Other Philosophies in the Hellenistic World

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Other Philosophies in the Hellenistic World

Philosophy in a Changed World.

Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 b.c.e., having radically changed the Greek world through a series of conquests that unified Greece and brought Persia into the Hellenistic world. The word "Hellenistic" comes from the Greek hellenizein which means "to speak Greek," and with the Greek language, to acquire a smattering of Greek culture. The Hellenistic world embraced regions that had been foreign to the Greeks of the classical period in the fifth century b.c.e. and it is significant that non-Greeks developed the dominant philosophy of the Hellenistic world and the Roman world after it: Stoicism. While the pre-Socratic philosophers had focused on abstract questions on the nature of goodness and aspects of society, the burning questions on the minds of the philosophers in this day and age focused more on how an individual should live in a world that had changed so dramatically within a generation and the achievement of personal happiness.

The Academy and the Lyceum.

Plato's Academy continued in this new era, though its reputation declined. Plato's nephew Speusippus became head after Plato's death, and he adhered to Plato's doctrines although he did not emulate Plato's temperament. He had a reputation as a man of violent passions; once, in a rage, he threw a puppy down a well. Xenocrates next took on the role of headmaster, and although he wrote an enormous number of works, none of them survived. In fact, none of the writings of Plato's successors survived. About 265 b.c.e. Arcesilaus, a pupil of Theophrastus, Aristotle's successor as head of the Lyceum, became head of the Academy, or scholarch, as the head was called, and began a new era: the so-called "New Academy," which became an opponent of Stoicism. The Stoics claimed that there was a kind of sense-perception that was convincing and irresistible, and that these senses conveyed truth. Arcesilaus retorted that wrong perceptions could be as convincing as right ones—it all depended on the circumstances—and from that argument, he went on to deny the possibility of any knowledge. The Academy became somewhat less dogmatic as time went on. Yet Arcesilaus' legacy was to make the Academy a center for logical scepticism.


Thanks to Arcesilaus, scepticism began to exercise considerable influence on Greek philosophy, but he was not the founder of the school. It was Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360–c. 270 b.c.e.) who taught that the aim of life was a serene mind, which can only be achieved if we understand our relation to the nature of things. But since we cannot know the nature of things, we should not trouble ourselves about matters we cannot understand. This doctrine is sometimes called "Pyrrhonism." It holds that we should refrain from making positive or negative judgments, and by maintaining a balance between "yes" and "no" in our judgment we can create balance in our soul.


introduction: About 265 b.c.e. Arcesilaus became scholarch or head of the Academy which Plato had founded. He brought new life to the Academy. There was some disagreement among later historians of philosophy in the ancient world about whether he could be called the founder of the "New Academy" or if he was the founder of the "Middle Academy" and his successor as scholarch, Carneades, was the founder of the "New" or "Third Academy." There was no doubt, however, that when Arcesilaus became scholarch, it marked a new stage in the development of the Academy. Arcesilaus employed scepticism—the view that true knowledge was impossible for humans to attain—as a weapon against the Stoics and Carneades continued the quarrel with the Stoics, particularly with their theological doctrines. Diogenes Laertius, writing in the early third century c.e. includes a life of Arcesilaus on his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, and from it we learn some anecdotes about him.

Since he [Arcesilaus] suspended judgment on every question, he never, as it is reported, wrote so much as a single book. Yet others say that he was once observed detected correcting some passages in a work of his; and some assert that he published it. Others deny it, however, and claim that he threw it into the fire.

He appears to have been a great admirer of Plato and possessed all his writings. He also, according to some authorities, had a very high opinion of Pyrrho, [the sceptic philosopher]. …

He was exceedingly fond of employing axioms, very concise in his diction, and when speaking he laid emphasis on each separate word. …

He was so free from vanity that he used to counsel his students to transfer to other teachers, and once when a young man from Chios was dissatisfied with his Academy but preferred the school of Hieronymus, whom I have already mentioned, he himself took him and introduced him to that philosopher, advising him to continue to conduct himself regularly. There is a very witty saying of his recorded. When someone asked him once why people left other schools to join the Epicureans, but no one left the Epicureans to join other sects, he replied, "People sometimes make eunuchs out of men, but no one can ever make a man out of a eunuch."

source: Diogenes, "Arcesilaus," in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Book 4, Sec.7–8, 10, 18. Trans C. D. Yonge (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853).

The Cynics.

The Cynics liked to claim descent from Antisthenes, who was one of Socrates' disciples, for that gave them a connection with the great master of classical philosophy, but the term "cynic" (doglike) was first applied to Diogenes of Sinope as a comment on the anti-social life he chose to live. He held that actions based on natural instincts and impulses could not be unnatural, and hence he refused to be bound by an social conventions. He believed a man should be free to say and do whatever he wanted—even to have sexual intercourse in public, if a natural impulse drove him in that direction. Antisthenes pointed to self-denial as the chief principle of a philosophic life, but Diogenes carried self-denial and the simple life to extremes. Legend has it that one day he saw a child drinking water by cupping it in his hands and raising them to his mouth, whereupon he threw away his own cup, saying that the child had outdone him in austerity. He was a street person—that is, he made his home on the streets, sleeping in porticoes and anywhere he could find shelter—and at one point, he made his home in a large storage jar called a pithos. Wealth and high rank did not impress him. There is a famous story, told by Plutarch in his Life of Alexander the Great, that Alexander came to visit him and found him basking in the sun. He asked if he could do anything for him. Diogenes asked him simply to stand aside, for he was blocking the sun. The story is probably apocryphal, but it does illustrate how little the Cynics were impressed by great men. One of Diogenes' early disciples was Crates of Thebes who was once the teacher of Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy. Crates gave up a large fortune to follow the life of a beggar and a preacher, and though he was an ugly man, he won the heart of his pupil Hipparchia; she also gave up everything to marry him. Crates glorified his beggar's wallet, but that was precisely the weakness of the sect: they lived off others, thus saving their souls by using others who were too busy to save their own. Cynicism faded out gradually in the second and first centuries b.c.e., but in the first century c.e., it revived for reasons unknown. In the reign of the emperor Vespasian (69–79 b.c.e.) and his successors, there were swarms of Cynic philosophers in Rome and in the eastern provinces of the empire. Among the upper classes in Rome, resistance to the autocracy of the emperors was associated with Stoicism, but among the middle classes, it was voiced by the Cynics who always claimed the right to speak freely and frankly. They championed the principle that it was the duty of an ideal monarch to care for the welfare of his subjects; he should be like an idealized Hercules who used his great power for the good of his people, and they were fond of pointing out how far the actual conduct of the Roman emperors was from their ideal. The imperial government frequently lost patience with them and drove them from Rome.


introduction: Diogenes was famous for his wit and sharp, often tactless, remarks. When Alexander the Great stood beside him and said, "I am Alexander, the Great King," Diogenes replied, "I am Diogenes the dog." When he was asked why he was called a dog, he answered that it was because he fawned on those who gave him something and barked at those who gave him nothing, and bit them into the bargain. Diogenes Laertius recounts a great number of stories about Diogenes, not all of which can be true, but they illustrate the sort of man he was.

Plato defined man in this way: "Man is a two-footed, featherless animal," and he was greatly praised for his definition. However Diogenes plucked a rooster, and brought it into the Academy and said, "This is Plato's man." For that reason this addition was made to the definition, "with broad, flat fingernails." A man once asked him what was the proper time for supper, and he replied, "If you are a rich man, whenever you please. If you are a poor man, whenever you can." …

When Plato was lecturing on his Theory of Forms" and using the nouns "tableness" (for the ideal form of a table) and "cupness" (for the ideal form of a cup), Diogenes interrupted, "I, Plato, see a table and a cup, but I see no table or cupness." Plato replied, "That is natural enough, for you have eyes with which to contemplate a table and a cup, but you have no intellect with which to see tableness and cupness."

source: Diogenes, "Diogenes," in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Book 6, Sec. 6. Trans C. D. Yonge (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853).

The Cyrenaics.

The Cyrenaics were a short-lived school that was founded in Cyrene in north Africa by Aristippus, who was once a disciple of Socrates. They taught that the chief end of life was sensual pleasure. This philosophy was built on the belief that the mind feels two emotions, pleasure and pain; while the first is the primary goal of all living things, the latter is what every creature avoids. Pleasure for the Cyrenaics, however, was not merely the absence of pain or discomfort; rather it consisted of a number of particular pleasures, past, present and future: memories of past pleasures, enjoyment of the pleasures of the present, and anticipation of pleasure in the future. Aristippus, who is supposedly the founder of the school (though some scholars have doubted it), was a teacher of rhetoric in Athens who was famous for his pursuit of luxury. He spent some time at the court of the tyrant of Syracuse in Sicily, Dionysius I, attracted there by the good food and the comfortable living. The chief importance of the Cyrenaics is that they influenced Epicureanism, which also taught that hedonism was the chief end of life, although the Epicureans were suspicious of the pleasures of the senses and sought pleasure by avoiding what might cause pain. The Cyrenaic school came to an end about 275 b.c.e.


R. Bracht Branham and Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé, eds., The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1996).

Donald R. Dudley, A History of Cynicism from Diogenes to the Sixth Century A.D. (London, England: Methuen, 1937; reprint, New York: Gordon Press, 1974).

Ragnar Höistad, Cynic Hero and Cynic King: Studies in the Cynic Conception of Man (Uppsala: University of Uppsala Press, 1948).

Luis E. Navia, Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1996).

R. W. Sharples, Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics (London, England: Routledge, 1996).

Voula Tsouna-McKirahan, The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

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Other Philosophies in the Hellenistic World

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