Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Eleven: Steady and Serene

Previous: Letter Ten: Unceasing Joy

Dear Paul,

That analysis makes sense to me. I also see some more subtle effects here, although perhaps Epicurus would subsume them under pain and fear or joy and confidence. Consider what he has to say about trouble and confusion vs. serenity and steadiness:

One who acts aright is utterly steady and serene, whereas one who goes astray is full of trouble and confusion. (Principal Doctrine 17)

You must reflect on the fundamental goal and everything that is clear, to which opinions are referred; if you do not, all will be full of trouble and confusion. (Principal Doctrine 22)

Unhappiness is caused by fears, or by endless and empty desires; but he who is able to rein these in creates for himself a blissful understanding. (Fragment 485)

Passion for true philosophy destroys every disturbing and troublesome desire. (Fragment 457)

Insofar as you forget nature, you will find yourself in trouble and create for yourself endless fears and desires. (Fragment 203)

It is not the young man who is most happy, but the old man who has lived beautifully; for despite being at his very peak the young man stumbles around as if he were of many minds, while the old man has settled into old age as if in a harbor, secure in his gratitude for the good things he was once unsure of. (Vatican Saying 17)

The idea here appears to be that concentrating your thoughts and energies on what is natural and necessary gives you a kind of clarity and singleness of purpose, which makes you calm and grounded. However, if you are always chasing after those embellishments beyond the baseline then you will be of many minds and torn between conflicting desires, which makes you troubled and confused.

Lucretius makes the point more poetically in Book Two of The Nature of Things:

But there is nothing sweeter than to dwell in towers that rise
On high, serene and fortified with teachings of the wise,
From which you may peer down upon the others as they stray
This way and that, seeking the path of life, losing their way:
The skirmishing of wits, the scramble for renown, the fight,
Each striving harder than the next, and struggling day and night,
To climb atop a heap of riches and lay claim to might.
O miserable minds of men! O hearts that cannot see!
Beset by such great dangers and in such obscurity
You spend your little lot of life!

I think this is connected to an interesting observation that Epicurus makes in the Vatican Sayings:

For most people, to be quiet is to be numb and to be active is to be frenzied. (Vatican Saying 11)

That sounds quite modern, doesn't it? Think of all those people who are only quiet when their minds are numbed by drugs or TV or some other narcotic, and who otherwise live a frenzied, agitated existence. To such people, Epicurus holds out another possibility: a combination of mindful serenity and flowing activity. So I think those are wrong who claim that Epicurus counselled laziness and indolence. In this respect, Thomas Jefferson — who said "I too am an Epicurean" — had it right in his letter to William Short (October 31, 1819):

I take the liberty of observing that you are not a true disciple of our master Epicurus, in indulging the indolence to which you say you are yielding. One of his canons, you know, was that "the indulgence which prevents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain, is to be avoided." Your love of repose will lead, in its progress, to a suspension of healthy exercise, a relaxation of mind, an indifference to everything around you, and finally to a debility of body, and hebetude of mind, the farthest of all things from the happiness which the well-regulated indulgences of Epicurus ensure; fortitude, you know, is one of his four cardinal virtues. That teaches us to meet and surmount difficulties; not to fly from them, like cowards; and to fly, too, in vain, for they will meet and arrest us at every turn of our road.

I admit that Jefferson and I might be stretching the evidence here because there's not much to go on in the remaining fragments of Epicurus, so I'd appreciate hearing from you on this point. However, it seems consistent with how Epicurus lived his own life: after all, he wrote many books of philosophy, started his own school, and founded a vibrant community of likeminded people. That's not exactly the way of a lazy pleasure-seeker!


Next: Letter Twelve: Fearless and Self-Reliant

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus