Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Eighteen: The Power of Reason

Previous: Letter Seventeen: The Elegance of Simplicity

Dear Schuyler,

I tend to agree on that last point. Not that the failing is limited to Epicurus: plenty of philosophers are better at critiquing other thinkers than in setting forth their own positive views. At least Epicurus offered some practical guidelines of the kind you've distilled from those passages. Good detective work! Let's see if I can help us advance the cause a bit further...

Returning to the concept of remedies for diseases of the soul, I think you've just explained several, because living extravagantly, following the herd, being ungrateful for what you have, and seeking to impress other people all lead to feelings of insecurity. The reason is that these things come from outside of yourself and are not under your control; whether you have them or not is a matter of good fortune, not your own actions.

The ignoble soul is inflated by good fortune and deflated by misfortune. (Fragment 488)

Nature teaches us to think nothing of what fortune brings, to understand that when prospering we are unfortunate and when not prospering we are fortunate, to receive undisturbed the good things that fortune brings, and to stand ready for its seeming evils. For what is good or evil to most people is fleeting, and wisdom has nothing in common with fortune. (Fragment 489)

Thus the wise, noble, beautiful soul is not swayed by the winds of fortune or driven by chance events, but instead directs its life by the power of reason.

Chance steals only a bit into the life of a wise person: for throughout the complete span of his life the greatest and most important matters have been, are, and will be directed by the power of reason. (Principal Doctrine 16)

Infinite time and finite time contain the same amount of joy, if its limits are measured out through reasoning. (Principal Doctrine 19)

The flesh assumes that the limits of joy are infinite, and that infinite joy can be produced only through infinite time. But the mind, thinking through the goal and limits of the flesh and dissolving fears about eternity, produces a complete way of life and therefore has no need of infinite time; yet the mind does not flee from joy, nor when events cause it to exit from life does it look back as if it has missed any aspect of the best life. (Principal Doctrine 20)

What brings unsurpassed joy is the removal of a great evil; and this is the nature of the good, if you apply your mind rightly and then stand firm and do not stroll about chattering emptily. (Fragment 423)

This appeal to a life of reason is stirring, but it's not always clear how to put it into practice. One aspect might be something you've already highlighted: questioning every desire to understand its causes and effects. But people who understand what's right don't always do the right thing. Epicurus has an explanation for that, too:

No one who sees what is bad chooses it willingly; instead he is lured into seeing it as good compared to what is even worse, and thus he is trapped. (Vatican Saying 16)

So an actionable guideline here might be to compare alternatives not only to what is worse, but also to what is better or ideal (that is, what is "natural and necessary").

I'm still not sure how helpful that advice is in reality, though, because the difficult choices are always the messy ones...

Your friend,


Next: Letter Nineteen: The Beauty of Life

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus