Commentary on Epicurus’ “Letter to Menoeceus”

Some time back I posted Epicurus’s Letter to Menoeceus. You should read that post if you would like to familiarize yourself with it in its entirety. Here, I’ve broken the letter up into segments (the headings are mine) and added commentary to each section. This translation of the letter is by Peter Saint-Andre (2011) and is licensed Creative Commons CCO (public domain).

If you are unfamiliar with Epicurus, or just want some more information, you can start with his Wikipedia page.

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Following you will find Epicurus’ letter in its entirety. It has been broken into topical sections with commentary following each one.

Epicurus Letter to Menoeceus (with commentary)

Who Should Study Philosophy

Epicurus writes

Let no one put off the love and practice of wisdom 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.
Do and practice, then, the things I have always recommended to you, holding them to be the stairway to a beautiful life

Commentary

Here Epicurus answers the question, “when is the time to study wisdom?” The resounding answer is, now. It also must be noted that Epicurus does not prod us to study wisdom, he urges us to love and practice it. To love wisdom is to give it a high value. Learning—particularly of the sort that helps us live a better life—is to be sought after. However, he doesn’t let us stop there. No, he wants us to not only love wisdom, but to practice wisdom. That is, Epicurus wants us to live wisely. We live wisely by studying and then applying what we learn to the events that make up our day.

While it is not specifically touched upon in this letter, Epicurus writes elsewhere that friends are the largest reward of practicing wisdom.

Of all the things that wisdom provides for the complete happiness of one’s entire life, by far the greatest is friendship.
Principal Doctrine 27

For Epicurus, friends are important in that they bring us steady happiness, but they also offer security against the vagaries of life. Good friends are like an insurance policy against adversity.

Epicurus informs us that the love and practice of wisdom will provide happiness. If we can determine what will truly bring us happiness we will have everything. Later in this work we will discuss vain desires; for now let it be said that if we lack the knowledge of what will bring us happiness, we will spend a lifetime chasing vain desires in a failing attempt to achieve it.

The Epicurean Garden was the only school in Athens that, not only admitted women, but that gave them equal standing with the men. While in this letter, Epicurus only mentions the young, the old, and by inference the in-between; we also know that both sexes and all professions (at least those not precipitated by vain desires) are included.

This section ends with Epicurus urging us to “do and practice” his teachings, the rest of the letter reviews those teachings.

Don’t fear god

Epicurus Writes

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, 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.

Commentary

While modern atheists claim Epicurus as one of their own, it is clear from this passage that he was not an atheist. Epicurus does not reject the notion that there is a god—or even gods. Instead, he rejects the common conceptions of what god is. Epicurus viewed god as the grand creator, an eternal and blissful being who did not take part in the lives of men let alone any individual. Epicurus held up the pagan gods, not as saviors or punishers, but as models that could be held up as examples of virtuous behavior.

Epicurus was a materialist, only matter and the void exist. As such, even the gods are material. Epicurus’ view of religion is that the gods exist but they take no part in human affairs, perhaps we can label it as deistic polytheism.

This section of the letter brings to mind a quote attributed to Epicurus by a 3rd century Christian author, known as the Epicurean Paradox. It reads:

God, [Epicurus] says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does He not remove them?

Whether this quote originated from Epicurus is unknown. However, if it is based on something that he wrote or said, we should view it as a condemnation of the popular view of god, not as a denial of the existence of god or gods.

Death is nothing to us

Epicurus writes

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.
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.

Commentary

Easing the fear of death is one of the primary objectives of Epicurean teaching. It is impossible to live a life of happiness if you are in constant despair about the afterlife. The second paragraph of this section contains one of Epicurus’ best known maxims. To paraphrase, “Death is nothing to us. Where death is, we are not. Where we are, death is not.”

It should be noted that this section begins, “Train yourself…” Once again highlighting the fact that Epicurus taught a practical philosophy, one that was meant to be both studied and lived. It is a familiar refrain for Epicurus to guide us toward action. Epicurus is often prescriptive in his exhortations, he is quoted by a 3rd century Neo-Platonist as having compared a philosopher to a doctor:

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.

In paragraph three, Epicurus informs us that the art of living well and the art of dying well are one and the same. For once one learns how to live without undue fears, dying is easy. Here Epicurus uses a food analogy, breaking down his teachings to make them more easily understood.

This section ends with another common Epicurean theme, namely, that most things (and the very future itself) are neither wholly within our control nor wholly outside our control. Keeping this in mind eases the disappointment of things not turning out as planned, while still providing the incentive to make positive impact on the world.

Pleasure is the absence of pain

Epicurus writes

Third, keep in mind that some desires are natural whereas others are groundless; 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, 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. 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.

Commentary

This is an important passage and its significance cannot be overstated. Herein Epicurus explains the types of desires. Epicurus explains that these desires can be divided into three categories: 1) natural and necessary, 2) natural but not necessary, and groundless or vain.

Natural and necessary desires are anything that we need to sustain life, happiness, health and/or friendships. These are the most basic of desires; food, shelter, companionship, etc… These desires should be met as soon as they arise as their lack will cause pain. These desires are easily filled and even wild animals are capable of their fulfillment.

Natural but not necessary desires are those which stem from nature but are not necessary for the cessation of pain. Sometimes these desires require thought to see that they may be unnecessary. Examples would be the desire for rich or extravagant food when hungry when a sandwich will sate the pain of hunger just as well. We have the natural and necessary desire of shelter from the elements but the desire becomes unnatural when we add the desire for marble countertops or brass fixtures or even a larger house than necessary for our needs. These desires rely upon judgement to decide if they should be fulfilled. The main criteria of judgement is to ask what effect fulfilling or not fulfilling this desire will have on our natural and necessary desires. For instance, wanting to satisfy midday hunger is a natural and necessary desire; you should, therefore, eat lunch. But should you eat lunch out with your co-workers every day? Wanting lunch is natural, eating out is not necessary.

Desires provide pleasure to the extent that they provide relief from pain. A warm but ragged coat provides as much pleasure (absence of pain from cold) as a fine coat. Once the pain leading to the desire is sated, there is no increase in pleasure; once full you cannot increase the pleasure of contentment by eating more food. The opposite is usually the case with over indulgence in meeting a desire leading to discomfort and pain.

Natural wealth is both limited and easy to acquire, but the riches incited by groundless opinion have no end.
Principal Doctrine 15

Here Epicurus calls the third type of desires groundless, elsewhere they are translated as vain. Vain desires are neither natural nor necessary. They are the superfluous desires such as power, prestige, money or fame. Chasing these desires, and even obtaining them, cause pain in the body and mind. If you have power you must remain in constant fear that it will be lost. A simple and happy life of quietude cannot be obtained while fretting over where you will get more and more money or prestige or any other vain desire. Satisfying these desires is as bad as, or even worse, as trying and failing. It is far better to not desire them at all. Sometimes vain desires cause short term pleasure, the question then becomes at what expense to our future pleasures?

Self-Reliance

Epicurus Writes

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.

Commentary

Self-reliance comes up repeatedly in the teachings of Epicurus, usually translated as self-sufficiency. Closely tied to self-reliance is voluntary simplicity with the two being inextricable. To paraphrase the opening of this section, Epicurus writes that we should not seek self-sufficiency to be content with a little, but so that when we have a lot we can truly appreciate it. For when you depend on extravagance, it brings but little joy; but one who can be happy with a little will gain immense pleasure when extravagance offers itself. Again, Epicurus brings up “training yourself”, this time in reference to living simply. Training to Epicurus means study and practice, repeated until it becomes your nature.

For the practicing Epicurean, self-reliance is based in prudence and mental balance and is more psychological than physical. Remember that Epicurus put great emphasis on friendship, the self-reliance that he espouses does not mean that we should be rugged individuals struggling against nature. Instead we strive for balance, secure in our friendships and living within the constraints prescribed by nature. For the Epicurean self-sufficiency is about being content with what we have, and not in wishing for what we don’t have. Summing up Epicurus’ view on self-sufficiency, the Roman philosopher, statesman, and dramatist—Seneca—quotes him in a letter:

If you wish to make [a person] rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.

For Epicurus, self-reliance is about self-rule, or autarchy; by which he means self-sufficiency, self-control, independence, and self-sovereignty. In Vatican Saying 77 Epicurus is clear on the benefits of self-sufficiency:

The greatest fruit of self-reliance is freedom.

Without self-reliance, without an equal and mutual contract with friends, we become slaves to the vagaries of our existence, freedom itself becomes unobtainable.

Pleasure

Epicurus writes

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.

Commentary

Pleasure, Epicurus defines it, is to be free of bodily pain and mental disturbance. When Epicurus originally declared that pleasure is the goal of life, the repudiation was quick and sure. First the Stoics and neo-Platonists decried and maligned the teachings of Epicurus, soon enough it was the early Christians piling on. When the Stoics were absorbed by the Christians, the last few remaining books by and about Epicurus were all but destroyed. It would be 1000 years before Epicureanism was rediscovered. All of this is to say that the world was not ready to wrap its collective mind around the concept of virtuous hedonism such as that espoused by Epicurus.

Had those persecutors only stopped and read, as you have, this passage from Epicurus’ own hand, they could have seen that Epicurus did not propose hedonistic debauchery as the path to a pleasant life. Epicurus calls out the debased pleasures–drinking, endless parties, sex, rich food, and an extravagant table—as not only being impediments to pleasure, but outright obstacles.

To understand Epicurus’ conception of pleasure, one must first understand that he differentiated between pleasurable states and pleasurable motions. Pleasurable motions are fleeting and caused by outside stimuli. These pleasures include such things as eating decedent food, playing with a puppy, sex, extreme sports, drug induced euphoria, etc… While often intense, these pleasures are fleeting and end as soon as the stimulus ends. When you finish the rich food, not only does the pleasure end, but there is often discomfort of the body and sometimes turmoil of the mind, not dissimilar to the effects of other pleasurable motions. Pleasurable states are pleasures of contentment, they are the absence of pain and discomfort of the mind and body. To be free from worry or not to be cold or hungry. Pleasurable states are the preferred source of pleasure. While not every pleasurable motion causes pain, so many do that they must all be held suspect.

Practical wisdom

Epicurus Writes

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, 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. For the excellences grow up together with the pleasant life, and the pleasant life is inseparable from them.

Commentary

Most translations of this passage use “virtue” in place of “excellence.” Here Epicurus is telling us that wisdom in practice is more valuable than the love of knowledge, and is in fact the source of every virtue. One cannot live happily without also living virtuously, likewise one cannot live virtuously without also living happily. Here Epicurus is informing us that we should live virtuously, not for some future reward, nor as an end in itself; but we must live virtuously as a precondition of the happy life. Wisdom is not something to learn, Epicurus tells us, it is something that must be done. Back in the first section of this letter, Epicurus extolled us “do and practice” these things, this bears repeating here:

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

The happy one

Epicurus writes

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.

Commentary

This section begins with Epicurus describing one who is truly happy. The first sentence is an abbreviated version of the Four Part Cure. The Four Part Cure (or Remedy), also called the Tetrapharmakos, is a key component of Epicurean thought, it goes:

Don’t fear god,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get,
What is terrible is easy to endure.

The Four Part Cure is a summation of the first four of the Principal Doctrines. This, easily enough to memorize, couplet is not meant to be simply repeated in times of perplexity, it is meant to be ingrained through self-training and practice until it becomes our nature. The Four Part Cure is like a vaccine inoculating us against disease, in this case it helps prevent diseases of the mind. Worry about God, about death, about meeting our needs, or about enduring pain are as harmful to the mind as a cancer is to the body.

Epicurus then articulates that some things happen through necessity, some through chance and some through our own agency. It is those things within our agency that are of import and those who focus on necessity and chance cannot obtain the happy life. Epicurus does concede that it is better to believe in the myths of the gods (chance) than it is to believe in predestiny (necessity).

Go, and practice these things

Epicurus writes

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 is unlike a merely mortal being.

Commentary

Epicurus wraps up the letter with an exhortation to practice these things. He doesn’t say read and remember, or study, but he says do them—every day and every night, alone or with a like-minded one. He promises that if we practice and do these things that we can live a life of bliss, not dissimilar to the gods, for anyone who lives a life of pleasure and joy is not like a mere mortal.

What Epicurus is telling us to do consists of internalizing the Four Part Cure, ending our vain desires while decreasing those desires that are natural but not necessary, giving preference to pleasurable states, and living a life of quiet simplicity amongst friends.

Epilogue

Since hardly anything else survived from the writings of Epicurus, we must have gratitude that this letter is among the surviving remnants. This letter is a treasure trove for exploring Epicurus’ ethics, this present work has barely scratched the surface of all that it contains.

All three of the key Epicurean ethical teachings are present in this work, two directly and one indirectly. The key ethical teachings are: The Four Part Cure, the classification and control of desires, and the preferred type of pleasure.

Epicurus’ ethical thought is also encapsulated in the Principal Doctrines (sometimes translated as Sovran Maxims) and the Vatican Sayings. Both of these works can be found in my book, “Back to the Garden: Epicurus and the Happy Life” which is available from MidMo.US.

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