Episode 14 - Epicureans, Cynics, and Stoics


Main Sources

  • Paul Tillich - The Courage to Be

Key Ideas

  • “Alexander the Great ushered in a period of, turmoil and cultural anxiety, a period where many people were expecting or were experiencing domicide”. As a response to this development, philosophy takes on a therapeutic dimension as illustrated by the ideas of the Epicureans, Stoics, Cynics. Philosophers become doctors of the soul.


Welcome back to awakening from the meaning crisis. Last time we finished our look at the axial revolution. In India we took a look at what was going on. In the Buddha’s state of enlightenment, we took a look at some of the cognitive science and such awakening experiences and then we move to interpret following the sage advice of Bachelor, some of the Buddha’s pronouncements trying to get beyond interpreting his pronouncements as propositions to be believed instead understand them as provocations so that we may enact enlightenment and that means enacting the thing tract that we are facing, and then enacting the psycho technologies that can respond to it. We took a look at this in terms of ideas of parasitic processing, reciprocal narrowing addiction, and the opposite of analog acceleration as opposed to reciprocal narrowing and creating a counter active dynamical system, the kind of active system of the Eightfold Path for successfully dealing with parasitic processing. So we saw that these higher states of consciousness these awakening experiences can bring about transformations that alleviate modal confusion, parasitic processing, reciprocal narrowing all many of the ways in which we fundamentally lose our agency in the world in a self deceptive and self destructive manner.

I’d now like to return back to what’s happening after the axial Revolution and the West So, Socrates was fortunate. He had a great disciple in Plato. Plato was fortunate in that he had a great disciple in Aristotle. Aristotle had a great disciple, but he was not so fortunate. Aristotle’s great disciple is not himself a great philosopher. He is another kind of great. He is Alexander the Great. And Alexander the Great is an example of the kind of thing that predates the axial revolution. The world conqueror Alexander creates an empire and takes the Greek way of thinking throughout most of the known world in a way that reestablishes and perhaps a dangerous manner. The pre axial world Alexander is so glorious that the line between being a human being and being a god is blurred. He creates a personal mythology in which he is a god man. Very much like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, which might perhaps explain why Alexander was so readily welcomed into the courts of Egypt. Either way, what happens is a twisting of the world. Because not only does Eris not only this Alexander represent a return to a pre axial way of being, he also represents a fundamental disruption to the world in which people did found themselves. Let’s compare the world of Aristotle to the world of Alexander.

Okay. Now, in order to do that, we have to understand that Alexander himself does not live very long he dies in Babylon. At most danger of cities. It’s not clear what he dies of as a young age of 33 has a child but the child of course is too young and is therefore quickly killed. And his major generals fight amongst themselves and they carve his empire up into four smaller empires that are perpetually at war with each other for about 300 years. So this period is known as the Hellenistic era. So, if you’re alive at the time of Aristotle, chances are you live if you’re a Greek, part of the Greek culture you live in a polis is where we get cosmopolitan from. It doesn’t mean city it means a city state. Right. Like, for example, Athens and its surrounding agricultural supporting environment, or Sparta.

Now, you know, many of the other citizens you them face to face. We mentioned the idea that, you know, Athens is developing democracy. But when we discuss the surface and at least for the adult males, and that’s a significant defect in the society, but I’ve already gone into that. But you’re participating in your government in a direct manner. You live close to, it’s accessible to you the seat of that government, you often know personally, people involved in the government, sometimes even the leaders themselves, everybody around you, speaks your language. everybody around you had ancestors like you yourself do stretching back beyond memory who have lived in this place. everybody around you has the same religion as you. Everybody has basically the same allegiances to this place. So your Polish just isn’t just where you lived. The poll. This is like such a tight relationship between ages an arena that one of the greatest punishments you could suffer in this world, the world of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle is to be ostracized, which is just you’re not killed, you’re not imprisoned, you’re not punished in any way, you’re just told to leave the polis. And for many people, they would rather die or face imprisonment and be ostracized, because the polis was such an embedded existence for them, their identity was so immersed in it. So see, look how deeply connected you are to yourself, to your environment, to the people around you, to your government, to your culture, to your history. Alexander comes in smashes all of that. Greek culture is now distributed into Africa, the avant, into Asia, Asia Minor Asia property right down to out to the borders of India, you have Greek kingdoms bacteria that are integrating rich culture with Buddhists. Philosophy and Religion in what is modern day, Afghanistan. Now, what does this mean? Well, this means in the Hellenistic era, people are being moved around and shuffled around, and they belong. They belong to far flung empires. You are now probably thousands of miles away from the seat of government. You do not participate in that government. Nor do you know, personally, most of the people or any of the people in it. The people around you might not have lived where you’re living very long. You might not be living where you’ve been living very long.

Your ancestors might have been from Athens and here you are dwelling in Asia Minor. The people around you speak different languages worship different gods. Notice how all the connections are being lost. You don’t have a connection to a polis. You don’t have a connection to a shared linguistic group of any great extent, shared history shared ancestry shared religion. you’re experiencing or Porteous in Smith and Brian Walsh called Donna side. We’ll come back to this later when we talk about the meaning crisis today. The homicide is the destruction of home. Now there’s two ways in which trauma side can occur. One, of course is physical destruction of your house. And that’s important. But there’s also cultural Dom aside in which you have a house you have a dwelling, but it is not very much your home. Now we’ll come back to this being on home again when we talk about our current situation. But notice how often we will use the language of loss of home to describe our current situation where we often talk about how we now feel unharmed in the cosmos. So people are experiencing this radical sense of Dom aside. They don’t have deep connections to themselves to each other, to their environment, to their history, to their cultural surroundings. They have very little, very little political participation. They feel insignificant, you can go to sleep, and you’re part of the Ptolemaic Empire and you’re wake up and you’re part of the saluted Empire. So this is known as an age of anxiety, the Hellenistic period, the art changes, it becomes much more frenetic becomes much more realistic, it becomes much more organized around sort of extremes and tragedy.

The confidence that we saw in the earlier periods, a period of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle is gone. Greece itself has suffered a titanic Civil War, the Peloponnesian Wars, Sparta defeats Athens, the home of Socrates and Plato. One of the places where Aristotle did most of his work, Sparta is that very quickly, itself defeated by thieves, thieves very quickly loses it to me. So the Greek world loses, loses and loses until, of course, it’s overwhelmed by Macedonia, and Alexander. So, whereas the Greek culture is spread throughout the world, it’s also thinned, it loses its depth. So there’s a change that starts to happen. You can see, as I said in the art, the expression of this, you can see it in what starts to happen in religions. There’s a lot of syncretism. People are trying to create religions that integrate different cultural day pieced together a Greek deity for example, and an Egyptian daddy are integrated together in props into therapists or something like that. You also see the elevation of mother goddesses to pan cultural importance like the mother goddess Isis. Because of course, when you feel inside when you feel the loss of home, there is nothing that means home more to you than mother. And if you don’t have that with your physical Mother, what you want is some right Divine Mother that can make you feel at home no matter where you are in this fractured, domiciled laden world. But philosophy also responds. The axial age has left a powerful legacy, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. And that project has not come to an end. But it does undergo transformation in the face of the Hellenistic meaning crisis. Up until now, the main thing that wisdom was trying to deal with was foolishness. And that’s not abandoned, but that’s now seen as insufficient. So one of the great philosophers of the Hellenistic period is Epicurus. And Epicurious famously said call no man a philosopher who has not alleviated the suffering of others. So there’s now a therapeutic aspect to wisdom. Wisdom is now importantly about dealing with the anxiety and suffering that people are experiencing in the Hellenistic era. So a new model is created. So we’ve seen the idea, right of the same age as somebody like Socrates, who provokes the axial revolution, lead you out of the cave, all of these wonderful and powerful images and figures, but a new metaphor emerges. The philosopher is the physician of the soul. philosopher, is somebody who can assure you of existential suffering this becomes true Now, many of these new philosophical schools, the epicureans, for example, and the stoics.

Take it upon themselves to try to exemplify Socrates. They try to exemplify Socrates the epicureans do this in a very unique way they do this in a useful way of analysis. analyzing their position is to take them up on their own metaphor. What is their diagnosis of the disease that is afflicting people and what is their prognosis for the cure. Now, the epicureans are very relevant to us because they insist Some ways represent a very secular alternative in the midst of what was still a very religious world, and that is pertinent to us. So the epicureans diagnose that our main problem is fear. Now that’s interesting, and there’s something right about that but we have to slow down first, and here’s in order to get closer about how we should try and appropriate what they’re saying. The work of Paul telecare is especially useful, especially the work he does he does in his masterpiece, the courage to be, although he does not talk about the epicureans very much. he concentrates on the stoics as we will as well. He nevertheless brings up important distinctions This is the distinction between fear A word you’ve heard me use more often, which is anxiety. Now, these terms are often used interchangeably, and we often and we also mix up the word anxiety with eagerness will say, I’m so anxious to see you tonight. That’s horrible. You shouldn’t be anxious to see somebody.

That’s mean, you’re distressed, right? And you’re suffering a loss of agency, and you have a nebulous sense of threat. That’s that person’s terrifying. What you mean is you’re eager to see them. So first of all, give up that meaning of anxious. Secondly, we use these terms interchangeably. And, you know, in everyday discourse, that’s probably all right, because they do overlap in some ways, but they’re important. It’s important to at least talk about the polar differences between them. Fear is when you have an observable direct threat The type of a tiger comes into this room my experience fear, because I have an observable threat in a very important sense, I know what to do. I may fail in doing it, but I know what to do. Okay? anxiety is different. Anxiety is when the threat is nebulous. You’re not quite sure what the threat is, and you’re not sure what to do You don’t know what to do. So very often, when you’re suffering, existential issues, you experience anxiety. This is why this is the preferred term used by crooked garter Heidegger, although God does use fear and in one of his books, but that has more to do with something else. So The epicureans are often translated, I think correctly. I’m not talking about not making a scholastic point as talking about how we are suffering, because we can’t manage fear. I think a better way of understanding it. Given this distinction and following on telic is we suffer because we can’t manage our anxiety because they think the fears they talk about are not really things that are a clear threat where we clearly know what to do. Okay. So, according to the epicureans, basically, we don’t control our imagination or in our thinking. And so we suffer from anxieties that cripple our ability to get a grip on The world. So let me give you one many people are anxious about death.

That too, sort of prototypically people will often say, well, they’ll often use the existence of death as a way of talking about how their, how their life is ultimately meaningless. I’m gonna die Anyways, what does it matter when you die? And it’s terrifying. I don’t think it’s going to, I’d have to just afraid of death. We know that if you expose people to triggers about their own mortality, they become cognitively rigid. They go into something very much like this parasitic processing, they get locked down. Right. Now there’s, there’s a couple things you can do. You can pursue immortality And of course, the religions of the ancient world and some versions of the modern world offer this. I have very little to say for this other than as a cognitive scientist, I think that is an utterly doomed strategy. The evidence that your mind and your consciousness are completely dependent and emergent from your brain is overwhelming. And one thing is indisputable, your brain dies. And when your brain dies, your consciousness your character, yourself, die with it. I know that’s even I suppose, antithetical to what many Buddhists believe but that’s, that’s irrelevant. So I think the strategy of pursuing immortality is not going to work. It makes a fundamental confusion. It confuses somebody something that’s phenomenologically in, like mysterious to you with making a conclusion. Look, I can’t experience my own death. I can’t imagine it. Because whenever I’m trying to imagine being dead, I’m still consciously aware.

And so death is like, oh, and therefore I conclude, well, there’s must be something about me. That’s right, immortal because it’s inconceivable that I can’t be at some level. But of course, that’s false. And that points to what the epicureans talk about. Right? They talk about, there’s another strategy instead of trying to achieve immortality. Can you radically accept your mortality? Because it’s indisputable that you’re going to die. Now, how do you do that? Well, first of all realized that you can’t possibly be anxious about your death and you say yes. I am okay. Well give the epicureans a chance. First of all, if what you mean by this your non existence, and you say, I just, I can’t conceive of my not exist. Well, okay, this is this is a standard move by Epicurus. But what about all of the world before you were born? Do you have trouble conceiving of that? No. Does it terrify you that you didn’t exist then? No. So your non existence isn’t itself terrifying. And you say, ah, but it’s it’s the loss. Well, the problem with that the applicants would say that’s equivocal. Do you mean reduction? Or you mean, do you mean the absence? And you mean, well, death is total loss, and then they say to you, but you can’t ever experienced total loss they famously said

The following where I am, that is not where death is. I am not. What that means is, if I’m aware that I’m losing, I’m still alive. And if I’ve lost everything, I’ve lost awareness, and I can’t be aware that I’ve lost anything. So that can’t be what it means. Okay? So it means partial loss. Ah, so what you’re actually afraid of is losing some of your agency. You’re afraid of some of the reduction in your capacities as you’re dying. But of course, you’re doing that all the time. So what is it you’re actually afraid of? Well, the Epicurean say you’re afraid of losing what’s good. Okay, well, what what is mean, here is where the epicureans they are sort of very, very modern. Right? They say, Well, good is ultimately, you know, something like pleasure, and they got associated with hedonism. And that’s not quite right. But they don’t mean pleasure in terms of bodily sensation. They mean pay attention to those things that actually give you the most meaning. Okay. Now what is it that really gives you meaning? Now the things that we are lot were most liable to lose, as we age or as we’re sick. We’re liable to lose our fame, we’re liable to lose our fortune. Right? We’re liable to lose our wealth. That’s scary. But then they say quite rightly. But those aren’t the things that give you the most meaning in life. What is it that gives you the most meaning of life? And here’s where the epicureans have a beautiful sort of beautiful answer and they pick it up from Socrates. The thing that gives you meaning is friendship. And they mean that very broadly. So they were unique in their community, they included women in our community, not primarily for sexual relations, but they considered that the ability to obtain meaningful relationships was crucial. And with those, and Okay, meaningful relationships, not just the relationships, but being able to exercise philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom and self transcendence.

And the point is that as long as you are, that is always available to you and that Any of the pain you’re suffering from the loss of any of the any of these things is ultimately manageable by you, you can learn to manage it. Now, whether or not you will ultimately agree with the epicureans, right? Do you see what they’re doing here? They’re refusing to accept, I’m afraid of death. They’re saying, wait, wait, wait, wait, are you? Do you really want your mortality? To say what you’re actually afraid of, is losing your agency which you’ve identified with these things. But that’s not actually where your ultimate happiness lies. That as long as you have cognitive agency, you can cultivate philosophical friendships. And Epicurus did this right to his very last moment, even though suffering Some horrible stomach illness. So he exemplified what he’s talking about such that when you die, it doesn’t matter to you. So his disciples practice they would, and Epicurious had other ways he tried to get us to not be anxious about the gods. Right, famously crafting some of the first arguments that are used by modern day atheists against, you know, being concerned about the gods. I don’t I wouldn’t say Epicurious was an atheist. He’s a non theist, he basically argues that the gods are irrelevant. And therefore, paying attention to them or being overly concerned with them. being anxious about them, and their nebulous threat is not something you should rationally do. So Epicurious, his disciples would practice internalizing, Epicurus They would write his sentences on their household walls on their household utensils, they would practice. They would form communities together, where they would reinforce all of these practices where you constantly train in being able to accept your mortality. Now, I think this is valuable to us. And I think one of the things that any wisdom tradition should do is give us a way of responding to our mortality. I would recommend that that project hasn’t stopped. I recommend Alex book the courage to be as a discussion about that from a more modern context. And as I said to you, we are not caught by the usual framing, right?

Either you believe in an afterlife or your life, your current life is meaningless. Instead, the epicureans say there’s an alternative strategy. There’s an alternative therapy for dealing with the anxiety. And that is by learning how not just learning beliefs, but learning how to live in the acceptance of your mortality. Now, while I think this is relevant, I don’t think that their diagnosis is sufficient. I do not think that the meaning crisis of the Hellenistic period was driven primarily or solely by a fear of mortality. Why? Because mortality has always been with us and always will be with us. I think they’re right, that periods of chaos and drama side exacerbate. We know this from mortality salience research, right. Things that are making us feel more vulnerable tend to make our mortality and our terror around it more salient to us. But I think there’s another school that gets a better understanding of what was going on in the Hellenistic period and gives a more comprehensive answer. And this is the stoic school. Now stoicism is very relevant because stoicism is a direct and explicit ancestor to some of our current forms of psychotherapy. The current forms of psychotherapy that are the most evidence based for being effective, the cognitive therapies like cognitive therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, rational emotive therapy, etc.

Directly come out of stoicism. You read Aaron Beck’s book for example, on cognitive therapy, he Repeatedly states this, and cites Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and others. So the way we are trying to deal with issues of anxiety and if you probably notice we have an anxiety, depression crisis in our culture is we’re very much putting into practice things that originated with the stoics. Not as much from the epicureans. So that means the stoics have a different diagnosis of the problem and a different prognosis for the answer. So what’s their issue? They also believe we’re suffering from a kind of anxiety a kind of suffering of a loss of agency and the distress around that because that’s Of course, what’s shared by all of these schools confronting the Hellenistic crisis, meaning crisis, the crisis of Dhamma sign, but they have a different interpretation of it. Now we have to do a bit of history there’s, there’s quite a bit more history that comes out of out directly out of Socrates and flows into stoicism. I want to go over this a little bit carefully with you. So we have Socrates and we know one of his greatest disciples is Plato, but he has another one and Tiffany’s. Plato wrote dialogues because he was trying to get us to emulate and eventually internalize Socratic and Linkous that question and answer process that Socrates made famous When in Tiffany’s was asked what he had learned from Socrates? He argued, he didn’t argue he just simply stated he didn’t make an argument. He just simply stated that he learned how to converse with himself. Now, that sounds like well, I talk to myself all day long. Okay, so that’s exactly the thing. This doesn’t mean, right, your internal does talking to yourself. It doesn’t really. And the problem with that is that talking to yourself, is often what goes seriously awry in anxiety and depression. This is what psycho psychologists and psychotherapists mean by rumination, when that talking to yourself gets caught up in those parasitic processing spirals and it just spins out of control and this needs to be means something else he means he learned how to do with himself what Socrates was able to do with him.

He really learned how to internalize Socrates. So although the epicureans, right, pattern themselves on Socrates there they come out of Socrates. Right. The stoicism is really something close to being a religion that’s trying to internalize Socrates. So that Socrates is basically and I don’t mean this disrespect, because the stoics certainly wouldn’t. Socrates is turned into a systematic set of psycho technologies that you internalize into your metacognition. So what became crucial for Plato, as we saw was argumentation But frantic sneeze. The actual confrontation with Socrates was more important. Both Plato and destinies are interested in the transformation that Socrates is affording. Plato sees this happening through argumentation. And destiny sees it as happening through confrontation. Because, and you can see how they’re both right. Because in Socratic Linkous Socrates comes up and he argues with you, but of course, he’s also confronting you. We talked about how he sort of slamming the axial revolution into your face. So anticipate is has a follower, Dr. genies and the attorneys epitomizes this this confrontation By looking at the kinds of confrontation, we can start to see what the followers are anticipating or doing. So dodge is basically does something analogous to provocative performance art.

He gets in your face in a way that tries to provoke you to realizations, those kinds of insights that will challenge you, he tries to basically create a pouria in you that shocked experience that you had when confronting Socrates that challenges you to radically transform your life. But instead of using argumentation to discussion, as Socrates did, and Plato picked up on, they were really trying to hone in on how to try to be as provocative as possible. Right, so famously, you know about one of these, it became a card in the Tarot and it became a album cover for lead zechlin. You have demand right with with the lamp walking wandering about the hermit with the lamp. Well, this is the origins he walked into the marketplace, carrying around a lamp and looking and looking and looking and looking. And everybody said, Well, what are you looking for? And then he just kept looking and looking. What are you looking for? What are you? What is it? What is it? And then he said, I’m looking for one honest man. And then everybody gets pissed off at him. Because they are so intrigued by all this looking and questing. And then when it comes something that right and they’re pissed off, because they know he’s right, because they’re in the marketplace and everybody’s lying and cheating and stealing. Right. But they don’t want to know that. They don’t want to pay attention to that. Right now. That sounds sort of Yeah, that’s kind of cool and creative. Yeah, but I imagine these does other things that you might not find.

To cool or courageous? Well, they’re courageous at least but they’re not you don’t find them cool. The attorneys also famously came into the center of the marketplace and masturbated in public. And most we’re all we’re all going like, ooh, ooh, right? How are these two things possibly related? Well, here’s how they’re related. Right? The group of people that start to take shape in this tradition are called the cynics. That’s not our modern meaning of the word. So I’m going to use a capital C. Because this just means, you know, being suspicious that everybody has an ulterior motive or a secret agenda. That’s not what is meant here. This means actually living like a dog. Because Diagones also famously lived outside of Athens in a barrel. So let me tell you one more stories, and then we’ll try to connect all of them. So Alexander the future Emperor of the world on his ascendance into godhood comes to visit our journeys. So you can imagine here’s the whole, like all of this entourage, and air and here comes Alexander to visit Diagones and he comes up to Diagones and he says, I can give you like half the world, what do you want? And all Diagones says is could you move a little to the left? You’re blocking my sunlight.

So why is he living in a barrel? Why is that that his answer to Alexander? Why does he look for one honest man, why does he masturbate and like what is going on? Well, the cynics had a particular understanding of the Hellenistic Thomas side. They had the idea that what causes us to suffer isn’t what we set up is what we set our heart on. It’s not just a particular that we set our heart on our life, and we’re afraid of losing it in death, we can set our heart on all kinds of things that ultimately will cause us to suffer.