Tag Archives: Pain

Personal well-being, not personal promotion

Victory and renown were core values of the ancient Greek cultural tradition. Epicurus took a counter-cultural approach. We should not be preoccupied with competition and conquest; rather, our aim should be health and happiness. We learn this lesson through philosophical enquiry – enquiry into the nature of the universe, life and the best way to live. And the way to health and happiness is also via philosophy, which teaches us how to live wisely and well.

We seek health and happiness for their own sake, because we are living organisms that desire pleasure and not pain. We can make a mess of life – and we often do make a mess of life – by failing to understand reality adequately and by failing to adjust our attitudes and actions to the demands of reality. We have unnecessary fears and we are inclined to desire too much. Nature is bountiful, and yet so often we make ourselves miserable.

Our attitudes and actions are subject to praise and blame in so far as they contribute, or fail to contribute, to health and happiness. According to the Letter to Menoeceus, life is affected by necessity, chance and human agency, and our role as autonomous agents exposes us to ‘both blame and its opposite’ (καὶ τὸ μεμπτὸν καὶ τὸ ἐναντίον, §133). Praise for correct living is therefore somehow appropriate, but as Vatican Saying 64 indicates (quoted below) our main objective must be to cure ourselves, not to seek praise.

Unhappiness can be cured. For this we need philosophy, as a sick person needs medical assistance. Clearly it must be the right kind of philosophy:

Empty is the message of that philosopher by which no human suffering is cured. For just as the art of medicine is of no use if it does not drive out diseases of the body, nor is philosophy of any use if it does not drive out suffering of the soul (Epicurus (ascribed), unidentified text, quoted in Porphyry, Letter to Marcella 31 (Usener 221)).

In addition, we must be genuine in our philosophical explorations:

We must not pretend to philosophize, but really philosophize. For we do not need to seem healthy, but to be healthy in reality (Vatican Saying 54).

Thoughts for the Day, September 19: ‘Praise from others must follow spontaneously, while we attend to curing ourselves’ (Vatican Sayings 64).

The wise person’s treasure

The idea of self-sufficiency (αὐτάρκεια) was found to be an important focus for investigation in the ancient Greek philosophical tradition. Aristotle discusses self-sufficiency in relation to politics, economics, society and personal life and happiness. For if one could say what a community, a group or an individual needs to be self-sufficient, that would surely show how to define the ideal condition of living.

The notion of self-sufficiency helps to integrate a wide range of ethical considerations. To achieve a clear understanding of how to live life in the best way possible, we have to co-ordinate many ideas into a coherent world-view. The ethical relevance of a world-view can be framed in terms of need and fulfilment, and thinking about self-sufficiency can help us to answer the questions: what do we need? and how much do we need?

Epicurean ethical thought emphasizes the role of pleasure as the goal of nature. Pleasure and pain are dominating facts of life for terrestrial living organisms. Knowing how to live pleasantly is vital for survival and well-being and hence happiness. We have to ‘be careful for the things that produce happiness, for if we have happiness we have everything, and if we lack happiness we do everything to have it’ (Letter to Menoeceus 122).

The way we think about life, and the decisions we make in seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, have a determining effect on the course of our lives. Our ability to use reason to organize our lives is even more significant than the influence of chance (Principal Doctrine 16). Reason and decision-making take us into the realms of wisdom, goodness and justice, which are inseparably linked with pleasure as vital for successful living (Principal Doctrine 5).

As living organisms we cannot live successfully without being sustained by natural goods. Our bodies need food, drink and warmth (Vatican Saying 33); we need security, that is protection against hostile forces (Principal Doctrine 14); in particular we need the security of friendship (Principal Doctrine 28) and the security of a quiet life in which we preserve independence of thought (Principal Doctrine 14).

Having basic necessities and security to sustain and protect life is not enough for happiness. Happiness requires both freedom from bodily pain and freedom from distress of soul. Within the body we have a ‘soul’ with complex mental and emotional functioning, and we need knowledge and skills to stabilize and settle our thoughts and feelings. For this purpose – to achieve freedom from inner disturbance – we need an adequate understanding of the world around us, and science and philosophy have the role of supplying this requirement. It is no use having protection on a mundane level if we are afraid of the universe (Principal Doctrines 12, 13).

Also to achieve freedom from inner disturbance we need not only the supply of our needs but the confidence that they will be supplied. The main reason why we can have this confidence is that nature provides abundantly and the wealth of nature is easily obtained. At the same time there are natural limits which we must observe. To desire too much is to cause ourselves disturbance; we have to be satisfied with enough. Natural limits do not prevent us from having enough, and we are fortunate that there are limits not only to pleasant things but to painful things (Principal Doctrine 4).

Understanding the universe and understanding the limits of pains and desires are of key importance (Principal Doctrine 11). Part of our understanding of the universe is that we decline to be troubled about the gods and about death. The gods of a material universe give us no trouble (Principal Doctrine 1), and death is nothing to us because we are no longer there to be disturbed by it (Principal Doctrine 2). We cannot have any security against death (Vatican Saying 31) but nor should we fear it. There is no distressing afterlife to be worried about.

Wisdom makes many contributions to our happiness. ‘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’ (Letter to Menoeceus 132). Wisdom helps us to embrace the positives of life (Letter to Menoeceus 126), and to limit the effects of chance (Principal Doctrine 16). Wisdom gives us access to other goods. Best of all, wisdom organizes for us friendship (Principal Doctrine 27). Wisdom is a mortal good, but friendship has a quality of immortality (Vatican Saying 78).

‘If we understand the limits of life, we know that we can easily manage to remove the pain associated with lack and so make the whole of life complete, and therefore that we need none of the things that involve anxious struggle’ (Principal Doctrine 21). As confidence grows and struggle ceases, a wise person senses the greatness of self-sufficiency.

And we regard self-sufficiency as a great good, not so that we always make do with little, but so that if we do not have much we are satisfied with little, being truly convinced that those enjoy the pleasures of luxury most who have least need of luxury, and that everything natural is easy to obtain and everything baseless difficult to obtain. Inexpensive dishes yield as much pleasure as expensive fare when once the pain of need has been taken away; and barley cake and water give the highest pleasure when someone in need consumes them. So being used to a simple and not extravagant life-style is sufficient for full health, makes a person confident about the necessities of life, makes us better at dealing with luxury when that occurs at intervals, and makes us fearless in the face of fortune (Letter to Menoeceus 130-131).

A wise person can relax about personal needs and turn the more readily to helping others, enabled and supported by reserves of insight and confidence developed by ethical living, that personal treasure of self-sufficiency which nature makes possible through philosophy and practical wisdom.

Thoughts for the Day, September 4: ‘Compared (with others) in relation to the necessities of life, the wise person knows how to give rather than take, having gained such a great store of self-sufficiency’ (Vatican Sayings 44).

See also ‘Pleasure in the fulfilment of simple needs’ (26/9/2012).

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’).

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).

Taking the bait

Vatican Saying 16 expresses an optimistic view of human nature: that people are not necessarily predisposed to bad behaviour but are influenced by the options presented to them and by a certain failure of judgment and discrimination.

This approach offers the hope that a person’s responses can improve if they gain a clearer understanding of their own decision-making processes. Understanding of this kind requires awareness-raising and the development of greater philosophical insight.

While the position taken by Epicurus is fundamentally different from notions of ‘original sin’, it does assign some blame to the individual. As indicated in the Letter to Menoeceus (§§ 133-134), we are liable to praise and blame in view of the opportunities we have for exercising our ability to make reasoned decisions.

The subject lends itself to scientific investigation. As evolved organisms programmed to desire pleasure and avoid pain, are we at all likely to display an innate preference for actions that result in pain and harm? Or is it mainly through a lack of information and understanding that we allow ourselves to be led in unhelpful directions?

Thoughts for the Day, August 10: ‘No one seeing what is bad chooses it, but a person gets caught when lured by the bait that it is good compared with what is worse’ (Vatican Sayings 16).

Recognizing the limits of pain

The forty Epicurean sayings known as the ‘Principal Doctrines’ are found in Book X of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, a work in ten books composed perhaps in the early third century AD. Another collection of eighty-one Epicurean sayings is preserved in a fourteenth-century manuscript in the Vatican Library; this collection, known as the ‘Vatican Sayings’, was published in 1888 in the journal Wiener Studien.

Variant readings in the manuscripts of Diogenes Laertius have to be taken into account in establishing the text of the Principal Doctrines. Similarities and differences between the Principal Doctrines and the Vatican Sayings throw light on the nature of the transmission. Some of the Vatican Sayings are the same as or similar to some of the Principal Doctrines. The texts of sayings are also illuminated by other evidence, including sayings in the inscription of Diogenes of Oenoanda (dated to the second century AD).

Topics dealt with in the sayings were explored at greater length in longer works of Epicurus, and the sayings are for the most part no doubt drawn from or based on discussion in these longer works.

The first five Vatican Sayings are similar to four of the first five Principal Doctrines. Vatican Sayings 1 and 2 correspond to Principal Doctrines 1 and 2. Vatican Saying 3 corresponds to Principal Doctrine 4 and Vatican Saying 4 is similar to part of Principal Doctrine 4. Vatican Saying 5 corresponds to Principal Doctrine 5.

Other correspondences are: Vatican Sayings 6, 8, 12, 13, 20, 22, 49, 50 and 72 = Principal Doctrines 35, 15, 17, 27, 29, 19, 12, 8 and 13. Altogether there are correspondences between fourteen of the Vatican Sayings (about 17% of the total) with thirteen of the Principal Doctrines (about 33% of the total).

A comparison of a passage in the Letter to Menoeceus with Principal Doctrine 4 and Vatican Saying 4, on the subject of the natural limits of pain, illustrates some of the similarities and differences among texts which sum up the same teaching:

Letter to Menoeceus 133: … good and evil have natural limits such that good things are easy to attain and acquire and bad things do not last long or are not very painful…

Principal Doctrine 4: The feeling of pain does not last continuously in the body. The greatest pain is present for the shortest time. Pain which is just more than the bodily pleasure we feel does not go on for many days. If we are unwell for a very long time, the condition even allows bodily pleasure to rise above the pain.

Vatican Saying 4 – see below.

For a discussion of this theme with reference to Principal Doctrine 4 see the entry entitled ‘Degrees of Pain’.

Thoughts for the Day, August 3: ‘Every physical pain can readily be regarded as being of limited consequence. For one that is intensely painful lasts a short time, and one that affects the body for a long time is mildly painful’ (Vatican Sayings 4).

First edition of the Vatican Sayings: Wotke, C. [K.], and H. Usener, ‘Epikurische Spruchsammlung’, Wiener Studien 10(2), 1888, 175-201.

Justice and calmness

The notion of ταραχή (tarachē), ‘disturbance’, is of key importance in the Epicurean world-view. Happiness requires freedom from bodily pain and mental and emotional disturbance (cf. Letter to Menoeceus 131). If we want to lead happy lives we have to learn how to manage pleasure and pain and how to deal with things that cause us disturbance.

These tasks are interrelated. Our proficiency at handling pleasure and pain has implications for our mental and emotional state, and our mental and emotional state has implications for our success in leading a pleasant life.

Along with pleasure go wisdom, goodness and justice (Principal Doctrine 5). How we address issues in these four areas determines our progress towards happiness.

In Epicurean thought, natural justice is defined in terms of mutual agreement not to harm nor to be harmed (Principal Doctrine 31). How can justice be enforced? Laws and law enforcement provide a customary framework, but the attitude of the individual is crucial. A practical consideration, in the context of a theory of happiness, is that the fear of detection following wrongdoing causes inner disturbance and prolonged unhappiness. Principal Doctrine 35 makes the point:

A person who does something in secret against what has been mutually agreed upon as to not harming or being harmed cannot be sure of escaping notice, even after escaping ten thousand times up to the present moment; until death it will be unclear whether escape is possible.

As Principal Doctrine 17 puts it, an unjust person is filled with the greatest disturbance (πλείστης ταραχῆς γέμων); better to be a just person, who by contrast is able to be very free of disturbance (ἀταρακτότατος).

Thoughts for the Day, July 11: ‘A just person is very calm, but an unjust person is full of the greatest agitation’ (Principal Doctrines 17).

The good, the bad and the reckless

All pleasures are good – Epicurus says as much in Principal Doctrine 8. So why can’t we have as much pleasure as we like? The Epicurean response is that there are natural limits, and to go beyond those limits is to court unhappiness and disaster.*

A living organism naturally likes what is pleasant and dislikes what is unpleasant and painful. This recognition of the natural order of things gives a starting-point for the Epicurean theory of ethics, with pleasure acknowledged as the main goal in life. But how do we reach that goal in the best possible way?

Whereas Principal Doctrine 8 says that pleasure is good, Principal Doctrine 10 says that pain is bad. In a sense, as living organisms we already know this: what is favourable to our well-being is good for us, what is inimical to our well-being is bad for us. This is re-stating the basis for the theory of ethics. Ethics concerns behaviour, and behaviour involves choice: on top of the basis in nature we can build a theory of how we ought to behave and what choices we ought to make.

Again we are guided by nature, which sets limits. For example, we can eat until we are satisfied or we can eat until we feel that we have had too much. The pleasure in eating and satisfying our hunger is good; the pain in over-eating is bad. This principle of a natural limit can be applied widely, and gives us a key criterion for making choices.

Pleasure calls for constant decision-making to determine how things stand in relation to pleasure and how to achieve the best outcomes. The analytical and evaluative aspect requires practical wisdom. Personal and social dimensions involve friendship and justice. Principal Doctrine 5 weaves these themes together by saying that wisdom, goodness and justice are inseparable from pleasure, and pleasure from them.

Throughout these ethical challenges we are considering what it means to be human. Pleasure and pain affect us at the bodily level and at the level of thinking and feeling. In both respects we speak of well-being. In the latter respect especially we speak of happiness, which is impaired not only by circumstantial factors but by the way we think and feel about them. Tragically, we can impair our happiness by worrying about things that need cause us no concern – for example, the gods (they will not hurt us) and death (it is nothing). Fear is a part of our pain, and worrying about pain is a part of our fears. In fact, observation tells us that what is good and what is bad in life occur within natural limits: hence we need not worry as to whether we will have enough of the good things we desire, so long as we keep desires within appropriate limits; and we need not worry about suffering too much of the bad, as the bad also has natural limits.

In the light of these and related considerations, it is within our power as human beings to address challenges, to promote well-being and to increase happiness. Two of the most foolish things we can do are to feed our fears and to over-feed our desires – as reckless people do who think that living without limits will bring them happiness. Their focus on pleasure is understandable but their approach to pleasure is misguided. Pleasure is a part of nature, and nature sets limits. If they were on the right track as far as pleasure and happiness are concerned, we would have no reason to find fault with their ill-disciplined behaviour. But by misinterpreting pleasure they are giving themselves pain – and that is bad.

Thoughts for the Day, July 5: ‘If the things that give pleasure to reckless people rescued their minds from fears about celestial and terrestrial phenomena and death and painful suffering, and in addition taught them the natural limit of desires, we would never have reason to criticize them, because from every direction they would be filled up with pleasures, and from no direction would they be experiencing bodily pain or mental distress – which is in fact what ‘bad’ means’ (Principal Doctrines 10). Interpreting ἄσωτος as signifying careless in matters of money or morals or both, I translate the word here as ‘reckless’ with special reference to the moral aspect.

* 6/7/12. See also ‘Radical and conservative’ on the need for selectivity and ‘Condensed pleasure’ on the need for balance.

7/7/12. In the translation of Principal Doctrine 10, I have changed ‘astronomical phenomena’ to ‘celestial and terrestrial phenomena’; see ‘Our need to know’ for discussion of the term.