The Hellenistic period in Ancient Greece was certainly a vibrant and rich time in the history of philosophy. Two of the most prominent schools, Stoicism and Epicureanism, both put forth their concept of how to live the best life. While there is certainly some overlap between the two philosophies, there are some key differences when you compare Stoicism vs. Epicureanism.
Both schools of thought were philosophies that arose in a changing world when the existing ways of understanding and codes of conduct no longer made sense.
Born out of chaotic times, these philosophies both sought to answer the ethical questions of “what is the ultimate good in life?” and “how should we act to obtain the ultimate good in life?” In short, they both offer concepts of how best to live.
If you’re interested in learning the similarities and differences in what the Stoics and the Epicureans believed was the best way to be, stick with us.
Founded by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC, Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy. Though the school of thought emerged in ancient Greece, many of the most famous Stoic philosophers were Romans.
For a deep dive on everything you need to know about Stoic philosophy, check out our recent post titled “What Is Stoicism?”
While there were many Stoic thinkers over the several centuries that the philosophy was popular in Greece and Rome, and they would sometimes differ on the exact nature of their beliefs, it is fair to say that all Stoics believed that a human being can live a flourishing life if they live a virtuous life.
The Stoics broke their philosophical studies into three categories: logic, physics, and ethics. The earlier philosophers considered ethics to be the primary focus of human knowledge.
Virtue was the only good in the eyes of the Stoics. This means the types of things we typically associate as being good, whether that is pleasure, health, or wealth, are not good nor are they bad. Instead, they’re indifferent.
The Stoics also believed that we should aim to live in accordance with nature and minimize destructive emotions in ourselves through self-control and fortitude.
To them, living virtuously wasn’t just necessary for happiness, it was also sufficient for happiness. This means that they believed that the only thing you had to do in order to live a happy life is to be virtuous.
The four cardinal virtues practiced by the Stoics were wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage. In the taxonomy of their ethics, they further broke down each of these virtues into subcategories. At the same time, each virtue had an opposite vice, which was foolishness, injustice, intemperance, and cowardice.
One of the Stoic ideas that have gained popularity in the modern day is their concept of control.
We live in strange times– though our society is in many ways incredibly orderly, things seem to feel more and more chaotic with each day that goes by. It can be tempting to try and take total control of everything in your environment and your life in order to deal with the unsettling reality of living in uncertain times, but the reality is that there are only certain things that are in our control.
In fact, when we believe we can control things that are actually outside of our ability to control, we can suffer a great deal. Epictetus, in particular, argued that we all have to understand what is in our control and what isn’t. Then, and only then, are we able to focus our energy on the things we can control and stop worrying about (and even accept) the things we can’t control.
Stoicism was originally called Zenonism after its founder Zeno of Citium. This name didn’t last very long, though. The reason for the name change is thought to be an effort to avoid Stoicism becoming a cult of personality.
The story of how Zeno first became interested in philosophy is a fascinating one.
According to Diogenes Laertius, Zeno consulted the Oracle of Delphi to find out what it was he needed to do to live the best life. The response? That he should take on the complexion of the dead.
To Zeno, this means that he should become a student of ancient authors.
He went on to become a wealthy merchant, only to survive a shipwreck while on a voyage from Phoenicia to Peiraeus. After this harrowing journey, he made his way to Athens and went to see a bookseller.
While he was there, he came across Memorabilia by Xenophon. Delighted by the portrayal of Socrates in the text, he asked the bookseller where he could find men like Socrates. At that exact moment, the most famous Cynic philosopher living in Greece at the time, Crate of Thebes, was walking by. Famously, Crate had renounced a large fortune in order to live a life of poverty. The bookseller pointed to him, and the rest is history.
The ideas developed by Zeno were built off of those from the Cynics, who believed that the purpose of life was to live virtuously in agreement with nature. Even though Zeno was very wealthy, he is said to have lived a spare and ascetic life.
In 301 BC, Zeno started teaching his ideas at the Stoa Poikile, which was the colonnade in the Agora of Athens. It’s from this “painted porch” that the Stoics got their name.
It’s common for scholars to segment the history of this philosophy into three different phases:
Stoicism also experienced two notable periods of revival– once during the Renaissance and again in the present day. Respectively, these are known as Neostoicism and modern Stoicism.
Epicureanism is a philosophy that is based on the teachings of Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher. Founded around 307 BC, the philosophy emerged originally as a challenge to Platonism. As time marched forward, however, the main opponent of Epicureanism became Stoicism.
The philosophy of Epicureanism promoted the idea that the chief good in life is pleasure. Epicurus, therefore, argued that people should live in a way that created the greatest possible amount of pleasure during one’s life. At the same time, he believed that people should create pleasure with moderation so that they don’t suffer from the negative effects of overindulging in pleasure.
It’s worth noting, though, that the focus on the pursuit of pleasure was mostly centered around the concept of “static pleasures,” meaning reducing suffering, anxiety, and pain. He states in his Letter to Menoeceus, that:
“When we say… that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or witful misrepresentation. By leasures we mean the absence of pain the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.”
He believed that unnecessary desires, as well as artificially produced desires, should be suppressed. Additionally, he emphasized mental pleasures over bodily and physical pleasures.
The Epicureans discouraged participating in politics because they believed that political life could give rise to desires that could disrupt an individual's peace of mind and virtue, including the desire for fame and power.
Epicurus believed that there were two primary causes of strife and suffering in life, which were the fear of death and the fear of the gods. For this reason, he focused on eliminating these fears.
While many people think of Epicureanism being a hedonistic philosophy (which, to be fair, it technically is,) Epicurus wasn’t running around promoting a free-love attitude. Though he believed it was best to avoid marriage, and he did think it was natural for people to engage in recreational sex, he thought this desire should generally be avoided.
While the Epicureans believed that the concept of justice was good, just as the Stoics would later argue, they had a fundamentally different rationale behind this belief.
Their understanding of justice wasn’t focused on the greater good of man, but instead inherently self-interested. They believed that being punished for acting unjustly would prevent an individual from being happy. At the same time, they believed that the fear of being punished for acting unjustly would prevent an individual from being happy.
Basically, they believed that one should act justly because acting unjustly is detrimental to the individual, whether or not they are actually caught in the act.
While Epicureanism does believe in the existence of the soul, it rejects the notion of immortality. The philosophy proposes that the soul is material and mortal in the same way the body is. The idea of an afterlife is entirely rejected while still wholeheartedly believing that there is no reason to fear death.
There is an Epicurean Epitaph which can be found on the gravestones throughout the ancient Roman Empire and on those of his followers, (and is still used today at humanist funerals,) which states:
Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo
(I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind.)
Epicureanism is technically hedonistic because it posits that pleasure is the greatest of all goods. However, when we think of hedonism, the first thing that comes to mind is the pursuit of bodily pleasures without any sense of moderation. This is actually a lot more in line with what the Cyrenaics believed than the Epicureans.
Epicurus, on the other hand, didn’t believe that overindulging in sensual bodily pleasures was necessary for living a good life. He actually thought that bodily pleasures were of short duration and often followed by extreme pain. Epicurus was focused on the avoidance of pain rather than indulging in bodily pleasures.
In order to avoid pain, Epicurus believed that we have to cultivate discipline and frequently turn down chances to engage in sensual pleasures. In fact, he believed that the life where we avoid chasing after bodily pleasures is the most pleasurable life.
Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism, taught and gained followers in Lesbos and later Lampsacus. He bought a property in Athens to house his school which was named “Garden.”
On the gate of this school, a motto was inscribed, stating:
“Stranger, you would do good to stay awhile, for here the highest good is pleasure.”
Members of the early school included:
It is believed that the school formed a community that was moderately ascetic, uninterested in being a part of the political limelight of contemporary Athenian philosophy and society. Emphasizing friendship as an essential component of happiness, this group was fairly cosmopolitan by the standards of the time and place, including both slaves and women.
One of the more important community activities in the school was an observance of Eikas, which was a social gathering that occurred monthly.
Over time, the school became more and more popular, eventually becoming one of the dominant schools of Hellenistic philosophy. Its prominence as a philosophical school continued through the later Roman Empire.
By the end of the third century AD, however, there was little evidence that Epicureanism had existed at all, as other philosophies including Neoplatonism, Peripateticism, and, eventually, Christianity, become more dominant.
Epicureanism experienced a revival in the 17th century when two books were written on the topic by the French Franciscan priest, philosopher, and scientist Pierre Gassendi. Walter Charleton went on to publish a number of English language books on Epicureanism, influenced and inspired by Gassendi.
Before we dive into the differences between these Hellenistic philosophies, let’s take a look at what they have in common.
Both Epicureanism and Stoicism emerged around the same time in the same region of the world: Athens. The founding members, Epicurus and Zeno of Citium, were charismatic thinkers that gathered a following in their respective schools of thought, challenging the dominant philosophical concepts of Plato and Aristotle.
In both Stoicism and Epicureanism, the focus is on how we can achieve peace in our own lives. They are basically, in very simple terms, trying to answer the question what is the best way to live?
The core of the teachings of both of these schools consisted of practical wisdom that individuals could apply to their day-to-day life. Care of the soul was a central theme in both philosophies.
In fact, both schools even agreed on the notion that one can increase peace of mind and reduce anxiety by practicing moderation and self-control.
Technically, both the Epicureans and the Stoics were materialists, which means that they believed the entire universe is made up of matter. This doesn’t just refer to our physical environment and our bodies, but also the soul and God.
To the Stoics, God is the universal law, which is the force that actively creates movement in matter.
Even though the Stoics believed that the soul is made out of a bodily substance, some scholars prefer to avoid calling them materialists. This is because the Stoics did contrast matter and soul. Rather than calling them materialists, some argue they should be called vitalists, physicalists, or corporealists.
Epicurus, on the other hand, was an atomic materialist in the same vein as Democritus. He believed that the universe was made up of atoms that interacted randomly, without any purpose or reason. We exist as the result of this randomness, and we live in a world that is infinitely and indiscriminately swirling with atoms.
The Stoics, you see, totally rejected the idea that existence and the movement of atoms are random. They believed that the entire material universe was driven by divine reason. The universe was not meaningless to the Stoics, as they saw order and purpose in the entire cosmos.
Epicureans strongly believed that the fear of the gods and the fear of death should be eliminated from one’s life. If we’re able to do this and rid ourselves of anxiety along with satisfying our basic desires, we can be happy.
While Epicurus and his followers didn’t believe in an afterlife, they held that there was no need to fear death. When we die, in the eyes of the Epicureans, we cease to exist, as the atoms that comprised our soul disperse.
The Stoic view of what happens when we die is much less certain. The prominent Stoic thinkers didn’t necessarily agree on the questions of immortality and the afterlife.
For example, Cleanthes believes that our souls could survive until Ekpyrosis, which is a time when a divine fire consumes all matter in totality. Another Stoic thinker, Chrysippus, believed that it was only the souls of wise individuals that could endure. Unfortunately for the unwise, their souls would be reabsorbed into the cosmic pneuma or destroyed after surviving for some time.
That being said, there is no concept of heaven or hell in Stoicism, and there is no evidence that the Stoics believed the survival of the soul after death would be beneficial to a person. Similarly, there’s no indication that they used the concept of the survival of the soul as something that motivated how they thought or acted.
The Stoics often spoke about the fear of death, and even advocated for meditating on death through the practice of memento mori.
“What is death? A scary mask. Take it off – see, it doesn’t bite. Eventually, body and soul will have to separate, just as they existed separately before we were born. So why be upset if it happens now? If it isn’t now, it’s later.” – Epictetus
Instead of wasting your mental energy worrying about death, the future, or the past, the Stoics proposed that we should focus on the present moment.
“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.
Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present—and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold out against that…well, then, heap shame upon it.” – Marcus Aurelius
Are you interested in learning more about what the great Stoics thought about what happens when we pass on? Check out these Stoic quotes about death.
In both Stoicism and Epicureanism, there is a focus on how to avoid pain, suffering, and anxiety.
To the Stoics, one can remove these unpleasant experiences by living in accordance with Nature. To the Epicureans, pain could be avoided through a simple life with close friends.
While Stoicism and Epicureanism originated around the same time in Athens and both were philosophies of life that were devoted to the pursuit of wisdom, they were quite different in a number of important ways.
Before we get too heady and talk about the philosophical differences between Stoicism and Epicureanism, let’s talk about an interesting material difference that reflected each philosophy.
The Stoics school was formed in the open market of the Athenian agora. Out in a public space, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of daily life, Stoicism was a philosophy that emphasized the interconnectedness of humans and the duty we have to be virtuous.
The Epicurean School known as the Garden, on the other hand, was located outside of Athens on a property purchased by Epicurus. Instead of teaching in public areas, the Epicureans were off in their own little house and garden groves.
It’s interesting the way that the choice in a physical location for the schools is reflected by the central philosophical ideas. Epicurus advocated that people stay away from political life and the unnecessary and unnatural desires of the world, and created a garden retreat where he and his followers could gain relief from the disturbances of the city. The Stoics, on the other hand, got their start in the city itself, teaching in a public area in the same vein as Plato and Aristotle.
Though both of these philosophical schools focused on offering a path to a happy, good life, the understanding of what this meant differed between the two.
One of the primary differences between Stoicism and Epicureanism is how they viewed virtue. For the Stoics, virtue was the foundational concept for their way of life. Virtue was the principle that guided them.
To the Epicureans, on the other hand, virtue was simply a vehicle for obtaining the highest good: pleasure.
Epicurus advocated that people work to avoid pain by pursuing pleasure with moderation. The Stoics argued that pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain wouldn’t ever actually bring about real happiness in one’s life. Instead, they saw virtue alone as the way to happiness.
Though there is a conception of the Epicureans as being unregulated hedonists, this was not actually the case. The Epicureans did believe that virtue was a necessary part of achieving happiness. They didn’t agree with the Stoics, though, on the notion that virtue alone could guarantee a happy life.
The Epicureans tended to emphasize private virtues. They discouraged people to engage in politics and instead spend their time engaging in fellowship and modest pleasures with friends. They believed this was how one could avoid the pains of life.
These ancient Greeks pursued a philosophical principle of late biosas, which pretty much means living in a way that you don’t draw attention to yourself.
In this way, the Epicureans differed significantly from the Stoics. To the ancient Stoic philosophers, we have a duty to others and we are all intricately connected to one another.
Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, taught that we are obligated to engage in the public sphere by participating in the duties of politics and social office. In his view, our duty to the public in this way only ends when we aren’t physically or mentally able to fulfill it anymore.
“That which is not good for the beehive cannot be good for the bees.” – Marcus Aurelius
Another way that these philosophies differed is the way they viewed the gods. The Epicureans largely saw the gods as human constructs that could teach lessons to mortals. It was their belief that if there were gods, their involvement in the human world would compromise their godliness.
On the other hand, the Stoics believed that there was a divine presence in our lives as well as in the creation and function of the universe. The Stoics did not share the belief that the gods are projections by humans.
In many ways, it makes perfect sense that there has been a revival in Stoic thought recently. When Stoicism first arose, Alexander the Great had died only about twenty years before and Athens was no longer the center of the world. Other cities– Alexandria, Rome, and Pergamum– took its place. The Greek polis was replaced by larger political units, subject people lost their freedoms, and the existing distinction between Greek and barbarian disintegrated.
Where there had once been a sense of order both civically and cosmically, there was disorder in the social and political realms.
We can argue all day about why our current time in history is chaotic, but most people would agree that things do seem to be in some form of disarray. Stoicism has re-emerged as a popular philosophy for people to use in their day-to-day lives, to help them determine what’s in their control and increase their focus on their bigger picture goals. At the same time, Stoicism isn’t a philosophy that encourages us to disengage from societal issues because we feel like it’s someone else’s problem. Stoic philosophy recognizes the interconnectedness of all people and argues that we should engage politically as virtuously as we can.
To be an Epicurean in modern times, on the other hand, means unplugging from the issues that plague your society. You retreat to a garden and enjoy conversation with friends, believing that politics only brings frustration.
Which is the right way to be?
I’m not here to tell you what the best way to live is– only you can decide for yourself. If you’re looking for more information and inspiration about Stoicism, though, you can find a huge library of articles at StoicQuotes.com.