some are separated by great distances, others come very near to one another in the formation of combined bodies, or at times are enveloped by others which are combining. But in this latter case they, nevertheless, preserve their own peculiar motion, thanks to the nature of the vacuum, which separates the one from the other, and yet offers them no resistance. The solidity which they possess causes them, while knocking against one another, to react the one upon the other. Eventually the repeated shocks bring on the dissolution of the combined body; and for all this there is no external cause, the atoms and the vacuum being the only causes. [Epicurus, Herodotus] An important adaptation that Epicurus made to Atomism is that atoms have weight and thus fall downward, each equally distant from the others. However, he recognized that if they all fell perfectly parallel to each other at the same speed, they would never collide to make larger composite bodies. Thus, atoms need to deviate at least a little when they fall, which allows them to make contact with other atoms. Expounding on Epicurus’ theory, Lucretius calls this deviation the slight swerve, and describes its operation here: When bodies are carried downwards vertically through the void by their own weights, at quite uncertain times and uncertain spots they push themselves a little from their course: you just and only just can call it a change of inclination. If they did not swerve, they would all fall down, like drops of rain, through the deep void, and no colliding would have been resulted nor blow produced among the first-beginnings: thus nature never would have produced anything. [Lucretius, On Nature, 2] It’s not clear exactly how the swerve takes place, but Epicurus seems to have held that it occurs without any cause. This claim drew attack from other early philosophers, such as the following by the Roman eclectic philosopher Cicero, who felt that there is no place in science for an uncaused event: The swerving is itself an arbitrary fiction; for Epicurus says the atoms swerve without cause. But this is the capital offense in a natural philosopher, to speak of something taking place uncaused. Then also he gratuitously deprives the atoms of what he himself declared to be the natural motion of all heavy bodies, namely, movement in a straight line downwards . . . This riotous hurly-burly of atoms could not possibly result in the ordered beauty of the world we know. [Cicero, About the Ends of Goods and Evils, 1.6] Philosophers as well as scientists would have every reason to be suspicious about Epicurus’s claim regarding an uncaused natural event. However, the general idea gains more sympathy today in view of the contemporary theory of indeterminacy in quantum physics (electrons do not have determinate positions and movements). And, just as Greek Atomists are considered intellectual forerunners to modern atomic theory, Epicurus’ view of the slight swerve eerily anticipates contemporary indeterminacy. While Epicurus initially introduces the theory of the slight swerve to explain how falling atoms collide and form clusters, he uses the theory to another important end, namely, to explain free will. In the chapter on the Presocratics, we noted that classical Atomism implies determinism: all events are determined according to the physical laws which govern atoms. Since humans are composed entirely of physical atoms, then all of our actions are determined according to such laws. Many ancient philosophers, like the early Atomists, were content with the notion of determinism. Epicurus, though, believed that free will is a fact of human experience: the actions that we perform throughout the day display free choice. The problem, then, is how to rectify physical determinism with free will. His solution is that free will is the result of the slight swerve: What causes this free will for living things all over the earth? From what source, I ask, is it extracted from fate—this will by which we move forward, where pleasure leads each one of us, and swerve likewise in our motions neither at determined times nor in a determined direction of place, but just where our mind has carried us? For without doubt it is one’s own will that gives to each one a start for this movement, and from the will the motions pass flooding through the limbs. . . . But the very mind feels no such necessity within its doing all things, and is not constrained like a conquered thing to bear and suffer. This is brought about by the slight swerve of the first-beginnings in no determined direction of place and at no determined time. [Lucretius, On Nature, 2] According to Epicurus, then, atoms have the power of occasional uncaused movement, and thus the atoms that compose our human minds have this power as well. A single uncaused movement within an atom in my mind will trigger a sequence of events that breaks from the otherwise determined mental machinery. Image-Flakes and Perception Like the earlier Atomists, Epicurus held that the human mind is a purely physical thing, constructed of atoms, and also that perception results from image-flakes peeling off of objects and hitting our sense organs. Epicurus describes the way in which image-flakes fly off objects into the surrounding air: There are image-flakes whose shapes resemble the solid bodies which we see, but are much thinner than them. For it is possible that there may be in space some emissions of this kind, which have a capacity to form extremely thin films without depth, and that from solid objects there may emanate some particles that preserve the same position and motion that they had in solid objects body. We give the name of “image-flakes” (or “idols”) to these particles. [Epicurus, Herodotus] The image-flakes are extremely thin and have virtually no thickness. As they shed from objects, they are immediately replaced with others and thus do not trim down the objects themselves: One must not forget that the production of the image-flakes is as rapid as thought. For from the surface of the bodies particles of this kind are continually flowing off with no reduction of the bodies, because they are immediately replaced with others. They preserve for a long time the same position, and the same arrangement that their atoms had in the solid body, although, notwithstanding, their form may be sometimes altered. [Ibid] For Epicurus, image-flakes provide the best explanation of how we perceive physical objects. The objects themselves exist in space at some distance from us, and something needs to be transmitted between the objects and our eyeballs in order for us to perceive them. One might suggest that the sense data gets transferred to us through air, or through a ray. However, Epicurus believes that the image-flake is a much better explanation of perception: It is difficult to conceive that external objects can affect us through the medium of the air which is between us and them, or by means of rays, whatever emissions proceed from us to them, so as to give us an impression of their form and color. This phenomenon, on the contrary, is perfectly explained, if we admit that certain particles of the same color, of the same shape, and of a proportionate magnitude pass from these objects to us, and so arrive at being seen and comprehended. [Ibid] The image-flakes themselves retain all the physical characteristics of the object and carry that information directly to our senses. Even qualities like color and taste exist in the physical objects themselves, and those qualities are transmitted to us by image-flakes. This is a departure from the Atomistic view of Democritus who held that qualities like color and taste do not originally reside in physical objects, but are subjectively fashioned within the perceiver’s mind. Ethics: Pleasure and Pain Perhaps the most influential aspect of Epicurus’ philosophy is his view that morality is intimately linked with pleasure, and that our life’s goal should be to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. He writes that “pleasure is the beginning and end of the good life. We recognize pleasure as the first good, being natural to us, and it is from pleasure that we begin every choice and avoidance. It is also to pleasure that we return, using it as the standard by which we judge every good” (Letter to Menoeceus). While it is easy enough to state as a general rule that we should all seek pleasure, the difficulty is in detailing which types of pleasures best bring about human happiness, and this is the task that Epicurus lays out for himself. Step one in the quest for a happy and pleasurable life is to eliminate pains as much as we can. While physical pains can be an obstacle to happiness, they don’t need to be. The most extreme pains usually pass quickly; he writes, “Pain does not last continuously in the physical body, and even in its most extreme it is present only a very short time. Physical pain that exceeds pleasure does not last many days” (Principal Doctrines). Chronic pains of lingering illnesses can also be managed so that on balance our lives contain more pleasure. For Epicurus, though, the real problem of pain is not with the physical ones, but psychological ones, particularly anxiety-producing fears. One major source of fear is religious myth, when we experience unease about how the gods view us, and whether they’re poised to punish us or reward us. However, Epicurus argues that we are freed from the fear of the gods since they have nothing to do with human affairs. Natural events such as lightning and earthquakes are entirely the result of the configuration of atoms, and are not caused by the will of the gods. Epicurus does not deny the existence of the gods, but he says that they are entirely different than how people commonly imagine them: We know there are Gods, since we have distinct knowledge of them. But they are not of the nature that people in general attribute to them, and they do not respect them in a way that agrees with the ideas that they entertain of them. A person is not irreverent for rejecting the Gods believed in by the masses, but, rather, is irreverent for applying to the Gods the opinions entertained of them by the masses. [Epicurus, Menoeceus] The gods exist in a special realm between worlds, and in that state they are happy and completely unaware of our existence. Thus the Gods are irrelevant to what happens in our lives and we should just set this worry aside. Another fear that gives us psychological pain is the terror we experience when thinking about our deaths. Epicurus’s solution to this is simple: we are freed from the fear of death when realizing that everything is material, hence the soul cannot survive death; thus, no pain can be experienced after death. He writes, Accustom yourself to think that death is a matter that should not concern us. For all good and all evil depend on sensation, and death is only the removal of sensation. Accordingly, the correct view of the fact that death is no concern of ours makes the mortality of life pleasant to us, not because it gives us limitless time, but because it relieves us of the longing for immortality. There is nothing terrible in living to a person who rightly understands that there is nothing terrible in ceasing to live. Only a foolish person says that he fears death, not because it will cause him pain when it occurs, but because it pains him while he anticipates it. It is quite absurd if something that is not distressful when present should distress a person when it is only expected. [Ibid.] Clearly, death cannot cause us pain once we die, since we no longer exist. The only issue is the anxiety that we experience when anticipating death, and this, Epicurus argues, is foolish since there is no pain to experience once we die. In short, most of the pains that we experience in life can either be eliminated, or at least counterbalanced by pleasure. And this solves the problem of pain preventing us from achieving happiness. Step two, then, in the quest for happiness is understanding which pleasures are best for us. For, “while pleasure is the first good and natural with us, we do not choose every pleasure, but at times we pass over many pleasures when any difficulty is likely to result from them.” We desire a wide range of things, and some contribute to happiness while others can be counterproductive. There are, he explains, three different kinds of desires. First, there are natural and necessary desires, which include food and shelter. These are easy to satisfy and should be pursued. Second, there are natural but unnecessary desires, such as luxury food. These, he argues, should not be pursued since we can’t count on them being available and, when they aren’t, we will be frustrated. Third, there are vain and empty desires, such as power, wealth, and fame. These are difficult to satisfy since they have no limit: even if we acquire power we always want more and thus will never be satisfied. So too with wealth and fame, and so, according to Epicurus, we should not pursue any of these. The key is to seek pleasure through moderation. Simple pleasures, he argues, give us the least amount of disturbance, whereas violent pleasures bring about violent pains – such as how the intense pleasure of drunkenness is followed by a hangover and any number of social problems. He writes, When we say that pleasure is the chief good, we are not speaking of the pleasures of the degenerate person, or those which involve sensual enjoyment—as some think who are ignorant or oppose our opinions, or else distort them. Rather, we mean the freedom of pain from the body and turmoil from the mind. Life is not made pleasant through continued drinking and partying, or sexual encounters, or feasts of fish and other such things as a costly banquet offers. It is sober contemplation which examines into the reasons for all choice and avoidance, and which chases away vain opinions from which the greater part of the confusion arises which troubles the mind. [Ibid.] The third step in the quest for happiness is to develop the right virtues, that is, good habits, which will enable us to routinely experience the right kinds of pleasure, with the least amount of pain. Common virtues that Greek philosophers recommended are courage, honor, justice and moderation; Epicurus agrees that all of these good habits will lead us towards happiness. However, there is one main virtue that is the foundation of all of these, and that is wisdom (sometimes called “prudence”), which is the ability to make careful decisions about one’s interests and thereby choose the best pleasures. Which pleasures does wisdom recommend? He writes, “Of all the things that wisdom provides for the happiness of the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friendship.” Also high on the list are good conversation and frugal living. On the other hand, wisdom tells us to avoid the pleasures of ambition, public activity, marriage and children, since these produce more pain than pleasure in the long run. Wisdom also tells us that we must live justly in order to be happy. But justice for Epicurus is not an absolute an independently-existing truth, as Plato believed with his theory of the Forms. Instead, justice consists only of contracts made between people to keep from harming each other. I agree to not injure you, you agree to not injure me, and as a result we both benefit by living in society. I recognize that I must keep this agreement since, if I don’t, one day I will be caught regardless of how secretly I plan my attack on you. He writes that it is impossible for the unjust man “to believe that he will always escape notice, even if he has escaped notice already ten thousand times; for, until his death, it is uncertain whether or not he will be detected” (Principle Doctrines, 37). C. STOICISM Of all the philosophical schools active during Hellenistic times, Stoicism had the largest number of followers, and was often contrasted with Epicueanism, its closest rival. Stoicism held that the cosmos is governed by an over-arching fatalistic law, and we best achieve happiness when we resign ourselves to fate. Zeno The founder of Stoicism was a philosopher named Zeno (334–262 BCE) from the island of Cyprus (not to be confused with Zeno from Elea, who was the Presocratic follower of Parmenides). He was born in the city of Citium—now called Larnaca, one of Cyprus’s largest cities. At the time it was a small city with ties to both Greece and the Semitic land of Phoenicia (now Lebanon). He moved to Athens at 22, perhaps as the result of a shipwreck. Legend has it that he was at a bookseller’s stall in the market place reading Xenophon’s account of Socrates. Fascinated by the philosopher, he asked the bookseller where he could find such a person. The bookseller replied “follow that man,” pointing to a famous Cynic philosopher who happened to be walking by. Zeno became his student, then moved onto other teachers, and after about twenty years began lecturing himself. His first followers were called Zenonians, but later referred to as “Stoics” after the place where he gave his lectures, namely, on the Painted Porch (Stoa Poikile) in the marketplace of Athens. He is described as having a slightly twisted neck and harsh personality traits. A student of his once noticed that Zeno corrected everyone around him, except that particular student himself. He asked Zeno why, and Zeno replied “Because I have no confidence in you.” Zeno had very simple living habits, eating food that didn’t require cooking, drinking mostly water, wearing thin clothes, and he was apparently insensible to rain, heat, and pain. These aspects of his personality were ridiculed in a Greek play that contained the following line: “This man adopts a new philosophy: he teaches to be hungry, and nevertheless he gets disciples. Bread is his only food, his best desert is dried figs, and water is his drink.” While this description of Zeno is entertaining in itself, it also illustrates an important philosophical point for Stoicism: happiness is best attained by denying pleasures, and not by pursuing enjoyments as Epicurus recommended. A famous story of Zeno relates that he once whipped a slave for stealing; the slave said it was his destiny to steal, and Zeno said it was also his destiny to be whipped. Again we find a philosophical message here: according to Stoicism, there is a consistency between the destiny that is fated for us and justice for how we behave. According to one account of Zeno’s death, he strangled himself after breaking his toe, which he took to be an indication that his time was up. One of his books, called The Republic, was a work of utopian politics depicting a city that is run by rational citizens. Although the work does not survive, descriptions of its contents conform to his preference for simplicity and austerity. He recommends abolishing money, temples, law courts, marriage. Men and women should dress alike, completely covering their bodies, yet at the same time should practice free love. Zeno divided the field of philosophy into three areas: logic, physics and ethics. Stoic philosophers offered various analogies to explain how these three parts are related, such as these: They compare philosophy to an animal, likening logic to the bones and sinews, physics to the fleshy parts, and ethical philosophy to the soul. They also compare it to an egg, calling logic the shell, and ethics the white, and physics the yolk. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, “Zeno,” 33] However, the most famous analogy, which was offered by Zeno himself, is that philosophy is like a garden where logic functions as the protective fence, physics is a tree within the garden, and ethics is the fruit that grows on the trees. We will consider each of these in order.

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