Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Ten: Unceasing Joy

Previous: Letter Nine: The Diseases of the Soul

Dear Schuyler,

Good work! I like your summary, especially the focus on the positive opposites of fear and groundless desire. I agree with you that there might be a few more dyads lurking within Epicurean analysis. For example:

Now that we've got a fairly complete inventory of these diseases of the soul, I've been thinking about the psychological effects of being driven by groundless desires for what is unnatural or unnecessary. Given that one side of each dyad is fear, a clear effect is living in fear instead of having a natural confidence about life:

I summon you to unceasing joy and not to empty and trifling virtues, which destroy your confidence in the fruits of what you have. (Fragment 116)

To those who are able to reason it out, the highest and surest joy is found in the stable health of the body and a firm confidence in keeping it. (Fragment 68)

We must not blame the body for the greatest evils nor attribute our troubles to mere circumstance. Instead we seek their cause within the soul: for by giving up every groundless and fleeting desire we give birth to a confidence perfect in itself. (Fragment 445)

One who needs tomorrow least, most gladly greets the coming day. (Fragment 490)

However, the biggest impact is experiencing life as painful rather than pleasant or joyous, since that ties in with the supposed hedonism of Epicurus (I say "supposed" because it turns out that he is far from a mindless pleasure-seeker):

Our every action is done so that we will not be in pain or fear. (Letter to Menoikos, Section 128)

It is not possible to live joyously without also living wisely and beautifully and rightly, nor to live wisely and beautifully and rightly without living joyously; and whoever lacks this cannot live joyously. (Principal Doctrine 5)

We are born only once and cannot be born twice, and must forever live no more. You don't control tomorrow, yet you postpone joy. Life is ruined by putting things off, and each of us dies without truly living. (Vatican Saying 14)

The flesh assumes that the limits of joy are infinite, and that infinite joy can be produced only through infinite time. But the mind, thinking through the goal and limits of the flesh and dissolving fears about eternity, produces a complete way of life and therefore has no need of infinite time; yet the mind does not flee from joy, nor when events cause it to exit from life does it look back as if it has missed any aspect of the best life. (Principal Doctrine 20)

So, as Epicurus sets it up, the choice is fairly stark: if you give in to groundless desires for things that are unnatural or unnecessary, then you will live a life of pain and fear. By contrast, if you stay focused on what is natural and necessary then you will experience joy and a confidence in your ability to live. When he puts it that way, you wonder why anyone would choose to give in to groundless desires. Up until now I don't see that he has a good account for going astray in that way.


P.S. That line you quoted from Epicurus about "the destiny of the scientists" is a bit misleading, because elsewhere he describes why it is important to understand the results of natural science and not be afraid of portents in the sky and such, as ancient people often were:

If our suspicions about astronomical phenomena and about death were nothing to us and troubled us not at all, and if this were also the case regarding our ignorance about the limits of our pains and desires, then we would have no need for studying what is natural. (Principal Doctrine 11)

It is impossible for someone who is completely ignorant about nature to wash away his fears about the most important matters if he retains some suspicions about the myths. So it is impossible to experience undiluted enjoyment without studying what is natural. (Principal Doctrine 12)

I couldn't let that misunderstanding of us scientists stand uncorrected. ;-)

Next: Letter Eleven: Steady and Serene

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus