Epicureans, Stoics, Skeptics

In the modern era, for the further development of European civilization, cultural heritage of antiquity has become increasingly important. This is evidenced by a return to the values of classical education and the increased interest in the work of ancient thinkers, especially in the field of practical philosophy. The legacy of the outstanding philosophers of the Hellenistic era attracts the attention of researchers in the beginning of the XXI century as well as a few centuries ago. Epicurus created a school of philosophy that lasted until the VI century and served as the starting point for the development of atomistic materialism and ethics in the Renaissance era and modern times.

The teachings of Epicurus aimed to free people from the fear of the gods and death, and they founded a certain tradition in Western philosophy. The second Hellenistic school was stoic. Skepticism arises based on the teachings of the first philosophers of the fluidity and changeability of the world of sense and contradictory phenomena. This paper summarizes the main ideas of Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics and provides some evaluation comments on their ideas.

The Basic Ideas of the Doctrine of Epicureanism

Epicureanism is a philosophical doctrine. The main ideological content and theoretical basis of the lifestyle practiced by the proponents of this school is the philosophical system of its founder Epicurus. According to him, the highest good is considered to enjoy life, which implies the absence of physical pain and anxiety, as well as freedom from fear of death and the gods who are indifferent to what is happening in the world of mortals. The happiness of man consists in the freedom from any discomfort, disturbing the peace of contentment. The main purpose of the philosophy of Epicureanism is to teach a person to live a happy life because everything else is unimportant. Four principles of Epicurean philosophy can be formulated as follows: do not be afraid of the gods; do not worry about death; the benefit is easily achievable; evil is easily portable.

Epicurus’ ethics comes from the ideal of the wise man who has attained the serene and unruffled state. This state is devoid of suffering, and, therefore, identical with pleasure. Knowledge allows the wise man to overcome the fear of death (‘Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist’) and the gods (the gods are blessed, and, therefore, cannot be angry with the people and punish them). In their actions, Epicurus encourages people to be guided only by natural desires (both necessary and non-necessary) and avoid unnatural desires (such as vanity).

The Epicureans believed that one can enjoy the most desirable state, but in their opinion, it is achieved through the renunciation of the pleasures of mental and emotional conflicts that produce pain and sorrow, and is a serious and noble state. From the viewpoint of Epicurus, the pain of mind and soul is more serious than the pain and sorrow of the body, so the joy of the mind and soul is greater than the joy of the body. Thus, the main enemies of human happiness are the fear of hell, fear of retribution beyond the grave, and the fear of the gods’ intervention in people’s lives that are generated by ignorance of the true nature of man and his place in the world.

In the theory of knowledge, Epicurus called to trust senses of perceptions, as people still do not have a criterion of truth. He believed that the criticism of sensationalism by skeptics has purely theoretical interest, almost as it is completely barren. The main conclusion to which Epicurus brings the listener with these arguments is that nothing is supersensible. Even if it was, people could not accept it as they are not given anything other than the senses. This conclusion is very important for the theory of Epicurus: from here its materialism and atheism follows.

The Basic Ideas of the Doctrine of Stoicism

The founder of the Stoic school is Zeno of Citium. Stoicism, as well as Epicureanism, has as its purpose to bring human to happiness, consisting in wise moderation; but this goal is achieved in the ways opposite to epicurean ones. According to the teachings of the Stoics, human happiness consists in the fact that they were like the gods. People achieve this consciousness of the truth of divine and human affairs, the right judgment about good and evil, according to the nature of life, dominion over the passions, the suppression of instincts in themselves. Contrary to reason, the acquisition of habits conform their will to nature and reason. Wise have to endure all of life with unshakable indifference, because joy and sorrow, happiness and distress are predetermined by the eternal necessity of nature, and to revolt against the inevitable is opposite to nature. In the event of the world, the foundation of everything that will happen was already laid for all eternity, so that everything in the world is made out of necessity, and there is no place for the occasion. All sins and immorality are the self-destruction, the loss of the human nature. Correct desire and abstinence, actions and deeds are a guarantee of human happiness. For this, it is necessary for everyone to develop his/her personality, as opposed to the outside, not bow before any power.

The main idea of the Stoic ethics is teleological and causal course of the world events. The purpose of man is to live in harmony with nature. This is the only way to achieve inner harmony. Things in accordance with nature should be preferred. There are bad and good deeds, medium deeds called befitting if they realized natural predisposition. Stoics were characterized by the idea of inner freedom of man. Convinced that the world is deterministic, they proclaim human inner freedom as the highest value.

In the center of the ethical reasoning of the Stoics, there is not the concept of happiness, but the concept of duty. The followers of this philosophy, developing their original ethics, saw duty in the pursuit of moral perfection, which is reached when a person lives in accordance with nature and is subjected to fate. The man, believed the Stoics, may not make the world perfect, but he can make a better world in himself, to acquire a proud dignity, and to maintain high moral standards. Striving for perfection lies in the ways of knowing the world and exercise in virtuous behavior. Inner freedom is achieved by knowing the need to follow the requirements of the indisputable debt.

According to the Stoics, passion is the source of evil, which can act as a folly, cowardice, intemperance and injustice. Stoic seeks to rise above the passions. This is achieved by understanding the essence of good and evil, between which there is a vast field of moral indifference, as they believed. The Stoics taught temperance, patience, courageous transference of blows of fate. They proclaimed to be a human both in poverty and in wealth, preserve their dignity and honor, whether fate had intended a man to poverty, ill health, homelessness, endure them without moaning, whether he or she is rich, handsome, clever, to be moderate in the use of these benefits, he or she must remember that tomorrow they may be poor, sick, persecuted.

The Basic Ideas of the Doctrine of Skepticism

Skepticism arises as a trend in philosophy, apparently in connection with the crash of a certain part of educated people’s hope for the former claims of philosophy. This philosophy is based on the doubts about the existence of a reliable criterion of truth. Antique skeptic rejected knowable life. To maintain inner calm, person needs to know a lot of philosophy, but not to deny something, or, on the contrary, assert (any statement is a negation, and, on the other hand, every negation is an affirmation). An antique skeptic is not a nihilist, he/she lives as he/she wants, essentially eliminating the need to evaluate something. A skeptic is in constant search of the philosophical, but he/she is convinced that true knowledge is unattainable in principle.

Genesis speaks in the diversity of its turnover: like there is something definite, but it immediately disappears. Skeptics point in this connection to the very time, it exists but, at the same time, it does not, it is impossible to grab it. Steady sense is absent, everything is fluid, so one should live as he or she wants, take life in its immediate givens. The one knowing much cannot adhere strictly to unequivocal opinions. Refraining from certain judgments, the skeptic remains unmoved. Paying attention to the relativity of human knowledge, philosophical attitude to things is to abstain from any judgment. This is due to the fact that human sensory perceptions are true, but cannot be adequately expressed in the judgments. This answer determines the answer to the third question: the benefits and rewards of abstinence from any kind of judgment is equanimity or serenity. Such a state, based on the rejection of knowledge is seen by skeptics as the highest stage of bliss.

Evaluation of Ideas of Epicureanism

As a philosophical doctrine, Epicureanism is characterized by a mechanistic view of the world, materialistic atomism, denial of teleology and the immortality of the soul, the ethical individualism, and eudemonism. It has a practical orientation. According to the Epicureans, the mission of philosophy is akin to doctoring: its purpose is to heal the soul from the fear and suffering caused by false ideas and foolish desires and to teach a man to live a blessed life, the beginning and the end of which they consider pleasure. For Epicurus, who was a moral and good man, this teaching had a noble character; but later could be turned into a philosophy of sensual pleasure.

Thus, in the ethical maxims of Epicurus, dissolute life with the cult of selfishness and permissiveness actually finds its justification. Such a life as a whole can be described in three words which are eat, drink and copulate. Based on these premises, in their ordinary sense, the doctrine of Epicureanism was the most widespread, both in the ancient and modern world, as it was popular far beyond the philosophical community. Despite the fact that the very philosophy of Epicurus was of the more exalted character, Epicureanism became known as the doctrine calling the person to follow this path.

Heritage of Epicurus is topical because nowadays people live in an age of spiritual crisis, like the one that was in the Hellenistic era in Greece. The growth of mysticism and superstition, fear of global catastrophes, the decline of the authority of science compels human beings to turn to those ideas which Epicurus offered. Great is the value of his idea when it comes to creating a personal psychological comfort and the implementation of quests.

In the modern era, so important for the Epicurean concept of irrelevance is spreading. The social and historical necessity of spiritual irrelevance as a result of the striving of people to protect themselves and the world community by the impending military-monarchist organizations when there is an irresistible need to withdraw into themselves, to preserve their inner peace in spite of threats of global cataclysms, irrelevant gods of Epicurus are ideal for aspiring to Epicurean ataraxia. These deities do not require sacrifices, do not interfere in anything. The concept of the irrelevance of gods is similar to some modern Christian doctrines. In particular, the theological atheism that grew up on the basis of unorthodox Protestant theology preaching the absence of God in the world formally is similar to Epicureanism, which professes the abolition of the intervention of gods in nature and society.

Evaluation Ideas on Stoicism

The teachings of Epicurus and Zeno are opposite in their nature. The former admits the man free to use the external benefits, taught wise enjoyment of life; the latter demands that the sage sought peace of mind and worked on the development of the ability to renounce external benefits; but they both want to make the human soul free from everyday worries, both consider a firm commitment to the truth of human joy, a source of moral courage. If one is able to recognize the shipwreck as a happy event in the life like the founder of the Stoic school – Zeno, then he/she is Stoic. This idea is extremely needed to be implemented in the modern world. What is bad for a small part, can be a boon for the whole. For example, a tree branch can be perceived as evil  and one can need to cut it, but for the life of the tree, it may be good. Consequently, only feeling themselves entirely homogeneous, people learn the highest good. One can be happy just feeling like a whole rather than separate parts. The main thing to realize is that single people, all beings, nature, the soul and God are united and then happiness will come. Nothing can exist without opposite to itself. Good and evil are inextricably linked. Good sometimes leads to evil, but evil can be good. Moreover, the latter is sent to man not in vain. Only meeting something evil on his/her way, human grows and improves. He/she overcomes evil and that leads him/her to the accumulation of wisdom and patience.

On the lower level of being, any good thought, every impulse of the god is distorted, refracted, is a change for the worse. Even a mother’s love with all its sincerity can take ugly forms in this world. This is the world of the flesh, coarse, unsubtle, imperfect. Human task in this life is to rise up to the next level and see the light of the authentic good, without distortion. In the world, there is a huge space filled with what really does not depend on one’s will but, in this case, how people are going to treat these events depends on their will.

Long before the Enlightenment philosophers, the Stoics extolled the mind and composure – the result of the predominance of reason. The Stoics taught that happiness comes only when people carry out their desires in accordance with the mind. However, the mind of the Stoics is not greedy, not the unreasonable accumulation of knowledge and information. Unnecessary knowledge hinders wisdom. To seek to know more than what is required is one of the types of excesses like the excesses in food, wine, sex.

Evaluation Ideas on Skepticism

The silence of the skeptic can be considered a wise way to solve the situation, but it is impossible not to see the emptiness of thought. Here are the main points of the ancient skepticism: the world is fluid, it does not make sense and is not clearly defined; any statement is, at the same time, denial; every “yes” is, at the same time, “no”; true philosophy of skepticism is the silence; follow the phenomena of the world. Antique skepticism is brought to the limit of the philosophical attempts to cope with the difficulties of life without its logical-ideological thinking. Silence is a kind of the end of the philosophical search and an indication that further efforts are needed.

However, paying attention to the relativity of human knowledge, skepticism played a positive role in the fight against various forms of dogmatism. As part of the skepticism, a number of problems of the dialectic of knowledge were raised. However, skepticism had other consequences as rampant doubts about the possibility of knowing the world led to pluralism in understanding social norms, the unprincipled-serving, obsequiousness, on the one hand, and the neglect of human institutions, on the other.

Skepticism is controversial in nature, it encourages some to an in-depth search for the truth, and the other to the militant ignorance and immorality. Efforts of skeptics, aimed to forge human curiosity and doubt hinder the movement along the path of progressive development of knowledge, were in vain. The future seemed to skeptics like a terrible punishment for the faith in the omnipotence of knowledge, and yet it was not possible to stop it for any of their warnings.


In the Hellenistic era, the philosophy as the theoretical system turns into a frame of mind and expresses, above all, the feeling of the man who loses himself in the world. Although in the philosophy of Epicurus and the Stoics the physics is also found, the latter no longer have in their systems self-sufficient and self-valuable nature and subject to ethics, which moves to the center of their philosophy. Ethical orientation of Hellenistic philosophy is manifested in the fact that the result of the search becomes a way of sage philosophers, embodying the ideal of decent behavior.