Sunday, April 8, 2018

On The Hellenistic Philosophical Schools

The Nike of Samothrace (2nd Century BC) is
a masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture
In The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, Martha C. Nussbaum, says that unlike modern philosophy which is in most cases detached and academic, the Hellenistic philosophical schools in Greece and Rome—Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics—were devoted to addressing the  critical problems of human life. Here’s an excerpt from her book:
They [The Hellenistic philosophical schools] saw the philoso­pher as a compassionate physician whose arts could heal many pervasive types of human suffering. They practiced philosophy not as a detached intellectual technique dedicated to the display of cleverness but as an im­mersed and worldly art of grappling with human misery. They focused their attention, in consequence, on issues of daily and urgent human significance-the fear of death, love and sexuality, anger and aggression­ issues that are sometimes avoided as embarrassingly messy and personal by the more detached varieties of philosophy. They confronted these issues as they arose in ordinary human lives, with a keen attention to the vicissi­tudes of those lives, and to what would be necessary and sufficient to make them better. 
Nussbaum points out that the Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics have enjoyed far greater influence than Aristotle and Plato. Even the founders of USA were heavily influenced by Stoic and Epicurean ethical thought.
Twentieth-century philosophy, in both Europe and North America, has, until very recently, made less use of Hellenistic ethics than almost any other philosophical culture in the West since the fourth century B. C. E. Not only late antique and most varieties ofChristian thought, but also the writings of modern writers as diverse as Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Adam Smith, Hume, Rousseau, the Founding Fathers of the United States, Nietzsche, and Marx, owe in every case a considerable debt to the writings of Stoics, Epicureans, and/or Skeptics, and frequently far more than to the writings of Aristotle and Plato. Especially where philosophical conceptions of emo­tion are concerned, ignoring the Hellenistic period means ignoring not only the best material in the Western tradition, but also the central influ­ence on later philosophical developments. 
The Hellenistic period covers the period of history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the conquest of the last Hellenistic kingdom by Rome in 31 BC in the Battle of Actium. As Aristotle died a year after Alexander, Hellenistic philosophy is often regarded as post-Aristotelian philosophy. But in The Therapy of Desire, Nussbaum takes Aristotle as the starting point of Hellenistic philosophy and uses Aristotelian ethics as a benchmark.

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