Seneca's On Happiness versus La Mettrie's Anti-Seneca

  • Has anyone read Seneca's "On Happiness". It might be interesting to read after finishing "Anti-Seneca" by La Mettrie, because it seems like LM was reacting to this particular work, and at the closing of Anti-Seneca, La Mettrie produces a brilliant attack-mixed-into-praise for Seneca that mimicks Seneca's own word-play when discussing the Epicureans. This was the funniest and most enjoyable part of Anti-Seneca, which is actually a GREAT work of Epicurean literature.


    The depiction of Seneca at the end of Anti-Seneca is BRILLIANT!!!!


    Either way, I found this on the original text that La Mettrie was reacting against:


    https://howtobeastoic.wordpres…seneca-on-the-happy-life/


    "Book X ends with perhaps the sharpest contrast I’ve read between Epicureanism and Stocism: “You devote yourself to pleasures, I check them; you indulge in pleasure, I use it; you think that it is the highest good, I do not even think it to be good: for the sake of pleasure I do nothing, you do everything.” Well, I’m glad we’re clear on that!


    Skipping to book XII, we find a nicely balanced defense of Epicureanism from the apparently common abuse that many made of the term (which is still true today, indeed arguably even more so than in the time of Seneca): “Men are not encouraged by Epicurus to run riot, but the vicious hide their excesses in the lap of philosophy, and flock to the schools in which they hear the praises of pleasure. They do not consider how sober and temperate — for so, by Hercules, I believe it to be — that ‘pleasure’ of Epicurus is, but they rush at his mere name, seeking to obtain some protection and cloak for their vices … The reason why that praise which your school lavishes upon pleasure is so hurtful, is because the honourable part of its teaching passes unnoticed, but the degrading part is seen by all.” This is a good example of Seneca’s fairmaindedness, as well as of his compelling style of argumentation, whereby he manages to both strike a point in favor of his opponents and one against them in a single sentence.


    This defense of Epicurus — something that, for sure, Epictetus would never have uttered — continues in book XIII: “I myself believe, though my Stoic comrades would be unwilling to hear me say so, that the teaching of Epicurus was upright and holy, and even, if you examine it narrowly, stern.”


    But book XIV goes back to a critique of the pleasure principle: “those who have permitted pleasure to lead the van, have neither one nor the other: for they lose virtue altogether, and yet they do not possess pleasure, but are possessed by it.”


    In XV Seneca explains why one cannot simply combine virtue and pleasure and call it a day. The problem is that sooner or later pleasure will pull you toward unvirtuous territory: “You do not afford virtue a solid immoveable base if you bid it stand on what is unsteady.”

    "Please always remember my doctrines!" - Epicurus' last words

  • This is a good example of Seneca’s fairmaindedness, as well as of his compelling style of argumentation, whereby he manages to both strike a point in favor of his opponents and one against them in a single sentence.

    I don't have access to the details to be able to comment forcefully, but this hints at the problem that results from half-hearted defense of pleasure, which in many cases is not "fairmindedness" but "damning with faint praise" or worse. Once you give in even a little to false premises then you are on a slippery slope from which you won't recover. And that's why all these half-hearted appeals like "the honourable part of its teaching passes unnoticed, but the degrading part is seen by all" is so damaging.


    Once you accept the notion that there are standards of "honor" or "degrading" that do not derive from pleasure and pain, but derive from some other standard, then you have planted the seeds of your own destruction.


    And I feel confident Seneca FULLY understood that, which is why I would not call him "fairminded."


    It seems to me that we see the same half-hearted, pulled-punches defense of Epicurus in most of the writings about him, especially the English writers, ever since the end of the ancient world.  This kind of defense plays into the hands of the enemies of Epicurus and ensures that we always lose. To the extent that it appears that Mettrie did not engage in that, he looks to be one of the better alternatives and few exceptions to the general rule.


    Presumably you are quoting below the statement of Stoic, and if this is composed by Mettrie, then this is the level of bright-line contrasting that works much better than half-hearted defenses that accept the rules of our enemies. The reverse of this, stated by an Epicurean, is a good description of the battle lines.  


    “You devote yourself to pleasures, I check them; you indulge in pleasure, I use it; you think that it is the highest good, I do not even think it to be good: for the sake of pleasure I do nothing, you do everything.


    So an Epicurean would first be clear that his listeners understand what he means by "pleasure," with its sweeping nature that underlays everything in life that constitutes any kind of positive feeling within us, and would then say, int the role of an Epicurean speaking to a Stoic:


    “I devote myself to pleasures, you check them; I "indulge" in pleasure, you "use" it; I think that pleasure is the highest good, you do not even think it to be good: for the sake of pleasure I do everything, you do nothing."



  • Thinking further and ranting longer, I see this as another illustration of how the fight over "pleasure" is really a sort of "proxy war" for the real issue, which is better stated as "feeling vs idealism," or even more clearly stated, natural individual human feeling vs those who want to employ supernatural gods or rationalism or dialectical logic or any other form of "authority" for the proposition that there are absolute rules of right and wrong. This harks back to the Neitzchean "beyond good and evil" because all of those are just ways of asserting that there is a "good" and an "evil" deriving from something other than human feeling.


    So those who are opposed to human feeling disparage it by making the word "pleasure" evoke nothing but the simplest bodily pleasures, while what it really means is ALL agreeable feelings of any kind whatsoever, including the most elaborate and sophisticated and elegant art and literature and scientific achievement known to man.


    They are playing a manipulation game with which we should never seek to compromise, because compromise sells our feeling and grants legitimacy to things that have no basis in fact whatsoever other than the assertion of others who wish to have you ignore your own guidance system.


    The Senecas if the world are not fairminded and admirable, they deserve all the condemnation of a humans sacrificing cannibal, because that is exactly what they are - cannibals masquerading as grandmotherly when they are worse than witches on broomsticks.

  • Hmm...I have noticed, based on many such quotes against Epicureans especially from antiquity, that critics understood pleasure as animalistic and unvirtuous. Such prejudice pressuposes that the audience or listeners are virtuous the same way Cicero ridicules Epicureanism.


    Why do you think they understood pleasure that way? Was there an authority defimition of pleasure around the time of Epicurus that was far different from his description of pleasure?

    "It is not the pretended but the real pursuit of philosophy that is needed; for we do not need the appearance of good health but to enjoy it in truth."

  • Why do you think they understood pleasure that way? Was there an authority defimition of pleasure around the time of Epicurus that was far different from his description of pleasure?

    Mike my reading on that question only goes as deep as the Gosling & Taylor treatise "The Greeks on Pleasure." What I recall from reading that is not much different than what we would expect today in terms of attitudes toward pleasure. The impression I get is that the battle was the same then as it is now -- people who assert something that is "higher" or more "noble" or more "worthy" than normal human existence take an elitist attitude and look down on normal existence, and they portray it as "Lower" or "less noble" or "less worthy" than the ideas that the come up with in their minds. And as a result the brand "pleasure" as something that only animals should pursue -- talking about the lives of "oysters" or "cows" and suggesting that men should do better than that because of their implicit spark of divinity -- their "Reason."


    That's the reason for my "rant" in the preceding posts - I don't think this is a good faith argument by the great majority of these leaders against pleasure. I think they realized (and realize today) exactly what they are doing - they are taking the side of their vision of a "higher reality" and attempting to marginalize and intimidate those who are willing to follow Nature rather than make up some fictitious goal of their own.


    Clearly this is a subject worth a lot of study, because it is one of the ultimate questions. But when I read this excerpt from "On Ends" I get the impression that Epicurus was dealing with exactly what we are talking about:



    Every animal, as soon as it is born, seeks for pleasure, and delights in it as the Chief Good, while it recoils from pain as the Chief Evil, and so far as possible avoids it. This it does as long as it remains unperverted, at the prompting of Nature's own unbiased and honest verdict. Hence Epicurus refuses to admit any necessity for argument or discussion to prove that pleasure is desirable and pain to be avoided. These facts, be thinks, are perceived by the senses, as that fire is hot, snow white, honey sweet, none of which things need be proved by elaborate argument: it is enough merely to draw attention to them. (For there is a difference, he holds, between formal syllogistic proof of a thing and a mere notice or reminder: the former is the method for discovering abstruse and recondite truths, the latter for indicating facts that are obvious and evident.) Strip mankind of sensation, and nothing remains; it follows that Nature herself is the judge of that which is in accordance with or contrary to nature. What does Nature perceive or what does she judge of, beside pleasure and pain, to guide her actions of desire and of avoidance?

    AND MIKE THAT IS ALSO WHEN I READ THIS NEXT PASSAGE, WHAT I HEAR IS THE ECHO OF COWARDLY LATER FOLLOWERS WHO ABANDONED EPICURUS TO TRY TO APPEASE THE ANTI-PLEASURE CRUSADERS BECAUSE THEY COULD NOT STAND FIRM AGAINST THE HIGH-SOUNDING CALLS TO "VIRTUE":

    Some members of our school however would refine upon this doctrine; these say that it is not enough for the judgment of good and evil to rest with the senses; the facts that pleasure is in and for itself desirable and pain in and for itself to be avoided can also be grasped by the intellect and the reason. Accordingly they declare that the perception that the one is to be sought after and the other avoided is a notion naturally implanted in our minds. Others again, with whom I agree, observing that a great many philosophers do advance a vast array of reasons to prove why pleasure should not be counted as a good nor pain as an evil, consider that we had better not be too confident of our case; in their view it requires elaborate and reasoned argument, and abstruse theoretical discussion of the nature of pleasure and pain.


    So when I read that I read it not as cleverness or intelligence, but as accommodation and compromise, and as the kind of attitude that accepts alliances with people who are mortal enemies of pleasure and who are just working to undermine Epicurean philosophy from the inside. Such people may think they have good intentions, they may think that they are being "cute" and even employing manipulation techniques of their own, but in the end they end up undermining themselves and the philosophy.

  • Cassius Thanks for this input. I got it. I'll read "The Greeks on Pleasure" by Gosling & Taylor as you recomended.

    "It is not the pretended but the real pursuit of philosophy that is needed; for we do not need the appearance of good health but to enjoy it in truth."

  • Such prejudice pressuposes that the audience or listeners are virtuous the same way Cicero ridicules Epicureanism.


    Why do you think they understood pleasure that way

    Here's something else I want to add on this point, and it also comes from "On Ends."


    Cicero/Torquatus offers an answer to that question which I do think explains some of the attitude toward pleasure, but falls far short of explaining all of it:


    Quote

    . But I must explain to you how all this mistaken [1]idea of reprobating pleasure and extolling pain arose. To do so, I will give you a complete account of the system, and expound the actual teachings of the great explorer of the truth, the master-builder of human happiness. No one rejects, dislikes or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure,[2] but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain [3], but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure

    Now I am not trying to be too hard on Torquatus, because it;s possible to limit who he is talking about (say, "men of good will") and have that to be largely accurate, But of the three points I tagged, point [1] is too charitable, in that it applies only to men of good will, and points [2] and [3] are both too charitable and outright incorrect.


    Cicero himself qualities as an example. Cicero is certainly not "mistaken" about Epicurean philosophy. He was a brilliant man and understood the philosophy fully, learning it and discussing it with Epicureans of high qualifications. And yet Cicero still devoted strong efforts to doing all he could to persuade people to reject Epicurean philosophy and pleasure itself as the goal of life. And as to rejecting, disliking, and avoiding pleasure itself because it is pleasure, and loving and pursuing or desiring pain because it is pain, it is not a leap to suggest that Cicero was not all that far from being a Stoic himself in the attitude that choosing pain is a noble thing that either leads to or constitutes virtue itself.


    And of course we could go far beyond Cicero in pointing out examples of people who are convinced that pain is to be chosen for reasons other than the eventual pleasure it might bring, even to the point of pursuing pain of and for itself -- and at the very least, pursuing pain for their enemies, or suggesting to their enemies that they embrace pain for themselves.


    My point here is just that it is a mistake to adopt too "soft" an attitude about the enemies of Epicurus and pleasure and to make blanket excuses for them. Many people no doubt ARE simply mistaken, and they can be straightened out, and it is good to give them a "way out" of their position by saying that they have misunderstood. And perhaps Torquatus was a friend of Cicero and wanted to extend him exactly that courtesy. That's very legitimate and should be a part of Epicurean discussion.


    But Epicurus was all about candor and speaking accurately, and it seems to me that it's possible to go too far in saying things, even with the best of intentions, that end up causing more harm than good, And that's because if Epicureans fail to understand what they are up against then they can easily fail to take the stronger steps necessary to protect themselves and their views from committed enemies.


    I remember in the most recent LucretiusToday podcast (four) Elayne cited a statement and said that it was "naive" to suggest that all conflict arises from failures to communicate. That's what I am saying here. It is naive to suggest that all opposition to pleasure arises from failure to understand, or from "mistakes." And Cicero was many things, but he was not "naive" about Epicurean philosophy.

  • Cassius Does it mean we should not rely on Torquatus?

    "It is not the pretended but the real pursuit of philosophy that is needed; for we do not need the appearance of good health but to enjoy it in truth."

  • i think this is simply another example that every word from every writer, even translations of Epicurus himself, have to be compared to the big picture to evaluate whether corruption has snuck in. We are too many years away with too many layers of transmitters between us to take any one statement or position in isolation.


    Taken together and using the same system of thought that clearly seems to have been advised, however, the big picture is readily pretty clear.

  • I see. I get your point.

    "It is not the pretended but the real pursuit of philosophy that is needed; for we do not need the appearance of good health but to enjoy it in truth."

  • Cassius have you read Anti-Seneca? I found this mention of "fair minded" funny because, at the end of anti-Seneca, La Mettrie serves the same irony and mockery in reverse, praising him while he mocks and insults him like Seneca did with the Epicureans. And La Mettrie is a very eloquent and refined orator / writer, which makes him seem even more like a smart-ass.


    Another thing I loved about Anti-Seneca is his explanation of how "noble" reason is held in such high esteem, when all it does is come to the aid of the passions to rationalize and justify them when people follow their passions anyway instead of their reason, how the Stoic designation of man as a "rational animal" serves to add to this air or mask or nobility and this artificial separation of humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. The truth is we are not so rational. I've never seen this explained so eloquently as in La Mettrie.


    It adds another layer of perspective to the tension between the Epicureans and Reason, and to why the Epicureans appear within the lineage of the laughing philosophers, because this way of seeing Reason makes us very cynical about how full of shit many people are, particularly virtue proponents. In contrast to this, La Mettrie sees the Epicurean approach as more natural and honest, more authentic.

    "Please always remember my doctrines!" - Epicurus' last words

  • I am having trouble on first reading determining if Mettrie is speaking for himself or for someone else.


    For example, when he says this passage below, is he saying that this is his own view? Or Epicurus' view? Because I question whether this is an accurate representation of Epicurus' view at all. It seems to contrast pleasure with happiness in a way that is dependent on time and "calmness," and in a way that makes pleasure subordinate to and of a separate kind from "happiness," and I immediately suspect that this is not what Epicurus would say - not at all! But I doubt Seneca can readily be summarized as saying this either, although that may be possible...


    pasted-from-clipboard.png

  • Ok I have scanned through it pretty thoroughly once. There is some very good material in it, but there is also lots of ......words... lots of emoting about things without really providing much in the way of answers (?)


    For example, am I correct that this is the final and concluding paragraph?


    pasted-from-clipboard.png


    If so, then my reaction is "What? That's the conclusion?" and that pretty much sums up my reaction to the whole. I detect that there is a lot of good material here that could be useful, but I haven't yet got a fix on really where he is going.


    Maybe i am just reading the introduction and you are referring to something else. What I just read came from "Machine Man and other Writings" / Cambridge / Ann Thompson, in which this was some 28 pages long. Is this only part of a much longer book?


    Also I see on the back cover of "the Hedonist Alternative" that Voltaire said that "La Mettrie would have been dangerous if he hadn't been completely insane." Was that entirely a joke, or did he in fact have issues? In reading what I just read I begin to wonder that myself just from the way it is put together (?)

  • La Mettrie speaks for himself, not for Epicurus. He never seems to have accessed the direct writings of Epicurus, only knows of him through Lucretius. De Rerum Natura, Gassendi, and other secondary sources would have been available to people like him.


    I don't think LM was insane. But I don't doubt that he was deemed so because he was VERY ahead of his time and, as far as I have read, he was a physician who focused on STD's, which very likely means that he was used to having very frank and shameless conversations with people about their sexual tendencies and activities in a day when this was judged very harshly. This is part of the reason why he sees himself as a devotee of Venus in a way, as he mentions in his writings. He also died very young at 42 I think, so like Lucretius the anti-Epicureans enjoyed destroying his reputation after he died, and linking his early death to excesses of food or other excesses.


    Also, in Anti Seneca, he was particularly reacting against Seneca's "On Happiness", which I've only found in Latin, not in English, and the Latin is so "flowery" that google translate makes no sense of it (which is part of La Mettrie's critique at the end of Anti-Seneca: he was more an intellectual than a philosopher and worried more about adornment of ideas than about ideas).

    "Please always remember my doctrines!" - Epicurus' last words

  • No, apparently. I've read Anti Seneca in the first half of the book "The Hedonist Alternative", which is a compilation of translations of works by La Mettrie.

    "Please always remember my doctrines!" - Epicurus' last words