Centre for Continuing Education

Philosophy Course: An Introduction to Epicurean and Stoic Philosophy

Philosophy. Study the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.

Epicureanism (or Hedonism) and Stoicism are ‘philosophies of life’, meaning that they are not only academic but are to be lived as a way of life.

In their own ways, both philosophies explore with the challenges of ordinary life: how to manage suffering; what to do with wealth or poverty; power and slavery. Both aim to provide a psychological fortress against bad times. The contemporary form of Hedonism is different to the ancient form (Epicurus' idea of a good time mightn’t be yours) but its aim is the same: to maximise pleasure, “the standard by which every good and right action is to be judged”. The Stoics are more popular now than ever as a form of philosophy so it might said be that we (at least in the first world) have many hedonistic pleasures and yet still remain unsatisfied.

During this course, we will study the stoic writing of Epictetus, the freed slave, and Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor. Reading Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius together makes the range of stoicism evident: Epictetus has a very different outlook, as a former slave, to the ruler of the Roman Empire. On the Epicureans we will study the collected works, including Lucretius and the criticisms by Cicero.

We will also study the stoic philosopher Seneca is one of the greatest writers and thinkers of all time. He is a delight to read and is as relevant today as ever, evident by the many new additions of his works. He also wrote plays and had an immense influence on the Renaissance model of dramatic arts and style.

Aims

The aims of this course are to:

  • provide an overview of the origins and complexities of Epicureanism and Stoicism
  • demonstrate the connections and differences between these Hellenistic philosophies on ethics and politics
  • demonstrate the importance of the role played by Epicureanism and Stoicism in our understanding of human nature and the mind
  • demonstrate the substantial contribution made by Epicureanism and Stoicism to later philosophy and drama.

Outcomes

By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • identify the main events in the history of Epicureanism and Stoicism
  • discuss important concepts in Epicureanism and Stoicism
  • relate Epicureanism and Stoicism to personal choices and/or actions
  • understand your own desires and motivations better
  • relate Epicureanism and Stoicism to contemporary issues in ethics and politics.

Content

Introduction to Epicureanism

Epicureanism’s beginnings and the “Garden of Pleasure”. The community that Epicurus envisages is one of like-minded individuals studying and working together. Extraordinary for the time, Epicurus included women on an equal footing with men. Key to the Hedonist idea of pleasure is achieving enduring pleasure, it is working out by understanding the structure of desire and those things which are worth desiring and those which are not.

Freedom from fear

The Hedonists think that humans inflict many fears on themselves which are not necessary; the fear of death being one of them.

Friendship and justice

Friendship is one of the best pleasures available for the Hedonists. Justice is a “pledge of mutual advantage”. Epicurus is in fact an Anarchist in the philosophical sense.

Introduction to Stoicism

We will study the history of Stoicism from its Greek beginnings, through Christianity and the Renaissance to our own day.

Stoic concepts

The primary aim of stoicism is to achieve and maintain inner tranquillity. The Stoics do not always agree on the best way of achieving this aim and we will study their various approaches.

Seneca: Life and death

Seneca was a high-level statesman and advisor to Nero, a position which he held for eight years, until he was accused of conspiracy and ordered to self-execute (echoes of Socrates). His ‘stoic’ death became legendary. Tacitus wrote a romanticised account of his “fortitude in the face of death”, is celebrated in many Classical paintings and poems.

Seneca’s philosophy

Seneca’s Essays and Letters are a rich and complex source of wise council, he was certainly the master of the maxim: “Hang onto your youthful enthusiasms, you will be able to use them better when you're older”.

Seneca the plays

Seneca wrote eight plays. His plays Thyestes, Phaeda and Medea influenced Shakespeare and are still successfully staged today. A reoccurring stoic theme in these tragedies is the uncontrolled passions which generate madness, ruination and self-destruction.

Epictetus

Originally a slave belonging to the Emperor Nero, Epictetus is famous for saying that no one is morally obliged to obey the “stamp on the coin” (emperor’s faces were stamped on coins). We all have a duty to each other because we are equal citizens of the world, and must obey the law, but only when the law is just.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius is celebrated for the many reforms he made to the legal system of Rome, clearing away arbitrary harshness and anomalies in the civic law. He ruled in what has been called the Golden Age of Rome. He also demanded absolute obedience; the interest for us is that he uses stoic philosophy as a justification for his absolute power.

Intended audience

Anyone with a general interest in philosophies of Epicureanism (or Hedonism) and Stoicism.

Delivery style

Lecture/seminar.

Materials

Handouts are provided in class.

Features

  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Free, expert advice
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion