The philosophy of Plato and Aristotle ended up having a great deal of significance throughout Church history (as we will eventually see). Yet our understanding of the philosophical outlook of the Greco-Roman world would be dreadfully incomplete without at least a few brief words about Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Cynicism. As should be obvious, no society is a philosophical monolith. In fact, every society, no matter how predominant a particular worldview might be, consists of a number of competing worldviews, and most people, in actuality, derive their particular worldview by treating these competing worldview as essentially a smorgasbord, and simply picking and choosing from each one what suits their particular tastes. It is true today just as much as it was 2500 years ago in Greece. That being said, let’s briefly (and I mean briefly!) familiarize ourselves with the three other schools of Greek philosophical thought.
Zeno and the Stoics
Stoicism gained its footing during the Hellenistic period. The philosopher most associated with Stoicism is Zeno of Citium (350-258 BC). At the risk of being too simplistic, Stoicism viewed the natural world as the only reality, governed by an ultimate natural law. Therefore “God,” for the Stoics was essentially nature itself, or more properly, the divine will in nature, which was the natural law—Stoicism was fundamentally pantheistic.
In any case, the Stoics taught that the purpose of man is to live a virtuous life, “virtue” being that which is harmony with nature. Living in harmony with nature took precedence over everything else, even any particular pleasure or desire for that matter. Stoicism meant to simply accept life as it came to you—pain, heartache, tragedy, etc. were all part of the way of nature. The Stoic’s ethical outlook was to accept those things, and live in harmony with them.
Here’s an example: My grandparents were Swedes, and if you know anything about typical Swedes, you know that they are very Stoic in a lot of ways. They never get too down (or if they do, they certainly don’t show it), and they never get too excited (and if they feel excited inside, they certainly don’t show it). They just accept what comes along and keep doing what they’re supposed to do, whether it be raise that family or work that job. You do your duty, and let nothing upset that balance.
Epicureanism was found, not surprisingly, by Epicurus (341-270 BC). If Stoicism taught that the highest good was to live in harmony with nature, Epicureanism taught that the highest good was the pursuit of one’s own personal pleasure and happiness and the elimination of pain. Oftentimes this is misunderstood as pure hedonism, but Epicurus would not have encouraged anyone to just stay in their basement and smoke weed for their entire life, because that “made them happy.” Epicurus, in fact, held wisdom to be the supreme virtue, for the wise man would be able to discern what was truly beneficial or harmful to him. The wise man would reason that a little wine is good for the heart and it brings joy, but an all-night drinking binge would result in a massive hangover, and probably a number of poor decisions in the process. The wise man would reason that it is good to be kind and generous and to work with others, for that would bring about a greater possibility for happiness and pleasure for all
Not surprisingly, Epicurus had very little need for “God” or “the gods.” They might exist, Epicurus reasoned, but they have no interest in human affairs. He is the one who first reasoned that if God was willing to prevent evil, but couldn’t, then he was not omnipotent; if God was able to stop evil, but chose not to, then he was malevolent and evil himself; and if he was able and willing to prevent evil, then why is there evil? Simply put, Epicurus was much like an ancient Deist, who gave a cognizant nod to the existence of the gods, but who then really preached that the goal of mankind was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Sound familiar? Did you know that Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean?)
The founder of the school of Cynics was Diogenes of Sinope (400-325 BC). Like the Stoicism and Epicureanism that was to follow Diogenes, he taught that true happiness was to be found in living in harmony with nature. But for Diogenes, the main obstacle to living according to nature was the structures of society itself. Therefore, the Cynics often railed against societal conventions—they were, in fact, some of the first “anti-establishment” anarchists in history. Politicians? Temple priests? The gods to which both politicians and priests made much of? Screw them all! Therefore, the Cynics would often ridicule the political and religious conventions society, and even stage public demonstrations in which they would purposely do vulgar things just to mock the social mores. (Diogenes, for example, would publicly masturbate in the marketplace, and then mock the people who decried it as shameful).
For the Cynics, the “morality” of society was neither reasonable nor in harmony with nature. Nature itself should dictate morality, certainly not society.
Conclusions About Ancient Greek Philosophy
As one can see, the philosophy and culture of ancient Greece has much in common with our modern world. We have our Stoics; we have our Epicureans; and we certainly have our Cynics.
Although the masses undoubtedly cowered in the shadow of the powerful and unpredictable Olympian gods, the educated and the elite of Grecian society debated and philosophized on the existence of the gods, the nature of reality, and what constituted the ethical life. And even though many of the philosophers doubted and ridiculed the existence of the Olympian gods, they nevertheless maintained the social customs involving temple sacrifices, for those customs were not seen as simply “religious.” They were seen as part of the societal fabric that held their culture together. For many of the Greek philosophers, “the gods” might not be real, but religious observances were just good societal traditions that helped the cohesiveness of society.
In that respect, ancient Greek culture was very much like our culture today. Indeed, this is one of the points I will be making throughout these “Worldview and Western Culture” posts. If you just take a little bit of time to understand some of the basic concepts of philosophy, and if you think about the issues and beliefs that a culture like ancient Greece, you will soon see that many of the issues we are dealing with today are the same issues they were dealing with then, be it political, religious, or moral. And although it might seem tedious to spend time getting a handle on these old philosophers, by the time we get through all this, I believe you will see just how much we can learn from them. Not only that, I also believe you will come to see much more clearly the various contentious and controversial issues that challenge our current society.
In my next post, I will look at ancient Rome.