Tag Archives: Healing

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).

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.)