Divine Pleasure, the Guide of life, persuades mortality and leads it on that, through her artful blandishments of love, it propagate the generations still, lest humankind should perish. – Lucretius, De Rerum Natura II.172
I’ve been enjoying the pleasures of reading Lucretius’ classic On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), and will be blogging based on it in the future. I’m concerned today with Lucretius’ approach to therapeutic philosophy and to the pursuit of happiness as exemplified in his parable of the punctured jar.
The parable presents Epicurus as a Doctor that heals the ills of the soul. Like all good physicians, he must evaluate the symptoms and determine what the spiritual health problem is. The Frank Copley translation of DRN is much more eloquent in describing the existential situation of an ungrateful, unphilosophical mortal, linking her anxieties to a pervasive, untreated, and unevaluated fear of death.
Will you hang back, indignant that you must die: alive and awake, you live next door to death; you waste the greater part of life in sleep, and even waking, you snore, and dream, dream on; you wear a heart confounded by empty fears. You rarely can tell what caused them when, oppressed and drunk and wretched with unremitting cares, you wander, waver, and wonder where to turn.
Notice the Buddhist-like reference to wakeful dreaming. What is expected of a philosopher is a kind of awakening, of mindfulness, a way of paying attention. Let’s not think of this as a state (a noun, which often Platonizes what’s meant) but as a verb (an activity). We must be present in order to savor life.
In the parable, which is meant to serve as therapy for existential angst and fear of death, Mother Nature advises mortals to be ready to leave this world as one who has enjoyed a banquet and is satisfied. Satisfaction and gratitude are important ingredients in the cultivation of ataraxia. In the banquet passage, Lucretius places words on the lips of Mother Nature:
“Mortal, what hast thou of such grave concern
That thou indulgest in too sickly plaints?
Why this bemoaning and beweeping death?
For if thy life aforetime and behind
To thee was grateful, and not all thy good
Was heaped as in sieve to flow away
And perish unavailingly, why not,
Even like a banqueter, depart the halls,
Laden with life? why not with mind content
Take now, thou fool, thy unafflicted rest?
But if whatever thou enjoyed hath been
Lavished and lost, and life is now offence,
Why seekest more to add- which in its turn
Will perish foully and fall out in vain?
O why not rather make an end of life,
Of labour? For all I may devise or find
To pleasure thee is nothing: all things are
The same forever. Though not yet thy body
Wrinkles with years, nor yet the frame exhausts
Outworn, still things abide the same, even if
Thou goest on to conquer all of time
With length of days, yea, if thou never diest”
In the text, Lucretius argues that if we were to live forever, eventually the pleasures that the Earth has to offer would be all the same. There would be no new experiences, and therefore we should feel sated at the end of a good life.
Ungratefulness to life, to nature, to time, is on the other hand a mortal sin to the Epicurean philosopher. The William Leonard translation does not express it as beautifully as the Frank Copley one, which says: “you wanted what isn’t, scorned what is … life slipped through your fingers shapeless and unlovely”.
You wanted what isn’t, scorned what is … life slipped through your fingers shapeless and unlovely.
What’s being said here is that life is full of many kinds of blessings, but when we are mindless and ungrateful it’s as if we are walking through life with a broken vessel. The water in the punctured jar drains off and the blessings are squandered. With the help of Epicurus, we can train ourselves to make the vessel whole again so that we are enjoying the fullness of the blessings that life has to offer at all times.
In Book VI, his final one, Lucretius picks up the metaphor again, saying that when we fail to experience life’s pleasures, the “fault must lie within the vessel”, with the broken vessel image representing our own souls. The idea of our brokenness would be usurped by the Christians to build a guilt-based theology. In Epicurus and Lucretius, the goal is therapeutic.
For when saw he that well-nigh everything
Which needs of man most urgently require
Was ready to hand for mortals, and that life,
As far as might be, was established safe,
That men were lords in riches, honour, praise,
And eminent in goodly fame of sons,
And that they yet, O yet, within the home,
Still had the anxious heart which vexed life
Unpausingly with torments of the mind,
And raved perforce with angry plaints, then he,
Then he, the master, did perceive that ’twas
The vessel itself which worked the bane, and all,
However wholesome, which from here or there
Was gathered into it, was by that bane
Spoilt from within,- in part, because he saw
The vessel so cracked and leaky that nowise
‘T could ever be filled to brim; in part because
He marked how it polluted with foul taste
Whate’er it got within itself. So he,
The master, then by his truth-speaking words,
Purged the breasts of men, and set the bounds
Of lust and terror, and exhibited
The supreme good whither we all endeavour,
And showed the path whereby we might arrive
Thereunto by a little cross-cut straight …. And he proved
That mostly vainly doth the human race
Roll in its bosom the grim waves of care.
For just as children tremble and fear all
In the viewless dark, so even we at times
Dread in the light so many things that be
No whit more fearsome than what children feign,
Shuddering, will be upon them in the dark.
This terror then, this darkness of the mind,
Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light,
Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse,
But only nature’s aspect and her law.
Epicurean philosophy, therefore, is meant to help cleanse our souls by speaking truth, and by limiting our desires and fears through exposure to the study of nature, and by establishing clearly that life’s goal is happiness, and by which methods we most efficiently arrive at happiness: Epicurus gave us a science of happiness.
Today is the International Day of Happiness. Isolation and depression are proven health risks, epidemics on par with obesity and smoking. A smart mortal would never leave something as sacred and important as his or her happiness to the whims of fortune and chance. Happiness is a path best trod mindfully and in good company. Please share philosophical literature and content with your friends today and take care to restore your own punctured vessel via a philosophical education. You may also enjoy deep-belly laughter exercises for fifteen minutes … or share something funny online, or call a friend who is a clown and always makes you laugh. Whatever you do, don’t postpone your happiness today!