Remembering the Greeks

Philosophy by Stokes I am currently reading Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers* by Philip Stokes. This has reminded me, if I needed reminding, that Western philosophy as we know it today began with the Greeks. Since the beginning of the human race, people have investigated and thought about the great problems of existence but it was the Greeks who taught us to think freely, without the constraints and limitations of religious or other prejudices, to argue logically and to base theory on hard evidence, not on empty speculation.

We owe the Greeks an immense debt not only for identifying many of the problems that still preoccupy us and for teaching us how to approach them but also for showing us that philosophy is not a matter for academics comfortably esconced in ivory towers but is something that we all do and which is one of the noblest and most essential of all pastimes. As I pointed out elsewhere, philosophy is not concerned with finding final, unique, “right” answers but with continually examining anew our world and our thoughts about it, questioning what we take for granted and testing what we think we know. In short, the labour of philosophy never ends.

Today is Sunday and in the West, Sunday is traditionally the day when Church-goers pay special attention to their religion and reflect on its deeper meaning. Perhaps philosophers, whether religious or atheist, should emulate this and also take Sunday – or another day of their free choice – as a day to reflect on philosophy, its purpose and meaning, and to review the works of the great philosophical minds of the past and present by reading “good books” of philosophy.

Ancient Greek philosophers, despite tantalizingly little being known about some of them, have sent their names to us echoing down the centuries. This did not happen by accident but because their renown and the originality and power of their thinking drew the attention of the whole world and made them a place in history. We sadly neglect our own education and with it the quality of our lives if we do not pay due attention to their works; if we do not take the lesson and seek to follow, no matter how haltingly, in their footsteps.

I am following my own advice and thinking about Thales, Pythagoras, Socrates, that old “dog” Diogenes, so I am not going the develop a theme today. But I will nonetheless mention one of my own favourites, Epicurus.

Epicurus, to my mind at least, holds a special place among philosophers, being the first who deliberately and publicly sought to “free mankind from the fear of the gods”. He also ennobled and made respectable the search for happiness, ruled by prudence and intelligence, not by fear of divine retribution. Epicurus did believe the gods existed (not to believe was virtually impossible in his day) but he believed they took no interest in human affairs and neither rewarded nor punished us.

Epictetus, a rival, exaggerated Epicurus’ ideas and gave him the reputation of a hedonist that endures to this day. The reality is that Epicurus, a poor man, dogged throughout life by ill health, knew full well that excess and luxury are the enemy of well being. He thus proposed a regime for avoiding pain and maximising pleasure that was one of frugality and simplicity. Looking around us today, and seeing millions on diets and other health “programmes” to undo the depredations of unwise lifestyles, we surely cannot disagree.


*Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers, Philip Stokes, Foulsham (2003, ISBN: 0572029357.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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6 Responses to Remembering the Greeks

  1. tomeemayeepa says:

    I don’t know what words the original Greek uses but it seems to me unfortunate to use the words ‘pleasure’ and ‘happiness’ in English. As you say, Epicurus really meant ‘well-being’ rather than what we tend to understand by ‘happiness’. And the ‘pleasure’ to be sought consisted in avoiding pain and satisfying natural and necessary desires. Not a million miles away from some of the things Buddha recommended. At least, that’s my understanding of it.

  2. SilverTiger says:

    The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good article on Epicurus in which it is shown that Epicurus “disagrees with Aristotle by identifying happiness with pleasure” but that the pursuit of pleasure must be carried out in an enlightened manner: “Although all pleasures are good and all pains evil, Epicurus says that not all pleasures are choiceworthy or all pains to be avoided. Instead, one should calculate what is in one’s long-term self-interest, and forgo what will bring pleasure in the short-term if doing so will ultimately lead to greater pleasure in the long-term.” One can perhaps see a link with the Buddha’s concept of the “Middle Way” that avoids excesses of sensual pleasure and excesses of ascetic rigour.

    The period within which Epicurus’ life falls seems to have been especially fertile for philosophy, including “spiritual philosophy”. Buddhism was just one of the traditions founded or refurbished around that period that have survived into modern times. While Eastern traditions tended to be mystical (i.e. believing in forces and influences transcending the material), the Greeks tended to be materialist (e.g. Epicurus’ belief that the world was formed from atoms) and thus set us on the road to modern science.

  3. tomeemayeepa says:

    I think I mistakenly read Epicurus with Asian eyes and as a result thought that the article you quote was misleading in using the terms ‘pleasures’ and ‘happiness’. I took statements like “All desires that do not lead to pain when they remain unsatisfied are unnecessary”as meaning that Epicurus was really talking about the avoidance of suffering rather than the pursuit of pleasure. I see now I was wrong and that if he had read my thoughts Epicurus could rightly claim that he was quoted out of context (or mistranslated, or both).

  4. Pingback: Epicurus « SilverTiger

  5. Skye says:

    Was just reading 100 Essential Thinkers myself… its a neat book, but I noticed something odd in the ‘Zeno’ entry and I had to mention it to someone. He says that the only satisfactory answers to Zeno’s Achilles and the Tortoise paradox involved group theory and measurements of space that aren’t infinitesimal. He seems to have forgotten the simpler answer I’ve heard dozens of times from lots of people: Just because you can divide space in half doesn’t mean Achilles is going to slow down. Infinitesimal distances are traversed in infinitesimal time- the time it takes him to move half the distance is half the time, 1/4th the distance, one quarter, and one infiniteth- an infinitesimal measure of time- so he can cover the whole distance in finite time and motion doesn’t have to be impossible.
    It just seems weird he’d overlook or not include this explanation since it seems so readily graspable. His Zeno section is on pages 18-19.

  6. SilverTiger says:

    Interesting point, thanks.

    While this doesn’t prove Zeno wrong, I always envisage it by imagining the movements of the tortoise and Achilles plotted on a graph of distance versus time. You then see the lines cross where Achilles catches up with, and overtakes, the tortoise.

    I don’t doubt that Zeno knew perfectly well that Achilles overtakes the tortoise and that arrows don’t remain motionless in the air and suspect he was intrigued by the fact that the explanations of movement available at the time led to such obvious paradoxes. It’s remarkable too, how long they have remained as puzzles to mathematicians and others seeking to disprove them.

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