“Sophie’s World” on Hellenism; (Dec. 11, 2009)
After Alexander of Macedonia defeated the Persian Empire around 335 BC, the entire region in the Middle East and Egypt became Hellenistic; which means the elite and public servants learned to speak and write in the Greek language and to study Greek philosophies.
Athens got a new life as center of philosophical schools, and the newly built city of Alexandria in Egypt flourished as the center of sciences and medicine.
Four major philosophical schools captured the interest of the people and had repercussions in Rome till the year 400 AC, as the Christian Church got established as the State religion after the defeat of the last Germanic Emperor in Rome.
1. The Cynics school was founded in Athens by Antisthenes, a disciple of Socrates in 400 BC. The frugality of Socrates was the guiding idea as he wondered before a stall: “So many things that I never used or needs”.
The dogma of this school is that happiness is learning to feel independent (detached) from external advantages such as material luxuries or political power.
Happiness is in the reach of everyone if he so desired, and it can be lasting. Suffering and death should not be disturbing events. Feeling concerns for other people should be overcome.
Diogenes is the best representative of the Cynics; he lived in a barrel and carried no belonging but a stick. It is reported that he asked Alexander to step aside for he was blocking the sun rays as he was asking him what he can do for him.
The Church of Rome coined the pejorative term “cynical” referring to individual who exhibits a sneering disbelief in human sincerity, with penchant insensitivity to people’s plights: The Church was competing with all the Hellenistic schools of philosophy and religions.
2. The Stoics school was founded by Zeno in Athens around 300 BC. Zeno was not Greek by origin but from the Phoenician city of Sidon, and he studied in Alexandria before he landed in Greece following a shipwreck. Socrates and Heraclitus were his favorite philosophers and he used to teach under a portico (stoa).
Zeno dogma was that each individual is a complete microcosms reflected in the macrocosms.
First, there was a universal rightness or natural law based on human and universal reason that didn’t alter with time or place.
Second, there is no conflict between spirit (ideas) and matter; this concept was coined “monism” in contrast to Plato dualism of the two worlds of ideas and matter.
Third, sickness and death are within the natural law phenomena and must be accepted since everything happens out of necessity.
Fourth, happy events and moments should be received in natural composure with no undue exhilaration.
Stoics got involved in politics and social problems.
Cicero, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca were staunch stoics. Seneca wrote “mankind is holy”; thus, considering individual dignity and well being as goal for improvement and care.
The Roman Christian Church coined the connotation stoic for individuals who do not let their feeling take over.
3. The Epicurean school was established by Aristippus, another disciple of Socrates. Epicurus founded this school around 300 BC in Athens. He developed the pleasure ethic of Aristippus and adopted the “atom soul” theory of Democritus which says that after death the soul disperses in all directions.
The story goes that Epicureans lived in gardens (safe-harbors): a notice hanged at the entrance said: “Stranger, here you will live well. Here pleasure is the highest good”
The dogma of the Epicureans was:
First, pleasurable results of an action is always counterbalanced with side effects that we need to mind of;
Second, short-term pleasurable results should be analyzed compared to the potential longer-term alternative pleasures if we control our actions;
Third, pleasure is appreciation of values in friendship, art, and self control in sensual tendencies. Epicurus summed up his doctrine in 4 “medicinal” treatments: first, the gods are not to be feared; second, Death is nothing to worry about since when we die then we no longer exist; third, Good is easy to attain; and fourth, the fearful is easy to endure.
Epicurus advice was to learn to live in seclusion. Epicureans had little concern for politics and community services. The roman Church coined a bad connotation such as “Indulge in or enjoy the moment”
4. The Neo-Platonist school was founded by Plotinus (205-270 BC) and he was from the Near East and studied in Alexandria and settled in Rome. Plotinus doctrine was influenced by Plato.
The world span two poles:
The One that constantly shines and the World that does not receive the light. The immortal soul (concept of salvation) is the world of ideas that is illuminated by the One (or God), it is “a spark from the fire”. The material world has no real existence until the light reaches it. Plotinus experienced mystical moments of fusion with the world of spirit.
The Roman Christian Church had a hard struggle with this powerfully competing school of Neo-Platonism and ended up adopting most of its concepts.