Tag Archives: Fear

Be thoughtful rather than mournful

Vatican Saying 66 (quoted below) encourages thoughtfulness instead of lamentation. It seems most likely that the saying refers to circumstances in which a friend has died.

In the Epicurean view, sadness at death is alleviated or even removed by the consideration that death is a natural part of the way things are. So long as it is not untimely, death does not prevent us from enjoying a life of happiness and fulfilment, and does not take away from a life well lived.

Epicurus emphasized the possibilities for pleasure and contentment in this life and condemned the wastefulness of allowing fears about death to spoil the enjoyment of life. From the playwright Menander, a contemporary of Epicurus, we have a fragment which reflects a philosophical appreciation for the natural wonders of this life. The following is an adaptation.

I call that person happiest, my friend,
Who has the chance to look upon the sun
That lights us all, to gaze up to the stars,
To see the clouds, and water, and the fire
Of lightning in the sky – these things so great
And grand and wonderful; and who has learned
To live without distress, and known such joys
That one can go as quickly as we come,
To that dispersion whence we all are formed;
Not only we but those things marvellous
That you will see always, though you live
A hundred years or only very few.
And greater things than these you will not see,

Thoughts for the Day, September 21: ‘Let us sympathize with our friends not with wailing but with thoughtfulness’ (Vatican Sayings 66).

Verses: SRP after Menander, fr. 373, from the play The Counterfeit Baby, or The Rustic (Ὑποβολιμαῖος ἢ Ἄγροικος, trans. Allinson). An old edition of the Greek is available online (A. Meineke (ed.), Menandri et Philemonis reliquiae, Berlin, 1823, p. 166, from Stobaeus). A text and translation are given in the Loeb edition of Menander (an older version by F.G. Allinson is available online; the more recent edition by W.G. Arnott should also be consulted). The dramatic context is not exactly Epicurean; it suggests that a short visit is better than a long stay, whereas in the Epicurean view old age has special advantages. I have adapted the sense in a number of ways in an Epicurean direction.

See also ‘A life that is finite but full and complete’; ‘Staying in control whatever happens’; ‘Making life better, becoming happier’.

Professors and doctors

In the Epicurean way of thinking, philosophy is something that we all need to be engaged in. As Epicurus puts it in the Letter to Menoeceus, ‘young and old ought to philosophize’ because this is the way to happiness (122). At the end of the letter he says, ‘Study these and related matters day and night, alone and with a like-minded companion, and awake or asleep you will never be in turmoil’ (135).

If we do not study philosophy and apply its lessons, turmoil, or inner disturbance (ταραχή), is inevitable. This is because philosophy teaches us about reality and about the choices that we need to make to overcome difficulties and achieve happiness.

If this is what philosophy can do, it is clearly silly to treat philosophy as a pursuit detached from everyday needs. To profess to be philosophical without attention to philosophy’s practical role is not to be a real philosopher at all. Everyone needs insights that philosophy provides, and this means that those who can explain the helpfulness of philosophy have a duty to do so.

Vatican Saying 54 (quoted below) compares the need for philosophy with the need for health, and links the two concepts: we need philosophy for its health-giving abilities, and just as we need real health we need real philosophy. Epicurus makes the point more specifically in another passage (quoted in Porphyry, Letter to Marcella 31; Usener 221):

Empty is the message of that philosopher by which no human suffering is cured. For just as the art of medicine is of no use if it does not drive out diseases of the body, nor is philosophy of any use if it does not drive out suffering of the soul.

The ‘suffering of the soul’ (πάθος τῆς ψυχῆς) involves the ‘turmoil’ referred to in the Letter to Menoeceus. What is ‘bad’ in life takes two forms – bodily pain and distress of mind (τὸ ἀλγοῦν, τὸ λυπούμενον, Principal Doctrine 10). For complete health and happiness, we need to deal not only with bodily pain but with mental and emotional distress.

Bodily health is important, but the body can want too much and needs the mind to provide discipline. Thus we read in Principal Doctrine 20:

The body takes the limits of pleasure to be infinite – and infinite time could provide it. The mind takes account of the end and limit of bodily existence, dispels fears about eternity, and provides for a full and complete life…

The need to observe limits and the need to quell unnecessary fears are key reasons for philosophizing. Hence Epicureanism offers us the ‘four-part cure’ as part of our therapy, to dispel fears of gods and death and to explain limits in relation to pleasure and pain. Another important idea with curative power is gratitude. We cannot become easy about misfortunes unless we have gratitude (Vatican Saying 55):

The cure for misfortunes lies in gratitude for what has been lost and the realization that it is impossible to undo what has been done.

In these and other ways, the benefits of philosophy are intensely and profoundly practical. If we can develop into more knowledgeable and better people through philosophy, that is all well and good, but the purpose is not to receive acclaim for doing so. As Epicurus puts it (Vatican Saying 64):

Praise from others must follow spontaneously, while we attend to curing ourselves.

And we cannot promote well-being in the wider world without curing ourselves.

Thoughts for the Day, September 11: ‘We must not pretend to philosophize, but really philosophize. For we do not need to seem healthy, but to be healthy in reality.’ (Vatican Sayings 54).

Dreams are a natural phenomenon

At the beginning of the second book of the Iliad, Zeus decides to do honour to the warrior Achilles in the war against Troy and to achieve this hits on a plan which he then begins to put into effect. He dispatches a ‘baneful dream’ (οὖλον ὄνειρον, line 6) to King Agamemnon with a false message: the immortals on Mount Olympus are now of one mind and will give the Achaeans victory over the Trojans, and the city of Troy will fall. The dream, conceived of as a creature addressed by Zeus, went and stood at the sleeping Agamemnon’s head in the likeness of the trusted figure Nestor, and delivered the message. On waking, Agamemnon summoned his men but told the dream first to the council of elders. Among them was Nestor himself, who declared that they might have deemed the dream false if it had been reported by someone other than the trusted Agamemnon.

In dealing with dreams, the issue of trust was a daunting problem. How much trust could be placed in dreams? On what basis could they be reliably interpreted? To what extent might they contain true prophecies? The literary evidence encouraged belief in dreams as bearers of important messages, but also raised doubts as to how far dreams could be trusted. On a traditional view, one could not afford to disregard dreams in case they were significant, but one had to be careful not to misunderstand their meaning. A professional interpreter of dreams (ὀνειροπόλος, ὀνειροκρίτης etc.) could be called in to advise, but there might still be a great deal of room for anxious uncertainty.

Natural philosophy stepped in to allay all these concerns. Aristotle sought to explain dreams as the remnants of waking sense impressions. As we find in Vatican Saying 24, Epicurus explained dreams in terms of the atomist structure of the universe: every object gives off a thin film of particles (hence we are able to see things when their emanations strike the eye) and very fine emanations can penetrate into our thoughts and present themselves as what we call dreams. Emanations could come from near or far – they could even come from divinely happy beings dwelling beyond the earth in inter-cosmic spaces. Hence in dreams we can see a great variety of images, human and otherwise. None of this means that the dream itself is divine or prophetic; quite the opposite. A dream is evidence of the emanation of atoms, a phenomenon accessible to scientific description.

Modern scientific explanations are necessarily more advanced, but the principle remains that a scientific understanding of the human organism must be brought to bear to place the phenomenon of dreams accurately and reliably in the overall scheme of things – the objective which Epicurus had in formulating his theory. Sound scientific enquiry replaces superstition, exposes false information and dispels unnecessary fears.

Thoughts for the Day, August 16: ‘Dreams do not have allotted to them a divine nature or prophetic power, but occur through the impact of emanations’ (Vatican Sayings 24).

Rightly anxious about doing wrong

In the Epicurean approach to justice and its implementation, the fear of being found out for doing wrong is understood as a key deterrent. In focusing on this fear, Epicurus is making an appeal to a person’s desire for happiness. If we commit an injustice, the worry and fear will inevitably disturb us and impair our prospects of happiness well into the future.

Vatican Saying 7 (see below) is one of a number of sayings which refer to the fear of detection aroused by wrong-doing. Other sayings already considered are Principal Doctrine 17 (see ‘Justice and calmness’), Principal Doctrine 34 (see ‘Injustice and the fear of punishment’) and Principal Doctrine 35 (see ‘A fear to be avoided’).

Moreover, Principal Doctrine 5 makes the point that we cannot live pleasantly without living justly (see ‘Wisdom, goodness, justice, pleasure’). The same point is made in the Letter to Menoeceus §132. Pleasure is spoilt not only for those who suffer injustice but for those who are guilty of injustice.

Thoughts for the Day, August 4: ‘It is difficult for a person who does the wrong thing to escape notice, and impossible to be sure of escaping notice’ (Vatican Sayings 7).

A fear to be avoided

Principal Doctrine 35 warns that a wrong-doer can escape detection ten thousand times and still not be confident of never being found out. The saying reinforces the point made in Principal Doctrine 34 that the fear that unjust behaviour may come to the notice of authorities is a defining feature of injustice (discussed in yesterday’s entry, ‘Injustice and the fear of punishment’).

In translating Principal Doctrine 35 in his recent book Pursuits of Wisdom (2012, p. 257), John M. Cooper prefers a textual variant (the preposition ἀπό before τοῦ παρόντος) which leads him to translate, ‘even if from the present time [forward] he has tens of thousands of escapes’. Cooper argues that ‘from the present time’ is more suitable than the alternative ‘at the present moment’.

However, it seems worth pursuing the possible nuances (reading ἐπί instead of ἀπό) of ἐπὶ τοῦ παρόντος followed by λανθάνῃ. At least in later centuries the meaning of ἐπὶ τοῦ παρόντος appears regularly to have been ‘for the present’ rather than ‘at the present moment’. For example, in Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 18.15.6, οὗτος δὲ κρίνας ἐπὶ τοῦ παρόντος ἡσυχίαν ἔχειν means ‘he decided to keep the peace (that is, avoid fighting) for the present’; translating ‘at the present moment’ would be inappropriate to the context.

With reference to motion ἐπί can mean ‘to’ as well as ‘at’, and a combination of both. (Note ἐπὶ Σάμου in a letter of Epicurus preserved in P. Oxy. LXXVI 5077.) Given this usage, it is easier to envisage a similar combination of senses with reference to time: ‘up to and at’ a particular time. This would give a straightforward sequence of thought in Principal Doctrine 35: even if a wrong-doer has often escaped detection up to the present time, there is no guarantee of escape in the future.

The sense ‘for the present’ may be retained by translating ‘even after escaping notice for the present ten thousand times’. The translation by Eugene O’Connor has this sense but with a different number: ‘even if for the present he escapes detection a thousand times’ (Essential Epicurus, p. 74). Inwood and Gerson’s ‘in current circumstances’ is only superficially similar (Epicurus Reader, p. 35).

Cooper indicates (p. 257 n. 32) that there are other prepositions in the manuscript evidence which also have to be taken into account. The matter needs further consideration to settle the meaning of the saying.

John M. Cooper, Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 2012, p. 257, citing a preference for reading ἀπό in J.-F. Balaudé, Diogène Laërce [Jean-François Balaudé et al., avec la collaboration de Michel Patillon, sous la direction de Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé, Diogène Laërce: Vies et doctrines des philosophes illustrés, 2nd ed. (Pochothèque: Classiques modernes), Paris, Livre de Poche/ Librairie Générale Française, 1999; not available to me].

Thoughts for the Day, July 28: ‘A person who does something in secret against what has been mutually agreed upon as to not harming or being harmed cannot be sure of escaping notice, even after escaping notice for the present ten thousand times; until death it will be unclear whether escape is possible’ (Principal Doctrines 35).

20/8/2012. The entry has been amended to record further translation possibilities and the wording of the saying in Thoughts for the Day has been altered to read ‘… even after escaping notice for the present ten thousand times…’ instead of ‘… even after escaping ten thousand times up to the present moment…’.