Tag Archives: Vatican Saying 68

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).

Pleasure in the fulfilment of simple needs

According to Seneca, the Stoic Zeus needed only himself to be happy (Epistles 9.16-17). When the world dissolves (resoluto mundo, as happens from time to time according to Stoic thought) and all the gods other than Zeus are ‘confounded together’ (dis in unum confusis), Zeus can retire into himself and his own thoughts, completely self-sufficient.

Human beings, as part of nature, can hardly be that self-sufficient, but Epicurus boldly asserts that we can compete with Zeus for happiness if we learn to be content with what nature provides for our needs. This means recognizing what our essential needs are and being content when they are satisfied.

In Vatican Saying 33 he gives the example of our need for food, water and warmth. In each case – when we have had enough to eat or drink, when we are warm enough – the fulfilment of our need reaches a natural limit and at that point we could not be happier if we had more food or water to consume or more protection against the cold. The ability and opportunity to reach a natural limit give us the experience of a happiness that cannot be improved on, which thus invites comparison with the perfect happiness attributed (whether in Stoic or other mythological thinking) to the supreme deity.

Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus (§§ 130-131) presents the general argument:

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.

In the text of saying 33 in the Vatican manuscript, the word ‘Zeus’ is lacking but it is obvious that a word needs to be restored. One piece of evidence for restoring ‘Zeus’ occurs in a passage in the Historical Miscellany of the Roman author Aelian (Claudius Aelianus, late second – early third century AD). Writing in Greek, Aelian collected a great variety of interesting and amusing information, anecdotes and the like for a popular readership. As a supporter of Stoicism he was highly critical of Epicurean philosophy, but the passage of interest here is neutral from that point of view. In a series of miscellaneous notes about ancient Greek authors and historical figures he refers to ‘Epicurus of the deme of Gargettus’ who said that ‘a man who is not satisfied with a little will not be satisfied with anything’ (this is similar to Vatican Saying 68), and ‘he was ready to declare himself a match for Zeus in good fortune if he had bread and water’ (4.10.13, trans. Wilson, p. 195).

Thoughts for the Day, August 25: ‘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 Sayings 33).

Richard M. Gummere (ed. and trans.), Seneca: Ad Lucilium Epistulae morales (Loeb Classical Library), vol. I, London, Heinemann/ New York, Putnam’s Sons, 1918, repr. 1925, pp. 52-53. N.G. Wilson (ed. and trans.), Aelian: Historical Miscellany (Loeb Classical Library, 486), Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1997, pp. 194-195.