Principal Doctrine 40 concludes the series of Principal Doctrines in an apparently disconcerting way. It starts off hopefully but finishes on an unexpected note.
The saying addresses three matters: the need for a secure and stable environment in which individuals are free to develop and flourish; the aim of personal happiness, helped by successful relationships; and the possibility of a fully satisfying life without the need for final regrets.
At the last moment the saying strikes what may at first seem an unfeeling note. Why should one not lapse into immense grief and pity at the loss of a friend? The answer no doubt lies in the ability of individuals to lead a life so constructive and fulfilling that death itself cannot take away from the sense of completeness.
As the Principal Doctrines make clear, this is the kind of life that Epicurean philosophy, in an open and straightforward way, promises to those who are willing to live according to the ‘goal of nature’. The challenge is to understand the principles and to apply them in all circumstances. In this process the realization will dawn that the final note can be one not of sadness but of success.
Thoughts for the Day, August 2: ‘Those who have the ability to arrange things so as to be confident, especially with regard to those who live round about, can then with the greatest assurance live very pleasantly with one another, and having enjoyed meaningful experiences to the fullest they do not mourn over the death of one who dies before they do, as if there were need to feel pity’ (Principal Doctrines 40).
Principal Doctrine 25, with its reference to the ‘goal of nature’, goes to the heart of what it means to live according to Epicurean principles. The goal of nature (τὸ τέλος τῆς φύσεως) is explained in Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus §§127-128:
 … We must take into account that of desires some are natural and some baseless, and of the natural ones some are necessary and some merely natural. Of the necessary desires, some are necessary for happiness, some for dealing with bodily troubles, and some for life itself.  By giving unwavering attention to these distinctions we can refer every instance of choice or avoidance to bodily health and tranquillity of soul, as this is the goal of living a happy life and for the sake of this we do everything to escape being in pain or alarm, and as soon as we achieve this all trouble of soul ceases, since the living organism does not then need to go on about a lack or search for something else by which the good of soul and body can be completed. For we need pleasure when we are in pain through the absence of pleasure. When we are no longer in pain we do not need pleasure. For this reason we say that pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily.
There are a number of ideas here which have to be brought into focus so that we can appreciate Epicurus’ message. As living organisms we need health of body and tranquillity of soul (a term which includes the mind and emotions). What is congenial to us is pleasant, and so our goal is pleasure for the sake of well-being. Sometimes (perhaps often) we need to endure pain to achieve a pleasant outcome, but the overall goal is to live a pleasant and not a painful life. Pleasure is not an unrestrained and irresponsible sort of pleasure (which does not in fact have a pleasant outcome) but pleasure that meets our needs and operates within limits.
The pleasure of eating illustrates the point well. We need to eat to be healthy but we do not need an excess of eating; we need only so much to satisfy our hunger and once that limit is reached we can be pleasantly satisfied. It is essential that we learn to be content with enough, so that we can live happily having what nature supplies and within the limits that nature prescribes. By studying Epicurean texts, such as the Letter to Menoeceus and the Principal Doctrines, and by putting principles into practice, we can progressively gain increased confidence in understanding how the various ideas and values fit together.
The principle of the goal of nature applies in many different contexts. The key requirement is to aim at pleasure in the best possible way. This aim brings other ideals along with pleasure – in particular wisdom, goodness and justice – into balanced relationship with one another (Principal Doctrine 5). The result is self-referential but not exclusively selfish, for a principled commitment to personal well-being necessarily involves commitment to the well-being of others. The individual exists in relation to others, and the Epicurean outlook places great emphasis on the importance of friendship and a secure and stable community. The goal of nature requires us to look not only at our individual concerns but outward as well, to the needs which are part of the natural order of things and to the ways in which those needs can best be satisfied.
Thoughts for the Day, July 18: ‘Unless on every occasion you do everything with reference to the goal of nature – if you stop short at some other consideration when you are either declining or pursuing an objective – your actions will not accord with what you say you intend to do’ (Principal Doctrines 25).
Posted in Philosophy
Tagged Epicureanism, Epicurus, Happiness, Limit, Nature, Pleasure, Principal Doctrine 25, Principal Doctrine 5, Principal Doctrines, Telos, Well-being