The Vatican Collection of Sayings

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THE VATICAN COLLECTION OF EPICUREAN SAYINGS

Introduction

The Vatican Collection of Sayings is a list of Epicurean maxims. So called because they were found in a manuscript discovered in 1888 in the Vatican Library. Some are the same as some of the Principal Doctrines, and some are not by Epicurus himself but rather some of his followers. The list is basically a strung-together selection from various sources, and is therefore less important and coherent than the Principal Doctrines. However, despite being a collection of Epicurean sayings, as opposed to a coherent list authored by one writer, there are many important Epicurean principles expounded in the Vatican Collection of Sayings.

The selected sayings are those chosen by Arrighetti in Epicuro: Opere as translated by Inwood and Gerson on pages 36 – 40 of their work The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia (unless otherwise stated). All the following sayings are from Epicurus himself unless stated otherwise.

 

The Vatican Collection of Epicurean Sayings,
Translated by Brad Inwood and L. P. Gerson in The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia [1]

4. Every pain is easy to despise. For [pains] which produce great distress are short in duration; and those which last for a long time in the flesh cause only mild distress.

7. It is hard to commit injustice and escape detection, but to be confident of escaping detection is impossible.

9. Necessity is a bad thing, but there is no necessity to live with necessity.

11. In most men, what is at peace is numbed and what is active is raging madly.

14. We are born only once, and we cannot be born twice; and one must for all eternity exist no more. You are not in control of tomorrow and yet you delay your [opportunity to] rejoice. Life is ruined by delay and each and every one of us dies without enjoying leisure. [2]

15. We value our characters as our own personal possessions, whether they are good and envied by men or not. We must regard our neighbours’ characters thus too, if they are respectable.

16. No one who sees what is bad chooses it, but being lured [by it] as being good compared to what is even worse than it he is caught in the snare.

17. It is not the young man who is to be congratulated for his blessedness, but the old man who has lived well. For the young man at the full peak of his powers wanders senselessly, owing to chance. But the old man has let down anchor in old age as though in a harbour, since he has secured the goods about which he was previously not confident by means of his secure sense of gratitude.

18. If you take away the change to see and talk and spend time with [the beloved], then the passion of sexual love is dissolved.

19. He who forgets the good which he previously had, has today become an old man.

21. One must not force nature but persuade her. And we will persuade her by fulfilling the necessary desires, and the natural ones too if they do not harm [us], but sharply rejecting the harmful ones.

23. Every friendship is worth choosing for its own sake, though it takes its origin from the benefits [it confers on us].

24. Dreams have neither a divine nature, nor prophetic power, but they are produced by the impact of images.

25. Poverty, if measured by the goal of nature, is great wealth; and wealth, if limits are not set for it, is great poverty.

26. One must grasp clearly that both long and short discourses contribute to the same [end].

27. In other activities, the rewards come only when people have become, with great difficulty, complete [masters of the activity]; but in philosophy the pleasure accompanies the knowledge. For the enjoyment does not come after the learning but the learning and the enjoyment are simultaneous.

28. One must not approve of those who are excessively eager for friendship, nor those who are reluctant. But one must be willing to run some risks for the sake of friendship.

29. Employing frankness in my study of natural philosophy, I would prefer to proclaim in oracular fashion what is beneficial to men, even if no one is going to understand, rather than to assent to [common] opinions and so enjoy the constant praise which comes from the many.

31. (= Metrodorus fr. 51) One can attain security against other things, but when it comes to death all men live in a city without walls.

32. To show reverence for a wise man is itself a great good for him who reverse [the wise man].

33. The cry of the flesh: not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold. For if someone has these things and is confident of having them in the future, he might contend even with <Zeus> for happiness.

34. We do not need utility from our friends so much as we need confidence concerning that utility.

35. One should not spoil what is present by desiring what is absent, but rather reason out that these things too [i.e., what we have] were among those we might have prayed for.

37. Nature is weak in the face of the bad, not the good; for it is preserved by pleasures and dissolved by pains.

38. He is utterly small-minded for whom there are many plausible reasons for committing suicide.

39. The constant friend is neither he who always searches for utility, nor he who never links [friendship to utility]. For the former makes gratitude a matter for commercial transaction, while the latter kills off good hope for the future.

40. He who claims that everything occurs by necessity has no complaint against him who claims that everything does not occur by necessity. For he makes the very claim [in question] by necessity.

41. One must philosophize and at the same time laugh and take care of one’s household and use the rest of our personal goods, and never stop proclaiming the utterances of correct philosophy.

42. In the same period of time both the greatest good and the dissolution <of bad> are produced.

43. It is impious to love money unjustly, and shameful to do so justly; for it is unfitting to be sordidly stingy even if one is just.

44. When the wise man is brought face to face with the necessities of life, he knows how to give rather than receive — such a treasury of self-sufficiency has he found.

45. Natural philosophy does not create boastful men nor chatterboxes nor men who show off the ‘culture’ which the many quarrel over, but rather strong and self-sufficient men, who pride themselves on their own personal goods, nor those of external circumstances.

46. We utterly eliminate bad habits like wicked men who have been doing great harm to us for a long time.

48. [We should] try to make the later stretch of the road more important than the earlier one, as long as we are on the road; and when we get to the end [of the road], [we should] feel a smooth contentment.

51. I learn from your letter that carnal disturbances make you excessively inclined to sexual intercourse. Well, so long as you do not break any laws or disturb well-estabished conventions or annoy any of your neighbors or wear down your body or use up your funds, you may carry out your plans as you like. However, it is impossible not to be affected by at least one of these things. Sex never benefited any man, and it’s a marvel if it hasn’t injured him!

52. Friendship dances around the world announcing to all of us that we must wake up to blessedness.

53. One should envy no one. For the good are not worthy of envy, and the more good fortune the wicked have, the more they spoil it for themselves.

54. One must not pretend to philosophize, but philosophize in reality. For we do not need the semblance of health but true health.

55. Misfortunes must be cured by a sense of gratitude for what has been and the knowledge that what is past cannot be undone.

56-57. The wise man feels no more pain when he is tortured <than when his friend is tortured, and will die on his behalf; for if he betrays> his friend, his entire life will be confounded and utterly upset because of a lack of confidence.

58. They must free themselves from the prison of general education and politics.

59. The stomach is not insatiable, as the many say, but rather the opinion that the stomach requires an unlimited amount of filling is false.

60. Everyone leaves life as though he had just been born.

61. The sight of one’s neighbours is most beautiful if the first meeting brings concord or [at least] produces a serious commitment to this.

62. For if parents are justifiably angered at their children, it is surely pointless to resist and not ask to be forgiven; but if [their anger] is not justifiable but somewhat irrational, it is ridiculous for someone with irrationality in his heart to appeal to someone set against appeals and not to seek in spirit of good will to win him over by other means.

63. There is also a proper measure for parsimony, and he who does not reason it out is just as badly off as he who goes wrong by total neglect of limits.

64. Praise from other men must come of its own accord; and we must be concerned with healing ourselves.

65. It is pointless to ask from the gods what one is fully able to supply for oneself.

66. Let us share our friends’ suffering not with laments but with thoughtful concern.

67. A free life cannot acquire great wealth, because the task is not easy without slavery to the mob or those in power; rather, it already possesses everything in constant abundance. And if it does somehow achieve great wealth, one could easily share this out in order to obtain the good will of one’s neighbours.

68. Nothing is enough to someone for whom enough is little.

69. The ingratitude of the soul makes an animal greedy for unlimited variation in its life-style.

70. Let nothing be done in your life which will cause you to fear if it is discovered by your neighbour.

71. One should bring this question to bear on all one’s desires: what will happen to me if what is sought by desire is achieved, and what will happen if it is not?

73. Even some bodily pains are worthwhile for fending off others like them.

74. In a joint philosophical investigation he who is defeated comes out ahead in so far as he has learned something new.

75. This utterance is ungrateful for past goods: look to the end of a long life.

76. As you grow old, you are such as I would praise, and you have seen the difference between what it means to philosophize for yourself and what it means to do so for Greece. I rejoice with you.

77. The greatest fruit of self-sufficiency is freedom.

78. The noble man is most involved with wisdom and friendship, of which one is a mortal good, the other immortal.

79. He who is free from disturbance within himself also causes no trouble for another.

80. A young man’s share in salvation comes from attending to his age and guarding against what will defile everything through maddening desires.

81. The disturbance of the soul will not be dissolved nor will considerable joy be produced by the presence of the greatest wealth, nor by honour and admiration among the many, nor by anything which is a result of indefinite causes.

References and Notes 

[1] Saying 51 is from George K. Strodach’s translation in The Art of Happiness (2012) Penguin Classics.
[2] cf. carpe diem.

featured image of Epicurus from Wikipedia

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