Classical Philosophy

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  • Topic: Socrates, Stoicism, Epictetus
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Classical Philosophy after Aristotle
After Aristotle had completed his great speculative system, philosophy moves toward a new emphasis. Four groups of philosophers helped to shape this new direction, namely, the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Skeptics, and the Neoplatonist. They were, of course, greatly influenced by their predecessors, so we find that Epicurus relied upon Democritus for his atomic theory of nature, the Stoics made use of Heraclitus’ notion of a fiery substance permeating all things, the Skeptics built a method of inquiry upon the Socratic form of doubt, and Plotinus drew heavily upon Plato. What made their philosophy different, however, was not so much its subject matter as its mood and its emphasis. Its emphasis was practical, and its mood was self-centered. Philosophy became more practical by emphasizing the art of living. To be sure, each of these new movements of thought did involve speculative descriptions of the structure of the universe. But instead of working out blueprints for the ideal society and fitting individuals into large social and political organizations, as Plato and Aristotle had done, these new philosophers led people to think primarily of themselves and how they as individuals in a scheme of nature could achieve the most satisfactory personal life. These new directions in ethics were brought about to a great extent by the historical conditions of the times. After the Peloponnesian War and with the fall of Athens, Greek civilization declined. With the breakdown of the small Greek city-state, individual citizens lost the sense of their own importance and their ability to control or perfect their social and political destiny. Individuals increasingly felt this loss of personal control over collective life as they were absorbed into the growing Roman Empire. When Greece became a mere province of Rome, men lost interest in pursing the speculative questions concerning the ideal society. What was needed was a practical philosophy to give life direction under changing conditions. And at a time when events overwhelmed people, it seemed idle to try to change history. But if history was beyond humanity’s control, at least a person’s own life could be managed with some success. Philosophy, therefore, shifted to this practical emphasis in a mood of increasing concern for the more immediate world of the individual. The Epicureans turned in the directions of an ideal for living through what they called ataraxia, or tranquility of soul. The Stoics sought to control their reactions to inevitable events, while the Skeptics sought to preserve personal freedom by refraining from any basic commitment to ideals whose truth was doubtful, and Plotinus promised salvation in a mystical union with god. They looked to philosophy for a source of meaning for human existence, and it is no wonder that their philosophy, particularly Stoicism, was later to compete with religion for the allegiance of humanity. They sought to discover ways in which individual persons could successfully achieve happiness or contentment in a world that was not altogether friendly and filled with many pitfalls.

Epicurus
(341-271 B.C.E.)
The Pleasant Life
Epicureanism was one of the philosophies that arose during the decline of ancient Greece as a source of relief from the increasing social disorganization. Of these "salvation philosophies," which flourished until the Greco-Roman culture was superseded by the Christian, Epicureanism was distinguished for the constancy of its doctrine. Epicurus teaches us that happiness involves serenity and is achieved through the simple pleasures that preserve bodily health and peace of mind. To realize their ideal, the members of the Epicurean community refrained, insofar as possible, from participation in the affairs of the troubled world, spending their time in philosophical conversation. Epicurus, Inheriting Athenian citizenship from his parents, was born and educated on the island of Samos, in...
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