A conceptual map of the Hellenistic schools of life philosophy
The Hellenistic period is one of the pivotal moments in the history of humanity, a “moment” that historians bracket with the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE) and the battle of Actium (31 BCE), where Octavian — the future first Roman emperor Augustus — beat the crap out of the joint forces of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. The period led, among many other things, to the development of a number of schools of practical philosophy and to what is sometimes referred to as Hellenization, i.e., the exportation of Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond (largely thanks to Roman army and roads).
Hellenism has had a significant personal influence on me since I was a kid when my adoptive grandfather, Tino, introduced me to Greek and Roman history and thought. That influence became life changing a number of years ago, when I embarked on a conscious search for a useful philosophy of life and quickly landed on Stoicism, one of the most important Hellenistic schools. More recently, I have started to expand my interest to other philosophies that flourished in the same period or shortly thereafter, and with which Stoicism came in contact and sometimes in conflict, especially the sort of Academic Skepticism espoused by Cicero.
In my discussions with a number of readers and friends I discovered that there is a significant amount of confusion about the differences and similarities among the various Hellenistic schools, and for good reason, given how many developed over time and how intricately interrelated with each other they were. This article is a brief guide to 11 such schools, with an emphasis on their different (or similar!) conceptions of what constitutes eudaimonia, the life worth living. As I hope you will see, the resulting Hellenistic conceptual map amounts to nothing less than an exploration of multiple viable ways to be human, and as such still today offers us much to think about in terms of how to live our own life.
Of course, similar maps could be drawn for interrelated eastern traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, as well as for other clusters of philosophical, religious, and mystical ways of life developed by human beings over the past several millennia. But I feel barely confident enough to write about Hellenism, so I…