IT is interesting that the ancient Greeks asked themselves the same questions we are asking today: given this mess all around me, how should I act? Where do I find pleasure? How do I avoid suffering? What really matters? How does it all make sense?
These questions gave rise to a roster of great Greek philosophers who attempted to formulate answers. They not only influenced Western civilization but their thinking even bequeathed to us words we now use to label the personalities of people.
Cynic. Hedonist. Epicurean. Skeptic. Stoic. These terms pop up in our modern conversations but few of us know that they are derived from the various schools of thought in Ancient Greece that go back around several millennia ago. It turns out there’s a little Greek in each of us.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these five words imported from Ancient Greece and find out which one best fit the kind of person you are.
Skeptic is how we call the type who likes to question everything including commonly held truths. He is a disbeliever who doubts the truth or value of an idea or belief. The term comes from the Greek noun “skepsis,” which means examination, investigation or inquiry. Followers of this school of thought founded by Pyrhho were called “skeptikoi.” They embraced a way of life that was devoted to constant inquiry.
If you are habitually scornful, always finding fault in others or being negative about what’s happening in a contemptuous or sneering way, then you belong to the cynic category. The root word is “kynikos,” an adjective meaning “doglike,” from kuōn, “dog” which was the nickname given Diogenes, the group’s most famous exponent. He is said to have led his life like a dog, stripped of all elements of civilization and social convention just to prove a point and to shock the citizens of Athens into practicing self-denial. He believed virtue to be the only good and self-control to be the only means of achieving virtue.
The term “cynical” probably acquired its sneering and mocking connotation because of the vexing way and contemptuous attitude shown by the followers of Diogenes who hounded, reproached and shamed their fellow citizens for their attachment to pleasures and luxuries, which they considered superfluous, worthless and detrimental to virtue.
But if you are more strongly inclined towards the enjoyment of material pleasures, then you must be a hedonist, derived from hēdone the ancient Greek word for pleasure. Hedonism is the belief that pleasure, or the absence of pain, is the most important thing in life. But the pleasure in hedonism is of the superficial kind, like sex, cars, drugs, rock music and what we call sinful vices.
If you prefer your pleasures to be more of the refined kind, such as enjoying a symphony concert, watching a good movie, reading a good book or savoring fine foods, you must be an epicurean, an adherent of Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who took the pursuit of pleasure in another level. For him, the most pleasant life is one where we abstain from worldly desires to achieve an inner tranquility by being content with simple things, and by choosing the pleasure of intellectual conversation with friends.
If skeptic, cynic, hedonist or epicurean does not fit you, are you then stoic?
A stoic is the kind of person Reinhold Niebuhr probably had in mind when he penned the famous serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” A stoic thinks that as long as he behaves virtuously and does the right thing, he need not concern himself with the impact of external events that lie outside of his control. In short, let nature or destiny take its course. This kind of thinking was developed by Zeno and his followers in the market of ancient Athens while pacing back and forth through a columned portico called a “stoa” whence the term stoicism.
A stoic person practices self-discipline, of body and of mind to become resilient to the hardships and obstacles that life throws at him. This is why the modern dictionary defines a stoic as “a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing his feelings or complaining.”
The more I learn about the back stories of these terms, the more I feel that the ancient Greeks are speaking to me across the millennia. They may not provide ultimate answers to the messiness at the center of our lives but they help me understand and accept myself more in the waning years of my life. Which to me is important because as Socrates said: “Know thyself” and wisely added: “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
I used to accept what I believed were established certainties that tradition and the academe handed down to me. Now that I am advanced in age, the skeptic in me is manifesting itself more and more. I’m inclined to question many things, although I still have deeply rooted beliefs regarding my spiritual path.
I confess that in my younger restless days, I gave free rein to the hedonist self in me. I sowed my wild oats as the saying goes by indulging in various worldly pleasures and even associated for a while with happy go lucky people who I naively thought had the key to a quicker and pain-free way to money, status, and fame.
Thankfully, the cynic in me emerged just in time. I realized that those things were all empty, worthless and inconsequential. I managed to gain greater self-control and made a decision to veer my life’s direction towards the virtuous and spiritual path.
Nowadays, my perspective on pleasure and happiness is more epicurean, towards simple tranquil moments that are spiritually enriching and edifying. My enjoyment of material pleasures is checked or balanced by my belief in postponed gratification as a way of life.
But through it all, my saving grace has been the strong stoic mind and heart in me. Since childhood I chose to bear misfortunes, failures and painful incidents with quiet acceptance, and striving to learn from the experience, maintaining the mindset of a Buddhist Zen monk that life is a floating world where everything passes away. Thus, my life is not burdened with regrets.
To sum up, there are multiple Greeks in me: increasingly skeptical, epicurean in taste, a cynic from time to time and underneath it all, a steadfast stoic.
What about you? Have you found out what kind of Greek are you?