If you are writing on Hellenistic philosophy and need a topic, consider the twenty below:
- Epicureans Beliefs about Knowledge and the Derived Sources for These Beliefs
- What Stoic Epistemology Really Is
- Defining Ancient Skepticism and the Influence Cicero Had On Its Growth
- Epicurean Cosmos: the Idea of Freedom Within; Concepts of Indeterminism and Anti-Teleology
- Stoic Ontology as a Criteria for Identity and How Chrysippus Contributed to the Understanding of Identity
- Stoic Cosmos and the Issue of Freedom Including Determinism and Teleology
- The Role Posidonius Played in Stoic Physics
- Epicureanism and the Idea of Moral End
- Stoic Ethics and How to Live in Accordance with Nature in Peace
- Different Hellenistic Theories for Affections: Stoics and Epicureans
- The Theory of Action Within Skepticism and Ethics
- How Marcus Aurelius Contributed to the Concept of Meditations
- Understanding Lucretius and His Contributions to “The Nature of All Things in the World”
- The Causes and Explanations for Philosophies of Ancient Greece
- The History of Ancient Medicine and Hellenistic Philosophy
- The Greek Philosophers of the Hellenistic Times: Contribution to the Philosophies
- The Epicurus’ Scientific Method and Its Relation to the Other
- The Transmission of Greek Wisdom Defined by Lucretius
- Philodemus Contribution to the Greek Understanding of Ethics
- Emotions, Duties, and the Fate of Those Leading a Stoic Life
Aren’t those cool? Don’t forget to check our 10 facts on Hellenistic Philosophies for a research essay and a guide on how to tackle this task. Below is a sample essay on one of the above topics:
Sample Research Essay on Greek Philosophers of the Hellenistic Times: Contribution to the Philosophies
In the period directly following the influences of such names as Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, there came the Hellenistic Philosophies and their many great leaders. Hellenistic philosophies arose out of a time period when Greeks had been encouraged to think of life and actions in relation to the greater political landscape, and yet the political landscape had severely changed with the Roman conquering of Greece. It was because of these changes that philosophical schools of thought transitioned their main points away from the contribution of individuals towards the changes politically. They focused instead on the role that people played in making themselves happy and accepting of the things in life as they came. Ethical thinkers transitioned away from grandiose thinking and moved toward the very small, focusing on what elements constitute the nature and the environment in which people live. This influenced the role that people played within this predetermined and microscopic world. The main school of thought during this time period revolved around the atomists. It was accepted by Epicurus, then the stoics and skeptics.
Democritus and Leucippus were two famous atomists whose work included the creation of a systematic description in the world of nature. Their findings resulted in a conclusion that all things in the world were made up of small particles and that these particles were indestructible. This meant that no matter what people did, the particles would never be destroyed by them, anyone else or by their actions. According to this philosophy everything was made up of particles each of which had mechanical interactions with one another. This process accounted for everything happening in the world. Because of this theory people were paying significant attention to the consequences resulting from their actions. Another aspect to this thought was that these small particles would naturally collide and smash into one another, no matter what actions were taken; they were controlled by larger elements in the universe. The resulting teachings focused on how human life was passive, and how people could only experience the world around them and not control or change it. So rather than focusing efforts on attempts to modify their world or the politics guiding it, people were told that they should focus on living a good life. Living a good life was defined as enjoying more pleasant things in it rather than the unpleasant. Epicurus, the main leader of this philosophy, stated that people should attempt to live a life free from pain, need and sensual desires.
It was perceived as natural and if they went not satiated it would result in a mild form of pain. This could be avoided by simply giving into these desires to achieve a pleasure in life. Another notion was that death was a natural removal of personality from the body and nothing to be feared.
Instead, people should have accepted death as natural and in the meantime strive to live a life whereby they eat, drink, and remain happy.
It was Zeno and Chrusippus who focused on the ideas of the Stoics to counter some of the philosophical elements found in the teachings of Epicurus. The stoics believed that people represented microcosms of the universe and that each person and their actions could be explained in a naturalistic fashion. Stoics believed most strongly, as the name would suggest, in remaining more stoic toward all things in life. Stoicism and stern attitudes were paramount to accepting the fate of life. It was argued by the Stoics that people should accept the things that happen to them and around them without complaint. It was Epicetus who heeded the call of Stoic leadership by promoting the concept that people have very little understanding of how things in the universe work and, what’s more, have very little control over any of it. It was stated that people should never become attached to things or other people in their lives, even friends or family, because all things in life were fleeting or passing and would perish with time. That said, people were encouraged to view all good things in life as a temporary blessing and all bad things as a temporary curse, both of which would naturally pass away.
It was Pyrrho of Elis who formed the leading principles for the school of Skepticism. This school of thinking took the ideas of the other two even further by explaining that people should not dwell on things about which they have no knowledge. But the definition of true knowledge was an absolute comprehension, beyond any doubts. This idea was not something which many people could actually attain, and therefore, peace of mind came by not responding to the things about which people could not be absolutely sure. This also meant that people could not judge or act on situations without absolute knowledge, something that afforded a great deal of mental clarity and calmness according to the teaching.
Algra, Keimpe. The Cambridge History Of Hellenistic Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.
Annas, Julia. Hellenistic Philosophy Of Mind. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1992. Print.
Brunschwig, Jacques. Papers In Hellenistic Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Print.
Gill, Christopher. “Hellenistic And Roman Philosophy”. Phronesis 60.2 (2015): 253-265. Web.
Long, A. A. Hellenistic Philosophy. New York: Scribner, 1974. Print.
Sharples, R. W. Stoics, Epicureans And Sceptics. London: Routledge, 1996. Print.
Voudourēs, Kōnstantinos Iōannou. Hellenistic Philosophy. Athens: International Center for Greek Philosophy and Culture, 1993. Print.
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Alan Saunders: Can philosophy be practical and compassionate? Can it exist for human beings and not just for its own coldly logical reasons?
Well these were questions asked by the philosophers of the Hellenistic Age. That's the period following Aristotle.
And that's what we're going to be doing for the whole of this month, following Aristotle. Of course this is The Philosopher's Zone and I'm Alan Saunders.
So this month, we'll look at what happened to this great philosopher's works in Roman times, and how they made the trip to the Middle East, to the great translation centre that was the city of Baghdad, and then on north to the European High Middle Ages.
And let's turn now to the Hellenistic philosophers and a return trip to the show by Martha Nussbaum, Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, whose book about them, The Therapy of Desire has just been republished in a substantially updated new edition.
Now the point about these thinkers seems to be that they see philosophy as therapy, and the philosophy as a healer of souls.
Martha Nussbaum: Yes, so they think that philosophers are not doing their job if they don't heal people. There was a saying 'Empty is that philosopher's argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated', and they said it was like medicine and if the doctor had an elegant theory but he couldn't cue in the patient, that was no good. Well, the diseases that philosophy treats are the diseases of the destructive passions, in particular fear, but also anger that produces war and conflict. The Stoics were very preoccupied with the destructive role of anger; fighting over honour, so the sense of honour and shame; all of these things, they thought you could treat by philosophy. Now they knew of course that there were plenty of other people in the culture, let's say religious figures, astrologers, who were trying to treat the same passions, but they said, 'Look, the reason you need philosophy is that a lot of the destructiveness in these passions is based on false belief. For example, the belief that if you bash somebody in a war you won't be dead, and it's only philosophy with its discipline and rigour of argument that can bring these false beliefs out into the open, and give people a sense of confronting them and understanding how the world really works.
Alan Saunders: When exactly do the Hellenistic schools arise, and what are the schools in question?
Martha Nussbaum: Well the conventional dating is from the death of Alexander the Great, 323, the people who founded them were born earlier, obviously, but that's a pretty good rough and ready starting point. And there were three schools, and they continued, all of them, up through the Roman Empire, so it's a very long period we're talking about, and in fact most of our long texts come from Rome and are in Latin.
But first is the Epicurean School, founded by Epicurus, who was a very charismatic person who had a philosophical community outside Athens which are called The Garden, and then a lot of his views are known to us through the Roman poet Lucretius much, much later. So that's the first of the schools.
The second and most popular by far was the Stoic school, founded by Zeno of Citium and then later a famous philosopher, Chrysippus, was the third head of the school and by far the most influential philosophically. But these people's writings are all lost, so what we have are fragments and summaries, and therefore once again we know about the Stoics mainly from the Roman Stoic writers, namely Seneca, the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius who was a Stoic philosopher, and then there's Cicero, who wasn't himself a Stoic but he writes about both the Stoics and the Epicureans and gives us a very good idea of what their views were.
Then the third school is the Sceptic School, and that was a very complicated one. It went through a lot of changes, but largely existed by casting doubt on the views of all the so-called Dogmatic schools, and that one began with a famous sort of legendary figure named Pyrrho who was famous for just not being able to live without having any definite beliefs. And then it went into a more moderate phase, and then there was a revival, a very stern Pyrrhonism that said you shouldn't have any beliefs at all, and the writer that preserves this for us, is a writer named Sextus Empiricus who apparently was a doctor, lived in the early years of the Common Era, and that one was not so influential in Rome, although Romans knew about it, but it had tremendous influence later on, for example in the Renaissance.
Alan Saunders: Yes, and there's a famous division, isn't there, amongst the Sceptics between those who said that you could know nothing, and those who thought that claiming that you knew nothing was altogether too dogmatic because it involved a claim that there was one thing you knew, namely that you could know nothing.
Martha Nussbaum: Well yes, exactly. Your strict Pyrrhonists said you shouldn't affirm or assert anything, you should simply go by how things strike you, and you could perfectly well live that way and you would live a happier life because they said, 'Look, what gets people into trouble is they have definite views about how the world is, and of course then sometimes those views turn out to be wrong and especially in areas like ethics, they think a certain thing is right, then when the opposite happens, they get very upset. So he said the way not to be upset is don't have any stake in the world, just sort of go with the flow and then you will never be surprised and never be upset.
Alan Saunders: Now the striking thing is that though 20th century philosophers have paid a great deal of attention to Plato and to Aristotle , they have tended, you say, to neglect the Hellenistic philosophers in a way that previous centuries didn't.
Martha Nussbaum: Absolutely. And if you look at the history of Western philosophy and ask who was Descartes reading, who was Spinoza reading and so on, who was Kant reading, it was all the Hellenistic philosophers. And one reason for that is these people knew Latin very well and some of them wrote in Latin, but they did not know Greek very well, and so they focused on the works that survived in the Roman authors, Seneca, Cicero, these were the most widely read authors, until we get to the mid-19th century when there was a real revival of interest in studying Greek and so with people like Hegel and Nietzsche, you suddenly get philosophers who knew Greek very well and who paid more attention to the Greeks than to the Romans.
And I think what happened with the 20th century people is they didn't really respect the Romans very much, they thought they were a fine military people but not very good at philosophy. And one of the things they didn't like was that you don't have such obvious arguments in these texts, it's more difficult to dissect the arguments, so if you're a very precise analytic philosopher you may get impatient with Seneca and Cicero because they arguing a kind of therapeutic cultivation of the person, and the argument is therefore couched in such a way that it will move somebody but the logical stricture is sometimes more difficult to find than it is in Plato and Aristotle.
Alan Saunders: Well yes, and taking the Epicureans and the Stoics, they're clearly very concerned about the human passions, and you write of the subtlety and the cogency of their accounts of the emotions.
Martha Nussbaum: Yes, these accounts of emotions in both the Epicureans and the Stoics were the basis for any modern thought about emotions in people like Spinoza, Adam Smith, who loved the Stoics and lectured on them all the time, and the reason is that they really started to analyse what emotions are. Chrysippus had a four-book treatise on emotions and fortunately, although most of his works - I mean he was clearly as good a philosopher as Aristotle, and one of the great philosophers of history, but almost all his works are lost. The emotions book is not so lost, because large chunks of it were actually preserved in a medical treatise written by the doctor Galen. He thought it was a ridiculous view and he thought you had to quote large chunks of it to show the reader how ridiculous it was, so that was fortunate for us that Galen hated these views so much, and so we do have a lot of view, and we know that he investigated in ways that I find enormously fruitful for thinking about the topic still.
The relationship between emotions and judgments of value, how emotions are not just mindless syringes in the blood, but they involve what you think matters to you, the reason you feel grief when someone you love dies, is that you've invested that person with a great deal of importance. And so it was that sense of objects out there beyond your control, as having this enormous importance that they put at the heart of their accounts of emotion. And so I think that's one of the tremendous fruitful things that the Stoics did.
What the Epicureans did may have a lot in common with the Stoics, but they added something that I think is fantastic, which is that they realised that people have non-conscious emotions; in effect they had discovered the unconscious, not necessarily in Freud's sense, but in the sense that they said, Look, people are doing things that we can't explain, except by the hypothesis that they have a fear of death that drives them in ways that they're just not aware of. And at times they become aware of it, and then they're paralysed by it, but it goes through the fabric of their whole life; it makes them do things like become religious, entrust their property to priests and so on.
And they also thought that a lot of war-making was caused by the fear of death, because people somehow think if they can conquer other peoples somehow they're not going to be dead themselves. So they thought all these beliefs were quite irrational, and that once you brought it to the surface, people would actually live a more peaceful, quiet and decent life.
Alan Saunders: That's interesting, because although as you say, this is not exactly a Freudian view of the unconscious, it's a very Freudian theme, the dominance of death as a motivating factor in our lives.
Martha Nussbaum: Yes, it is. And I think the only reason that it's not a Freudian view is that they don't have an account of child development. None of these thinkers really knew much about children and they often talk about the initial impulses of the child, but it's quite funny, because they were all men for the most part and they just had no chance to observe young children and so they speculated about children, but they don't really have the kind of detailed knowledge of development and they don't really care much about development. But in other respects, it really is like a Freudian view because there's even an account of something like repression, in the sense that it's too uncomfortable to live with this fear, so we drive it underground. And then they say things like the true voices speak out from the breast at certain moments of confrontation when people are really right in the face of death.
Alan Saunders: This idea of philosophy as therapy, does that originate with the Hellenistic schools or do we find it in Aristotle for example?
Martha Nussbaum: Well I think you'd find it already in Plato. Plato's Symposium for example, is full of these therapeutic words: Diotima, is always saying to Socrates that if you perform the ascent of love that she describes, you learn to see the world in the way she recommends, then you won't be so disturbed, you won't be driven from one object of love to another, but you'll have a life of real stability and you'll have it because you've seen the truth. So I think it's this connection between therapy and finding the truth that's already in Plato and then it is certainly very much in the Hellenistic philosophers. They love Plato, and they really thought that Socrates was a good model, at least the Stoics very much did.
And Aristotle, it's not clear that the early Hellenistic philosophers had even read Aristotle, there's a lot of debate about that. When we get to Rome, certainly they knew Aristotle's views and that does come up and people have debates about which views are more adequate. But they thought that Aristotle was too much of a moderate figure when we're talking about anger. Aristotle thinks it's all right to have a balanced and moderate amount of anger, and the Stoics think we should completely get rid of anger, and live by rational judgment alone. The Romans, because they saw the damages of anger around them at every moment, they were more drawn to the more extreme Stoic view. So when Seneca writes about anger, he represents the Aristotelian view when he has people in the Dialogue giving that view, but he clearly is not sympathetic to it.
Alan Saunders: On ABC Radio National, you're with The Philosopher's Zone, and I'm talking to Martha Nussbaum from the University of Chicago about the Hellenistic philosophers of Ancient Greece.
Now let's have a look at a couple of specific cases of what these schools held, and let's begin in a way at the end, with death. There's an Epicurean doctrine regarding death which finds perhaps its fullest exposition in Latin in the work of Lucretius. It goes like this, 'It is irrational to fear that which we will not experience, death being non-existent, cannot in the nature of things be experienced, therefore it is irrational to fear death.' I have to ask, is this really therapeutic? Are we really meant to be comforted by this?
Martha Nussbaum: You know, the first thing that Lucretius felt he had to do before he could comfort you, is to prove that there's no afterlife. So before we get to the argument you're talking about, there's a whole long series of proofs of the mortality of the soul, because he thought that what most people are afraid of is being tormented in the afterlife. And so then once we get rid of the afterlife, then we still have people thinking that they fear death, and he thinks he can convince them that this fear is based on an irrational imagining that you are surviving yourself. So he thinks you're standing there in your mind, watching the dead you and thinking 'Oh, poor dead you, you're missing all the good things of life.' And so he thinks that if you can point out to the person it's quite irrational, there's no spectators gonna be there, there's just nothing at all, then that will take away the fear.
At that time, people were just as divided as they are now and I've had a terrific argument about that recently in our law school at the University of Chicago, because I had a new paper on that topic. And you know, you can see that some people find this argument very appealing. If there's nothing at all, well then it would be quite irrational to think that that's a bad that's happened to you. But because there's no you there for whom something bad could happen.
Other people think differently and at the time people thought differently and at the time, people thought differently. Plutarch wrote a whole treatise talking about how bad this argument was. And I think to me, the way of attacking the argument has to be to think about what makes life worthwhile, and I think what makes life worthwhile are activities that have a structure, that persist through time, that go on into the future. And what death does is, it cuts off those activities and so it changes their shape so to speak, it's like making them empty and vain because they never reach a completion, and it's for that reason that even though there's no you, it changes what you were in your life, if you see what I mean.
That is, suppose you're in the middle of trying to build some elaborate structure that you attack great importance to you, and then put all your energy into that and put your time into that, you get your friends to help you, and in the middle of that before your thing is complete, you die, well then it's not just the time after death that's the bad thing, it's what it's done to the life, it cuts it off in the middle. Now I think what that shows is not that every death is bad, but that death would be bad whenever it does that, whenever it cuts off activities that are in the middle and people are still attaching value to their completion.
Alan Saunders: My second example of some specific cases of what these schools were talking about is something you've already mentioned, is what the Stoics had to say about anger. Now they were much concerned with anger, and you say that anger is in a sense, the central topic of your book. Why is that?
Martha Nussbaum: Well I think, you know, where the Stoics are concerned anyway, it's the thing they were most worried about, and it's what led them to think that some other passions that we might think rather nice, like personal love, had to be got rid of too. And what they thought is that the minute you have attachments to something outside yourself, beyond your control, whether it' a child, or a spouse, or a partner, or even your country, then events that you cannot control are going to make you fearful, grief-stricken, and often angry.
Now they thought anger was a very dangerous one, and what makes you angry is when somebody damages the thing you care about and you have decided they did it wrongfully, and then what are you going to do? You're going to go running amok and charge out after them and behave in a very uncontrolled way. So they thought that it would be much better if you get rid of that personal investment in the outcome and then you follow the moral law. If the person is violated the law then you'll punish them, but you won't do it because you're angry. They say Look, even in an army do we want soldiers to be angry soldiers? No, we want them to do what they're supposed to do and go and follow their commander, but the minute the soldier gets personally angry, that's when you have the danger of atrocities and they talk about military atrocities in some of Seneca's, On anger.
So I think the idea is not that people should be automata, but that they shouldn't have this intense personal investment in things that they can by no means control. And even deep love of another person is bound to be dangerous because we know that other people are quite unreliable. I mean first of all somebody else might damage that person, so even if the person is perfectly loyal to you, well your child, your spouse might get murdered, and then maybe you'll go nuts.
But of course often the person is not loyal to you; Seneca's tragedies he wrote to explore, I believe, all the bad ways that life can strike you if you love somebody, and so here's Medea and Medea falls in love with Jason, follows him, away from her own country, becomes very, very vulnerable, and then lo and behold, he leaves her. Well being not a wimp but a very strong woman, she doesn't just take it lying down, but she becomes tremendously angry and she turns into a kind of monster who's going to murder her own children to get revenge on him. And so he tried to show in this and other tragedies that once you let the world get under your skin to that extent, then you just can't control yourself, and you can't be a decent and reliable person.
Alan Saunders: I just want to close with the question of what these schools might leave out. One is, is there a danger of subordinating truth and good reasoning to psychological health? Are they liable to that, and also do they in fact allow their adherents, as long as they're strict adherents, to be attached to anything other than their own virtues?
Martha Nussbaum: I think the danger with truth is certainly there for the Stoics. Well of course they would say it's not a danger, they don't care about truth. But I think it's very important that these philosophers are not performing care of the self in the way that Foucault for example did in his late works. He was inspired by the Stoics but for Foucault, this idea that it has to go through truth and valid argument, was not central. Whereas for the Stoics it was, there was no great calming yourself down if it wasn't through the truth. It's just that they believed that in fact and if did understand how the universe worked then it would calm you down.
So I think the danger in the case of the Stoics and the Epicureans is not so great, and I think it's also true that in political thought they believed that if you understand how the universe works, then you would understand that human beings are all of equal dignity and then that would be the basis for a politics of global justice. So this is very moving stuff. And I think Hellenistic political thought is the origin of the whole of the modern human rights movement actually.
What they leave out? Well, you know, you could say that they leave out the importance of personal love, I mean if you think that they're wrong about that, now of course it's not like they ignored that, they thought about it a lot, and they just thought it's not worth the upheaval that it gets you into. But then we can have that argument with them and think that the attachments we have to not just lovers, but to children and parents and so on, are much more important than they said. And Adam Smith had that argument with them, he felt we should follow them up to a point, but when they tell us not to be deeply attached to our family, well they've just gone too far. I think that too, but I guess I think we have to go through their argument before we know what we think, and it's the biggest challenge to a view of life that I think most modern people hold, which is much more based on personal attachment.
Alan Saunders: Martha, thank you very much indeed for coming on to the show.
Martha Nussbaum: Oh, Alan, thank you so much, this is such a great program.
Alan Saunders: For details of The Therapy of Desire, Martha Nussbaum's book on the Hellenistic philosophers, have a look at our website.
The show is produced by Kyla Slaven, the sound engineer is Charlie McKune, and I'm Alan Saunders.
Next week, a closer look at one of these philosophers, Lucius Anaeus Seneca who popularised the philosophy of the Stoics in the Roman world. He was also a philosophical martyr. Find out why next week on The Philosopher's Zone.