As the leading schools of thought in Hellenistic philosophy, Epicureanism and Stoicism were a continuation of the philosophical tradition of ancient Greece. Even though they emerged as a reaction to earlier philosophies, they continued investigating the subject matters that their predecessors were tackling, and with that, they greatly contributed to the richness of the philosophical discourse. They each came up with their own metaphysics and epistemology, as well as their own thoughts on the virtuous way of living, and thus developed their ethics.
Epicureanism and Stoicism have different approaches to examining these subject matters, but out of all of the theories that they came up with, their ethics seem to contradict each other the most. It’s something that is often times mentioned as the main differentia specifica between the two. But what are their ethics really about? And, why are they so different from each other? Let’s see what they both have to say.
1. Epicurean Ethics
First, let’s take a look at the ethics of Epicureanism, and then we’ll move to the ethics of Stoicism. Epicurus states that the purpose of ethics is to help human beings with their spiritual struggles. Ethics should provide human beings with a sense of comfort and a feeling of happiness throughout their entire life.
In order to achieve these goals, Epicurus says that we must let go of our fears. It’s the fears and the pressure of life that do not allow human beings to think and live freely. He recognizes 2 types of fear: the fear of the Gods, and the fear of death. He says that we do not have to be afraid of the Gods because they have not created the world. Instead, Epicurus says that the world came into existence by connecting and splitting atoms. It’s the atoms that are the principle of our existence, according to Epicurus, not the Gods.
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However, it’s important to mention that Epicurus does not reject the existence of the Gods. Instead, he sees them as beings that live in between the worlds, and do not have any interests in our lives; they do not want to muddle with our way of being and do not interfere at all. That’s why we shouldn’t be afraid of them, he says. Human beings should not be afraid of death as well. The soul, like the body, has a material nature, says Epicurus. With death, the soul ceases to exist as well. So, the soul and the body are mortal too, and that’s why we shouldn’t be afraid of death.
The ethic of Epicurus is not synthesized into one body of work, but instead is a collection of various sayings and thoughts in one whole. His ethics is individualized, meaning that its starting point is individual satisfaction, and the end-point destination or goal is striving to achieve is a blessed life. That’s why Epicurus recognizes only one value that man strives for – pleasure, and on the other hand, one evil that man constantly wants to distance himself from, and that is pain.
When Epicurus says that we have to lead a “life according to nature,” he’s thinking of a life according to pleasures. It’s this thought that enables us to map out the basic idea of his ethics, which is hedonistic by nature. Positioning pleasure as the highest value of all, he distinguishes between two different types of pleasure: “moving” pleasures and “static” pleasures. “Moving” pleasures occur when we are in the process of satisfying a desire. However, when this “moving” pleasure has been achieved, it is usually followed by what he calls “static” pleasure, which is a state of satiety, of no longer being in need or wanting to satisfy a desire of ours. This state is pleasurable as well, and he even says that these static pleasures are the best pleasures.
It’s important to mention another distinction that Epicurus makes between types of pleasures. He recognizes the difference between physical and mental pleasures and pains. Physical pleasures and pains concern only the present. On the other hand, mental pleasures and pains also encompass the past and the future. Because of that, Epicurus says that mental pleasures and pains are much stronger than the corporeal, stating that “through the body, we can only feel the present, but through the spirit, the past and the future,” and “the memory of the previous pleasure is a means of a pleasant life.” Achieving spiritual satisfaction, we actualize the highest value and point of happiness and bliss, which is tranquility or, as they used to call it in the Hellenistic period, ataraxia – a state of unconfused spirit.
2. The Ethics of the Stoics
In order to clearly present the ethics of the Stoics, and also because of the long-lasting tradition of this school of thought, it’s better to divide it into 3 categories: the ethics of the old period, the ethics in the middle period, and the ethics of the late period.
a) Stoic Ethics in the Old Period
Stoicism was founded by Zeno, who says that the purpose of life is to live a harmonious life. By the phrase “harmonious life,” Zeno means a life in accordance with reason, i.e., a life that provides a moral life towards all that exists in such a way that man does not deny himself and does not hesitate in his thoughts, concepts, and convictions, but is always in harmony with himself and thus achieves freedom and bliss. Zeno considers this a “beautiful course of life.”
Building on this thought, Cleante – the second representative of the old period – defines the phrase “harmonious life” as a life in harmony with nature, which actually means a life in harmony with the virtues, because nature itself leads us in that direction of life. But nature does not give man the finished and whole virtue; it gives him only the “seed” and the spark. People have to freely choose virtue and strive to adopt it – a thought that is by its nature rationalistic, like the entire Stoic tradition. The Stoics are known as great logicians and rationalists. Thus, in their ethics, they point out that man should be guided by reason, that is, to live in accordance with it. From this perspective, the Stoics define affections and passions as excessive urges or unreasonable and unnatural mental movements that arise before the human mind.
Chrysippus, the most outstanding and influential thinker of the old period, and also the one who contributed the most to the development of logic, says that affects arise from making a false judgment, i.e., from false reasoning, and as such represent a perversion of reason. According to him, the one who has known the truth has also known the general law according to which everything happens and takes place and lives according to that law, in harmony with nature. He lives without any affects (instincts) and has learned the values that are necessary to fence off urges. Strong urges are tied to a weak will, and a strong will means freedom from all unreasonable urges, true apathy – the ultimate goal and value in the philosophy of the Stoics, which means dispassion, a state of not having strong (negative) passions.
From this brief overview of the Stoic ethics in the old period, we can observe that they are completely different from the Epicureans, whose ethics were absolutely hedonistic, unconditionally surrendering to our urges or pleasures. Also, while the Peripatetics (Aristotelians) found a measure in every passion, the Stoics strive for complete mastery of the passions and sharpening of the mind.
b) Stoic Ethics in the Middle Period
In the ethics of the middle period of the Stoics, we can notice some deviations from the thoughts of the old. As a sign of this, we have the philosophy of Panaetius, which refers to the teachings of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Xenocrates, and Theophrastus, but still maintains the spirit of Stoicism. His ethics is not pure eclecticism but a reworking and reshaping of the teachings of the Stoic school of philosophy.
Like his predecessors, Panaetius believed that the human mind is what makes a man human and that the mind determines his actions. But unlike them, he believed that the body is also a part of human nature, viewing the mind as the “organ” that makes men men. Unlike Zeno, who believed that pain is contrary to human nature, Panaetius says that we should retain the power of the mind even in the most painful physical and spiritual moments. Turning to Democritus, Panaetius replaces the old Stoic thesis of absolute apathy with the teaching of euthymia (spiritual serenity).
Panaetius also explains the old division of Stoic philosophy into physics, logic, and ethics in the following way: physics is the body understood as a whole, logic is the bones, and ethics is the soul. In this way, Panaetius gives primacy to the soul, i.e., ethics, and even says that the object of studying science should be the moral elevation of man, putting science in some way at the service of ethics.
c.) Stoic Ethics in the Late Period
From the period of the late Stoa, Seneca is the most important for us. That’s because out of all the philosophical questions, Seneca cared the most about the ethical ones, namely those about the ways of reaching the virtues, rather than those about finding the essence of the virtues. He was also interested in physics, in which he sees the basis of his theology, which is occupied with ethical dilemmas and questions. He declares that the soul is of a material nature, maintaining the spirit of the Stoics, but – under the influence of Plato – he adds that the body is the grave of the soul and represents its burden and punishment. Like his predecessors, he values external virtues and believes that we can reach them.
The main question that Seneca seeks to answer is: how can a person achieve a happy life? Seneca says that the secret to achieving a happy life is not in the pleasures of life (as Epicurus claimed), but in living in harmony with nature. In his writing On the Goodness, he especially emphasizes love for everyone as a virtue that we should grasp and nurture. He says that just as God allows the sun to shine for those who do us good, so man should behave kindly and benevolently towards everyone, not expecting any reward from it, but to overcome evil with goodness. In turn, that actually means “life according to nature,” says Seneca. A true sage, for Seneca, does not succumb to the pleasures of life but is characterized by complete apathy – a state of not having strong passions.
3. Characterizing Hellenistic Ethics: Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism
From this brief overview of the teachings of the Stoics and Epicureans, we can notice the greatest similarity that they all possess, although they approach it differently. The concept of ataraxia is the hallmark that characterizes the teachings of these philosophical schools. It’s the ultimate virtue that all thinkers value the most. And although the Stoics give primacy to apathy as a supreme value in their philosophy, they still refer on several occasions to the well-being in the state of mindlessness – the state of ataraxia.
Although they seem to be aiming at the same thing, which is the realization of a blissful life, the path to this goal is different. Epicureanism strives for absolute hedonism, emphasizing pleasure as a means of achieving happiness and having a beautiful life. The Stoics, as an antithesis of the Epicureans, claim the exact opposite, insisting on absolute abstinence from the pleasures of life in order to sharpen the mind through which apathy is achieved.
Skepticism, on the other hand, as a philosophical doctrine and a new philosophical direction that developed within the same period as the two, is the most radical of all previous philosophies. The skeptics take a neutral position regarding any knowledge – we cannot hope to know anything. This neutral position is precisely what we should cultivate in order to achieve spiritual tranquility. So perhaps, we could picture all of these philosophical schools as digging in the same soil, but working on different sides and with different means. Despite their differences, the central goal of their ethics is the same – to live a blissful life filled with happiness.