Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Seven: Philosophy as Medicine

Previous: Letter Six: Thinking it Through

Hi Paul,

I'm still not sure about his claim that happiness is only embellished beyond a certain baseline, but I think I'm starting to understand his general perspective. Much of it seems to derive from his analogy between philosophy and medicine:

A philosopher's words are empty if they do not heal the suffering of mankind. For just as medicine is useless if it does not remove sickness from the body, so philosophy is useless if it does not remove suffering from the soul. (Fragment 221)

Do not pretend to love and practice wisdom, but love and practice wisdom in reality; for we need not the appearance of health but true health. (Vatican Saying 54)

Lucretius builds on that analogy in Book One of The Nature of Things, likening his poetic presentation of Epicureanism to the honey that a doctor uses to sugar-coat bad-tasting medicine!

The Epicurean reasoning seems to be this: because philosophy is the art of healing the soul, there is no greater happiness than removing the diseases of the soul. Indeed, Epicurus seems to think that the desire for something more than the baseline leads to all sorts of diseases of the soul, especially pain and fear.

For example, a groundless desire for immortality makes you afraid of death (or perhaps it's the fear of death that leads to a desire for immortality); yet death is a natural fact, and if you accept your own mortality then you will have a love and appreciation for life instead of a fear of death.

Train yourself to hold that death is nothing to us, because good and evil consist in sensation, and death is the removal of sensation. A correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable — not because it gives one an unbounded span of time, but because it removes the desire for immortality. There is nothing terrifying in life to one who truly understands that there is nothing terrifying in the absence of life. (Letter to Menoikos, Section 124)

Most people shrink from death as the greatest of evils, or else extol it as a release from the evils of life. Yet the wise man does not dishonor life (since he is not set against it) and he is not afraid to stop living (since he does not consider that to be a bad thing). Just as he does not choose the greatest amount of food but the most pleasing food, so he savors not the longest time but the span of time that brings the greatest joy. It is simpleminded to advise a young person to live well and an old person to die well, not only because life is so welcome but also because it is through the very same practices that one both lives well and dies well. (Letter to Menoikos, Section 126)

In this example, the desire for immortality is a kind of disease of the soul, which can be cured through the ministrations of philosophy. It seems to me that an Epicurean could apply similar reasoning to other aspects of life — say, showing that the desire for fame is a kind of psychological disorder. (Lucretius goes even farther at the beginning of Book Three by claiming that vices like avarice, ambition, and envy are in large measure caused by the fear of death.) I see hints of that in several of the fragments, but it's not spelled out in detail. Perhaps Epicurus explained it all in his longer treatises, but we'll never know for sure (and I haven't found it yet in Lucretius, although I'm only in the middle of Book Three so far).

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter.



Next: Letter Eight: Heal Yourself

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus