Greek Philosophy
Hellenistic Philosophy


   Alexander's great conquests led to the end of the independence of most of the small city-states and the founding of huge empires ruled by dynasties of monarchs, with arbitrary powers and a massive bureaucracy; there was also a great deal of mixing of Greeks and non-Greeks because of the settlements of Greek armies and the founding of new cities, such as Alexandria and Antioch. So there were no longer small communities of self-governing citizens, but great administrative organizations controlling taxes, the judiciary, water and corn supplies, etc. In a time of universalism and individualism the world expanded, linked by a common language (Greek). Cults of the Olympian gods yielded to worship of the ruler; educated men turned to philosophy, others to the mystery-cults and private religious associations. Cults of Isis, Dionysus, Serapis became important; there was a tendency towards syncretism, fusing deities from several traditions to produce One God. Astrology, magic, and Fortune (or Chance: tyché ) grew in importance. There was little or no independent political life, but there was in general freedom of thought and religion. The centers of life were no longer assemblies and councils, but gymnasia (schools) and shrines of the mystery cults.

   The great monarchs built mighty libraries; the greatest was at Alexandria, founded in 308, which became a center for research in literature and science with a library of perhaps 700,000 scrolls. There were others at Antioch, Pergamum, and Rhodes. Athens became a university city, especially for the study of philosophy; Rhodes specialized in rhetoric. In Athens, Plato founded the Academy in 385; after the death of Aristotle, his pupil Theophrastus founded the Peripatetic school in 317 to continue Aristotelean philosophy; around 307 Epicurus began to teach in his Garden; Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, came to the city in 313 and by 302 was teaching in the Stoa. These four great philosophical schools, and others, continued study and teaching until dissolved by the emperor Justinian in 529 A.D.


   Both Epicureanism and Stoicism sought to give ataraxia , or peace of mind. For Epicurus the aim of life was pleasure; the highest pleasure was absence of pain; pleasure of the mind was preferable to that of the body. The soul dies with the body, so we must not fear death or afterlife; the gods exist but do not concern themselves with humanity or natural phenomena (all of which can be explained scientifically); we should avoid public life and emotional commitments in order to escape the pains likely to be caused by them. The physical world was explained by the atomic theory adapted from Democritus.


   Stoicism. After the death of Zeno of Citium, the Stoic school was headed by Cleanthes and Chrysippus, and its teachings were carried to Rome in 155 by Diogenes of Babylon. There its tenets were made popular by Panaetius, friend of the great general Scipio Aemilianus, and by Posidonius, who was a friend of Pompey (see your textbook if you don't recognize these names); Cicero drew heavily on the works of both.

Roman Reader
Epictetus, The Enchiridion
Stoic ideas appear in the greatest work of Roman literature, Vergil's Aeneid , and later the philosophy was adopted by Seneca (c. 1-65 A.D.), Lucan (39-65; poet and associate of the Emperor Nero), Epictetus (c. 55-135; see passages from the Enchiridion ), and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (born 121, Emperor 161-180; author of the Meditations ). Stoicism is perhaps the most significant philosophical school in the Roman Empire, and much of our contemporary views and popular mythologies about Romans are derived from Stoic principles.


   This is actually not a philosophical school, but one could generally group a number of Hellenistic schools under this rubric, including the Second Academy (Hellenistic Platonists), the Second Sophistic, the Cynics, the Skeptics, and so on, and, for the most part, the Stoics as well. What is important for our purposes is that all these schools to some degree or another espoused the idea that human beings cannot arrive at certain truth about anything (not all denied certainty was impossible, only that human beings could never be certain). Basically, life became this great guessing game: the lot of humanity is to be cast into a twilight world in which all that we know and think is either false or occupies some middle position between the false and the true (which was called the "probable," "readily believable," or the "verisimilar"). This comes to dominate thought in late antiquity; the first philosophical attacks Christianity levels against the thought of antiquity are refutations of sceptical principles. Of all the philosophies of antiquity, this is perhaps the most familiar to you: the skeptic principle of doubting everything became, in the modern era, the fundamental basis of the scientific method.

Richard Hooker

World Cultures

1996, Richard Hooker

For information contact: Richard Hines
Updated 6-6-1999