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Stoicism and Epicureanism

PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2007 5:32 am
by Aulus Flavius
Salve amici,

How are we all? I was wondering if I could enlist the help of a few of our more learned collegues with an essay topic I'm trying to define for a subject of philosophy I'm undertaking this semester. I think I have the gist of it, and I've emailed my tutor to make sure I'm actually on the right path, but any of our fellow philos sophia here at SVR who wish to point me in the right direction would be much appreciated.


Discuss and compare the different views of ‘nature’ and ‘living according to nature’ put forward by the Epicureans and the Stoics.

Firstly the Stoics.

From what I can understand, the Stoics promulgated a view of the universe and nature as something which is something beyond human control. A sort of universal divine will which governs everything. The only way the people could be happy was to accept this and to live in conformity with this divine will.

However, rather then become complacent, Stoics were encouraged to emotionally sheild themselves from the trials and tribulations that would face them throughout their lives. This is not to say that they became emotionaless automatons, but rather they realised the transience of the world and people around them and instead saw to accept that things, moments and people come and go. Accepting this and questioning the nature of human conventions through logical reason is what raises people above animals. All of this was geared towards subsuming passionate emoitions and the weaknesses of the body to the mind and soul.

Secondly the Epicureans.

Much like to Stoics, Epicures sought a state of happiness in conformity with an overarching principal. With the Stoics this was an acceptance of divine will, with Epicures this was a rejection of superstitious fear of both the Gods and Death. Epicures sought contentment through two ways;

Firstly their Atmoic Theory expounded by Democritus that stated a materialistic view of nature. By understanding what nature was composited of, it was possible to understand it and therefore remove humanities fear of natural events, including death. This Atomic Theory extended to the Gods who, if they existed at all, existed in a state of pure happiness and did not interfere in human affairs. For to do so would disrupt their content state, something which is anathema in the Epicurean universe.

Secondly they sought pleasurable contentment. This put Epicureanism in the same league as Hedonism, but only insofar as its adherants both sought a type of pleasure. For the Epicureans this was a simple contentment attained through a simple, almost ascetic lifestyle, and good friends. Unlike Stoics and their concept of a great brotherly community encompassing everyone, Epicures were very much an exclusive group. The proverbail 'Garden of Epicurus' was a place where the enlightened Epicure could retreat from the greater world the sufferings that its many temptations brought with it.


I found it much easier to define an Epicurean sense of nature then that of the Stoics. Their concept of living by Virtue is harder for me to grasp, and from what I can tell is a sought of simple acceptance of pain in an attempt to shield themselves from it.

I certainly hope all this makes sense. If no, set the Philosophical Inquisition on me.

Any help in these definitions would be much appreciated.


A. Flavius

Stoics and Epicureans

PostPosted: Fri Mar 30, 2007 8:30 pm
by Valerius Claudius Iohanes
Salve Auli Flavii -

I'm no expert, alas, on the Ancients, but I have read a bit about the Stoics, so your question prompts a couple of additions or comments.

I think their notion of virtue and "happiness" as being divorced from the pursuit of pleasure makes their ideas strange to us. But they were after the attainment of another level of awareness, a rather Buddhistic one, an awareness that took them entirely out of normal affairs and gave them a handle on life's chaos. They felt that to become "enlightened" one had to stop worrying, accept the nature of the world, the inevitability of loss and suffering, and be aware of that nature of things, and strive to put all the small stuff in perspective. Of course, their "small stuff" would include plagues and wars as well as folly and vice.

To your definition, "A sort of universal divine will which governs everything," I would give what I believe was the name they used, Logos, which the Christians later identified with God.

Another salient thing (to folks of my generation, at least) is that Stoicism, for all its sort-of-mystical notions, was a materialist philosophy - they apparently believed that everything was, was in one way or another, physical, material. The Logos was described as a kind of compound of Fire and Air that animated the world, in other words, a "spirit" in an almost literal sense, an evanescent but concrete "breath".

And those transient, mundane things that the Stoics try to ignore or put in perspective (or enjoy in an aware, detached way) are sometimes called "morally indifferent" things - inevitable incidentals in life, but which lack permanence or real significance for the "vir bonus", the sage.

I always see a lot of parallel thought going on between the Stoics and the Taoists: "Follow nature and its path; spurn normal worries and desires and aspire to understand as well as you may what nature's plan is." I'll bet that there's also some parallels to Zen Buddhism, but know too little about Zen to say.

This is days after your post, but I couldn't resist offering my two cents' worth.

Vale bene.

PostPosted: Tue Apr 03, 2007 1:03 pm
by Horatius Piscinus

There is no happiness to be found in the "pursuit of happiness." The very meaning of the phrase is that you seek what you do not have, and finding it you learn in the first place that it is never as pleasurable as anticipated and secondly that it is no more than a momentary gratification. Thus one flits around continually as though a butterfly, never knowing what to pursue, where to seek it, or how to attain it.

No, to the ancients happiness was to be found in contentment. Since pleasures offered little in that regard, Epicurians took things somewhat to an extreme by advocating that one should divorce himself from pleasures, and thereby also rid himself of a desire for pleasures. They conditioned themselves to enjoy a plain diet and other simple amenities of life, seeing contentment in meeting the needs of life. There was a social program to their school as well, that went along with these ideas. They taught that all of the Gods were equally powerful, equally self-sufficient, yet chose to live with one another in social harmony. Something like Levellers or Utopian Socialists therefore, Epicurian society embraced a kind of egalitarianism where in social conflicts could be avoided.

Stoics had a different approach, but contentment was still the goal. Superficial pleasures were not to be disgarded entirely. Everything in moderation was something of a motto for Stoics. But just as a pursuit of pleasures leads to no happiness, anxiety over rather meaningless worries leads to undue concern. While Stoics recognized a "Brotherhood of Man" they saw society in hierarchial terms. Virtus is to perform the duties of a man. That means to give each their due, whether family or stranger, superior or inferior, for contentment is found along with finding one's place in society. One should not desire to attain a higher station in life so much as to faithfully perform the duties of the station that life has given you. The practice of Virtus thus leads to contentment, and thereby would one become happy.



PostPosted: Wed Apr 04, 2007 2:58 am
by Aldus Marius
Avete magistri,

I don't think the Stoics were particularly trying to shield themselves from pain; rather, they taught themselves that pain didn't matter.

In fide,

PostPosted: Wed Apr 04, 2007 2:13 pm
by Aulus Flavius
Salve amici,

Horatius :) It's been far too long. I was beginning to wonder if you'd finally retired to a quiet life of scholarly contemplation at a serene rustic villa at Baiae. How are things going on your end? It's been...months since we last talked in ernest. Apologies for my lack of activity, I've been incredibly busy.

I've been to Europe, graduating University and am in the process of enlisting in the ADF. A busy way to spend a few months.

Returning to the topic at hand, I thank you for the clarification. Everyone that is. I've run everything by my tutor and, coupled with what I've learnt here and studied in a plethora of texts now littering my table, he agrees I have a good understanding of the topic in question and should be able to answer the question.

Again, I thank you all for your help.

Horatius, if you're ever online I can usually be found on MSN (yahoo! kept crashing my laptop) on

I hope to see you on there. The same goes for your Marius :)


A. Flavius

PostPosted: Thu Apr 05, 2007 3:40 am
by Horatius Piscinus
Salvete Aule Flavi et omnes

True, I have not been around much lately. I have had a series of medical problems over the past nines months. (No real surprise there with my history.) Most recently I lost the use of my right arm, which is now partially recovered. I am still unable to type out replies to all the emails I get. Chatting can be difficult. But as you can see I am able once again to type for short periods. While I have been improving, I am on extended rest and won't be very active for several more weeks to come.

Good to hear you made your visit to Europe and that you continue your schooling. The ADF, eh? You'll have to let me know how that goes. My son will be returning to Iraq soon enough, and afterwards he has some adventures intended.


My Philosophy

PostPosted: Sat Mar 22, 2008 2:39 am
by Gaius Iulius Tabernarius
I would like to share my modern take on Stoicism and Epicureanism each of them in my opinions have their strengths and weaknesses.

I say that the contempt of pain and restraint in most things is a great virtue, but when advocating stoicism to others of a more emotional nature, its is important to be gentle and touchy feely, (as much as stoics like myself revolt at the idea.)

When it comes to contentment, both traditional epicurean and more hedonistic values.

But all in moderation, drink, don't become an alcoholic, have sex, don't get pregnant or develop an STD. Feast don't develop an easting disorder or become over weight.

Have good friends, a good fulfilling job, and all of the facets of the American dream.

Hey who says a philosopher cant enjoy partying? So long as you never develop a dependency for pleasure, enjoy it in all its forms!

Even Diogenes the dog, spent time with the Hetairae, (for free!)


PostPosted: Sat Mar 22, 2008 2:52 am
by Aldus Marius
(Check him out--He's already made enough posts to earn the "Sodalis" rank--20 posts in two days!!! w00t!)

Likin' it here,

Oh, dear...

PostPosted: Sat Mar 22, 2008 2:56 am
by Aldus Marius
(Oh, dear...and, sometime since this morning, I seem to have gotten promoted to Augustus. Gnaeus Dionysius Draco--I'm gainin' on you!!)

*So* OT (woo-hoo!!),

Re: Achievement!

PostPosted: Sat Mar 22, 2008 5:02 pm
by Gaius Iulius Tabernarius
Aldus Marius wrote:(Check him out--He's already made enough posts to earn the "Sodalis" rank--20 posts in two days!!! w00t!)

Likin' it here,

yeah (the weather is crap and its spring break I have to do something) yes I do like it here.

PostPosted: Sun Mar 23, 2008 3:22 pm
by Marcus Tullius Ioannes
Salve omnes.

What I find striking about Epicurus' view of living according to nature is its profound materialism. As I read him, he believes that all we can know is derived from the senses. Therefore, it is impossible to conceive of virtue, for example, or the good life, in any way that is not ultimately founded in what we can see, feel, taste, hear. Also, since having died we no longer sense anything, and death renders us nothing, and nothing is, so to speak, nothing to fear.

It follows from this premise, I think, that the good life is necessarily one which feels "good." So, the absence of pain is necessary to the good life. Over indulgence in pleasures brings pain, physical and emotional, and even mental. Therefore, an epicurean does not over indulge, and instead lives a life of contentment.

Stoics seem to arrive at a similar view of the good life, but Epictetus, at least, does so I think through a consideration of freedom in a very broad sense (not surprisingly in the case of a former slave). There are things outside of our control, and if we desire them or fear them those who control them control us, and if we strive for them or allow them to effect us emotionally we will never be at peace. So, they should be matters of indifference to us, and the good life can be lived only by focusing on what is in our control.

So far so good, I think, from a common sense standpoint. But how are we to use those things within our control to live according to nature, and how is that "good"? Setting ourselves free from the things we cannot control will certainly make us more content. It is less likely that we will be subject to emotional pain, and so passes an epicurean test as contributing to the good life. But stoics do not accept epicureanism, and require something more to define living according to nature. Here I think stoicism faces difficulties of explanation that epicureanism need not face due to its very simplicity.

It is necessary for the stoic to believe in something beyond what we can know from the five senses as a basis for a philosophy of life. Considerations similar to the argument from design seem to lead stoics like Marcus Aurelius to infer the existence of a divine will or reason guiding the fate of the world. Would the great architect of the universe having created humans want them to live in misery? No, and to avoid living in misery in it necessary to detach ourselves from the things we cannot control, and to use what we can control in a virtuous manner (a possible stoic response). But, this argument is necessarily circular, at least to the extent it is used to justify a life of virtue.