Schools of Philosophy in Antiquity: Cynics, Epicureans & Stoics

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study three schools of philosophy in antiquity: the Cynics, the Epicureans, and the Stoics. We will discuss the founder of each school, as well as its major characteristics.

Three Schools of Philosophy

We are Marcus, Alexander, and Clitus, and we are philosophers, but we don't always see eye to eye. Come to think of it, we rarely agree about anything at all, for we come from three different schools of philosophy that were prominent in the Ancient World: the Cynics, the Epicureans, and the Stoics. We will take turns describing our schools and let you decide which one appeals to you the most.

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  • 0:02 Three Schools of Philosophy
  • 0:32 Cynics
  • 2:13 Epicureans
  • 3:41 Stoics
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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I, Marcus, am a Cynic. My school of philosophy was developed in Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE by Antisthenes of Athens and Diogenes of Sinope. These two spent their lives searching for the path to a good life and true happiness, and they discovered that it could be found in virtue and self-sufficiency rather than pleasure or wealth. Virtue, to Cynics like me, means living in accord with nature and reason. We embrace asceticism, or self-discipline and self-denial; we strive to be indifferent to the events and situations of life; and we tend to turn our backs on social conventions that hinder our independence.

In fact, we Cynics are often viewed as rebels, and we don't much care whom we offend when we speak out, criticizing the ridiculousness of typical social relationships and customs. Diogenes of Sinope was a prime example of the Cynics' disdain for the things that the world values. He lived in poverty, begged for food, vigorously argued for his cynical views, and purposefully disobeyed laws to show his disregard for convention. He even barked at a passersby who labeled him a 'dog' and according to legend, once told Alexander the Great to get out of his way because he was blocking the sun.

Oh yes! We Cynics are convinced that our way is right. We don't need anyone or anything. Riches, fame, and glory mean nothing to us. The world's approval means nothing to us. All we need is ourselves, and we are perfectly happy being the outcasts of society as long as we are living lives guided by reason and independence.


I, Alexander, am an Epicurean; I certainly don't agree with anything that Cynic Marcus has said! Oh no! The founder of my school, Epicurus of Samos, taught in Athens in the late 4th and early 3rd centuries BCE, and he believed that the key to true happiness is pleasure. For us Epicureans, pleasure means the freedom from fear and pain and the tranquility or calmness of the soul.

When you modern people think about Epicureans, you probably think of excessive eating and drinking or perhaps an opulent, indulgent lifestyle, but that isn't really an accurate picture of ancient Epicureans. We certainly appreciate the 'lower pleasures' like food and drink, but our goal is to attain the higher pleasures of the intellect and the appreciation of true beauty. In fact, we try to moderate our use of the lower pleasures, knowing that too much of a good thing often leads to pain and upset. We seek to be guided by our reason, which helps us achieve balance and the peace that we seek above all else. We also value strong friendships, quiet contemplation, and the avoidance of conflict.

You should also know that we Epicureans tend to be materialists. Epicurus taught us that the world is made up only of atoms and that, if there are gods at all, they don't pay any attention to human beings. In believing this, he thought that he would eliminate any fear of the unknown and increase pleasure and tranquility.


I, Clitus, am a Stoic. What do you think of when you hear the word 'Stoic?' Perhaps someone with a stiff upper lip who doesn't let changing circumstances get the best of him? That's actually a pretty good description of Stoic.

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