Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Two: The Use of Friends

Previous: Letter One: Awakening to Happiness

Hey Schuyler,

I've never read Lucretius and it's been a while since I've looked at Epicurus. Even then I was reading about the scientific topics that Lucretius presumably covers, such as the Epicurean doctrine of the atomic swerve (I've always thought that "Epicurus and the Atomic Swerve" would be a great name for a band!). More seriously, it seems that Epicurus and Lucretius anticipated many of the results of modern science: the atomic basis of physics and chemistry and biology, the infinity of the universe, the commonality of physical laws throughout all of nature, the plurality of worlds, even the likelihood of intelligent beings on other planets. As I recall from the history of science, the atomism of Epicurus and Lucretius influenced scientists like Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle (the founder of chemistry) via earlier thinkers such as Pierre Gassendi, Francis Bacon, and Giordano Bruno. It's amazing that Epicurus and Lucretius had these insights 2000 years before the Scientific Revolution!

Since you're reading Lucretius now, shall we explore Epicureanism together? I found a recent translation of many Epicurean maxims on the web, so we could work our way through that and you could report on your reading of Lucretius. Here's the website about Epicurus:


As to the link between friendship and happiness, that was a common theme among the ancient Greeks: as you probably remember, Aristotle devoted two whole books of his Nicomachean Ethics to friendship, and indeed it goes all the way back to Homer (think of Achilles and Patroclus). However, it seems that Epicurus might have put a slightly different spin on things, since he emphasized both the pragmatic and emotional benefits of close personal relationships:

Every friendship is an excellence in itself, even though it begins in mutual advantage. (Vatican Saying 23)

The use of friends is not that they are useful, but that we can trust in their usefulness. (Vatican Saying 34)

A friend is not one who is constantly seeking some benefit, nor one who never connects friendship with utility; for the former trades kindness for compensation, while the latter cuts off all hope for the future. (Vatican Saying 39)

I'm out of time for now because I'm in the middle of a big research project at the lab, but I look forward to hearing more about your thoughts on Lucretius. And please let me know if you get a chance to read more of Epicurus. I'll try to read and reflect on a few of his maxims a day — at least they are short and sweet.


Next: Letter Three: The Greatest Confidence

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus