Nil Posse Creari De Nilo! / Nothing Can Be Created From Nothing!

Doctrines 31-40

Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus


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31.  Those desires that are natural, and which are not painful if not satisfied, may nevertheless sometimes be violent or obstinate. In such cases it is not their own nature that makes them difficult to dispel, but a mixing in of vain imagination.

Cicero’s In Defense of Epicurus: First, the natural ends of good and evil, that is, pleasure and pain, are not open to mistake. Where people go wrong is in not knowing what things are in fact productive of pleasure and pain.

32.  Natural justice arises from a covenant between men for their mutual advantage to refrain from harming one another.

Cicero’s Defense of Epicurus: It remains to speak of Justice to complete the list of the virtues. But justice admits of practically the same explanation as the others. I have already shown that Wisdom, Temperance and Courage are so closely linked with happiness that they cannot possibly be severed from it. The same must be deemed to be the case with Justice. Not only does Justice never cause anyone harm, but on the contrary it always brings some benefit, partly because of its calming influence on the mind, and partly because of the hope that it provides of never-failing access to the things that one’s uncorrupted nature really needs. And just as Rashness, License and Cowardice are always tormenting the mind, always awakening trouble and discord, so Unrighteousness, when firmly rooted in the heart, causes restlessness by the mere fact of its presence. Once unrighteousness has found expression in some deed of wickedness, no matter how secret the act may appear, it can never be free of the fear that it will one day be detected. The usual consequences of crime are suspicion, gossip, and rumor — after that comes the accuser, then the judge. Many wrongdoers even turn evidence against themselves….. And even if any transgressors think themselves to be well fortified against detection by their fellow men, they still dread the eye of heaven, and fancy that the pangs of anxiety that night and day gnaw at their hearts are sent by Providence to punish them. So in what way can wickedness be thought to be worthwhile, in view of its effect in increasing the distresses of life by bringing with it the burden of a guilty conscience, the penalties of the law, and the hatred of one’s fellow men?” Nevertheless, some men indulge without limit their avarice, ambition, love of power, lust, gluttony, and those other desires which ill-gotten gains can never diminish, but rather inflame. Such men are the proper subjects for restraint, rather than for reformation. Men of sound natures, therefore, are summoned by the voice of true reason to justice, equity, and honesty. For those without eloquence or resources, dishonesty is not a good policy, since it is difficult for such a man to succeed in his designs, or to make good his success once it is achieved. On the other hand, for those who are rich and intelligent, generous conduct seems more appropriate, for liberality wins them affection and good will, the surest means to a life of peace. This is especially true since we see that there is really no need for anyone to transgress, because the desires that spring from Nature are easily gratified without doing wrong to any man, and those desires that are vain and idle can be resisted by observing that they set their sights on nothing that is really desirable, and that there is more loss inherent in injustice than there is profit in the gains that it may bring for a time.

NewEpicurean Commentary: The concept of “justice” derives from the mutual advantage that comes from an agreement not to inflict or allow harm.

33. For those living things that are unable to enter into a covenant to refrain from harming one another, nothing is just or unjust, and this applies also to those men who are either unwilling or unable to enter into such a covenant.

Cicero’s Defense of Epicurus: Nevertheless, some men indulge without limit their avarice, ambition, love of power, lust, gluttony, and those other desires which ill-gotten gains can never diminish, but rather inflame. Such men are the proper subjects for restraint, rather than for reformation.

NewEpicurean Commentary: There is no concept of justice or injustice between living creatures that are incapable of making agreements not to harm one another, and this includes men who are unable or unwilling to make such agreements.

34.  Justice has no independent existence, but results only from the agreement of men to enter mutual covenants to refrain from harming one another.

Cicero’s Defense of Epicurus: Pleasure and pain therefore supply the motives and the principles of choice and of avoidance, and thus they are the springs of conduct generally. This being so, it clearly follows that actions are right and praiseworthy only to the extent that they are productive of a life of happiness. But something which is not itself a means to obtain anything else, but to which all other things are but the means by which it is to be acquired, is what the Greeks term the highest, or final good. It must therefore be admitted that the chief good of man is to live happily. Those who place the chief good in “virtue” alone are beguiled by the glamor of a name, and they do not understand the true demands of Nature. If they will but consent to listen to Epicurus, they will be delivered from the grossest error. Your school waxes eloquently on the supposedly transcendent beauty of the “virtues.” But were they not productive of pleasure, who would deem the virtues either praiseworthy or desirable? We value the art of medicine not for its interest as a science, but because it produces health. We commend the art of navigation for its practical, and not its scientific value, because it conveys the rules for sailing a ship with success. So also Wisdom, which must be considered as the art of living, would not be desired if it produced no result. As it is, however, wisdom is desired, because it is the craftsman that produces and procures pleasure. The meaning that I attach to pleasure and happiness must by this time be clear to you, and you must no longer be biased against my argument due to the discreditable associations that others have attached to the terms.

Cicero’s Defense of Epicurus: As with the other virtues, Justice cannot correctly be said to be desirable in and of itself. Here again, Justice is desirable because it is so highly productive of gratification. Esteem and affection are gratifying because they render life safer and happier. Thus we hold that injustice is to be avoided not simply on account of the disadvantages that result from being unjust, but even more, because when injustice dwells in a man’s heart, it never allows him to breathe freely or to know a moment’s rest.

Cicero’s Defense of Epicurus: Lisping babies, even dumb animals, prompted by Nature’s teaching, can almost find the voice to proclaim to us that in life there is no welfare but pleasure, no hardship but pain – and their judgment in these matters is neither corrupted nor biased.

NewEpicurean Commentary: There is no such thing as “absolute justice.” “Justice” depends entirely on the circumstances of specific mutual agreements among men, made a various times and places, not to inflict or allow harm to each other.

35.  Injustice is not evil in itself; it is evil because fear of not escaping punishment necessarily arises from it.

Cicero’s Defense of Epicurus: The mind possesses nothing within itself on which it can rest as final. Every fear, every sorrow, can be traced back to pain — and there is nothing besides pain which has the capacity to cause either anxiety or distress.

Cicero’s Defense of Epicurus: As with the other virtues, Justice cannot correctly be said to be desirable in and of itself. Here again, Justice is desirable because it is so highly productive of gratification. Esteem and affection are gratifying because they render life safer and happier. Thus we hold that injustice is to be avoided not simply on account of the disadvantages that result from being unjust, but even more, because when injustice dwells in a man’s heart, it never allows him to breathe freely or to know a moment’s rest.

NewEpicurean Commentary: Acts of injustice are not evil in themselves, but only because we see that those who
have committed the unjust act are never free of the turmoil of fear of suffering punishment for those unjust acts. This is an application of the rule that the desires of debauched men would not be blameworthy if they in fact procured a happy life. Ultimately the order of Nature is that all good derives from pleasure, all evil derives from pain.

36.  It is not possible for men who secretly violate a mutual covenant not to harm one another to believe that they will always escape detection. Even if they have escaped it ten thousand times already, so long as they live they cannot be certain that they will not be detected.

Lucretius De Rerum Natura Book II: In addition, Cerberus and the Furies are idle tales, and Tartarus as well, belching forth hideous fires from his throat. Such things have never existed anywhere, and in truth can never exist. But there is in life a dread of punishment for evil deeds: the prison, the frightful hurling down from the rock, the scourgings, the executioners, the dungeon of the doomed, and the torches. And even when these do not come, yet the conscience-stricken mind torments itself with fear of the fire and the lash, and sees no end to such punishment fearing that those very evils will be enhanced after death.

Vatican Collection 70: 1. Let nothing be done in your life which will cause you fear if it becomes known to your neighbor.

NewEpicurean Commentary: One who acts unjustly is not isolated from the punishment of mental turmoil by the thought that he has acted secretly and will not get caught, even if he has gotten away with the unjust act a thousand times before, because up until the moment of death there is no certainty that he will escape detection.

37.  In general, justice is the same for all, for justice is a mutual advantage in the dealings of men with each other, but in different nations and under different circumstances, the application of justice may differ.

NewEpicurean Commentary: The concept of justice is essentially the same for all people insofar as it derives from mutual benefit. But the details of how justice is applied may vary in particular circumstances.

38.  Among those actions which the law sanctions as just, that which is determined to be of mutual advantage is in fact just whether or not it is universally regarded to be so. But if a law, once established, is determined not to be mutually advantageous, then it is by nature unjust. As to those laws which were at first just, but later become unjust, such laws were in fact just for the period in which they were of mutual advantage, at least in the eyes of those who do not confound themselves with empty words, but look to the actual facts.

Vatican Collection 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.

NewEpicurean Commentary: Actions that are mutually beneficial are to be considered just whether they are the same for all peoples or not. Laws that are not mutually advantageous are no longer to be considered just. Therefore we see that justice can change over time and is dependent on circumstances, not on some absolute other-dimensional standard.

39.  He who desires to live tranquilly without having anything to fear from other men ought to make them his friends. Those whom he cannot make friends he should at least avoid rendering enemies, and if that is not in his power, he should avoid all dealings with them as much as possible, and keep away from them as far as it is in his interest to do so.

NewEpicurean Commentary: If you desire to live tranquilly then you ought to make friends with your neighbors. If you cannot make friends of them, you should at least avoid making enemies of them, and if you cannot even do that, you should avoid all dealings with them to the extent possible.

40.  The happiest men are those who have arrived at the point of having nothing to fear from their neighbors. Such men live with one another most pleasantly, having the firmest grounds of confidence in one another, enjoying the full advantages of friendship, and not lamenting the departure of their dead friends as though they were to be pitied.

Vatican Collection 66: Let us show our feeling for our lost friends not by lamentation but by meditation.

NewEpicurean Commentary: The happiest men are those who enjoy the condition of having nothing to fear from those around them. Such men have the firmest grounds for confidence in one another, and enjoy the full benefits of friendship, and they do not mourn a friend who dies before they do, as there is in such situation no need for pity.


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