Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Nine: The Diseases of the Soul

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Hi Paul!

It's interesting that you should mention the desire for power, because I just finished Book Three of The Nature of Things, where Lucretius describes how someone who seeks power is like a real-life Sisyphus who is never satisfied because power itself is an illusion that cannot be relied upon.

In addition to fame, fortune, power, and public honors, I've found another major example of these dyads: fear of fate and a corresponding desire for complete control over your life. Although Epicurus and Lucretius both often describe fate in terms of the gods (who in ancient times were believed to actively meddle in human affairs), in more modern terms we could talk about a fear of outside forces such as "the culture" or "the environment" or society at large (and let's not forget that there are still people who believe in things like astrology!). Epicurus discusses this topic at length in his Letter to Menoikos:

In short, whom do you consider better than someone who holds pious opinions about the gods, who is always fearless in the face of death, who has reasoned out the natural goal of life, and who has understood that the limit of good things is easy to fulfill and easy to achieve, whereas the limit of bad things is either short-lived or causes little pain? Someone who laughs at destiny, which is asserted by some to be the master of all things? For he holds that we are responsible for what we achieve, even though some things happen by necessity, some by chance, and some by our own power, because although necessity is not accountable he sees that chance is unstable whereas the things that are within our power have no other master, so that naturally praise and blame are inseparably connected to them. Indeed he sees that it would be better even to cleave to the myths about the gods (since that leaves some hope of prevailing upon them through worship) than to be subject to the destiny of the scientists (since that way lies an inexorable necessity). And such a man holds that Fate is not a god (as most people believe) because a god does nothing disorderly, and he holds that Fate is not an uncertain cause because nothing good or bad with respect to a completely happy life is given to men by chance, although it does provide the beginnings of both great goods and great evils. And he considers it better to be rationally unfortunate than irrationally fortunate, since it is better for a beautiful choice to have the wrong results than for an ugly choice to have the right results just by chance. (Letter to Menoikos, Section 133 ff.)

Here again, although the details might be blurry, the general message is clear: accept that some things are outside your control and take responsibility for what is within your control.

Let's see if I can summarize the diseases of soul that Epicurus describes:

And I'm probably missing a few other "dyads" here.

I'm sure that entire books have been written about envy, greed, and the desire for power, fame, public honors, and luxury, but it seems to me that Epicurus might have been the first person to analyze these vices in a unified way. That's quite an accomplishment!

Your friend,


Next: Letter Ten: Unceasing Joy

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus