The Hellenistic Age was a time of great social and philosophical change, as the spread of a homogenized Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean and beyond led to the emergence of various schools of thought that sought to address the fundamental questions of life. The Cynics, Epicureans, and Stoics each brought their own answers to these issues, and while there were some similarities in their approaches, there were also significant differences (Tignor et al., 2011).
One of the major social issues of the Hellenistic Age was the shift from individual city-state cultures to a more homogenized culture (Tezcan). The spread of this Greek culture, facilitated by the use of the common language of koine Greek, led to the emergence of a new urban culture in places like Alexandria, Egypt. This new culture, which included philosophical and political thinking, secular disciplines, and popular entertainment, was highly appealing and widely adopted by social elites (Kishlansky et al., 2008).
The Cynics, led by Diogenes (c. 412-323 BCE), sought to live in accordance with nature and reject the cultural norms and laws of society as false (Bauer, 2007). They emphasized self-sufficiency and freedom from societal constraints, and focused on living a virtuous life. Diogenes, who lived with no clothing in a wooden barrel in the agora of Athens, exemplified this approach through his unconventional lifestyle (Bauer, 2007). The Epicureans, following Epicurus (c. 341-279 BCE), similarly emphasized the importance of the individual and the pursuit of pleasure. However, they also stressed the importance of avoiding unpleasant sensations and achieving a state of ataraxia, or “not caring” about worries in order to find peace of mind (Bauer, 2007). The Stoics, led by Zeno (c. 334-262 BCE), focused on acceptance and personal responsibility, believing that everything was determined by nature and that it was up to the individual to live in accordance with nature (Bauer, 2010). They emphasized virtue and the development of inner peace through the control of emotions and the acceptance of whatever comes (Bauer, 2010).
While all three of these schools of thought placed a strong emphasis on the individual and living in accordance with nature, there were also significant differences in their approaches. The Cynics, with their rejection of societal norms and focus on virtue, took a more radical approach to living in accordance with nature. The Epicureans, on the other hand, placed a greater emphasis on pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The Stoics, while also valuing virtue and living in accordance with nature, placed a greater emphasis on acceptance and personal responsibility.
Overall, the Cynics, Epicureans, and Stoics each brought their own unique answers to the common social and philosophical issues of the Hellenistic Age, and while there were some similarities in their approaches, there were also significant differences. Their ideas continue to influence modern thought and philosophy to this day, with proponents of minimalism and simple living drawing inspiration from the Cynics, and the Epicurean focus on pleasure and the avoidance of pain being incorporated into modern conceptions of happiness and well-being. The Stoic emphasis on acceptance and personal responsibility has also had a lasting impact, with many modern self-help and personal development philosophies drawing inspiration from Stoic principles.
- Bauer, S. W. (2007). The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Bauer, S. W. (2010). The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantinople to the First Crusade. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Kishlansky, M., Geary, P., & O’Brien, P. (2008). Civilization in the West. London: Pearson Longman.
- Tezcan, S. (2022). Presentation from Week 9. Slides: 6,7. Social Studies University of Ankara