“Who is calm and quiet becomes the guide for the universe.” – Laozi.
On my current vacation to Europe I have with me a treasure I purchased at After-words in Chicago four years ago, A Loeb Classical Library Reader. This small paperback (234 pages) published in 2006 by Harvard University Press contains selections from 33 classic works spanning twelve centuries from Homer to St. Jerome and covering history, philosophy, poetry, drama, and satire in their original Greek or Latin although thankfully accompanied by an English translation. Given our current subject matter on contentment, I was drawn to the selection from On the Nature of Things by Lucretius subtitled The Epicurean ideal: peace of mind.
Lucretius begins by noting the wistful pleasure experienced in seeing another person’s tribulations such as in battling a storm on the sea from a place of safety on the shore, not because of the other’s misfortune, but by virtue of knowing oneself is free from it.1 But, he tells us, there is a greater pleasure in possessing “lofty sanctuaries serene, well-fortified by the teachings of the wise, whence you may look down upon others and behold them all astray, wandering abroad and seeking the path of life – strife of wits, the fight for precedence, all laboring night and day with surpassing toil to mount upon the pinnacle of riches and to lay hold on power.”2
According to Lucretius, Nature sanctions a simpler way focused on the avoidance of pain and a mind free of care and fear. Pain is easily removed by meeting physical needs; luxuries are neither natural nor necessary. Neither beautiful tapestries nor royal robes cure one of sickness. Treasure and noble birth offer little of value to the body or to peace of mind. No army can relieve us of fears, superstition, or the terror of death. Can we doubt “that this power wholly belongs to reason, especially since life is one long struggle in the dark?”3 This kind of darkness is dispelled, not by light, but “by the aspect and law of nature.”4
Lucretius is unambiguous in these passages; peace of mind is the result of reason in harmony with nature not the trappings of society. A contented life we learn requires one to remain above the fray and in touch with the cosmos.
1 We might think of the pleasure we experience watching storms on The Weather Channel from the comfort of our family room sofa.
2A Loeb Classic Library Reader. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006. ISNB 0-674-99616-X, page 145.
3Ibid., page 149.