In the last two posts we have been looking at contentment as depicted by Seneca in On Tranquility of Mind. Continuing now, he encourages adaptability, since obstinacy leads to anxiety in the face of the unpredictability of Fortune.  Likewise he urges us not to be disturbed by the “failings of the crowd, rather see them as “not odious, but ridiculous.” 13 Democritus we are told laughed at the human race, and Seneca believes a sense of humor and of perspective is vital to personal equilibrium. We are also told to avoid the anxiety-causing trappings of a social persona, instead we should live virtuously, if simply, and enjoy leisure activities natural to oneself. Relaxation it turns out is essential to tranquility. His examples include walks in fresh air, a journey, good company, and even generous (but not excessive) amounts of wine. However the crux of contentment for Seneca I see in his most poignant line: “In any case, the mind must be recalled from externals and focus on itself. It must confide in itself, find pleasure in itself, respect its own interests, withdraw as far as may be from what is foreign to it and devote itself to itself; it must not feel losses and must not even construe adversity charitably.”14

In two other essays Seneca ties contentment and happiness to Nature and the cosmos. In the first, Consolation to Helvia, he announces: “Nature intended that no great equipment should be necessary for happiness; each of us is in a position to make himself happy.” 15 In the other, The Happy Life, we hear the reciprocal: “If the honorable alone does not satisfy you, then you must desiderate either the repose which the Greeks call aokhlesia (undisturbedness) or else pleasure. But the first can be had in any case; when the mind is at liberty to survey the universe and nothing distracts it from the contemplation of nature it is free of disturbance”16

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the erstwhile counselor and eventual victim of Nero should place such emphasis on tranquility and contentment. Seneca offers his prescription: we must participate in society, but limit marginal professional and social activities, overcome dissatisfaction with ourselves, abandon trivial desires and curtail property acquisition, learn to laugh at humanity and ourselves, accept Fortune, and most importantly retreat gradually into the self and the contemplation of Nature and the cosmos. His counsel is simple enough, but its execution is another story altogether.


13Hadas, Moses (translator), The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1968. ISBN 0-393-00459-7, page 102.

14Ibid., page 100.

15Ibid., page 111.

16Ibid., page 240.

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Last time we began our discussion of Seneca’s On Tranquility of Mind by reviewing the petition of his friend, Serenus, and Seneca’s preliminary framing of the problem with the ultimate goal of euthymia, or ‘well-being of the soul.’ He next offers his diagnosis: dissatisfaction with self, originating from a mix of imbalance in the mind and fainthearted or unrealized desires. Unfulfilled desires lead to frustration, vice (in their pursuit), loathing of leisure, and jealousy of others. It is at this juncture one must overcome the temptation to seek elsewhere and everywhere for contentment. He quotes Lucretius, “Each man always flees himself…but what good if he cannot get away from himself?”6

His first prescription is to be employed in some active and honorable career or societal or political function, or if not that, active study and contemplation. Like all good Stoics, Seneca sees a meaningful life as purposeful and cosmopolitan. Retreat is fine, but should be gradual and preferably voluntary. In addition, we should associate with virtuous people and can find great contentment in friendships. Contentment also comes from limits on material goods; if we have much to lose we suffer worry even if we never lose anything at all. While we may wish to avoid abject poverty, “we ought at least curtail our property and reduce our exposure to the assaults of Fortune.”7 He even cautions against excess buying of books one will never read.

Seneca then goes on to examine the discontent of public responsibilities. The solution here is patience since with time “necessity teaches fortitude and habit indifference.”8 Nature we are told “invented habit as an anodyne to calamity.”9 He reminds us: “No situation is so harsh that a dispassionate mind cannot find some consolation in it.” And of course, desire, pride, hope, and envy are controverted by remembering how trivial are their objects.

Seneca then tells us of the sage – a person who does not grope and has no attachment to material goods which instill a fear of Fortune. The sage lives “on loan to himself”10 and is ready to return all to Nature. He does not fear death and is prepared for any possibility since, quoting Publilius, “What can happen to somebody can happen to anybody.”11 Seneca also urges us to avoid excessive, unnecessary, or  unproductive exertion in profession and in society, quoting Democritus, “A man who wishes to live in tranquility must not engage in many activities, private or public.”12

(final continuation next blog)


6Hadas, Moses (translator), The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1968. ISBN 0-393-00459-7, page 82.

7Ibid., page 91.

8Ibid., page 93.


10Ibid., page 94.

11Ibid., page 96.

12Ibid., page 99.

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“Retreat into yourself. No retreat offers more quiet and relaxation than that into your own mind, especially if you can dip into thoughts there which put you at immediate ease; and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life. So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself. The doctrines you will visit there should be few and fundamental, sufficient at one meeting to wash away all your pain and send you back free of resentment at what you must rejoin.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.

We have now looked at contentment through the lens of ancient Greek and Hellenic philosophy and have one last Western ancient tradition to consider, Roman Stoicism. This later iteration of Stoicism is in fact a mixture of all of the earlier Hellenic traditions, though it draws most on the Greek Stoic and Epicurean traditions. While there are a multitude of these later Stoics, the three best known are Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, all of whom we have seen in earlier sections. Of these three, Seneca will be our model as he produced the most methodical discussion in his essay called On Tranquility of Mind.

The essay takes the form of a dialogue begun by his colleague, Serenus, who seeks a philosophical remedy for his spiritual unease, a condition he reveals in his declaration, “I am neither sick [n]or well.”1 His concern is his mixed emotions; while he prefers the simple, he is awed by luxury, he feels sad after being exposed to finer goods, and he frets over whether his life could or should be better. He protests, “My convictions are not altered, but I am disturbed.”2 He also struggles to follow the ancient Stoic advice to pursue a public career (he was Nero’s police commissioner) since its problems are the source of continuing worry. Meanwhile he fights the urge to fame and desire of lasting legacy, and fears his own descent into vice and vanity.

Seneca takes over with his counsel. First he reassures his friend that he has been on the right track (Stoicism), that his spiritual health is sound, and that drastic measures are not needed. “Even a calm sea shows a ripple, especially when it has quieted after a storm.”3 Inner peace comes from faith in himself and the correctness of his path, the chance for “something great and lofty and of a nighness to god – to be inaccessible to impingement” – what the Greeks call euthymia or ‘well-being of the soul’ or what Seneca himself calls ‘tranquility.’ The real question then is how one can maintain an even course, avoid imbalance of the mind  and “never interrupt this satisfaction, but abide in its serenity.”5

(continued next post)


1Hadas, Moses (translator), The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1968. ISBN 0-393-00459-7, page 76.

2Ibid., page 77.

3Ibid., page 79.


5Ibid., page 80.

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We began last time looking at the blueprint for contentment developed by Epicurus. Like Aristotle, Epicurus also emphasizes friendship as essential to a happy life.

“He who desires to live in tranquility with nothing to fear from other men ought to make friends. Those of whom he cannot make friends, he should, as much as possible, avoid rendering enemies; and if that is not in his power, he should, as much as possible, avoid all dealings with them.”4

So we see on the one  hand friendship aids contentment by increasing one’s social support network in a world of unpredictability. On the other hand, virtuous and prudent conduct to others diminishes the likelihood of them to harbor ill will or consider harm to oneself. Again simple common-sense logic guides behavior conducive to contentment.

Epicurus offers a basic formula, the tetrapharmakos or four-fold cure for anxiety: (1) Do not fear the gods, (2) Do not fear death, (3) Goods are easy to obtain, and (4) Evils are easy to endure. Just as one does not choose food based on the largest portion, a wise person seeks to enjoy the time which is most pleasant not simply the longest. He urges us to remember that the future is not “wholly ours nor wholly not ours.” Ataraxia is the goal – absence of physical pain and trouble in the soul. His words again:

“Exercise yourself in these and related precepts day and night by yourself and with a like-minded friend, then neither in waking or in dream will you be disturbed, but will live as a god among men. For man loses all semblance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings.”5

And one more unforgettable quote – Will Durant paraphrasing the teaching of Epicurus:

“Because he controls his appetites, lives without pretense, and puts aside all fears, the natural ‘sweetness of life (hedone) rewards him with the greatest of all goods, which is peace.”6

It is unlikely that any thinker in history has more logically or more elegantly formulated an avenue to contentment open to all than Epicurus.


4Durant, Will, The Life of Greece.  Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966. ISBN 0-671-41800-9, page 649.

5Letter to Menoceous (close) – available on line I would argue this is the greatest letter ever written by a philosopher… or perhaps anyone. The reader will benefit greatly from taking time to read this four page epistle.

6 Durant, Will, The Life of Greece.  Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966. ISBN 0-671-41800-9, page 648.

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“Lathe biosas.” – Motto of Epicurus.1

In our search for contentment, we have already considered the ancient Greek systems of Plato, Aristotle, the Cynics, the Skeptics, and the Stoics. However no Western philosophy, ancient or later, addresses contentment more directly than Epicureanism. Its founder, Epicurus spent one year at the Plato’s Academy, but developed his philosophy after exposure to the Cynics. He is mistakenly seen as a proponent of pleasure-seeking, but  his philosophy is more sublime; happiness comes from diminishing anxiety by forgoing the pursuit of pleasure, attaining only physical necessities such as food, water, and shelter, and averting unease. He clearly is not a proponent of later Hedonism which bases happiness on maximizing pleasurable experiences.

The ethics of Epicurus is based on his materialist metaphysics: we can know nothing of the supra-sensual world, reason is limited to sensory experience, the will is free, the soul dies with the body, and there is no interaction between humans and gods should they even exist. Philosophy exists to guide us in our search for happiness within this reality. For Epicurus this consists of a life “exempt from every kind of disquietude.” Even virtue is not an end in itself, but rather an indispensable means to contentment since it is not possible ultimately to have a pleasant life without behavior that is prudent, honorable, and just.

In his own words:

When therefore we say that pleasure is the chief good, we are not speaking of the pleasures of the debauched man, or those that live in sensual enjoyment…But we mean freedom of the body from pain and of the soul from disturbance. For it is not continued drinking and revels, or the enjoyment of female society, or feast or fish or other expensive foods that make life pleasant, but such sober contemplation as examines the reasons for choice and avoidance, and puts to flight the vain opinions from which arises most of the confusion that troubles the soul.”2

Here we have not Hedonism, but a rational approach to tranquility and well-being through the avoidance of pain and grief. For Epicurus, wisdom is the great liberator, freeing us from bondage to the passions, fear of the gods, and dread of death and teaching us how to bear misfortune. Wisdom alone offers lasting pleasure from the simple goods of life and the quiet pleasures of the mind. Consider how little is needed to a wise content – fresh air, the cheapest foods, a bed, a few books and a friend.  Likewise the wise person does not burn with ambition or lust for fame nor envy the good fortune of others always avoiding  “the fevered competition of the city and the turmoil of political strife.” Instead the wise person seeks the calm of the countryside and tranquility of body and mind.3

(continued next post)


1”Live unobtrusively.” from Durant, Will, The Life of Greece.  Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966. ISBN 0-671-41800-9, page 645.

2Ibid., page 647.

3Ibid., page 648.

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“It makes me furious! How mortals blame the gods! For they say that their troubles come from us; but they incur pains on their own beyond their allotment, because of their wickedness.” – Homer, Odyssey 1.32-34.


In our perusal of ancient Greek and Hellenic philosophy, we last looked at contentment in the teaching of the Skeptics, particularly Pyrrho. Like the Cynics, peace for the Skeptics comes in part from limiting involvement with and concern for society. Developing in parallel with Cynicism and Skepticism was Stoicism, the most enduring of the Hellenic traditions possibly because, unlike the others, it accommodated, even encouraged continued societal participation including in the fields of business and politics.

Stoicism as a school started with Zeno of Citium who was a student of Crates in turn a student of Diogenes the Cynic. He set out the arguments for his positions while walking in the Painted Porch or Stoa Poikile – hence the name Stoicism for his philosophy. His basic metaphysics is that the world is divinely ordered and humans have free will, but actual outcomes of action are determined by providence meaning a divine force. Zeno considered his teachings the “art of living,” emphasizing a control over one’s emotions and an understanding of nature and the cosmos as a unified whole. Reason and the overcoming of passions are for Zeno the supreme achievements of humans.

Stoicism developed a largely psychological approach to tranquility – somewhat like modern cognitive therapy. The first key principle of Stoic conduct is apatheia which refers to acceptance of and detachment from the results of action and circumstances in the environment, quite unlike the more negative word ‘apathy’ of current English usage. The logic is simple; the chain of causes and effects is an unbreakable circle such that things happen as they must under the supervision of providence. Apatheia involves a voluntary surrender to the divine will such that the mind can be secure against the attacks and vicissitudes of fortune, pity, or love.

The second key principle of Stoic conduct is euthymia or well-being attained through four virtues – intelligence, bravery, justice, and self-control. Later Stoics impose another virtue, duty to promote the cosmopolis or rationally ordered world. Stoic contentment is further reinforced by the Stoic understanding of evil. If evil comes to a good person, it is only temporary and integrated with the greater good of the whole. One should live in harmony with nature and accept one’s place within it. Stoics substitute for a master an apprenticeship to wisdom and the imitation of a wise man.

In brief form, contentment for the Stoic is found in a rational adjustment of one’s aims and conduct to the purposes and laws of the universe. Next we look at Epicureanism; join me then.

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“Ouden mallon.” – Skeptic mantra.1

So far in our examination of contentment as depicted in ancient Greece we have looked at Plato’s dialogues, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and the legacy of the Cynics. Plato highlights virtue and ordering of the soul, Aristotle virtue, self-sufficiency, and contemplation, and the Cynics extreme self-sufficiency through strength of mind to want nothing, consideration of a guide, and purpose from modeling cynical virtue. We take on next the second Hellenic tradition, Skepticism.

It is worth noting that I reviewed this branch of philosophy in an earlier blog on certainty.2 We saw then that the ancient Greek word, skeptikoi, means ‘inquirers’ or ‘investigators’ which is more distinctive of its later form. In its earliest form, called Pyrrhonism after its founder, Pyrrho of Elis, it was a quest to achieve Eudaimonia or “happiness in the conduct of life” and ataraxia or untroubledness. Pyrrho offered no system or method as, in fact, he questioned the truth of all philosophical or religious beliefs and saw them as the very source of much of humanity’s uneasiness. Instead he offered an agoge or way of living, based on utter apathy to objects, dangers, and pleasures, tranquil moderation, and indifference to intellectual dogmatism. His ‘system’ then merges agnosticism common sense.

His movement, eventually became known as skepticism because of the continuing inquiry of his successors as to whether truth is possible. Nonetheless contentment continued to be seen as freedom from anxiety about philosophical and religious pronouncements paired with an embrace of the ‘Practical Criterion of the Skeptics,’ which states one should follow “the guidance of nature, the compulsion of the feelings, the traditions of laws and customs, and the instructions of the arts.”3

To reiterate, for the Skeptics, ataraxia is not paralytic anesthesia, but peaceful living according to the institutions of one’s country and dictates of one’s own feelings, experience, and common sense. It seeks a peaceful life, not an imitation of death.By suspending judgment in philosophical matters, conflict is averted and contentment is facilitated.

The weakness of skepticism is that in its extreme or radical form,  tranquility is thwarted or diminished by the uncertainty of every belief or presumed fact. David Hume points out this quandary in the 18th century – noting we must live as if some uncertainties are fact (e.g. cause and effect, science). For instance living as if everyday dangers are dubitable will lead to a precarious existence (Pyrrho’s disciples were known to follow him around to be sure he would not step into a hole, off a ledge, or in front of a moving cart).

Nevertheless Pyrrhonic skepticism is a potent means to contentment. Doubt and suspension of belief about philosophical, religious, and I would add political, dogmas plus common sense moderation offer a simple method for calming one’s anxieties and achieving satisfaction with oneself and one’s circumstances. In reality this is the most common path followed in our time at least in the West, although it is unclear how successfully by most of us.


1 “No more likelihood that this is true than that that is true.” Quoted in Hallie, Philip P. (editor), Sextus Empiricus. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge,1985. ISBN 0-87220-006-X, p 9.

2 See post on this site titled Certainty – Skepticism dated 6/5/2020.

3 Hallie, Philip P. (editor), Sextus Empiricus. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge,1985. ISBN 0-87220-006-X, p 7.


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“Time makes even bronze grow old, but thy glory, Diogenes, all eternity will never destroy. Since thou alone didst point out to mortals the lesson of self-sufficingness and the easiest path of life.” – Ancient Greek Memorial to Diogenes of Sinope, according to Diogenes Laertius in Lives of the Philosophers.1




Last time we examined contentment as a piece of the meaningful life in Plato’s dialogues and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Instead of withdrawal, meditation, and the guidance of a master as professed in the East, they invoke virtue, self-sufficiency, ordering of the soul, and contemplation.  However on the whole the earliest Greek religion, literature, and philosophy are surprisingly quiet on tranquility and contentment. After the Macedonian conquest of Greece, philosophers pivot and contentment and tranquility rise in importance, perhaps in response to being subjugated to military authority with its reduction in liberty. It is as if philosophers are seeking a psychological means to cope with this change in political reality.

Four philosophical “systems” – Cynicism, Skepticism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism – appear after Socrates, all of which to some extent claim the mantle of his teaching. We will start with the Cynics whom I introduced in the section Suffering, subsection Asceticism.2 This quasi-school of philosophy began with Diogenes (known as “the dog” or cyn in Greek) who was a student of Antisthenes who in turn was a student of Socrates. Virtue for Diogenes and  the Cynics is recalibrated from the four classic virtues to four new ones: self-sufficiency, freedom, detachment, and moral toughness and endurance. For the Cynics, poverty and simplicity are the paradoxical avenue to peace and contentment. The rational person abandons the artificial values and material goods of society and embraces the benefits of living naturally and unabashedly.

For the Cynics contentment originates in strength of mind to want nothing and to lack nothing. It is further reinforced by purpose in modeling cynical virtue for others to follow. The pursuit of knowledge endorsed by Socrates and the contemplation of truth espoused by Aristotle are considered superfluous. Cynicism is more practical and active than these earlier teachings. However the Cynics recognize a desperate life on the street requires training and the inexperienced should seek assistance from an experienced Cynic. In short, the contentment of the Cynic diverges from Plato and Aristotle and mirrors somewhat the Eastern tradition with detachment, through ascetic practice but not societal withdrawal, and endorsement of a guide in its practice.

Next we look at the Skeptics.


1   Henderson, Jeffrey (editor) Diogenes Laertius II. Loeb Classic Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1931. ISBN 987-0-674-99204-7, page 81.

2 See post on this site titled Suffering – Asceticism – Part IV – The Cynics.

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Last time we ended on contentment as presented in the first of two dialogues by Plato, the Phaedo. In the second dialogue, Republic Book IV, Socrates responds to Glaucon’s doubt that the just man is happier than the unjust one, Socrates taking him via a long road comes at last to the following statement:

“But in reality justice was such as we were describing, being concerned however, not with the outward man, but with the inward, which is the true self and concernment of man: for just man does not permit the several elements within him to interfere with one another, or any other, or any of them to do the work of others;  – he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself; and when he has bound together the three principles within him…but has become one entirely temperate and perfectly adjusted nature, then he proceeds to act, if he has to act, whether in a matter of property, or in the treatment of the body, or in some affair of politics or private business, always thinking and calling that which preserves and co-operates with this harmonious condition, just and good action, and the knowledge which presides over it, wisdom, and that which at any time impairs this condition, he will call unjust action, and the opinion which presides over it ignorance.”2

The lessons of Socrates and Plato are further processed by Aristotle, Plato’s most famous student and one who eventually rejected much of his thought. Aristotle comes across as more pragmatic and less spiritual, devoting more thought to the notions of happiness, never mentioning tranquility of the soul. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he argues that most men erroneously seek happiness in pleasure while in fact the highest essence of man is reason. He determines that a life of virtuous activity in accordance with reason will be the happiest, and it turns out the activity most in accordance with reason is contemplation of truth within self-sufficiency – ideas seemingly suggestive of contentment and serenity of the mind. Consider the following:

“Perfect happiness consist in the life of thought or contemplation of truth, in which we approach the life of God. But, with his composite human nature, man finds a secondary happiness in external things and in the practice of the moral virtues in his relations with other men.”3

We see then that for Socrates and Plato, contentment comes from virtue and ordering of the inner self, perhaps combined with belief in an immortal soul and the pursuit of knowledge. Aristotle also emphasizes virtue, but highlights contemplation and self-sufficiency rather than ordering of the soul per se. None of the three stresses withdrawal or renunciation or the need for a spiritual guide. However, contentment is only addressed obliquely in their texts even if it is implied throughout. The West had to wait for later Hellenic philosophers to see a more systematic analysis of human contentment. We pick up there next time.


2Hutchins, Robert Maynard (editor), The Dialogues of Plato. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 7, pages 354-355.

3 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics  in On Man in the Universe. Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, N.Y. for The Classics Club, 1943. Page 224.

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“What is opposed brings together; the finest harmony is composed of things at variance, and everything comes to be in accordance with strife.” – Heraclitus (quoted by Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics)


We have just examined the paths to contentment conveyed by four Eastern philosophical traditions. They emphasize withdrawal or at least detachment from ordinary life, meditation on eternal truths, benefits of a guide or master, and de-emphasis on worldly purpose. Today we change continents but continue with ancient thinkers as we look at the wisdom of Western sages mainly from ancient Greece and Rome.

We might begin with an observation – the earliest Greek philosophers and the polytheism of that time seem to neglect the search for contentment, though of course we have only fragmentary texts for most of the pre-Socratics. What we know of their religion and from the most complete texts of that time, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, seem strangely quiet on the hope of human satisfaction and tranquility. The world is pictured tragically, with mostly indifferent of hostile deities, unending human strife, and an afterlife of dark, stagnant, misery. Happiness is mentioned, but only as temporary and superficial. We can only guess that this pessimism springs from the precarious life in this land of relatively low crop fertility and of isolated city-states, constantly threatened with invasion by more powerful neighbors. It is perhaps no surprise that Heraclitus, one of the great early philosophers of that region of the world, sees God as an eternal fire and reality as like a river, which is never the same when one steps in it twice. Pythagoras comes the closest among the pre-Socratics to the ancient Eastern sages in his demonstration of contentment by example through an ascetic lifestyle of strict vegetarianism and celibacy – practices he may have adopted from the East.

Contentment appears first in ancient Greece with Socrates through the dialogues of Plato, two of which I will use as examples. The earlier of these is the Phaedo which tells the story of the death of Socrates. There is perhaps no more poignant example of human equanimity as Socrates when he accepts his unfair death sentence and drinks the poisonous hemlock without hesitation. He explains to his attending disciples that his tranquility is based on his belief in the immortality of the soul, his pursuit of knowledge, and the arraying of the soul “in her own proper jewels, temperance, and justice, and courage, and nobility, and truth…”that is to say through wisdom.

(continued next post)


1Hutchins, Robert Maynard (editor), The Dialogues of Plato. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 7, page 250.

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