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Ethics Of The Hellenistic World

In comparing the ethical theories of the Epicureans, Aristotle, and the Stoics it’s found that they possess three separate ideas. These ideas are different in their individual beliefs; yet attempt to accomplish the same goals of creating inner peace and a sense of well-being in their followers. Generally, these three disciplines had distinctly separate ideas on how to set about accomplishing these goals; the Epicureans felt that the pursuit of pleasure was the correct path to enlightenment, while the Stoics had the idea that the conformation to strict laws regarding virtue was the proper path, and as for Aristotle, he held the middle ground in this debate of the minds, feeling that moderation was the key to complete happiness.

Epicurus’ ethics was a form of egoistic hedonism, meaning that the only thing essentially valuable is one’s own pleasure. Anything else that has value is valuable merely as a means to securing pleasure for oneself. Epicurus associated this theory with a refined and individual view of the nature of pleasure, which leads him to recommend a virtuous, moderately frugal life as the best means to securing pleasure. His ethical theories find a foundation in the Aristotelian commonplace that the highest good is what is valued for its own sake, and not for the sake of anything else.

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Epicurus also agreed with Aristotle that happiness is the highest good. However, he disagreed with Aristotle by identifying happiness with pleasure. Epicurus gave two reasons for this. The main reason was that pleasure is the only thing that people do having value just for its own sake; that is, Epicurus’ ethical hedonism is based upon his psychological hedonism. Everything we do, he claimed, we do for the sake of ultimately gaining pleasure for ourselves.

This is supposedly confirmed by observing the obvious behaviour of infants, who instinctively pursue pleasure and shun pain. The truth in this is also found in the behaviour of adults, but in adults, it is more difficult to see that this truth, since they have much more complicated beliefs about what will bring them pleasure. This hedonism was widely denounced in the ancient world as undermining traditional morality. “The trouble with Epicureanism is its assumption that the self is a bundle of natural appetites and passions, and that the end of life is their gratification.

Experience shows that such a policy consistently pursued, brings not pleasure but pain to the individual through their contempt, indignation, and vengeance. The truest pleasure must come through the development within one of the generous emotions, kind sympathies, and large social interests”(Hyde, 51). Epicurus, however, insisted that courage, moderation, and other virtues are needed in order to attain this happiness. To make someone wealthy it isn’t necessary to give him more money, only to reduce his desires. By eliminating the pain caused by these unfulfilled desires, and the anxiety that occurs because of the fear that one’s desires will not be fulfilled in the future, the Epicurean attains tranquillity, and thus happiness.

Stoicism, on the other hand, was essentially a system of ethics guided by logic as a theory of method and rests upon physics as a foundation. Their notion of morality was strict, involving life in accordance with nature and controlled by virtue. It was an ascetic system; teaching perfect indifference to everything external, for nothing external could be either good or evil. Therefore, to the Stoics, both pain and pleasure, poverty and riches, sickness and health, were supposed to be equally unimportant. The Stoic ethical teaching was based upon two principles already developed in their physics; first, that the universe is governed by absolute law, which admits of no exceptions; and second, that the essential nature of humans is the reason. Both are summed up in the Stoic saying of “living according to nature”.

This adage has two aspects. It means in the first place, that men should conform themselves to nature in the wider sense or to the laws of the universe, and secondly, that they should conform their actions to nature in the narrower sense or to their own essential nature, which is the reason. These two expressions mean, for the Stoics, the same thing. For the universe is governed not only by law, but also by the law of reason, and by following our own rational nature, are in fact conforming ourselves to the laws of the larger world.

Virtue, then, is life according to reason. Morality is simply rational action. It is the universal reason which is to govern our lives, not the caprice and self-will of the individual. Now the definition of morality as the life according to reason is not a principle peculiar to the Stoics. But what was peculiar to the Stoics was the narrow and one-sided interpretation that they gave to this principle. The Stoics looked upon the passions as essentially irrational and demanded their complete extinction. They imagined life as a battle against the passions, in which the latter had to be completely annihilated. Consequently, their ethical views end in a rigorous and unbalanced severity.

The core of Aristotle’s account of moral virtue was his doctrine of the mean. According to this, moral virtues are desire regulating character traits, which are at a mean between more extreme character traits or vices. For example, in response to the natural emotion of fear, we should develop the virtuous character trait of courage. If we develop an excessive character trait by curbing fear too much, then we are said to be rash, which is a vice. If on the other extreme, we develop a deficient character trait by curbing fear too little, then we are said to be cowardly, which is also a vice. The virtue of courage, then, lies at the mean between the excessive extreme of rashness, and the deficient extreme of cowardice. Aristotle also points out that the “virtuous mean” is not a strict mathematical mean between two extremes.

As an example, if drinking 100 gallons of water is too much, and not drinking water at all is too little, this does not imply that we should drink 50 gallons of water, which is the mathematical mean. Instead, the mean is rationally determined, based on the relative merits of the situation. He concluded that it is difficult to live a virtuous life primarily because it is often difficult to find the mean between the extremes. Aristotle relates that the healthy exercise of virtuous function in a well-rounded life exploring personal interests and friendships is the cause of which happiness is the unavoidable and fitting effect. In other words, if you pursue the cause you will create the effect, but if you pursue only the effect circumventing the cause, you will miss both effects and cause entirely. “Aristotle rejects the Epicurean principle of pleasure; because, though a proof that isolated tendencies are satisfied, it is no adequate criterion of the satisfaction of the self as a whole. He rejects the Stoic principle of conformity to law; because it fails to recognize the supreme worth of individuality”(Hyde, 175).

Even after this comparison, it is difficult to contend which of these three theories would be a valid philosophy today. As they all have their seemingly strong points, there are still intrinsic weaknesses that would not hold up under the scrutiny of contemporary philosophers.

Hardie, W.F.R. Aristotle’s Ethical Theory. Great Britain: Oxford UP, 1968.
Hyde, William. The Five Great Philosophies of Life. New York: Macmillan, 1945.
Long, A.A. Hellenistic Philosophy. New York: Scribner’s, 1974.

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