Introduction to Ancient Greek Philosophy IV: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics and Beyond (in-person)

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Wed 14 Jun
  • Wednesday, 14 June 2023
  • 11:00am - 12:15pm
  • London Jesuit Centre



Course overview

The writings of Plato and Aristotle and of their later commentators survive in abundance, but from the end of the 4th Century BCE there were several other very significant schools of philosophy which flourished first in the Eastern Mediterranean and later throughout the Roman Empire.   Two of these, the Stoic and Epicurean schools, were widely influential for two hundred years before and after Christ, leaving a mark on late Jewish and early Christian writings.  Two strands of critical thought also had a lasting impact: the scepticism that developed in Plato’s academy and the more Buddhist-like Pyrrhonian scepticism, which seems to have influenced Epicurus.  Then in the third century of our era Plotinus’ critical revival of Plato, in dialogue with Aristotelian and Stoic themes became influential in shaping the base language of Christian theology, as Christianity became the religion of Empire - and orthodoxy took on political significance.   In late antiquity, Christian philosopher-scientists were among those who questioned some of the orthodoxies of Aristotelian physics.    We will sample writings from the different schools across a number of familiar themes, and trace some of their impact on later Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought.


Course outline

Week 1
Stoics: the dynamic word

Zeno, Cleanthes and Chrysippus are the first three leaders of the Stoic school of philosophy, which met in the covered walkway (Stoa) in Athens.  We shall explore some of their ideas about the nature of the universe, fate and human destiny.  We’ll also explore some of the ethical themes found in later Stoic writers like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

Week 2

Epicureans: the city without walls

Epicurus presents a Democritean universe of atoms and the void in which the gods are irrelevant to human life.  We shall explore his universe and his response to it: a practical philosophy that teaches people to cope with suffering and death through an intentional search for tranquillity.

Week 3 

Pyrrho: scepticism and the search for tranquillity

Epicurus was influenced by Pyrrho, who is reported to have travelled to India with Alexander and learnt wisdom from Indian sages.  Our major source for Pyrrhonian doctrines is the much later writer, the medical doctor Sextus Empiricus.   We shall explore some of the ways in which the tradition Pyrrho founded challenged philosophical creeds for the sake of peace of mind.

Week 4   

Plotinus: the overflowing One

Plotinus’ writings were gathered by his disciple, Porphyry, into six topic areas, each with nine discourses – the Enneads.  Sometimes Plotinus is trying to tie up the loose ends left in the arguments of Plato and Aristotle, and sometimes he is using them to develop a distinctive cosmology, in which the whole universe emanates from an ultimate One beyond being and knowing.  We shall explore some of his key texts that arguably hint at Christian and Jewish influence and foreshadow later Christian language of theology and spirituality.    

Week 5

Philosophical endings and new beginnings

This session will reflect on some of the innovative philosophical trajectories towards the end of Greco-Roman antiquity, and the reception of ancient philosophical debates in the newly established Islamic world of the Middle East.



London Jesuit Centre 114 Mount Street, London

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