Tag Archives: Menander

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’.

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’).

Condensed pleasure

What would it be like if all the pleasures of body and mind were combined and compressed into one pleasure? We find Epicurus addressing this question in Principal Doctrine 9, where it is pointed out that if all the pleasures were compressed in this way our pleasures would not differ from one another.

This statement might be read as a piece of idle speculation, or as one of those rather intellectual observations about pleasure such as we find in Book X of Aristotle’s Nicomachaean Ethics. However, we can be sure that Epicurus had practical matters in mind in formulating the proposition. Was he saying, for instance, that life would be boring if all our pleasures were of a uniform kind, or was he saying that, although we might like to envisage all our pleasures aggregated into one great, heightened pleasure, that is not how life is?

Even in his own community there might have been not a little merriment at the thought that one particular pleasure might fit the latter category, if only for a few fleeting moments. The humour is exploited in an anecdote in one of the Letters of Alciphron (second or third century AD?), which describes the behaviour of five philosophers at a party in Athens (Book III, Letter 55). As the wine-cup goes round, the rest of the guests remain well-behaved but the five philosophers – a Stoic, a Pythagorean, a Peripatetic, an Epicurean and a Cynic – are the exceptions. The Epicurean, Zenocrates by name, who may have been the best presented of the five, takes in his arms the girl who played the harp and declares himself delighted to be enjoying τὴν καταπύκνωσιν τοῦ ἡδομένου, or as we might say, ‘every pleasure rolled into one.’

The word καταπύκνωσις (‘compression’, ‘condensation’ and the like) is doubtless drawn from the type of discussion we find represented in Principal Doctrine 9. Epicurus’ treatment of the theme of concentrated pleasure was evidently well known to poets of Greek comedy, who liked to use philosophical terms for comic effect. Alciphron’s story may well go back to a much earlier source, perhaps among the plays of Menander (contemporary with Epicurus) or Damoxenus (third century BC) – in other words, within or soon after the lifetime of Epicurus.

This may be very amusing, but there was no doubt a serious purpose in what Epicurus had to say. We might wonder whether his warning (for the passage surely contains a warning) might be applied to a number of tendencies in the modern world, not least the desire to make erotic pleasure the be-all and end-all of life.

Thoughts for the Day, July 4: ‘If all the pleasures a person experiences were compressed together in space and time and if that went throughout the human organism (or the main parts of our nature), pleasures would never differ one from another’ (Principal Doctrines 9).

Alciphron: the relevant sentence is quoted in H. Usener, Epicurea (1887), no. 432 (p. 286). A parallel Greek text and English translation of the letter are available in Alciphron (The Athenian Society’s Publications, III), Athens, Athenian Society, 1896, pp. 176-178 (see p. 178; facing pages of text and translation paginated the same). Cf. Pamela Gordon, The Invention and Gendering of Epicurus, Ann Arbor MI, University of Michigan Press, 2012, pp. 26-29 (for Cyreniacs read Cyrenaics).

5/7/12. In Principal Doctrine 9, the translation ‘nature’ (Greek φύσις) has to be understood in the light of the word ‘organism’; perhaps ‘constitution’ could be a suitable rendering. The Greek term neatly sums up our ‘body and soul’ or ‘body and mind’. We might translate simply ‘body’ if that term were understood to mean the material frame in all aspects of its functioning as a living entity, including the mental and emotional, and sensations generally. It should be noted that the saying in the Greek does not refer specifically to the human organism; I am assuming that the human is mainly in view, though the argument would presumably apply to any living organism capable of multiple pleasures.