Hellenistic Philosophy – Stoics and Epicureans

Similarities and Differences Between the Stoicism and Epicureanism

These two schools of thought of the Hellenistic period are similar in some aspects and different in others. Learn about the philosophy of the Stoics and the Epicureans.

Stoicism and Epicureanism represent two different world views that influenced the western thinking during the Hellenistic period. Drawing a parallel between these two schools of thought may provide a better understanding about their similarities and differences.

The Philosophy of Epicurus

The main aspects of Epicureanism that help understand the Epicurean world views are:

the universe is chaotic;
the gods live in a perfect state of ataraxia (inner peace) and therefore, they do not worry about life in the physical world, not having any influence in people’s lives. It’s humans who worry about the evil, not the gods;
one should seek pleasure and avoid pain. The only case in which one should avoid pleasure is if this pleasure leads to a greater pain later, such as the sensual pleasure and the excess of food;
the difference between gods and humans is that the souls of the gods do not escape from their bodies while the atoms of the human body cannot hold the soul forever.

Read Hellenistic Philosophy – Epicureanism for a detailed explanation of the Epicurean philosophy.

Main Points of Stoicism

The main aspects of Stoicism that stand in opposition to Epicureanism are:

the universe is perfect and harmonious, therefore, everything that happens, happens to maintain the harmony of the universe;
the gods influence people’s lives since they work to maintain the harmony of the universe. So humans have to trust that whatever happens, happens for the best, even if some events look evil from the human standpoint;
one should change things that can be changed and not worry about what cannot be changed, as all that happens, happens for the best. Pain and suffering also happen for the best even though one may not always like them.

Read Hellenistic Philosophy – Stoicism for a detailed explanation of the philosophy of the Stoics.

Main Differences Between Stoicism and Epicureanism

After analyzing the main points of both philosophies, it becomes clear that the main difference between Stoics and Epicureans is the fact that the Stoics argued that the universe is organized in such a way that the experiences that it provides to humans in the physical world are always an intentional move, that is, they have a specific purpose – to maintain the universal harmony. When one’s wish is aligned with this purpose, suffering ceases.

This view is also shared by eastern philosophies, such as Buddhism and Hinduism in which the universe is seen as living being with intentions.

The Epicureans, on the other hand, defended that the universe is chaos, it has no purpose or intentions and gods have no influence the life of humans, so since people are left alone in a chaotic world, the only way to achieve happiness and peace of mind is by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure (as long as this pleasure does not cause greater suffering). This, according to Epicureans, is the formula to live well in a world without intentionality or purpose.

Skeptics also shared this world view and Epicureans were sometimes confused with Skeptics but there’s an important difference – the Epicurean philosophy was not atheist as Epicurus believed in the existence of gods, what he doubted is that the gods had any influence in the human life.

Main Similarities Between Stoics and Epicureans

Christians often misinterpreted Epicureanism believing that Epicureans attempted to justify sex, excesses and pleasure at any cost but this was clearly a misconception caused by a erroneous understanding of the word “pleasure”. Epicurus considered to be pleasure things such as intellectual life, friendship and contact with nature and not bodily sensations, which he considered to bring more pain than pleasure.

In this aspect, Stoics and Epicureans shared a common understanding of what would be considered a happy life. For both schools of thought, the key for happiness is moderation, only for different reasons: for Stoics, moderation was a way to be aligned with the universe’s will and for Epicureans, moderation was the best way to avoid pain.

Both Epicureanism and Stoicism represent two world views that continue to be debated until today, however, no matter the position one chooses to defend, all ways lead to the same destination – moderation, simple pleasures and rich intellectual life.

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