Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 4

(Read Part 3 of the series.)

Part 4 – Sceptics, Epicureans and Stoics


The Sceptics, noting that different peoples had differing opinions on many subjects, wondered how one could ever justify holding a particular belief. Arguments for one view rather than another were founded on unproven premises and there seemed to be no means of ever being certain about anything. They concluded long before Kant in the 18th Century that we could have no real knowledge about the nature of things and believed that in situations where we were essentially ignorant we ought not to make judgements. This course of action (or perhaps we should call it ‘inaction’) was thought to lead to peace of mind. The outcome was that adherents behaved in whatever way those around them behaved and did not really believe in anything themselves  (what we might now call cynically!). Again, this philosophy offered some consolation to those seeking escape from a difficult life – don’t worry about the future since you can never know anything about it anyway. In fact, the above description seems remarkably similar to the way that the modern generation seems to behave so that it has clearly lost little of its force as a philosophical outlook on life.

Scepticism was largely of ‘academic’ interest at the time of its origin. It was taken up by the Academy, the Greek school of philosophy inaugurated by Plato, and the important members of the time would give demonstrations of their skills by arguing points brilliantly one day and then arguing the opposite point of view equally brilliantly the following day. It was superseded by the Epicureans and Stoics in the 3rd Century BC but was resurrected in the 16th Century AD when it again became dominant. René Descartes attempted to demolish its foundations by returning to basics and showing, step by step, what we could actually be certain about (‘I am a thinking thing; therefore I must exist’ etc.). In fact he did not succeed ultimately and left scepticism even stronger than it had been before and it later became a key aspect of Hume’s philosophy in the 18th C.


The Epicureans (founded by Epicurus around 300BC) believed that this life was all there was. Matter consists of atoms; there is no ‘spiritual’ component, no world of ‘Forms’, and any ‘Gods’ are so far away that we can effectively ignore them. Atoms themselves last forever but they are constantly changing their combinations. Our bodies are just one combination, lasting only until we die. We need not fear death because, when it occurs, we will no longer exist to have any concern about it. Our aim therefore in this life should simply be to be happy.

Plato had said that the way we ought to live our lives had nothing to do with pleasure. Aristotle had acknowledged that pleasure was at least a consideration but Epicurus insisted it was all that mattered. Communities were advocated in which pleasures would be sought and, whereas Plato had established the Academy, Epicurus set up the ‘Garden’. Here, members existed together in friendship. Moderation was advised (to avoid hangovers!) and people were forbidden to harm others.

The general attitude again rings true for many people today though, needless to say, the ideas are totally rejected by Christianity – no soul, values derived from this life rather than an afterlife and so on. Nowadays, we tend to call this philosophy ‘hedonism’ and, although we may deep down believe that it is probably the only sensible way to live, we may well frown upon those that we feel openly behave in this way. In fact, Epicurus himself lived in a manner we would probably regard now as ascetic. He preferred to avoid all excesses and drank water rather than wine, in the belief that those pleasures that resulted in pain were not ultimately pleasures at all, i.e. avoidance of pain was more important than pursuit of pleasure. And it was advised that we should not form close relationships with others because, in the long term, that was likely to lead to unhappiness.

This philosophy thus acknowledged that men do in fact tend to spend their lives in search of pleasure. Perhaps even those who deprive themselves of everyday pleasures and retreat into a monastery are doing it because they want to and perhaps derive some masochistic pleasure from it (cynicism again!). More realistically, it may not be the monastic life in which they are primarily interested but the heavenly rewards that they believe will result from it – i.e. a pleasurable goal.

Thus we might go to the gym for exercise, not because we enjoy it per se but because we want the comparatively pleasurable state of being healthy rather than the state of being out of condition and prone to aches and pains. But it was also said that certain pleasures ought to be sought because they are intrinsically good, for example friendship, but that some ‘excessive’ pleasures should be avoided even if they are pleasurable because they lead to pain. Taking drugs or smoking would be an example of the latter. Perhaps modern hedonists tend to ignore this subsidiary advice.

Again, other philosophers, not feeling that the hedonistic outlook on life could possibly be right, soon found fault with it. It did not, for example, address such things as duty. Clearly one has duties to family and society. You could never imagine that it could be ‘right’ to go out for a drink with your friends rather than attend a school play in which your child was playing a part, even though the former might be thought more pleasurable. When we think about it, we somehow feel that hedonism cannot be right.

There is a parallel here, of course, in the way that Advaita talks about the motivations in life.  artha (wealth, security etc) and kAma (personal desires for pleasure) are the corresponding goals of the Epicurean or hedonistic lifestyle, whereas dharma (duty, working to obtain puNya or ‘good’ karma for the next life) and mokSha (Self-realization, freedom from rebirth) do not find a place there. It is the distinction between preyas (mere pleasure) and shreyas (the ultimate ‘good’) The former may bring enjoyment but this is evanescent and frequently followed by pain.


This is yet another school whose principles still have a ring of truth for the modern age. It began around 300BC, after the fall of Alexander, and lasted until it was superseded by Christianity. Like the Epicureans, they effectively believed that what we see is all that there is but they accepted that nature was governed by rational principles and therefore that reason was the ultimate power.

The ‘good life’, they claimed is one lived in accordance with nature. If we feel that we should do one thing rather than another, we can exercise reason to decide whether such an action would be good or bad. Knowing the transience of all things in life (including ourselves) we should not become attached to any of them. By all means enjoy them if you have them but if you remain unattached, you will not suffer pain and regret if you should lose them. Furthermore, we lose our self-reliance when we become attached to objects – there is the ever-present danger that someone will steal them and then we would lose our equanimity. The things that matter most in life are the ones that cannot be taken away.

If we can genuinely live in this way then we will be as happy as it is possible for us to be. We should accept that things are the way they are and not complain about them or try to change them, indeed without feeling anything about them one way or the other. This is the sort of attitude of grim acceptance and determination that we have come to associate stereotypically with the early industrialised poor, accepting their lot, without complaint, ‘stoically’. It is by having desires for things that we cannot obtain that we end up being unhappy, so it is important to try to rid ourselves of them.

The simple formula of [Happiness] = [Possessions/Desires] explains this very well. If the result is greater than one, you can be said to be generally happy, if less than one generally miserable. Even if you do not have very much, say only the roof over your head and good health, you can still be very happy providing there is nothing that you want. On the other hand, a millionaire with a mansion, Rolls Royce, swimming pool and film star wife could be really miserable if he wants to be a multi-millionaire living on an island without any roads, hates swimming and cannot keep up with his wife’s affairs.

The Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, in the 2nd Century AD, was essentially stoic in his outlook and his ‘Meditations’ are still widely read today. Typical of this attitude of forbearance, he says for example: “When you are outraged by somebody’s impudence, ask yourself at once, ‘Can the world exist without impudent people?’ It cannot, so do not ask for impossibilities. That man is simply one of the impudent whose existence is necessary to the world.”

Needless to say, the Stoics were also deterministic in their outlook; they believed that everything happened as it had to happen, according to divine providence, so it was simply stupid to complain about how things were. Some things, such as health and wealth, are clearly more desirable than others, such as sickness and poverty, and we should naturally pursue the former. But if we end up with the latter, it was meant to be, and we should not feel bad about it. Paradoxically, it is through accepting the inevitability of fate that we can be effectively free.

The attitudes of Stoicism seem appropriate if you live in a society in which you are not able to influence your own life. If you cannot improve your lot, then it makes sense to adopt an outlook in which it is still possible to be reasonably happy. In a less oppressive regime where there are opportunities for self-improvement, where the advantages that others possess seem attainable for oneself, it no longer holds the same sort of appeal. Our modern, materialistic, capitalist style society naturally encourages desires for new possessions and a go-get-it mentality.

To be continued…