The Forum of Caesar. In the foreground the temple of Venus Genetrix
The Forum of Caesar. In the foreground the temple of Venus Genetrix


In the Hellenistic period a spiritual historical process takes place, whose consequences are felt to this day, in our current conception of Philosophy. It is the evolution of it until it becomes an independent special science.

In the pre-Socratic time the philosopher was everything: scientific, doctor, technician, politician and along with all this, “the wise”. In the Hellenistic period the particular sciences are dismembered, as such, with a much more marked independence. Special research centres arise in which they are grown: Alexandria, Antioch, Pergamum, Rhodes. It is true that Philosophy now adheres to the great questions that were already consecrated as authentic philosophical problems by Plato and Aristotle, in the field of Logic, Ethics and Metaphysics.

But with this we also have, in return, the fact that philosophical problems acquire a human depth and that Philosophy is becoming a science of the “conception of the world”. It seizes man as such, the man who, at this time agitated and insecure by the wars of Alexander and the Diadochi (his generals and children), seeks in the inner man the salvation and happiness that external circumstances of the life cannot give him. That is why Ethics predominates in this period, which also includes the mission once entrusted to the religious myth, whose social significance progressively crumbles until it is diluted in the rationalism of a theoretical thought. Stoics and Epicureans offer a spiritual guidance of the soul and penetrate due to this with their influence in broad sectors of the people.


With the entry of the Empire, times become even more turbulent, men feel internally more insecure and anxious. At the extreme point of this uneasiness of the times, the figure of Christ suddenly appears on the scene of the dejected world, who says of himself that he is the light of the world, the resurrection and life.

The nascent Christianity enters fully into the scene, and philosophy gradually fades from its hands the direction of the spirits. Throughout the Roman Empire the old philosophical schools continue their life. But this life languishes day by day with unequivocal signs of decline.

There are still heroic attempts to awaken and revive the spirit of the old culture. Neoplatonism is a magnificent expression of this, but a sustained and progressive evolution is lacking.

The march of Christianity is certainly not a march of conquest and destruction, but rather a march after the truth and therefore does not come to extirpate Greek philosophy, but more exactly to absorb it. The eternal truths and values enlightened by the old philosophy are assimilated by the new thought.

THE STOA. Stoicism

It is again in Athens where this new branch of philosophical thought is developed, and the meeting place will also name the school. We divide their philosophers into the three groups of Early, Middle and Late Stoa.

Zeno of Citium
Zeno of Citium
Bronze of Chrysippus of Soli. Maximum figure of the ancient Stoic School
Bronze of Chrysippus of Soli. Maximum figure of the ancient Stoic School


The founder is Zeno of Citium, Cyprus, who creates a school around 300 BC. He was a disciple of Crates, Stilpo and Xenocrates. However, he has been influenced by Crates (Cynicism) over any other current, and this will set the tone for the whole Stoa. We stumble upon the cynical influence in his theory of knowledge, in his metaphysics and in his ethics. His successor was Cleanthes of Assos, a sober man, firm of will, moral integrity and religiosity. From him we retain the first of the Hymns to Zeus, of deep religious sense, very significant to fix the spiritual appearance of the Stoa.


Its two main representatives are Panaetius and Posidonius. Panaetius spent long periods in Rome and was connected there with the circles of Scipio Africanus. It is from then on philosophy begins to be in Rome a requirement of the superior culture. It was otherwise the form of philosophy that came as cut by the pattern of the Roman spirit. Thus Cicero could explore extensively the writings of Panaetius on acting and omitting, on the stillness of mind and on providence, and more particularly on the duties.


Three characters stand out: Seneca, master of Nero, whose mandate took his own life in 65 AD. Particularly characteristic are his writings on the questions of nature (Naturales Quaestiones), the treatises on clemency, on the benefits, on anger, as well as 20 books of moral letters to Lucilius, in which he paints a rather pessimistic picture of the customs and vices of his time. Epictetus, slave of Hierapolis, who lived as a freedman in Rome and from which proceeds the “Enchiridion”. And Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher emperor. From him we preserve the “Soliloquies”, aphorisms and diary notes, taken many times on the battlefield, and are typical of stoicism in general.


What is Philosophy for the Stoics? They define it this way: it is the science of divine and human things. They divide it into Logic, Physics and Ethics.


Stoic logic is not only a purely formal logic, but at the same time a material science, that is, it also deals with the problems included in what we now call Theory of Knowledge or Criteriology.

Basis of knowledge

Sensism: The first is the origin of our knowledge. Here the Stoics think sensistically, and in it a point of affinity with the Cynics is discovered. The soul is not a plaque in which there is something already written “a priori”, but entirely as a clean board. It has to be filled with the contents that sensitive perception offers. What enters the spirit are representations. It transforms the representations, elaborating them and grouping them: but what ultimately retains and possesses does not go beyond being sensitive representations.

Image-copy theory: The function of representation and knowledge consists of certain copying and representing. It is based on a fundamental duality between subject and object and it is thought that the object of knowledge is something that can be transferred in image, leaving one printed as an exact copy of it in the soul. The representation or fantasy is that which is printed, recorded and sealed from the existing object as existing, as it would not happen with a nonexistent object. This is not only a naive realism, but also shows to what extent in this theory of the cognitive process, the knowledge of the corporeal external world plays a decisive role, a fact explained by the universal materialism of the Stoa.

The criterion of the truth: If  knowledge is a certain copy or image, there is naturally an interest in looking for a point of support for the truth of that reproductive copy, a criterion of the truth. Because it is clear that we can deceive ourselves in our representations. Where to find the guarantee that the copy is like the model, and that the representations are adequate as the Stoics say? Such a criterion is put in the “katalepsis“, that is, in that quality of our representations, to which we cannot resist.

Elements of thought

The elements of formal thinking are, in the Stoics, the same as in Aristotle: judgment, concept and reason.

Judgment: It means a position of the subject in front of something. It takes place by assenting a representation. The assent testifies the persuasion that something is really as I represent it. Certainly, the assent is what makes the judgment really happen, but the decision on the true or false is not based on the will that gives the assent, but in the diversity of the same content of representation itself. If it agrees with reality, the judgment is true, and false otherwise.

Concept: The judgment is made up of concepts. Here also goes the Stoa with Aristotle, but sometimes completes it with certain touches of greater precision. The concept is looked at in Aristotle from the language, from the word. Universal concepts mean the same transformed representations in the Stoa.

Reason: With the classification of possible, conditional statements, of the “if …” form, from the point of view of the true and false, we are given the formulas that, filling them with variable contents, allow us, without further ado, characterize in advance an affirmation as true or false. It is a formalistic aspect that cannot fail bringing modern logic to thinking.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius
Emperor Marcus Aurelius


Stoic physics deals with the great metaphysical questions. Two features are characteristic: materialism and pantheism.

Materialism: It is uncovered when the Stoic gives us the sense of being. After knowing its epistemological theory imbued with sensism, it will not surprise us that to the question about the essence of being, it does not give as an answer that reality is as much as corporeality. Being is also strength, energy. The force for the Stoics is that living force that occurs where there is breath, heat and fire; where life is not extinguished as in dead bodies, but possesses its characteristic tension, dynamic vigour. Therefore everything is matter and everything is also vital force.

Pantheism: We find it to the heat in the last depths and last foundation of being. The Stoic arises the problem of the ultimate foundation of being, but instinctively refuses to transcend this very being by seeking such a foundation. The foundation of the world is in itself. The world is eternal, interminable and so infinite, that it is enough to explain itself. The reason of the world and the providence involved in this process are certainly not the ideas and will of a personal, free spirit, but only the internal order of formation and movement that beats in the very matter. Matter is the last. The Stoa remains in a materialism.

Stoic religiosity

Stoic religiosity is an authentic feeling, warm and deep, as we can trace without any doubt about the Stoic anthems to Zeus that have been preserved for us. The numerous personal terms that in these hymns are applied to the divinity and come mainly from Homer’s mythology, are nevertheless not more than metaphors, and cannot remove us the conviction that the religious sentiment of the Stoic is a feeling at the level of the natural, because his god does not go beyond being the All.


Ethics is what has historically made the Stoa more famous. Its philosophy acquired specifically, thanks to Ethics, a tone of cosmovisional power, whose effectiveness was felt in extension and depth. But the Stoic Ethics presupposes a series of ideas about the soul life of man that go beyond the simple framework of a psychology, to constitute the anthropological-dogmatic basis of Stoic Morality.

Man’s soul life

Man is not only body; he also has a soul. But the word soul can have several meanings. Soul can be understood as that which gives man self-movement and with it life. The soul can also be understood as one of the members of the tripartition body-soul-reason, which corresponds to the Platonic-Aristotelian distinction of vegetative, sensitive and rational soul powers. It can also mean soul “the driving part of the soul”, the reason. And finally the term soul can be a complex name to designate all these functions in their totality and in their complex interaction. But in any case the soul is “pneuma” and, as such, it must be considered as an aggregation of fire and air. Sometimes it is divided into parts, sometimes it is conceived as a unit. On the one hand it is essentially different from the body, on the other it is the principle of the life of the body and, therefore, in living unity with it.

The core point of Stoic anthropology is the doctrine about instincts. The natural point or instinct belongs in itself to the sensitive soul. But it is together influenced by body, sensitivity and reason. From the body, through sensitive impressions, man receives representations that, automatically and spontaneously, unleash the instinctive movements.

The previous philosophy, whose conception of man exploit the Stoics, included in this context the question of the immortality of the soul. At least the rational part of the soul always appeared as something divine and eternal.

An indefinable  breath of tired resignation runs through the pages of Marcus Aurelius’s Soliloquies. His sense of duty is undoubtedly elevated and noble, his perseverance may seem heroic, but the whole is offered as a horizon closed to hope.

Stoic ethics is based on this fundamental principle: good consists in living according to nature. This can be understood in two ways, because in two ways the word nature can be said: individual and cosmic. If we look at the individual nature, we are in the same starting point of the Cynics.

But it must be kept in mind that the highest element of nature, both human and cosmic, is the reason. To live according to reason is to triumph over passions, to dominate them to achieve imperturbability (apathy) and to become lord of oneself (autarky).

Such is the stoic sage. Nothing dominates him. Nothing disturbs him. He does not ask for what he wants to happen. He accommodates events and wants what happens.


The Epicureans are the hereditary enemies of the Stoics. The controversies between the two camps had no end. The founder of the school is Epicurus of Samos. He was a disciple of Nausiphanes. The atomistic ascendancy is characteristic of this whole school that Epicurus directed in his gardens in Athens.

Due to these gardens, the epicureans were given the nickname of “those of the Garden”. The figure of the founder of the school constitutes the soul of the group even more than the method or the dogmatics cultivated there. Epicurus was a fine, noble and attractive personality. His disinterest, his gentleness of treatment, his kindness and his high concept of friendship were held in high esteem. His maxims were respected as dogmas. Of his writings, which are up to 300, only few fragments have reached us.

The Philosophy of Epicureanism is also divided into Logic, Physics and Ethics, and Ethics is also the apex and key of the entire system.


Logic is also called Canonical, because it gives the measure (canon=rule) of the right knowledge. But we are now very far from that valuation of knowledge by the very knowledge that we had in Aristotle. Knowing and learning will now be by and for life. They are conceived entirely according to utility.

The Epicureans will define Philosophy as an activity of the soul whose knowledge has to bring us happiness. Compared to them, the Stoics, men of reality, are still excessively theoretical.

But not only in its purpose, also in its nature knowledge is reduced. According to the Epicureans, all knowing is sensitive perception, and nothing else. And this feeling and knowledge take place when some little images are released from the objects that slip through our sensory organs. This is well understood primarily from the visual sensation, but it is the same in the other senses. Epicureanism is sensism and is materialism, as was its model, the Atomism of Democritus.

Criterion of truth

If one speaks of true and false representations, the Epicureans naturally have to set a criterion that assures them of the authenticity and truth of their knowledge. Sensitive perceptions are always true. Likewise, to representations of fantasy correspond certain active influences, “because they move the soul”. This amounts to saying that the truth of all sensation consists in the psychological reality of such an impression and soul affection, and only in it.



In metaphysics, Epicurus and his school renew the Atomism of Democritus. As in Democritus, we now also have an infinite number of ultimate, indivisible, solid elements: the atoms. They lack quality and only differ quantitatively by shape and weight. They are not absolutely diverse, but there are certain similarities between them that allow us to talk about certain classes. The number of these classes is limited, but in each group there are infinite atoms.

It will also be necessary to admit an empty space in which the atoms are found and move. That space is unlimited. With these two elements, bodies and space, the whole being is explained; nowhere for another third class of beings. It is net materialism. The very soul and spirit would be body, finer and more subtle matter, but always matter. The soul is a part of the body, as is the hand and the foot. It is also divisible, and consequently mortal like the body. Atoms exist from all eternity and will always exist. Their total sum always remains constant and equal. This principle expresses the law of the conservation of the substance, fundamental dogma of materialism of all time.

Epicurus, with his concept of chance, pursues a peculiar attempt, to relieve man of the oppressive idea of ​​fate. He believes in the freedom of the will. The Epicureans held a merciless fight against the Stoic fatum, for love of human freedom. His theoretical refuge was the concept of chance, explained in his own way.

The second attack front of the Epicureans are the religious myths. They were as annoying as the fatum. Since that of intervening the gods in the affairs of men, particularly the tales from beyond the grave with the judgment of the dead and the places of eternal punishment, and no less what is said of the wrath of God, which must be placated, sounded in the ears of the Epicureans like tales of fear that disturb the beautiful enjoyment of existence and kill the will of acting and stop acting in line of their whim. Before this the Epicurean resorts to the theory of atoms. Everything happens, according to the laws of nature.

“Epicureans are not dangerous men. They know how to live, they speak well, they write well, they do not think or get into many speculative depths. Their philosophy does not have the heaviness of problematic melancholy, but rather the mild and pleasant air of the muse” (Lucretius).


The dogmatic core of this philosophy is the principle that the morally good consists in pleasure. It was Aristippus, who, in a clear way, advocated the theory of pleasure, and his hedonism (ethical doctrine that identifies the good with pleasure, especially with sensory and immediate pleasure) will be the one that will give the fundamental orientation to the ethical thought of the Epicureans.

While the Stoics propose as an ethical ideal a life conducted according to nature, and proclaim the value of renunciation and endurance to be able to do justice and honour to this supreme norm, it is now constituted the man’s pleasure as the authentic end, and consequently the slogan of appetite and enjoyment is proclaimed as a moral solution. It is a totally opposite attitude towards life. The primitive meaning of the word “good” does not express, according to the Epicureans, a consonance with a certain order of ideal or real character, but basically translates a relationship with our appetitive appetites. For pleasing us a thing we call it good, and another for displeasing and annoying us we call it bad. Aristotle had thought in a quite different way: for being something good, that’s why we like it. Epicurus turns it upside down, as it can be seen. The ethical principle is not for him an “objective” good in itself, but the “subjective” pleasure becomes the principle of good.


Wisdom of life

The Epicurean effectively has open eyes for the beauty of the world. Affirms life in its fullness. With this he surpasses himself, surpasses the dark sides of life, does not allow himself to be seized by them and thus settles free in a positive conception of existence. Neither the idea of death has to be a stumble for him. Behind the stupid demonstration that “death nothing touches us”, because while we live there is no death and when it is we are gone, there is something more serious and valuable, as is the joyful yes to life, that only looks at the positive and therefore applies to get the juice every day without worrying about the after.

Friendship is the fruit of wisdom. The wise is the artist of life.

“Gray is, dear friend, all theory, and green is the golden tree of life” (Goethe)


With Neoplatonism, the Hellenistic-Roman philosophy will stop being pure intellectual work to become a religious way of life. It is symptomatic about this that utopian Plotinian project of founding a city of philosophers with external features taken from the Republic of Plato, but internally similar to the early Christian monasteries. The Plotinian Platonopolis, half philosophical school, half religious convent, illustrates us sufficiently not only about the deep differences of Neoplatonism with respect to Platonism, but also on the profound discrepancies of the whole movement of religious metaphysics in relation to the preceding moral schools.

Historically, three fully differentiated currents have to be distinguished:


It was founded by Ammonius Saccas. Its greatest representative is Plotinus, the greatest thinker of the time, whose work summarizes and overcomes the Hellenistic doctrine. His two main features were an exalted spiritualism and an emanationist monism. His disciple Porphyry of Tyre, tends to convert the religious philosophy of the teacher into religion proper. With Porphyry the struggle against Christianity in the order of philosophy acquires virulence.



It was founded by Iamblichus of Chalcis, disciple of Porphyry. In his system are synthesized, with the fundamental moments of the Neoplatonic emanation, the repertoire of the gods of paganism, as well as a series of angels and demons. Thus transformed the religious doctrine into a dogmatic of polytheism, it was used by the political enemies of Christianity, such as Julian the Apostate (emperor between 361-363 AD), who established paganism as the official religion of the State.

Capitol of Dougga. Tunisia
Capitol of Dougga. Tunisia


It has Themistius as a forerunner, Plutarch of Athens as founder and Proclus as the maximum representative, with whom the pagan philosophy of the ancient world can be considered virtually finished.

Neoplatonic Thought

While the Philonian synthesis (by Philo of Alexandria) is made in contact with the Jewish religion, Neoplatonism emerges as a syncretism (tendency to combine and harmonize currents of thought or opposing ideas) of the Platonic doctrine and pagan religion.

His capital representative, Plotinus, born in Egypt and educated in Alexandria, moved to Rome, where he taught philosophy with great success and numerous disciples. His life is characterized by intellectual curiosity and a strange spirituality. Plotinus wrote numerous treatises, compiled after his death by his disciple Porphyry, and arranged in six groups of nine, they received the name Enneads. The treatises that form the Enneads have a very unequal value, but as a whole the work offers great interest and is, of course, the most brilliant of all those produced by Greek philosophy since Aristotle.

The starting point is God. Plotinus seeks the primary reality, origin and foundation of all other reality. It is the One, the fullness of being, of divinity and of good. The One overflows and expands, giving rise, by emanation, to new beings. Therefore, it can not be matter, because matter must essentially be formed by large parts. Nor can it be spirit, because in the spirit there is given, at least in terms of knowledge, the subject-object duality. The One is above matter and above spirit. Moreover, without the One, neither plural matter nor dual spirit could exist. Plurality and duality come from unity. The One is above the being. The infinite perfection of the One places it beyond any conceivable determination, and can only be expressed through denial. All finite perfection must be denied from the One. This is the meaning of Plotinus’ theology.

From the One all things proceed by emanation. This is verified by a process of causations in increasing degradation that, starting from the One, end in the matter that, being born in good, end in evil. From the One proceeds, in the first place, the Nous, it is spirit, a kind of duplication of the One. There is already in the nous duality of thinking subject and thought object. In it the ideas are lodged, the whole inteligible world. From nous the soul proceeds as a duplication. The soul is generated by the nous by reflection. This soul is a cosmic soul.

By the efficient causality we come from God. By the final causality we return to God.

Plotinus took from Plato, who in turn had done it from the Pythagoreans, the idea of ​​the origin of man in a fall and the reintegration of the soul to celestial places.

Indeed, human souls live in the intelligible cosmos. By virtue of a tendency to trade with matter, they fall into the tangible world, sinking into a body. Thus, man is composed of soul and body. It is not the body that sustains the soul, on the contrary, it is sustained by it. The soul is not lodged in a part of the body, but it is all in the whole body. Even after the fall, and because of its superior activity, the soul continues to live in the intelligible world of the nous, and still aspires to unite with the One. The soul attached to matter does not achieve a return to the intelligible world. With the death of man transmigrates an animal or even a vegetable. Pure souls return to the intelligible cosmos and sometimes to the One.

The ethics of Plotinus must be understood in terms of this return of the soul to God. Virtue is ascending to perfection, which will culminate in the union with God. This ascent comprises three degrees. The first is the ascesis, the exercise of renunciation of tangible material things: its virtue is catharsis. The second is the contemplation of truth and spiritual beauty, realizing the theoretical virtues. The third is the ecstasy, that is, being outside of oneself and in close contact with divinity. Ecstasy is the privilege of the purest souls. When it is verified, the soul submerges in divinity, becomes the One, literally divinizes itself. The mysticism of Plotinus is also pantheistic.

The Neoplatonism of Plotinus was the last great philosophical creation of Greek thought. With Plotinus dead, the interest in metaphysics declines among the ancients and purely ethical and dialectical concerns reappear. Christian thought bursts deeply into the world’s cultural scene, and philosophers limit themselves to the apology.

Author: Valentín Ortiz Juez