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Philosophy as Therapy and the End of the Polis

It is often stated as a fact that Stoicism and Epicureanism were designed to support thinking men who had been disoriented by the collapse of the city-state, as a kind of "ring-wall against chaos." This claim has to be scrutinized with some caution. The polis, it is argued, had "never given security," whereas "Hellenism was a world of cities, and Hellenistic Greeks were making money, not worrying about their souls." This is at best a half-truth. Thought the Polis may not have given security in the sense that a welfare state does, it did, until the end of independence, make each citizen in the assembly feel conscious of participation -- full, practical participation -- in the business of government. Aristophanes might make a joke of it, but Demos really did rule. The cities of the Hellenistic world, certainly those, like Athens, that had lost control of their own destinies, might keep up their ceremonies and traditions (the Athenian Panathenic procession was still going strong under the Roman empire), but they had lost the special kind of confidence that only self-determination can produce.

The loss of external political freedom inevitably drove men inward on themselves. Not all were looking for the same thing, but a remarkable number of those who did not opt for financial, material success (and indeed, some who did) were on a quest for freedom of the soul. If they could not have political eleutheria, at least they would achieve inner release, a mastery of the self. Now, this self-searching for the idea of spiritual liberation (endocosm, as it were, rather than exocosm) is the most noticeable feature that all Hellenistic systems of thought have in common. Just as earlier, in the archaic world of the eighth century B.C., Hesiod had nothing to offset his impotence, when confronted with rapacious and unscrupulous local barons, apart from the force of moral principle, so now the loss of political autonomy impelled men to seek self-sufficiency (autarkeia). The disruption of old certainties, the subversion of traditional patterns and values, in particular those associated with with the world of the polis, led to an obsession with Tyche -- Chance, Fortune. Intellectuals who scoffed at anthropomorphic deities interfering with human affairs were (perhaps by way of compensation) hopelessly vulnerable to the random-numbers game, the unpredictable swerve (parenklisis, clinamen) in an atomized world.

[Source: Peter Green, Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 53. Any student of the Hellenistic Age must become familiar with Green's magnum opus. Green writes very well and his erudition is unsurpassed.]

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