Hellenistic Philosophy and Art: Views on Emotions


The breakdown of the poleis (Greek city-states), which occurred after Alexander’s death, left a majority of the people feeling alone and frightened. In order to regain what they had lost, the Greeks turned to upcoming cultural movements, each of which tried to provide them with a sense of community and belonging. Among the most remarkable upcoming cultural movements were the schools of philosophy that were established and restored during the Hellenistic period. Inwood et al. (1999).

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The power that philosophy had on the people of the Hellenistic period manifests itself in art. Cooper, John. (1989) observed that “although some of the artwork generated during the Hellenistic period reflected the beliefs of the philosophical schools, much of the artwork called Hellenistic baroque stands in contrast to a main belief of the Hellenistic philosophy: the suppression of emotions.” The Laocoon is one artwork that contradicts Epicurus’ teachings on emotions. Long, A. A. (1986).

Hellenistic philosophy

The hellenistic world was influenced by the teachings of Epicurus. He taught;

  1. desire that cannot be achieved causes pain, and therefore people should desire what they can attain;
  2. the world has atoms that move about randomly,
  3. gods should not be feared because they have no concerns with the affairs of the people and,
  4. people should not fear death.

To achieve the aims, Epicurus advocated that people ought to withdraw from society and live only with those people with similar believes. Long, A. A. (1986). He taught that strength comes if you do not have anger or feelings of favour toward anyone. Cooper, John. (1989).

To be angry with somebody is because he has hurt you, and if you show hostility towards him, you are admitting your inferiority. He also taught that if you admire someone, you are showing inferiority by thinking that another person is greater than you are. Epicurus also denounced fear. “Any device whatever by which one frees himself from the fear of others is a natural good.” Long, A. A. (1986). Fearing another person testifies to inferiority, and admitting inferiority is a sign of weakness.

On the other hand, the basic teaching of Skepticism was that the ability to achieve certain knowledge about any of the topics of philosophical concern was very remote. Far better to own up to this and seek ‘tranquillity and happiness through suspension of judgment’ Long, A. A. et al. (1987). Pyrrho of Elis was the first commemorated Skeptic. His position was that we could only know how things appear to us, and we cannot determine discrepancies as to what appears. Sceptics tried to weaken the supposed certainties of all their other philosophical competitors. “While this might seem to limit it to making only a negative contribution, Skepticism did at least provide a voice for humility and tolerance, although the Skeptics themselves did not always practice those qualities”. Brennan, Tad. (2003).pp54

The Greek and Roman Stoics were the great passion theorists of antiquity. They were deeply interested in the emotions, which they understood as intricate judgments about what we regard as precious in our surroundings. They came up with impressive analyses and classifications of the passions, arguing powerfully in favour of the view that they are essentially evaluative judgments that attribute to things or persons outside our control. Becker, Lawrence C. (1998).

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According to stoics, emotions should be removed from human life. Moved especially by the damage done by anger in community life and convinced that there is no getting rid of anger without getting rid of the attachments to externals that are also involved in love and grief and fear, they came to the radical conclusion that we can stop cruelty and violence only by cultivating utter detachment from everything that used to matter to us.

They then tried courageously to show that we could motivate an active concern for humanity without relying on emotion. Removing emotions is not expected to be like removing false beliefs about more trivial matters: ‘because the evaluations involved are transmitted early through social and parental teaching, they have become deeply habitual and can be changed, if at all, only through a lifetime of patient effort. Their hope was that as this effort if exercised with greater success, the personality as a whole would become enlightened”. Becker, Lawrence C. (1998).

Hellenistic art

The hellenistic sculpture is concerned with showing inner emotion and taking artistic risks. The removal of emotions was a major part of Epicurus’ teachings. Long, A. A. (1986). This tenet stands in severe contrast to an artistic movement of the Hellenistic Period. According to Janson (1974). Baroque art displays “a theatrical manner of representation which emphasizes emotional intensity….” One piece of artwork that shows this baroque style and stands in sharp contrast to Epicurus’ teachings on emotions is the sculpture Laocoon that challenges Epicurean philosophy that deals with the fear of the gods. Cooper, John. (1989).

Epicurus tells us that we should not fear the gods because the gods are not concerned with human affairs, and any kind of fear makes a person weak. However, the gods send the serpents to kill Laocoon because they are against Troy and want to see it destroyed.

Epicurus advocated the control of emotions because they brought weakness, which leads to living unreasonably. According to Epicurus, “pain will not last forever, and it will help one accept pleasure more when it comes”. Cooper, John. (1989).pp 34. Accordingly, fear for gods is a weakness because the gods care less about humans. “Yet, in the Laocoon, we see the pain of the three men, and we know the reason for that pain, ignoring the gods.

Laocoon indicates that pain can last a long time, even forever, and that fear of the gods is necessary in order to stay alive. We see that much of Hellenistic baroque artwork displays the same disdain for Epicurus’ idea of suppression of emotions. Laocoon is an excellent example of this rejection of Epicurean principles.” Cooper, John. (1989).

Another bold break from the classical tradition is seen in the example of, Apoxyomenos (The Scraper) that was done by the Greek artist Lysippus [330 B.C.] Here, the arms of the athlete as he cleans himself with a scraper tool are shoved forward toward the viewer in an unprompted and liberation manner. According to Janson (1974), “this artistic choice represents a bold break from the Classical tradition even at the risk of partially obstructing the view of the athlete’s torso. The athlete’s free leg is widened crossways predicting the beginning of freedom, expressionism, and three-dimensional movement evident in Hellenistic art.”

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In the Dying Gaul, Cooper, John. (1989) observed that “though the warrior’s legs no longer work, his body strength is in his arms as he tries to keep an unseen weight from crushing him…the warrior’s form is full of self-respect; the statue reminds suffering for the dying warrior, even though he is an enemy”. In the Barberini Faun, a drunken satyr, apparently passed out, is seized in an uncomfortable sleep. His face proves the uneasiness of a worrying dream, and his right arm shakes probably against his will. Similar to the “Dying Gaul,” the “Barberini Faun” shows the expression that belies underlying emotion that is so prevalent in Hellenistic art. Cooper, John. (1989).


Becker, Lawrence C. (1998). A New Stoicism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Brennan, Tad. (2003). Stoic Moral Psychology, in Brad Inwood, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, 257-294.

Cooper, John. (1989). Greek Philosophers on Euthanasia and Suicide, in Brody, B.A. ed., Suicide and Euthanasia. Dordrecht, 9-38.

Inwood, Brad and Donini, Pierluigi. (1999). Stoic ethics, in Algra, Keimpe, et al. eds. The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 675-738.

Long, A. A. (1986). Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics. 2nd ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Long, A. A. et al. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers, Volume 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schofield, Malcolm. Stoic Ethics, in Brad Inwood, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, 233-256.

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Janson, H.W. (1974).History of Art. N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

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