Being the moral doctrine
of the philosopher Epicurus as applicable to modern times, it is
an elucidation of the principles advocated by that philosopher,
by Charles de Saint-Evremond, Maréchal of France, a great philosopher,
scholar, poet, warrior, and profound admirer of Mademoiselle de
l’Enclos. He died in exile in England, and his tomb may be
found in Westminster Abbey, in a conspicuous part of the nave, where
his remains were deposited by Englishmen, who regarded him as illustrious
for his virtues, learning and philosophy.
He gave the name “Leontium”
to Mademoiselle de l’Enclos, and the letter was written to her under
that sobriquet. The reasoning in it will enable the reader
to understand the life and character of Ninon, inasmuch as it was
the foundation of her education, and formed her character during
an extraordinarily long career. It was intended to bring down
to its date, the true philosophical principles of Epicurus, who
appears to have been grossly misunderstood and his doctrines foully
Leontium was an Athenian
woman who became celebrated for her taste for philosophy, particularly
for that of Epicurus, and for her close intimacy with the great
men of Athens. She lived during the third century before the
Christian era, and her mode of life was similar to that of Mademoiselle
de l’Enclos. She added to great personal beauty, intellectual
brilliancy of the highest degree, and dared to write a learned treatise
against the eloquent Theophrastus, thereby incurring the dislike
of Cicero, the distinguished orator, and Pliny, the philosopher,
the latter intimating that it might be well for her “to select a
tree upon which to hang herself.” Pliny and other philosophers
heaped abuse upon her for daring, as a woman, to do such an unheard
of thing as to write a treatise on philosophy, and particularly
for having the assurance to contradict Theophrastus.
You wish to know whether
I have fully considered the doctrines of Epicurus that are attributed
I can claim the honor
of having done so, but I do not care to claim a merit I do not possess,
and which you will say, ingenuously, does not belong to me.
I labor under a great disadvantage on account of the numerous spurious
treatises, which are printed in my name, as though I were the author
of them. Some, though well written, I do not claim, because
they are not of my writing; moreover, among the things I have written,
there are many stupidities. I do not care to take the trouble
of repudiating such things, for the reason that at my age, one hour
of well-regulated life is of more interest and benefit to me than
a mediocre reputation. How difficult it is, you see, to rid
one’s self of amour propre! I quit it as an author, and reassume
it as a philosopher, feeling a secret pleasure in manipulating what
others are anxious about.
The word “pleasure” recalls
to mind the name of Epicurus, and I confess, that of all the opinions
of the philosophers concerning the supreme good, there are none
which appear to me to be so reasonable as his.
It would be useless to
urge reasons, a hundred times repeated by the Epicureans, that the
love of pleasure and the extinction of pain, are the first and most
natural inclinations remarked in all men, that riches, power, honor,
and virtue, contribute to our happiness, but that the enjoyment
of pleasure, let us say, voluptuousness, to include everything in
a word, is the veritable aim and end whither tend all human acts.
This is very clear to me, in fact, self‑evident, and I am
fully persuaded of its truth.
However, I do not know
very well in what the pleasure, or voluptuousness of Epicurus consisted,
for I never saw so many different opinions of any one, as those
of the morals of this philosopher. Philosophers, and even
his own disciples, have condemned him as sensual and indolent; magistrates
have regarded his doctrines as pernicious to the public; Cicero,
so just, arid, so wise in his opinions, Plutarch, so much esteemed
for his fair judgments, were not favorable to him, and so far as
Christianity is concerned, the Fathers have represented him to be
the greatest and the most dangerous of all impious men. So
much for his enemies; now for his partisans: Metrodorus, Hermachus,
Meneceus, and numerous others, who philosophize according to his
school, have as much veneration as friendship for him personally.
Diogenes Laertes could not have written his life to better advantage
for his reputation. Lucretius adored him. Seneca, as
much of an enemy of the sect as he was, spoke of him in the highest
terms. If some cities held him in horror, others erected statues
in his honor, and if, among the Christians, the Fathers have condemned
him, Gassendi and Bernier approve his principles.
In view of all these contrary
authorities, how can the question be decided? Shall I say
that Epicurus was a corruptor of good morals, on the faith of a
jealous philosopher, of a disgruntled disciple, who would have been
delighted, in his resentment, to go to the length of inflicting
a personal injury? Moreover, had Epicurus intended to destroy
the idea of Providence and the immortality of the soul, is it not
reasonable to suppose that the world would have revolted against
so scandalous a doctrine, and that the life of the philosopher would
have been attacked to discredit, his opinions more easily?
If, therefore, I find
it difficult to believe what his enemies and the envious have published
against him, I should also easily credit what his partisans have
urged in his defense.
I do not believe that
Epicurus desired to broach a voluptuousness harsher than the virtue
of the Stoics. Such a jealousy of austerity would appear to
me extraordinary in a voluptuary philosopher, from whatever point
of view that word may be considered. A fine secret that, to
declaim against a virtue that destroys sentiment in a sage, and
establishes one that admits of no operation.
The sage, according to
the Stoics, is a man of insensible virtue, that of the Epicureans,
an immovable voluptuary. The former suffers pain without having
any pain; the latter enjoys voluptuousness without being voluptuous
– a pleasure without pleasure. With what object in view, could
a philosopher who denied the immortality of the soul, mortify the
senses? Why divorce the two parties composed of the same elements,
whose sole advantage is in a concert of union for their mutual pleasure?
I pardon our religious devotees, who diet on herbs, in the hope
that they will obtain an eternal felicity, but that a philosopher,
who knows no other good than that to be found in this world, that
a doctor of voluptuousness should diet on bread and water, to reach
sovereign happiness in this life, is something my intelligence refuses
I am surprised that the
voluptuousness of such an Epicurean is not founded upon the idea
of death, for, considering the miseries of life, his sovereign good
must be at the end of it. Believe me, if Horace and Petronius
had viewed it as painted, they would never have accepted Epicurus
as their master in the science of pleasure. The piety for
the gods attributed to him, is no less ridiculous than the mortification
of the senses – these slothful gods, of whom there was nothing to
be hoped or feared; these impotent gods who did not deserve the
labor and fatigue attendant upon their worship!
Let no one say that worshipers
went to the temple through fear of displeasing the magistrates,
and of scandalizing the people, for they would have scandalized
them less by refusing to assist in their worship, than shocked them
by writings which destroyed the established gods, or at least ruined
the confidence of the people in their protection.
But you ask me: What is
your opinion of Epicurus? You believe neither his friends
nor his enemies, neither his adversaries nor his partisans.
What is the judgment you have formed?
I believe Epicurus was
a very wise philosopher, who at times and on certain occasions loved
the pleasure of repose or the pleasure of movement. From this
difference in the grade of voluptuousness has sprung all the reputation
accorded him. Timocrates and his other opponents attacked
him on account of his sensual pleasures; those who defended him
did not go beyond his spiritual voluptuousness. When the former
denounced him for the expense he was at in his repasts, I am persuaded
that the accusation was well founded. When the latter expatiated
upon the small quantity of cheese he required to have better cheer
than usual, I believe they did not lack reason. When they
say he philosophized with Leontium, they say well; when they say
that Epicurus diverted himself with her, they do not lie.
According to Solomon, there is a time to laugh and a time to weep;
according to Epicurus, there is a time to be sober and a time to
be sensual. To go still further than that, is a man uniformly
voluptuous all his life?
the greatest libertine is sometimes the most devout; in the study
of wisdom, the most indulgent in pleasures sometimes become the
most austere. For my own part, I view Epicurus from a different
standpoint in youth and health, than when old and infirm.
Ease and tranquility,
these comforts of the infirm and slothful, cannot be better expressed
than in his writings. Sensual voluptuousness is not less well
explained by Cicero. I know that nothing is omitted either
to destroy or elude it, but can conjecture be compared with the
testimony of Cicero, who was intimately acquainted with the Greek
philosophers and their philosophy? It would be better to reject
the inequality of mind as an inconstancy of human nature.
Where exists the man so
uniform of temperament, that he does not manifest contrarieties
in his conversation and actions? Solomon merits the name of
sage, as much as Epicure for less, and he belied himself equally
in his sentiments and conduct. Montaigne, when still young,
believed it necessary to always think of death in order to be always
ready for it. Approaching old age, however, he recanted, so
he says, being willing to permit nature to gently guide him, and
teach him how to die.
M. Bernier, the great
partisan of Epicurus, avows today that, “After philosophizing for
fifty years, I doubt things of which I was once most assured.”
All objects have different
phases, and the mind, which is in perpetual motion, views them from
different aspects as they revolve before it. Hence, it may
be said, that we see the same thing under different aspects, thinking
at the same time that we have discovered something new. Moreover,
age brings great changes in our inclinations, and with a change
of inclination often comes a change of opinion. Add, that
the pleasures of the senses sometimes give rise to contempt for
mental gratifications as too dry and unproductive and that the delicate
and refined pleasures of the mind, in their turn, scorn the voluptuousness
of the senses as gross. So, no one should be surprised that
in so great a diversity of aspects and movements, Epicurus, who
wrote more than any other philosopher, should have treated the same
subjects in a different manner according as he had perceived them
from different points of view.
What avails this general
reasoning to show that he might have been sensible to all kinds
of pleasure? Let him be considered according to his relations
with the other sex, and nobody will believe that he spent so much
time with Leontium and with Themista for the sole purpose of philosophizing.
But if he loved the enjoyment of voluptuousness, he conducted himself
like a wise man. Indulgent to the movements of nature, opposed
to its struggles, never mistaking chastity for a virtue, always
considering luxury as a vice, he insisted upon sobriety as an economy
of the appetite, and that the repasts in which one indulged should
never injure him who partook. His motto was, “Sic praesentibus
voluptatibus utaris ut futuris non noceas.”
He disentangled pleasures
from the anxieties that precede, and the disgust that follows them.
When he became infirm and suffered pain, he placed the sovereign
good in ease and rest, and wisely, to my notion, from the condition
he was in, for the cessation of pain is the felicity of those who
As to tranquility of mind,
which constitutes another part of happiness, it is nothing but a
simple exemption from anxiety or worry. But, whoso cannot
enjoy agreeable movements is happy in being guaranteed from the
sensations of pain.
After saying this much,
I am of the opinion that ease and tranquility constituted the sovereign
good for Epicurus when he was infirm and feeble. For a man
who is in a condition to enjoy pleasures, I believe that health
makes itself felt by something more active than ease, or indolence,
as a good disposition of the soul demands something more animated
than will permit a state of tranquility. We are all living
in the midst of an infinity of good and evil things, with senses
capable of being agreeably affected by the former and injured by
the latter. Without so much philosophy, a little reason will
enable us to enjoy the good as deliciously as possible, and accommodate
ourselves to the evil as patiently as we can.