Orbiting the Obelized


On Happiness

Letter to Menoeceus by Epicurus (341-270 B.C.)

Translated by Robert Drew Hicks

Who, then, is superior in your judgment to such a person? He holds a holy belief concerning the gods, and is altogether free from the fear of death. He has diligently considered the end fixed by nature, and understands how easily the limit of good things can be reached and attained, and how either the duration or the intensity of evils is but slight. Destiny which some introduce as sovereign over all things, he laughs to scorn, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance or fortune is inconstant; whereas our own actions are free, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach. It were better, indeed, to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed. The one holds out some faint hope that we may escape if we honor the gods, while the necessity of the naturalists is deaf to all entreaties. Nor does he hold chance to be a god, as the world in general does, for in the acts of a god there is no disorder; nor to be a cause, though an uncertain one, for he believes that no good or evil is dispensed by chance to people so as to make life happy, though it supplies the starting-point of great good and great evil. He believes that the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool. It is better, in short, that what is well judged in action should not owe its successful issue to the aid of chance.
      Translated by Xavier Bordes

D’après toi, quel homme surpasse en force celui qui sur les dieux nourrit des convictions conformes à leurs lois? Qui face à la mort est désormais sans crainte ? Qui a percé à jour le but de la nature, en discernant à la fois comme il est aisé d’obtenir et d’atteindre le summum des biens, et comme celui des maux est bref en durée ou en intensité; s’amusant de ce que certains mettent en scène comme la maîtresse de tous les événements – les uns advenant certes par nécessité, mais d’autres par hasard, d’autres encore par notre initiative –, parce qu’il voit bien que la nécessité n’a de comptes à rendre à personne, que le hasard est versatile, mais que ce qui vient par notre initiative est sans maître, et que c’est chose naturelle si le blâme et son contraire la suivent de près (en ce sens, mieux vaudrait consentir à souscrire au mythe concernant les dieux, que de s’asservir aux lois du destin des physiciens naturalistes : la première option laisse entrevoir un espoir, par des prières, de fléchir les dieux en les honorant, tandis que l’autre affiche une nécessité inflexible). Qui témoigne, disais-je, de plus de force que l’homme qui ne prend le hasard ni pour un dieu, comme le fait la masse des gens (un dieu ne fait rien de désordonné), ni pour une cause fluctuante (il ne présume pas que le bien ou le mal, artisans de la vie bienheureuse, sont distribués aux hommes par le hasard, mais pense que, pourtant, c’est le hasard qui nourrit les principes de grands biens ou de grands maux); l’homme convaincu qu’il est meilleur d’être dépourvu de chance particulière tout en raisonnant bien que d’être chanceux en déraisonnant ; l’idéal étant évidemment, en ce qui concerne nos actions, que ce qu’on a jugé «bien» soit entériné par le hasard.
Lacking skill in Greek, I am unable to judge these versions. I can but triangulate with other versions.
And he does not consider fortune a goddess, as most men esteem her (for nothing is done at random by a god), nor a cause which no man can rely on, for he thinks that good or evil is not given by her to men so as to make them live happily, but that the principles of great goods, or great evils are supplied by her; thinking it better to be unfortunate in accordance with reason, than to be fortunate irrationally; for that those actions which are judged to be the best, are rightly done in consequence of reason.
And such a man holds that Fate is not a god (as most people believe) because a god does nothing disorderly, and he holds that Fate is not an uncertain cause because nothing good or bad with respect to a completely happy life is given to men by chance, although it does provide the beginnings of both great goods and great evils. And he considers it better to be rationally unfortunate than irrationally fortunate, since it is better for a beautiful choice to have the wrong results than for an ugly choice to have the right results just by chance.
Peter Saint-Andre
il n’admet pas, avec la foule, que la fortune soit une divinité – car un dieu ne fait jamais d’actes sans règles –, ni qu’elle soit une cause inefficace : il ne croit pas, en effet, que la fortune distribue aux hommes le bien et le mal, suffisant ainsi à faire leur bonheur et leur malheur, il croit seulement qu’elle leur fournit l’occasion et les éléments de grands biens et de grands maux ; (135) enfin il pense qu’il vaut mieux échouer par mauvaise fortune, après avoir bien raisonné, que réussir par heureuse fortune, après avoir mal raisonné – ce qui peut nous arriver de plus heureux dans nos actions étant d’obtenir le succès par le concours de la fortune lorsque nous avons agi en vertu de jugements sains.
O. Hamelin
En ce qui concerne le hasard, le sage ne le considère pas, à la manière de la foule, comme un dieu, car rien n’est accompli par un dieu d’une façon désordonnée, ni comme une cause instable. Il ne croit pas que le hasard distribue aux hommes, de manière à leur procurer la vie heureuse, le bien ou le mal, mais qu’il leur fournit les éléments des grands biens ou des grands maux. Il estime qu’il vaut mieux mauvaise chance en raisonnant bien que bonne chance en raisonnant mal. Certes, ce qu’on peut souhaiter de mieux dans nos actions, c’est que la réalisation du jugement sain soit favorisé par le hasard.
Maurice Solovine
The plethora of diverging translations is attributable to variations in the source text. As explained by Tiziano Dorandi, editor of Diogenes Laertius: Lives of Eminent Philosophers where the Letter to Menoeceus is preserved, there is a rich history of reconstruction:
In 1925, Robert Drew Hicks published an 'eclectic' edition accompanied by an English translation and a few critical and exegetical notes for the Loeb Classical Library. Hicks started out from the Cobetiana, but he retouched its text with some conjectures of his own and above all by taking into account more recent and reliable editions of single books or chapters of Diogenes' Lives. [Cobetiana = edition produced by Carel Gabreil Cobet and published in Paris in 1850]
Diogenes Laërtius Lives of Eminent Philosophers, edited by Tiziano Dorandi, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013 (Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries, vol. 50)
Dorandi reserves in the outline of the principles to his edition a section to the "Epicurea" and the problem of desiring to restore the words themselves (ipsa verba) of Epicurus editing Laertius with a view to the witnesses of the secondary tradition. But "[t]he editor of the Lives as a whole must follow a different path so as to avoid tampering with the evidence and publishing a text that has little or nothing to do with that written by Diogenes." The task is daunting: "the centuries-old chain of transmission of Epicurus' writings, not free of errors, corruption, interpolations and modifications of language, content and perhaps even thought" and the task of the editor is to correct wisely where possible and in "other cases [where] the text is irremediably corrupt and no proposed correction seems fully convincing, even if one is not going beyond the 'traditional' aim of getting back to the manuscript of Epicurus used by Diogenes; these passages have been obelized."

History offers us Cyril Bailey Epicurus: The Extant Remains with Short Critical Apparatus, Translation and Notes (Oxford, 1926) who in his commentary reviewed the editorial choices of predecessors and set out his own conjecture "I believe that once again homoeoteleuton has caused a loss of some words and that Epicurus wrote something like [...]" and his attention to the Greek gives us this English...
For it is better in a man's actions that what is well chosen (should fail, rather than that what is ill chosen) would be successful owing to chance.
A little aside on homeoteleuton "As the scribe was reading the original text, his eyes would skip from one word to the same word on a later line, leaving out a line or two in the transcription. When transcripts were made of the scribe's flawed copy (and not the original) errors are passed on into posterity." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeoteleuton

Back to the passages at issue. Russel M. Geer follows Bailey, finessing the parenthesis to make it more mobile (i.e. makes the surround text readable without):
for it is better that what has been well-planned in our actions (should fail than that what has been ill-planned) should gain success by chance.
I am still entranced by the balanced beauty of Peter Saint-Andre's rendition "it is better for a beautiful choice to have the wrong results than for an ugly choice to have the right results just by chance." And in this I am aided by chance (and a library).

And so for day 1301