Session Notes

What We Will Learn Today

  1. How Greek philosophy spread throughout the Mediterranean world.
  2. How Roman thinkers had different philosophical concerns from Plato and Aristotle
  3. What Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics thought about the nature of the good life.


Alexander the Great

  1. Aristotle had been a tutor of Alexander the Great, the son of Philip of Macedon.
  2. Alexander famously spread Greek culture into areas he conquered.
    1. We call this culture Hellenistic, and the thought that developed after this movement we call Hellenism.
  3. Alexander was an incredibly successful military leader.
  4. But, he died at the young age of 32.
  5. While Hellenism continued to affect Mediterranean culture, the political grip of Alexander’s successors eventually faded, giving rise to a new world power: Rome.

Roman Dominance

  1. Eventually, Roman power reached far enough to include Athens itself.
  2. But back in 155 BC, Athens had a problem with Rome’s handling of affairs.
  3. The Romans were demanding a fine of 500 talents of gold, which was equivalent to more than 35,000 pounds of the precious metal. Athenians didn’t want to pay this heavy sum. So they sent three philosophers, from three of its dominant schools, to reason with the Romans.
    1. Carneades, an Academic skeptic and follower of Plato, (what was Academic skepticism)
    2. Critolaus, head of the Aristotelian School, and
    3. Diogenes, who was head of the Stoic School.
  4. These delegates were able to reduce the fine to only 100 talents.
    1. More importantly, they spent their time in Rome spreading their philosophical ideas.

Summum Bonum = Highest Good

  1. Roman society during the time of its exposure to new philosophical questions was undergoing rapid change, cultural turbulence, and a flood of new ideas and religions from all over the region.

Three major philosophies that became popular in Rome, but originated in Greece

  1. Epicureanism: sought a life of moderate pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
  2. Stoicism: sought a life of serenity in the midst of cultural and political turbulence.
  3. Skepticism (Pyhrronic Skepticism): sought a life free from intellectual turmoil or dogmatic error achieved through the suspension of intellectual judgment.

All Three Schools sought one thing in different ways: Tranquility

Important Features of Epicureanism

  1. Lucretius is Roman Epicurean poet and philosopher
  2. According to him, nothing was controlled by an intelligent design.
  3. atomism, the belief that the physical universe is made up of individual and indivisible bits, or “atoms.”
  4. Believed in the importance of avoiding physical pain and pursuing moderate pleasure
  5. Epicureanism is the default religion of affluent, secular western society.

Important features of Stoicism

  1. First, Stoics focused more on ethics than abstract ideas
  2. Second, they believed that virtue is its own reward and is sufficient for happiness
  3. Third, they sought self-control as a way to overcome the irrational influence of human emotion.
  4. Major takeaway from Stoicism? Consider the Serenity prayer
    1. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
  5. The focus here is on the idea that life is full of uncertainty and often injustice.
    1. All we can do in such a turbulent situation is to live wisely and virtuously and take satisfaction in our personal integrity.
  6. A superb Roman example of stoicism in action is the Roman philosopher Seneca (4 BC-AD 65).

What interested the stoics?

  1. Their famous interest in apatheia, which we might translate to apathy, isn’t a lack of caring, but an attempt to have a profound joy that comes from virtue, rather than a constant pursuit of temporary and fleeting pleasures.

Features of Skepticism

  1. Skepticism refers to any school of thought that seeks to be comfortable with doubt and to avoid unjustified beliefs.
  2. Consider Sextus Empiricus
    1. “Skepticism is an ability, or mental attitude, which opposes appearances to judgments in any way whatsoever, with the result that … we are brought firstly to a state of mental suspense and next to a state of ‘unperturbedness’ or ‘quietude.’”

Sextus divided intellectual world into three parts

  1. Dogmatists believe that some beliefs can be known to be true.
  2. Pyrrhonic Skeptics aren’t sure whether we can know anything for certain.
  3. Academic Skeptics, taking their cues from the later Platonic Academy are certain only that we can’t know anything for certain.
    1. Academic skepticism, according to Empiricus, is too bold in that it asserts dogmatically that nothing can be known.

Key elements in Pyrrhonic Skepticism

  1. First, It seeks mental quietude by suspending judgment about debated ideas.
  2. Second, It defines “dogma” as assent to all unfounded beliefs.
  3. Third, It is concerned to take note of empirical data or “appearances” in the physical world.
  4. Fourth, It recognizes that theories are “underdetermined” by data.
  5. Finally, since we can’t know for sure what to believe, we should follow our community and family traditions to live peacefully.

Reflecting on Christian Perspective

The Christian summum bonum (highest good)?

  1. Westminster Shorter Catechism: Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
  2. A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
  3. Dr. Mallinson describes the summum bonum of Christianity to be peace with God and subsequent service to humanity by sharing the grace and forgiveness of God to a hurting world.
  4. Skepticism helpful?
    1. ..of course Christians, through revelation, believe they have the truth…believe it or not has some value (suspending judgment because we recognize our own finite and fallen reason
    2. Using this method for this empirical world… Luther seems to have appreciated aspects of this … also it reminds us we are works in progress.
  5. Stoicism?
    1. we don’t eliminate our passions. we redirect them toward a hurting world. And this can bring emotional pain. we welcome this in solidarity with other human beings, whom we love in the name of Christ.

Further Reading

  1. Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Moral Epistles. Translated by Richard M. Gummere. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1917-25.
  2. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (50 B.C.)
  3. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism
  4. Christopher Gill. The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought. Oxford University Press, 2009.