Tag Archives: Plutarch

When parents get angry

Vatican Saying 62 (quoted below) illustrates the fact that Epicurus was interested in addressing not only general philosophical questions but practical problems of everyday life and personal relationships. A number of Vatican Sayings show him bringing observation and reason to bear in advising on standards and practices for personal and family life.

It is easy to imagine that specific incidents in the life of the Garden community may have led Epicurus to comment on such matters as: staying calm (Vatican Saying 79); making and keeping friends (28, 34, 39); the effect of separation on the affections (18); thinking philosophical thoughts during the daily round (41); having a philosophical argument (74); showing respect to a wise leader (32); being young and wild (80); impatience for variety (69); living on meagre resources (63); having or not having money (67); harbouring envy (53); and expressing condolence (66).

Vatican Saying 61, discussed yesterday (‘Harmony is beautiful’), is very specific in dealing with Epicurus’ own family (if that is the correct interpretation). The next saying, Vatican Saying 62, is also very specific, dealing with relationships between parents and children, and in particular the attitude of children to parents who are difficult to deal with. Epicurus counsels reason and diplomacy, on the grounds that thoughtful and conciliatory responses are likely to be the most effective way of handling parents who are (justifiably or unjustifiably) angry with their children.

The Greeks had long experience in living with conflict and in the bitter results of hostility and intransigence. No doubt Epicurus was keenly aware of historical examples, as well as ethical principles, relevant for dealing with personal friction. Plutarch later used the example of the Greeks when discussing a Roman willingness to end disputes by conference: ‘For the Greeks call it peace when two parties settle their quarrels by mutual conference, and not by violence’ (λόγῳ, μὴ βίᾳ, Numa 12.4, trans. B. Perrin).

In the next sentence Plutarch uses the word εὐγνωμονεῖν, to show goodwill, fairness, reasonableness, kindness. In Vatican Saying 62 Epicurus uses the same word, translated below ‘being conciliatory’. Surely with similar ideas in mind Epicurus advised against participating in the cut and thrust of politics. Gentle reason and diplomacy were preferable, and more effective.

Thoughts for the Day, September 17: ‘If parents are rightly angry with their children, it is surely pointless to retaliate and not to ask for forgiveness. If the anger is not justifiable but quite unreasonable, it is absurd – bearing in mind that unreasonableness generally tends to refusal – not to seek to deflect it by being conciliatory’ (Vatican Sayings 62).

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.)

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’).

Philosophy: rewarding and enjoyable

Epicurus in his Letter to Menoeceus writes that everyone should philosophize, whether young or old: ‘A person should not delay philosophizing when young or weary of it when old. For no one is too young or old to attend to the well-being of their soul’ (§ 122).

Once we have begun to philosophize, how long does it take to reap the rewards? Vatican Saying 27 gives an encouraging response: learning philosophy and enjoying the fruits of philosophy go hand in hand. We are not likely to develop the greatest depths of insight until an advanced age (see Vatican Saying 17, discussed in ‘Age and happiness’), but we can grow in knowledge and practical wisdom all along the way.

With reference to the processes of philosophical enquiry, Vatican Saying 27 uses the terms γνῶσις (translated below ‘investigation’) and μάθησις (‘learning’). The word γνῶσις may also mean ‘knowledge’, but ‘investigation’ suits the context and is clearly the meaning in a passage in Plutarch where γνῶσις and μάθησις occur in similar combination.

In How the Young Should Study Poetry (Quomodo adolescens poetas audire debeat), Plutarch distinguishes between philosophical truth and what he regards as the lies of the poets, and emphasizes the difficulty of establishing the truth: ‘the truth, even for those who have made it their sole business to search out and understand the verities, is exceedingly hard to track down and hard to get hold of’, … γνῶσιν καὶ μάθησιν τοῦ ὄντος εὖ μάλα δυσθήρατός ἐστι καὶ δύσληπτος (1.2, trans. F.C. Babbitt).

Thoughts for the Day, August 19: ‘With other pursuits the fruit comes when after much effort they have been completed, but with philosophy the pleasure accompanies the investigation; for enjoyment does not come after learning but learning and enjoyment occur together’ (Vatican Sayings 27).

The word μόλις, translated here ‘after much effort’, might be interpreted from the point of view of time ‘at last’, ‘eventually’. However, effort is surely indicated. We may compare Sophocles, Electra 1508-1510. In that passage also μόλις occurs in conjunction with τελέω (Vatican Saying 27 uses τελείω): ὦ σπέρμ’ Ἀτρέως, ὡς πολλὰ παθὸν | δι’ ἐλευθερίας μόλις ἐξῆλθες | τῇ νῦν ὁρμῇ τελεωθέν. These words were translated by R.C. Jebb, ‘O seed of Atreus, through how many sufferings have you sprouted up at last in freedom, fulfilled by this day’s enterprise!’; ‘at last’ indicates an enormous amount of difficulty and suffering.

R.C. Jebb (ed.), Sophocles: The Plays and Fragments, Part VI: The Electra, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1894. James Warren, ‘Why knowing things is good’, kenodoxia [blog], 25/6/2012, comment.

Bertrand Russell on Epicurus

This is a revised version of some notes recently prepared for discussion purposes on several aspects of Bertrand Russell’s chapter concerning ‘The Epicureans’ in his History of Western Philosophy.[1]

1.  General.  Russell’s description and assessment of Epicureanism in this chapter are interesting but need correction. There are both useful insights and unfortunate inaccuracies. His understanding of Epicurean­ism is in places somewhat superficial, and is not based on a wide enough reading of the literature.

2.  Bailey.  Some of the problems in Russell’s views may be traced back to Cyril Bailey,[2] whose book The Greek Atomists and Epicurus Russell describes as ‘invaluable to the student’.[3] Bailey, although a special­ist on Epicurean texts and willing to praise Epicurus as ‘a serious and consistent thinker’ (The Greek Atomists, p. 528), was misled in his overall assess­ment by his own misinterpretations of the evidence. His work cannot be taken as a sound basis for forming an accurate under­standing of the character and significance of Epicurean philosophy.

3.  List of extant sources.  An indication of Russell’s superficiality is his enumeration of the surviving writings of Epicurus, which he says are limited to ‘a few letters, some fragments, and a statement of ‘Principal Doctrines’’ (p. 252). This summary omits reference to the Vatican Say­ings (some of which admittedly overlap with the Principal Doctrines), fails to do justice to the extent of material in papyri from Herculaneum and elsewhere, is silent on the inscription of Diogenes of Oenoanda, and does not clarify the extent of quotations in ancient writers or the con­tribution to our knowledge via the Latin of Lucretius. Russell’s list reads like a brief mention of the most easily accessible items.

4.  The diet of the Epicurean community.  Russell claims that the diet of the Epicurean community was ‘mainly bread and water’ (p. 250). This is highly unlikely. Epicurus recommends a simple diet, represented by an appreciation of barley cake and water, but the garden in Athens worked by the Epicurean community no doubt provided a range of vegetables, fruits and herbs. There is a reference in Plutarch to Epicurus and his community having beans to eat during a famine (Parallel Lives, Life of Demetrius 34.1-3). A diet of bread and water would be mani­festly inadequate for a healthy lifestyle. It is unnecessary to take the view that Epicurus and his followers led an ascetic existence or that we should do so today. His teaching emphasized the need to be satisfied with and grateful for enough and not to want too much.

5.  Sexuality.  Russell leaves the reader with the impression that Epi­curus denounced sexual love as useless and potentially harmful, while nevertheless being fond of children (p. 253). This topic requires careful study of the full range of evidence in the surviving sources. Certainly there is reference to the anxiety and distress that can arise from sexual relationships, and since Epicurus emphasizes generally the need to deal with anxiety and distress it is not surprising that he notes this aspect of sexual relationships. This at least means that one should not look to sexual enjoyment as the main solution to one’s problems. Such an attitude, Epicurus warns, will not work out in practice; one must take other factors into account in the search for happiness; the very activity that one might think of as the source of the highest pleasure can turn out to be the opposite. Lucretius took a similar view – perhaps he was surrounded by people who knew the pain of failed relationships and the difficulties and emptiness of life in an over-sexualized society.

6.  Some passages. The following are some passages which indicate a need for care and restraint in relationships.[4] Interpretation needs to take into account the reliability of the ancient sources and the adequacy of available texts and translations. Pleasure does not consist in ‘enjoying boys and women’ (Letter to Menoeceus 132). A sexual relationship requires spending time with the beloved (Vatican Sayings 18; does this mean that a couple should be careful to spend time together, or that keeping apart may be in the best interests of both?). According to Epi­cureans, love is not sent by the gods; a wise person will not fall in love; and a wise person will not transgress the law in sexual matters (Dio­genes Laertius, Lives 10.118). According to Epicurus, a wise person will marry when circum­stances are right (but not all will marry), and will produce children (Lives 10.119). In Cicero’s explanation of the matter, Epicureans do not condemn sexual pleasure, as long as it is harmless, but they do not encourage it as positively beneficial (Tusculan Disputations 5.94). Epicurus said that he would not be able to conceive of what is good if one took from life the pleasures of taste, sex, listening and vision (Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 12.546ef; these are no doubt intended as examples of the five senses and the pleasures they afford, without which life would be meaningless).

7.  Science.  According to Russell, ‘Epicurus has no interest in science on its own account… Epicureans contributed practically nothing to natural knowledge… they remained, like their founder, dogmatic, limited, and without genuine interest in anything outside individual hap­piness’ (p. 255). This is an odd assessment of a movement which em­phasized the need for study of the natural world, stressed the importance of rational enquiry, and supported the atomist view of matter which in the modern period has been shown to be vitally important for our under­standing of the world.[5] We certainly need to ask whether Epicureans in antiquity were associated with particular scien­tific discoveries; this requires a search of the evidence.[6] However, there can be no doubt that Epicurean interest in critical method is a significant aspect of the history of scientific investigation. If the evid­ence prevents us from pointing to any particular discoveries in antiquity, we can at least draw connections with scientific advances in the period of the Enlightenment and after. For example, Isaac Newton in his Opticks (2nd ed., 1718) paraphrased arguments in Lucretius. Epicurus does argue that if we did not need science for happiness we would not study it (cf. Principal Doctrines 11-13); but this is an argument that serves to reinforce the importance to us of an accurate understanding of reality. As for his dogmatism, Epicurus was emphatic about the need to retain philosophical gains which in his view had proved indispensable, and his followers agreed with him; at the same time, he was encouraging the study of philosophy and science, not the uncritical perpetuation of a sect or cult.

It is particularly unfair of Russell to criticize Epicurus for offering a number of different explanations for natural phenomena (such as the phases of the moon) as if it did not matter which was true ‘so long as it does not bring in the gods’ (p. 255). The point of Epicurus’ multiple explanations lies in the need for humility before the evidence: if we do not know a thing for certain, we are not entitled to act as if we did; we have to speculate on and explore possible solutions, a procedure not helped by using theological explanations as a substitute for enquiry.

Stuart Pickering
24/7/2012


[1] Bertrand Russell, ‘The Epicureans’, in his A History of Western Philosophy, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1945; London, Allen & Unwin, 1946, 2nd ed., 1961; repr. London, Routledge, 1991, chapter XXVII (pp. 249-259). [Apologies that in this blog entry footnote numbers do not currently link back to footnote references in the text.]

[2] Cyril Bailey (ed.), Epicurus: The Extant Remains, Oxford, Clarendon, 1926; The Greek Atomists and Epicurus: A Study, Oxford, Clarendon, 1928.

[3] Russell, p. 249 n. 1.

[4] The passages mentioned are translated in Inwood and Gerson, The Epicurus Reader (1994).

[5] The literature includes Elizabeth Asmis, Epicurus’ Scientific Method (Cornell Studies in Classical Philology, 42), Ithaca NY – London, Cornell University Press, 1984.

[6] In the tradition of Aristotle, Peripatetic interest in an active life of scientific investi­gation is clear: note for example Epicurus’ near-contemporary Dicaearchus.