Precursors of Humanism - Sceptics, Cynics Stoics, Epicureans

The Ancient Greek Sceptics did much more than question the claims being made around them by astrologers, oracles and those soothsayers who split open the bellies of the cattle to read the futures foretold in the entrails. Pyrrho, (c. 317-c.270 bce), a close ally of Alexander the Great and the founder of the first sceptical school, was primarily concerned with the limits of what we could ever be sure about with our five senses. Dreams seemed real, straight sticks bend in water. Certainty about anything seemed to be impossible to attain so it was necessary to renounce all claims made by anyone 'in the know'. This was not as revolutionary a doctrine as it first appeared. Socrates (409-399 bce) had shaken many people out of their 'certainties' and closely held beliefs in the absolute nature of Justice, God, The State, Love, etc.

In Plato's Euthyphro for example, Socrates listens to Euthyphro argue the case for executing criminals, especially his own father. Euthyphro argues that it is the right thing to do, because of an incident in Homer's epics, where Zeus has his father, Cronos, castrated for crimes against Zeus's grandfather, Uranus. If it's good enough for the Gods, it's goad enough for him, reasons Euthyphro. Socrates questions Euthyphro's simplistic, literal translation of Homer by asking if the Gods act in a certain way because they see that course of action .as pious, or if something is pious just because the Gods will it. Euthyphro is unable to find a reasonable answer, and goes on his way. (We are never told whether he still prosecutes his father or not).

It was this weakening of dogmatically held beliefs and ideas that led to Socrates' trial, and execution. People have always taken exception to the idea that their beliefs are based on a complete fallacy.

Pyrrho was not going to make the same mistake as Socrates. He argued that no one could know if their moral actions were justifiably right, so by that criterion, they were not likely to be proved wrong either. This meant that State laws could still be obeyed, and religious rituals could still be practised. Knowledge was regarded as impossible to attain. The Sceptics could make arbitrary choices to follow one set of beliefs or another, and still move up the social ladder. Quietude opened doors, while radical controversy closed them. While the rival school of the Cynics often renounced materialism and chose ascetic lifestyles, or became angry young men, the Sceptics carried on regardless. Pyrrho's students went on to become the very politicians and high-ranking priests whose dogmas they criticised. They didn't believe that this was the right way; such judgements require convictions. It was just as expedient to do one thing as to do another. No argument was really any better than its opposite. In this way, the Sceptics bypassed any criticism that they might be behaving somewhat hypocritically. No one could 'know' what a hypocrite really was. They were unstoppable.

Our contemporary sceptics have a healthy disregard for all kinds of occultism. Their ancestors had a rather different view. Faced, as we are today, with a tide ~f beliefs and first hand accounts of paranormal experiences, the sceptics of old would have been just as likely to say go ahead and believe in it all, or not, as you wish. It would all have been down to your own arbitrary choice of decision. Unless of course, those beliefs presented themselves as certainties rather than mere probabilities. The UFO spotter who saw only a light in the sky and couldn't be sure it wasn't a Martian saucer would be left to believe what he wished. The UFO spotter who stated categorically that he identified the light as E.T.'s taxicab and tried to convince others that they should believe in ET accordingly, would face extremely severe public condemnation.

The Sceptics were constantly in danger of becoming indifferent to the social needs of the people around them. They were inclined to be selfish and arrogant. They wore priestly garbs and sang the praises of gods who they openly admitted to having no belief in. Their actions became shallow and half hearted They adhered to customs and laws which They themselves doubted. Inevitably, they created resentment and anger among their critics. Thinking caused perplexion Why question reality? Just live with it in its surface appearences. The sceptics tried to humble the mind into silence. Religion and its court of priests, astrologers and soothsayers threatened to wake people to the recognition of underlying realities. The Sceptics set out to undermine the dogmatists who sang the praises of that which could not be known. Regrettably, the Sceptics became just as fanatical in their arguments against metaphysical certainty while still reaping its rewards. Cynics more openly denied everything, and sometimes declared even their own existence to be impossible. Cynicism held that happiness is an innate factor, uninfluenced by material wealth or political power in any way. Like ascetics, fakirs and hermits, Cynics led bizarre lives. Diogenes (c.404-323 bce) for example lived for several years in a wine barrel. When Alexander the Great saw him in it and asked what he could do for him, Diogenes replied cheerfully, "Stand to one side, you're blocking the Sun." Cynics took austerity to extremes in other ways too. Other people's suffering, and desires often went ignored. Their reluctance to provide education or promote their beliefs and ideas made their school unpopular and short lived. The word cynicism itself can now mean insincerity and indifference.

Issue t s

In contrast to Cynicism arose the school of Stoicism, teaching a holistic pantheistic belief that each of us is a part of a greater body. For Stoics the individual is a microcosm of society as a whole, society a reflection of the state, of the world, of the Universe, etc. Unlike Cynics, the Stoics embraced politics and education with a vengeance. They believed in predetermined fate, destiny and the inevitability of death. Early Stoics denounced slavery. It was Stoics like Marcus Auerelius (121-80 bce) who first promoted Greek philosophy in Rome. It was in Rome that Cicero ( 10643 bce) became a Stoic, a statesman and a poet of note. It was Cicero who first coined the expression 'Humanism', setting the individual human being as the focal point of all social and political action. Humanism was on its way, but Stoicism lost its revolutionary biting edge under Roman dictatorship. The early Stoic Humanists saw death as inevitable. Though concerned where possible to alleviate suffering, they refused to get excited or frightened about death and pain. Stoicism has become a word associated with calmness and keeping a stiff upper lip.

The Epicureans were a more exclusive, communal society, believing that the quest for happiness involved being with like-minded people. The Epicureans sought isolation from society as a whole. While the Stoics saw the need to endure, and defeat pain, the Epicureans dismissed death as of any concern. Theirs was a "eat, drink and be merry" outlook - but nothing in excess. Epicurus (c.341-270 bce) himself said, "As long as we live death is not here. And

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when it does come, we no longer exist." He added what he called the four medicinal herbs; "The gods are not to be feared. Death is nothing to worry about. Good is easy to attain. The fearful is easy to endure."

Sceptics never denied the existence of a real, material world surrounding themselves. Timon of Philus, one of Pyrrho's star pupils, argued that while he would agree that honey tasted sweet to his

palate; he would never say 'Honey is sweet'. He did not deny the existence of honey, merely the worth of value judgements about its effect on the taste buds. In many ways he anticipated the work of the British empiricist, David Hume. The Sceptics mainly questioned the powers of human perception in interpreting and assessing the world around us. Zeno of Elea (c.470 bce) doubted the very notion of motion between two given points. To walk five yards from A to B, you have first of all to reach half way. To get half way, you must at some point cover a quarter of the distance, and before that, you must have walked an eighth, of the distance, a sixteenth, and so on, ad infinitum. You would never cover even the slightest ground, as every move would have an infinite gulf between departure and arrival. This kind of thinking involves total, absolute scepticism.

To be the student of sceptical masters was extremely frustrating. They gave a lecture one day, and then followed it the next with one that totally refuted every claim made in the first. They built up beliefs, hopes and expectations, and then smashed them. The Cynics took asceticism to extremes, and failed to offer people a practical workable phi

philosophy for use in their everyday lives. Stoics were practical and resourceful, but their most active political figures became hardened, unemotive and fully absorbed in the art of statesmanship. Epicureans were communal idealists, and far too hedonistic. All of those groups arise from intense but reasoned dissatisfaction with religion and superstition. With the rise of Christianity such rational thinking was suppressed for centuries, throughout the Dark Ages, until the Renaissance Humanists again looked at Humanity as more important than God, paving the way for science and the age of Humanism in which we live.

Further Reading

Sophie's World (Jostien Gaarder) Phoenix House 1995

source of most quotations

The Hutchinson Dictionary of Ideas 1994

The Last Days of Socrates (Plato) Penguin 1988

A History of Western Philosophy (Bertrand Russell) Counterpoint 1976 The Concise Encyclopaedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers (ed. Urmson & Reed) Unwin Hyman 1960

Copyright. Arthur Chappell