Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Fifteen: The Infinite Unknown

Previous: Letter Fourteen: Death is Nothing to Us

Hi Paul,

I like this focus on mental training (it's something you find also in other practical thinkers like Baltasar Gracian, Michel de Montaigne, Henry David Thoreau, and Lin Yutang, all of whom strike me as fairly Epicurean in significant ways). Perhaps we can try to express the Epicurean remedies as actionable guidelines, as he does in Vatican Saying 71:

Ask this question of every desire: what will happen to me if the object of desire is achieved, and what if not?

As to the remedies themselves, another one is knowing that outside forces do not control you, as opposed to believing that your life is controlled by the gods or other powers. In ancient times, many people believed that the gods directly intervened in human affairs, which is why Epicurus concentrates his argument on such beliefs, as in the following quotes (notice that the first one is Principal Doctrine #1):

That which is blissful and immortal has no troubles itself, nor does it cause trouble for others, so that it is not affected by anger or gratitude (for all such things come about through weakness). (Principal Doctrine 1)

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)

It is useless to be safe from other people while retaining suspicions about what is above and below the earth and in general about the infinite unknown. (Principal Doctrine 13)

The things that most people say about the gods are based on false assumptions, not a firm grasp of the facts, because they say that the greatest goods and the greatest harms come from the gods. (Letter to Menoikos, Section 123)

Here Epicurus emphasizes that you need some knowledge of natural phenomena to stop believing in the myths and fearing the influence of external powers on your life. Lucretius has a similar passage early in Book One of The Nature of Things:

For godhead by its nature must enjoy eternal life
In utmost peace, removed from us and far from mortal strife,
Apart from any suffering, apart from any danger,
Powerful of itself, not needing us, and both a stranger
To our attempts to win it over and untouched by anger.

I must say that often Epicurus and Lucretius seem quite modern — I think Epicurus especially would fit quite well within modern society (Lucretius perhaps not so much because we've lost that poetic feeling for life). On the other hand, Epicurus is not in favor of science for the sake of science as some people might be nowadays: the point of knowing about nature is to experience undiluted enjoyment of life.


Next: Letter Sixteen: Natural Wealth

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus