Clerestory

How diverse is Greek philosophy?

November 18, 2021

Part 12 of a series on Whether There Was a West.

How different are the Greek schools?

As I discussed last week, and continued discussing yesterday, Biagetti argues that Greek philosophy is a cacophony. As an example, he makes the point that the Stoics and Epicureans were at each others’ throats. The first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on Epicureanism supports his claim, saying that Epicureans first opposed Platonism, and later Stoicism.

I want to suggest a few things today:

  1. Epicureans, Platonists, and Stoics aren’t really all that different, nor are they much different from Aristotelians, at least when you consider how different Taoism is from Confucianism.
  2. The persecution of Epicureans is a case of Freud’s “narcissism of small differences” even though it did result in real purges.
  3. Epicurus doesn’t really “survive” anyway; we only have scraps of Epicurus’ writing, whereas we have loads of Plato.

What’s the big fuss about?

I’m mainly going to focus on ethics here; Platonist and Epicurean metaphysics are importantly different, at least from the (narrow?) view of “the West.”

First, all the schools I’m about to discuss share the same virtues: Prudence (or Wisdom), Fortitude (or Courage), Temperance, and Justice.

Plato (428–347 BCE; in the words of Socrates; Book III of the Republic) believed that the good life (“flourishing” or eudaimonia) was reached by living in accordance with these virtues. Neither pleasure nor circumstance comes into it.

Aristotle (384–322 BCE) introduces the notion of moral luck. If you’re born into bad enough circumstances, you may not have the chance to live in accordance for the virtues, and therefore moral bad luck bars you from the good life. He also tries to define the virtues by the golden mean. I discussed Aristotle’s views on eudaimonia a bit here. But the overall message is almost the same, with the addition of a minor parenthetical: Live by the virtues (if you can), and you’ll live the good life.

The Stoics return to the Socratic position: It doesn’t matter how bad your luck is, you have control of your mind and your conduct and can live in accordance with virtue, therefore (whether slave or emperor) you can live a good life. Your circumstances don’t matter, and it doesn’t matter if you enjoy your life. You can “flourish” regardless of how hard it is.

Epicurus’ innovation is that the good life can’t be one that is not pleasurable. He thinks it makes no sense to talk about a life lived virtuously as “flourishing” if it is not enjoyable. This was called “hedonism” at the time, and had all the negative associations that the word still has today, of overindulgence or excess.

I’ve written before about Epicurus and how he had a hard time of it even during his own life, and even when written about by (potentially) sympathetic writers like Diogenes Laertius. But Epicurus defines pleasure as something like “being untroubled over the long term,” a state called ataraxia, which is the freedom from pain, worry, and fear.

How does one cultivate ataraxia? By living according to the virtues.

Which ones? The same ones as the Stoics, their bitter enemies.

Small differences

Can you see where this is going? All the schools listed so far basically think that there’s a strong link between the same four virtues and flourishing, it’s just a matter of emphasis on how much circumstances or pleasure matter.

I’m not saying there are no practical consequences. For example, the Stoics tend to see people as having a duty to enter public life whether or not it’s fun. The Epicureans, by observing politicians, and noting that they don’t seem to be having a particularly good time (more specifically, that it seems more often to lead to trouble rather than to ataraxia), tend to avoid public office.2 But their overall worldview remains extremely similar. You might even call them “commensurable”, as opposed to revolutionary (therefore incommensurable) positions.

As I said at the beginning, their different metaphysics and attitudes towards nature may motivate different types of inquiry.

What I’m wondering is whether, if “the West” is already willing to conduct purges on the basis of commensurable differences, then it is preparing and homogenizing itself to create bigger purges when it comes to incommensurable differences. But I’m also getting awfully anthropomorphic so maybe I’ll not go there today.

What we have left of Epicureanism

We only have a few fragments of what Epicurus (341–270 BCE) wrote, though we have lots of rumours about him. Some people conflate the Roman Epicurean Lucretius (99–55 BCE) with Epicurus, assuming them to be equivalent, but this position is controversial.

In a sense, then, Epicurus doesn’t survive. Paper disintegrates. I’m tempted to say that people didn’t care enough about Epicurus to preserve him. But then again, none of the Greek Stoics really survive either; we know Zeno of Citium (~334–262 BCE), founder of Stoicism, wrote a lot, but none of it survives.

Some of this seems to just be bad luck; many of the important texts of Epicureanism were housed at Herculaneum, which happens to be close enough to Mount Vesuvius that the papyrus was carbonized when the volcano erupted in 79 CE.

I don’t know how this contrasts with the situation of Plato; as of 1989, there were 250 known manuscripts of Plato, mostly not transcribed. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to find out what progress has been made since then. The vast majority of Aristotle’s writing does not survive, so I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Epicurean texts were deliberately destroyed, or even intentionally not preserved. But it might be possible to argue that Plato’s texts were intentionally preserved.

Perhaps we could call Epicureanism a purge of omission*. I suspect many of the Christian heresies, by contrast, resulted in successful purges of commission. Pelagianism (to take a random example), and the word became a term of abuse rather than one referring to a living school of thought. Though that led to excommunications in the fifth century, it seems to have intensified in violence by the Medieval period.

What about the pre-Socratics?

Great point.

The pre-Socratics probably were radically different. Everyone who works on them seems to say so, anyway. This interview gives a nice overview.

But again, they don’t survive, or they survive only in scraps. We know of them, know about them, but we don’t know them. Here’s Wikipedia:

Very few fragments of the works of the pre-Socratic philosophers have survived. The knowledge we have of the pre-Socratics derives from the accounts of later writers such as Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Diogenes Laërtius, Stobaeus, and Simplicius, and some early Christian theologians, especially Clement of Alexandria and Hippolytus of Rome.

Probably they are important; both Nietzsche and Heidegger seem to think that Socrates/Plato take the whole culture in the wrong direction.

I’ll return on what it means for something to survive when I get to a brief bit on Indian philosophy.


  1. Possibly like the Chinese Yangists around the same time?

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.