Literature Study GuidesA History Of Western PhilosophyBook 1 Part 3 Chapters 27 28 Summary

A History of Western Philosophy | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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A History of Western Philosophy | Book 1, Part 3, Chapters 27–28 : Ancient Philosophy (Ancient Philosophy after Aristotle) | Summary



Book 1, Part 3, Chapter 27: The Epicureans

The Stoics and Epicureans arose in the same time period. Epicurus founded his school in 311 BCE. His philosophical community is poor, and they subsist mainly on bread and water. Epicurus demanded from his followers allegiance to a dogmatic creed, whose purpose is to secure tranquility. For him the greatest good is pleasure, which begins with pleasures of the body, particularly food. But he is far from a hedonist and simply wishes to maintain in the body a state of equilibrium in which there is no pain. Thus the "absence of pain, rather than presence of pleasure" is "the wise man's goal." The wise man lives an obscure life and attempts to avoid enemies. The safest social pleasure is friendship, and he speaks of his community as "our holy body." He dislikes sexual intercourse and considers marriage and children a distraction. Russell calls Epicureanism "a valetudinarian's philosophy, designed to suit a world in which adventurous happiness had become scarcely possible." Epicurus wishes to dispel fear caused by religion and the dread of death. Thus Epicurus believes the soul is dispersed at death and, while the gods exist, they do not involve themselves in human affairs.

Russell names the Roman poet Lucretius (99–55 BCE) as Epicurus's "only eminent disciple." Like Epicurus, Lucretius hates religion—a response to popular Greek religious beliefs beyond the "official cults of Zeus and his family." Russell says the Christian idea of hell can be traced back to the Greeks, who imagine punishment after death. The rejection of immortality of the soul may seem "gloomy and depressing" to modern readers, but it is a source "of liberation from the burden of fear" for the followers of Epicurus. Epicureanism endures as a philosophy for about 600 years, but people increasingly need "stronger medicine from philosophy or religion," says Russell. "The philosophers took refuge ... in Neoplatonism" and the uneducated in "various Eastern superstitions" and then Christianity.

Book 1, Part 3, Chapter 28: Stoicism

Zeno, a Phoenician by birth who came to Athens, was the founder of Stoicism in the 3rd century BCE, which is different from later Stoicism espoused by the Romans in the 2nd century BCE. For Zeno only virtue is important. He believed everything was rigidly determined by natural law, and at the conclusion of a cycle the world ends and begins again, repeating what has happened, in a never-ending loop. Nature's course is determined by the Lawgiver or Providence, and everything connected with human beings has a purpose. The Supreme Power is God, or Zeus, who is not separate from the world. Virtue is will, which is agreement with nature, while the wicked who do not agree go along with nature involuntarily. In the Stoic view everything good and bad in a person's life depends on themselves. This does not refer to power over externals; rather, people have freedom to act in accordance with nature as well as to free themselves from worldly desire. Russell points out the logical flaws in the Stoic argument, saying that if virtue is the sole good then Providence must want to cause virtue, yet Nature has produced a lot of bad apples. Further, if the world is predetermined, then whether a person is virtuous or not lies out of their hands. Finally, the belief in an eternal recurrence seems futile, especially when considering all the terrible and painful things that happen in the world.

More important historically were the later Stoics connected with Rome: Seneca (a statesman), Epictetus (a slave), and Marcus Aurelius (an emperor). Seneca did not practice what he preached and amassed a large fortune before he fell out with Emperor Nero and was forced to commit suicide. Marcus Aurelius is famous for his Meditations, in which he makes many contradictory statements in espousing a Stoic point of view. Russell provides several quotations from Epictetus, who opines slaves are equal to other men since all are "sons of God." A long passage from Epictetus defines a Stoic as a "man who wishes to be at one with God," free of desire, passions, and aversions. The impersonal sections of the Meditations are in close agreement with Epictetus, Russell says, but he points out additional logical contradictions in Stoic philosophy. In addition to its contributions to ethics, Stoicism adds to philosophy "theory of knowledge [and] the doctrine of natural law and natural rights." Despite Plato, Stoics accepted the validity of perception and acknowledged innate ideas that were "luminously obvious" and the basis for deductions. "This point of view was accepted throughout the Middle Ages, and even by Descartes," says Russell.


Although Epicurus wrote some 300 books, almost all that he wrote is lost, and most of what history knows of him comes secondhand from Lucretius's long Latin poem On the Nature of Things, which was likely written some 200 years after Epicurus's death. There are only fragments from the writings of the original Stoics, and what is known about them was written by others. No original writings of the Roman Stoics exist.

While most people associate Epicurus with hedonism or connoisseurship, he was nothing of the sort. Epicurus's primary purpose is to secure tranquility according to Russell, but other sources indicate he is most concerned with freeing people from the fear of death—or rather, the fear of hell. As Russell notes, people feared damnation, a concept that has roots in Mesopotamian religion and carries over into the Greeks' nonmainstream religious beliefs. The Mesopotamians pictured the afterlife as a house of dust and a sealed fortress, the fate of all who die regardless of their rank or merit. The Greek cult of Dionysus imagines Hades as a place where people are eternally tortured unless they escape through spiritual initiation. The Orphic movement embellishes this picture, adding their own version of divine retribution as well as reincarnation. Through the Classical period (500–323 BCE) and Hellenistic periods (323–30 BCE) the underworld becomes more "infernalized."

The Greeks were exposed to Zoroastrian beliefs as well, which sort the dead for heaven, hell, and a proto-purgatory or limbo according to merit. In fact Plato discusses three possible destinations for the dead in the Phaedo, as Russell has noted earlier. As Russell explains, Epicurus's idea that death is the end of the road for human beings is a comfort for those who fear unending torment in the afterlife. The natural corollary of Epicurus's philosophy is to make the most of time served on Earth. Since Epicurus is a wise philosopher, he knows unbridled hedonism will not net the most happiness, which is why he counsels moderation in all things. His recommendations for living a good life are meant to cultivate contentment rather than chimerical happiness, since contentment is a more realistic goal and makes life pleasant.

The Greek Stoics idolized Socrates, who seemed to embody their teachings in his indifference to material comfort and calmness in the face of death. The Stoics advocated living in accordance with nature because its laws are divinely designed. Their belief that all things are predetermined yet human beings are free and responsible does seem contradictory, as Russell points out. The key to this paradox may be that the Stoics are free to voluntarily accept the laws of nature—thus there is freedom in resignation. Such an attitude prefigures later existentialism. While the existentialists do not believe in predetermination, and many do not believe in God, they also find comfort in the notion of resignation to the facts of existence as they stand. Like the Stoics, existentialists take responsibility for everything that happens to them, regardless of whether they are "responsible" or not, and believe it is up to them to make their lives count as something good.

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