Epicurus: The Wise Man and the Fool
What’s wrong about being a happy fool?
The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus once wrote that “the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool.” But why would that be so? It becomes clearer when we look at Epicurus’ theory of desires.
This article is part of The Ultimate Guide to Epicurus.
“The misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool,” Epicurus writes in his letter to Menoeceus.
On first sight, this is a strange statement. Why should misfortune ever be better than prosperity? Is Epicurus cheating himself here, a philosopher, unsuccessful in life, trying to comfort himself for his failures? Or is there more behind this statement? And what exactly?
To understand this puzzling statement, it is useful to remember what Epicurus thinks about the good life. For him, happiness is the most important thing in life. And happiness is nothing but the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.
Now people have all sorts of desires, but Epicurus groups them into three categories:
The natural and necessary desires. These are desires that will cause pain if not fulfilled: the desire for food, water, and a safe place to sleep;
The natural but unnecessary desires. These are desires that don’t cause pain if not fulfilled, but they are still natural in the sense that we have them due to our nature, and that they can be fulfilled by what nature freely provides: the desire for friendship, for a partner perhaps (Epicurus is not very clear about what exactly falls into this category); and
Unnatural and vain desires. These are desires for money, for jewels, for a sports car, for a high place in society. They don’t cause any pain if not fulfilled – quite the opposite. Fulfilling them causes pain and annoyances, like having to work more than necessary, not having time for friends and family, having to save money over long periods of time and so on.
So what would the “fool” do? A fool, in the sense in which Epicurus uses the word, would try to satisfy every desire just as it pops into his mind. Desire an ice-cream? Go and buy one. Desire a bigger house? Go and buy one. Desire a loving relationship? Well, … That’s a bit more tricky.
So the fool will, on the one hand, have to work for a long time in order to obtain the money that is necessary in order to fulfil his foolish desires. He will also find that some of his most fundamental desires (for example, the desire for love, for a peaceful life, for friendship or a loving family) cannot be fulfilled at all in this way. Also, the fool will eventually notice that even that shiny sports car that he managed to buy is not as shiny as some other, even better car that he has now noticed at that he now wants. Even his big house is not as big as the villa at the end of the road. So whenever a fool fulfils one desire, the next one pops up — and this will never end. There is always something more to chase after, always a new wish to fulfil. And so, like we are all supposed to do in a capitalist society, the fool will be permanently unhappy, always chasing after the end of the rainbow that eludes him.
The wise man, in contrast, will have learned not to fulfil his desires but to reduce them. He will know that chasing after material goods is pointless, because these kinds of desires never end, always leading to more and more desires.
A comprehensive overview of Epicurus’ philosophy of happiness. Epicurus is one of the few ancient philosophers who are more relevant today than they were in their own times. Learn all about him right here.
So instead, the wise man will have learned to be satisfied with very little. To eat when hungry and to be happy with the simplest of meals: a crust of bread if available, a bit of fruit, cool water from a well: the things that nature provides at very little cost. He will gain happiness from looking at the sunset, from singing songs and writing poems, from enjoying his own thoughts and his own creativity, from breathing, from being alive, from talking with friends. He will know that the best things in life come free of cost: love, friendship, family, health.
Therefore, for the wise man, misfortune is not something he would fear, for misfortune does not have any way of affecting him. If all someone needs is friendship, love and a bit of food, then one can be happy as a beggar just as well as one would be happy as a king.
And so it turns out to be true, after all: The misfortune of the wise is indeed better than the prosperity of the fool.
Epicurus (341-270 BC)
Epicurus (341-270 BC) is often seen as an advocate of a luxurious life, rich in good food and other pleasures. This is incorrect.
Return to The Ultimate Guide to Epicurus.
Thanks for reading! Cover image by Joao Tzanno on Unsplash.