Peace and Safety to the Epicureans of today, no matter where you might be – Happy Twentieth!
On this Twentieth of October I’d like to call your attention to a page that contains excerpts from what appears to be Lorenzo Valla’s “On Pleasure.” I will try to find more of the text and assemble a full version here. If anyone knows where more can be found, please let me know. For today’s Twentieth post I’d like to feature just a few quotes from this very interesting work.
First, on the impracticability of virtue as an end in itself:
… [Y]ou Stoics, unhappy and inflexible as you are, desire that nothing should exist that is not wicked and vile; you measure everything by a hollow wisdom that is in all respects fixed and complete. Thus, while you take joy in flying prodigiously and in striving toward the higher regions, your wings melt (not being natural to you but artificial and made of wax), and like the foolish Icarus [who flew too close to the sun] you fall into the sea. Truly, what kind of farfetched subtlety is it to describe the wise man in such a way that, by your own admission, no example can be found among us men, and to declare that he alone is happy, that he alone is friendly, good, and free? I would gladly endure this if your law did not deem that anyone who is not a wise man is by necessity a fool, a reprobate, an exile, an enemy, and a deserter, ‘anyone’ meaning all of us, since no one has yet possessed this wisdom. And lest by chance someone could become wise, you barbarians have made vices more numerous than virtues, and have invented an infinity of the most minute kinds of sins so that there are not more diseases of the body, which you say are hardly known adequately by the doctors themselves. If only one of these maladies were to affect the body, its health would not be completely lost; but if even a minimal spiritual evil exists in a man (as is necessarily the case), you pretend not only that this man incompletely lacks the honor belonging to wisdom but that he is also deformed by every shame and infamy. By Hercules, it is amazing that, when the doctors say there is one state of health and many illnesses, you do not also affirm that virtue is also single, although this is the same as declaring that whoever has one virtue possesses them all.
Let us therefore first speak of courage, or fortitude, and then of the other virtues if the matter calls for it. Courage seems indeed to offer the broader scope for the exercise of virtue, and a kind of acknowledged opportunity for exercise against pleasures. We are agreed that the men [Roman heroes] whom we mentioned have exercised themselves, more than all others, in this virtue. You exalt these people to heaven, as I said, but I do not, by Hercules, see any cause for us to say that they did well and offered us a good example. If I, for instance, were not to shun hardships, losses, hazards, and at last what reward or goal would you set before me? You reply, ‘The safety, the dignity, and the greatness of your country!’ Are you really offering this to me as a good? Do you reward me at this price? Do you exhort me to face death in the hope of achieving this? And if I did not obey, would you say that I deserved badly of my country?
But consider how far this error of yours goes, if it ought to be called an error and not just a piece of malice: you set before us illustrious and splendid words as my rewards – ‘safety,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘greatness’; and then you don’t give these things to me. In dying I am so far from obtaining these promised rewards that, if I had already possessed some of them, I should now lose them too. For what is left to the man who has given himself to death? ‘But,’ you will say, ‘wasn’t the death of those men for the good of their country?’ Certainly. ‘Then,’ you will ask, ‘isn’t the safety of one’s country a good?’ I do not see that this is true unless you can explain it to me. ‘Because a state freed from danger enjoys peace, freedom, quiet, and wealth,’ you say? You are right, you speak truly, I agree with you. Here is the reason why virtue is so greatly praised and exalted to the stars: it gains the things of which the greatest pleasure consists. But those men themselves displayed the courage, while their country got the resulting security and greatness. Is it not the case, then, that those who gave their country security and greatness were alone excluded from these goods? Oh, you fools – Codrus, Curtius, Decius, Regulus, and all you other most courageous men – what you have obtained from your godlike virtue is to die and be defrauded of the things which are the rewards of bravery and toil! You are like the vipers, which, when they bear, give the light of day to their young, and they themselves lose it [by going blind], so that they would have done far better not to bear young at all. Similarly, you encounter death of your own accord so that others may not die, while they, on their side, would not think of undergoing any hardships for the sake of your merit.
Next, on why “moderation” makes no sense as a goal in itself:
…[I]t can be shown further that the theory is false according to which excess stands on one side, deficiency on the other, with virtue in the middle, defined as a certain point of moderation between too much and too little, and that it is useless to argue about which of the two extremes is more contrary to the mean.
For example, take a man who fears and flees from what ought to be fled from. Does he seem to you to possess fortitude? Certainly he should not be called timid. Again, take a man who embraces certain licit pleasures. Will he be called temperate on that account? Not at all. Someone is said to possess fortitude not because he flees from dangers, but because he does not flee; someone is said to be temperate not because he embraces pleasures, but because he sets himself limits in their use.
And then, the exponent of religion stating that the Epicurean position was more sound than Stoicism:
To give my decision finally, I pronounce thus: since the philosophers who praised the principle of virtue claimed that there were no rewards, or only uncertain and empty ones, after this life in which we are living, and defined the highest good as virtue, and since the Epicureans defined it as pleasure, therefore, although I disapprove of both sides, I make my decision in favor of the Epicureans (not in favor of you, Vegio, nor against you, Catone, who are each bound by your faith to another army) and against the Stoics, whom I condemn for two reasons: one, because they say virtue is the highest good; the other because they were guilty of dishonesty, living a different life from the one they professed – praisers of the virtues and lovers of pleasures (if less so than others) and surely of fame, which they followed after with their hands and their feet. If anyone does not believe me, let him believe our wise men, who did not hesitate to say ‘A philosopher is an animal that wants fame.’
There is much more excellent material even in the truncated text which is readily available, and I encourage readers to consult the rest, and to let me know if they know where more can be found.
As Seneca recorded: Sic fac omnia tamquam spectet Epicurus! So 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 the Epicurean Philosophy Facebook Group and EpicureanFriends.com