Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Nineteen: The Beauty of Life

Previous: Letter Eighteen: The Power of Reason

Dear Paul,

I think you're right: much of what Epicurus regards as rational is in fact tied to his conception of what is natural and necessary. Although we still haven't identified what it means for something to be necessary for happiness, I think we can at least identify some related remedies.

A key idea here is what we earlier referred to as harmony or even a kind of integrity (i.e., being an integrated person because your actions are consistent with your thoughts). Consider again the following maxims:

It is not the young man who is most happy, but the old man who has lived beautifully; for despite being at his very peak the young man stumbles around as if he were of many minds, whereas the old man has settled into old age as if in a harbor, secure in his gratitude for the good things he was once unsure of. (Vatican Saying 17)

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)

The implication is clear: if you perform that "questioning of your desires" at important times in your life, those questions will lead you to determine whether a given course of action is natural and necessary. However, if during that decision process you turn toward or are trapped by a goal other than what is natural and necessary, you will stumble around in confusion or be of many minds.

Furthermore, the natural goal of life is often a matter of understanding your limits (as Lucretius puts it at the start of Book Six, Epicurus "set a limit to desire and an end to fear"). This is connected to the advice of the ancient oracle at Delphi to know yourself. Here are a few fragments on the topic...

The person who has put together the best means for confidence about external threats is one who has become familiar with what is possible and at least not unfamiliar with what is not possible, but who has not mixed with things where even this could not be managed and who has driven away anything that is not advantageous. (Principal Doctrine 39)

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)

And because acting within your limits will make you happy with what you have and what you are, there is no need to be envious or jealous of other people:

Envy no one. For good people do not deserve envy, and the more that wicked people succeed the more they ruin things for themselves. (Vatican Saying 53)

That all sounds good and reasonable, but I'm not sure how to square it with modern life given everyone's focus on work and earning power and getting ahead. Do you think it's possible to live as an Epicurean today?

Still puzzling over it all,


Next: Letter Twenty: Live Unknown

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus