NOTES on Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.): “Letter to Menoeceus”

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Portrait of Epicurus. Pentelic marble, Roman copy (1st century CE) of a Greek original of the 3rd century BC. [Public domain, via Wiki Commons].

Some philosophy is practical.

One philosopher concerned with a practical way of living is the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, who was a younger contemporary of Aristotle. Epicurus lived in interesting times; that is, a time of warfare, refugees, and great unhappiness. (An old Chinese curse is, “My you live in interesting times.”)

Because of the upheavals of his time (Alexander the Great’s generals were battling over Alexander’s empire after he died), Epicurus was concerned with how one could lead a tranquil life. The situation seems to me to be similar to that at the end of Voltaire’s Candide: Candide and his friends are on a small farm, enjoying the fruits of their labor, while in nearby Constantinople all kinds of violence are occurring. Candide tells his friends, “We must work in the garden,” meaning that although much of the world is in a state of upheaval, yet if one works hard and is lucky, one can create small spots of peace and happiness.

In his “Letter to Menoeceus,” Epicurus gives several practical pieces of advice on how to lead a tranquil life. We may not agree with everything that Epicurus says, but we will probably find some wisdom in at least some of his ideas.

I. Think Correctly About the Gods

Epicurus believed that the gods have been defamed by poets such as Homer, creator of the Iliad and the Odyssey, who portrayed the gods as full of petty jealousies and as concerned with the actions of human beings on Earth. Instead, according to Epicurus, the gods exist in tranquility and do not concern themselves with human beings at all. Therefore, we have nothing to fear from the gods. Today, that means that we should not believe that AIDS has been sent to punish us, for God is not concerned enough about us to even want to punish us. Therefore, according to Epicurus, we need not fear the gods. They will neither reward us for good deeds, not punish us for bad deeds.

II. Think Correctly About Death

Many human beings are afraid of what awaits us after death. We have been brought up to believe that God punishes bad behavior and to believe that all human beings have sinned. According to Epicurus, we need not fear death. There is no afterlife in which we will be rewarded or punished; instead, death is nonexistence, and we shall feel nothing: neither pain nor pleasure. Thus, we need not worry about what God shall do to us after death. Not only does God not concern himself with us, but also there is no human afterlife for God to be concerned about.

III. Scrutinize Your Desires

Some desires are natural, while other desires are vain. We need to scrutinize our desires so that we can satisfy our natural desires. For example, we have a natural desire for food and drink. We can satisfy this desire with cheap, nourishing food such as bread, vegetables, fruits, cheese, and milk, or we can satisfy it with Lobster Newburg and Dom Perignon. According to Epicurus, we should satisfy our desire with cheap, nourishing food and drink. Of course, if a wealthy friend invites us to his mansion for a dinner of Lobster Newburg and Dom Perignon, we would accept (if we truly liked the friend), but we would be foolish if we were to feel bad because we cannot afford Lobster Newburg and Dom Perignon for dinner every night. (I don’t think that Epicurus would drink Coke, which he would regard as expensive, colored, flavored sugar-water with bubbles in it.)

IV. Consider Consequences

In general, we wish to feel pleasure and to avoid pain, but this does not mean we should seek every pleasure available to us and avoid every pain. For example, snorting cocaine is supposed to be very pleasurable (at least at first), but we know the consequences of a cocaine habit can be very debilitating both to our finances and to our health. On the other hand, we may not want to exercise every day (at least at first), but the pain of doing so (until you get in shape and begin to enjoy exercising) will lead to better health and a stronger body. Also, the pain of chemotherapy may have very desirable consequences if it cures our cancer.

V. Distinguish Noble from Base Pleasures

Some pleasures are better than others, Epicurus believes. The noble pleasures are intellectual pleasures, while base pleasures titillate base emotions. A drunken revel is a base pleasure, while using philosophic reasoning to determine what you ought to do is a noble pleasure. The one leads to bad consequences, while the other leads to good consequences.

VI. Become Prudent

This advice condenses all the previous advice. The prudent person follows all of the above advice. The prudent person is a tranquil sage, a person who is at peace and is wise. Although the world may be in upheaval, the prudent person is still able to maintain his or her own tranquility.

Let me conclude this essay by quoting Epicurus on philosophy:

“Let no one when young delay to study philosophy, nor when he is old grow weary of his study. For no one can come too early or too late to secure the health of his soul. … both when young and when old a man must study philosophy, that as he grows old he may be young in blessings through the grateful recollection of what has been, and that in youth he may be old as well, since he will know no fear of what is to come.”

Note: The quotation from Epicurus is from Epicurus: The Extant Remains, translated by Cyril Bailey.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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