Principal Doctrines, 1–40

Epicurus  translated by Peter Saint-Andre

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1That which is blissful and immortal has no troubles itself, nor does it cause trouble for others, so that it is not affected by anger or gratitude (for all such things come about through weakness).[1]

2Death is nothing to us; for what has disintegrated lacks awareness, and what lacks awareness is nothing to us.

3The limit of enjoyment is the removal of all pains. Wherever and for however long pleasure is present, there is neither bodily pain nor mental distress.[2]

4Pain does not last continuously in the flesh; instead, the sharpest pain lasts the shortest time, a pain that exceeds bodily pleasure lasts only a few days, and diseases that last a long time involve delights that exceed their pains.

5It is not possible to live joyously without also living wisely and beautifully and rightly, nor to live wisely and beautifully and rightly without living joyously; and whoever lacks this cannot live joyously.[3]

6It is a natural benefit of leadership and kingship to take courage from other men (or at least from the sort of men who can give one courage).[4]

7Some people want to be well esteemed and widely admired, believing that in this way they will be safe from others; if the life of such people is secure then they have gained its natural benefit, but if not then they have not gained what they sought from the beginning in accordance with what is naturally appropriate.

8No pleasure is bad in itself; but the means of paying for some pleasures bring with them disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.

9If every pleasure were condensed and were present at the same time and in the whole of one’s nature or its primary parts, then the pleasures would never differ from one another.

10If the things that produced the delights of those who are decadent washed away the mind’s fears about astronomical phenomena and death and suffering, and furthermore if they taught us the limits of our pains and desires, then we would have no complaints against them, since they would be filled with every joy and would contain not a single pain or distress (and that’s what is bad).

11If our suspicions about astronomical phenomena and about death were nothing to us and troubled us not at all, and if this were also the case regarding our ignorance about the limits of our pains and desires, then we would have no need for studying what is natural.[5]

12It is impossible for someone who is completely ignorant about nature to wash away his fears about the most important matters if he retains some suspicions about the myths. So it is impossible to experience undiluted enjoyment without studying what is natural.

13It is useless to be safe from other people while retaining suspicions about what is above and below the earth and in general about the boundless unknown.

14Although some measure of safety from others comes from the power to fight them off and from abundant wealth, the purest security comes from solitude and breaking away from the herd.[6]

15Natural wealth is both limited and easy to acquire, but the riches incited by groundless opinion are boundless.

16Chance steals only a bit into the life of a wise person: for throughout the complete span of his life the greatest and most important matters have been, are, and will be directed by the power of reason.

17One who acts aright is utterly steady and serene, whereas one who goes astray is full of trouble and confusion.[7]

18As soon as the pain produced by the lack of something is removed, pleasure in the flesh is not increased but only embellished. Yet the limit of enjoyment in the mind is produced by reasoning out these very things and similar things, which once provoked the greatest fears in the mind.

19Infinite time and finite time contain the same amount of joy, if its limits are measured out through reasoning.

20The flesh assumes that the limits of joy are infinite, and that infinite joy can be produced only through infinite time. But the mind, reasoning out the goal and limits of the flesh and dissolving fears about eternity, produces a complete way of life and therefore has no need of infinite time; yet the mind does not flee from joy, nor when events cause it to exit from life does it look back as if it has missed any aspect of the best life.[8]

21One who perceives the limits of life knows how easy it is to expel the pain produced by a lack of something and to make one’s entire life complete; so that there is no need for the things that are achieved through struggle.[9]

22You must reflect on the fundamental goal and everything that is clear, to which opinions are referred; if you do not, all will be full of trouble and confusion.[10]

23If you fight against all your perceptions, you will have nothing to refer to in judging those which you declare to be false.

24If you reject a perception outright and do not distinguish between your opinion about what will happen after, what came before, your feelings, and all the layers of imagination involved in your thoughts, you will throw your other perceptions into confusion because of your trifling opinions; as a result, you will reject the very criterion of truth. And if when forming concepts from your opinions you treat as confirmed everything that will happen and what you do not witness thereafter, then you will not avoid what is false, so that you will remove all argument and all judgment about what is and is not correct.

25If at all critical times you do not connect each of your actions to the natural goal of life, but instead turn too soon to some other kind of goal in thinking whether to avoid or pursue something, then your thoughts and your actions will not be in harmony.

26The desires that do not bring pain when they go unfulfilled are not necessary; indeed they are easy to reject when they are hard to achieve or when they seem to produce harm.

27Of all the things that wisdom provides for the complete happiness of one’s entire life, by far the greatest is friendship.[11]

28The same judgment produces confidence that dreadful things are not everlasting, and that security amidst the limited number of dreadful things is most easily achieved through friendship.

29Among desires, some are natural and necessary, some are natural and unnecessary, and some are unnatural and unnecessary (arising instead from groundless opinion).

30Among natural desires, those that do not bring pain when unfulfilled and that require intense exertion arise from groundless opinion; and such desires fail to be stamped out not by nature but because of the groundless opinions of humankind.

31Natural justice is a covenant for mutual benefit, to not harm one another or be harmed.[12]

32With regard to those animals that do not have the power of making a covenant to not harm one another or be harmed, there is neither justice nor injustice; similarly for those peoples who have neither the power nor the desire of making a covenant to not harm one another or be harmed.

33Justice does not exist in itself; instead, it is always a compact to not harm one another or be harmed, which is agreed upon by those who gather together at some time and place.[13]

34Injustice is not bad in itself, but only because of the fear caused by a suspicion that you will not avoid those who are appointed to punish wrongdoing.

35It is impossible to be confident that you will escape detection when secretly doing something contrary to an agreement to not harm one another or be harmed, even if currently you do so countless times; for until your death you will be uncertain that you have escaped detection.

36In general, justice is the same for all: what is mutually advantageous among companions. But with respect to the particulars of a place or other causes, it does not follow that the same thing is just for all.[14]

37Among things that are thought to be just, that which has been witnessed to bring mutual advantage among companions has the nature of justice, whether or not it is the same for everyone. But if someone legislates something whose results are not in accord with what brings mutual advantage among companions, then it does not have the nature of justice. And if what brings advantage according to justice changes, but for some time fits our basic grasp of justice, then for that time it is just, at least to the person who is not confused by empty prattle but instead looks to the facts.[15]

38When circumstances have not changed and things that were thought to be just are shown to not be in accord with our basic grasp of justice, then those things were not just. But when circumstances do change and things that were just are no longer useful, then those things were just while they brought mutual advantage among companions sharing the same community; but when later they did not bring advantage they were not just.

39The person who has put together the best means for confidence about external threats is one who has become familiar with what is possible and at least not unfamiliar with what is not possible, but who has not mixed with things where even this could not be managed and who has driven away anything that is not advantageous.

40All those who have the power to obtain the greatest confidence from their neighbors also live with each other most enjoyably in the most steadfast trust; and experiencing the strongest fellowship they do not lament as pitiful the untimely end of those who pass away.[16]

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  • [1] The Greek word μάκαρ, translated here as "blissful", could also be translated as "blessed" or as "completely happy".

  • [2] The word ἡδονή is often translated solely as "pleasure"; however, depending on the context I also translate it as "delight", "joy", or "enjoyment" because the Greek word ἡδονή refers to any physical, emotional, or mental state that is filled with sweetness (ἡδύς), whereas the English word "pleasure" carries stronger connotations of a purely physical state (although compare phrases such as "the pleasures of philosophy"). Furthermore, although there is no hard and fast distinction between ἄλγος as bodily pain and λυπούμενος as mental distress, the former word tends to be used more in relation to the body and the latter more in relation to the mind or emotions.

  • [3] The word φρονίμως, translated here as "wisely", derives from the word for practical wisdom; although it is often translated as "prudently", that word is no longer commonly used in current English and to the modern ear sounds positively Victorian, which is why I have opted to translate φρονίμως as "wisely". The word καλῶς, translated here as "beautifully", has many meanings, including "nobly" and "honorably"; however, the root meaning of καλός is "beauty" in either the aesthetic or the ethical sense. On the word δικαίως as "rightly" instead of "justly", see the note to Principal Doctrine #17 [note 7]. It is not clear what Epicurus means by "this" when he says "whoever lacks this cannot live joyously"; I take that phrase to mean that one cannot live joyously if one lacks the integration or harmony of wisdom, beauty, and rightness.

  • [4] The phrase "taking courage" translates the verb θαρρεῖν, which is derived from the word for courage, daring, boldness, or confidence.

  • [5] I translate the word φυσιολογία as "the study of what is natural".

  • [6] The word ἡσυχία, translated here as "solitude", can also mean "quietude" or "stillness" (translations that would also be quite consistent with the philosophy of Epicurus). The phrase "breaking away from the herd" is my attempt to render the Greek phrase ἐκχωρήσεως τῶν πολλῶν, which means literally "departing from the many" (οἱ πολλοί are "the masses"—a phrase so useful it has been transliterated directly in English as "hoi polloi"). Note also that although the received text reads ἐκχωρήσεως ("departing"), the Greek word ἐκχορήσεως means "stepping out from the chorus" and thus draws a vivid contrast between the vibrant leading characters and the stolid mass of citizens in ancient Greek tragedies; scribal error could account for a change from omicron to omega here, especially because ἐκχορήσεως is much less common than ἐκχωρήσεως.

  • [7] I have expanded the translation here to capture several meanings of the key terms: ἀταρακτότατος means "utterly without disturbance" and by extension steady or serene, whereas πλείστης ταραχῆς means full of trouble, disorder, or tumult (expanded here to "full of trouble and confusion"). The words ὁ δίκαιος and ὁ ἄδικος are often translated "the just man" and "the unjust man", but the modern concept of justice is almost purely social whereas the Greek word δίκαιος has a wider range of meaning that encompasses what is right, fitting, balanced, ordered, decent, civilized, and the like; I have attempted to capture this ambiguity through the phrases "one who acts aright" and "one who goes astray".

  • [8] In the Greek, this paragraph is written in the past tense. Because it is confusing to read that way, I have rendered it in the present tense.

  • [9] The word ἀγών, translated here as "struggle", originally referred to the contests pursued by athletes at public festivals such as the Olympic games; Epicurus is not necessarily counselling against personal discipline (such as that involved in learning true philosophy), but against the trials and dangers of action in the public arena.

  • [10] Here the translated phrase "trouble and confusion" reflects the Greek words ἀκρισία (literally "indistinctness") and ταραχή (literally "trouble", "disorder", or "tumult").

  • [11] The concept of μακαρία, translated here as "complete happiness", is also referenced in Principal Doctrine #1 when Epicurus speaks of the gods.

  • [12] The word σύμβολον refers to a covenant, contract, or other mutual agreement, especially (in a legal sense) a treaty between two city-states to safeguard trading between them. The verb βλάπτω means to hurt or damage someone or something, but not in a way that reflects willful injustice or wrongdoing (for which the verb ἀδικέω is used).

  • [13] The word συνθήκη, translated here as "compact", means essentially the same as the word σύμβολον from Principal Doctrine #31.

  • [14] The word κοινωνία means a fellowship, an association, a partnership, a community; I have chosen to translate συμφέρον ἐν τῇ πρὸς ἀλλήλους κοινωνίᾳ as "what is mutually advantageous among companions" to emphasize the sense of a shared venture that is implicit in the Greek verb κοινωνέω.

  • [15] The Greek phrase τιθέναι νόμον means to make legislation; here Epicurus contrasts man-made legislation with natural justice, which in somewhat old-fashioned English we might call natural law. The word πρόληψις has a special meaning in the philosophy of Epicurus: it is the basic grasp that one has of a concept.

  • [16] Somewhat reluctantly, I have translated the word οἰκειότης (from the Greek word for household) as "fellowship". I say reluctantly because my preferred translation is the obsolete English word "frith", which referred to the bonds of mutual loyalty and trust between family members, kinsmen, and friends, as well as the resulting feeling of mutual security. Unfortunately, the word "frith" has passed out of common usage and therefore is not appropriate for a modern translation of Epicurus (although the concept it identifies deserves to be resurrected). Other alternatives might include "intimacy", "kindliness", "friendly relations", "friendliness", "sense of community", even "sense of belonging".