Tag Archives: Letter to Menoeceus

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).

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).

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).

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn

The playwright Menander, a contemporary of Epicurus, memorably expressed a common perception of life and old age when he wrote, ὃν οἱ θεοὶ φιλοῦσιν ἀποθνῄσκει νέος, ‘whom the gods love dies young’ (Sentences 583). Better not to be born, says the poet Theognis, ‘but having been born to pass through the gates of Hades as quickly as possible.’ This latter sentiment is quoted and condemned by Epicurus in his Letter to Menoeceus (126).

Epicurus took a very different view: the best part of life is old age, because at that time one can experience the greatest understanding and appreciation of good things (Vatican Saying 17). After a well-lived life, and with considerable experience in philosophizing, one can attain the highest levels of moral insight that one will ever have.

This increase in moral development is seen as a rejuvenation, so that an old person can be both old in years and morally fresh and youthful at the same time. But where does that leave a young person? Does a young person have to wait until old age to develop adequate insight for happiness? Epicurus answers this question in the Letter to Menoeceus (122):

Thus young and old ought to philosophize, so that the person who is ageing may be young again through the benefits of gratitude for what is past, and the person who is young may be old in not being afraid of the future.

Not only can an old person become young again but a young person can be old, that is have the experience of advanced moral insight associated with old age, before coming to advanced years. This means that advanced moral development is open to a person of any age who is capable of living a good life and philosophizing.

What is a person aiming at in living and philosophizing? There appear to be three connected answers to this question. (1) For living organisms the goal of life is pleasure. (2) Accordingly we need practical wisdom to help us in the constant decision-making we are faced with in dealing with pleasure and pain. (3) By understanding and aiming at pleasure, and by applying practical wisdom, we attain happiness.

In this process we need philosophy, but even more we need φρόνησις, practical wisdom. Epicurus goes so far as to say that φρόνησις is ‘the greatest good,’ τὸ μέγιστον ἀγαθόν (Letter to Menoeceus 132):

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. It teaches us that it is not possible to live a pleasant life without living a wise, good and just life, and it is not possible to live a wise, good and just life without living a pleasant life. For the virtues grow along with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them.

Epicurus’ attitude to pleasure and the virtues sets his philosophy apart from those traditions which see virtue as higher than pleasure. He is very direct about asserting the primacy of pleasure, as when he says in his treatise On the Goal (quoted in Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 12; Usener 70):

We must honour excellence and virtues and things of that kind if they provide pleasure; if they do not provide pleasure, they must be discarded.

Similarly he says in a letter to Anaxarchus (quoted in Plutarch, Against Colotes 17; Usener 116):

I call (people) to continual pleasures and not to empty and vain virtues that involve troubling hopes of fruitful outcomes.

Pleasure brings freedom from pain of body and from distress and disturbance of soul, conditions which define what is ‘bad’ (Principal Doctrine 10). Virtues involve disturbance but pleasure brings release.

Why, then, at least in the terminology of the Letter to Menoeceus, is pleasure not the greatest good? Is it because the greatest pleasure is an absence, in particular the absence of disturbance from the soul – not something possessed but something not possessed? Or is it because goods are distinguished in principle from pleasure? In any case, the moral attainment which makes the highest pleasure possible is φρόνησις, practical wisdom. If we possess that greatest good, we have access to the highest pleasure.

In the Epicurean outlook, pleasure is counter-intuitively privileged above virtue in a principled way, and common perceptions of youth and old age are turned upside down. The result is that life can be welcomed and enjoyed at any stage of human development. The young can benefit from being old in practical wisdom without being wearied by physical age; and the aged need not be condemned to unhappiness by their advancing years.

See also Vatican Saying 42, discussed yesterday (‘Old age as a time of birth and death’).

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).

Pleasure in the fulfilment of simple needs

According to Seneca, the Stoic Zeus needed only himself to be happy (Epistles 9.16-17). When the world dissolves (resoluto mundo, as happens from time to time according to Stoic thought) and all the gods other than Zeus are ‘confounded together’ (dis in unum confusis), Zeus can retire into himself and his own thoughts, completely self-sufficient.

Human beings, as part of nature, can hardly be that self-sufficient, but Epicurus boldly asserts that we can compete with Zeus for happiness if we learn to be content with what nature provides for our needs. This means recognizing what our essential needs are and being content when they are satisfied.

In Vatican Saying 33 he gives the example of our need for food, water and warmth. In each case – when we have had enough to eat or drink, when we are warm enough – the fulfilment of our need reaches a natural limit and at that point we could not be happier if we had more food or water to consume or more protection against the cold. The ability and opportunity to reach a natural limit give us the experience of a happiness that cannot be improved on, which thus invites comparison with the perfect happiness attributed (whether in Stoic or other mythological thinking) to the supreme deity.

Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus (§§ 130-131) presents the general argument:

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.

In the text of saying 33 in the Vatican manuscript, the word ‘Zeus’ is lacking but it is obvious that a word needs to be restored. One piece of evidence for restoring ‘Zeus’ occurs in a passage in the Historical Miscellany of the Roman author Aelian (Claudius Aelianus, late second – early third century AD). Writing in Greek, Aelian collected a great variety of interesting and amusing information, anecdotes and the like for a popular readership. As a supporter of Stoicism he was highly critical of Epicurean philosophy, but the passage of interest here is neutral from that point of view. In a series of miscellaneous notes about ancient Greek authors and historical figures he refers to ‘Epicurus of the deme of Gargettus’ who said that ‘a man who is not satisfied with a little will not be satisfied with anything’ (this is similar to Vatican Saying 68), and ‘he was ready to declare himself a match for Zeus in good fortune if he had bread and water’ (4.10.13, trans. Wilson, p. 195).

Thoughts for the Day, August 25: ‘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 Sayings 33).

Richard M. Gummere (ed. and trans.), Seneca: Ad Lucilium Epistulae morales (Loeb Classical Library), vol. I, London, Heinemann/ New York, Putnam’s Sons, 1918, repr. 1925, pp. 52-53. N.G. Wilson (ed. and trans.), Aelian: Historical Miscellany (Loeb Classical Library, 486), Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1997, pp. 194-195.

Friendship and self-interest

Diogenes Laertius, in Book X of his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, reproduces the three letters to Herodotus, Pythocles and Menoeceus, in which Epicurus explains aspects of his philosophy. The letter principally concerned with matters of conduct is the third, the Letter to Menoeceus. Before presenting the text of this letter, Diogenes gives a summary of the views of the Epicureans concerning a wise man’s outlook and behaviour (§§ 117-121). This summary includes remarks on the Epicurean theory of friendship (§ 120):

They hold … that friendship takes place on account of needs (διὰ τὰς χρείας); however, there must be a preliminary start made (‘for we also sow the ground’), and then it is continued through a partnership in the enjoyment of pleasures.

The idea that friendship occurs through need is expressed in Vatican Saying 23 with reference to the initial usefulness of the connection: friendship takes its beginning from utility (ἀπὸ τῆς ὠφελείας). While this may seem to under-emphasize the element of altruism in genuine friendship, it is no more than a realistic statement of fact. We might also argue that altruism itself is among the needs: everyone needs empathetic understanding and altruistic help from others.

Aristotle in the Nicomachaean Ethics considered friendship based on utility or pleasure to be inferior to friendship based on similarity in goodness (Book VIII, 1156a-b). In his view, the first two types of friendship must be impermanent, as considerations of utility change with circumstances and attitudes to pleasure are affected by changing tastes and feelings. Goodness, however, provides a permanent basis because each appreciates the good in the other and is devoted to the other for what that person is; utility and pleasure are still there but they arise from goodness.

Epicurus interprets the good in terms of pleasure, and so would not elevate goodness above pleasure. Instead he sees friendship itself as an aretē (if that is the correct reading in Vatican Saying 23). The word is often translated ‘virtue’; but Epicurus does not construct a system of virtues in the usual way. We may take it here as meaning ‘a good thing’. It is surely not unexpected to find Epicurus referring to friendship as a good thing ‘in itself’. He places so much emphasis on the importance of friendship that the concept functions as a fundamental principle in his ethical system, an integral part of his theory of nature and pleasure.

It has been conjectured that ἀρετή (aretē) should be emended to αἱρετή (hairetē), ‘chosen’ or ‘to be chosen’ and hence ‘desirable’; we might translate, ‘Every friendship is (to be) chosen (or, desirable) for its own sake.’ The word occurs in the Nicomachaean Ethics 1170b, where Aristotle discusses the idea that individuals find their own existence desirable and likewise find the existence of a friend desirable. The consciousness of oneself (or of life, or of oneself as living?) as good makes living desirable, and that consciousness is itself pleasant. A friend has the same consciousness; being together as friends involves sharing these senses of consciousness. Since existence is desirable in itself (being good and pleasant, at least for a happy person), and since one also finds desirable the friend’s existence, then ‘a friend is one of the desirable things.’

If we are to read αἱρετή in Vatican Saying 23, Epicurus’ approach in effect cuts through Aristotle’s sequence by stating that friendship is desirable for itself. This again gives friendship the status of a fundamental principle. In neither case – that is, whether we read ἀρετή or αἱρετή – is friendship quite so fundamental as pleasure, which is related to need and desire. Given the pleasure principle, it is a straightforward argument that human need and desire stand at the beginning of the development of friendship.

Thoughts for the Day, August 15: ‘All friendship is a good thing in itself, but it has its origin in utility’ (Vatican Sayings 23).

Aged by attitude

In Book V of the Nicomachaean Ethics, Aristotle refers to gratitude in relation to proportional reciprocity or fair exchange, which he regards as the essential factor that holds associations and the state together (1132b-1133a). The distinguishing feature of gratitude is the repayment of benefits in response to a service rendered by a benefactor. The individual at one time acts as a benefactor and at another time repays a benefactor, actions in a reciprocal arrangement that is part of the general exchange of goods and services in society.

In contrast to this analysis, in which gratitude is viewed in its external manifestations and as an element in a mechanical system, Epicurus in Vatican Saying 19 considers gratitude with regard to its internal effects on the individual. From this point of view, a lack of gratitude is seen not simply as a failure in a system of exchange but as a break-down in a person’s well-being. A person should feel gratitude for good things that have happened in the past and this gratitude has an important role to play in the formation of a person’s moral capabilities and outlook on life. Without gratitude, the individual’s sense of well-being is undermined and hence a person automatically becomes old.

This warning provides a complement to an idea expressed in the Letter to Menoeceus (§122) concerning youth and old age:

Thus young and old ought to philosophize, so that the person who is ageing may be young again through the benefits of gratitude for what is past, and the person who is young may be grown-up in not being afraid of the future.

Gratitude makes an old person young, and a lack of gratitude makes a younger person old.

Epicurus’ understanding of gratitude forms part of his overall approach to the question of how one can achieve happiness. As he says in the Letter to Menoeceus (§122), ‘… if we have happiness we have everything, and if we lack happiness we do everything to have it.’ On this basis he appeals to individuals to avoid doing things that will inevitably impair their own happiness. Thus he warns against injustice because a wrongdoer’s future happiness will be spoilt by the fear of detection (see ‘Rightly anxious about doing wrong’); and similarly he warns against ingratitude because that too has a deleterious effect on the happiness of the person guilty of it.

A key lesson is that an individual has to take into account, in addition to the harm done to others, the self-harm involved in unethical thoughts and acts. This ought to be a matter of concern to the individual who desires personal happiness, and it is a significant aspect of the well-being of everyone in the community.

Thoughts for the Day, August 13: ‘A person forgetful of the good things that have happened has today grown old’ (Vatican Sayings 19).