Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Eight: Heal Yourself

Previous: Letter Seven: Philosophy as Medicine

Hey Schuyler,

I think you're onto something here. With your insight in mind, I've taken a look at some other passages where he talks about groundless desires for things that are unnatural or unnecessary (it's helpful that these Epicurean fragments are online because it's easy to search through them).

Your example of fame is a good one: it is something unnatural, so if you have a groundless desire for fame then you'll have a corresponding fear of living in obscurity. That combination of desire and fear might lead you to do things that will make you unhappy (say, appear in a reality TV show or something silly like that).

Furthermore, Epicurus sometimes groups several similar phenomena in with the desire for fame, such as desires for riches and power (and, I suppose, corresponding fears of poverty and weakness):

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)

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)

Similarly with the desire, common in ancient city-states like Athens, to be acclaimed and honored by one's fellow citizens (and the corresponding fear of being ignored and disrespected by them):

The esteem of others is outside our control; we must attend instead to healing ourselves. (Vatican Saying 64)

Some people want to be well esteemed and widely admired, believing that in this way they will be safe from others; if the life of such people is secure then they have gained its natural benefit, but if not then they have not gained what they sought from the beginning in accordance with what is naturally appropriate. (Principal Doctrine 7)

In all of these cases, there is a dyad of unhealthy desires and fears, which are caused by not understanding what is natural and necessary in life and by unreasonably expecting or hoping for something more than the baseline. (I'm still not clear on what exactly is included in that baseline, but in part I think we're defining it as we go along by seeing what's not included, such as fame, fortune, power, and public honors.)


Next: Letter Nine: The Diseases of the Soul

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus