At the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. his empire, acquired by conquests of astonishing rapidity, included his own kingdom of Macedonia, Egypt, and an enormous tract of Asiatic territory from the Mediterranean to northern India. He left no heir, and had made no plans for the succession, so that his death was followed almost inevitably by many years of confused struggle over what were, in the end, the remnants of his domain. Aristotle himself died in 322, so that his death may be taken to mark the beginning of a period of extreme social and political disturbance, the character of which he seems quite to have failed to foresee, and which radically affected the course of philosophical thought.
From this time onwards the political importance of the Greek city-states rapidly declined. The great issues were now fought out on so large a scale that they counted for little. Alexander himself had always regarded the Greek cities as, theoretically at least, independent allies, and some of his successors were willing to continue this policy so long at least as it suited their interests to do so. But at other times the cities passed, more or less helplessly, through a bewildering variety of political conditions and degrees of subjection, never losing, however, their fatal propensity to warfare among themselves. By the end of the century it had finally become clear that Alexander's empire could not survive as a unity, and by 275 it was in the hands of three dynasties descended from three of his generals — the Antigonids in Macedonia, the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Seleucids in the East. These dynasties, frequently at war among themselves, remained as the chief counters on the political hoard until, towards the end of the third century B.C., the power of Rome intervened and gradually became predominant. After the peace of Apamea, made in 188 between Rome and the Seleucid Antiochus, no Greek state could pretend any longer to independence. In 148 B.C. Macedonia itself became a Roman province, and Greece a protectorate under close supervision.
But Greece in this period was subject, not only to political decline and the confusion of the wars of others, but also to very serious social stress. The unification, however brief, of most of the known world under Alexander led to a far freer mingling of races and nationalites, greater freedom of thought, and a general spirit of racial and religious toleration; trade rapidly expanded, and commerce and finance grew to a scale unimagined a very few years before. But although some classes, and many enterprising or fortunate individuals, certainly enjoyed great prosperity, it seems no less certain that the condition of the majority grew steadily worse. Rents for houses and land rose sharply, as did the price of food; but wages for labor rose less if they rose at all, and in some places seem even to have fallen. Thus the general prosperity of the period was, and was felt to be, highly precarious. In all parts of Greece, and in the Aegean islands, many people were living at the very edge of a subsistence level, and there was constant danger that political issues might turn into direct and violent conflicts of interest between the rich and the poor. Sparta in particular, in the second half of the third century B.C. underwent three successive violent social revolutions. The impression of personal insecurity was very general, and not without reason.
In this shifting, expanding, dangerous gambler's world, there seems to have grown up a widespread sense of a vacuum that philosophy could and should fill. Custom, the unreflecting acceptance of tradition [Duty], was now out of the question, for old customs had died, or grown hollow, and tradition was broken. Many were doubtless content to take their chance, to live as Fortune or the interests of the moment might decide; but many felt the need to preserve, or need to discover, some firm foundation amid so much uncertainty and confusion. At that time no religion had power or prestige enough to satisfy such a demand, and the result was an enormous popular interest in philosophy. It seems indeed that the popular image of a philosopher is still that which was formed in this Hellenistic period — the image of a bearded figure of eccentric manners and appearance, unworldly, moralistic, probably poor, perhaps even a vagrant, with a store of maxims on how to endure unmoved the tribulations of life. Philosophers — though some of course continued to preside over established schools — were the wandering friars of this turbulent period.
It was inevitable that, in these conditions, there should have occurred an almost immediate movement away from the recent tradition of Plato and Aristotle. Those philosophers were certainly too difficult, and in a sense too conventional, to satisfy the new popular demands. Their work was too full of intricate logical argument, it demanded too high a devotion to abstract thought, to provide a possible basis for any popular creed. And Aristotle in particular, in his writing on ethics and politics, had tended to take for granted as the background of his argument just those political conditions and conventions of conduct which, so soon after his death, had ceased to exist. He addressed himself to the ordinary well-educated citizen of the (now) old-fashioned Greek city-state; he had not, and probably would not have wished to claim that he had, any moral message for mankind in general in a period of chaos. He and Plato were philosophers for intellectuals; and for this reason, though their prestige and their fame remained unassailable, the philosophy of the new period was provided by others, and was quite different from theirs.
Perhaps the clearest indication of the changed atmosphere of philosophy can be found in the changing conception of "happiness," the goal of life, and consequently of the means proposed for achieving it. For one thing, this question came to be the dominant concern of philosophy, at the expense of those epistemological and metaphysical inquiries which, for Plato and Aristotle at least, had been no less important and absorbing. But also the topic itself was very differently treated. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, had taken the conventional — one would almost like to say, the sensible — view that the well-being of the individual was determined in large part by the circumstances in which he lived, by the activities in which he engaged, by the achievements which could be counted to his credit. He would certainly have recommended an active, indeed a masterful, part in the public affairs of one's community. But it is clear that, if so, the well-being of the individual is dependent in part upon external affairs; and in the precarious post-Aristotelian world, it seems to have been felt that individual happiness, thus conceived, was itself intolerably precarious. Accordingly almost every later school agreed in the attempt to maintain that happiness, rightly conceived, must lie in the sole power of the individual himself. The attempt to maintain this, however understandable, led at times to an extremity of paradox. Even so, it seems to have been tacitly agreed that some conception of happiness must be worked out which would ensure that, at least in theory, it could be attained quite independently of shifting, perilous and uncontrollable circumstances. The resulting tendency was, strongly and persistently, towards some sort of philosophy of "non-attachment" — towards a kind of strategic withdrawal, as it were, from a world which no one now could believe, as Aristotle did, to be manageable by careful and enlightened individual effort.
The three chapters that follow will be concerned with the four main Hellenistic — that is, post-Aristotelian — schools or types of philosophy. Of these Stoicism and Epicureanism, often in markedly unfriendly rivalry with I each other, were by far the most important and influential. The Cynics and Sceptics were seldom in the same way taken altogether seriously, though their individual spokesmen were sometimes impressive and appealed very strongly to certain temperaments. Epicureanism, Stoicism, and above all Cynicism were — the conditions in which they grew up demanded that they should be — primarily moral doctrines, philosophies of life, far more earnestly occupied with the actual predicament of man than with any merely theoretical questions; and they were concerned in particular to teach, in a world that was too often dangerous and deceptive, the secret of individual well-being. And even the Sceptics were apt to recommend their scepticism as offering a relief from anxiety — as a kind of restful acquiescence in the single conviction that no exclusive faith or doctrine whatever would ever be proved, so that all intellectual struggles must be ultimately vain. The pursuit of knowledge passed from Aristotle to the distinguished scientists of the Hellenistic age. The philosophers took up instead the pursuit of virtue, of happiness, or — in this at least they were all agreed — of security.
It will be as well to end this present chapter with a note on chronology. The theoretical basis for the practical doctrines of Epicureanism was not the original invention of Epicurus. It was a development of the Atomism of the pre-Socratic Leucippus, transmitted most powerfully through the writings of Democritus. This Democritus, with whom our study of Epicureanism begins, was Socrates' contemporary; his philosophy, however, is connected more intimately with that of his successors than of his contemporaries, and I have presented him here as essentially the forerunner of Epicurus. Epicurus himself flourished soon after the death of Aristotle, but by far the most extensive account of his philosophy in ancient literature was given, more than a century later again, by the poet Lucretius. Quotations from his work also will be found in the following chapter.
In chapters VIII and IX it will also be observed that Stoicism and Scepticism are represented by writings that date from a late stage of their history. Like Epicureanism, both schools flourished in Athens in the immediate post-Aristotelian days, Scepticism having its home in fact in what had been Plato's Academy. But both schools lived on for many years, till far into the age of the Roman Empire, and inevitably the most copious and consecutive written accounts survive from their later days. The original founders were teachers much more than they were writers, and for us their teachings must be discerned in the writings of others.