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Letter to Menoeceus
Translated by Robert Drew Hicks
Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the
search thereof when he is grown old. For no age is too early or too
late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying
philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like
saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now
no more. Therefore, both old and young ought to seek wisdom, the former
in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things
because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that,
while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has
no fear of the things which are to come. So we must exercise ourselves
in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we
have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed
toward attaining it.
Those things which without ceasing I have declared to you, those do,
and exercise yourself in those, holding them to be the elements of
right life. First believe that God is a living being immortal and
happy, according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense
of humankind; and so of him anything that is at agrees not with about
him whatever may uphold both his happyness and his immortality. For
truly there are gods, and knowledge of them is evident; but they are
not such as the multitude believe, seeing that people do not steadfastly
maintain the notions they form respecting them. Not the person who
denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of
the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious.
For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions
but false assumptions; hence it is that the greatest evils happen
to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the
hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favorable to their own
good qualities and take pleasure in people like to themselves, but
reject as alien whatever is not of their kind.
Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good
and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness;
therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes
the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited
time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life
has no terror; for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are no
terrors for them in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the person
who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes,
but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance
when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation.
Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing
that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we
are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead,
for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer. But in
the world, at one time people shun death as the greatest of all evils,
and at another time choose it as a respite from the evils in life.
The wise person does not deprecate life nor does he fear the cessation
of life. The thought of life is no offense to him, nor is the cessation
of life regarded as an evil. And even as people choose of food not
merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the
wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely
that which is longest. And he who admonishes the young to live well
and the old to make a good end speaks foolishly, not merely because
of the desirability of life, but because the same exercise at once
teaches to live well and to die well. Much worse is he who says that
it were good not to be born, but when once one is born to pass with
all speed through the gates of Hades. For if he truly believes this,
why does he not depart from life? It were easy for him to do so, if
once he were firmly convinced. If he speaks only in mockery, his words
are foolishness, for those who hear believe him not.
We must remember that the future is neither wholly ours nor wholly
not ours, so that neither must we count upon it as quite certain to
come nor despair of it as quite certain not to come.
We must also reflect that of desires some are natural, others are
groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as
natural, and some natural only. And of the necessary desires some
are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid
of uneasiness, some if we are even to live. He who has a clear and
certain understanding of these things will direct every preference
and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquillity of mind,
seeing that this is the sum and end of a happy life. For the end of
all our actions is to be free from pain and fear, and, when once we
have attained all this, the tempest of the soul is laid; seeing that
the living creature has no need to go in search of something that
is lacking, nor to look anything else by which the good of the soul
and of the body will be fulfilled. When we are pained pleasure, then,
and then only, do we feel the need of pleasure. For this reason we
call pleasure the alpha and omega of a happy life. Pleasure is our
first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and
of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling
the rule by which to judge of every good thing. And since pleasure
is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every
pleasure whatever, but often pass over many pleasures when a greater
annoyance ensues from them. And often we consider pains superior to
pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as
a consequence a greater pleasure. While therefore all pleasure because
it is naturally akin to us is good, not all pleasure is worthy of
choice, just as all pain is an evil and yet not all pain is to be
shunned. It is, however, by measuring one against another, and by
looking at the conveniences and inconveniences, teat all these matters
must be judged. Sometimes we treat the good as an evil, and the evil,
on the contrary, as a good. Again, we regard. independence of outward
things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but
so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly
persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand
least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured
and only the vain and worthless hard to win. Plain fare gives as much
pleasure as a costly diet, when one the pain of want has been removed,
while bread an water confer the highest possible pleasure when they
are brought to hungry lips. To habituate one's se therefore, to simple
and inexpensive diet supplies al that is needful for health, and enables
a person to meet the necessary requirements of life without shrinking
and it places us in a better condition when we approach at intervals
a costly fare and renders us fearless of fortune.
When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean
the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we
are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful
misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the
body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession
of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment
of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce
a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds
of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through
which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul. Of all
this the d is prudence. For this reason prudence is a more precious
thing even than the other virtues, for ad a life of pleasure which
is not also a life of prudence, honor, and justice; nor lead a life
of prudence, honor, and justice, which is not also a life of pleasure.
For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant
life is inseparable from them.
Who, then, is superior in your judgment to such a person? He holds
a holy belief concerning the gods, and is altogether free from the
fear of death. He has diligently considered the end fixed by nature,
and understands how easily the limit of good things can be reached
and attained, and how either the duration or the intensity of evils
is but slight. Destiny which some introduce as sovereign over all
things, he laughs to scorn, affirming rather that some things happen
of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For
he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance or
fortune is inconstant; whereas our own actions are free, and it is
to them that praise and blame naturally attach. It were better, indeed,
to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath destiny which
the natural philosophers have imposed. The one holds out some faint
hope that we may escape if we honor the gods, while the necessity
of the naturalists is deaf to all entreaties. Nor does he hold chance
to be a god, as the world in general does, for in the acts of a god
there is no disorder; nor to be a cause, though an uncertain one,
for he believes that no good or evil is dispensed by chance to people
so as to make life happy, though it supplies the starting-point of
great good and great evil. He believes that the misfortune of the
wise is better than the prosperity of the fool. It is better, in short,
that what is well judged in action should not owe its successful issue
to the aid of chance.
Exercise yourself in these and kindred precepts day and night, both
by yourself and with him who is like to you; then never, either in
waking or in dream, will you be disturbed, but will live as a god
among people. For people lose all appearance of mortality by living
in the midst of immortal blessings.
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