A Comparison and Contrast of Three Ancient Roman Philosophies

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A Comparison and Contrast of Three Ancient Roman Philosophies by
Melanie Pelzel


This paper compares and contrasts three different views of philosophy of Roman times: Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Neoplatonism. These three philosophies were created out of a need for explanations about the meaning of life. According to Lamm, "Epicureanism and Stoicism, two eminent Athenian schools of philosophy of the third century BC, developed ethical systems that could help individuals feel more secure in an unstable and hostile world. Materialistic and practical, both philosophies suited thoughtful, educated Romans who chose to confront the problems of living an ethical life in a society plagued by dissension, vice, and corruption" (241).

It was the era that sprouted such philosophies. According to Shapiro, “The moral and emotional conditions in the first true ‘Age of Anxiety’ suffered in the western world—the Hellenistic Age—called forth and nourished three great philosophical responses: Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Neoplatonism” (1).

Purpose in Life

This section will compare and contrast the three philosophies regarding the question "What is one's purpose in life?" In Epicureanism, securing tranquility is the answer. The followers of this particular philosophy also believed the highest good in one's life is secure and lasting pleasure. According to Lamm, “Epicurus considered pleasure the ultimate good and adhered, with remarkable consistency, to the consequences of this view” (241). The only way a person could achieve tranquility and pleasure is, as De Lacy says, "through the philosopher. Intelligent choice is also needed, and practical wisdom is more to be prized than philosophy itself. Practical wisdom measures pleasures against pains, accepting pains that lead to greater pleasures and rejecting pleasures that lead to greater pains. It counts the traditional virtues (justice, temperance, and courage) among the means for attaining the pleasant life; they have no other justification" (4).

The followers of Epicureanism also felt that if a person were full of fear and anxiety, he or she would be hindered in achieving her purpose in life. Religion and the dread of death were viewed as the two great sources of fear for mankind. To rid mankind of these fears, De Lacy says, "Epicurus stated that peace of mind is achieved when the study of natural philosophy has removed all fear of the gods, when death is recognized to be merely the limit of experience and therefore irrelevant to the quality of experience, and when the gratification of desires that go beyond what is necessary and natural is seen to result in greater pains than pleasure" (4).

This brings up an interesting point, one that should be addressed. Epicureanism has been given the reputation of saying that sensual pleasures are the highest good and this is what a person should strive for. This view is actually mistaken. According to Burkhardt, “Intense bodily pleasure has consequences which are painful. In the long run, therefore, the highest good lies not in bodily pleasure but in the maximum of equilibrium or absence of pain” (272). The highest good is not in complete bodily pleasure, but in creating a total balance between pleasure and pain.

How do the Stoics answer the proposed question "What is one’s purpose in life?" They viewed purpose in life as the pursuit of virtue. According to Lamm, “It was seen that virtue was the sole good in an individual’s life; health, happiness, possessions are of no account. Because virtue resides in will power, everything good or bad in a person’s life depends entirely on that person” (242). Lamm goes on to say, “Virtue is seen as a detached calm, and one must guard himself from allowing others from interfering with this calm. One can finally achieve freedom by freeing oneself from all nonimportant desires” (242). We...
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