Tag Archives: Chance

Within our power

Human-divine relations were a preoccupation of the ancient Greek poetic tradition. Bred of awe and fear, the notion was persistent that nothing much could be done without the assistance or intervention of the gods.

Quotations in later authors illustrate the theme. For example, Theophilus, a second-century bishop of Antioch, uses a series of excerpts to show the variety and contradictions in the tradition (To Autolycus 2.8).

One of the authors he quotes is Simonides (late sixth – early fifth century BC), who says that no city, no mortal, can have excellence without the gods; God is all-knowing, all-planning, all-contriving (παμμῆτις), while nothing in human life is free from harm, nothing without misery (οὐδὲν ἀπήμαντον).

An attitude of dependence on divine power and influence naturally inspired prayer in time of need or danger, to gain a benefit or to avert an ill. Surely this was part of the divine plan, to drive humans to despair so that they would acknowledge their limitations?

Epicurus rejected poetry as a guide to theology and dismissed educational practices which taught students to absorb poetic notions of the gods into their way of thinking. Direct study of nature led to quite different conclusions, with important practical consequences.

Vatican Saying 65 suggests the obvious, that there are many things in life which people can organize for themselves without any need to seek supernatural assistance. Where, then, is the line to be drawn between what we can do for ourselves and what we may hope a greater power will do for us?

In Epicurean terms, there are only three large-scale factors at work affecting our lives: necessity (according to fixed universal conditions), chance (very variable), and human agency. The universe is big enough for the development somewhere of beings more advanced and happier than we are, but wherever they may be they do not intervene in our lives (they would not be as happy as they are if they involved themselves in our difficulties).

From undone shoe-laces to a warming planet, we can only blame ourselves if we fail to identify possible solutions and pursue responsible options.

Simonides: The fragment is translated in M.L. West, Greek Lyric Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics), Oxford – New York, Oxford University Press, 1999/ 2008, p. 163 (no. 526).

Thoughts for the Day, September 20: ‘What one is able to supply for oneself it is pointless to ask for from the gods’ (Vatican Sayings 65).

Staying in control whatever happens

Vatican Saying 47 (quoted below) seems best explained as a declaration of confidence in the face of approaching death. Life is full of challenges, and one of the largest challenges is to ensure that one’s life is guided as far as possible by reason rather than chance. This is possible for a wise person (Principal Doctrine 16):

For a wise person chance is of brief effect, whereas reason, having organized the greatest and most important matters in the past, continues to do so throughout life and into the future.

The imminence of death is a challenge in itself: can a philosophically minded person maintain a confident attitude as the final months and days and hours of one’s life dwindle to nothing? Of some assistance is the fact that, as time and circumstances close in and opportunities narrow, there is a smaller field for chance (ἡ τύχη) to have much effect. The chanciest phases of one’s life are behind, including the youthful phase when there is so much uncertainty: ‘For the young person in the flower of youth roves about distracted by chance events’ (ὑπὸ τῆς τύχης ἑτεροφρονῶν, Vatican Saying 17). In contrast, the old person’s activities are more constrained. Ironically, the less of life there is to go, the more freedom a person has (one might say) from the effects of chance. The great, life-long battle with chance is mostly over. And so, as Vatican Saying 47 puts it:

Chance, I have got the better of you, and I have closed off all your ways of entrance; and we will not yield ourselves up to you or any other circumstance.

Necessity remains; but no one can effectively fight against the force of universal necessity. It is, as the Letter to Menoeceus says, ‘beyond anyone’s control’, whereas ‘chance is variable’ or ‘unstable’ (τὴν μὲν ἀνάγκην ἀνυπεύθυνον … τὴν δὲ τύχην ἄστατον, § 133). And at the very end, as Vatican Saying 47 states in unequivocal and perhaps somewhat confronting terms, one must let go of life, declining to hold on to something that cannot be held on to any longer.

Life has to be dismissed as meaning nothing further for the person who is going from it. The important question is whether the time up to that stage was used well. It is obviously by then too late to try to live a better life. Happy is the person who can look back on a life well lived, and fortunate those who still have time to understand and heed the message of the final victory cry.

Thoughts for the Day, September 7: ‘Chance, I have got the better of you, and I have closed off all your ways of entrance; and we will not yield ourselves up to you or any other circumstance. But when the inevitable takes us off, we will spit mightily on life and those who vainly cling to it, and go from life with a beautiful victory song, proclaiming, ‘We have lived well.’’ (Vatican Sayings 47).

The wise person’s treasure

The idea of self-sufficiency (αὐτάρκεια) was found to be an important focus for investigation in the ancient Greek philosophical tradition. Aristotle discusses self-sufficiency in relation to politics, economics, society and personal life and happiness. For if one could say what a community, a group or an individual needs to be self-sufficient, that would surely show how to define the ideal condition of living.

The notion of self-sufficiency helps to integrate a wide range of ethical considerations. To achieve a clear understanding of how to live life in the best way possible, we have to co-ordinate many ideas into a coherent world-view. The ethical relevance of a world-view can be framed in terms of need and fulfilment, and thinking about self-sufficiency can help us to answer the questions: what do we need? and how much do we need?

Epicurean ethical thought emphasizes the role of pleasure as the goal of nature. Pleasure and pain are dominating facts of life for terrestrial living organisms. Knowing how to live pleasantly is vital for survival and well-being and hence happiness. We have to ‘be careful for the things that produce happiness, for if we have happiness we have everything, and if we lack happiness we do everything to have it’ (Letter to Menoeceus 122).

The way we think about life, and the decisions we make in seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, have a determining effect on the course of our lives. Our ability to use reason to organize our lives is even more significant than the influence of chance (Principal Doctrine 16). Reason and decision-making take us into the realms of wisdom, goodness and justice, which are inseparably linked with pleasure as vital for successful living (Principal Doctrine 5).

As living organisms we cannot live successfully without being sustained by natural goods. Our bodies need food, drink and warmth (Vatican Saying 33); we need security, that is protection against hostile forces (Principal Doctrine 14); in particular we need the security of friendship (Principal Doctrine 28) and the security of a quiet life in which we preserve independence of thought (Principal Doctrine 14).

Having basic necessities and security to sustain and protect life is not enough for happiness. Happiness requires both freedom from bodily pain and freedom from distress of soul. Within the body we have a ‘soul’ with complex mental and emotional functioning, and we need knowledge and skills to stabilize and settle our thoughts and feelings. For this purpose – to achieve freedom from inner disturbance – we need an adequate understanding of the world around us, and science and philosophy have the role of supplying this requirement. It is no use having protection on a mundane level if we are afraid of the universe (Principal Doctrines 12, 13).

Also to achieve freedom from inner disturbance we need not only the supply of our needs but the confidence that they will be supplied. The main reason why we can have this confidence is that nature provides abundantly and the wealth of nature is easily obtained. At the same time there are natural limits which we must observe. To desire too much is to cause ourselves disturbance; we have to be satisfied with enough. Natural limits do not prevent us from having enough, and we are fortunate that there are limits not only to pleasant things but to painful things (Principal Doctrine 4).

Understanding the universe and understanding the limits of pains and desires are of key importance (Principal Doctrine 11). Part of our understanding of the universe is that we decline to be troubled about the gods and about death. The gods of a material universe give us no trouble (Principal Doctrine 1), and death is nothing to us because we are no longer there to be disturbed by it (Principal Doctrine 2). We cannot have any security against death (Vatican Saying 31) but nor should we fear it. There is no distressing afterlife to be worried about.

Wisdom makes many contributions to our happiness. ‘Of all these things the beginning and the greatest good is practical wisdom. Hence practical wisdom is more valuable than even philosophy. From practical wisdom the other virtues spring’ (Letter to Menoeceus 132). Wisdom helps us to embrace the positives of life (Letter to Menoeceus 126), and to limit the effects of chance (Principal Doctrine 16). Wisdom gives us access to other goods. Best of all, wisdom organizes for us friendship (Principal Doctrine 27). Wisdom is a mortal good, but friendship has a quality of immortality (Vatican Saying 78).

‘If we understand the limits of life, we know that we can easily manage to remove the pain associated with lack and so make the whole of life complete, and therefore that we need none of the things that involve anxious struggle’ (Principal Doctrine 21). As confidence grows and struggle ceases, a wise person senses the greatness of self-sufficiency.

And we regard self-sufficiency as a great good, not so that we always make do with little, but so that if we do not have much we are satisfied with little, being truly convinced that those enjoy the pleasures of luxury most who have least need of luxury, and that everything natural is easy to obtain and everything baseless difficult to obtain. Inexpensive dishes yield as much pleasure as expensive fare when once the pain of need has been taken away; and barley cake and water give the highest pleasure when someone in need consumes them. So being used to a simple and not extravagant life-style is sufficient for full health, makes a person confident about the necessities of life, makes us better at dealing with luxury when that occurs at intervals, and makes us fearless in the face of fortune (Letter to Menoeceus 130-131).

A wise person can relax about personal needs and turn the more readily to helping others, enabled and supported by reserves of insight and confidence developed by ethical living, that personal treasure of self-sufficiency which nature makes possible through philosophy and practical wisdom.

Thoughts for the Day, September 4: ‘Compared (with others) in relation to the necessities of life, the wise person knows how to give rather than take, having gained such a great store of self-sufficiency’ (Vatican Sayings 44).

See also ‘Pleasure in the fulfilment of simple needs’ (26/9/2012).

Thwarted by necessity

If everything in the universe happens according to universal laws, if the way the universe is constructed means that every event proceeds of necessity from what has gone before, if all of existence is subject to a rigid determinism, the impression we may have that we can make free and significant choices must be illusory. No matter how much free will we may seem to exercise, we must be operating according to laws and mechanisms that control our every thought and move.

This kind of approach has been influential in the history of philosophy. Stoicism is well known for it, but even Epicurus’ atomist predecessor Democritus held a deterministic view of physical reality. Epicurus disagreed, and believed there must be some slight deviation from complete rigidity – some slight ‘swerve’ (παρέγκλισις: Usener 280; Latin clinamen) – to explain the behaviour of atoms. This opens the way for life to be influenced by three factors: necessity, chance and human agency – but not all-controlling fate (Letter to Menoeceus 133). Human decision-making can play a large part in shaping the course of our lives: thus in the life of a wise person the most important matters can be organized by the exercise of reason (Principal Doctrine 16).

Seneca the Younger’s Letters to Lucilius provide interesting insights into thought patterns which a Stoic may adopt in an attempt to come to terms with necessity and determinism. For example, in Letter 61 Seneca advises accepting necessity rather than rebelling against it, desiring whatever circumstances require of us and thus never needing to act unwillingly. Then even the prospect of death will not cause sadness, as death is part of the necessary order of things.

The inevitability of death was a key part of the Stoic argument that we must be reconciled to whatever happens. Epicurus took a different approach, rejecting fatalism and emphasizing the fact that circumstances provide opportunities for a positive response. Life is limited in duration but this is an encouragement to make the most of the time available. Gratitude is a powerful factor in responding positively to life, and by casting off unnecessary fears, living according to natural limits and maintaining friendly relations with our fellow human beings we can enjoy a profoundly happy and satisfying life.

Epicurus’ approach was philosophically objectionable to those who saw a need for emotional detachment in the face of hard necessity. Well, says Epicurus in Vatican Saying 40, if everything is controlled by necessity they can have no complaint against my views, which must themselves be part of that necessity to which they wish to be reconciled.

Thoughts for the Day, August 31: ‘If you say that everything happens by necessity, you have no grounds for complaint against someone who says that everything does not happen by necessity; for you are saying that what the person is doing itself happens by necessity’ (Vatican Sayings 40).

How necessary is necessity?

In the Letter to Menoeceus §133, Epicurus discusses the roles of necessity (ἀνάγκη) and chance (τύχη) in human life. In his view, despite the presence of necessity and chance, the human contribution plays a significant part in influencing the way our lives turn out. The course of our lives is not entirely predetermined and beyond our control. Unpredictability in the universe allows us opportunities for choice. (See ‘Choice and responsibility’, where reference is made to the Letter to Menoeceus and to a passage in the author Aetius (1.29.5).)

Vatican Saying 9 is one of a number of Epicurean sayings that refer to necessity, but in this saying it is questionable whether universal necessity is meant. Here Epicurus says that necessity is ‘a bad thing’ (κακόν). The word can mean simply a nuisance, and one might perhaps be inclined to call universal necessity a nuisance. However, the rest of the saying seems inappropriate in relation to the idea of universal necessity: ‘… there is no necessity to live with necessity.’

Does Epicurus mean that we can divert the influence of universal necessity? Or is he referring to the need and poverty of necessitous circumstances? If the latter, the message would be dealing not with the universal necessity which limits our scope for action but with the freedom we have to avoid or overcome, through decision and action, circumstances of need and lack.

A similar point is made in Principal Doctrine 16, with reference to  chance and the power of reason (see ‘Chance and reason’):

For a wise person chance is of brief effect, whereas reason, having organized the greatest and most important matters in the past, continues to do so throughout life and into the future.

The theme of making an effort to avoid the constraints of necessitous conditions of life may be illustrated from a passage in the work of the second-century AD author Maximus of Tyre (Dissertation 3, or 33 in the numbering of Taylor). In an essay on pleasure, Maximus discusses the idea that there can be pleasure in suffering, and gives as an example the efforts made by the Spartans to ensure their independence and freedom. ‘For what can be more painful than fear; what more severe than slavery; what more laborious than necessity?’ (… τί δὲ ἀνάγκης ἐπιπονώτερον, 3.10).

Thoughts for the Day, August 5: ‘Necessity is bad, but there is no necessity to live with necessity’ (Vatican Sayings 9).

Thomas Taylor (trans.), The Dissertations of Maximus Tyrius, vol. II, London, [the author], 1804, pp. 135-145, at p. 144. J.J. Reiske (ed.), Dissertationes Maximi Tyrii, Part I, Leipzig, 1774, p. 45. [See now Michael B. Trapp (ed.), Maximus Tyrius: Dissertationes (Bibliotheca Scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana), Stuttgart, Teubner, 1994; M.B. Trapp (ed. and trans.), Maximus of Tyre: The Philosophical Orations, Oxford, Clarendon, 1997.]

Chance and reason

Greek τύχη (tyche) takes on a variety of meanings at different times and in different circumstances. The word is related to τεύχω (‘make’) and τυγχάνω (‘happen’). It could be used of what a divine being makes happen, the act of a god or the gods. Cyrus of Persia, for example, says that he thinks it was by ‘divine chance’ (θείῃ τύχῃ) that he was born to his role as ruler (Herodotus, History 1.126.6). No doubt he found it useful to be able to claim higher authority for what he was doing.

The exact shade of meaning given to ‘chance’ would depend on one’s views about the influences that shape the course of history. Occurrences could be attributed to supernatural intervention or regarded as purely accidental or random. Chance itself might be elevated to the status of a god. The Stoics, believing the universe to be divine and events predetermined, explained that things proceed according to continuous fated causation (εἱμαρμένη, heimarmenē) under the organizing influence of universal reason (λὁγος, logos; cf. Diogenes Laertius, Lives 7.149) – processes that eliminate the random and accidental, though the divine cannot be blamed for human folly.

Epicurus rejected the idea that fate rules our lives, but accepted that necessity and chance have a role – a view connected with his atomist theory of the universe: objects and events are outcomes of the behaviour of atoms whose collisions and combinations occur on fixed principles but with an element of chance. At the same time, he saw human reason (λογισμός: calculation, reasoning, reason) as capable of being the main organizing influence in people’s lives. Stoic λὁγος diminished the independence and responsibility of human actors; Epicurean λογισμός highlights the moral responsibility of the individual, who has the opportunity to make rational choices which affect human well-being and which deserve praise or blame accordingly (cf. Letter to Menoeceus, 133-135).

Thoughts for the Day, July 10: ‘For a wise person chance is of brief effect, whereas reason, having organized the greatest and most important matters in the past, continues to do so throughout life and into the future’ (Principal Doctrines 16).