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Ancient PhilosophyHellenistic Theories

The most important ethical theories of the Hellenistic period are Epicureanism and Stoicism. According to the Epicureans, we are happy to the extent that we achieve a state of mind called "peace of mind" or "lack of disturbance." Disturbance is pain, and its absence is pleasure. To achieve peace of mind, we need to recognize that any fear of death or of the gods is baseless and that wronging others or pursuing physical pleasures beyond what is necessary will produce more pain than pleasure in the end. Thus knowledge as well as virtues such as justice and temperance do have value for the Epicureans, but they are valued only as means to peace of mind, not for themselves as they are for Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

The Stoics identified happiness with a state of mind called "absence of passion" or "spiritual peace." We can achieve this by coming to understand and identify with the impartial moral order of the universe and living "according to nature." This means living in ways that express our nature as rational beings. Crucial to such a life are the virtues, since they are all forms of knowledge; for example, justice is knowledge of what we owe to other people. Such knowledge is of a piece and is all or nothing; if we attain it, we will become calm and indifferent to such ills as poverty, pain, and even enslavement and death. Thus, although the Stoics' conception of happiness resembles that of the Epicureans, their view of virtue and its relation to happiness is closer to the views of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.


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Charles M. Young

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind - Early Ideas to Planck lengthMoral - Ancient Philosophy - Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hellenistic Theories, Bibliography