Tag Archives: Desires

Living thoughtfully and without extravagance

There are problems associated with having too little, and problems associated with having too much. But who is prepared to have just enough?

Epicurus acknowledges that we have basic requirements that need to be met, but these are not great. Fulfilling basic needs brings great happiness if we have the right outlook on life:

The body asks not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold; and someone who has these things and expects to have them could compete even with Zeus for happiness (Vatican Saying 33).

Wanting more than we need is not likely to make us happier. There are natural limits, and failure to observe limits will inevitably bring unhappiness. If enough is too little for us, nothing will be enough for us (Vatican Saying 68). The desire for more has no end and no fulfilment:

The wealth of nature is both limited and easily obtained; the wealth of false expectations goes on and on to infinity (Principal Doctrine 15).

It is not necessarily wrong to have more than the basic necessities, but we need to be aware that extravagance brings difficulties with it:

I relish the pleasure I feel in my poor body, having bread and water, and I say phooey to the pleasures of extravagance, not on their own account but because of the difficulties that result from them (Epicurus (ascribed), unidentified letter, quoted in Stobaeus, Anthology 3.17.33 (Wachsmuth and Hense) (Usener 181)).

To want too much is to invite the very sense of disturbance which we need to overcome in order to be happy.

It is better for you to lie on a bed of straw and be confident (about life) than to suffer inner disturbance though you have a golden couch and dine at great expense (Epicurus (ascribed), unidentified text, quoted in Porphyry, Letter to Marcella 29 (Usener 207)).

Why, then, do we find it difficult to be content with just enough, when enough is adequate for our needs? Vatican Saying 63 indicates two reasons: an approach to life which overruns limits; but also a lack of thought, which makes it hard for us to recognize the adequacy of limited resources.

Thoughts for the Day, September 18: ‘It is possible to live decently with meagre resources which the unreflecting person finds about as hard as does the person whose life runs to excess through a failure to observe limits’ (Vatican Sayings 63).

Never satisfied

According to Vatican Saying 59 (quoted below), if we eat too much it is not our stomach’s fault but our fault for having exaggerated ideas of how much our stomach needs.

This view is connected with the Epicurean doctrine of limits. The idea of limits is explained by a number of basic principles, which might be expressed as follows: (1) as living organisms we have needs and desires which we understand in terms of pleasure and pain; (2) for well-being and happiness we must satisfy our needs appropriately; (3) nature supplies what we need; (4) what we need is easy to get; (5) there are limits to what nature supplies; (6) there are limits to what we need; (7) we are inclined to desire too much; (8) accordingly we need to impose limits on our desires; (9) if we observe natural limits we can achieve settled pleasure and thus happiness; (10) if we desire too much (thinking that excess will give us happiness) we will cause ourselves unnecessary pain and distress (and thus bring on ourselves unhappiness).

Desires that do not accord with natural limits reflect ‘empty opinions’ or ‘false expectations’ (κεναὶ δόξαι). These are wrong conclusions that we can draw about our needs and resources. The evidence available to us is clear in nature, but we can form false opinions about it, and as a result give ourselves trouble and unhappiness. Philosophy enables us to interpret the evidence rationally and adjust our thoughts and behaviour to the demands of reality.

These questions are illuminated by a range of Epicurean sayings. Principal Doctrine 15 sums up the matter succinctly:

The wealth of nature is both limited and easily obtained; the wealth of false expectations goes on and on to infinity.

Other relevant sayings include: Principal Doctrines 3, 8, 10, 18, 20, 21, 22, 24; Vatican Sayings 21, 26, 29, 30, 33, 37, 68, 69, 71.

Thoughts for the Day, September 14: ‘It is not (as most people say) the stomach that is never satisfied, but an expectation – a false expectation – that an unlimited amount is needed to fill a stomach.’ (Vatican Sayings 59.)

Life is to be valued and respected

The interpretation of Vatican Saying 38 turns on the meaning of μικρὸς παντάπασιν, literally ‘altogether small.’ In what way is a person to be considered ‘altogether small’ for thinking that there are many good reasons for leaving life (εἰς ἐξαγωγὴν βίου)?

On general grounds one can see that Epicurus would be arguing on the basis of his view of nature as an abundant provider of all that we need for a happy life. Given the wealth that is available from nature, and given that we are capable of discovering this wealth and choosing to benefit from it, it is up to us human beings to learn how to enjoy it, and it is our own fault if we decide that life is not worth living. Pain and suffering should not deter us (Epicurus would argue) because they occur within tolerable limits. Our main problem is in adjusting our outlook and desires to what we naturally need and what nature supplies in fulfilment of our needs. Presumably a person is ‘altogether small’ who cannot adequately appreciate, or who refuses to appreciate, what nature and life have to offer.

This approach, which addresses a failure of insight and imagination, may be contrasted with the approach taken by Aristotle in his Nicomachaean Ethics (Book V 1138a 5-14). The text there is evidently somewhat confused and difficult to translate and interpret, but it is at least clear that Aristotle is treating the question in the context of justice and injustice. It is unjust to kill another person except under specified circumstances; is it then unjust to kill oneself? Is suicide an instance of a person both committing and suffering injustice at the same time? Aristotle seems to accept an officially sanctioned view that, because there is a voluntary element, it is an offence against the state. Whether there is injustice to the individual is a question (he says) that falls under the heading of the voluntary suffering of injustice, discussed in an earlier passage, where he decides that being treated unjustly is involuntary (1136b2-14).

We might deduce from this (the argument does not seem completely worked out) that suicide is partly voluntary and partly involuntary – surely not an inappropriate assessment; though it might alternatively be thought of as an anomaly in which passive injustice is voluntary, in combination with active injustice.

Both Aristotle and Epicurus are in the fortunate position of being able to look upon the matter from the point of view of detached reason, something presumably in short supply for a vulnerable person. It seems likely that Epicurus’ condemnation of a proponent of suicide is directed not at a person at immediate risk but at philosophers (such as the Stoics?) whose reasoning may put a person at risk. From an Epicurean perspective, their ‘many sensible reasons’ evaporate and the insignificance of the thinker becomes apparent when the alleged reasons are measured by more comprehensive philosophical standards. Nature provides a strong basis for optimism not pessimism, and it is faulty reasoning to see reality in a dim light.

Thoughts for the Day, August 29: ‘It is degrading for a person to hold that there are many sensible reasons for committing suicide’ (Vatican Sayings 38).

The literature includes Michael Cholbi, ‘Suicide’, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 18/5/2004, revised 29/7/2008.

The line between pushing and persuading

Vatican Saying 21 indicates how we should interact with nature, with particular reference to our desires. Care is needed in exploring the nuances of the terminology which Epicurus uses in advising us how to treat nature.

The word βιαστέον, translated below as ‘to be pressed’, may also be translated ‘to be resisted’ or ‘to be forced’. Thus in Euripides, Rhesus, line 584, ἡμῖν δ’ οὐ βιαστέον τύχην has been translated ‘against fate we must not strive’ (E.P. Coleridge, 1891), or ‘We cannot force Fortune against her will’ (G. Murray, 1913). Both senses – ‘resist’ and ‘force’ – have been used by translators in interpreting Vatican Saying 21.

The next phrase in the saying is also open to contrasting interpretations. The word πειστέον, translated below as ‘to be satisfied’, is found with the senses ‘persuade’ and ‘obey’, opposites seen in the usage of the parent verb πείθω, ‘persuade’, ‘prevail upon’, or in another form (πείθομαι) ‘be persuaded’, ‘obey’ (there are other meanings as well).

In some contexts ‘persuade’ may be rendered in English by ‘satisfy’, with the meaning of persuading someone to be satisfied that something is the case, as in Matthew 28:14 (‘satisfy’ RSV) and 1 John 3:19 (‘reassure’ RSV); the verb in both passages is πείσομεν.

I suggest that the sense in Vatican Saying 21 may be illustrated by the example of eating until satisfied (to use that word in another sense: filled or fulfilled). Eating just enough persuades nature to come to a settled state of pleasure; eating too much would be to force nature beyond the appropriate limit. To eat just enough is to fulfil a natural and necessary desire; to eat too much would be unnecessary and possibly harmful; to eat an extra delicacy might vary the natural pleasure of eating without harm. In dealing with nature, a fine judgment is required to achieve harmless and maximum enjoyment.

Further analysis is needed. See also ‘Classifying desires’.

Thoughts for the Day, August 14: ‘Nature is not to be pressed but to be satisfied; and we will satisfy nature by fulfilling necessary desires, and (other) natural desires if they do not cause harm, and by rigorously rejecting harmful desires’ (Vatican Sayings 21).

Eagerness can mislead us

As discussed yesterday (‘Classifying desires’), in Principal Doctrine 29 Epicurus divides desires into natural and necessary, natural and unnecessary, and neither natural nor necessary. Julia Annas, in her Morality of Happiness (1993), finds this three-fold classification somewhat awkward, especially because in her view Epicurus has not given a sufficient explanation of the theoretical basis for the system, and in particular has not explained exactly what he means by nature (see pp. 190 ff.).

Moreover, Annas points out, Principal Doctrine 30 indicates a complicating factor. She translates the saying in the following way (p. 192):

When there is an intense effort in those natural desires which lead to no pain if not gratified, these come about in a way that depends on empty belief, and they fail to be dispelled, not because of their own nature, but because of the person’s empty opinionating [kenodoxia].

This saying looks back to Principal Doctrine 26, which I translate as follows:

Those desires which do not lead to pain if left unfulfilled are not necessary and involve a longing that readily dissipates whenever they seem difficult to achieve or causative of harm.

These two sayings appear to involve a possible contradiction. From PD 29 we learn that desires which are neither natural nor necessary are characterized by ‘empty belief.’ (I have translated κενὴν δόξαν as ‘false expectations’, without however wishing to exclude ‘empty belief’; I hope to discuss this issue separately.) PD 26 refers to natural desires which are not necessary, presumably not because of empty belief (since being natural they have a natural justification) but only because no pain results. PD 30 also refers to natural desires which involve no pain (and so must be unnecessary), but here ‘false belief’ is attached because of the strength of the desire. This means that one can have a desire which is natural but not necessary and yet be guilty of empty belief.

Annas seeks to clarify the issue by proposing a two-stage process which involves first of all desires which are generic (such as the desire for food or drink) and then desires which are specific (such as the desire for a particular food). On this basis we can classify generic desires into natural or empty, and specific desires also into natural and empty. Thus one can have a natural generic desire which leads to either a natural specific desire or an empty specific desire, the difference reflecting a person’s attitude and beliefs. For example (as Annas suggests) a person may be excessively keen on having lobster instead of willing to eat any food that satisfies hunger.

The subject requires further analysis. We need to be on the look-out for additional information, as the alleged lack of explanation on Epicurus’ part may be to some extent attributable to limited evidence. We also have to read the available evidence carefully. Annas eventually finds that, ‘Epicurus’ notion of nature is thus considerably more subtle than is often thought’ (p. 195). An adequate appreciation of Epicurus’ system of desires clearly calls for a progressively deeper understanding of the Epicurean outlook. As Annas says, ‘Plainly, then, we shall not make headway in identifying empty beliefs until we have taken on quite a lot of Epicurean theory’ (p. 196).

Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness, Oxford – New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.

Thoughts for the Day, July 23: ‘In the case of natural desires that do not lead to pain if left unfulfilled, some are pursued with intense eagerness but they too arise from false expectations; the fact that they are not dissipated is not because of their own basis in nature but because of the false reasoning of the human being’ (Principal Doctrines 30).

Classifying desires

Principal Doctrine 29 sums up a key distinction in Epicurean ethics between three types of desires, classified as natural and necessary, natural but not necessary, and neither natural nor necessary. An explanation of the differences between the types is given in a marginal note against Principal Doctrine 29 in a manuscript of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers. According to the note:

Epicurus holds as natural and necessary those that give relief from pain, such as drinking to relieve thirst; natural but not necessary those that only vary pleasure but do not remove a feeling of pain, such as expensive foods; and neither natural nor necessary things like crowns and the setting up of statues.

Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus (127) gives further information on desires that are natural and necessary: ‘some are necessary for happiness, some for dealing with bodily troubles, and some for life itself’. Not all natural desires are necessary. Desires which are not natural are ‘baseless’ or ‘empty’ (κεναί). Not being natural, they are not necessary either, but this is not explicitly stated in the letter.

Julia Annas discusses Epicurus’ distinctions in a chapter on ‘The Epicureans: Rethinking What Is Natural’ in her Morality of Happiness (1993). She explains (p. 190) that ‘empty’ desires are those based on an empty belief, which means a belief that is not only false but futile or pointless, producing harm and dysfunction. She compares for the meaning Sophocles, Electra 330-331 (which speaks of gratifying ‘empty things’ (of an emotional kind) in ‘futile anger’). Natural desires are not merely true but based in human nature. Necessary desires are for things that we need rather than simply want; we can also have natural desires that will not result in pain if they are not fulfilled, and so are not necessary (p. 192). Annas sees some difficulties in Epicurus’ distinctions; these can be considered shortly in discussing Principal Doctrine 30.

Marginal note (scholion): cf. Hermann Usener (ed.), Epicurea, Leipzig, Teubner, 1887, p. 78. ‘Crowns’ refers to wreaths or garlands as public awards or symbols of civic status; Annas translates ‘garlands of honour’ (p. 190). Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness, Oxford – New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.

Thoughts for the Day, July 22: ‘Some of our desires are natural and necessary, some are natural but unnecessary, and some are neither natural nor necessary but arise through false expectations’ (Principal Doctrines 29).