Tag Archives: Happiness

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’.

Personal well-being, not personal promotion

Victory and renown were core values of the ancient Greek cultural tradition. Epicurus took a counter-cultural approach. We should not be preoccupied with competition and conquest; rather, our aim should be health and happiness. We learn this lesson through philosophical enquiry – enquiry into the nature of the universe, life and the best way to live. And the way to health and happiness is also via philosophy, which teaches us how to live wisely and well.

We seek health and happiness for their own sake, because we are living organisms that desire pleasure and not pain. We can make a mess of life – and we often do make a mess of life – by failing to understand reality adequately and by failing to adjust our attitudes and actions to the demands of reality. We have unnecessary fears and we are inclined to desire too much. Nature is bountiful, and yet so often we make ourselves miserable.

Our attitudes and actions are subject to praise and blame in so far as they contribute, or fail to contribute, to health and happiness. According to the Letter to Menoeceus, life is affected by necessity, chance and human agency, and our role as autonomous agents exposes us to ‘both blame and its opposite’ (καὶ τὸ μεμπτὸν καὶ τὸ ἐναντίον, §133). Praise for correct living is therefore somehow appropriate, but as Vatican Saying 64 indicates (quoted below) our main objective must be to cure ourselves, not to seek praise.

Unhappiness can be cured. For this we need philosophy, as a sick person needs medical assistance. Clearly it must be the right kind of philosophy:

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 (Epicurus (ascribed), unidentified text, quoted in Porphyry, Letter to Marcella 31 (Usener 221)).

In addition, we must be genuine in our philosophical explorations:

We must not pretend to philosophize, but really philosophize. For we do not need to seem healthy, but to be healthy in reality (Vatican Saying 54).

Thoughts for the Day, September 19: ‘Praise from others must follow spontaneously, while we attend to curing ourselves’ (Vatican Sayings 64).

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.)

How to get over misfortunes

It would be possible to emphasize the bad things that have happened in the past, and continually to fill one’s mind with thoughts of what might have been. But what would be the use? We cannot change the past, no matter how much we might wish to do so. And to become preoccupied with negative thoughts can only feed negative emotions such as resentment and revenge. The outcome must necessarily be very far from pleasant. This is not the way to achieve positive progress and to live a happy and constructive life.

Remembering bad things with persistent ingratitude offers no healing for misfortune and can only bring unhappiness. Epicurus recommends a diametrically opposite approach that offers help and healing. This is the message of Vatican Saying 55 (quoted below): by cultivating gratitude not only can we feel better about the past but we can actually cure misfortunes.

Curing misfortunes cannot mean reversing what has happened, since (as the saying indicates) that is impossible. It may mean that in the way we think about misfortunes we can as far as possible turn them to good and neutralize their bad effects; perhaps most pertinently, we can cure the negative effects that misfortunes have on our own way of thinking, and thereby ensure that misfortunes (which are inevitable) will not cause us irremediable distress and undermine our opportunities for happiness.

The same idea is expressed in a quotation which Plutarch includes in his work Against Epicurean Happiness (§18; Usener 436):

Remembering good things that have happened in the past is of the greatest importance for a pleasant life.

Thoughts for the Day, September 12: ‘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.’ (Vatican Sayings 55.)

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).

Hark the herald

The story of Oedipus, the man who unknowingly murdered his father and married his mother, is told by a number of ancient authors, including the Athenian tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. In the Euripidean play The Phoenician Women we learn of some of the effects on the younger generation. (The women of the title are prisoners of war on their way to Delphi; they observe and comment on the action of the play.)

Oedipus was born the son of the king and queen of Thebes, Laius and Jocasta. With a crime in his past and warned by an oracle that if he had a son the son would kill him, Laius exposed Oedipus on a mountain with a spike through his feet (hence the name ‘swollen-foot’). A shepherd rescued him and brought him up as his own son – salvation with a sting, for Oedipus, when later advised by the Delphic oracle that he would kill his father (and marry his mother), believed this applied to his rescuer and fled, but met and killed (in an act of road rage) his real father on the road to Thebes. There he married the widowed queen, his mother.

When the truth emerged, Oedipus could no longer act as king. The victim of a curse himself, he puts a curse on his two sons when (according to the Phoenician Women) they lock him away: one of them would kill the other. Rather than fight to see who would be king, the sons agree to divide the kingship between them, to take it in turns year by year, with the elder going first. But after a year Eteocles refuses to cede rule to Polynices, who goes into exile, marries the daughter of the king of Argos, and returns with a force to claim Thebes.

Jocasta is overjoyed to see him again. She embraces him and says how much she wants by word and gesture and dance to express her feelings of pleasure (Phoenician Women 304-317). She now hopes to regain ‘the delight of her old joys’ – a hope destined to be horribly thwarted as the drama proceeds.

Jocasta’s brother Creon had become king or regent after Oedipus, and he was now in charge of the defence of Thebes. His situation is further complicated when the prophet Teiresias says that he must sacrifice his son Menoeceus for the good of Thebes, to appease the war god Ares, who had been offended by the city’s founders, from whom Creon and Menoeceus are descended. Menoeceus is also the name of Creon and Jocasta’s father, the father-in-law of Oedipus.

In the context of Epicurean philosophy, the name Menoeceus has very different connotations, being the name of a contemporary of Epicurus to whom the philosopher addressed a letter summing up much of his ethical doctrines. The date of the letter is unknown, but in general terms we can place it about a century or more after the death of Euripides. Athens had changed considerably by then; and yet awareness of old literature and myths persisted, and no doubt old associations of the name Menoeceus were not forgotten.

Also not forgotten were the old preoccupations with gods and oracles, vengeance and cursing, death and destruction. These were enduring themes that still had the power to stir up fear and superstition. Epicurus set himself against the old tales and the beliefs and behaviour that went with them. Basing his views on a scientific understanding of reality, he rejected traditional beliefs and sought to replace them with a practical and realistic outlook.

Where the old stories threatened doom, Epicurus offered hope; where they emphasized the inexorability of fate, Epicurus emphasized the human capacity to organize life by the power of reason; where they told of unending cycles of conflict and suffering, Epicurus presented a straightforward theory of pleasure and happiness; where they dealt in tangled relationships human and divine, Epicurus provided a philosophy of life set in the context of an abundant nature and a material universe.

A key part of the new dynamic was the role of friendship as a source of confidence and security. According to Principal Doctrine 27:

Having friendship is by far the greatest of the things which wisdom organizes for the happiness of one’s whole life.

According to Vatican Saying 78:

The highest concerns of a high-minded person are wisdom and friendship, of which one is a mortal good, the other immortal.

Friendship brings assurance (Vatican Saying 34) and hope (Vatican Saying 39).

In the Phoenician Women, Jocasta could dance about in delight and think of a renewal of old joys, but her hopes were forlorn where human hearts were hard and the gods hostile. Epicurus preached a different message entirely. As Vatican Saying 52 indicates (quoted below), friendship is the herald of an outlook that recognizes the good things that nature supplies and responds with gratitude. Friendship itself is thought of as dancing around – the same word that occurs in the tragedy, used in a different setting now – and this time the dance is one of a delight that spreads around the world.

Thoughts for the Day, September 9: ‘Friendship dances around the inhabited world calling us all at this very time to be awakened to thankfulness.’ (Vatican Sayings 52).

Making life better, becoming happier

In a poem addressed to a female figure named Leuconoë, the Roman poet Horace (65-8 BC) says that we are not allowed to know how long our lives will be and we should not try to find out. It is better to endure whatever may come, whether we have one winter or more. He bids the girl strain the wine and adjust her hopes to the brevity of time. Time will have fled while we are speaking, and so ‘seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one’ (carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero, Odes 1.11, line 8).

The French poet Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585) echoes the theme, encouraging a girl to enjoy life now rather than recall lost opportunities when she is old: ‘Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain. / Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie’ (‘Live, if you want my opinion, don’t wait till tomorrow. Gather today the roses of life’).

Similarly in a poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1674): ‘Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying: / And this same flower that smiles to day, / To morrow will be dying.’ The poem, entitled ‘To the Virgins, To make much of Time’, in its third stanza foretells a deterioration in the quality of life: ‘That Age is best, which is the first, / When Youth and Blood are warmer; / But being spent, the worse, and worst / Times, still succeed the former.’

It seems that the notion of ‘seizing the day’ is often traced back to Epicurus, whose philosophy was indeed an influence on Horace. And Epicurus does encourage us to find time for enjoyment today:

We are born once, and it is not possible to be born twice. We will necessarily have no further existence for eternity. Although you do not have mastery over tomorrow, you put off being joyful. Life is wasted by procrastination, and every one of us dies without finding time for leisure (Vatican Saying 14; see ‘Find time today to be joyful’).

The outlook in this saying is consistent with Epicurus’ emphasis on pleasure as the ‘goal of nature’, the main aim in the pursuit of happiness and hence the core consideration for a system of ethics. However, while Epicurus emphasizes the importance of addressing the opportunities and challenges of today, he does not take the view that life in the future will inevitably deteriorate. In fact he sees old age as the time when a person can reach a peak of happiness through philosophical understanding, growth in practical wisdom, and gratitude for good things in the past (Vatican Saying 17; see ‘Age and happiness’).

For Epicurus, the human faculty of reasoning enables us to overcome difficulties and to organize our lives in spite of the effects of necessity and chance (Principal Doctrine 16; see ‘Chance and reason’). Given our ability to use reason to solve problems, we do not have to look at the future as a time of increasing catastrophe. So long as we use our reason to good effect, we have a reasonable basis for anticipating positive experiences.

Indeed we have a duty to work through problems rationally and constructively, as this is the way to happiness for ourselves and others. Vatican Saying 48 sets out the challenge: we are on a journey, and we can – and ought to – make the later stages of the journey even better than what has gone before, even to the point of expecting that the greatest sense of settled joy can come at the end.

The converse is also clear: if we fail in our ethical responsibility to face problems rationally and constructively, unhappiness and disaster will undoubtedly follow.

Thoughts for the Day, September 8: ‘While we are on the journey, we must try to make the later part better than the earlier, and when we come to the end to be in joyful equilibrium.’ (Vatican Sayings 48).

Texts of Horace, Odes 1.11: Bibliotheca Augustana; Perseus. See also the poem De rosis nascentibus (attributed to Vergil), including the words, collige, virgo, rosas dum flos novus et nova pubes (line 49). Robert Herrick, Hesperides (originally published 1648).

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).

Getting rid of bad habits

In the dialogue Minos, which has been attributed to Plato, Socrates refers to the importance of learning how to distinguish between good and wicked men (διαγιγνώσκειν χρηστοὺς καὶ πονηροὺς ἄνδρας, Minos 319a). In Aristophanes’ play The Acharnians, the chorus complain of the indignity that those who pursued the enemy at the battle of Marathon are now in old age pursued in the law courts by young speakers (‘wicked men’, ἀνδρῶν πονηρῶν) practised in rhetoric (698-700).

Epicurus uses similar vocabulary in Vatican Saying 46 (quoted below), but here the term ‘wicked men’ is applied figuratively to bad habits that distort the individual’s outlook and behaviour. Perhaps we can say that for Epicurus the wicked opponents of our moral situation are to a significant extent internalized: we are a problem to ourselves, in so far as we have within us habits of thought and conduct that need to be driven out like wicked men.

The opportunity to improve, and hence to progress towards greater happiness, is available to us if we are prepared to examine ourselves and distinguish between habits worth developing and habits that must be completely eradicated.

Thoughts for the Day, September 6: ‘Let us completely chase away bad habits as if they were wicked men who have done great harm for a long time’ (Vatican Sayings 46).