Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Twenty-One: Human Emancipation

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Paul, I'm no expert on the differences between Hellenistic Greece and modern America, but the contrast you draw rings true with me. Further, Epicurus might have been writing for those who lived in the Garden, which appears to have been a kind of intentional community. We do know that other Epicureans started similar communities for hundreds of years afterward, so perhaps those people were isolated somewhat from the forces of the market economy at the time. However, I would agree that modernity is more atomistic or individualistic than antiquity. In a way, that might make Epicureanism a good fit for people today (for example, his philosophy seems more aligned with modern science than a system like Aristotelianism).

On the other hand, the great economist Ludwig von Mises once observed that the division of labor in modern market economies can be seen as a culmination of the influence of Epicurus:

The historical role of the theory of the division of labor as elaborated by British political economy from Hume to Ricardo consisted in the complete demolition of all metaphysical doctrines concerning the origin and the operation of social cooperation. It consummated the spiritual, moral and intellectual emancipation of mankind inaugurated by the philosophy of Epicureanism.

So perhaps the case is not so clear-cut.

That said, there might be another connection between Epicurean communities and some aspects of his ethical views, because one remedy he offers for insecurity is treating other people with justice, and he thinks that justice is a kind of compact to not harm the fellow members of one's community (which in the case of the Garden would have been a chosen bond):

Natural justice is a covenant for mutual benefit, to not harm one another or be harmed. (Principal Doctrine 31)

Justice does not exist in itself; instead, it is always a compact to not harm one another or be harmed, which is agreed upon by those who gather together at some time and place. (Principal Doctrine 33)

In general, justice is the same for all: what is mutually advantageous among companions. But with respect to the particulars of a place or other causes, it does not follow that the same thing is just for all. (Principal Doctrine 36)

One who causes fear cannot be without fear. (Fragment 537)

The greatest fruit of justice is serenity. (Fragment 519)

Notice his emphasis on the interactions you have with your companions. This brings us full circle back to friendship, which he elevates to an exalted position among the remedies for unhappiness.

Of all the things that wisdom provides for the complete happiness of one's entire life, by far the greatest is friendship. (Principal Doctrine 27)

The noble soul is devoted most of all to wisdom and to friendship — one a mortal good, the other immortal. (Vatican Saying 78)

The same judgment produces confidence that dreadful things are not everlasting, and that security amidst the limited number of dreadful things is most easily achieved through friendship. (Principal Doctrine 28)

Trying to focus again on practicalities, I'd note that Epicurus also offers some guidelines for friendship, such as doing favors for your friends, making sure that they benefit from their interactions with you, and taking reasonable risks to build and maintain your friendships:

Don't avoid doing small favors, lest you seem to be the same with regard to greater things. (Fragment 214)

Those who grasp after friendship and those who shrink from it are not worthy of approval; on the other hand, it is necessary to risk some pleasure for the pleasures of friendship. (Vatican Saying 28)

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)

As I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation about Epicurus, his connection between friendship and happiness is attractive to me (and again somewhat modern because it puts less emphasis on family and more emphasis on your chosen relationships).

Indeed, the connection runs much deeper than a superficial observation that having friends gives you pleasure. Although Lucretius doesn't talk much about friendship in The Nature of Things, the entire book is devoted to converting his friend Memmius to Epicureanism — literally to saving the life of his friend, if you agree with Epicurus and Lucretius that true philosophy is the only reliable cure for the diseases of the soul. And notice how Epicurus exhorts his friend Menoikos to "practice these and similar things day and night, by yourself and with a like-minded friend" — the presence of a friend reinforces your practice of the precepts of true philosophy. These certainly are strong claims for the power of friendship, but Epicurus makes them because the love and practice of wisdom (philosophy in its original sense) is something you can achieve much more easily in collaboration with the people you value most deeply. Kind of like we've been doing together in these letters. :-)


Next: Letter Twenty-Two: Reverence for Life

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus