Lorem ipsum and the Meaning of Life

Lorem ipsum is the famous placeholder text used in graphic design but does it contain the meaning of life? Scholars have identified that the mangled Latin used as filler for designing text layout is based on a passage from Cicero’s philosophical treatise De Finibus. It contains a discussion of the Epicurean doctrine about the purpose of human life, but does it say anything important?

What if we discovered that the meaning of life was somehow hidden right under our noses… Suppose you learned that the most important idea in the universe was written down in plain sight, but overlooked by everyone because the words, assumed to be incomprehensible garbage, were being used as a meaningless filler for graphic design? ¬†That would be pretty ironic, wouldn’t it?

Lorem ipsum is the name given to the (mangled) Latin text commonly used in publishing as a meaningless placeholder, since around the 1960s.  It allows designers to arrange the visual elements of a page of text, such as font and layout, without being distracted by the content.  Different Latinate words are sometimes used. However, below is a typical example of the lorem ipsum placeholder text.  Exactly the same content is presented in two very different styles, using CSS rules:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum. _

Here’s the thing: the Lorem ipsum¬†text isn’t actually meaningless… ¬†The Latin was so corrupt that the original source was almost unrecognisable. ¬†Nevertheless, in the early 1980s, a Latin scholar called Richard McClintock, based in Virginia,¬†¬†accidentally discovered the source of the passage in a well-known philosophical text. ¬†It’s derived from a book called¬†De Finibus, which was written in the first century BC, by the famous Roman statesman and philosopher, Cicero. ¬†He¬†was a follower of the philosophy taught by Plato’s successors in what’s known as the “Academic” school.

De FinibusAlthough it’s usually just referred to by the Latin name De Finibus, the full title is De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, which is notoriously tricky to translate into English. ¬†Literally, it means “On the ends of good and evil”, but really it concerns different philosophical views about the best way of life, which comes fairly close to what today we refer to as the “meaning of life”.

De Finibus is a series of five dialogues in which Cicero portrays himself and his friends discussing the major schools of Roman philosophy. ¬†After weighing the pros and cons of Epicureanism and Stoicism, Cicero concludes with an account of the “Middle Platonism” introduced to the Academy by his own teacher, Antiochus of Ascalon. ¬†Overall, Cicero found himself more in agreement with Stoicism than Epicureanism. ¬†His own Platonism, like Antiochus’, probably assimilated many aspects of Stoicism, as well as Aristotelianism. ¬†However, although broadly sympathetic to this eclectic philosophy¬†Cicero also notes its flaws. ¬†His¬†conclusion is unclear and may be in favour of a more skeptical form of Platonism.

Cicero’s friend and rival, the great Roman Stoic Cato of Utica is portrayed as speaking in defence of that philosophy. ¬†The overall series of dialogues is framed in terms of a discussion between Cicero and Cato’s nephew, Brutus, the lead assassin of the dictator Julius Caesar. ¬†However, the lorem ipsum text comes from the first book of De Finibus, in which a Roman statesman and philosopher, renowned for his Greek scholarship,¬†Lucius Torquatus is portrayed offering a summary and defence of the Epicurean philosophy of life.

So what does the passage from which Lorem ipsum comes¬†actually say? ¬†Well the placeholder text itself is pretty garbled but the passages it occurs in (De Finibus, 1.10.32-33) basically shows Torquatus defending Epicurus’ philosophical doctrine that the most important thing in life is the experience of pleasure. This idea was widely rebuked in the ancient world, not least by Stoic and Academic philosophers such as Cato and Cicero. ¬†However, Torquatus argues that those who criticise the pursuit of pleasure do so not because they think pleasure itself is bad but because harmful consequences often follow from irrational over-indulgence. ¬†The Epicurean philosophy was more sophisticated than this, though, and proposed that wisdom consists in the rational long-term pursuit of pleasures that are natural and lasting, which he associated with practical wisdom and the attainment of supreme emotional tranquillity (ataraxia).

The central paradox of Epicureanism is that achieving lasting pleasure and freedom from pain often requires us to endure short-term pain or discomfort and to renounce certain transient pleasures, for the sake of our own long-term happiness. ¬†Epicurus therefore recommended living a very simple life. ¬†For example, someone who is serious about maximising their own pleasure and who pursues it philosophically might judge it prudent to undertake vigorous physical exercise and follow a healthy diet, enduring “short-term pain for long-term gain,” as we say today. ¬†Torquatus essentially says that the pursuit of pleasure has acquired a bad name undeservedly because people confuse the foolish and reckless pursuit of short-term pleasures with the prudent long-term pursuit of pleasure taught by Epicurus and his followers.

The whole of the relevant section from De Finibus reads as follows in H. Rackham’s 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation, with the fragments included in the lorem ipsum placeholder text underlined:

But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of denouncing of a pleasure and praising pain was born and I will give you a complete account of the system, and expound the actual teachings of [Epicurus,] the great explorer of the truth, the master-builder of human happiness. No one rejects, dislikes, or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure?

On the other hand, we denounce with righteous indignation and dislike men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue; and equal blame belongs to those who fail in their duty through weakness of will, which is the same as saying through shrinking from toil and pain. These cases are perfectly simple and easy to distinguish. In a free hour, when our power of choice is untrammeled and when nothing prevents our being able to do what we like best, every pleasure is to be welcomed and every pain avoided. But in certain circumstances and owing to the claims of duty or the obligations of business it will frequently occur that pleasures have to be repudiated and annoyances accepted. The wise man therefore always holds in these matters to this principle of selection: he rejects pleasures to secure other greater pleasures, or else he endures pains to avoid worse pains.

Although Torquatus is portrayed as defending this philosophy of life, it seems clear that Cicero was unconvinced. ¬†In the following chapters, Cato is shown arguing in favour of the opposing Stoic position. ¬†The Stoics believed that the meaning or purpose of life is the pursuit of wisdom and virtue, first and foremost, rather than seeking pleasure or tranquillity. ¬†Antiochus’ view is presented as being that the best life consists in a combination of virtue and sufficient “external goods”, such as health, property, and friends, etc. ¬†Nevertheless, many people today continue to be drawn to Epicureanism. ¬†Maybe this is because it provides a fairly sophisticated account of one of a handful of perennial or archetypal philosophies of life that recur in different forms throughout the ages.

Cicero took these conflicting philosophical views about the most important thing in life very seriously indeed and tried to carefully evaluate their pros and cons.  What do you think?  Was this a bad philosophy that deserved to be consigned to the dustbin of history or is the meaning of life hidden in the garbage of the Lorem ipsum placeholder text?

The Dream of Scipio from Cicero’s Republic

Article providing an introduction to Cicero’s famous Dream of Scipio, which has been compared to Platonic and Stoic contemplative exercises.

On The Dream of Scipio

From Cicero’s Republic (51 BC)

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2010.  All rights reserved.

The Dream of Scipio (Somnium Scipionis) is a famous section, only a few pages long, from Cicero’s massive six-volume On the Republic.¬† It was rightly seen as a condensation of important ideas from ancient philosophy and cosmology by scholars in the middle ages; an extensive commentary was written about it by Macrobius that ensured its continuing influence for over a thousand years. Scholars now recognise it as a superb example of a popular meditation technique widely practiced in different schools of classical philosophy, and now known as the ‚ÄúView from Above.‚Ä̬† Cicero‚Äôs account is fictional and draws on a variety of philosophical influences.¬† Cicero was a follower of Platonism, although like many Platonists of his time, he drew freely on ideas from Aristotelian, Stoic and Pythagorean philosophy as well.

The story goes something as follows: It is the start of the Third Punic War (149-146BC BC).¬† Both by land and by sea, the mighty armies of Rome lay siege to the ancient city of Carthage in North Africa.¬† Upon his arrival, the Roman tribune Scipio Aemilianus (185-129BC), later known as Scipio Africanus the Younger, seeks the hospitality of King Masinissa of Numidia.¬† The King was an old friend of Scipio’s adoptive grandfather the famous warrior after whom he is named, Scipio Africanus the Elder (236-183 BC). The two men speak at great length about the deceased Roman general. Scipio the Elder was believed by many Romans to have attained a godlike status upon his death, in reward for his legendary victory over Hannibal at Carthage many years before, in the Second Punic War.¬† Ennius of Rudiae composed the epitaph for him: ‚ÄúFrom the place where the sun rises above the Maeotian marsh to farthest west, there is no man on earth who can match my deeds.‚ÄĚ

In Cicero‚Äôs account, Scipio describes how, exhausted from feasting, drinking, and talking late into the night, “I fell into a deeper sleep than usual.”¬† As he sleeps, he dreams, and in his dreams he experiences a mystical revelation, a vision of his mighty forebear. In the dream, Scipio encounters his grandfather’s spirit in the outer rim of the heavens, where the ancients supposed pure souls to dwell, near to the gods. Hence, together they look down upon the stars, the earth, and the many different lands and nations dispersed across the surface of the globe. Scipio exclaims:

These starry spheres were much larger than the earth. Indeed the earth now seemed to me so small that I began to think less of this empire of ours, which only amounts to a pinpoint on its surface.

The deceased Africanus the Elder, assuming the role of spiritual mentor, proceeds to point out the overwhelming beauty and harmony of the cosmos to his grandson, who exclaims:

The scene filled me with awe and delight. And yet all the time I still could not help riveting my eyes upon our own world there below.

Africanus the elder rebukes him:

I see that your gaze is still fastened, even now, upon the places where mortals dwell upon the earth. But can you not understand that the earth is totally insignificant? […] Scorn what is mortal! For the lips of mankind can grant you no fame nor glory worth seeking.

He elaborates:

Note how few and minute are the inhabited portions of the earth, and look upon the vast deserts that divide each one of these patches [in Africa] from the next.

He then points out the homeland of the younger Scipio:

‚Ķyou will realise, if you look, what a miniscule section of this region can really be regarded as your own property. For the land which you occupy is no more than a tiny island. […] And I must disabuse you of any idea that your own fame, or the fame of any one of us, could ever be great enough to extend beyond these known and settled lands.

He thereby forces the younger man to confront the fact that even those people who hear of his reputation will soon die, moreover the legends passed down to their children will also fade and be lost in due time. Hence not only is the extent of mortal fame small in the grand scheme of things, but its duration is but a brief moment in the vast river of time. Africanus the Elder encourages his descendant to see beyond the opinions of other people, for good or for bad, and to be true to his soul, his “real self”, and to his own moral principles. “Strive on!”, the old general advises, “Understand that you are a god.” The rule of reason and freewill over your mind and body, Africanus points out, is like the rule of God himself over the physical universe.

Use this eternal force, therefore, for the most splendid deeds it is in you to achieve! […] A soul devoted to such pursuits will find it easiest of all to soar upwards to this place [in the Heavens], which is its proper habitation and home. And its flight will be all the more rapid if already during the period of its confinement within the body it has ranged freely abroad, and by visualising and meditating upon what lies outside itself [as you have just done], has worked to dissociate itself from the body to the greatest possible degree.

As prophesised in the dream, Scipio scales the political and military ranks at an extraordinary pace. Within a year he was made Roman consul and then general, and placed in command of the legions in Africa. In 146 BC the city of Carthage finally falls to the Roman troops under Scipio the Younger’s generalship. After six days of fierce hand-to-hand fighting in the surrounding streets the citadel was captured and Carthage was ‚Äútorn apart, stone by stone‚ÄĚ, securing Rome‚Äôs position as an ancient superpower for centuries to come. The historian Polybius, present at the scene, reported that Scipio surveyed the wreckage of the once mighty city and wept. As he cried he prophesised, “It is glorious, but I have a dread foreboding that some day the same doom will be pronounced upon my own country.”