Tag Archives: Limits

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.)

Investigating nature improves the investigator

Epicureanism encourages scientific investigation – the investigation of nature – because we need a clear understanding of the universe and our place in it in order to form a soundly based system of ethics. Without an adequately worked out ethical system we could not be sure how to put our needs and desires in proper perspective.

Epicurus argues that understanding the world and life shows us the centrality of pleasure in the behaviour of living things. This gives us a guide to regulating human behaviour. If pleasure (carefully defined) is the guiding principle in the life of evolved organisms (the ‘goal of nature’), the principle which explains the way to well-being and happiness, then we need to consider the best way to live pleasantly in the light of our knowledge of how the universe is constructed and how we are constructed.

This gives philosophy a therapeutic value, and indeed makes the therapeutic value of philosophy its chief purpose. Philosophy is not simply an intellectual exercise or an opportunity for point-scoring. Nor is it a field for endlessly asking questions without answering them. It has a definite practical purpose. The investigator is obliged to approach the subject in an honest and critical way and work towards clear, honest and effective answers.

This approach affects one’s view of the purpose of discovery and debate, and of the role of knowledge and education. It is vital for the well-being of individuals and of the wider community to have a clear understanding of nature and of the implications for human conduct. Fine talk, showing off, impressive rhetoric, an educational curriculum that fails to provide necessary insights into the universe, life and human behaviour – these are not the way to promote well-being and happiness.

Genuine scientific enquiry, philosophically pursued by the individual researcher, inevitably leads to a deepening appreciation of the place of humanity in the scheme of things. In Epicurean terms, understanding nature throws light on the wealth that nature provides and the options and natural limits which ought to guide our decision-making and actions, whatever the circumstances of our life may be.

Thoughts for the Day, September 5: ‘The investigation of nature does not produce people who are skilled in grandiose talk or bragging or who display the sort of education greatly prized by the majority, but people who are self-confident and self-sufficient and who focus on their personal well-being, not on how good their circumstances are’ (Vatican Sayings 45).

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.

Good and bad have natural consequences

Vatican Saying 37 invites us to consider a range of issues concerned with the ideal of the good in relation to nature, and the relevance of pleasure in this connection. The saying illuminates these questions by directing attention to the constructive role of what is good and the destructive effects of what is bad.

Given the nature of our physical constitution, it is natural for us to settle into a pleasant state, for example when we eat to overcome hunger. As we are living organisms that prefer pleasure to pain, it is natural for us to seek and to enjoy the pleasant state. While becoming hungry again is a necessary pain, it would be unnatural to seek hunger or to remain hungry.

We can easily recognize the distinction between the pleasure of eating and the pain of hunger, but we may often need reminding that the matter is not as simple as that. As well as recognizing the contrast between pleasure and pain, we also need to recognize the existence of limits. In the case of eating, it is painful to be hungry but also painful to eat too much. The natural state of pleasant satisfaction is disrupted both by the pain of hunger and by the pain caused by a failure to observe natural limits.

The pain of hunger occurs naturally as the body absorbs and uses the food we have eaten. The pain of over-consumption occurs through our own choice. Our desires can enable us to enjoy pleasure, as when we desire and consume enough food for our needs, but our desires can also lead to pain, as when we desire to eat too much and yield to that desire. Unless we recognize and observe limits, our desires are liable to take us beyond natural limits and cause us pain.

According to Principal Doctrine 10, ‘the bad’ means bodily pain and mental distress (cf. ‘The good, the bad and the reckless’). Pain and distress disrupt our natural well-being and have to be overcome to restore our system to its natural state of pleasure. Our nature is weak in the face of the bad: it is susceptible to disruption and weakened by it. A definite effort is required to restore the natural balance by appropriate means. There are things in nature which are good and sufficient to restore the natural balance, and it is good to take advantage of them to achieve pleasure and well-being of body and soul.

Because of the way we are constructed we are weakened and destroyed by pains, but built up and preserved by appropriate pleasures. According to Vatican Saying 37 this can be said of nature generally. What is good supports nature, what is bad weakens it. To live within acceptable limits in seeking pleasure is constructive and to be welcomed; to fail to respond to natural requirements, and to make choices that cause us to exceed natural limits, are policies that inevitably lead to pain and ruin.

Thoughts for the Day, August 28: ‘Nature is weak with the bad, not with the good; for it is preserved by pleasures but destroyed by pains’ (Vatican Sayings 37).