Tag Archives: Pleasure

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).

How to get over misfortunes

It would be possible to emphasize the bad things that have happened in the past, and continually to fill one’s mind with thoughts of what might have been. But what would be the use? We cannot change the past, no matter how much we might wish to do so. And to become preoccupied with negative thoughts can only feed negative emotions such as resentment and revenge. The outcome must necessarily be very far from pleasant. This is not the way to achieve positive progress and to live a happy and constructive life.

Remembering bad things with persistent ingratitude offers no healing for misfortune and can only bring unhappiness. Epicurus recommends a diametrically opposite approach that offers help and healing. This is the message of Vatican Saying 55 (quoted below): by cultivating gratitude not only can we feel better about the past but we can actually cure misfortunes.

Curing misfortunes cannot mean reversing what has happened, since (as the saying indicates) that is impossible. It may mean that in the way we think about misfortunes we can as far as possible turn them to good and neutralize their bad effects; perhaps most pertinently, we can cure the negative effects that misfortunes have on our own way of thinking, and thereby ensure that misfortunes (which are inevitable) will not cause us irremediable distress and undermine our opportunities for happiness.

The same idea is expressed in a quotation which Plutarch includes in his work Against Epicurean Happiness (§18; Usener 436):

Remembering good things that have happened in the past is of the greatest importance for a pleasant life.

Thoughts for the Day, September 12: ‘The cure for misfortunes lies in gratitude for what has been lost and the realization that it is impossible to undo what has been done.’ (Vatican Sayings 55.)

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).

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’).

Old age as a time of birth and death

Ancient texts handed down in manuscript form inevitably contain transmissional errors. It is necessary, therefore, from time to time to correct details in a text in order to restore as far as possible the original wording and meaning. However, it is important in the first instance to be reasonably sure that a text actually needs correction. The fact that a meaning may not be readily apparent could be a result not of a faulty text but of faulty understanding of the text.

These issues are relevant for understanding Vatican Saying 42. The Vatican manuscript reads (according to Wotke’s text and apparatus):

ὁ αὐτὸς χρόνος καὶ γενέσεως τοῦ μεγίστου ἀγαθοῦ καὶ ἀπολύσεως.

The expression ὁ αὐτὸς χρόνος (‘the same time’) and the word γενέσεως (‘beginning’, ‘birth’, ‘production’ and so on) are capable of a range of meanings, adding to the interpretative uncertainty. Much depends on the last word, ἀπολύσεως, but this word also can bear a number of senses (e.g. ‘release’, ‘separation’, ‘departure’, ‘death’) and moreover was corrected in the first edition to ἀπολαύσεως, ‘enjoyment’.

With that correction accepted, one finds for example the translation, ‘The time of the beginning and enjoyment of the greatest good is the same’ (O’Connor, Essential Epicurus, p. 81). Quite different is the translation by Inwood and Gerson, which retains ἀπολύσεως but introduces (cf. the edition of Arrighetti) an explanatory insertion, τοῦ κακοῦ: ‘In the same period of time both the greatest good and the dissolution <of bad> are produced’ (Epicurus Reader, p. 38).

Both these translations correct the text on the assumption that a satisfactory meaning cannot be obtained otherwise, but they make different corrections with entirely different results – a great hazard of correcting a text at all. Is it possible to interpret the text satisfactorily without changing it?

The version in the Epicurus Reader appears to refer to the point at which pleasure increases to its greatest extent and pain which pleasure is replacing disappears (as in eating to sufficiency and overcoming hunger). This interpretation frames the saying in terms of the Epicurean theory of pleasure and the notion of limits. O’Connor’s version also seems to refer to the process of enjoying pleasure as a good.

I suggest that a more coherent interpretation can be achieved by framing the saying in terms of the Epicurean theory of old age. A number of Epicurean sayings show that Epicurus was fond of ironical contrasts, and we may see him using one here in the proposition that old age, while naturally associated with death (a possible meaning of ἀπόλυσις), can also be a time of birth (γένεσις), not physically but morally. As Vatican Saying 17 indicates, when a person who has lived a good life comes to old age, experience and gratitude can combine to produce a new stage of moral experience:

A young person is not the one to be pronounced happy but an old person who has lived a good life. For the young person in the flower of youth roves about distracted by chance events; but the old person has come to anchor in old age as in a harbour, having locked in by a firm sense of gratitude good things (τῶν ἀγαθῶν) which one could scarcely hope for previously.

The word ἀπόλυσις occurs with the sense of ‘decease’ in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 5.71, where the Peripatetic philosopher Lyco specifies in his will that certain things are to be done ‘after my decease’, μετὰ τὴν ἐμὴν ἀπόλυσιν.

Thoughts for the Day, September 2: ‘The same time of life is a time both of birth – of the greatest good – and of decease’ (Vatican Sayings 42).

C. [also K.] Wotke and H. Usener, ‘Epikurische Spruchsammlung’, Wiener Studien 10(2), 1888, 175-201, at p. 194.

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).

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).

The line between pushing and persuading

Vatican Saying 21 indicates how we should interact with nature, with particular reference to our desires. Care is needed in exploring the nuances of the terminology which Epicurus uses in advising us how to treat nature.

The word βιαστέον, translated below as ‘to be pressed’, may also be translated ‘to be resisted’ or ‘to be forced’. Thus in Euripides, Rhesus, line 584, ἡμῖν δ’ οὐ βιαστέον τύχην has been translated ‘against fate we must not strive’ (E.P. Coleridge, 1891), or ‘We cannot force Fortune against her will’ (G. Murray, 1913). Both senses – ‘resist’ and ‘force’ – have been used by translators in interpreting Vatican Saying 21.

The next phrase in the saying is also open to contrasting interpretations. The word πειστέον, translated below as ‘to be satisfied’, is found with the senses ‘persuade’ and ‘obey’, opposites seen in the usage of the parent verb πείθω, ‘persuade’, ‘prevail upon’, or in another form (πείθομαι) ‘be persuaded’, ‘obey’ (there are other meanings as well).

In some contexts ‘persuade’ may be rendered in English by ‘satisfy’, with the meaning of persuading someone to be satisfied that something is the case, as in Matthew 28:14 (‘satisfy’ RSV) and 1 John 3:19 (‘reassure’ RSV); the verb in both passages is πείσομεν.

I suggest that the sense in Vatican Saying 21 may be illustrated by the example of eating until satisfied (to use that word in another sense: filled or fulfilled). Eating just enough persuades nature to come to a settled state of pleasure; eating too much would be to force nature beyond the appropriate limit. To eat just enough is to fulfil a natural and necessary desire; to eat too much would be unnecessary and possibly harmful; to eat an extra delicacy might vary the natural pleasure of eating without harm. In dealing with nature, a fine judgment is required to achieve harmless and maximum enjoyment.

Further analysis is needed. See also ‘Classifying desires’.

Thoughts for the Day, August 14: ‘Nature is not to be pressed but to be satisfied; and we will satisfy nature by fulfilling necessary desires, and (other) natural desires if they do not cause harm, and by rigorously rejecting harmful desires’ (Vatican Sayings 21).

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).