Epicurus’ Letter

"Epicurus," by Mitch Francis
Our text is Epicurus' Letter to Menoikos. Trans. Peter Saint-Andre. 2011.
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"Epicurus," by Mitch Francis
“Epicurus,” by Mitch Francis

Marble bust of Epicurus.
Marble bust of Epicurus: Roman copy of Greek original, 3rd/2nd century B.C.E. On display in the British Museum, London.

Epicurus’ Eden

Aristotle’s death in 322 B.C.E. brought a Golden Age to a close; but Greek philosophy was then still to birth Stoicism and Epicureanism, two schools that emphasized self-mastery as the rudder that allows one to steer a course around life’s troubles and toward the good life. Epicurus (Ἐπίκουρος, 341-270 B.C.E.) articulated a moderate hedonist philosophy – so called for the Greek hēdonismos (ἡδονισμός), which is in turn derived from hēdonē (ἡδονή), meaning ‘pleasure’. He presented a moderate approach to life, but one based on the pursuit of pleasure. His philosophy was more accessible as his reasoning and interests were less abstruse than some of those found in rarefied passages in Plato or Aristotle.

"Epicurus' Garden," by Mitch Francis
“Epicurus’ Garden,” by Mitch Francis
Epicurus moved from Colophon in present-day Turkey to Athens in his mid-thirties, where – starting in 306 – he welcomed disciples from various social strata, wrote, and taught, “Vain is the word of the philosopher which does not heal some suffering in man.” For over three decades he taught in his community of friendship at a place outside the city known as The Garden. He encouraged the study of nature as a way of freeing the mind from irrational fears.

The following is a letter from Epicurus to a contemporary.

Letter to Menoikos

Greetings from Epicurus to Menoikos.

Philosophy and happiness

Let no one put off the love and practice of wisdom [note 1] when young, nor grow tired of it when old. For it is never too early or too late for the health of the soul. Someone who says that the time to love and practice wisdom has not yet come or has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or has passed. Young or old, it is necessary to love and practice wisdom, so that in old age you can be youthful by taking joy in the good things you remember, and likewise in youth you can be mature by not fearing what will come. Reflect on what brings happiness, because if you have that you have everything, but if not you will do everything to attain it.

Reflect on what brings happiness, because if you have that you have everything. . .

Do and practice, then, the things I have always recommended to you, holding them to be the stairway to a beautiful life.

The gods, their nature, and what “most people believe”

First, believe that god is a blissful, immortal being, as is commonly held. Do not ascribe to god anything that is inconsistent with immortality and blissfulness; instead, believe about god everything that can support immortality and blissfulness. For gods there are: our knowledge of them is clear. Yet they are not such as most people believe; indeed most people are not even consistent in what they believe. It is not impious to deny the gods that most people believe in, but to ascribe to the gods what most people believe. The things that most people say about the gods are based on false assumptions, not a firm grasp of the facts [note 2], because they say that the greatest goods and the greatest harms come from the gods. For since they are at home with what is best about themselves, they accept that which is similar and consider alien that which is different. [note 3]

Attitude to death

Second, 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 you an unbounded span of time, but because it removes the desire for immortality. There is nothing terrifying in life to someone who truly understands that there is nothing terrifying in the absence of life.

Death . . . is nothing to us, because as long as we exist death is not present, whereas when death is present we do not exist.

Only a fool says that he fears death because it causes pain ahead of time, not because it will cause pain when it comes. For something that causes no trouble when present causes only a groundless pain when merely expected. So death, the most terrifying of evils, is nothing to us, because as long as we exist death is not present, whereas when death is present we do not exist. It is nothing to those who live (since to them it does not exist) and it is nothing to those who have died (since they no longer exist).

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. It is even worse to say that it is good to never have been born, or:

Having been born, to pass through the gates of Hades as soon as possible.

If he believes what he says, why doesn’t he depart from life? It is easily done, if he has truly decided. But if he is joking, it is a worthless remark to those who don’t accept it. Remember that what will be is not completely within our control nor completely outside our control, so that we will not completely expect it to happen nor be completely disappointed if it does not happen.

Desires and wisdom

Third, keep in mind that some desires are natural whereas others are groundless [note 4]; that among the natural desires some are natural and necessary whereas others are merely natural; and that among the necessary desires some are necessary for happiness, some for physical health [note 5], and some for life itself. The steady contemplation of these facts enables you to understand everything that you accept or reject in terms of the health of the body and the serenity of the soul — since that is the goal of a completely happy life. Our every action is done so that we will not be in pain or fear. As soon as we achieve this, the soul is released from every storm, since an animal has no other need and must seek nothing else to complete the goodness of body and soul. Thus we need pleasure only when we are in pain caused by its absence; but when we are not in pain then we have no need of pleasure.

This is why we say that pleasure is the beginning and the end of a completely happy life. For we recognize it as the primary and innate good, we honor it in everything we accept or reject, and we achieve it if we judge every good thing by the standard of how that thing affects us [note 6]. And because this is the primary and inborn good, we do not choose every pleasure. Instead, we pass up many pleasures when we will gain more of what we need from doing so. And we consider many pains to be better than pleasures, if we experience a greater pleasure for a long time from having endured those pains. So every pleasure is a good thing because its nature is favorable to us, yet not every pleasure is to be chosen — just as every pain is a bad thing, yet not every pain is always to be shunned. It is proper to make all these decisions through measuring things side by side and looking at both the advantages and disadvantages, for sometimes we treat a good thing as bad and a bad thing as good.

…you’ll be •healthy of body and •spirit, •able to appreciate life, yet •not clinging to it.

Fourth, we hold that self-reliance is a great good — not so that we will always have only a few things but so that if we do not have much we will rejoice in the few things we have, firmly persuaded that those who need luxury the least enjoy it the most, and that everything natural is easily obtained whereas everything groundless is hard to get. So simple flavors bring just as much pleasure as a fancy diet if all pain from true need has been removed, and bread and water give the highest pleasure when someone in need partakes of them. Training yourself to live simply and without luxury •brings you complete health, •gives you endless energy to face the necessities of life, •better prepares you for the occasional luxury, and •makes you fearless no matter your fortune in life.

[W]hen we say that pleasure is the goal, we . . . mean . . . to be free from bodily pain and mental disturbance.

So when we say that pleasure is the goal, we do not mean the pleasures of decadent people or the enjoyment of sleep, as is believed by those who are ignorant or who don’t understand us or who are ill-disposed to us, but to be free from bodily pain and mental disturbance. For a pleasant life is produced not by drinking and endless parties and enjoying boys and women and consuming fish and other delicacies of an extravagant table, but by sober reasoning, searching out the cause of everything we accept or reject, and driving out opinions that cause the greatest trouble in the soul.

[I]t is not possible to live joyously without also living wisely and beautifully and rightly, nor to live wisely and beautifully and rightly without living joyously.

Practical wisdom is the foundation of all these things and is the greatest good. Thus practical wisdom is more valuable than philosophy and is the source of every other excellence [note 7], teaching us that it is not possible to live joyously without also living wisely and beautifully and rightly, nor to live wisely and beautifully and rightly without living joyously. [note 8] For the excellences grow up together with the pleasant life, and the pleasant life is inseparable from them.

The four-fold wisdom – about gods, death, life’s goal and limits

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? [note 9] 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. [note 10] 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). [note 11] 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.

So practice these and similar things day and night, by yourself and with a like-minded friend, and you will never be disturbed whether waking or sleeping, and you will live as a god among men: for a man who lives in the midst of immortal goods [note 12] is unlike a merely mortal being.

Translator’s Notes

[0] The English translation is provided under Creative Commons CC0 (for details, refer to the Original Publisher’s Note). The text provided here generally follows that of Hermann Usener as published in his Epicurea (1887), with some attention paid to the texts of G. Arrighetti as published in Epicuro Opere (Torino: Giulio Einaudi Editore, 1960) and of A.A. Long and D.N. Sedley as published in Volume 2 of The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge University Press, 1987). [back]

[1] Literally the Greek text says “to philosophize”. I have expanded the verb as “to love and practice wisdom”. Although I cannot provide complete justification for that expansion in a brief note, I shall do so in a forthcoming book on Epicurus. In the meantime, read What is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot. [back]

[2] On πρόληψις as the basic grasp of a concept, see the note to Principal Doctrine #37. [back]

[3] This is a puzzling sentence. Some translators understand it as applying to “the gods” from the previous sentence, with the sense that the gods would not interfere in human affairs because they don’t care about (“consider as alien”) mortal creatures who are so different from themselves. Other translators understand it as applying to “most people” from the previous sentence, with the sense that most people assume that immortal beings so different from themselves must want to interfere in human affairs. I lean toward the former interpretation. [back]

[4] Here Epicurus contrasts natural desires with desires that are κενός (empty, vain). However, κενός is usually the opposite of πλήρης (full, complete), not of φυσικός (natural, native). Thus I have chosen to translate κενός as “groundless” in almost all instances. This rendering is consistent with the connection that Epicurus makes between such desires and opinions that are not based on an understanding of the inborn requirements of human nature. Epicurus also calls such opinions κενός, and I think the word “groundless” sounds more appropriate in modern English than “empty” (since such opinions do have some content, albeit not well-grounded content) or “vain” (since such opinions are not caused by personal vanity). [back]

[5] Literally the Greek text says “to keep the body untroubled” (in fact “for the untroubledness of the body”), which might mean keeping the body healthy or perhaps even relaxed or stress-free. [back]

[6] The phrase κανόνι τῷ πάθει is often translated as “the standard of feeling” or “the standard of emotion”, but such renderings can make it sound as if Epicurus is an emotionalist in ethics, which is far from the truth. At root, the Greek word πάθος means “what has happened to you” or “what you have experienced”. Although “the standard of experience” is one possible translation, that swings in the opposite direction of empiricism. I have chosen “the standard of how that thing affects us” as a more neutral translation. [back]

[7] Although most translators render ἀρετή as “virtue”, I render it as “excellence” to get closer to the original sense of the word (which is not strictly moral or ethical); specifically, in the context of this passage it is excellent to live joyously, wisely, beautifully, and rightly, but those are not “virtues” as conceived by modern philosophy. [back]

[8] This clause appears almost word for word as Principal Doctrine #5. [back]

[9] Elsewhere Epicurus discusses his principle that both pleasures and pains are strictly limited; see Principal Doctrines #11, #15, #18, #19, and #20, Vatican Sayings #4 and #35, and Fragment #548. [back]

[10] The verb παρακολουθεῖν has special meaning in the works of Aristotle, who uses it to denote the inseparable connection between logical ideas, between genus and species, between cause and effect, and the like (see Categories 8a33, Posterior Analytics 99a17, Topics 125b28 and 131b9, Metaphysics 1054a14, etc.). Here Epicurus uses the same word to note the close tie between praise and blame on the one hand and that which is within the power of an individual to achieve. [back]

[11] Epicurus is not claiming that the sage would actually believe the myths about the gods; see for example Principal Doctrine #12 and Vatican Saying #65. [back]

[12] In Vatican Saying #78, Epicurus says that friendship is an immortal good (whereas wisdom is a merely mortal good); it is unclear what other goods Epicurus considers to be immortal. [back]