Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines (Sovran Maxims)
By Epicurus (341–270 B.C.)
The four-fold cure for anxiety
1) A calm (Greek word μάκαρ) and imperishable being neither has trouble itself nor does it cause trouble for anyone else; therefore, it does not experience feelings of anger or indebtedness, for such feelings signify weakness.
3) Pleasure (ἡδονή) reaches its maximum limit at the removal of all sources of pain. When such pleasure is present, for as long as it lasts, there is no cause of physical nor mental pain present – nor of both together.
4) Continuous physical pain does not last long. Instead, extreme pain lasts only a very short time, and even less-extreme pain does not last for many days at once. Even protracted diseases allow periods of physical comfort that exceed feelings of pain.
Pleasure and virtue are interdependent
5) It is impossible to live pleasantly without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking (when, for instance, one is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly) it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.
Social and financial status have recognizable costs and benefits
7) Some seek fame and status, thinking that they could thereby protect themselves against other men. If their lives really are secure, then they have attained a natural good; if, however, they’re insecure, they still lack what they originally sought by natural instinct.
Through the study of Nature, we discern the limits of things
10) If the things which debauched men find pleasurable put an end to all fears (such as concerns about the heavenly bodies, death, and pain) and if they revealed how we ought to limit our desires, we would have no reason to reproach them, for they would be fulfilled with pleasures from every source while experiencing no pain, neither in mind nor body, which is the chief evil of life.
12) One cannot rid himself of his primal fears if he does not understand the nature of the universe but instead suspects the truth of some mythical story. So without the study of nature, there can be no enjoyment of pure pleasure.
Peace of mind can be achieved
18) When pain arising from need has been removed, bodily pleasure cannot increase – it merely varies. But the limit of mental pleasure is reached after we reflect upon these bodily pleasures and the related mental distress prior to fulfillment.
20) Bodily pleasure seems unlimited, and to provide it would require unlimited time. But the mind, recognizing the limits of the body, and dismissing apprehensions about eternity, furnishes a complete and optimal life, so we no longer have any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless, the mind does not shun pleasure; moreover, when the end of life approaches, it does not feel remorse, as if it fell short in any way from living the best life possible.
21) He who understands the limits of life knows that things which remove pain arising from need are easy to obtain, and furnish a complete and optimal life. Thus he no longer needs things that are troublesome to attain.
Happiness depends on foresight and friendship
24) If you arbitrarily reject any one sensory experience and fail to differentiate between an opinion awaiting confirmation and what is already perceived by the senses, feelings, and every intuitive faculty of mind, you will impute trouble to all other sensory experiences, thereby rejecting every criterion. And if you concurrently affirm what awaits confirmation as well as actual sensory experience, you will still blunder, because you will foster equal reasons to doubt the truth and falsehood of everything.
28) The same conviction which inspires confidence that nothing terrible lasts forever, or even for long, also enables us to see that in the midst of life’s limited evils, nothing enhances our security so much as friendship.
30) Those natural desires which create no pain when unfulfilled, though pursued with an intense effort, are also due to baseless opinion; and if they are not dispelled, it is not because of their own nature, but because of human vanity.
The benefits of natural justice are far-reaching
32) For all living creatures incapable of making agreements not to harm one another, nothing is ever just or unjust; and so it is likewise for all tribes of men which have been unable or unwilling to make such agreements.
35) It is not possible for one who secretly violates the provisos of the agreement not to inflict nor allow harm to be confident that he won’t get caught, even if he has gotten away with it a thousand times before. For up until the time of death, there is no certainty that he will indeed escape detection.
37) Among actions legally recognized as just, that which is confirmed by experience as mutually beneficial has the virtue of justice, whether it is the same for all peoples or not. But if a law is made which results in no such advantage, then it no longer carries the hallmark of justice. And if something that used to be mutually beneficial changes, though for some time it conformed to our concept of justice, it is still true that it really was just during that time – at least for those who do not fret about technicalities and instead prefer to examine and judge each case for themselves.
38) Where, without any change in circumstances, things held to be just by law are revealed to be in conflict with the essence of justice, such laws were never really just. But wherever or whenever laws have ceased to be advantageous because of a change in circumstances, in that case or time the laws were just when they benefited human interaction, and ceased to be just only when they were no longer beneficial.
So happiness can be secured in all circumstances
39) He who desires to live in tranquility with nothing to fear from other men ought to make friends. Those of whom he cannot make friends, he should at least avoid rendering enemies; and if that is not in his power, he should, as much as possible, avoid all dealings with them, and keep them aloof, insofar as it is in his interest to do so.
40) The happiest men are those who enjoy the condition of having nothing to fear from those who surround them. Such men live among one another most agreeably, having the firmest grounds for confidence in one another, enjoying the benefits of friendship in all their fullness, and they do not mourn a friend who dies before they do, as if there was a need for pity.
“Vatican Sayings” of 14th century manuscript from the Vatican Library.
1. A blessed and indestructible being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; so he is free from anger and partiality, for all such things imply weakness.
2. Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us.
3. Continuous bodily pain does not last long; instead, pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which slightly exceeds bodily pleasure does not last for many days at once. Diseases of long duration allow an excess of bodily pleasure over pain.
4. Every pain is easy to disregard; for that which is intense is of brief duration, and those bodily pains that last long are mild.
5. It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.
6. It is impossible for a man who secretly violates the terms of the agreement not to harm or be harmed to feel confident that he will remain undiscovered, even if he has already escaped ten thousand times; for until his death he is never sure that he will not be detected.
7. For an aggressor to be undetected is difficult; and for him to be confident that his concealment will continue is impossible.
8. The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.
9. Necessity is an evil; but there is no necessity for continuing to live with necessity.
10. Remember that you are mortal and have a limited time to live and have devoted yourself to discussions on nature for all time and eternity and have seen “things that are now and are to me come and have been.”
11. Most men are insensible when they rest, and mad when they act.
12. The just man is most free from disturbance, while the unjust is full of the utmost disturbance.
13. Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.
14. We have been born once and cannot be born a second time; for all eternity we shall no longer exist. But you, although you are not in control of tomorrow, are postponing your happiness. Life is wasted by delaying, and each one of us dies without enjoying leisure.
15. We place a high value on our characters as if they were our own possessions whether or not we are virtuous and praised by other men. So, too, we must regard the characters of those around us if they are our friends.
16. No one chooses a thing seeing that it is evil; but being lured by it when it appears good in comparison to a greater evil, he is caught.
17. We should not view the young man as happy, but rather the old man whose life has been fortunate. The young man at the height of his powers is often befuddled by chance and driven from his course; but the old man has dropped anchor in old age as in a harbor, since he secures in sure and thankful memory goods for which he was once scarcely confident of.
18. If sight, association, and intercourse are removed, the passion of love is ended.
19. He has become an old man on the day on which he forgot his past blessings.
20. Of our desires some are natural and necessary, others are natural but not necessary; and others are neither natural nor necessary, but are due to groundless opinion.
21. We must not force Nature but persuade her. We shall persuade her if we satisfy the necessary desires and also those bodily desires that do not harm us while sternly rejecting those that are harmful.
22. Unlimited time and limited time afford an equal amount of pleasure, if we measure the limits of that pleasure by reason.
23. Every friendship in itself is to be desired; but the initial cause of friendship is from its advantages.
24. Dreams have neither a divine nature nor a prophetic power, but they are the result of images that impact on us.
25. Poverty, if measured by the natural end, is great wealth; but wealth, if not limited, is great poverty.
26. One must presume that long and short arguments contribute to the same end.
27. The benefits of other activities come only to those who have already become, with great difficulty, complete masters of such pursuits, but in the study of philosophy pleasure accompanies growing knowledge; for pleasure does not follow learning; rather, learning and pleasure advance side by side.
28. Those who are overly eager to make friends are not to be approved; nor yet should you approve those who avoid friendship, for risks must be run for its sake.
29. To speak frankly as I study nature I would prefer to speak in oracles that which is of advantage to all men even though it be understood by none, rather than to conform to popular opinion and thus gain the constant praise that comes from the many.
30. Some men spend their whole life furnishing for themselves the things proper to life without realizing that at our birth each of us was poured a mortal brew to drink.
31. It is possible to provide security against other things, but as far as death is concerned, we men all live in a city without walls.
32. The honor paid to a wise man is itself a great good for those who honor him.
33. The cry of the flesh is not to be hungry, thirsty, or cold; for he who is free of these and is confident of remain so might vie even with Zeus for happiness.
34. We do not so much need the assistance of our friends as we do the confidence of their assistance in need.
35. Don’t spoil what you have by desiring what you don’t have; but remember that what you now have was once among the things only hoped for.
36. Epicurus’s life when compared to that of other men with respect to gentleness and self-sufficiency might be thought a mere legend.
37. When confronted by evil nature is weak, but not when faced with good; for pleasures make it secure but pains ruin it.
38. He is of very small account for whom there are many good reasons for ending his life.
39. Neither he who is always seeking material aid from his friends nor he who never considers such aid is a true friend; for one engages in petty trade, taking a favor instead of gratitude, and the other deprives himself of hope for the future.
40. He who asserts that everything happens by necessity can hardly find fault with one who denies that everything happens by necessity; by his own theory this very argument is voiced by necessity.
41. At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy.
42. The same time produces both the beginning of the greatest good and the dissolution of the evil.
43. The love of money, if unjustly gained, is impious, and, if justly, shameful; for it is inappropriate to be miserly even with justice on one’s side.
44. The wise man who has become accustomed to necessities knows better how to share with others than how to take from them, so great a treasure of self-sufficiency has he found.
45. The study of nature does not create men who are fond of boasting and chattering or who show off the culture that impresses the many, but rather men who are strong and self-sufficient, and who take pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances.
46. Let us completely rid ourselves of our bad habits as if they were evil men who have done us long and grievous harm.
47. I have anticipated you, Fortune, and entrenched myself against all your secret attacks. And we will not give ourselves up as captives to you or to any other circumstance; but when it is time for us to go, spitting contempt on life and on those who here vainly cling to it, we will leave life crying aloud in a glorious triumph-song that we have lived well.
48. While we are on the road, we must try to make what is before us better than what is past; when we come to the road’s end, we feel a smooth contentment.
49. It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn’t know the nature of the universe but still gives some credence to myths. So without the study of nature there is no enjoyment of pure pleasure.
50. No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.
51. [addressing a young man] I understand from you that your natural disposition is too much inclined toward sexual passion. Follow your inclination as you will, provided only that you neither violate the laws, disturb well-established customs, harm any one of your neighbors, injure your own body, nor waste your possessions. That you be not checked by one or more of these provisos is impossible; for a man never gets any good from sexual passion, and he is fortunate if he does not receive harm.
52. Friendship dances around the world bidding us all to awaken to the recognition of happiness.
53. We must envy no one; for the good do not deserve envy and as for the bad, the more they prosper, the more they ruin it for themselves.
54. It is not the pretense but the real pursuit of philosophy that is needed; for we do not need the semblance of health but rather true health.
55. We should find solace for misfortune in the happy memory of what has been and in the knowledge that what has been cannot be undone.
56–57. The wise man feels no more pain when being tortured himself than when his friend tortured, and will die for him; for if he betrays his friend, his whole life will be confounded by distrust and completely upset.
58. We must free ourselves from the prison of public education and politics.
59. What cannot be satisfied is not a man’s stomach, as most men think, but rather the false opinion that the stomach requires unlimited filling.
60. Every man passes out of life as if he had just been born.
61. Most beautiful is the sight of those close to us, when our original contact makes us of one mind or produces a great incitement to this end.
62. If the anger of parents against their children is justified, it is quite pointless for the children to resist it and to fail to ask forgiveness. If the anger is not justified but is unreasonable, it is folly for an irrational child to appeal to someone deaf to appeals and not to try to turn it aside in other directions by a display of good will.
63. There is also a limit in simple living, and he who fails to understand this falls into an error as great as that of the man who gives way to extravagance.
64. We should welcome praise from others if it comes unsought, but we should be concerned with healing ourselves.
65. It is pointless for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.
66. We show our feeling for our friends’ suffering, not with laments, but with thoughtful concern.
67. Since the attainment of great wealth can scarcely be accomplished without slavery to crowds or to politicians, a free life cannot obtain much wealth; but such a life already possesses everything in unfailing supply. Should such a life happen to achieve great wealth, this too it can share so as to gain the good will of one’s neighbors.
68. Nothing is enough to someone for whom what is enough is little.
69. The thankless nature of the soul makes the creature endlessly greedy for variations in its lifestyle.
70. Do nothing in your life that will cause you to fear if it is discovered by your neighbor.
71. Question each of your desires: “What will happen to me if that which this desire seeks is achieved, and what if it is not?”
72. There is no advantage to obtaining protection from other men so long as we are alarmed by events above or below the earth or in general by whatever happens in the boundless universe.
73. That we have suffered certain bodily pains aids us in preventing others like them.
74. In a philosophical dispute, he gains most who is defeated, since he learns the most.
75. The saying, “look to the end of a long life,” shows small thanks for past good fortune.
76. As you grow old you are such as I urge you to be, and you have recognized the difference between studying philosophy for yourself and studying it for Greece. I rejoice with you.
77. Freedom is the greatest fruit of self-sufficiency.
78. The noble man is chiefly concerned with wisdom and friendship; of these, the former is a mortal good, the latter an immortal one.
79. He who is calm disturbs neither himself nor another.
80. The first step towards salvation is to attend to one’s youth and guard against that which defiles everything through maddening desires.
81. The soul neither rids itself of disturbance nor gains a worthwhile joy through the possession of greatest wealth, nor by the honor and admiration bestowed by the crowd, or through any of the other things sought by unlimited desire.