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22.5 Philosophy Becomes Unworldly

The general drift of thought in the concluding years of the fourth, century B.C. was not with Aristotle, nor towards the laborious and necessary accumulation of ordered knowledge. It is possible that without his endowments from the king he would have made but a small figure in intellectual history. Through them he was able to give his splendid intelligence substance and effect. The ordinary man prefers easy ways so long as they may be followed, and is almost wilfully heedless whether they end at last in a cul-de-sac. Finding the stream of events too powerful to control at once, the generality of philosophical teachers drifted in those days from the scheming of model cities and the planning of new ways of living into the elaboration of beautiful and consoling systems of evasion.

Perhaps that is putting things coarsely and unjustly. But let Professor Gilbert Murray speak upon this matter.[1]

«The Cynics cared only for virtue and the relation of the soul to God; the world and its learning and its honours were as dross to them. The Stoics and Epicureans, so far apart at first sight, were very similar in their ultimate aim. What they really cared about was ethics-the practical question how a man should order his life. Both, indeed, gave themselves to some science-the Epicureans, to physics, the Stoics to logic and rhetoric-but only as a means to an end. The Stoic tried to win men’s hearts and convictions by sheer subtlety of abstract argument and dazzling sublimity of thought and expression. The Epicurean was determined to make Humanity go its way without cringing to capricious gods and without sacrificing Free Will. He condensed his gospel into four maxims: «God is not to be feared; Death cannot be felt; the Good can be won; all that we dread can be borne and conquered».

And meanwhile the stream of events flowed on, with a reciprocal indifference to philosophy.

[1]Ancient Greek Literature

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