The Hellenistic Period
The deaths of Aristotle and the emperor Alexander the Great were the two deaths that mark the beginning of a new period in Greek Philosophy and History. This period is called "Hellenistic"- a word from ancient Greek referring to Greece.
Alexander was a great conqueror. After his death, his lands were divided among his major generals, whose deaths led to new divisions, which formed small kingdoms. After a few centuries, near the beginning of the Christian era, various of these small kingdoms were conquered by the Roman Empire.
These political moves generated two important cultural consequences, which will be significant for the schools of this period.
First, Alexander's intention in conquering new lands was to bring Greek culture to the colonized peoples, and in the centuries after his death, this spread occurred intensely. Greek ideas and values expanded and encountered different systems in these distant lands: Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism.
The Hellenistic Period was not only a time of profound influence of the Greeks on other people. But also a time when new ideas and ways of life reached Greece.
Moreover, this period is characterized by the loss of confidence in the city-state. Attempts at conquest and domination caused people to stop believing in the city as a privileged place. Many no longer saw any sense in political participation or even in the city's traditional religion; the Greek mythology lost power, making room for new cults and esoteric religions.
It was a period of grave instability.
In Athens, after Aristotle, the main names we find are not members of the schools founded by him (the Lyceum) or by Plato (the Academy).
It is undeniable that these Hellenistic thinkers were heirs of Platonic and Aristotelian thought, but they founded other schools of thought. Three of these main currents are Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism.
What several philosophers of this period have in common is the basic view of philosophy. And several of their teachings were aimed at helping people find what Aristotle had already identified as the true purpose of everything we do: happiness.
For the different currents of this period, however, the way to achieve it varies greatly. The emphasis on practical aspects makes Hellenistic philosophy arouses a strong attraction in contemporary readers.
Found by Epicurus of Samos in 306 B.C. The epicurean philosophy is both theoretical and practical.
Epicurus proposed a way of life to his followers. Derived from its conceptions of happiness, it relied on a philosophical system that also involved theses on theology and physics. He believed that the universe (kosmos) was originated from the collision of atoms.
These atoms have always existed and moved, initially constantly and homogeneously. However, there was a sudden change in direction that cause collisions, creating everything that exists, including souls and gods.
Epicurus does not deny the existence of gods. He only denies that they have any interest in human beings. For him, it would make no sense to imagine gods who want the respect or gratitude of human beings. In turn, common beliefs about the gods and their relationship to men create harmful fears and limitations.
According to Epicurus, happiness is a pleasure. That is evidenced by the fact that we seek pleasure and keep pain at bay. A happier life is one where pleasure is increasing, and suffering is decreasing.
This is the goal to try for, and we must put it into practice by creating a lifestyle that allows us to experience pleasure and put suffering aside.
He believed that there is an inferior kind of pleasure that, once satisfied, would only create more desire and intense pursuit of those pleasures. Included in this category, for example, is the pleasure that comes from satisfying desires for food, drink, and sex.
For him, we should be content with the simple pleasures of life, such as friendship, kindness, and moderation.
Epicurus encourages us to keep good memories in mind to distract us from the pain in difficult moments.
Epicurus may be called a hedonist. Because of his emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure, and his belief that true happiness lies therein.
Stoicism was very popular throughout the Roman Empire. The Stoic philosophical school is the most influential of the Hellenistic Period. Its founder was Zenon of Scythia, who arrived in Athens at the same time as Epicurus and became interested in philosophy after reading a book about Socrates.
The Stoics were devoted to the study of various subjects and understood knowledge as divided into three fields: Logic, Physics, and Ethics.
In Logic, they made original contributions to Aristotelian Logic. In Physics, they argued that everything that exists is material. And in Ethics, they argued that the main role of philosophy was to teach how to live a good life.
The main idea of Stoicism is the radical statement that our happiness is independent of factors external to us.
For the Stoics, it is fundamental to differentiate what is under our control from what is not. We cannot control what others do or the result of fate, nor what happens to our bodies or possessions, nor what others think of us. But we can control our actions, our thoughts, and also our emotions.
Like Epicureanism and Stoicism, Skepticism was also influential in Rome.
The founder of skepticism was Pyrrhus of Elis, who lived between the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C.
The central point of skepticism arises from the distinction, already traditional in Greek philosophy, between appearance and reality. Skeptics point to the fact that what we perceive through our senses often does not allow us to extrapolate this appearance and say something about the reality that lies behind it.
The sense organs of human beings are just specific examples among several possible types of organs that produce different sensations. What justifies, then, that we believe that our way of perceiving indicates what reality is?
Sixth Empiricist, one of the most famous skeptics, points to the fact that different people have different preferences when they have to choose between two things.
Since our choices depend on what causes us the most pleasure. And what causes us the most pleasure depends on how we perceive things, it then follows that different people perceive the same thing in different ways. We cannot then assume that any of these perceptions represent the reality of that object.
We can conclude from these findings that no matter how things appear to us in a certain way, we cannot know whether this appearance corresponds to reality. All we know are appearances, so the reality is not accessible to us.
Another way of understanding the skeptical position is to say that its philosophy is centered on the problem of criteria: it is not possible to find a criterion to determine what is true.