Tag Archives: Life

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’.

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).

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.