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.
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.
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.
Our school of philosophy was founded by Zeno of Citium, who lived in Athens in the late 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. Zeno taught us that what happens in the outside world need not affect what goes on in our minds. We must learn to be apathetic to or detached from the situations and circumstances of the world. We can't control them anyway, so why should they bother us? We need to focus on what we can control, and that is our mental responses to life and the world. To increase our detachment from the world and our mental self-control, we Stoics practice asceticism, or self-discipline and self-denial, in all areas of life. If we can do this, we are well on the road to virtue, happiness, and true freedom.
We Stoics are also very careful with our emotions. We seek to control them rather than allowing them to control us. Too much emotion can throw off our internal balance, so we discipline our emotions and make them subject to our reason. This way, we can think clearly, judge rightly, and remain calm in any situation.
Stoics are ultimately committed to rational thinking and realism. We want to see the world as it truly is and ourselves as we truly are. With this information, we can respond correctly to any situation and live in calm harmony with nature and, more importantly, with ourselves and our fellow human beings.
Let's take a moment to review. As a true Cynic, Marcus thought that a good life and true happiness could be found in virtue and self-sufficiency rather than pleasure or wealth. Cynics embraced asceticism, or self-discipline and self-denial; strove to be indifferent to the events and situations of life; and tended to turn their backs on social conventions that they believed hindered their independence. The school of the Cynics was founded and developed by Antisthenes of Athens and Diogenes of Sinope, and Cynics tended to be viewed as rebels because they severally criticized and deliberately violated social customs.
Alexander, the Epicurean, believed that the key to true happiness is pleasure, namely, the freedom from fear and pain and the tranquility or calmness of the soul. Epicureans tried to moderate their use of the lower pleasures, like food and drink, and strove to attain the higher pleasures of the intellect and the appreciation of true beauty. Like their founder, Epicurus of Samos, they were materialists who valued strong friendships, quiet contemplation, and the avoidance of conflict.
Clitus, the Stoic, followed the philosophy of Zeno of Citium. Cynics sought to be apathetic to or detached from the situations and circumstances of the world that they couldn't control and focused instead on their mental responses to life and the world. Stoics practiced asceticism, or self-discipline and self-denial, in all areas of life; they worked hard to control their emotions; and they were committed to rational thinking and realism. In this way, they hoped to achieve virtue, happiness, harmony, and true freedom.
Our three philosophers, Marcus, Alexander, and Clitus, now turn to you. Which ancient school of philosophy appeals to you the most?
You should have the ability to do the following after this lesson:
- Describe the tenets of three ancient schools of philosophy: Cynics, Epicureans, and Stoics
- Identify the founder of each school of philosophy
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