Ancient philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A130-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 16, 2022, from

4. Hellenistic philosophy

Down to the late fourth century bc, philosophy was widely seen as a search for universal understanding, so that in the major schools its activities could comfortably include, for example, biological and historical research. In the ensuing era of Hellenistic philosophy, however, a geographical split helped to demarcate philosophy more sharply as a self-contained discipline (see Hellenistic philosophy). Alexandria, with its magnificent library and royal patronage, became the new centre of scientific, literary and historical research, while the philosophical schools at Athens concentrated on those areas which correspond more closely to philosophy as it has since come to be understood. The following features were to characterize philosophy not only in the Hellenistic age but also for the remainder of antiquity.

The three main parts of philosophy were most commonly labelled ‘physics’ (a primarily speculative discipline, concerned with such concepts as causation, change, god and matter, and virtually devoid of empirical research), ‘logic’ (which sometimes included epistemology) and ‘ethics’. Ethics was agreed to be the ultimate focus of philosophy, which was thus in essence a systematized route to personal virtue (see Arete) and happiness (see Eudaimonia). There was also a strong spiritual dimension. One’s religious beliefs – that is, the way one rationalized and elaborated one’s own (normally pagan) beliefs and practices concerning the divine – were themselves an integral part of both physics and ethics, never a mere adjunct of philosophy.

The dominant philosophical creeds of the Hellenistic age (officially 323–31 bc) were Stoicism (founded by Zeno of Citium) and Epicureanism (founded by Epicurus) (see Stoicism; Epicureanism). Scepticism was also a powerful force, largely through the Academy (see Arcesilaus; Carneades), which in this period functioned as a critical rather than a doctrinal school, and also, starting from the last decades of the era, through Pyrrhonism (see Pyrrhonism)

Citing this article:
Sedley, David. Hellenistic philosophy. Ancient philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A130-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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