ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS           home | history

Influences in Western thought

A Macedonian soldier named Pyrrho campaigning with Alexander learned something of the different local cultures that Alexander's military had come upon. Pyrrho came up with the idea that equally valid arguments could be made on either side of any question. After Alexander's death, Pyrrho pursued a career in philosophy. He launched a school of thinkers to be called the Skeptics. Despite their reluctance to draw conclusions (a conclusion itself), they produced at least one valid point: they examined the logic of Aristotle and they concluded the way to truth could not be deduced from a self-evident premise. It appears that they perhaps believed there was something such as Truth but that it could not be communicated or acquired through reason. They claimed that the senses were an unreliable and invalid source of knowledge. Staying with Pyrrho's idea, they held that one should just live according to one's circumstances and desires. What mattered, said Pyrrho, was living well and living unperturbed — like the Cynics, not much of a challenge to the political status quo.

The imperturbability that Pyrrho sought eluded him. He made much money teaching his doctrine of Skepticism, and in his later years he spent much time attacking a philosopher named Arcesilaus, about 44 years his junior, whom he believed had copied his ideas and was endangering his source of wealth. It was Arcesilaus who succeeded the Cynic Crates at Plato's old academy at Athens, around 264 BCE, and turned the academy to the teaching of Skepticism.


A school of thought that sided with Pyrrho's desire for imperturbability was created by a Greek named Epicurus (341-270). But he was devoted also to knowledge and stayed with the interest in science of pre-Socratic Greek philosophers such as Anaxagoras, Democritus, Hippocrates, and Xenophanes. Like Pyrrho, Epicurus posed no threat to the politically powerful. Epicurus favored purging oneself of an appetite for power. He and his followers were not inclined toward organizing revolution or other political alternatives. Like the Cynics, he and his followers favored withdrawal from the corruptions of society.

Epicurus has been described as having the rich man's devotion to smelling the roses in his garden. Unlike Plato, Epicurus accepted pleasure as a meaningful part of life as long as one was able to measure what fit and did not fit with well-being. He was to be associated with a wicked hedonism, but he was in fact devoted to restraint and measure. He favored having possessions enough and friends to make life pleasant. And he saw purpose in avoiding pain. He was the father of the "happiness" concept was to end up in the US Declaration of Independence by way of Thomas Jefferson, who was to describe Epicurus as his favorite philosopher, and before that it influenced John Locke and then the French Revolution.

Unlike Plato, Epicurus believed in knowledge gathered from the senses. Illusion was a possibility but an aberration. Vision for example was useful in trying to recognize someone approaching from a distance was who you thought it to be. As he got closer the better he was able to verify that it was the person he had suspected it was. Epicurus, in other words, was an empiricist, but not in an absolute sense. He associated reason with his putting together his ideas, as he did in accepting the atom theory of Democritus.

Being an empiricist, Epicurus did not give the gods credit for what was happening. Events he saw as a product of physical interactions. He is reported as having said that if God (Plato's god?) is not able to prevent evil then He is not omnipotent, and if God is able but not willing, then He is malevolent. Epicurus saw soul as a human invention, as an assumption, as fiction. He saw the universe as infinite and eternal.

Ready to defy traditions that made no sense to him, his school was the first of the ancient Greek philosophical schools to admit women as a rule rather than as an exception.

The Stoics

Epicurus was in conflict with the Stoics – whose philosophy would influence the Romans and to be adopted by Christians. Stoicism's founder was a Greek to be known as Zeno of Citium (a city on the island of Cyprus. Zeno's teacher was the Cynic Crates. He clung to some of the Cynic's ideology, and he mixed it with the spiritual traditions of Pythagoras and Plato. It was a mix the gave to Stoicism a success greater the Cynicism. It became the dominant philosophy in the three centuries following Alexander's death, and it extended into the times of Rome's dominance. The Apostle Paul would be a Stoic, and Christianity would make Stoicism its view of the world beyond its basic tenet of Jesus Christ lifting the burden of sin from people by his sacrifice.

Zeno began teaching around the age of 33 in the year 301 BCE. (He was roughly 32 years younger than Crates and 8 years younger the Epicurus.) He taught at the colonnade in the Agora of Athens known as the Stoa Poikile.

Influenced by Cynicism, Stoicism emphasized peace of mind and living a life of virtue in accordance with Nature. Zeno is described as haggard, tanned, and as living an ascetic life. More into explanations than the Cynics, he described various gods as one god (as had one or more writers found in the Upanishads). Interested in universals, he tried to explain the variety in myths of various religions as representations of universal truths. For Zeno, God was the father of all, and all men therefore were brothers. All humanity,he claimed, had soul, a divine spark, and eventually returned to a divine eternity. God, he claimed, worked in mysterious ways. God had a plan and humanity could see only a tiny portion of it. Evil within the unfolding of His plan was God exercising people for virtue. Purpose in life was not happiness as claimed by the Epicureans. The right purpose was serving God's plan.

CONTINUE READING: Judaic scripture into Greek

to the top | home

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.