Letter to Menoeceus

The following translation of Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus is based on a Greek text on the Perseus website. Headings in bold are not part of the original text. Numbers in square brackets refer to section divisions in the text of Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, in which the letter is preserved. The Greek text needs to be reviewed and the translation compared with other translations.

Salutation: Epicurus to Menoeceus, greetings.

Introduction.  (a) Philosophy:  [122] Let no one who is young put off engaging in philosophy, nor anyone who is old weary of it. For no one is either too young or too old to attend to the health of the soul.1 To say either that it is not yet the time to engage in philosophy or that the time has passed is like saying that it is either not the time or no longer the time for happiness. 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.  (b) Happiness:  So we must study and practise the things that produce happiness, for if we have happiness we have everything, and if we lack happiness we do everything to have it.

1  The gods.  (a) General exhortation:  [123] Practise and study the things that I have continually encouraged you to do, accepting these things as the essential principles for a good life.  (b) The nature of the gods:  First, consider god to be an immortal and blissful being, as the common idea of god indicates, but do not attach to god anything that is foreign to immortality or does not belong with blissfulness. Believe about god everything that makes it possible to maintain divine blissfulness along with immortality.  (c) The majority view:  For gods exist and we have clear knowledge of them, but the sorts of gods that most people deem them to be do not exist. For most people do not maintain what they really know of the gods. The irreverent person is not the one who rejects the gods promoted by the majority but the one who attaches to the gods the views of the majority. [124] For what the majority assert about the gods are not basic conceptions but false conceptions. And from these there come from the gods the greatest harms for wicked people and the greatest benefits for the good. For the gods, always having affinity with their own high standards, approve of those who are like them but consider everything unlike them to be foreign.

2  Death.  (a) Death is nothing to us:  Accustom yourself to the thought that death is nothing to us, since all good and evil are matters of sensation, and death is the removal of sensation. For this reason, a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life agreeable, not by adding unlimited time but by taking away the desire for immortality. [125] For there is nothing terrible in the fact of living, for someone who has truly grasped the fact that there is nothing terrible in not living. Hence it is nonsense for a person to speak of being afraid of death not because it will be grievous when it is present but because it is grievous in prospect. For what does not trouble us when it is present grieves us pointlessly in anticipation. Thus death, the most horrible of evils, is nothing to us, because while we exist it is not present and when it is present we do not then exist. It is nothing, then, to the living or the dead, as indeed it does not exist for the former and the latter no longer exist.  (b) Choosing between death and a good life:  However, the majority at times flee from death as the greatest of evils and at times <choose it> as a release from the <evils> of life. [126] <But a wise person neither declines life>2 nor fears not living, for from a wise person’s perspective neither is life disagreeable nor is not living considered an evil. And just as a wise person does not simply choose the largest amount of food but the most pleasing food, so a wise person finds enjoyment not in the longest amount of time but in the most pleasing time. It is foolish for a person to encourage the young to live a good life and the old to bring their life to a good end, not only because life is to be welcomed but because the same method applies for living well and dying well. Much worse is a person who says that it is good not to be born, ‘but having been born to pass through the gates of Hades as quickly as possible.’2 [127] If the person who says this is convinced of it, why does he not depart from life? For he has it in his power, if he were firmly resolved to do it. If he is joking, he makes a fool of himself among those who disagree with him. We must remember that what is going to happen is neither ours nor simply not ours, so that we do not simply wait for something to happen nor give up hope that something will simply not happen.

3.  Desires.  (a) Types of desires:  We must take into account that of desires some are natural and some empty, and of the natural ones some are necessary and some merely natural. Of the necessary desires, some are necessary for happiness, some for freedom from bodily disturbance, and some for life itself.  (b) Pleasure and happiness:  [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 goal of living happily.  (c) Pleasure and decision-making:  [129] For we know pleasure as our first and inborn good, and we have it as the beginning of our every choice and avoidance, and we turn to it in using sensation as a standard for judging every good. And since pleasure is our first and natural good, for this reason we do not choose every pleasure, but there are times when we pass over many pleasures, when greater difficulty would result from them for us, and we consider many pains to be better than pleasures, whenever a greater and long-lasting pleasure will follow for us after we have suffered the pains. So every pleasure is a good through being naturally agreeable, nevertheless not every pleasure is to be chosen; just as it is also the case that every pain is bad, but not every pain is always by its nature to be avoided. [130] It is our duty, then, to judge all these things by comparison and calculation and by consideration of advantages and disadvantages. For at certain times we treat what is good as bad, and conversely what is bad as good.  (d) Self-sufficiency:  And we regard self-sufficiency as a great good, not so that we may absolutely make do with little, but so that if we do not have much we may be satisfied with little, being truly convinced that those experience the greatest pleasure in the enjoyment of luxury who have least need of it, and that what is natural is all easily obtainable while what is empty is difficult to obtain. Inexpensive dishes yield as much pleasure as expensive fare when the pain of need is altogether removed; [131] and barley cake and water give the highest pleasure when someone in need consumes them. Hence growing accustomed to a simple and not extravagant life-style is sufficient for full health, makes a person undaunted regarding the essential requirements of life, makes us better at dealing with luxury when that comes along at intervals, and makes us fearless with regard to chance. So when we speak of pleasure as being a goal, we are not speaking of the pleasures of the dissolute or the pleasures of indulgence (as some people think who reject our views out of ignorance or who misunderstand us), but of not having bodily pain or disturbance of soul. [132] For continual drinking and partying, or taking one’s enjoyment of boys and women, or indulging in fish and other delicacies of an expensive table, do not produce a pleasant life, but sober reasoning which both examines the basis for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which cause very great turmoil to take hold of our souls.  (e) Pleasure, wisdom, goodness, justice:  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.

4  The four-part cure and factors that shape the future.  (a) The four-part cure:  [133] Now who do you think is in a stronger position than someone who holds dutiful opinions concerning the gods and is altogether free from fear of death, and has taken into account the goal of nature and has grasped that good has a limit which is easily attainable and procurable while what is bad has a limit in not lasting long or not being very painful, meanwhile laughing at <fate> (which is advanced by some as the mistress of all)?5  (b) Necessity, chance, agency:  This person (who accepts the four-part cure and laughs at fate) <affirms rather that some things occur by necessity>,6 some by chance, and some by our own agency, and sees that necessity is beyond anyone’s control, chance is variable, and we are autonomous and thereby subject to blame and the opposite. [134] It would be better to fall in with the myth about gods than to be slaves to the fate argued for by (some) natural philosophers. For the former suggests a hope of intercession through worship of gods, while the latter presents necessity as inexorable. And this person does not accept that chance is either a god (as the majority think), for nothing is done by a god in a disorganized way, or an unstable cause – rejecting the view7 that it is from chance that good or evil is granted to human beings for living a happy life, though chance supplies beginnings of great goods or evils. [135] And this person considers that it is better to act rationally and fail than to act irrationally and succeed; for it is better in human affairs to have a good decision <not succeed than to have a bad decision>8 succeed by chance.

Conclusion:  Therefore study and practise these and related matters day and night, on your own and with someone similar to yourself, and whether awake or asleep you will never be thrown into a state of disturbance and confusion, but you will live like a divinity among humanity. For a person does not seem like a mortal being at all when living in the midst of good things that are immortal.

1 122 ff. The word ‘soul’ is used here as the best available English translation for Greek psyche, but it is not to be understood to refer to something non-physical and exempt from material dissolution. The psyche, composed of the most refined matter in the human organism, involves sensation and thought, and includes the mental, moral, emotional and psychological aspects of the human personality.     2 126 Words in angle brackets represent a conjectural restoration in the Greek text.     3 The quotation is from the poet Theognis.     4 (Deleted)     5 133 Some text has been lost. The word translated ‘fate’ is restored.     6 There is a restoration in the Greek text.     7 134 The Greek has ‘for he (or, she) does <not> think’, with ‘not’ restored in the Greek text.     8 135 The text is defective; words in angle brackets are a suggested supplement.

Trans. SRP June 2012; revised October, November, December 2012.

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