Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Twenty: Live Unknown

Previous: Letter Nineteen: The Beauty of Life

Schuyler, those are searching questions. It does seem that Epicurus would advise his modern-day followers to drop out of the rat race to some extent:

If you want to make Pythocles wealthy, do not increase his riches but reduce his desires. (Fragment 135)

Many of those who happen into wealth are not liberated from their troubles but merely swap them for greater ills. (Fragment 479)

Happiness and bliss are produced not by great riches nor vast possessions nor exalted occupations nor positions of power, but rather by calmness of mind, freedom from pain, and a disposition of the soul that sets its limits in accordance with nature. (Fragment 548)

Poverty is great wealth if measured by the goals of nature, and wealth is abject poverty if not limited by the goals of nature. (Vatican Saying 25)

A free person is unable to acquire great wealth, because that is not easily achieved without enslavement to the masses or to the powers that be. Instead, he already has everything he needs, and in abundance. But if by chance he should have great wealth, he could easily share that with his fellows to win their goodwill. (Vatican Saying 67)

One will not banish emotional disturbance or arrive at significant joy through great wealth, fame, celebrity, or anything else which is a result of vague and indefinite causes. (Vatican Saying 81)

Here again there's quite a bit of wiggle room. What is "great wealth"? In modern terms, would it be OK to achieve a middle-class existence but not strive to become rich or famous? I haven't seen anything in what Epicurus says which would require vows of poverty, and in any case he seems to be more concerned about struggling in the public arena or making yourself a slave to mass opinion or societal authorities. This is connected to the traditional Epicurean advice to avoid public office or involvement in political affairs:

They must free themselves from the prison of public affairs and ordinary concerns. (Vatican Saying 58)

Live unknown. (Fragment 551)

That last fragment is especially cryptic. What does it mean to live unknown? Clearly Epicurus himself wasn't unknown, and indeed was a somewhat prominent person during his lifetime. After all, we're still talking about him almost 2500 years later, which is the opposite of passing through life in obscurity!

To try to answer your more general question, I would say that at one level it's difficult to apply ancient ideas to life today because our modern existence is so different from how people lived back then. In particular, our society is much more contractual and less based on extended family ties, religious affiliations, authoritarian power, or the kind of philosophical community that Epicurus established at "the Garden" in Athens.

These days I think it's imperative to learn how to thrive in a market economy, continually refine your skills, seek new opportunities, and so on. That kind of dynamism was probably missing from ancient society, so it seems to me that the pursuit of wealth (although perhaps not great or excessive wealth) is almost a personal imperative these days. However, that doesn't mean you need to indulge in groundless desires for more and more material possessions, as so many people do today.

Furthermore, as you noted, Epicurus himself was a hard-working person (he founded a philosophy, wrote many books, etc.). I can only think that he considered the psychological results of all that hard work to be worth it in the end. Such an attitude would be consistent with something he said in the Letter to Menoikos:

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. (Letter to Menoikos, Section 129)

What do you think?



Next: Letter Twenty-One: Human Emancipation

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus