Ancient Philosophical schools

The following list is intended to be neither exhaustive nor comprehensive, but it’ll give the reader a brief overview of the major philosophical players in the Graeco-Roman world and the basic differences between them. Before we begin, it has to be pointed out that the ancients recognised no real difference between philosophy and what we’d nowadays call ‘natural science’:


Generally speaking, the followers of the teachings and system of the Akademia, situated just outside ancient Athens and founded by Plato around 380 BC. The school was to have three major iterations; the Old, Middle, and New, before being destroyed around 84 BC. The jury’s still out about exactly what and how Plato and his successors taught, but the best guesses are standard moral philosophical topics examined through the use of dialectics – the process of arriving at the nub of a subject through the reasoned conversation between two or more people who start by holding different views – supplemented by scientific experimentation..


This crowd have been called ‘Stoics without shirts’. They believed in achieving a fortress-like mind capable of handling everything life could throw at it with equanimity. To help them achieve that goal, Cynics believed in ridding themselves of material possessions and earthly ambition. As such, Cynics didn’t meddle in political affairs, a policy that generally kept them safe from governmental backlash against philosophical interference. Cynics could be found in both Athens and Rome, often hanging out semi-naked on street corners, living in rain barrels and ranting and raving at anybody who would listen. The name Cynic comes from an Ancient Greek word meaning ‘dog-like’, an allusion to their barking rants.


One of my favourites, this one. Having looked at the teachings of the other schools, the Cyrenaics decided that it was impossible to ever discover the real ‘truth’ about anything, so you’d best get on and have a damn good time. To them, actual real-time pleasure was better than something that may or may not happen in  the future, so it was pretty much a live-for-the-moment philosophy. That’s not to say they were free-for-all, libertine anarchists; on the contrary, Cyrenaics recognised the value of social obligation and saw the value in doing good things for others – probably because it made them feel all warm and tingly inside. Unfortunately, as a school, they didn’t last very long. Shame.


Named for the eponymous Epicurus, this school was a kind of successor to the Cyrenaics. Despite modern preconceptions, Epicurus did not advocate unbridled pleasure in all things. He taught that the mind had to be trained to the state that physical pain and mental fear could be overcome with ease. Freedom from those two things, he said, constituted the highest form of pleasure. Actual bodily pleasure – hedonism in other words – should be taken in moderation, taking the natural, modest needs of the physical body as a yardstick. Epicureans didn’t really believe in mixing philosophy with politics, their credo being that they should only get involved in an absolutely dire emergency. Strangely enough – in my opinion, anyway – Epicureanism took quite a hold in ancient Rome, rising to become, after Stoicism, the second most popular philosophical school there. The problem was that the Romans seem to have heard only the ‘pleasure’ bit of Epicurus’ teachings with none of the ‘but do it in moderation’ stuff that went with it. Perhaps they were all closet Cyrenaics.


This school was founded around 335 BC by Aristotle. It relied heavily on empiric processes; that is, observation, classification, and cataloging detail. As Aristotle had been a follower of the Platonic model, it’s hardly surprising that his school was a mixture of moral philosophy and scientific experimentation, which Aristotle took to a whole new level. On the moral philosophy level, one of the major points of difference between the Peripatetics and other schools, was that Aristotle and his followers believed that passions – or emotions – and especially anger, could be controlled by a rational mind. Now, considering that Aristotle had been the erstwhile tutor of Alexander the Great, whom the Romans considered to be the very epitome of insane, butchering rage run amok, this was a pretty big call, and one that the Romans – especially the Roman Stoics – jumped all over. In their opinion, if you got angry, you kissed rationality goodbye. So, that fundamental doctrinal difference, coupled with the fact that the Peripatetic writing style was, by its scientifically biased nature, very dry and finicky, meant that the school did not appeal to the Romans at all and doesn’t seem to have taken root in the Eternal City.


A fascinating lot, these, and another one I quite like. Pythagoreanism is the earliest established of the schools mentioned on this page (founded in the 500s BC by the enigmatic Pythagoras). Nobody really knows exactly what Pythagoreanism taught as the originals are pretty much all lost, but some of its tenets influenced schools that came after. It would appear that the school felt that the world could be explained in terms of numbers (the link between music and mathematics is famously attributed to Pythagoras). To my way of thinking, Pythagoreanism seems to have been more like a sect – as we’d understand the term today – than a loose collective of like-minded thinkers as it made rigorous demands on the way its adherents developed their intellects, dressed, and even ate. Pythagoreans subscribed to a form of über-vegetarianism, being forbidden to eat even legumes or beans; Wretch, utter wretch; keep your hands from beans goes one surviving fragment from the great man himself. I’d love to know what the rest of it said. The Pythagoreans get a mention on this page because some of their teachings formed the foundation for the first truly home-grown Roman school of philosophy, that of the Sextii, founded in Rome around 50 BC.


By far the most important of the ancient philosophical schools as far as the Romans were concerned. Founded as far back as 300 BC by Zeno of Citium, this school found a deep resonance with the Roman psyche. It was a ‘take it on the chin’ philosophy. Stoics believed that the universe unfolds in a predetermined way that is fixed and inexorable. Whatever’s going to happen, will; simple as that, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Even their version of a God (Nature, Fate, call it what you will – they certainly did) was beyond the power of humans to entreat. In other words, your prayers are useless. Because life was going to bless you or shaft you – or both – often on a regular but unpredictable basis, your best bet was to train your mind to accept it all with indifference and without flinching, and simply get on with life. The Stoic hero was one who could carry off this supreme performance of genuine sang froid with aplomb. As far as passions – emotions – were concerned, the Stoics believed they needed to be repressed. The Rational mind – which was needed if you were to shrug off life’s extremes – couldn’t operate when there were passions running around wild within it. Passions, they felt, were uncontrollable once let out of their cage, and at those times it was they, and not the rational mind, that drove the action. That’s the main reason the Roman  Stoics thought of Aristotle and the Peripatetics as also-rans. Well, that and the fact the Peripatetics preferred dry old droning on about natural phenomena to the Stoics’ banging, fist-thumping hortatory rhetoric. All of this was right up the Romans’ street. What was more, Stoicism also advocated active involvement in politics. It saw the state as a manifestation of the Natural Law of things which, as such, should be guided along the path of moderation and practised to the benefit of all. All very well and good you may say; and for a time it was. During the Late Roman Republic and very Early Empire just about every Roman senator could call himself a Stoic (how strictly they practised the doctrine is another matter entirely), to the extent that the tenets of Stoicism became virtually indistinguishable from the good old Roman mores maiorum or customs of the ancestors, the take-it-on-the-chin, I’m-so-holier-than-thou, come-and-have-a-go-if-you-think-you’re-hard-enough mentality of ancient Roman heroes and heroines (many of whom were probably totally mythical). But then along came the more unstable emperors, culminating in Nero, and he eventually had quite enough of boring old Stoic fun-killers meddling in his Roman Disneyland. It was time for the Stoics to go under cover.

My mate Dave K's Uncle's Philosophy

If you’ve read this far down the page, I thank you for your perseverance, so here’s a little gem my mate Dave K confided to me. He said it was imparted to him by his uncle one very drunken evening. It is, of course, not a pearl of wisdom from the ancient world, but, in my opinion, it can be applied to all ages. Dave K’s uncle’s advice, when asked by his nephew, Dave K himself, what his one maxim for a good life would be, answered:


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The podcast series chronicles the life of Seneca. Each podcast is between around 15 – 25 minutes long, and is designed to convey what little is known about the man from ancient sources (including his own).

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