Tag Archives: Well-being

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).

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.

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).

How not to be a friend

Friendship can be cheapened or weakened. Both possibilities are considered in Vatican Saying 39, which observes that friendship can be nullified by too much or too little contact.

With reference to excessive contact, the saying deals with the situation where someone exploits the courtesies of friendship for frequent personal gain. Epicurus uses a metaphor drawn from the familiar setting of selling or exchanging goods. The person at fault καπηλεύει τῇ χάριτι τὴν ἀμοιβήν, barters (or peddles) reciprocity (or exchange) for favours from the other person. The relationship of reciprocity and exchange which friendship implies is abused as a mechanism for one-sided self-aggrandizement.

Similar uses of καπηλεύω occur in Plato with regard to knowledge and thought. In Book VII of the Republic, during a discussion concerning pure and applied subjects, Socrates commends arithmetic as ideal for leading the mind away from the mundane to the intellectual, so long as it is not used for ‘commercial purposes’ (Waterfield) or ‘huckstering’ (Shorey), μὴ τοῦ καπηλεύειν (525d). In a passage in the Protagoras, Socrates criticizes the sophists for treating knowledge as a commodity for sale, acting as merchants for financial gain, irrespective of whether the doctrines (μαθήματα) they are ‘hawking’ (Lamb, translating πωλοῦντες καὶ καπηλεύοντες) are good or bad (313d).

In the case of the sophists, the criticism was that they turned what should be valued for its own sake into a commodity for ulterior motives. Epicurus makes a similar point about the danger of misusing friendship. He is not ruling out self-interest, which he sees as part of friendship, as Vatican Saying 23 makes clear (see ‘Friendship and self-interest’). Rather, he is making the point that an excessive emphasis on self-interest can rule out friendship. What is meant to be for mutual well-being can be converted into a convenience for purely selfish purposes.

This is a matter of more than limited personal concern: it is a matter of philosophical importance, relevant for the well-being of individuals and the harmonious and productive functioning of the wider community.

Thoughts for the Day, August 30: ‘A person who is for ever looking for help is not a friend, nor is a person who never makes contact; for the former barters reciprocity for favours, while the latter cuts short hopefulness about the future’ (Vatican Sayings 39).

The literature includes Bennett Helm, ‘Friendship’, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 17/5/2005, revised 9/7/2009, including discussion of the individual and social value of friendship.

Good and bad have natural consequences

Vatican Saying 37 invites us to consider a range of issues concerned with the ideal of the good in relation to nature, and the relevance of pleasure in this connection. The saying illuminates these questions by directing attention to the constructive role of what is good and the destructive effects of what is bad.

Given the nature of our physical constitution, it is natural for us to settle into a pleasant state, for example when we eat to overcome hunger. As we are living organisms that prefer pleasure to pain, it is natural for us to seek and to enjoy the pleasant state. While becoming hungry again is a necessary pain, it would be unnatural to seek hunger or to remain hungry.

We can easily recognize the distinction between the pleasure of eating and the pain of hunger, but we may often need reminding that the matter is not as simple as that. As well as recognizing the contrast between pleasure and pain, we also need to recognize the existence of limits. In the case of eating, it is painful to be hungry but also painful to eat too much. The natural state of pleasant satisfaction is disrupted both by the pain of hunger and by the pain caused by a failure to observe natural limits.

The pain of hunger occurs naturally as the body absorbs and uses the food we have eaten. The pain of over-consumption occurs through our own choice. Our desires can enable us to enjoy pleasure, as when we desire and consume enough food for our needs, but our desires can also lead to pain, as when we desire to eat too much and yield to that desire. Unless we recognize and observe limits, our desires are liable to take us beyond natural limits and cause us pain.

According to Principal Doctrine 10, ‘the bad’ means bodily pain and mental distress (cf. ‘The good, the bad and the reckless’). Pain and distress disrupt our natural well-being and have to be overcome to restore our system to its natural state of pleasure. Our nature is weak in the face of the bad: it is susceptible to disruption and weakened by it. A definite effort is required to restore the natural balance by appropriate means. There are things in nature which are good and sufficient to restore the natural balance, and it is good to take advantage of them to achieve pleasure and well-being of body and soul.

Because of the way we are constructed we are weakened and destroyed by pains, but built up and preserved by appropriate pleasures. According to Vatican Saying 37 this can be said of nature generally. What is good supports nature, what is bad weakens it. To live within acceptable limits in seeking pleasure is constructive and to be welcomed; to fail to respond to natural requirements, and to make choices that cause us to exceed natural limits, are policies that inevitably lead to pain and ruin.

Thoughts for the Day, August 28: ‘Nature is weak with the bad, not with the good; for it is preserved by pleasures but destroyed by pains’ (Vatican Sayings 37).

Social and psychological stability

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).

Always act with reference to the goal of nature

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:

[127] … 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. [128] 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).

Survival and self-respect

In a recent essay entitled ‘The marketing of Brand Me’, psychologist and social researcher Hugh Mackay draws an interesting distinction between self-esteem and self-respect. He argues that a person needs a sense of belonging and self-respect, but that this need is not well served by the technique of continually praising a person for their actions in an exaggerated way in order to boost their self-esteem. The focus should be more on the value of the actions, appreciated for their intrinsic worth, than on the person. An over-emphasis on the person (he argues) encourages self-glorification and self-promotion and creates an undue sense of personal entitlement.

In this context it seems somewhat ironic that Dr. Mackay himself has a self-promotional website. This perhaps illustrates the point that a person is led to self-promotion at least partly by the conventions of the wider society. A writer and speaker cannot engage effectively in public debate without forms of self-identification and self-description which inevitably mean a degree of self-marketing. If Dr. Mackay were a member of the clergy (for example), his identity would be to some extent merged with this larger group. But as an independent researcher and contributor (even if a member of the group of authors or psychologists, for instance) he cannot escape a strongly personal focus. His public identity is secured by the praise which society accords to him as an individual.

In diagnosing the problem of self-promotion in the modern period, Mackay finds that a whole culture is infected with a desire for reward and recognition. In his view the problem is linked with what he sees as the most basic of desires:

The desire to be taken seriously is perhaps the deepest and therefore the most easily frustrated of the many desires that drive us. We all need to be recognised, acknowledged, valued.

From an Epicurean standpoint we have to question whether the desire to be taken seriously is likely to be the deepest human desire. Preceding that surely is the basic desire for pleasure rather than pain. Given that the initial desire for pleasure is self-referential and self-regarding, a desire to be taken seriously logically follows. The desire for pleasure rather than pain is an essential strategy for survival and well-being, and it is understandable that in a social context this desire may be expressed as an urge to have one’s needs taken seriously.

Mackay’s solution to the problem of self-promotion turns on his distinction between self-esteem and self-respect:

Self-respect is a very private concept, easily overlooked in the noisy contest to construct and promote an “image”. It’s a thing we earn by the way we handle disappointment, tedium and loss, as well as those fleeting moments of happiness.

The privacy of self-respect may be considered in relation to the Epicurean advice to live unnoticed, inconspicuously. Our social responsibilities may call us to participate in public life, but there must be a more private sphere, away from the public gaze, in which we find our sense of self-worth.

If the private sphere – the family, the small group – is to function successfully, external circumstances must be favourable. This places a heavy responsibility on members of society as a whole to work for conditions within which families and small groups can develop the capacities they need to build relationships and nurture the individual’s sense of security, belonging and confidence.

In this light, addressing the problem which Mackay has identified requires us to look both inward and outward. In both directions, we need soundly based principles to guide our attitudes and conduct if we are to survive and flourish.

Hugh Mackay, ‘The marketing of Brand Me’, Sydney Morning Herald 3-4/3/2012, News Review, p. 22; and online (3/3/2012). Cf. Tom Scott [i.e. Brian Coyne, editor of Catholica], ‘What’s the difference between self-esteem and self-respect?’, Catholica, [4/3/2012]. The expression ‘Brand Me’ occurs in the title of a book published in 2002: Thomas Gad and Anette Rosencreutz, Managing Brand Me: How to Build Your Personal Brand, Harlow (UK), Momentum (imprint of Pearson Education).