People often imagine ancient Greek philosophy and imagine such great minds as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle preaching something deep and insightful as disciples sit at their feet basking in the light of wisdom.
At least, that’s what I had imagined in the back of my mind…
I spent some time recently, while researching the Hellenistic Period, to also acquaint myself with ancient Greek philosophy in greater detail and what I found was this amorphous blob of people, places and ideas that were sometimes insightful, sometimes amusing and other times just plain nutters. Eidolon has a great tongue-in-cheek article about some of these more eccentric philosophies, but I also wanted to give a brief (not to mention probably inaccurate) summary of some of the major philosophical schools and a few of the more eccentric ones. This is not a comprehensive list, or a thorough understanding, just one man’s impressions of the myriad schools of thought.
Plato and Platonic Philosophy
Plato was one of several disciples of Socrates, who himself never established a school (Xenophon is another major disciple, btw). Plato’s philosophy could possible be summarized by the famous Allegory of the Cave wherein people are fooled by shadows of forms, unable to see the real form. Plato spent much time contemplating the transcendent “true form” of things, which he felt arose from Goodness as the ultimate source. That which was true was inherently good, and those who pursued good would come to the truth.
By the Hellenistic Period, Plato’s school had taken on a more mystical tone under Plotinus and is now known as Neo-Platonism. Here, the source of all things is the One, who also is the source of all goodness. In keeping with the transcendent nature of Plato’s philosophy, followers of Neoplatonism sought to reunite with the One, shedding crude matter in the process.
The Peripatetics were the followers of, and the name of the school of Aristotle’s philosophy. Aristotle had been a student of Plato but had also gone his own way more and more as the years went on. Unlike, Plato who focused on forms and transcendence, Aristotle’s philosophy was ground more in empirical experience, and that the physical, material world was the basis of all things. Not surprisingly, this was an important inspiration in later European history in the pursuit of sciences and the Enlightenment era.
Like Plato, Aristotle and the Peripatetics regarded virtue as the ultimate goal, and the means of happiness though they different with the Platonic school over what exactly virtue was. In time, the Peripatetics were eclipsed by the Neoplatonists (and Christians) above. It is also noteworthy that the Peripatetics had a strict “no-girls” policy as Aristotle was generally pretty critical of women relative to other Greek philosophers.1
The Stoics were a later school that had a major heyday during the Hellenistic Period and even as far as the Roman Empire. Many people will note that famous Romans such as Cicero, Seneca the Younger and Emperor Marcus Aurelius (e.g. “Markie A”) were all devotees. The Stoics were begun by Zeno of Citium who had previously been a follower of the Cynics, but didn’t agree with some of their practices.
Like Plato and Aristotle, Zeno and later Stoics felt that virtue was the highest good, but that this virtue would be best achieved by learning to live according to nature or one’s fate. This is where we get the idea of being rational or “stoic” in the face of calamity. Stoics emphasized that maintaining virtue even in the face challenging circumstances was the only real means of attaining peace of mind (eudaimonia εὐδαιμονία) and be in touch with the world-soul (something also espoused by the Platonists).
One interesting note that Michael Grant writes in From Alexander to Cleopatra: The Hellenistic World is that the Stoics tended to be favored by aristocratic social conservatives due to their practice of maintaining a sense of equanimity in the face of social order (i.e. not upsetting it).
The Epicureans were another late, Hellenistic-period, school that for a time was immensely influential. Roman-era Stoics used to gripe how Epicureanism was a big fad in Rome among other places.
Epicurus the founder, in some ways like Aristotle, had very grounded view of the world, including a belief that while the gods existed, they were so enraptured in their own lives that they had 0 involvement in the lives of men. For him the highest good was a sense of equanimity (ataraxia ἀταραξία) through pleasure, but not necessarily pleasure in the sense of sensual pleasure. Instead Epicurus advocated things like companionship of friends, freedom from troubles, etc. Epicurus’s ideal was a kind of quietist, self-sufficient ascetic life free from entanglements like politics, sex, etc, and so the Epicurean approach to life was to engage in activities that work toward that end.
Epicureanism had a kind of “calculating” approach to life, ethics and virtue and that tended to paint a big target on its back from other philosophies. Stoics in particular hated the Epicureans.
The Cynics were a somewhat older school of philosophy that Stoicism clearly was based off of. It was founded by yet another Socrates disciple, Antisthenes. The Cynics proposed virtue through living naturally, totally free from “artificial” social conventions. This mean things like walking around naked, living in a large clay pot, as Diogenes did, and speaking to authority figures with plain, not honorific, speech. Diogenes apparently also had some run-ins with Plato, evidentially and allegedly with Alexander the Great, too.
Such an impractical and immodest life eventually turned off Zeno of Citium and thus leading to his Stoic school. Cynicism as a school eventually died out by the 3rd century, but during its heyday, according to Michael Grant, it was one of the few schools that actively decried social injustices in Hellenistic society such as poverty and slavery. Unlike some of the more cerebral philosophies, Cynicism had a broader, counter-cultural appeal even if few people were actually able to put it into practice.
Arguably one of the oldest schools of Greek philosophy, its founder Pythagoreas, the famous mathematician, not surprisingly applied a philosophical/mathematical view of the Universe. In other words, through the study of mathematics and numerology, one could better understanding the philosophical underpinnings of the harmonious Universe. Pythagoreanism was also noteworthy for its teaching of reincarnation (though this was not exclusively a Pythagorean teaching). At its core, the Pythagoreans were an ascetic community (back before it was trendy), and eventually were eclipsed by the Cynics until it revived centuries later as Neopythagoreanism which deified the “one” more than before, but still kept to its mathematical roots.
This school, founded by Pyrrho of Ellis, had a strongly skeptical outlook to life and other philosophical schools while emphasizing pragmatism. By withholding belief, and questioning things, one could avoid the mental disturbances caused by erroneous or misleading viewpoints and attain a sense of equanimity (see Epicurianism above). At its heart Pyrrhonism was about peace through avoiding “mind games” and just embracing things as they are. 🙂
Not surprisingly, the Skeptics avoided writing their teachings down much in order to avoid later generations from getting caught up in dogma.
What makes Ancient Greek Philosophy so interesting is that there were so many different approaches to the same basic problems of happiness and well-being. As Michael Grant writes:
The Hellenistic age, as we have seen, devoted a new, sympathetic attention to the individual man and woman. In consequence, an enormous proportion of the best thought of the time was concerned with analyzing the extensive problems and predicaments that disturbed him and her, in order to solve them and dispel the anxieties that they caused. (ch. 4)
But what’s really fascinating is that this was not limited to the Mediterranean.
Shakyamuni Buddha during his ministry in India (7th-6th century BCE) was similarly surrounded by rival schools the new Śramaṇa tradition that had grown beyond the singular devotion to the gods of the Vedas, and like the Greeks, strove to make sense of the Universe. Prior to his enlightenment, the Buddha had even studied under some of these schools, and later these same schools sent their best and brightest to debate with him. In a Buddhist text, the Brahmajāla Sutta (DN1 of the Pali Canon), the Buddha listed 62 other rivals schools of thought.
In China too, there was a similar explosion of thought at the time including Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism, Legalism, etc. Each of these competing ideas had certain fundamental cultural assumptions such as the Yellow Emperor, Heaven as a model of order and goodness, and Nature, but each sought a way to organize Man along the will of Heaven and thereby prosper in a chaotic period.
Each society was geographically cut off from the other, but as each one grew and flourished beyond simple survival, they began to look around them and ask deeper questions, and those theories, conjectures and teachings still shape our world today.
1 Ancient Greek culture in general was pretty misogynistic. Women lived cloistered lives and even ate in separate rooms from the men. During the Hellenistic Period, this rapidly changed and women started to take more control of their own lives, participate in social activities more and even have some economic and political influence of their own. Also, compare with Roman women who enjoyed relatively equal status with men than their Greek counterparts.
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