Stoas and Skeptics


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OCCASIONALLY Wordsworth is accused of being esoteric – in the pejorative sense of preoccupation with irrelevant obscurities.

If so, this column has an ally in none other than Pythagoras, the man who coined the word philosopher, Greek for “lover of wisdom.”

Apart from his famous theorem, old Pythagoras had some other eccentricities as well. For example, he did not approve of his students being able to see him while he delivered his lectures.

Thus he gave of his wisdom from behind a curtain. Those who could only listen received “exoteric” or outside knowledge. But the chosen few chow were admitted behind the screen were favoured with the “esoteric” version.

Possible the first recorded example of inside information.

Pythagoras’s colleagues have bequeathed us a host of words which now mask their original roots. In Athens there was a garden called academia named after a man called Academus. Plato taught his followers there just as today’s philosophers teach in academics.

Zeno taught in a porch or “stoa”, so his adherents became known as stoics. By all accounts, they were the forerunners of the “stiff upper lip” school who still bear the same name.

The followers of Pyro of El did not just accept fate with fortitude, they doubted the existence of anything they could not verify for themselves. The Greek word “skeptesthai” (to look about provided the name of their school – sceptics – so that any doubter is now said to be sceptical.

School itself is derived from the Greek “schole”, meaning leisure, which might come as a surprise to the pupils who must attend them.

They probably react with cynicism, like Diogenes who took things to extremes by living in a barrel on a diet of break and water. He and his disciples believed that happiness was only to be found by satisfying their needs in the simplest and easiest way and that nothing natural could be improper and or indecent.

This did not endeavour them to their neighbours nor did it encourage a cheerful disposition. They were snarling and currish – and so were called “kynikos” or dog-like.

Thus we now call them cynics, people contemptuous of pleasure and always given to find falut.

Or if you prefer Oscar Wilde’s immortal definition. “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”


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