Tag Archives: Vatican Sayings

Be thoughtful rather than mournful

Vatican Saying 66 (quoted below) encourages thoughtfulness instead of lamentation. It seems most likely that the saying refers to circumstances in which a friend has died.

In the Epicurean view, sadness at death is alleviated or even removed by the consideration that death is a natural part of the way things are. So long as it is not untimely, death does not prevent us from enjoying a life of happiness and fulfilment, and does not take away from a life well lived.

Epicurus emphasized the possibilities for pleasure and contentment in this life and condemned the wastefulness of allowing fears about death to spoil the enjoyment of life. From the playwright Menander, a contemporary of Epicurus, we have a fragment which reflects a philosophical appreciation for the natural wonders of this life. The following is an adaptation.

I call that person happiest, my friend,
Who has the chance to look upon the sun
That lights us all, to gaze up to the stars,
To see the clouds, and water, and the fire
Of lightning in the sky – these things so great
And grand and wonderful; and who has learned
To live without distress, and known such joys
That one can go as quickly as we come,
To that dispersion whence we all are formed;
Not only we but those things marvellous
That you will see always, though you live
A hundred years or only very few.
And greater things than these you will not see,

Thoughts for the Day, September 21: ‘Let us sympathize with our friends not with wailing but with thoughtfulness’ (Vatican Sayings 66).

Verses: SRP after Menander, fr. 373, from the play The Counterfeit Baby, or The Rustic (Ὑποβολιμαῖος ἢ Ἄγροικος, trans. Allinson). An old edition of the Greek is available online (A. Meineke (ed.), Menandri et Philemonis reliquiae, Berlin, 1823, p. 166, from Stobaeus). A text and translation are given in the Loeb edition of Menander (an older version by F.G. Allinson is available online; the more recent edition by W.G. Arnott should also be consulted). The dramatic context is not exactly Epicurean; it suggests that a short visit is better than a long stay, whereas in the Epicurean view old age has special advantages. I have adapted the sense in a number of ways in an Epicurean direction.

See also ‘A life that is finite but full and complete’; ‘Staying in control whatever happens’; ‘Making life better, becoming happier’.

Within our power

Human-divine relations were a preoccupation of the ancient Greek poetic tradition. Bred of awe and fear, the notion was persistent that nothing much could be done without the assistance or intervention of the gods.

Quotations in later authors illustrate the theme. For example, Theophilus, a second-century bishop of Antioch, uses a series of excerpts to show the variety and contradictions in the tradition (To Autolycus 2.8).

One of the authors he quotes is Simonides (late sixth – early fifth century BC), who says that no city, no mortal, can have excellence without the gods; God is all-knowing, all-planning, all-contriving (παμμῆτις), while nothing in human life is free from harm, nothing without misery (οὐδὲν ἀπήμαντον).

An attitude of dependence on divine power and influence naturally inspired prayer in time of need or danger, to gain a benefit or to avert an ill. Surely this was part of the divine plan, to drive humans to despair so that they would acknowledge their limitations?

Epicurus rejected poetry as a guide to theology and dismissed educational practices which taught students to absorb poetic notions of the gods into their way of thinking. Direct study of nature led to quite different conclusions, with important practical consequences.

Vatican Saying 65 suggests the obvious, that there are many things in life which people can organize for themselves without any need to seek supernatural assistance. Where, then, is the line to be drawn between what we can do for ourselves and what we may hope a greater power will do for us?

In Epicurean terms, there are only three large-scale factors at work affecting our lives: necessity (according to fixed universal conditions), chance (very variable), and human agency. The universe is big enough for the development somewhere of beings more advanced and happier than we are, but wherever they may be they do not intervene in our lives (they would not be as happy as they are if they involved themselves in our difficulties).

From undone shoe-laces to a warming planet, we can only blame ourselves if we fail to identify possible solutions and pursue responsible options.

Simonides: The fragment is translated in M.L. West, Greek Lyric Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics), Oxford – New York, Oxford University Press, 1999/ 2008, p. 163 (no. 526).

Thoughts for the Day, September 20: ‘What one is able to supply for oneself it is pointless to ask for from the gods’ (Vatican Sayings 65).

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).

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).

Harmony is beautiful

The wording of Vatican Saying 61 has presented a number of difficulties for translators. As a result there are translations in circulation which differ in meaning but seem to agree in their level of obscurity.

I suggest that a straightforward translation can be obtained which yields a very interesting meaning that is lost in mistranslation. My suggestion is as follows; textual and translation details need to be confirmed.

The sentence has the expression ‘the sight’ (ἡ ὄψις) combined with two dependent expressions, ‘those nearby’ (τῶν πλησίων) and ‘the family’ (τῆς συγγενείας). There has been a tendency to take ‘the sight of those nearby’ (or ‘the neighbours’) to mean the view that others have of them. A clearer meaning emerges if we take ‘the sight of those nearby’ to mean ‘the view on the part of those nearby.’ We then have those nearby looking at those described as ‘the family.’ On this interpretation, ‘the sight of those nearby of the family’ means ‘the sight those nearby have of the family.’ The wording is tricky because ‘sight’ (ὄψις) can mean ‘view’ of a thing and ‘thing viewed.’

The word here translated ‘family’ (συγγενείας) has also been translated ‘kin’ or ‘kinship’, rather vague words which have added to the impression of obscurity. The emendation συγγενήσεως, ‘meeting’, has been suggested instead. It seems to me preferable to avoid emending if a satisfactory meaning can be obtained from the text as it stands.

Further obscurity has been introduced in the translation of the word ‘first’ (or ‘foremost’, πρώτης); ‘primary’ and ‘original’ have been tried in different combinations. What can ‘first family’ mean? I suggest it has the straightforward meaning of the ‘first family’ in the Epicurean Garden, the family of Epicurus, i.e. his brothers and any other family members who were part of the community.

With Epicurus as a dominant leader, the community of the Garden inevitably had some kind of hierarchical structure. However much egalitarianism was encouraged, there must have been an unavoidable focus on the position of Epicurus’ relatives as special members of the group. It would be an acknowledgment of the obvious to call them the ‘first’ or ‘foremost’ family.

Along with position went responsibility. Epicurus himself had to set the highest standards in his personal values and conduct. His position and authority, and the tone and functioning of the community, would have been adversely affected if the attitudes and behaviour of family members were at variance with expected norms. Harmonious co-operation on their part, or at least concerted attempts by them to achieve and maintain harmonious co-operation (‘being of one mind’, ὁμονοούσης), would have been of key importance in running the group, and a great example and encouragement for everyone in close contact with them. I suggest that Vatican Saying 61 makes this practical point.

Thoughts for the Day, September 16: ‘It is a very beautiful sight for those nearby to see the leading family in harmony or making a great effort to achieve this’ (Vatican Sayings 61). The Greek translated here is: καλλίστη καὶ ἡ τῶν πλησίων ὄψις τῆς πρώτης συγγενείας ὁμονοούσης ἢ ἡ εἰς πολλὴν εἰς τοῦτο ποιουμένη σπουδήν (Codex Vaticanus, as reported by Wotke).

Simplicity, complexity, simplicity

In concluding one of his Epistles to Lucilius (22.13-17), Seneca cites in Latin two versions of a sentiment expressed in Vatican Saying 60 (quoted below):

Nemo non ita exit e vita, tamquam modo intraverit, ‘Everyone goes out of life just as if he had but lately entered it’, specifically attributed by Seneca to Epicurus; and Nemo aliter quam quomodo natus est exit e vita, ‘No one leaves this world in a different manner from one who has just been born’ (trans. R.M. Gummere, reading in the second instance qui modo (Wolters) for quomodo of the manuscripts).

After quoting the first version, Seneca suggests a couple of ways in which an old person may be considered to be like a young person: an old person, or indeed a person of any age, is just as afraid of death and ignorant of life; and an old person has nothing finished, through putting things off.

Seneca then quotes the second version and denies that it is true, alleging that through our own fault ‘we are worse when we die than when we were born’ (peiores morimur quam nascimur). When we come into the world we are free of desires, fears, superstition, treachery and such things. We should go from life as we were at the beginning, having learned wisdom; instead at the approach of death our courage fails us.

Having denied the truth of the saying, however, Seneca comes close to acknowledging its applicability. We fret at death because we go from life stripped of all our goods; we have nothing – just as we had nothing when born, though he does not say that explicitly.

Perhaps his final point is the most poignant: we do not care how well we live but how long, whereas what is within our power is not how long we live but how well (omnibus possit contingere, ut bene vivant, ut diu, nulli). He implies: the will to live is there at the end as at the beginning, and what have we learned in the meantime?

Thoughts for the Day, September 15: ‘We all go from life as we were when just born’ (Vatican Sayings 60). Or, ‘Everyone goes from life as if just born.’ The Greek has πᾶς ὥσπερ ἄρτι γεγονὼς ἐκ τοῦ ζῆν ἀπέρχεται. In the first translation, the ‘we’ form has been used for gender neutrality; the second translation is phrased to avoid the same problem.

Never satisfied

According to Vatican Saying 59 (quoted below), if we eat too much it is not our stomach’s fault but our fault for having exaggerated ideas of how much our stomach needs.

This view is connected with the Epicurean doctrine of limits. The idea of limits is explained by a number of basic principles, which might be expressed as follows: (1) as living organisms we have needs and desires which we understand in terms of pleasure and pain; (2) for well-being and happiness we must satisfy our needs appropriately; (3) nature supplies what we need; (4) what we need is easy to get; (5) there are limits to what nature supplies; (6) there are limits to what we need; (7) we are inclined to desire too much; (8) accordingly we need to impose limits on our desires; (9) if we observe natural limits we can achieve settled pleasure and thus happiness; (10) if we desire too much (thinking that excess will give us happiness) we will cause ourselves unnecessary pain and distress (and thus bring on ourselves unhappiness).

Desires that do not accord with natural limits reflect ‘empty opinions’ or ‘false expectations’ (κεναὶ δόξαι). These are wrong conclusions that we can draw about our needs and resources. The evidence available to us is clear in nature, but we can form false opinions about it, and as a result give ourselves trouble and unhappiness. Philosophy enables us to interpret the evidence rationally and adjust our thoughts and behaviour to the demands of reality.

These questions are illuminated by a range of Epicurean sayings. Principal Doctrine 15 sums up the matter succinctly:

The wealth of nature is both limited and easily obtained; the wealth of false expectations goes on and on to infinity.

Other relevant sayings include: Principal Doctrines 3, 8, 10, 18, 20, 21, 22, 24; Vatican Sayings 21, 26, 29, 30, 33, 37, 68, 69, 71.

Thoughts for the Day, September 14: ‘It is not (as most people say) the stomach that is never satisfied, but an expectation – a false expectation – that an unlimited amount is needed to fill a stomach.’ (Vatican Sayings 59.)

Out of the mainstream

Epicurus received some sort of conventional education and so was in a position to comment on its strengths and weaknesses. We are told that as a schoolboy he was upset with his teachers because they could not explain a passage about Chaos in the poet Hesiod (see Theogony 116, 123), and this prompted him to turn to philosophy for answers. For this anecdote Diogenes Laertius cites the philosopher Apollodorus, a head of the Epicurean school in the second century BC, presumably a credible source.

According to Hesiod, ‘first there was Chaos’ (116). Next came Earth, Tartarus (the underworld) and Eros. ‘From Chaos came Erebus and black Night’ (123). Night united with Erebus (nether darkness) to produce Aether (the upper atmosphere) and Day. Earth of herself produced Heaven and Pontus (sea), and then united with Heaven to produce Ocean and a number of other deities, including Cronus, who was hostile to his father Heaven. Thus Hesiod uses myth and genealogy to explain the origins of the world – an unsatisfactory procedure from a scientific point of view, though informative for traditional attitudes and beliefs.

The use of Hesiod in early education, and popular familiarity with his poetry, are illustrated by a passage in a speech of the Athenian orator Aeschines delivered in 330 BC (Against Ctesiphon 135). In making a point against his opponent Demosthenes, Aeschines quotes seven lines from Hesiod’s Works and Days (240-244, 246-247), and says this is why we memorize the sentiments of the poets when we are children – so that we can make use of them when we are men. He also quotes the first two of these lines in another speech (On the Embassy 158).

For Epicurus, this culturally conditioned approach to education was not only inadequate but misleading. It was necessary to strike out in a new direction if people were to understand the universe on a scientific basis and adjust their lives successfully to the demands of reality. The old ideas did not provide a reliable guide for understanding the world or for understanding how to live a happy life.

In Epicurus’ view the habits and values of politics were similarly misguided and misleading. In fact, according to Vatican Saying 58, conventional education and politics together form a ‘prison’ from which people have to escape in order to live happy and successful lives.

Thoughts for the Day, September 13: ‘We must release ourselves from the prison of conventional education and political activity.’ (Vatican Sayings 58.)

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.)