Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Seventeen: The Elegance of Simplicity

Previous: Letter Sixteen: Natural Wealth

Hi Paul,

Thanks for tracking down those fragments. I certainly don't mind sifting through them, because we can use all the evidence we can find. (By the way, all this talk of pleasure might sound like sensualism, but the web pages we've been referencing make it clear that the ancient Greek word hedone could just as well be translated as "joy" or "delight" or "enjoyment" or even our modern sense of "happiness" — any physical, mental, or emotional state that is filled with sweetness.)

Some of those passages echo the one I found about questioning every desire (Vatican Saying 71). The questions that Epicurus would ask include "will it require intense exertion to realize this desire?", "will it cause me pain and anguish if this desire goes unfulfilled?", and "is this a desire for something that isn't truly necessary for life itself, for physical health, for serenity of soul, or for happiness?" If the answer to any of those questions is no, then the desire is groundless, the thing I'm desiring is unnatural or unnecessary or harmful, and it is best to pointedly reject it.

I suppose there might be an escape hatch here, because you could try to justify a desire for something unnecessary by saying that you can't rest or won't be happy unless you have that fancy car or impressive house or country club membership or whatever. However, Epicurus would probably consider that a form of rationalization, for several reasons.

First, he was in favor of living simply and being satisfied with a frugal lifestyle, and opposed to the pursuit of luxury.

Living on bread and water, I rejoice in the pleasure of my body and spit upon the pleasures of extravagance, not for what they are but because of the difficulties that follow from them. (Fragment 181)

Send me a little vessel of cheese, so that I can feast whenever I please. (Fragment 182)

It is better for you to lie serene upon a bed of straw than to be full of troubles on a golden chair at an overflowing table. (Fragment 207)

Fearing an austere way of life, most people end up doing things that are exceedingly likely to result in fear. (Fragment 478)

There is an elegance in simplicity, and one who is thoughtless resembles one whose feelings run to excess. (Vatican Saying 63)

Second, he recommended a policy of being grateful for and satisfied with what you have, instead of always desiring more.

Don't ruin the things you have by wanting what you don't have, but realize that they too are things you once did wish for. (Vatican Saying 35)

Nothing is enough to one for whom enough is very little. (Vatican Saying 68)

Misfortune must be cured through gratitude for what has been lost and the knowledge that it is impossible to change what has happened. (Vatican Saying 55)

The ingratitude of the soul makes a creature greedy for endless variation in its way of life. (Vatican Saying 69)

This saying is utterly ungrateful for the good things one has achieved: provide for the end of a long life. (Vatican Saying 75)

He who forgets the good things he had yesterday becomes an old man today. (Vatican Saying 19)

One who perceives the limits of life knows how easy it is to expel the pain produced by a lack of something and to make one's entire life complete; so that there is no need for the things that are achieved through struggle. (Principal Doctrine 21)

Third, I think he would see a desire for "keeping up with the Joneses" as an instance of following the herd or being brainwashed by the culture around you, as opposed to being self-directed.

Embark on your own course: steer clear of all culture. (Fragment 163)

We cast off common customs just as we would do to wicked men who have been causing great harm for a long time. (Vatican Saying 46)

Although some measure of safety from others comes from the power to fight them off and from abundant wealth, the purest security comes from solitude and breaking away from the herd. (Principal Doctrine 14)

Congratulations: you have entered into philosophy free from all culture. (Fragment 117)

I never wanted to please the many. What pleased them, I did not learn; and what I learned, was beyond their ken. (Fragment 187)

Speaking freely in my study of what is natural, I prefer to prophesize about what is good for all people, even if no one will understand me, rather than to accept common opinions and thereby reap the showers of praise that fall so freely from the great mass of men. (Vatican Saying 29)

Finally, I think he would see the desire for impressive things as a kind of vanity or crowd-pleasing, in which you seek the esteem of others instead of basing your esteem on your own character and accomplishments.

The esteem of others is outside our control; we must attend instead to healing ourselves. (Vatican Saying 64)

Some people want to be well esteemed and widely admired, believing that in this way they will be safe from others; if the life of such people is secure then they have gained its natural benefit, but if not then they have not gained what they sought from the beginning in accordance with what is naturally appropriate. (Principal Doctrine 7)

So I think he has a pretty thorough critique of justifying indulgence in groundless desires as the pursuit of happiness. According to Lucretius at the end of Book Five, it all comes down to living philosophically and being satisfied with little:

But if you'd steer your life by a philosophy that's true,
The way to be the wealthiest of men is to eschew
High living, and be contented in the mind — for there has never
Been a poverty of modest means...

That said, Epicurus and Lucretius don't seem to provide many positive guidelines about what it means for something to be necessary for happiness or serenity, as opposed more objective phenomena like physical health or life itself.


Next: Letter Eighteen: The Power of Reason

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus