Tag Archives: Need

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.)

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).