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Selection 196

Peace and Safety For Your Twentieth of April – On “Ever-Changing Desires”

Peace and Safety to the Epicureans of today, no matter where you might be – Happy Twentieth!

Today is the Twentieth of April, the day of the month designated by Epicurus to remember Metrodorus and himself and the philosophy of happiness they developed and taught.  Here is a fragment translated by Cyril Bailey which preserves one Epicurus’ most enduring lessons, in words that are less frequently discussed:

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“It is common to find a man who is (poor) in respect of the natural end of life and rich in empty fancies.  For of the fools none is satisfied with what he has, but is grieved for what he has not.  Just as men with fever through the malignance of their (disease) are always thirsty and desire the most injurious things, so too those whose mind is an an evil state are always poor in everything and in their greed are plunged into ever-changing desires.”

There are several aspects of this which bear elaboration so as to prevent confusion:

(1) “the natural end of life” – In Epicurean terms this equates to pleasure, and to avoid any confusion arising from the word games of other philosophers, we should remind ourselves that pleasure has meaning only to the living (for death is nothing to us).  Thus the natural end of life is not “virtue,” it is not “the good,” it is not “serving god” or “serving others.”  There are innumerable ways through which this natural end can be achieved, and these will vary with circumstances, but the natural end of life is no more complex than pleasurable living.

(2) “in their greed are plunged into ever-changing desires” –  You will often read on the internet allegations of the similarity between Epicurean philosophy and those philosophies which advocate the complete eradication of desire.  Neither this passage nor any other text left by Epicurus advocates any such thing as the complete eradication of desire.  The problem which Epicurus addresses is not desire itself, but that class of desire which leads to greater pain than pleasure.  Of this class of desires, Epicurus frequently points out that unlimited desires – those which cannot ever be achieved – are among the most harmful because they are most painful.  Here in this passage Epicurus cites ever-changing desires as a particular problem, and he contrasts these with the state of being satisfied with what one has.  It is easy to see the analogy here between the pursuit of ever-changing desires and the effort to pour ever-more quantities of liquid into a vessel.  Once full, a vessel cannot be made more full, it is only possible to vary its contents.  If one rationally looks at the construction of a vessel and sees that it cannot be made “more full” then one can see that the pursuit of endless over-filling makes no sense whatsoever.

This fragment 68 is one of many that point us in the same direction:  the goal of life is pleasurable living, and in order to remove the pain of unfulfilled desire we must be sure that our desires are consistent with our nature as human beings.

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As Seneca recorded: Sic fac omnia tamquam spectet EpicurusSo do all things as though watching were Epicurus!

And as Philodemus wrote: “I will be faithful to Epicurus, according to whom it has been my choice to live.”

Additional discussion of this post and other Epicurean ideas can be found at EpicureanFriends.com