Tag Archives: Porphyry (philosopher)

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).

Living thoughtfully and without extravagance

There are problems associated with having too little, and problems associated with having too much. But who is prepared to have just enough?

Epicurus acknowledges that we have basic requirements that need to be met, but these are not great. Fulfilling basic needs brings great happiness if we have the right outlook on life:

The body asks not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold; and someone who has these things and expects to have them could compete even with Zeus for happiness (Vatican Saying 33).

Wanting more than we need is not likely to make us happier. There are natural limits, and failure to observe limits will inevitably bring unhappiness. If enough is too little for us, nothing will be enough for us (Vatican Saying 68). The desire for more has no end and no fulfilment:

The wealth of nature is both limited and easily obtained; the wealth of false expectations goes on and on to infinity (Principal Doctrine 15).

It is not necessarily wrong to have more than the basic necessities, but we need to be aware that extravagance brings difficulties with it:

I relish the pleasure I feel in my poor body, having bread and water, and I say phooey to the pleasures of extravagance, not on their own account but because of the difficulties that result from them (Epicurus (ascribed), unidentified letter, quoted in Stobaeus, Anthology 3.17.33 (Wachsmuth and Hense) (Usener 181)).

To want too much is to invite the very sense of disturbance which we need to overcome in order to be happy.

It is better for you to lie on a bed of straw and be confident (about life) than to suffer inner disturbance though you have a golden couch and dine at great expense (Epicurus (ascribed), unidentified text, quoted in Porphyry, Letter to Marcella 29 (Usener 207)).

Why, then, do we find it difficult to be content with just enough, when enough is adequate for our needs? Vatican Saying 63 indicates two reasons: an approach to life which overruns limits; but also a lack of thought, which makes it hard for us to recognize the adequacy of limited resources.

Thoughts for the Day, September 18: ‘It is possible to live decently with meagre resources which the unreflecting person finds about as hard as does the person whose life runs to excess through a failure to observe limits’ (Vatican Sayings 63).

Professors and doctors

In the Epicurean way of thinking, philosophy is something that we all need to be engaged in. As Epicurus puts it in the Letter to Menoeceus, ‘young and old ought to philosophize’ because this is the way to happiness (122). At the end of the letter he says, ‘Study these and related matters day and night, alone and with a like-minded companion, and awake or asleep you will never be in turmoil’ (135).

If we do not study philosophy and apply its lessons, turmoil, or inner disturbance (ταραχή), is inevitable. This is because philosophy teaches us about reality and about the choices that we need to make to overcome difficulties and achieve happiness.

If this is what philosophy can do, it is clearly silly to treat philosophy as a pursuit detached from everyday needs. To profess to be philosophical without attention to philosophy’s practical role is not to be a real philosopher at all. Everyone needs insights that philosophy provides, and this means that those who can explain the helpfulness of philosophy have a duty to do so.

Vatican Saying 54 (quoted below) compares the need for philosophy with the need for health, and links the two concepts: we need philosophy for its health-giving abilities, and just as we need real health we need real philosophy. Epicurus makes the point more specifically in another passage (quoted in Porphyry, Letter to Marcella 31; Usener 221):

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.

The ‘suffering of the soul’ (πάθος τῆς ψυχῆς) involves the ‘turmoil’ referred to in the Letter to Menoeceus. What is ‘bad’ in life takes two forms – bodily pain and distress of mind (τὸ ἀλγοῦν, τὸ λυπούμενον, Principal Doctrine 10). For complete health and happiness, we need to deal not only with bodily pain but with mental and emotional distress.

Bodily health is important, but the body can want too much and needs the mind to provide discipline. Thus we read in Principal Doctrine 20:

The body takes the limits of pleasure to be infinite – and infinite time could provide it. The mind takes account of the end and limit of bodily existence, dispels fears about eternity, and provides for a full and complete life…

The need to observe limits and the need to quell unnecessary fears are key reasons for philosophizing. Hence Epicureanism offers us the ‘four-part cure’ as part of our therapy, to dispel fears of gods and death and to explain limits in relation to pleasure and pain. Another important idea with curative power is gratitude. We cannot become easy about misfortunes unless we have gratitude (Vatican Saying 55):

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.

In these and other ways, the benefits of philosophy are intensely and profoundly practical. If we can develop into more knowledgeable and better people through philosophy, that is all well and good, but the purpose is not to receive acclaim for doing so. As Epicurus puts it (Vatican Saying 64):

Praise from others must follow spontaneously, while we attend to curing ourselves.

And we cannot promote well-being in the wider world without curing ourselves.

Thoughts for the Day, September 11: ‘We must not pretend to philosophize, but really philosophize. For we do not need to seem healthy, but to be healthy in reality.’ (Vatican Sayings 54).