Four Ancient Truths to Help You Lead a Modern Life
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- You may well know someone — you, perhaps? — who is stoic, epicurean, skeptical or cynical. That’s because these four adjectives represent philosophical and psychological shortcuts for coping with a confusing, frustrating and even infuriating world, just as they did when they came into use more than two millennia ago. But their meaning has been corrupted, and therein lies a tale.
The terms first bubbled up at a time that was, in a psychological sense, remarkably similar to our own. This was the so-called Hellenistic or “Greek-like” period, which lasted about three centuries, from Alexander the Great, who died in 323 BC, to the Roman Emperor Augustus.
It was a time of rapid change, artistic experimentation and cosmopolitan openness; but also of exhaustion, decadence and pessimism. It was a jaded age when democracy seemed in retreat and empires on the advance. Personal participation in public life appeared either pointless and dangerous or, on the contrary, more imperative than ever.
It was also a time when people from the Greek world to Judea and India — there were plenty of contacts among them — began asking themselves the same questions we have today: How, given this mess all around me, should I act? Where do I find pleasure? How do I avoid pain? What ultimately matters?
The main hive of inquiry was Athens. It had lost a war against Sparta and another against Philip II of Macedon, and was no longer as independent, democratic or heroic as it had been a century earlier. Its three greatest philosophers — Socrates, Plato and Aristotle — were gone. Their legacies loomed large, but a new generation of thinkers was ready to move on.
They included colorful characters such as Pyrrho, who accompanied Alexander on his campaign to India. There, he encountered the gymnosophists — “naked wise men” in Greek, or what we now know as Yogis. They might also have been early Buddhists, whose sage, Siddhartha Gautama, had died perhaps just a century before.
Influenced by everyone from Socrates to these Indians, Pyrrho realized that we really can’t ever know anything for sure at all. Far from despairing over that insight, he felt that it offered the only way out of misery. It’s surely better to withhold judgment than to fall for the latest drivel. Just think of today’s conspiracy theories.
So Pyrrho and his followers actively savored the ironies and contradictions that come from fake “knowledge.” As Socrates and the Yogis had done, and as Zen Buddhists would later do as far afield as Japan, Pyrrhonists came up with paradoxes on purpose, to snap us out of our mental fog — often humorously — and ease us to serenity and tranquility. In this way they became skeptikoi, people who were forever looking for, but never settling on, truth.
If this early skepticism was more of an attitude than a dogma, so was cynicism, which developed at the same time. My favorite proponent of it was another naked wise man, Diogenes.
Like the Yogis of India, Diogenes yearned to be free from material worries and the complexities and vanities of social convention. So he stripped — literally — down to the simplest life possible. He lived scantily clad in a barrel, defecated in public, and generally behaved as spontaneously as the dogs around him. In that sense, he became kynikos — dog-like — or cynical. You could picture him today as a radical hippie, ascetic or degrowther.
Diogenes also cut up the other mental straitjackets humans enjoy strapping themselves into. Nationality, for instance. Dogs are neither Athenian nor American or Chinese, and neither was Diogenes. I’m a “citizen of the world,” a cosmopolites, he told anybody who asked. Whence our cosmopolitanism.
The story goes that Alexander once came to see the revered sage. I’ll grant you any wish, the great conqueror offered the dog man lazing beside his barrel. Thank you, Diogenes replied; in that case, please step aside and out of my sunlight. “If I were not Alexander, I would wish to be Diogenes,” the King of Macedon and Persia, Pharaoh of Egypt and Lord of Asia later reflected.
Around a few corners, a man named Epicurus largely kept to himself while tending his garden. He believed that all of nature, including us, is made of indestructible atoms, a hunch science has confirmed. It followed that there is no afterlife for us as souls, only for those atoms, which will reassemble in some other form. How then, should we deal with all this suffering while our atoms are in their present arrangement?
By reducing pain, of course, and maximizing pleasure. Careful! I know what you’re thinking. But Epicurus defined pleasure and pain largely as Buddhists do. If you gorge on food and booze or overindulge your lust, you’ll soon have bigger problems and are really preparing your own future suffering. So moderation, and indeed abstention, is the key. Epicurean pleasure is having good conversation with your friends in your garden, with no more than some barley cakes and water.
For Epicurus as for Pyrrho, Diogenes or Buddhists, the real goal — the highest pleasure — was therefore not hedonism but rather tranquility, equanimity and peace of mind. But this also implied, above all for the Epicureans, a withdrawal from the world to an inner and private realm.
A man named Zeno reacted against that escapism. Like the others, he wanted to transcend material culture, keep things simple and stay serene. But to Zeno that meant not withdrawal but engagement, not seclusion but active participation. Zeno thought the key was virtue, and then maintaining it while doing one’s duty — marrying, volunteering, enlisting, running for high office and so on.
Since that kind of participation — politics, basically — will inevitably get you in trouble, Zeno added that the way to maintain virtue and cope with the consequences was self-discipline, of body as of mind. The equanimity he preached also had an analog in Eastern philosophy, as found in the Bhagavad Gita’s warrior ethic of Arjuna, for example. And because Zeno developed these thoughts in the market of Athens while pacing back and forth with friends through a stoa — a columned portico — his philosophy became known as stoicism.
There’s an unmistakable zeitgeist running through these four Hellenistic philosophies and their Asian analogs. The tone is individualistic, worldly-wise and weary, but not dejected. It’s the same attitude that inspired the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, written at the same time in Judea by an author who knows that “there is nothing new under the sun,” that all is ultimately in vain, and yet that the way to live is, therefore, to do good, help others, and enjoy life. Echoing Epicurus, Ecclesiastes even recommends drinking beer with your friends.
But the next two millennia did these philosophies gross injustice. It started on a good note during the Roman empire, when Hellenistic ideas found their greatest expression in men like Lucretius, Cicero and Seneca. But from then on, it was all downhill right into our own time. It’s as if we’d always had Twitter and Facebook, and their trolls took those subtle ideas and dragged them through the mud.
In modern usage, skeptics nowadays have a whiff of naysaying curmudgeons. Stoics might still sound brave but also callous, uncaring, passive or numb. Cynics are usually grumpy people, like journalists, who assume negative motives everywhere and all the time. Epicures have become wine snobs at best, or else hedonistic patrons of seedy wellness spas with names like, well, Epicure.
The ancients deserve better, because they still have so much to tell us. Viewed through our lens, Pyrrho, Diogenes, Epicurus and Zeno were really avatars of Existentialism, Naturism, New-Ageism and just about every other modern -ism we think we’ve just discovered. In essence, they anticipated “positive psychology,” the study of human flourishing as popularized more recently by authors like Martin Seligman.
These old Greeks can comfort us because they struggled with the same hard questions we’re still asking: No matter how bad it gets out there, what makes life worth living? What makes us thrive as human beings? And by the way, what should I do now?
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.