Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Sixteen: Natural Wealth

Previous: Letter Fifteen: The Infinite Unknown

Hey Schuyler, what's wrong with science for the sake of science?! :P

Actually I'd go one step further, because a closely related remedy is understanding human nature (as opposed to filling your head with groundless opinions about the things people think they need in order to live and be happy). There are many quotes on this topic in the fragments we've been reading (e.g., his many statements about natural, unnatural, necessary, and unnecessary desires), but here are some of the ones that struck me on a second reading...

Natural wealth is both limited and easy to acquire, but the riches incited by groundless opinion have no end. (Principal Doctrine 15)

Don't think it unnatural that when the body cries out, the soul cries also. The body says don't be hungry, don't be thirsty, don't be cold. It is difficult for the soul to prevent these cries, and dangerous for it to ignore the commands of nature because of attachment to its accustomed independence. (Fragment 200)

Among natural desires, those that do not bring pain when unfulfilled and that require intense exertion arise from groundless opinion; and such desires fail to be stamped out not by nature but because of the groundless opinions of humankind. (Principal Doctrine 30)

Nature must be persuaded, not forced. And we will persuade nature by fulfilling the necessary desires, and the natural desires too if they cause no harm, but pointedly rejecting the harmful desires. (Vatican Saying 21)

We need pleasure when in pain because of its absence; but when we are not experiencing such pain, and are perceiving stably, then there is no need for pleasure. For it is not the needs of nature which, from without, create harm, but desire driven by groundless opinions. (Fragment 422)

Pain does not consist in being deprived of things, but rather in bearing the avoidable distress caused by groundless opinion. (Fragment 486)

Closely related is acting in accordance with human nature, i.e., not giving in to desires that are unnatural and unnecessary but instead desiring only what is natural and necessary:

Keep in mind that some desires are natural whereas others are groundless; that among the natural desires some are natural and necessary whereas others are merely natural; and that among the necessary desires some are necessary for happiness, some for physical health, and some for life itself. The steady contemplation of these facts enables you to understand everything that you accept or reject in terms of the health of the body and the serenity of the soul, since that is the goal of a completely happy life. Our every action is done so that we will not be in pain or fear. As soon as we achieve this, the soul is released from every storm, since an animal has no other need and must seek nothing else to complete the goodness of body and soul. Thus we need pleasure only when we are in pain caused by its absence; but when we are not in pain then we have no need of pleasure. (Letter to Menoikos, Section 127)

The desires that do not bring pain when they go unfulfilled are not necessary; indeed they are easy to reject when they are hard to achieve or when they seem to produce harm. (Principal Doctrine 26)

It is rare to find a man who is poor in regard to the aims of nature and rich in groundless desires. For a fool is never satisfied with what he has, but instead is distressed about what he doesn't have. Just as those who are feverish through the evil of their sickness are always thirsty and desiring the opposite of what they should, so those whose souls are in a bad condition are always poor in everything and through their greed fall into ever-changing desires. (Fragment 471)

This is why we say that pleasure is the beginning and the end of a completely happy life. For we recognize it as the primary and innate good, we honor it in everything we accept or reject, and we achieve it if we judge every good thing by the standard of how it affects us. And because this is the primary and inborn good, we do not choose every pleasure. Instead, we pass up many pleasures when we will gain more of what we need from doing so. And we consider many pains to be better than pleasures, if we experience a greater pleasure for a long time from having endured those pains. So every pleasure is a good thing because its nature is favorable to us, yet not every pleasure is to be chosen — just as every pain is a bad thing, yet not every pain is always to be shunned. It is proper to make all these decisions through measuring things side by side and looking at both the advantages and disadvantages, for sometimes we treat a good thing as bad and a bad thing as good. (Letter to Menoikos, Section 128)

Sorry about the mass of quotes! I won't have time to think about this again until the weekend, but I figured I'd at least share the texts I've found.


Next: Letter Seventeen: The Elegance of Simplicity

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus