The Greek Stoics and Epicureans

The Greek Stoics and Epicureans

While Aristotle and Plato made the chief direct Greek contributions to economic thought, one must remember that such thought is greatly influ­enced by epistemological and ethical ideas. Even the economist, therefore, should not leave a discussion of Greek philosophers without some mention of Zeno and Epicurus.

Zeno, who was the founder of Stoicism, emphasized virtue above all else, and treated it not only as the source of happiness but as the goal of human life. The Stoics believed that pleasure is not to be sought for itself — that it is the by-product of a virtuous life. Incidentally, they taught that the individual exists for society, which alone makes virtue possible. The idea of a "moral sense" innate in man, is implied. Thus Stoicism had idealistic tendencies. It also contained, however, a vague concept of living "in accord with nature." Accordingly, Stoi­cism was to affect economics through its contributions both to (1) the idea of a "law of nature," and to (2) the optimistic idea that the individual has an innate sense of justice which may be relied upon.

The Epicureans, on the other hand, made pleasure the goal of life; and they found pleasure to lie in sensations (not neces­sarily "sensual"). Their thought was thus materialistic and hedonistic, and this thought tendency came to dominate eco­nomics during part of the nineteenth century.

Of both these schools of philosophy it may be said that they tended toward sensationalism and the doctrine that knowledge comes only through the senses, which doctrines have a bearing upon the nature and determination of economic value, and upon the nature and validity of economic law. And both strongly tended to minimize the individual's responsibility toward his fellows. The Stoic could say, "If social troubles are the result of natural law, am I to blame?" The Epicurean (who, inci­dentally, believed in no God) could ask, "If right lies in my pursuit of pleasure, what responsibility have I for wrong doing? Indeed, what is wrong? "