Principal Doctrine #5

Over time, I will be examining each of Epicurus’ 40 Principle Doctrines, as given to us by Diogenes Laertius, the primary source for original writings from Epicurus. In these posts, I will consider the meaning of each doctrine, and how it applies to life today.

5. “It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.” –Epicurus

In other words: Only if you live a virtuous life, will you lead a truly happy life.

More specifically, Epicurus calls out the virtues of Wisdom, Honor, and Justice. In the Greek sense, I believe this means being intelligent and rational, seeking to avoid confrontation and retaliation, and not being what we might call unfair. Personally, I like to think there’s also an undercurrent of patient humility to this, in keeping with Socrates’ conception of wisdom. By speaking of living such a life, rather than possessing the virtues, I also suspect he’s speaking both about our intentions, and the actual actions we take.

What would it be to live such a life?

A just and honorable person does not seek out strife or confrontation, and especially doesn’t seek to balance the scales of fairness by pulling someone else down. He neither seeks for his actions to harm others, nor allows seeking his own ends to take from others. As a result, he doesn’t bring himself into conflict, find himself living with remorse for cruel actions, nor make himself unhappy thinking of what others may have that he does not.

If I’m right about this, I think this is especially relevant in our lives today. How often do you see someone being unkind to another, because their own lot isn’t “fair” or in retaliation? What do we sow, when we react to unfair situations with anger and pettiness, rather than walking away?

A wise person thinks rationally about his situation, and acts based on understanding. He doesn’t let his short term motivations lead him to actions that will make him more unhappy in the long run. He doesn’t let what he wants now cause him pain later. That kind of reflection motivates Epicurus’ entire enterprise, to allow our smarter selves to see why we don’t need to allow ourselves to be so unhappy.

This principle, I think, is timeless. We should absolutely act in a way that takes into account how we will feel. However, we all too often act in a way motivated by how we feel in the moment, without thought for what will come next. Patient reflection could save us so much trouble.

Have you seen this principles in action in your life? Can you think of a time where you were willing to be a little cruel to someone else, because what you experienced (perhaps because of them) wasn’t fair or pleasant? Can you think of a time where you made a decision in haste, that turned out to have the opposite effect of what you wanted?

Feel free to share your experiences in the comments. (You’ve heard enough about mine this week.)