Sunday, March 16, 2014

Exercise and the Hellenistic Philosophies: Part I

A few weeks ago at a Philosophy for All meeting in Fargo, ND, Dr. Richard Gilmore of Concordia College spoke about three Hellenistic philosophies: Stoicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism. In this talk Gilmore discussed his own philosophy of life and how these Hellenistic schools fit into it. Though it he sees his personal philosophy as a work in progress, he believes in moving through Stoicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism “as is appropriate,” as part of a larger practice of doing philosophy as often as you can (observing how people interact, what nature does, etc.). One item the group discussed, therefore, was whether combining these three philosophies leads to an inconsistent view of the universe. (Neither the group nor any individuals reached a verdict on this point.)

I can’t say I have a well-developed personal philosophy of my own, but like Gilmore I am drawn to each of these Hellenistic views in different situations. Having arisen in part to help people address their anxieties after Alexander the Great’s conquest of Greece, these philosophies are all concerned with how to live. So it’s philosophy that’s less “Is a ‘justified true belief’ knowledge?” (an interesting question, probably an important question, but not terribly applicable to everyday life) and more “How should I act on a day to day basis?”

Because I like to connect philosophical inquiry to exercise, I’ve decided to explore how these views relate to exercise in a series of three posts, one for each school. Using some notes from Gilmore’s handout, I’ll use the rest of this introductory post to give a micro-summary of them all.


Stoicism is a martial philosophy relying on certain dogmas, including “nature is rational” (infused with logos) and “whatever happens is good.” For a Stoic, the real problems in life are people’s emotional responses to the “problems” we perceive. Thinking x shouldn’t have happened is silly and in fact destructive. To practice Stoicism properly is to focus on being virtuous, performing one’s civic duty, and aligning one’s ends with those of nature and the cosmos.


In contrast to Stoicism, Skepticism is not martial and seeks to avoid dogma. The goal of a Skeptic is not to win arguments, but to question every viewpoint and always suspend judgment in order to achieve peace of mind. The etymology of “skeptic” relates to searching, so Skeptics do not necessarily throw up petty doubts at every opportunity. Striving to achieve goals and adhering steadfastly to beliefs, however, are antithetical to the Skeptic philosophy.


This philosophy promotes the pursuit of pleasure—but not just any kind. Epicureans recognize three types of pleasure: natural and necessary (e.g. walking to visit a friend), natural and unnecessary (e.g. driving a basic car to a movie theater), and unnatural and unnecessary (e.g. driving a luxury car to a fancy home theater store). The highest pleasure for an Epicurean is a sense of joy at being alive, at simply being. The Tetrapharmakos (four-part cure) is also a part of this school: 1) Don’t fear god (because the gods don’t care about us), 2) Don’t fear death, 3) What is good is easy to get (e.g. plain water vs. Cristal), and 4) What is terrible is easy to endure. 


  1. I find it interesting that I should come across your post on the day I decided that it is imperative for me to get serious about exercising. As I read, I felt that I could most identify with the stoics. Yet, I find there is both a little skeptic in me and not enough of the epicurean. On the other hand, I do have a sense of joy at being alive - usually - while at the same time accepting whatever comes at me with the attitude of "why not me? Stuff has to happen to somebody" rather then the "Why me?" attitude. That especially holds true when I can see my own hand in any
    negative happenstance, such as the result of lack of exercise.

    I look forward to seeing how you relate these philosophies to exercise. Perhaps this will help me on my own journey towards getting in shape. The Minnesnowta winter has lulled me into being content to stay indoors but once this next snowstorm passes, I suppose I'd better put my boots on and go for a walk. It's been a "terrible" winter (in some ways), but hot chocolate and comfy sweaters have made it easy to endure!

  2. Thanks for the comment, SJS. I wish you the best in establishing a consistent exercise routine. I should be posting about Skepticism in a few days.