Principal Doctrines

The collection of forty Epicurean sayings known as the Principal Doctrines is found in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers (10.139-154), composed some 500 years after the time of Epicurus and preserved in manuscripts of still more recent date. The following translations are provisional as there are problems of text and interpretation which remain to be resolved. Please check from time to time for amendments and additional information.

1.  A being that is blissfully happy and unfailingly perfect has no troubles itself and gives no troubles to others, and so is not bound by feelings of anger or favour. For all such feelings imply weakness.

2.  Being dead is nothing to us (human beings); for our bodies disintegrated have no sensations; and from our point of view being without sensations is nothing.

3.  As pleasures increase and reach a natural limit, pain subsides and completely disappears. Wherever the feeling of pleasure stays, and for as long as it stays, there is no feeling of (physical) pain or (mental) distress or combination of pain and distress.

4.  The feeling of pain does not last continuously in the body. The greatest pain is present for the shortest time. Pain which is just more than the bodily pleasure we feel does not go on for many days. If we are unwell for a very long time, the condition even allows bodily pleasure to rise above the pain.

5.  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. If this [or, one of these] is missing, [for example, if a person lives a good and just but not a wise life,] it is not possible for that person to live a pleasant life.

6.  To gain freedom from fear of others, whenever that is possible, is a natural good of having government authorities and kingly office.

7.  Some people want to become honoured and admired because they think that in this way they can gain for themselves security against other people. If in consequence such people do live in security, they have gained that natural good. But if their lives are not secure, they have not got their original wish so far as it accorded with nature.

8.  No pleasure is bad in itself, but with some pleasures the things that give the pleasure also give troubles many times larger than the pleasures.

9.  If all the pleasures a person experiences were compressed together in space and time and if that went throughout the human organism (or the main parts of our nature), pleasures would never differ one from another.

10.  If the things that give pleasure to reckless people rescued their minds from fears about astronomical 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.

11.  If we were not troubled by concerns about the possible significance for us of celestial and terrestrial phenomena and death, or by lack of understanding of the limits of pains and desires, we would not need to investigate nature.

12.  If we do not understand the nature of the universe and instead think that there may be something in the explanations given by myths, we will be unable to put to rest our fears about the most important matters in life. So without investigating nature we cannot enjoy things fully.

13.  It is no use managing to feel secure at the human level while there are things up above and under the earth and in the universe generally that raise our suspicions.

14.  Once we have attained a certain amount of security against other people, our strongest support and finest resource is the security that comes from living quietly and not going along with the crowd.

15.  The wealth of nature has limits and is easily obtained; the wealth of false expectations goes on and on to infinity.

16.  For a wise person chance is of brief effect, whereas reason, having organized the greatest and most important matters in the past, continues to do so throughout life and into the future.

17.  A just person is very calm, but an unjust person is full of the greatest agitation.

18.  Bodily pleasure does not increase when once the pain of need is taken away, but only undergoes variation. The limit of pleasure in the mind is produced when we think through these things and things of the same kind which give the mind the greatest fears.

19.  Infinite time contains the same amount of pleasure as finite time, if we employ our reasoning to measure out the limits of pleasure.

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, so that we no longer have a need for an infinite amount of time. But the mind does not shun pleasure nor on decease (when circumstances bring about an exit from life) does it go as if leaving a well-lived life unfinished.

21.  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.

22.  It is necessary to take into account the essential goal (of living) and each clear perception (of reality) to which we refer our opinions; otherwise, everything will be full of confusion and disturbance.

23.  If you dispute all your sensations, you will not have any criteria to evaluate even those sensations which you say are false.

24.  If you simply reject any sensation as unreliable, without dividing an opinion into anticipated confirmation and evidence already present (as detected via sensation, feelings and immediate mental representation), by this false view you will disrupt the meaning of the rest of your sensations as well, with the result that you will be rejecting all basis for evaluation. If you validate all the things that await confirmation in your opinion-forming thoughts along with those that do not, you will inevitably be mistaken, as you will have done away with all room for questioning in every decision as to the correct or incorrect interpretation of reality.

25.  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.

26.  Those desires which do not lead to pain if left unfulfilled are not necessary and involve a longing that readily dissipates whenever they seem difficult to achieve or causative of harm.

27.  Having friendship is by far the greatest of the things which wisdom organizes for the happiness of one’s whole life.

28.  The same outlook that makes us confident that nothing terrible lasts for ever or for a long time also helps us to achieve above all the security of friendship in the midst of things that do occur within natural limits.

29.  Some of our desires are natural and necessary, some are natural but unnecessary, and some are neither natural nor necessary but arise through false expectations.

30.  In the case of natural desires that do not lead to pain if left unfulfilled, some are pursued with intense eagerness but they too arise from false expectations; the fact that they are not dissipated is not because of their own basis in nature but because of the false reasoning of the human being.

31.  Natural justice is a practical agreement not to harm one another nor to be harmed.

32.  With those living things that cannot make agreements neither to harm one another nor to be harmed, nothing is just or unjust; similarly with peoples who are unable or unwilling to make agreements not to harm nor to be harmed.

33.  Justice is not something that exists in and by itself but is an agreement in the context of people’s contacts with one another, in different times and places, not to harm nor to be harmed.

34.  Injustice is not an evil all on its own, but is found in the worried fear that it will not escape the attention of those appointed to punish such things.

35.  A person who does something in secret against what has been mutually agreed upon as to not harming or being harmed cannot be sure of escaping notice, even after escaping ten thousand times up to the present moment; until death it will be unclear whether escape is possible.

36.  In general, justice is the same thing for everyone, being what is in people’s interests in their associating with one another. But in relation to individual places and changing conditions, the same thing does not remain just for everyone.

37.  Something that is attested as useful in practice in the course of mutual association has the character of justice, whether it is the same thing for all people or not. If anyone passes a law which does not turn out to conform to what is useful in mutual association, it no longer has the nature of justice. If what is found useful in relation to justice changes, if it fitted for a time the basic conception of justice it was no less just for that period of time – from the point of view of those who do not confuse themselves with futile talk but look to actualities.

38.  Where circumstances do not change but laws that have been made turn out not to work in accordance with the basic conception of justice, these laws are not just. Where circumstances have changed and the same laws apply but are no longer useful, in that case they were just while they were useful for the purposes of mutual association among citizens, but later they are no longer just when they are not useful.

39.  Where there is a lack of confidence with respect to outside influences, the person who handles the situation best builds rapport where possible and where not possible at least avoids polarization, and if unable to achieve this much stands back and supports whatever in these options is productive.

40.  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.

Trans. SRP July 2012. Details of the Greek wording on which the translations are based are to be inserted. A new edition of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives, anticipated for 2013, may be expected to provide an improved textual base for translation.

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