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The Punctured Jar Parable

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“.

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 punctured jar. 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!

Naturalist Reasoning on Friendship

And when they saw an offspring born
From out themselves, then first the human race
Began to soften. For ’twas now that fire
Rendered their shivering frames less staunch to bear,
Under the canopy of the sky, the cold;
And Love reduced their shaggy hardiness;
And children, with the prattle and the kiss,
Soon broke the parents’ haughty temper down.
Then, too, did neighbours ‘gin to league as friends,
Eager to wrong no more or suffer wrong,
And urged for children and the womankind
Mercy, of fathers, whilst with cries and gestures
They stammered hints how meet it was that all
Should have compassion on the weak. And still,
Though concord not in every wise could then
Begotten be, a good, a goodly part
Kept faith inviolate- or else mankind
Long since had been unutterably cut off,
And propagation never could have brought
The species down the ages.

Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura 5:1015-27

Lucretius’ account of how friendship emerged in the human race as a result of its softening and civilizing reminds me of comparative behavioral studies concerning the two species of chimpanzee. The better known species of chimpanzee is aggressive and its tribes and clans are governed by strong, feared alpha males who compete and fight over resources, over the right to mate, and over domination. The other species, the affable bonobos, like to make love instead of war. They solve all their conflicts through sexual exchanges, prefer to cooperate and share resources (again, always using sex as the social lubricant), and their societies are more egalitarian. It has been noted that the bonobos evolved in parts of the African forests where there were plenty of resources to share, whereas the evolution of the traditional chimp saw more scarcity, ergo their more violent nature.

Some of the most violent species of baboons, by way of contrast, experience so much stress during their short lifetimes that they’re in constant state of alert and their health suffers greatly as a result. Humans in overpopulated cities, and those in areas with high levels of poverty, tend also to exhibit higher rates of violent crime whereas wealthier societies exhibit lower rates of violence.

Because examples of both war and cooperation exist among our closest relatives, it’s difficult to discern whether our instances of war and cooperation are the result of nurture or nature. But it can not be denied that similar behavioral patters are found among humans and chimpanzees. We also have our authoritarian alpha males with their docile clans, and elsewhere our open and egalitarian bonobo-like societies.

It should perhaps be asked whether the fact that Abrahamic religions emerged from the desert (no doubt one of the most inhospitable and unfruitful places on Earth) may help to explain the authoritarian and patriarchal alpha-male tendencies in Abrahamic religions. But then, what are we to make of our philosophy of the Garden, a place of fruitfulness and greenery, particularly in contrast with spiritualities of the desert? It’s interesting to note that our Garden tradition emerged in glorification of the pleasures of friendship, the most egalitarian model of human interaction and that its most outstanding cultural expression, the gathering on the 20th, is an exuberant display of plenty, of abundance.

In light of this, we can understand why a Garden philosophy must be a philosophy of autarchy (self-sufficiency), and how self-sufficiency produces friendly humans just as plenty in the African bush produces affectionate bonobos. Without autarchy, we must either depend on others (and build hierarchies based on production and exploitation) or steal from them (engage in pillaging, plunder and violence). With self-sufficiency, we are free from the anxieties that arise when we can’t provide our natural needs and we can easily relate to others affectionately and as trusting equals.

Lucretius said it well: Philos reduced our shaggy hardiness and neighbors began to league as friends eager to wrong no more or be wronged.

The above article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of Happy 20th!

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