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What is the meaning of life? (Pages 629-630)
Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius: Selections 637-646
Bertrand Russell: Reflections on Suffering, 671-673
The meaning of life has captivated plenty of people over the centuries. Epicureans and Stoics have attempted to discover truths about the meaning of life. Even though you have not been assigned the text by Epicurus, I am providing some lecture notes for you on him and his ideas as it is important in comparison to the Stoics.
Epicurus and Epicureanism
Often times Epicureanism is associated with the philosophical idea that if something feels good, then it should be done. A term associated, somewhat unfairly, with this idea is hedonism, a view that pleasure is the sole objective of motivation or that it is the only good thing good in itself. However, this is not exactly what Epicurus had in mind for his system of ethics. His term for pleasure can be interpreted in a variety of ways from one century to another, especially since the loss of meaning that usually takes place in translation over time. Epicurus sought pleasure for the end of life in an attempt to discover happiness. This happiness is not meant here as excess or simply do anything that makes a person feel good—remember Aristotle and the Golden Mean? Epicurus simply looks for balance and peace within the soul. Some pleasures need to be overlooked as they will later cause pain, and some pain will have to be endured in order to yield greater pleasures. Excess pleasures can be damaging, and the most important of the pleasures should be the pleasure of intellectual contemplation and, as much as is possible, the avoidance of pain. This should sound a bit familiar having learned about Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius—the Stoics
The stoics first appeared in Ancient Greece, but there was a group of Roman stoics who were also rather influential. Stoicism is the view that happiness and freedom are at hand for the asking if people can distinguish what belongs to the individual versus what is not in the individual’s power, therefore, limiting desires and keeping wills in harmony with nature.
The stoics developed systems (they were empiricists) and ideas besides ethics like logic and physics. The ethics pushed forth by stoics, in its simplest sense, views each individual human being is an actor in a play, with each individual being assigned a certain part by God and there is nothing they can do to change what that part will be. There is a deterministic state of affairs at the on the larger scale, and the Stoics also seem to think that each individual does have the ability to exercise free will at the smaller level in terms of how individuals actually react to and live out a pre-determined role. A person who is wise, is one who knows what his or her role is and then chooses to perform it well, regardless of the largeness or smallness of the part. For the Stoic, God controls the universe by reason, and this reason is given to each individual. This is the critical point in understanding Stoic ethics and each individual’s role in playing out the various parts.
The three stoics represented in the text are interesting figures each in their own way. Seneca lived first, though his life overlapped briefly with Epictetus. Seneca was alive during the reign of the first five emperors of Rome, and he was an advisor to the infamous Nero. He often sought a quiet life of contemplation, especially towards the end of his life, but Nero would not allow it. Finally, Nero forced Seneca to commit suicide. What Seneca offers, much more than your textbook offers, to Stoics philosophy is a truly Romanized version of it applicable to Seneca’s time, and for the first time, a Roman write about Stoic philosophy in Latin rather than Greek.
Epictetus was actually a Greek slave under Roman dominion who was eventually freed. He wrote a handbook titled Enchiridion. The handbook, given to Roman soldiers, contains aphorisms, a saying that contains an observation about a general truth. This handbook was also influential on the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wrote his own text, Meditations. However, Meditations was never meant to be published, as it was Aurelius’ private thoughts and reflections on life and duty. Both slave and emperor had a similar vision of how individuals are part of a pre-determined existence, so it is best to live the best live according to those conditions and change what can be change and accept what cannot be changed with the proper attitude.
We began the semester with Russell, and it is fitting that we end the semester with him. Russell was born in 1872 and died in 1970. Living for nearly a century, Russell was able to make many and significant contributions to philosophy. In 1901, Russell contemplated the meaning of life, of suffering and pain and of love, knowledge and piety.
Select two of Epictetus’ aphorisms and discuss what is significant and what does it mean in each one. What is to be learned or observed from each choice? Select the reflection from Marcus Aurelius, Seneca or a point made by Russell and discuss why you chose it and what does it mean? Are the life lessons, from all of your selections, valid today? Why?