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Ancient Philosophy and Everyday Life by Trevor Curnow

Ralph Blumenau goes to ancient Greece with Trevor Curnow.

This slim volume is an excellent and clearly written account of the four great Hellenistic schools beginning in the fifth century BC: the Cynics, the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Sceptics. Dr Curnow devotes a chapter to each, subdividing each one into the history of the school, its teaching, and its effect on the way people lived, and on their attitudes to diet and health, work, recreation, personal relationships and death. He also relates the teachings to our own world, pointing out where they are still relevant and also where we might regard them as rather chilly.

I am not sure why Dr Curnow treats the schools in the particular order he does. Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, was born in 335 BC, after the founders of Cynicism (Antisthenes, 444 BC), Epicureanism (Aristippus, 435 BC) and Scepticism (Pyrrho, 365 BC); so perhaps Stoicism should have come last. More importantly, Stoicism had a major carry-over from Ancient Greece to Ancient Rome. Here, during the Republic and even at times during the Empire (with Seneca and Marcus Aurelius), Stoicism was the philosophy of the Establishment. The other three schools were never Establishment philosophies. Indeed, there is the notion (which Curnow does not fully accept, p.86) that the appeal of the three earlier schools, with their emphasis on the individual rather than the community, arose when individuals could no longer find the meaning of their lives in citizenship of the poleis [Greek city-states], which were crumbling and on the way to being swallowed up in vast empires. So the Cynics and the Epicureans turned their backs on society, and the Sceptics felt no duties towards it. If in practice they conformed to its demands, it was for the sake of tranquillity, and not out of a sense of citizenship. The later Stoics, however, did recover a sense of citizenship, in a wider community than the poleis. Curnow touches on this in just one short paragraph (on p.45).

But these are my only criticisms of the book. Curnow brings out very well the most important and most enduring feature of all four schools: that although they had something (less enduring) to say about the nature of the world, about logic and about epistemology, their primary object was to teach a certain way of living. The common ultimate aim of the life-styles they taught was the achievement of tranquillity (ataraxia) and freeing themselves from the passions (apatheia).

This may seem to some people a somewhat tepid aim, especially if they wrongly equate apathy with listlessness and lack of effort: true apatheia (‘passionlessness’) was something to be striven for. Even then it will certainly not appeal to Romantics who glory in the passions. But there are many people today who are not of a Romantic temperament, and who will find one or other of the schools still relevant and appealing to them across the centuries – that is, if, having read this book, they understand what they really meant: the enemies of the first three schools have saddled the words ‘cynic’ and ‘epicurean’ (and to some extent the word ‘sceptic’ also) with negative connotations. Even given that there was perhaps a slipping of standards over time, their early exponents scarcely deserve this abuse. Only the word ‘stoic’ today implies unqualified approval.

As to how to attain tranquillity and passionlessness, the four schools had very different prescriptions. The Cynics trained themselves to do with the minimum of material goods: “I do not possess in order not to be possessed” Antisthenes said. The Epicureans were not as austere as that. They identified mild pleasure with tranquillity, but the pursuit of intense pleasure, of very great wealth or fame, is best avoided because it is likely to enslave you, to bring you into conflict with others, and to have other disturbing side-effects. The Sceptics claimed that accepting that there are no truths which cannot be challenged liberates you from the worry of defending them from challenge. (In fact, it is much more common for people to find tranquillity in the certainty of their beliefs and in not engaging seriously in examining alternatives.) The Stoics trained themselves not to be upset by whatever Fate has in store for them.

The Stoics were very much engaged with society. The Cynics claimed to find tranquillity in not engaging with others (except to lecture them on their false values); the Epicureans highly valued the companionship of select circles of friends, though they kept society at a distance and did not go around preaching to it. The Sceptics, on the other hand, were inclined to lecture. Curnow does not tell us the story of Athenian Sceptic Carneades, whose lectures in Rome so incensed Cato the Censor that he had him sent home as a danger to public morals. That of course would remind us of the charges brought against Socrates; and indeed all the schools claimed Socrates as one of their own: the Cynics because of his austerity; the Sceptics because of his dialectical skills; the Epicureans and the Stoics because of the way he had confronted death.

Oscar Wilde once defined a cynic as “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” The value of this little book is considerable. Its price, however, is also distinctly steep, and one must hope for a paperback edition soon.

© Ralph Blumenau 2008

Ralph Blumenau teaches Philosophy at the University of the Third Age in London and is the author of Philosophy and Living, Imprint Academic 2002, 630 pp, £24.95.

• Trevor Curnow, Ancient Philosophy and Everyday Life, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006, 93 pp. £24.99 (hbk), ISBN 1-84718-042-6.

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