Tag Archives: Necessity

Within our power

Human-divine relations were a preoccupation of the ancient Greek poetic tradition. Bred of awe and fear, the notion was persistent that nothing much could be done without the assistance or intervention of the gods.

Quotations in later authors illustrate the theme. For example, Theophilus, a second-century bishop of Antioch, uses a series of excerpts to show the variety and contradictions in the tradition (To Autolycus 2.8).

One of the authors he quotes is Simonides (late sixth – early fifth century BC), who says that no city, no mortal, can have excellence without the gods; God is all-knowing, all-planning, all-contriving (παμμῆτις), while nothing in human life is free from harm, nothing without misery (οὐδὲν ἀπήμαντον).

An attitude of dependence on divine power and influence naturally inspired prayer in time of need or danger, to gain a benefit or to avert an ill. Surely this was part of the divine plan, to drive humans to despair so that they would acknowledge their limitations?

Epicurus rejected poetry as a guide to theology and dismissed educational practices which taught students to absorb poetic notions of the gods into their way of thinking. Direct study of nature led to quite different conclusions, with important practical consequences.

Vatican Saying 65 suggests the obvious, that there are many things in life which people can organize for themselves without any need to seek supernatural assistance. Where, then, is the line to be drawn between what we can do for ourselves and what we may hope a greater power will do for us?

In Epicurean terms, there are only three large-scale factors at work affecting our lives: necessity (according to fixed universal conditions), chance (very variable), and human agency. The universe is big enough for the development somewhere of beings more advanced and happier than we are, but wherever they may be they do not intervene in our lives (they would not be as happy as they are if they involved themselves in our difficulties).

From undone shoe-laces to a warming planet, we can only blame ourselves if we fail to identify possible solutions and pursue responsible options.

Simonides: The fragment is translated in M.L. West, Greek Lyric Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics), Oxford – New York, Oxford University Press, 1999/ 2008, p. 163 (no. 526).

Thoughts for the Day, September 20: ‘What one is able to supply for oneself it is pointless to ask for from the gods’ (Vatican Sayings 65).

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).

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).

How necessary is necessity?

In the Letter to Menoeceus §133, Epicurus discusses the roles of necessity (ἀνάγκη) and chance (τύχη) in human life. In his view, despite the presence of necessity and chance, the human contribution plays a significant part in influencing the way our lives turn out. The course of our lives is not entirely predetermined and beyond our control. Unpredictability in the universe allows us opportunities for choice. (See ‘Choice and responsibility’, where reference is made to the Letter to Menoeceus and to a passage in the author Aetius (1.29.5).)

Vatican Saying 9 is one of a number of Epicurean sayings that refer to necessity, but in this saying it is questionable whether universal necessity is meant. Here Epicurus says that necessity is ‘a bad thing’ (κακόν). The word can mean simply a nuisance, and one might perhaps be inclined to call universal necessity a nuisance. However, the rest of the saying seems inappropriate in relation to the idea of universal necessity: ‘… there is no necessity to live with necessity.’

Does Epicurus mean that we can divert the influence of universal necessity? Or is he referring to the need and poverty of necessitous circumstances? If the latter, the message would be dealing not with the universal necessity which limits our scope for action but with the freedom we have to avoid or overcome, through decision and action, circumstances of need and lack.

A similar point is made in Principal Doctrine 16, with reference to  chance and the power of reason (see ‘Chance and reason’):

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 theme of making an effort to avoid the constraints of necessitous conditions of life may be illustrated from a passage in the work of the second-century AD author Maximus of Tyre (Dissertation 3, or 33 in the numbering of Taylor). In an essay on pleasure, Maximus discusses the idea that there can be pleasure in suffering, and gives as an example the efforts made by the Spartans to ensure their independence and freedom. ‘For what can be more painful than fear; what more severe than slavery; what more laborious than necessity?’ (… τί δὲ ἀνάγκης ἐπιπονώτερον, 3.10).

Thoughts for the Day, August 5: ‘Necessity is bad, but there is no necessity to live with necessity’ (Vatican Sayings 9).

Thomas Taylor (trans.), The Dissertations of Maximus Tyrius, vol. II, London, [the author], 1804, pp. 135-145, at p. 144. J.J. Reiske (ed.), Dissertationes Maximi Tyrii, Part I, Leipzig, 1774, p. 45. [See now Michael B. Trapp (ed.), Maximus Tyrius: Dissertationes (Bibliotheca Scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana), Stuttgart, Teubner, 1994; M.B. Trapp (ed. and trans.), Maximus of Tyre: The Philosophical Orations, Oxford, Clarendon, 1997.]

Chance and reason

Greek τύχη (tyche) takes on a variety of meanings at different times and in different circumstances. The word is related to τεύχω (‘make’) and τυγχάνω (‘happen’). It could be used of what a divine being makes happen, the act of a god or the gods. Cyrus of Persia, for example, says that he thinks it was by ‘divine chance’ (θείῃ τύχῃ) that he was born to his role as ruler (Herodotus, History 1.126.6). No doubt he found it useful to be able to claim higher authority for what he was doing.

The exact shade of meaning given to ‘chance’ would depend on one’s views about the influences that shape the course of history. Occurrences could be attributed to supernatural intervention or regarded as purely accidental or random. Chance itself might be elevated to the status of a god. The Stoics, believing the universe to be divine and events predetermined, explained that things proceed according to continuous fated causation (εἱμαρμένη, heimarmenē) under the organizing influence of universal reason (λὁγος, logos; cf. Diogenes Laertius, Lives 7.149) – processes that eliminate the random and accidental, though the divine cannot be blamed for human folly.

Epicurus rejected the idea that fate rules our lives, but accepted that necessity and chance have a role – a view connected with his atomist theory of the universe: objects and events are outcomes of the behaviour of atoms whose collisions and combinations occur on fixed principles but with an element of chance. At the same time, he saw human reason (λογισμός: calculation, reasoning, reason) as capable of being the main organizing influence in people’s lives. Stoic λὁγος diminished the independence and responsibility of human actors; Epicurean λογισμός highlights the moral responsibility of the individual, who has the opportunity to make rational choices which affect human well-being and which deserve praise or blame accordingly (cf. Letter to Menoeceus, 133-135).

Thoughts for the Day, July 10: ‘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’ (Principal Doctrines 16).