Who are Hellenistic Philosophers?

The Hellenistic period of the Ancient era of philosophy comprises many different school of thought developed in the Hellenistic world (which is usually used to mean the spread of Greek culture to non-Greek lands conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C.). It is usually considered to begin with the deaths of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. and of Aristotle in 322 B.C.).

It includes the following major philosophers:

Pyrrho (c. 360 – 270 B.C.) Greek
Epicurus (341 – 270 B.C.) Greek
Zeno of Citium (334 – 262 B.C.) Greek
Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. – A.D. 50) Egyptian-Jewish
Plotinus (A.D. 205 – 270) Egyptian-Greek

Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Syrians living outside Greece incorporated elements of Persian and Indian philosophy into their works, superimposing these ideas on the legacy handed down by the Socratic and Pre-Socratic philosophers of Classical Greece.

During this period, Stoicism, Skepticism, Epicureanism and Neo-Platonism flourished.

To some extent the Hellenistic period overlaps the Roman period, and the distinction is as much geographical as historical.


Plotinus (c. A.D. 204 – 270)


plotinusPlotinus (c. A.D. 204 – 270) was an Egyptian/Greek/Roman philosopher of the Hellenistic period. He is widely considered the founder (along with his less famous teacher Ammonius Saccas) of the Neo-Platonism movement. Many later Christians and Muslimswere influenced by his Neo-Platonism (or by Platonism acquired through the mediation of Plotinus’ teachings).

More than just a commentator on Plato, though, Plotinus was an original and profound thinker in his own right, who borrowed and re-worked all that he found useful from earlier thinkers (including Plato) to develop a complex spiritual cosmology and its related theory of morality, as well as a unique theory of sense-perception and knowledge.



Plotinus (pronounced plo-TINE-us) was born around A.D. 204, based on the report of his student, Porphyry (c. A.D. 233 – 309). The 4th Century historian, Eunapius, reported that he was born in Lycoplis, in the Nile Delta of Egypt, of Greek, Roman or possibly Hellenized Egyptian descent.

From all accounts, his personal and social life exhibited the highest moral and spiritual standards from an early age. He took up the study of philosophy at the age of twenty-seven, around the year A.D. 232, and he travelled to the great centre of learning Alexandria to study. There he read the works of Aristotle and Plato (both of whom had a strong influence on his thought) and was introduced to the works of the Aristotelian Alexander of Aphrodisias, the Neo-Pythagorean Numenius, and various Stoics. But he expressed dissatisfaction with every teacher he encountered until he happened on Ammonius Saccas (considered, along with Plotinus, one of the founders of Neo-Platonism), whereupon he declared to a friend, “this is the man I was looking for”. He began to study intently under his new instructor, remaining in Alexandria for the next eleven years.

Around the age of 38, he decided to investigate the philosophical teachings of the Persian and Indian philosophers. With this in mind, he joined the army of Gordian III (Jordanus) as it marched on Persia, although, when the campaign failed and Gordian died, Plotinus found himself abandoned in a hostile land, and only with difficulty found his way back to relative safety in Antioch.

At the age of 40, he made his way to Rome, where he stayed for most of the remainder of his life. There, he began to attract a number of students, although he had taught in Rome for twenty years before the arrival of Porphyry (a Phoenician Neo-Platonic philosopher and important commentator on the Logic of Aristotle), who was destined to become his most famous pupil, as well as his biographer and editor. Among his other students were Amelius Gentilianus of Tuscany, Zethos (an Arab who left Plotinus a legacy and some land), Castricius Firmus (one of several Roman Senators), Eustochius of Alexandria (a doctor who zealously attended Plotinus until his death), and also several women including Gemina (in whose Roman house he lived, along with her daughter, also Gemina).

While in Rome, Plotinus gained the respect of the Emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonina and tried to interest them in rebuilding an abandoned settlement in Campania, to be known as “Platonopolis” or the “City of Philosophers” and where the inhabitants would live under the constitution set out in Plato’s “Laws”, although the project never materialized.

Plotinus was an ascetic and a meditative man. A vegetarian for most of his life, he also shunned public baths with their promiscuous nudity. He wrote the essays that became the famous “Enneads” over a period of seventeen years from about A.D. 253 until a few months before his death. Towards the end of his life, urged by Porphyry, he began to collect his treatises (mainly material from his lectures and debates with his students) into systematic form, and to compose new ones.

He died in A.D. 270 of a long and disfiguring illness, possibly leprosy. He spent his final days in seclusion on the estate in Campania bequeathed by his friend and student, Zethos, and attended by another of his students, the doctor Eustochius.



Plotinus’ most famous work is his “Enneads”, written over the last 17 years of his life. He left them as an enormous collection of notes and essays, with poor spelling and in atrocious handwriting (partly due to his failing eyesight), requiring extensive editing. It was his student Porphyry who polished, compiled and arranged them into the six books of nine treatises each that we now know.

Plotinus’ Metaphysics is based on a chain of three hypostases (or underlying states or substances), the “One”, the “Nous” and the “Soul”, which are related to each other and affect each other through the plan or formative principle known as the “Logos”. He was essentially a Monist and a Pantheist of the world-rejecting type (or, arguably, a Panentheist). His beliefs can also be seen as coming close to an early exposition of Idealism, although he made no attempt to discover how we can get beyond our ideas in order to know external objects.

He taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent “One”, beyond all categories of being and non-being, containing no division, multiplicity or distinction. He explicitly denied sentience, self-awareness, thought or any other action to the “One”, which is above all understanding, and can be best approached by negative theology. This “One” is the source of the world, although not through any act of creation, either willful or otherwise (as such an activity cannot be ascribed to the unchangeable, immutable “One”), but by a process of emanation (a view sometimes known as Emanationism). Plotinus believed that the multiple cannot exist without the simple, and so the “less perfect” must of necessity emanate from the “perfect” or “more perfect”. In this way, all of “creation” emanates from the “One” in a constant ongoing process of succeeding stages of lesser and lesser perfection, with the “One” providing the ultimate foundation and location for all existents.

The first emanation from the “One” is the “Nous” (which can be variously translated as “intelligence”, “thought”, “the divine mind”, “logos”, “order” or “reason”), the true first principle, which Plotinus identified (at least metaphorically) with the Demiurge of Plato’s “Timaeus”. The “Nous” is not a self-sufficient entity like the “One”, but rather possesses the ability to contemplate both the “One” (as its prior) as well as its own thoughts and the ideas which are in its spiritual nature (which can be identified with Plato‘s Forms or Ideas).

From “Nous” proceeds the “Soul” (or “Psyche”), the dynamic, creative, temporal power, which itself is subdivided into two: the upper aspect (or “World Soul”), the contemplative part which governs the Cosmos and remains in contact with the “Nous”, ensuring that the individual embodied souls eventually return to their true divine state within the “Nous”; and the lower aspect (identified with “Nature”) which allows itself to be multiply divided into individual human souls.

Finally, after the first three degrees which form a sort of trinity, the third level of emanation is the universe itself (i.e. the sky, the stars, good and evil spirits, human souls and matter). Matter and the world of the senses is the the lowest and least perfected level of being, so far removed from divinity that Plotinus sometimes identified matter with “evil”. Human souls (which were in a state of pre-existence in the “Nous”), are now imprisoned in material bodies although, like the “Soul”, they have two levels of activities, the rational (which tends to the formation of ideas) and the informative (which tends to the informing of the body). Later Neo-Platonicphilosophers added hundreds of other intermediate beings as emanations between the One and humanity, but Plotinus’ system was relatively simple in comparison.

Unlike the orthodox Christian notion of creation ex nihilo (“out of nothing”), then, Plotinus’ emanation ex deo (“out of God”) confirms the absolute transcendence of the “One”, making the unfolding of the cosmos purely a consequence of its existence, and in no way affecting or diminishing itself by these emanations, similar to the emanations from the sun. Plotinus held that we can recognize the “One” by the Goodor through Beauty, and that it is even possible to attain an ecstatic or mystical union with the “One” (a kind of enlightenment or liberation common in many Eastern religions), which Porphyry claims that Plotinus attained four times during the years he knew him.

Plotinus saw Ethics and morality as a kind of upward progression from the world to God, the reverse of the downward progression of the emanations. Man is able to make this return by means of catharsis (purification from matter), which is marked by three types of virtues, the ethical (or practical), the dianoetic (or contemplative) and the ecstatic. The ethical virtues (such as temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice) assure us of the practical domination of the sensible world, and open the way toward the operation of the superior contemplative virtues. The dianoetic virtues are the aesthetic and rational virtues which separate intelligible ideasfrom matter and contemplate them as they exist in either the “World Soul” (which is the residence of beauty) or in the “Nous” (which is the location of truth). The ecstatic virtues, however, are the only ones which can lead us to the absolute perfection of the “One” and the supreme state of happiness. In the state of ecstasy, man remains passive and unconscious of everything except his union with the “One”.

In his ethical system, then, authentic human happiness (or eudaimonia) consists of identifying with that which is the best in the universe (a focus on the Forms and the “One”) or with the highest capacity of Reason. Plotinus held that happiness is beyond anything physical (the “true human” being an incorporeal contemplative capacity of the soul, and superior to all things corporeal), and so potentially available to all people (this was the first real introduction of a Eudaimonism attainable only within consciousness). A happy person will not sway between happy and sad, as the Stoics believed, because the body (whether mentally incapacitated, asleep or even undergoing torture) is irrelevant to the source of happiness. The “perfect life”, therefore, involves a person who commands reason and contemplation.

In Epistemology, Plotinus also offered a well-developed theory of knowledge. He distinguished four kinds of knowledge: sense knowledge, which is an obscure representation of truth; reason cognition, which gives us knowledge of the essences of things; intellectual cognition, which gives us knowledge of ourselves; and ecstasy, which consists in a supernatural intuition of God, in which our natural knowledge ceases in the divine unconsciousness.

He held that, although sensations or sense knowledge provide a direct, realistic perception of material things, because they are ever-changing, such knowledge is not actually reliable or valuable. In internal sense perception, the imaginationalso functions actively, and memory can be attributed to the imaginative power, which serves not only in the recall of sensory images but also in the retention of the words or verbal formulae in which intellectual concepts are expressed. Rational knowledge is a cognition of intelligible realities, roughly equivalent to Plato’s Forms or Ideas, in the Divine Mind or “Nous”. The climax of knowledge consists in an ecstatic or intuitive mystical union with the “One” which is experienced by few.


Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C. – A.D. 50)


PhiloPhilo of Alexandria (AKA Philo Judaeus, Philo the Jew and Yedidia) (c. 20 B.C. – A.D. 50) was a Jewish-Egyptian philosopher of the Hellenistic period, and one of the most important Jewish Philosophers of ancient times.

He tried to fuse and harmonize ancient Greek philosophy and Judaism, using a composite of Jewish exegesis (or interpretation of authoritative texts) and the art of allegoryhe had learned from Stoic philosophy. Given the similarity of the resulting combination to Christian teachings, some have argued that Philo is actually the “founder of Christianity” and that he strongly influenced the New Testament.


Philo was a Hellenized Jew born around 20 B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt. In addition to his Jewish education, studying the laws and national traditions, he was obviously thoroughly educated in Greek philosophy and culture, as can be seen from his superb knowledge of classical Greek literature. He had a deep reverence for Plato in particular, and clearly had a first-hand knowledge of the prevailing Stoica ltheories, some neo-Pythagorean works, and at least a passing acquaintance with Cynicism and the moral popular literature.

He appears to have come from a wealthy and prominent family, and to have been a leader in his community, which was at that time the largest Jewish communityoutside of Palestine. His brother, Alexander Lysimachus, was a very wealthy, prominent Roman government official responsible for collecting dues on all goods imported into Egypt from the East. Philo complained that his official functions even forced him to abandon his studies.

The very few biographical details we have are found in Philo’s own works and in those of the 1st Century Jewish historian, Josephus. The only event that can be determined chronologically was his participation (and leadership) in the deputation which the Alexandrian Jews sent to the Roman Emperor Caligula in the year 39 or 40 A.D. in order to ask for protection against attacks by the Alexandrian Greeks, to seek relief from anti-Jewish riots promoted by Flaccus, the Roman governor of Alexandria, and also to complain about the introduction of statues of the emperor into the synagogues.

Although this is the latest known fact in Philo’s life, he is assumed to have died around A.D. 50.


Philo’s works may be divided into expositions of Jewish Law, apologetical works and philosophical treatises. His expositions of Jewish Law include the “The Exposition of the Law” (a treatise covering the creation of the world, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, the laws written by Moses and the laws on general virtues); the “Allegorical Commentary on Genesis” (a systematic application of the method of allegorical interpretation, and the chief source of information on Philo’s ideas) and <b“Questions and Solutions” (a series of questions on each verse of the Mosaic books of the Bible). The apologetical writings include the “Life of Moses” (a résumé of the Jewish Law intended for a larger public), “On Repentance” (a treatise written for the edification of the newly converted), the treatises “On Piety” and “On Humanity”, the “Apology for the Jews” (written to defend his coreligionists against calumnies), the “Contemplative Life” (written to cultivate the best fruits of the Mosaic worship), and the “Against Flaccus” and the “Embassy to Caius” (both intended to establish the truth about the pretended impiety of the Jews). His philosophical treatises include “On the Liberty of the Wise”, “On the Incorruptibility of the World”, “On Providence” and “On Animals”.</b

Philo made his philosophy the means of defending and justifying Jewish religious truths and the scripture of the Hebrew Bible, which he regarded as fixed and determinate. Thus, he used philosophy both as an aid to truth, and as a means of arriving at it, and he selectively chose from the philosophical tenets of the Greeks, conveniently ignoring those that did not harmonize with the Jewish religion.

Given this standpoint, Philo incorporated and combined doctrines from various Greek schools, including the Stoic doctrine of God as the only efficient cause as well as the general Ethics and use of allegories of Stoicism, the Heraclitean doctrine of strife as the moving principle, Plato’s exposition of the world as having no beginning and no end, the number-symbolism of Pythagoreanism (as well as its belief in the body as the source of all evil), and the doctrine of the Logos from various elements of Greek philosophy.

Philo’s interpretation of the Hebrew Bible is based on on the assumption of its two-fold meaning, the literal (adapted to human needs) and the allegorical (the “real” meaning, which only the initiated can comprehend). Thus, a special method is required to determine the the correct allegory and therefore the real meaning of the words of scripture. This may involved excluding the literal sense of certain passages of the Bible altogether (e.g unworthy, senseless, contradictory or inadmissible passages). He suggested special rules that might direct the reader to recognizethose passages which demand an allegorical interpretation, such as passages that contain the doubling or repetition of a phrase, an apparently superfluousexpression, the use of a synonyms or a play on words, even the use of certain participles, adverbs, prepositions, etc.

In Metaphysics, Philo’s conception of the matter out of which the world was created was similar to that of Plato and the Stoics, holding that God did not create the world-stuff (which, in its essentially evil nature, resists all contact with the divine), but rather found it ready at hand and acted more as a demiurge (or cosmic craftsman). He frequently compared God to an architect or gardener, who formed the present world according to a pattern of an ideal world. He assigned an especially important position to the “Logos” (similar in nature to the Hebrew phrase “word of God”), which he saw as executing the various acts of the Creation (given that God himself can not actually come into contact with matter), with God creating only the soul of the good. Also following the Stoics, Philo designated God as “the efficient cause”, and matter as “the affected cause”.

For Philo, sense-perception and sensibility has its seat in the body, but is in need of guidance by reason (that part of the spirit which looks toward heavenly things). He believed that in the pre-temporal condition (before the existence of time), the soul was without body and sex, and free from earthly matter, morally perfect, without flaws, but still striving after a higher purity. Since the beginning of time, though, the soul lost its purity and was confined in an earthly body, although retaining a tendency toward something higher. The body, however, is a source of danger, as it easily drags the spirit into the bonds of sensibility and temptation (sensibility being the source of the passions and sensual desires, which attack the sensibility in order to destroy the whole soul).

Philo’s doctrine of virtue is generally Stoic, although he was undecided whether the really virtuous condition required complete dispassionateness or just moderation. He frequently identified the Logos or the Garden of Eden with virtue and divine wisdom. He saw the fundamental virtue as goodness, from which proceed the four cardinal virtues (prudence, courage, self-control, and justice) like the four rivers proceeding from the river of Eden. However, unlike the Stoics, Philo sought in religion the basis for all Ethics.


Zeno of Citium (c. 334 – 262 B.C.)


zeno-citiumZeno of Citium (c. 334 – 262 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher of the Hellenistic period, active in Athens from about 300 B.C.

He is considered the founder of the Stoicism school of philosophy (which became the dominant philosophy of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and an influence on early Christianity). However, Zeno’s philosophy was more of a middle way between the Cynics’ complete rejection of society and the later Stoics’ obsession with duty.


Zeno of Citium (pronounced ZEE-no of SISH-um) was born around 334 or 333 B.C. in the Greek colony of Kition (or, Latinized, Citium), modern-day Larnaca on the island of Cyprus, off the coast of Turkey.

He was the son of a merchant, possibly of Phoenician heritage (Citium had a large Phoenician population), and plied the trade of merchant himself until the age of 42, when he opened his Stoic school of philosophy in Athens. The school was named for the stoa ( or “porch”) that Zeno used as his teaching platform.

At one point, when he was around thirty years old, he became a student of Crates of Thebes (c. 365 – 285 B.C.), the most famous Cynic philosopher living at that time in Athens. According to legend, Zeno was shipwrecked off the coast of Greece, and later wandered into a bookshop in Athens and was immediately attracted to the works of Socrates. On asking how to find the man, (Socrates was long dead by this time), the bookseller just pointed to the passing Crates of Thebes, and so Zeno became his student almost by default.

Zeno was described as haggard and sunburned, and led a spare, ascetic life, which coincides with the influences of Cynic teaching (and which was continued in his own Stoic philosophy, at least in part). His main enjoyment was to sit in the sun eating figs and drinking wine. He inherited the Cynics’ preference for gruff speech and shocking behaviour, continually mocking the wealthy of Athens and consorting with a crowd of ignorant serfs and beggars (he was not above begging himself).

The 3rd Century A.D. historian Diogenes Laërtius noted in his “Lives of Eminent Philosophers” that Zeno had very few female friends, preferring the company of men and boys (he did keep a female maid, apparently in order to avoid being labelled a misogynist). He lived, for a time at least, with Persaeus (306 – 243 B.C.), who may have been Zeno’s lover, servant or amanuensis, but was certainly his friend and favourite student. When Zeno was invited to act as an advisor to Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia, he sent Persaeus in his stead, and he would go on to became an important figure at the Macedonian court.

Zeno died around 262 or 261 B.C. Diogenes Laërtius tells the rather strange tale that he tripped and fell leaving the school one day, and broke a toe. But, since a Stoic sage was expected to always do what was appropriate for Nature and, as Zeno was very old at the time (he would have been around 72), he felt it appropriate to die and consequently strangled himself. A tomb was built in honour of his moral influence on the youth of his era. Zeno’s pupil Cleanthes of Assos (c. 330 – 230 B.C.) succeeded him as head of the Stoic school.


None of Zeno’s own works have survived to modern times, and all we know of him is from quotations and anecdotes in the works of his followers and critics. Because his ideas were built upon by other Stoics, notably Chrysippus of Soli (c. 280 – 207 B.C.) and Epictetus, it is difficult to determine precisely what his own thoughts and teachings were.

Like the Cynics, Zeno recognised a single, sole and simple good, which is the only goal to strive for and which can only consist in Virtue. However, he deviated from the Cynics in his view that things which are morally indifferent could nevertheless have value to us.

Zeno preached that “man conquers the world by conquering himself”. He lectured his students on the value of “apatheia” (or the absence of passion), arguing that only by controlling one’s emotions and physical desires could one develop wisdom and the ability to apply it. He held that the practicing Stoic could suppress the influence of the passions by developing an indifference to both pain and pleasureby means of meditation.

He also invented the concept of “kathekon” (which has been variously translated as “befitting actions” or “appropriate actions for nature” or “proper function”) which carries the sense that Man (and all living beings) must act in accordance with Nature. The Stoic‘s goal should be “katorthomata” (a perfect achieved kathekon action, derived from the “orthos logos” or reason).

Zeno’s philosophy offered a middle way between the Cynics’ complete rejection of society and the later Stoics’ obsession with duty. The famous Stoic acceptance of Fate, in Zeno’s formulation, is nothing more than that: what happens, happens, and there is no point in complaining about it. Despite the influence of Stoicism on later Christian doctrines, Zeno’s worldview was probably closer to that of Taoism, Hindu Vedanta or some varieties of Sufism than to orthodox Christianity or Islam.

Of the many works Zeno was reported to have written, his “Republic” (written under Crates’ tutelage) is the most famous and, although it has not survived, more is known about it than any of his other works. It was written in conscious imitation of (or opposition to) Plato‘s work of the same name, and it outlined Zeno’s vision of the ideal Stoic society built on egalitarian principles, where virtuous men and women would live a life of simple asceticism.

Among the doctrines Zeno advocated in the work (some of which were considered rather shocking and verging on Anarchism) were: the denouncement of general education; the belief that only the virtuous can be regarded as true citizens; the view that men and women should be considered equals and even wear the same clothes; the idea that women should be held “in common” (basically the promotion of “free love”); the acceptability of sexual practices such as masturbation, homosexuality and prostitution (although, strangely, not adultery), and the discouragement of excessive modesty; the exhortation that the wise man should produce children; the belief that temples to the gods, law-courts and even money were unnecessary for rational beings; and his call for a city built on the principle of love.

In Metaphysics, Zeno believed that the whole Universe is God, a divine reasoning entity, where all the parts belong to the whole. Into this pantheistic system, he incorporated the beliefs of Heraclitus in a divine and creative fire, which extends throughout the Universe and foresees and produces everything. This divine fire or aether was for Zeno the basis for all activity in the Universe, operating on otherwise passive matter which neither increases not diminishes itself, and the Universe underwent regular cycles of formation and destruction. The primary fire passes through the stage of air, and then becomes water, the thicker portion becoming earth, and the thinner portion becoming air again, and then rarifying back into fire.

He believed that individual souls were part of the same fire as the world-soul of the Universe, and that the nature of the Universe is such that it accomplishes what is right and prevents the opposite, and is thereby identified with unconditional Fate while allowing it the free-will attributed to it.

Epicurus (341 – 270 B.C.)


epicurusEpicurus (341 – 270 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher of the Hellenistic period. He was the founder ancient Greek philosophical school of Epicureanism, whose main goal was to attain a happy, tranquil life, characterized by the absence of pain and fear, through the cultivation of friendship, freedom and an analyzed life. His metaphysics was generally materialistic, his Epistemology was empiricist, and his Ethics was hedonistic.

Elements of his philosophy have resonated and resurfaced in various diverse thinkers and movements throughout Western intellectual history, including John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) and the American founding fathers, and even Friedrich Nietzsche



Epicurus was born in February 341 B.C. on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea (off the Ionian coast of Turkey). His parents, Neocles and Chaerestrate were both citizens of Athens, but had emigrated to the Athenian settlement of Samos some ten years earlier.

As a boy, he studied philosophy under the Platonist teacher Pamphilus for about four years. At the age of 18, he went to Athens for his two-year term of military service. In the meantime, his parents were forced to relocate from Samos to Colophon in Ionia after the death of Alexander the Great, and Epicurus joined his familythere after the completion of his military service.

He studied for a time under Nausiphanes, himself a pupil of the Sketpic Pyrrho, but by then a keen follower of the Atomism of Democritus. However, he found Nausiphanes an unsatisfactory teacher and later abused him in his writings, and claimed to be self-taught. He taught for a couple of years (in 311 – 310 B.C.) in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, but apparently caused unrest and was forced to leave. He then founded a school in Lampsacus (on the Hellespont, modern-day Turkey) before returning to Athens in 306 B.C.

In Athens, Epicurus founded The Garden, a school named for the garden he owned that served as the meeting place of his Epicurean school, situated about halfway between the Stoa of the Stoic philosophers and the Academy of the Platonists. During his lifetime, his school had a small but devoted following, including Hermarchus, Idomeneus, Leonteus, Themista, Colotes, Polyaenus of Lampsacus, and Metrodorus of Lampsacus (331 – 277 B.C., the most famous popularizer of Epicureanism). It was the first of the ancient Greek philosophical schools to admit women (as a rule rather than an exception). With its emphasis on friendship and freedom as important ingredients of happiness, the school resembled in many ways a commune or community of friends living together, although, Epicurus also instituted a hierarchical system of levels among his followers, and had them swear an oath on his core tenets.

Epicurus never married and had no known children. He suffered from kidney stones for some time, and eventually died, in 270 B.C. at the age of 72, as a result of these stones and of a case of dysentery. Despite his prolonged pain, he remained cheerful to the last, and his final concerns were for the children of his student, Metrodorus.

After his death, communities of Epicureans sprang up throughout the Hellenistic world, and represented the main competition to Stoicism until its eventual decline with the rise of Christianity.



Epicurus is supposed to have written over 300 books, but the only surviving complete works that have come down to us are three letters and two groups of quotes, which are to be found in the “Lives of Eminent Philosophers” of the 3rd Century historian, Diogenes Laertius, and which present his basic views in a handy and concise form. Other evidence comes from the ruined town of Oenoanda, where the rich Epicurean follower Diogenes of Oenoanda had Epicurus’ entire philosophy of happiness inscribed on the stones of the town’s stoa in the early 2nd Century AD. Also, numerous fragments of his thirty-seven volume treatise “On Nature” have been found among the charred remains at Herculaneum. However, our two most important sources are reconstructions by the Roman poet and Epicurean Lucretius (c. 94 – 55 B.C.) and the Roman politician Cicero (although the latter was generally hostile toward Epicureanism).

Despite his insistence to the contrary, Epicurus was clearly influenced by the Atomism of Democritus, believing that the fundamental constituents of the world were indivisible little bits of matter (atoms) flying through empty space, and that everything that occurs is the result of the atoms colliding, rebounding and becoming entangled with one another, with no purpose or plan behind their motions (although, unlike Democritus, he did allow for possible “swerves” in their paths, which allowed for free will in an otherwise deterministic theory).

The philosophy of Epicureanism was based on the theory that the moral distinction between good and bad derives from the sensations of pleasure and pain (what is good is what is pleasurable, and what is bad is what is painful). Thus, moral reasoning is a matter of calculating the benefits and costs in terms of pleasure and pain. Unlike the common misconception that Epicureanism advocated the rampant pursuit of pleasure, its goal was actually the absence of pain and suffering: when we do not suffer pain, we are no longer in need of pleasure, and we enter a state of perfect mental peace (or ataraxia), which is the ultimate goal of human life. He therefore emphasized minimizing harm and maximizing happiness of oneself and others, and explicitly warned against overindulgence because it often leads to pain.

Epicurus himself followed his practical philosophy in his own life: his house was very simple, his clothes basic and his diet largely limited to bread, vegetables, olives and water. Simple Epicurean communities, based on The Garden, were established all across the ancient world, and his philosophies were popular for over 400 years.

Unlike the Stoics, Epicurus showed little interest in participating in the politics of the day, since doing so usually leads to trouble. He instead advocated seclusion: getting through life without drawing attention to oneself, without pursuing gloryor wealth or power, but rather anonymously, enjoying the little things like food, the company of friends, etc. He counselled that having a circle of friends you can trust is one of the most important means for securing a tranquil life, and that “a cheerful poverty is an honourable state”. In many ways, his Garden can be compared to modern communes.

The foundation of Epicurus’ Ethics is the Ethic of Reciprocity (or the Golden Rule), which simply means “treat others as you would like to be treated”, arguably the basis for the modern concept of human rights. He introduced into Greek thought what was then the radical concept of fundamental human Egalitarianism (he regularly admitted women and slaves into his school). He was also one of the first to explicitly endorse the idea of a social contract (that justice comes from a joint agreement not to harm each other – see the section on Contractarianism), developed much later by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, and the origins of Utilitarianism are often traced back to Epicurus.

He was also one of the first Greeks to break from the god-fearing and god-worshipping tradition of the time, and he caused something of a stir by claiming that the gods do not concern themselves at all with human beings (although he did affirm that religious activities are useful as a way to contemplate the gods and to use them as an example of the pleasant life). He strongly believed that death was not to be feared, because all sensation and consciousness ends with death, and so in death there is neither pleasure nor pain.

Epicurus also formulated a version of the problem of evil, often referred to as the Epicurean Paradox, questioning whether an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent god could exist in a world that manifestly contains evil (see the section on the Philosophy of Religion). This was not aimed at promoting Atheism, but was just part of his overarching philosophy that what gods there may be do not concern themselves with us, and thus would not seek to punish us either in this or in any other life.

Epicurus is a key figure in the development of science and the scientific method because of his insistence believing nothing except that which can be tested through direct observation and logical deduction. Many of his ideas about nature and physics presaged important scientific concepts of our time.

Pyrrho (360 – 270 B.C.)


Pyrrho (AKA Pyrrho of Elis) (360 – 270 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher of the Hellenistic period, from the Peloponnese Peninsula of southern Greece.

He is considered the first Skeptic and was the founder of, or at least the inspiration for, the later Greek philosophical school of Pyrrhonism, a variant of Skepticism. It is also believed that his selection of “ataraxia” (or “inner peace”) as the ultimate goal of life was borrowed by Epicurus and the Epicureanism movement.


Pyrrho was born in about 360 B.C. in the small community of Elis on the Peloponnese Peninsula of southern Greece.

As a young man, Pyrrho had been a promising painter, and had pictures exhibited in the gymnasium at Elis. Later, he was diverted to philosophy through exposure to the works of Democritus. He became a disciple of Bryson of Achaea, the son of Stilpo(both from the Megarian School of philosophy which followed the doctrines of Socrates), and later a disciple of Anaxarchus of Abdera (who had been a student of Democritus).

Along with Anaxarchus, he travelled with Alexander the Great on his exploration of the East, and studied under the Gymnosophists of India and with the Magi of Persia. This exposure to Eastern Philosophy seems to have inspired him to adopt a life of solitude and, on returning to Elis, he chose to live in very poor circumstances.

Frustrated with the assertions of the Stoics and other dogmatists who claimed to possess knowledge, and overwhelmed by his inability to determine rationallywhich of the various competing schools of thought was correct, he founded a new school in which he taught that every object of human knowledge involves uncertaintyand that it is impossible ever to arrive at the knowledge of truth.

He also acted on his own principles, prefixing all his observations with “it seems” or “it appears to me” or “perhaps”. He apparently withstood bodily pain with equanimity, and showed no sign of apprehension when in danger, although the dogmatists he opposed related anecdotal stories that he carried his Skepticism to such an extreme that his friends were obliged to accompany him wherever he went so he might not be run over by carriages or fall down precipices.

He was highly honoured by the Elians (who made him their chief priest and made philosophers exempt from taxation) and also by the Athenians (who conferred upon him the rights of Athenian citizenship and erected a statue and a monument in his memory).

It is believed that he lived to the ripe old age of ninety, which would put his death at around 270 B.C.


Pyrrho wrote nothing that we are aware of. His doctrines were recorded to some extent in the satiric poems (known as the “Silloi”) of his pupil Timon of Phlius(c. 320 – 230 B.C.), and in the writings of Antigonus of Carystus, most of which are unfortunately lost. Today, Pyrrho’s ideas are known mainly through the book “Outlines of Pyrrhonism” written by the A.D. 3rd Century Greek physician and Skeptic Sextus Empiricus. It is also through Sextus Empiricus that we have learned of a school of Skepticism known as Pyrrhonism (or Pyrrhonian Skepticism) which was founded long after Pyrrhus’ death by Aenesidemus in the 1st Century B.C.Although named after Pyrrho, the relationship between the philosophy of the school and of the historical figure is murky at best.

The main principle of Pyrrho’s thought can be expressed by the word “acatalepsia”, which connotes the ability to withhold assent from doctrines regarding the truth of things in their own nature. He argued that we only know how things appear to us, but are ignorant of their inner substance, especially as the same thing can appear differently to different people. So, it is therefore impossibleto know which opinion is right (the diversity of opinion among the wise, as well as among the vulgar, proves this). Thus, if a contradiction may be advanced against every statement with equal justification and no assertion can be known to be better than another, it is necessary to completely suspend judgment by asserting nothing definite and never making any positive statements on any subject, however trivial.

By applying these ideas of what he called “practical skepticism” to Ethics and to life in general, Pyrrho concluded that the only proper attitude is “ataraxia” (which can be translated as “inner peace” or “freedom from worry” or “apathy”), which became the ultimate goal of the early Skeptikoi. He argued that, since nothing can be known, nothing can be in itself either good or evil, and it is only opinion, custom and law which makes it appear so. If there is no good reason to prefer one course of action to another, then the absence of all activity should be the ideal of the sage. In this apathy, he will renounce all desires (which are based on the untenable opinion that one thing is better than another), and will live in undisturbed tranquillity of the soul, free from all delusions. Unhappiness is the result of not attaining what one desires (or of losing it, once attained); thus, the wise person, being free from desires, is also free from unhappiness.