Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Thirteen: The Natural Goal of Life

Previous: Letter Twelve: Fearless and Self-Reliant

Hi Paul,

That's a good catch about fortitude vs. self-reliance — fortitude sounds like a more martial or Stoic virtue than Epicurus would endorse. In fact he doesn't seem to have been a fan of virtue in general (or at least the traditional virtues):

Beauty and virtue and such are worthy of honor, if they bring joy; but if not then bid them farewell! (Fragment 70)

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)

In any case, I think we can agree that Epicurus considered dependence to be yet another effect of giving in to groundless desires. And I think I've found one more such effect: what we might call decadence or corruption, or a lack of harmony or of integration. Here are some relevant fragments:

If at all critical times you do not connect each of your actions to the natural goal of life, but instead turn too soon to some other kind of goal in thinking whether to avoid or pursue something, then your thoughts and your actions will not be in harmony. (Principal Doctrine 25)

If the things that produced the delights of those who are decadent washed away the mind's fears about astronomical phenomena and death and suffering, and furthermore if they taught us the limits of our pains and desires, then we would have no complaints against them, since they would be filled with every joy and would contain not a single pain or distress (and that's what is bad). (Principal Doctrine 10)

So when we say that pleasure is the goal, we do not mean the pleasures of decadent people or the enjoyment of sleep, as is believed by those who are ignorant or who don't understand us or who are ill-disposed to us, but to be free from bodily pain and mental disturbance. For a pleasant life is produced not by drinking and endless parties and enjoying boys and women and consuming fish and other delicacies of an extravagant table, but by sober reasoning, searching out the cause of everything we accept or reject, and driving out opinions that cause the greatest trouble in the soul. (Letter to Menoikos, Section 131)

At this point I think we have a fairly complete catalogue of the diseases of the soul and their effects on one's state of mind: fear instead of confidence, pain and anguish instead of joy and pleasure, confusion instead of clarity, numbness instead of awareness, turmoil and frenzy instead of serenity, dependence instead of self-reliance, decadence and dissolution instead of harmony and integration. (One fascinating side-note: apparently Lucretius or even Epicurus might have been the source for the "seven deadly sins": lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy, and pride. This is mentioned in a footnote to the translation of Lucretius I'm reading, but I haven't yet tracked down the scholarly paper in which this argument first appeared.)

The question now is: what remedies does "Doctor Epicurus" prescribe to cure these ills? The basic idea is nicely outlined by Lucretius at the end of Book Three:

Thus in this way each man is running from himself, yet still
Because he clings to that same self, although against his will,
And clearly can't escape from it, he loathes it; for he's ill
But doesn't grasp the cause of his disease. Could he but see
This clear enough, a man would drop everything else, and study
First to understand the Nature of Things, for his own sake...


Next: Letter Fourteen: Death is Nothing to Us

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus