Unlike the Classical natural philosopher like Aristotle and Plato, Hellenistic philosophy was not concerned with the phenomena of the world around them or deriving conclusions from thought out arguments, instead focusing on how people should live their lives. Their goal was to find how one can find inner peace. All four philosophies believed that came from ‘living life in accordance with nature,’ but where they differed was on what ‘in accordance with nature’ was.
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The Epicureans believed in a philosophy that was a form of hedonism, but one that, by its own prescripts, necessitated moderation. Epicurus, yes, did teach that one should seek pleasure, but his definition of pleasure was the absence of pain. While other forms of hedonism encourage reckless abandon in sensual pleasures such as drinking or eating, an Epicurean would argue that the true pleasure would be the lack of a hangover or stomachache afterward. Epicurus also taught to always seek wisdom. In his eyes, there were none too young or too old to learn all they can, and that learning was healthy for the soul. He directed people to reject the gods that the rest of the people worshiped, believing instead in a God, not in the Greek pantheon of the time, but in one that was living, immortal, and happy. To Epicureans, death was as nothing; Those who are alive are not dead yet, and those who are dead do not exist anymore, therefore there is no reason to fear death. One should, instead, try to enjoy the time that you have here on earth and not fret about having the longest time – ‘here for a good time, not for a long time’. Epicurus divided desires into different groups. First, he divided them into those that were natural and those that were groundless or non-natural. Groundless desires consisted of desires such as wealth and money, power, status or reputation, office, and leadership. Natural desires were then divided into necessary and non-necessary desires (of which, the desire that comes most readily to mind is sex). Necessary desires were then further divided into desires that were necessary to live, necessary for the body to be rid of uneasiness, and necessary to be happy. Desires necessary to live include food, water, shelter, and sleep. Those that are necessary for the body to be rid of uneasiness are dominated by health desires. Finally, because Epicurus was still a Greek philosopher, he deemed friendship among those desires necessary for one to be happy.
The main philosophy of the Stoics is that there are things that are within our control and there are things not within our control. We can only control our own actions. Things are going to happen; Disasters will occur, tragedies will befall us, people will behave untoward to us, difficulties will arise, accidents will happen. The only thing we can control in this world is how we react to those things. Epictetus has some instructions on how to do so. Suppress all desire for and do not fear that which is out of our control. If we want something that is out of our control, we must naturally be disappointed when we do not get it. If we fear something that is out of our control, we will be upset when it happens. Do not become overly fond of anything; be that objects, people, characteristics about yourself, or positions. Remind yourself that it is not those specific things that you are fond of, but the general principle of them. It is not a particular mug that you love, but mugs in general. Therefore, when it breaks, you will not be upset. Do not wish that things happen the way you want them to, but instead want things to happen as they will happen. Then, when something happens that might disturb you, it will not, because it is, in fact, the way things happened, so you got what you wanted, and you are not upset. Remember that you are but an actor in a play and said play will play out as the author intends. In summary, Epictetus calls people to live a simple and disciplined life, reminding them to not be upset by or be happy with things not in their control.
The Skeptics’ philosophy was, to put it simply, to question everything. Withhold judgement in everything and keep searching. While dogmatists hold that there are some absolute truths that can be known beyond any doubt, skeptics do not. To a skeptic, there is absolutely nothing that cannot be known for certain, and so you withhold judgement on any particular topic and keep searching for truth. Skeptics show contradictions in logical thought, demonstrating that what once was thought to be absolute truth is not so absolute. Skeptics had a sort of go-with-the-flow mentality with the viewpoints of those around them. For their actions, they say to practice what is practiced by the people around them and to not make any judgments; After all, who can say who is right and who is wrong? Quite literally, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
Diogenes’ flavor of Cynicism, like the other philosophies of the Hellenistic period, stressed living a life in accordance with nature. In this case, though, ‘in accordance with nature’ meant living as simply as possible. Diogenes lived in a tub, and, wishing to accustom himself to hardship, would roll it over hot sand in the summer; He would also embrace metal statues in the winter to do the same. Diogenes was very anti-establishment, anti-intellectual, and anti-societal convention. He saw the hypocrisy of the Athenians and was not afraid to call them out. Diogenes’ thoughts were very focus on social commentary. He had great contempt for academics like Euclid and Plato, for the entirety of theater, and for politicians that chased votes instead of reason. He would see doctors and captains and other skilled workers and think that mankind was the smartest and most amazing of all the animals of the world, but would then see cheats like diviners and wealth-obsessed people and the people who waited on them and would think that no animal like man was more silly. He thought that courage was greater than fortune – that no skill, luck, circumstance could match determination and will –, that nature was greater than convention, and that reason was greater than passion.
The two of these philosophies that appeal to me are the Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicurean model of minimizing pain, and in so doing, maximizing pleasure, is appealing. Moderation and discipline is important in all things and framing the moderation of pleasures as a method to minimize pain is a great way to look at it. I drink sometimes, but I limit myself to one or two drinks at a time, as I don’t much relish the idea of getting drunk or having a hangover. Likewise, I do not eat too many sweets as I do not wish to have a stomachache (this all breaks down, however, if you ever talk to someone who is mildly lactose intolerant about cheese or ice cream). The theme of discipline comes up again in the Stoics. Recognizing that there are things that are within our control and things that are not is an important part of resilience. Understanding that people are going to wrong you, that things you love are going to break or be lost, and that people you love are going to leave or die. Understanding that none of that is in your control is integral to leading a peaceful and resilient life. You can only control your reaction to these events. An issue, though, with both of these philosophies is that neither gives a completely healthy way to react when things happen. They both focus on not feeling anything when undesirable things happen, instead of showing a healthy way to deal with feelings. It is, in fact, ok to grieve when a loved one dies, to be sad when your favorite mug breaks, to be angry when someone wrongs you. It is an issue with most Greek philosophies, that state that emotions must be quashed by reason, when in reality it is ok to have feelings. To have emotions is to be human, and instead of suppressing them, we need to feel them, understand why they are here, and, without becoming obsessed with them, let them go.
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The other two philosophies, while they have their merits, do not appeal to me at all. Skepticism’s emphasis on blending in and doing what the people around you do, and its complete rejection of absolute truth both go against my beliefs completely. What a sad life it is, to be constantly trying your best to fit in with the people around you and to not have a single conviction you know to be absolutely true, to have nothing at all to fall back on, nothing to support or guide you but the world around you. As for Cynicism, at least, Diogenes’ version of it, in every story I have read of him, he seems to be a wholly unpleasant man with a hopeless outlook on life. I once read a story of him – I do not know if it is true, but it fits rather well in what we learned of him – that the only possession that he had besides the clothes on his back and the tub he slept in was the bowl he ate out of. Upon seeing a dog eat its food from the ground, he threw the bowl away, saying that it was not needed. To reject everything but what is ‘natural’ is absurd – what humans have created we have not created out of frivolity.
Something else that I have noticed between these four philosophies is that they all are missing something. The goal of Hellenistic philosophy is to direct people to live life in accordance to nature so that they might find inner peace, but what they do not give a reason why, a purpose to drive people forward. Inner peace is a great enough goal, but I do not think it is possible to find it without having a purpose. The Epicureans and the Stoics both mention an intelligent and divine being orchestrating the events of the world. The Skeptics are endlessly searching for a truth that will not come, and the Cynics reject the society man has made, looking instead for the life that was intended to be. What all four of these philosophies are missing, noticing, and searching for is God. Not specifically the one described by Epicurus, but YHWH – I AM. What these four philosophies is missing is a wholly loving and wise God, one who cares for those He has created, and gives them purpose. For the Epicureans, that missing strength in the face of hardship and the God that Epicurus recognizes is out there, for the Stoics, the comfort in the face of difficulty and that missing joy in prosperity, for the Skeptics, the truth that they so long and search for, something that they can finally rest in, and for the Cynics, a direction on how to lead the most natural life, given by the One who created such life.
In conclusion, all four major Hellenistic philosophies had the goal of finding inner peace by living life in accordance with nature, but mostly differed on what ‘accordance with nature’ meant. The Epicurean thought that maximizing pleasure by minimizing pain was the way to go, while the Stoics taught to be unaffected by all hardships as well as pleasures. The Skeptics thought there was nothing that could be relied upon to be true, so people ought to just do what those around them at the time do, and to withhold judgment on such actions. The Cynics rejected all elements of society deemed unnecessary and held contempt for the frivolity and hypocrisy they saw around them. What each of these philosophies was both noticing and missing in the world around them, what they were searching for, was in fact, the God that they simply did not know.
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