Tag Archives: Reason

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).

Hark the herald

The story of Oedipus, the man who unknowingly murdered his father and married his mother, is told by a number of ancient authors, including the Athenian tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. In the Euripidean play The Phoenician Women we learn of some of the effects on the younger generation. (The women of the title are prisoners of war on their way to Delphi; they observe and comment on the action of the play.)

Oedipus was born the son of the king and queen of Thebes, Laius and Jocasta. With a crime in his past and warned by an oracle that if he had a son the son would kill him, Laius exposed Oedipus on a mountain with a spike through his feet (hence the name ‘swollen-foot’). A shepherd rescued him and brought him up as his own son – salvation with a sting, for Oedipus, when later advised by the Delphic oracle that he would kill his father (and marry his mother), believed this applied to his rescuer and fled, but met and killed (in an act of road rage) his real father on the road to Thebes. There he married the widowed queen, his mother.

When the truth emerged, Oedipus could no longer act as king. The victim of a curse himself, he puts a curse on his two sons when (according to the Phoenician Women) they lock him away: one of them would kill the other. Rather than fight to see who would be king, the sons agree to divide the kingship between them, to take it in turns year by year, with the elder going first. But after a year Eteocles refuses to cede rule to Polynices, who goes into exile, marries the daughter of the king of Argos, and returns with a force to claim Thebes.

Jocasta is overjoyed to see him again. She embraces him and says how much she wants by word and gesture and dance to express her feelings of pleasure (Phoenician Women 304-317). She now hopes to regain ‘the delight of her old joys’ – a hope destined to be horribly thwarted as the drama proceeds.

Jocasta’s brother Creon had become king or regent after Oedipus, and he was now in charge of the defence of Thebes. His situation is further complicated when the prophet Teiresias says that he must sacrifice his son Menoeceus for the good of Thebes, to appease the war god Ares, who had been offended by the city’s founders, from whom Creon and Menoeceus are descended. Menoeceus is also the name of Creon and Jocasta’s father, the father-in-law of Oedipus.

In the context of Epicurean philosophy, the name Menoeceus has very different connotations, being the name of a contemporary of Epicurus to whom the philosopher addressed a letter summing up much of his ethical doctrines. The date of the letter is unknown, but in general terms we can place it about a century or more after the death of Euripides. Athens had changed considerably by then; and yet awareness of old literature and myths persisted, and no doubt old associations of the name Menoeceus were not forgotten.

Also not forgotten were the old preoccupations with gods and oracles, vengeance and cursing, death and destruction. These were enduring themes that still had the power to stir up fear and superstition. Epicurus set himself against the old tales and the beliefs and behaviour that went with them. Basing his views on a scientific understanding of reality, he rejected traditional beliefs and sought to replace them with a practical and realistic outlook.

Where the old stories threatened doom, Epicurus offered hope; where they emphasized the inexorability of fate, Epicurus emphasized the human capacity to organize life by the power of reason; where they told of unending cycles of conflict and suffering, Epicurus presented a straightforward theory of pleasure and happiness; where they dealt in tangled relationships human and divine, Epicurus provided a philosophy of life set in the context of an abundant nature and a material universe.

A key part of the new dynamic was the role of friendship as a source of confidence and security. According to Principal Doctrine 27:

Having friendship is by far the greatest of the things which wisdom organizes for the happiness of one’s whole life.

According to Vatican Saying 78:

The highest concerns of a high-minded person are wisdom and friendship, of which one is a mortal good, the other immortal.

Friendship brings assurance (Vatican Saying 34) and hope (Vatican Saying 39).

In the Phoenician Women, Jocasta could dance about in delight and think of a renewal of old joys, but her hopes were forlorn where human hearts were hard and the gods hostile. Epicurus preached a different message entirely. As Vatican Saying 52 indicates (quoted below), friendship is the herald of an outlook that recognizes the good things that nature supplies and responds with gratitude. Friendship itself is thought of as dancing around – the same word that occurs in the tragedy, used in a different setting now – and this time the dance is one of a delight that spreads around the world.

Thoughts for the Day, September 9: ‘Friendship dances around the inhabited world calling us all at this very time to be awakened to thankfulness.’ (Vatican Sayings 52).

Making life better, becoming happier

In a poem addressed to a female figure named Leuconoë, the Roman poet Horace (65-8 BC) says that we are not allowed to know how long our lives will be and we should not try to find out. It is better to endure whatever may come, whether we have one winter or more. He bids the girl strain the wine and adjust her hopes to the brevity of time. Time will have fled while we are speaking, and so ‘seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one’ (carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero, Odes 1.11, line 8).

The French poet Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585) echoes the theme, encouraging a girl to enjoy life now rather than recall lost opportunities when she is old: ‘Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain. / Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie’ (‘Live, if you want my opinion, don’t wait till tomorrow. Gather today the roses of life’).

Similarly in a poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1674): ‘Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying: / And this same flower that smiles to day, / To morrow will be dying.’ The poem, entitled ‘To the Virgins, To make much of Time’, in its third stanza foretells a deterioration in the quality of life: ‘That Age is best, which is the first, / When Youth and Blood are warmer; / But being spent, the worse, and worst / Times, still succeed the former.’

It seems that the notion of ‘seizing the day’ is often traced back to Epicurus, whose philosophy was indeed an influence on Horace. And Epicurus does encourage us to find time for enjoyment today:

We are born once, and it is not possible to be born twice. We will necessarily have no further existence for eternity. Although you do not have mastery over tomorrow, you put off being joyful. Life is wasted by procrastination, and every one of us dies without finding time for leisure (Vatican Saying 14; see ‘Find time today to be joyful’).

The outlook in this saying is consistent with Epicurus’ emphasis on pleasure as the ‘goal of nature’, the main aim in the pursuit of happiness and hence the core consideration for a system of ethics. However, while Epicurus emphasizes the importance of addressing the opportunities and challenges of today, he does not take the view that life in the future will inevitably deteriorate. In fact he sees old age as the time when a person can reach a peak of happiness through philosophical understanding, growth in practical wisdom, and gratitude for good things in the past (Vatican Saying 17; see ‘Age and happiness’).

For Epicurus, the human faculty of reasoning enables us to overcome difficulties and to organize our lives in spite of the effects of necessity and chance (Principal Doctrine 16; see ‘Chance and reason’). Given our ability to use reason to solve problems, we do not have to look at the future as a time of increasing catastrophe. So long as we use our reason to good effect, we have a reasonable basis for anticipating positive experiences.

Indeed we have a duty to work through problems rationally and constructively, as this is the way to happiness for ourselves and others. Vatican Saying 48 sets out the challenge: we are on a journey, and we can – and ought to – make the later stages of the journey even better than what has gone before, even to the point of expecting that the greatest sense of settled joy can come at the end.

The converse is also clear: if we fail in our ethical responsibility to face problems rationally and constructively, unhappiness and disaster will undoubtedly follow.

Thoughts for the Day, September 8: ‘While we are on the journey, we must try to make the later part better than the earlier, and when we come to the end to be in joyful equilibrium.’ (Vatican Sayings 48).

Texts of Horace, Odes 1.11: Bibliotheca Augustana; Perseus. See also the poem De rosis nascentibus (attributed to Vergil), including the words, collige, virgo, rosas dum flos novus et nova pubes (line 49). Robert Herrick, Hesperides (originally published 1648).

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).

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.

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).

Veering between numbness and madness

The pace of life varies between the restful and the exhausting. Across this range, in Epicurus’ opinion, most human beings fail to exercise their minds adequately in order to address the challenges of life. He goes so far as to say that most people go from a state of numbness when they are quiet to raving madness when they are active (Vatican Saying 11).

Is this an unfair denigration of human tendencies? An example that arguably justifies the criticism is given in the entry ‘Hopes and fears’.

Thoughts for the Day, August 7: ‘Most people are numb when they are quiet and raving mad when they are active’ (Vatican Sayings 11).

Chance and reason

Greek τύχη (tyche) takes on a variety of meanings at different times and in different circumstances. The word is related to τεύχω (‘make’) and τυγχάνω (‘happen’). It could be used of what a divine being makes happen, the act of a god or the gods. Cyrus of Persia, for example, says that he thinks it was by ‘divine chance’ (θείῃ τύχῃ) that he was born to his role as ruler (Herodotus, History 1.126.6). No doubt he found it useful to be able to claim higher authority for what he was doing.

The exact shade of meaning given to ‘chance’ would depend on one’s views about the influences that shape the course of history. Occurrences could be attributed to supernatural intervention or regarded as purely accidental or random. Chance itself might be elevated to the status of a god. The Stoics, believing the universe to be divine and events predetermined, explained that things proceed according to continuous fated causation (εἱμαρμένη, heimarmenē) under the organizing influence of universal reason (λὁγος, logos; cf. Diogenes Laertius, Lives 7.149) – processes that eliminate the random and accidental, though the divine cannot be blamed for human folly.

Epicurus rejected the idea that fate rules our lives, but accepted that necessity and chance have a role – a view connected with his atomist theory of the universe: objects and events are outcomes of the behaviour of atoms whose collisions and combinations occur on fixed principles but with an element of chance. At the same time, he saw human reason (λογισμός: calculation, reasoning, reason) as capable of being the main organizing influence in people’s lives. Stoic λὁγος diminished the independence and responsibility of human actors; Epicurean λογισμός highlights the moral responsibility of the individual, who has the opportunity to make rational choices which affect human well-being and which deserve praise or blame accordingly (cf. Letter to Menoeceus, 133-135).

Thoughts for the Day, July 10: ‘For a wise person chance is of brief effect, whereas reason, having organized the greatest and most important matters in the past, continues to do so throughout life and into the future’ (Principal Doctrines 16).