Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Five: Altogether Spare

Previous: Letter Four: Praise Be to Nature

Hi Paul!

OK, let me see if I understand this.

According to Epicurus, only two things are needed for complete happiness: bodily health and peace of mind. Nothing else is necessary to produce the greatest joy — not fame, not wealth, not power, not material luxuries, nothing. The desire for bodily health and peace of mind is natural and necessary, as are the activities and things that support body and soul (food and drink, shelter, clothing, and apparently also higher-order goods like friendship). The desire for anything more is either unnecessary or entirely artificial, and gaining such "additions" does not increase your joy in living, it only embellishes that joy.

Lucretius says something similar early in Book Two of The Nature of Things:

            Don't you know it's plain
That all your nature yelps for is a body free from pain,
And, to enjoy pleasure, a mind removed from fear and care?
And so we see the body's needs are altogether spare —
Only the bare minimum to keep suffering at bay,
Yet which can furnish pleasures for us in a wide array.

This viewpoint seems counter-intuitive, to say the least. Don't we all feel happier if we get a raise at work, share a good meal with friends and family, hear a familiar song, and so on? It seems that Epicurus doesn't think so. Doesn't that strike you as a bit strange?


Next: Letter Six: Thinking it Through

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus