Tag Archives: Wisdom

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.

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).

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn

The playwright Menander, a contemporary of Epicurus, memorably expressed a common perception of life and old age when he wrote, ὃν οἱ θεοὶ φιλοῦσιν ἀποθνῄσκει νέος, ‘whom the gods love dies young’ (Sentences 583). Better not to be born, says the poet Theognis, ‘but having been born to pass through the gates of Hades as quickly as possible.’ This latter sentiment is quoted and condemned by Epicurus in his Letter to Menoeceus (126).

Epicurus took a very different view: the best part of life is old age, because at that time one can experience the greatest understanding and appreciation of good things (Vatican Saying 17). After a well-lived life, and with considerable experience in philosophizing, one can attain the highest levels of moral insight that one will ever have.

This increase in moral development is seen as a rejuvenation, so that an old person can be both old in years and morally fresh and youthful at the same time. But where does that leave a young person? Does a young person have to wait until old age to develop adequate insight for happiness? Epicurus answers this question in the Letter to Menoeceus (122):

Thus young and old ought to philosophize, so that the person who is ageing may be young again through the benefits of gratitude for what is past, and the person who is young may be old in not being afraid of the future.

Not only can an old person become young again but a young person can be old, that is have the experience of advanced moral insight associated with old age, before coming to advanced years. This means that advanced moral development is open to a person of any age who is capable of living a good life and philosophizing.

What is a person aiming at in living and philosophizing? There appear to be three connected answers to this question. (1) For living organisms the goal of life is pleasure. (2) Accordingly we need practical wisdom to help us in the constant decision-making we are faced with in dealing with pleasure and pain. (3) By understanding and aiming at pleasure, and by applying practical wisdom, we attain happiness.

In this process we need philosophy, but even more we need φρόνησις, practical wisdom. Epicurus goes so far as to say that φρόνησις is ‘the greatest good,’ τὸ μέγιστον ἀγαθόν (Letter to Menoeceus 132):

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. It teaches us that it is not possible to live a pleasant life without living a wise, good and just life, and it is not possible to live a wise, good and just life without living a pleasant life. For the virtues grow along with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them.

Epicurus’ attitude to pleasure and the virtues sets his philosophy apart from those traditions which see virtue as higher than pleasure. He is very direct about asserting the primacy of pleasure, as when he says in his treatise On the Goal (quoted in Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 12; Usener 70):

We must honour excellence and virtues and things of that kind if they provide pleasure; if they do not provide pleasure, they must be discarded.

Similarly he says in a letter to Anaxarchus (quoted in Plutarch, Against Colotes 17; Usener 116):

I call (people) to continual pleasures and not to empty and vain virtues that involve troubling hopes of fruitful outcomes.

Pleasure brings freedom from pain of body and from distress and disturbance of soul, conditions which define what is ‘bad’ (Principal Doctrine 10). Virtues involve disturbance but pleasure brings release.

Why, then, at least in the terminology of the Letter to Menoeceus, is pleasure not the greatest good? Is it because the greatest pleasure is an absence, in particular the absence of disturbance from the soul – not something possessed but something not possessed? Or is it because goods are distinguished in principle from pleasure? In any case, the moral attainment which makes the highest pleasure possible is φρόνησις, practical wisdom. If we possess that greatest good, we have access to the highest pleasure.

In the Epicurean outlook, pleasure is counter-intuitively privileged above virtue in a principled way, and common perceptions of youth and old age are turned upside down. The result is that life can be welcomed and enjoyed at any stage of human development. The young can benefit from being old in practical wisdom without being wearied by physical age; and the aged need not be condemned to unhappiness by their advancing years.

See also Vatican Saying 42, discussed yesterday (‘Old age as a time of birth and death’).

It is good to show respect for wisdom

Epicurus was one of those people whose talents command special respect. He was an exceptionally capable thinker, teacher and leader. In the philosophical groups which he founded he was necessarily looked up to, and indeed revered, for his personal qualities and abilities. The evidence suggests that he himself was comfortable with his leadership position. He was confident in the principles and practices which he taught and exemplified, and the dynamics of mentorship gave him the opportunity to encourage understanding and adherence in those who supported his philosophical approach.

No doubt he had cause to reflect on the responsibilities that went with such levels of authority and influence, and no doubt it may have been from time to time a source of concern for him and others as to whether his role involved too much of a focus on a single individual, when the aim was to promote interest in philosophical thought. It seems likely that Vatican Saying 32 reflects a conviction that reverence for a person in his position was necessary, appropriate and beneficial. Exceptional wisdom deserves admiration and deference; others too may rise to eminence through demonstrated wisdom; and – although the wise person unavoidably becomes a focus of attention – benefits flow to those who hold such individuals and their wisdom in high esteem.

The text of the Epicurean sayings in the Vatican manuscript is at various points defective owing to the usual problems of handwritten transmission. Vatican Saying 32 presents a number of difficulties; the translation below represents an attempt to correct the text as lightly as possible in an effort to arrive at a grammatically acceptable form of wording.

Thoughts for the Day, August 24: ‘Those who revere a wise person are beneficiaries of this reverence’ (Vatican Sayings 32).

According to the edition of the text by Wotke (and Usener), the manuscript reads: ὁ τοῦ σοφοῦ σεβαστὸς ἀγαθῶν μετὰ τῶν σεβομένων ἐστί. I suggest provisionally (and translate accordingly): ὁ τοῦ σοφοῦ σεβασμὸς ἀγαθὸν μετὰ τῶν σεβομένων ἐστί. This involves accepting Usener’s correction to σεβασμός, although other attested instances of the word are of later date.

Wisdom and friendship

In Principal Doctrine 27, the Greek word μακαριότης (‘happiness’) is sometimes translated ‘blessedness’, as in Inwood and Gerson, Epicurus Reader (1994), p. 34. However, ‘blessedness’ may suggest religious overtones which are not present in the original text. Epicurus does use μακάριος of the gods, as in Principal Doctrine 1 and the Letter to Menoeceus (123), and the association of the word with divinity might induce us to translate it there as ‘blessed’. But Epicurus also uses the word in contexts where there is no need to suspect a theological significance. For example, in a letter preserved on papyrus he refers to a planned trip to the island of Samos, which he hopes to reach ‘successfully and pleasantly and happily’ (ἀπαντᾶν ἐπὶ Σάμου κα|λῶς καὶ ἡδέως καὶ μακα|ρίως, P. Oxy. LXXVI 5077, col. i lines 10-12).

In Epicurean terms, the phrase ‘the happiness of one’s whole life’ in Principal Doctrine 27 cannot be understood as having a religious meaning, given that the gods do not intervene in earthly affairs. Our happiness in life depends on the choices we make, the choices others make that affect us, and circumstances generally. In the Epicurean outlook, the responsibility rests with humankind to recognize the factors which make for a happy life and to assemble the elements of a happy life accordingly. Personal choices play a crucial part but the individual cannot flourish without the co-operation of others. Friendly relationships are vital for the mutual support and security which they provide. To this end we need to be continually growing in practical wisdom, because in friendship as in other aspects of our lives successful outcomes require understanding, insight and careful and sensitive decision-making.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. LXXVI (2011), no. 5077, plates IV-V; words transcribed from a photo available online.

Thoughts for the Day, July 20: ‘Having friendship is by far the greatest of the things which wisdom organizes for the happiness of one’s whole life’ (Principal Doctrines 27).

Philosophy and the Olympics

According to an advertisement for Sporting Nation, a collection of ABC TV episodes about the history of sport in Australia:

Australia is a sporting nation, which means, in order to be a properly accredited member of society, with human rights and so on, you’ve got to either play sport or watch sport.

Fortunately the parameters of philosophical enquiry permit us to ask, without fear of being labelled unsporting or unpatriotic, such questions as whether the Olympic Games are a good thing. Are there better options?

Perhaps part of the answer is supplied by an idea in the Epicurean inscription of Diogenes of Oenoanda. Among the texts included in the inscription is a treatise on Old Age, which includes the memorable example of the elephant and the camel. The elephant is slow and the camel is fast, but this does not mean that the elephant is to be criticized for its slowness. So it is with people as they age: there is no harm in moving slowly from place to place, since it is not a question of being in the foot-race at Olympia.

The idea suits a philosophical context, as philosophical insight does not require one to be young and fleet of foot. Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus (§122) makes the point that young and old can and ought to enjoy the fruits of philosophical enquiry and reflection:

A person should not delay philosophizing when young or weary of it when old. For no one is too young or old to attend to the well-being of their soul. To say that the time for philosophizing has not yet come or has passed is like saying that it is not yet time or no longer time for happiness.

One might think that Epicureanism, with its emphasis on pleasure, would value youth over age; but that is not the case. In the Epicurean view, a happy life requires one to be careful in selecting pleasures, and care requires philosophical insight and practical wisdom. These capabilities develop over time and are open to anyone, irrespective of age, who is interested enough to ask fundamental questions about the best training for happiness.

Jürgen Hammerstaedt and Martin Ferguson Smith, ‘Diogenes of Oinoanda: The Discoveries of 2009 (NF 167-181)’, Epigraphica Anatolica 42, 2009, 1-38, at pp. 31-34, fig. 14 (p. 32). Fragments 146 I + NF 177 II.

The good, the bad and the reckless

All pleasures are good – Epicurus says as much in Principal Doctrine 8. So why can’t we have as much pleasure as we like? The Epicurean response is that there are natural limits, and to go beyond those limits is to court unhappiness and disaster.*

A living organism naturally likes what is pleasant and dislikes what is unpleasant and painful. This recognition of the natural order of things gives a starting-point for the Epicurean theory of ethics, with pleasure acknowledged as the main goal in life. But how do we reach that goal in the best possible way?

Whereas Principal Doctrine 8 says that pleasure is good, Principal Doctrine 10 says that pain is bad. In a sense, as living organisms we already know this: what is favourable to our well-being is good for us, what is inimical to our well-being is bad for us. This is re-stating the basis for the theory of ethics. Ethics concerns behaviour, and behaviour involves choice: on top of the basis in nature we can build a theory of how we ought to behave and what choices we ought to make.

Again we are guided by nature, which sets limits. For example, we can eat until we are satisfied or we can eat until we feel that we have had too much. The pleasure in eating and satisfying our hunger is good; the pain in over-eating is bad. This principle of a natural limit can be applied widely, and gives us a key criterion for making choices.

Pleasure calls for constant decision-making to determine how things stand in relation to pleasure and how to achieve the best outcomes. The analytical and evaluative aspect requires practical wisdom. Personal and social dimensions involve friendship and justice. Principal Doctrine 5 weaves these themes together by saying that wisdom, goodness and justice are inseparable from pleasure, and pleasure from them.

Throughout these ethical challenges we are considering what it means to be human. Pleasure and pain affect us at the bodily level and at the level of thinking and feeling. In both respects we speak of well-being. In the latter respect especially we speak of happiness, which is impaired not only by circumstantial factors but by the way we think and feel about them. Tragically, we can impair our happiness by worrying about things that need cause us no concern – for example, the gods (they will not hurt us) and death (it is nothing). Fear is a part of our pain, and worrying about pain is a part of our fears. In fact, observation tells us that what is good and what is bad in life occur within natural limits: hence we need not worry as to whether we will have enough of the good things we desire, so long as we keep desires within appropriate limits; and we need not worry about suffering too much of the bad, as the bad also has natural limits.

In the light of these and related considerations, it is within our power as human beings to address challenges, to promote well-being and to increase happiness. Two of the most foolish things we can do are to feed our fears and to over-feed our desires – as reckless people do who think that living without limits will bring them happiness. Their focus on pleasure is understandable but their approach to pleasure is misguided. Pleasure is a part of nature, and nature sets limits. If they were on the right track as far as pleasure and happiness are concerned, we would have no reason to find fault with their ill-disciplined behaviour. But by misinterpreting pleasure they are giving themselves pain – and that is bad.

Thoughts for the Day, July 5: ‘If the things that give pleasure to reckless people rescued their minds from fears about celestial and terrestrial phenomena and death and painful suffering, and in addition taught them the natural limit of desires, we would never have reason to criticize them, because from every direction they would be filled up with pleasures, and from no direction would they be experiencing bodily pain or mental distress – which is in fact what ‘bad’ means’ (Principal Doctrines 10). Interpreting ἄσωτος as signifying careless in matters of money or morals or both, I translate the word here as ‘reckless’ with special reference to the moral aspect.

* 6/7/12. See also ‘Radical and conservative’ on the need for selectivity and ‘Condensed pleasure’ on the need for balance.

7/7/12. In the translation of Principal Doctrine 10, I have changed ‘astronomical phenomena’ to ‘celestial and terrestrial phenomena’; see ‘Our need to know’ for discussion of the term.