Tag Archives: philosophy

John Lambton and the Wyrm

🐉 John Lambton
& the Wyrm

A child’s tale about metaphysics, magic spells, and dragons.

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2014.

Hush lads, hold your tongues;
I’ll tell you all an awful story.
Hush lads, hold your tongues;
I’ll tell you about the worm…

The Little Boy Goes Fishing

Lambton WormOnce upon a time, almost five hundred years ago, in the Northeast of England, there lived a young boy called John Lambton.  His father was a very important man, called the Earl of Lambton, and they lived in a big house called Lambton Castle.  John Lambton was a very naughty boy.  At least he seemed so on the outside.  On the inside, though, he was good – he just didn’t know it yet.

One Sunday morning when he was supposed to be going to church with the other children he decided to sneak off because it was a lovely sunny day and he wanted to smell the flowers and go fishing.  So he ran away, down a path to a big river, called the River Wear.  Half-way to the river, he he met an old man walking the other way.  The old man stopped when John Lambton drew near.  He didn’t say anything at first.  He just looked at him strangely.  Suddenly he barked “No good will come of this!”, and then turned away and walked off quickly down the path.  (Some people say the old man wasn’t really a man at all but something else, maybe a dragon or an angel in disguise.)  Anyway, John Lambton ignored him and carried on walking down to the river where he hid among some trees so nobody would find him, and began fishing.

Although he was there all day long he didn’t catch any fish, and he was getting bored.  He was just about to go home when something odd happened, though.  He felt a tug on his fishing line and he pulled a creature out of the water but it wasn’t a fish.  It was something very queer indeed: a little black worm covered in slime, and it wriggled in his hands and wrapped itself around his fingers.  John Lambton looked at the worm for a long time and the worm looked right back at him, and it gurned, which means it pulled a horrid face.  He carried it in his hands, and kept on staring at it as he began walking away from the river, back along the path toward his home, Lambton Castle.  It was an ugly-looking creature, like an eel with a strangely-shaped head, and it seemed quite angry.  As he passed the church, John Lambton suddenly felt that he had to get rid of the worm.  There was something about it that upset him.  So he threw it down a deep, dark well by the side of the road.  He wiped the slime from his hands as he walked away, and he forgot all about it…

Journey to the Holy Land

Now, John Lambton’s mother and father loved him very much.  However, with each day that passed, he felt a stronger desire to leave England, see the rest of the world, and have adventures.  Finally, that little boy grew up into a man, he became a knight, and from that time forward was known as “Sir John Lambton”.  To seek adventure, he decided to go on crusade, which meant travelling to a distant land called Palestine, or the Holy Land.  His father, the Earl of Lambton, was sad to see him go but he gave John Lambton, a very special present, something that would protect him in battle.  It was a great silver shield called Invictus, which means it can never be broken – by anything!  Nobody really knew where the great shield Invictus came from.  People said it was over a thousand years old, but there wasn’t a scratch or a dent anywhere on its surface.  The Earl of Lambton also gave his son a mighty war-horse, strong enough to carry a knight in heavy armour.  John Lambton called his horse Bucephalus, after a famous horse from long ago.  His name means “head like an ox”.  That horse was as big and strong as an ox, and as brave as a lion.

John Lambton took the shield Invictus and travelled with his horse Bucephalus to the Holy Land, far away across land and sea.  He joined a troop of brave knights, who became his closest friends.  For many years he fought in many battles, his bravery grew, and he became famous as a soldier.  Knights ride horses but Sir John Lambton got down from his horse, Bucephalus, took off his armour, and marched on foot beside the other men, sometimes for hundreds of miles.  When the soldiers ate food and drank water, John Lambton sat and watched them from a distance.  He wouldn’t even eat a crumb or drink a drop of water until his men had eaten and drank enough.  Sometimes the soldiers had to take up picks and shovels to dig trenches and build walls.  Although John Lambton was in charge of the other men, he would still get down in the trench and dig alongside everyone else until the work was done.  So the soldiers loved him, and he became famous as a good knight and as a leader of men.

Ten years passed. With every day he spent in the Holy Land, John Lambton learned more and more about the men his army were fighting there, and he became quite sad.  He was upset because he realised that he didn’t want to fight them anymore.  He began to spend more time with the men he was supposed to be fighting.  He spoke to their wise men, who were called “philosophers”.  These men taught John Lambton many special things because they saw he was so brave and good, and the wise love the brave.  So although they were once enemies, John Lambton and the philosophers of the Holy Land now became good friends.  The knights stopped fighting and the people began to live in peace.

With no more battles, though, John Lambton decided it was time for him to return to his family home, to Lambton Castle in the Northeast of England.  He missed his mother, his father, and his friends.  This may sound strange, but it was the day he decided to stop fighting and return home that people say John Lambton became a real hero.  As he was packing his bags to leave, one of the wise men took him aside and whispered a secret in his ear.  It was a story.  He didn’t tell anyone about the secret because he didn’t feel he really understood it yet, but he kept thinking about it…

The Awful Devastation

While he was with the troop of knights, though, John Lambton had forgotten about something that he’d left behind at home.  He’d forgotten about the worm.  For ten long years, he’d been away in the Holy Land.  For ten long years the worm had been at the bottom of the well.  It lived in the dirt and mud and slime and it ate rocks – lots of rocks!  As the worm grew bigger and bigger, it swallowed bigger and bigger rocks, and it became more and more angry, until it was full of rocks and anger, and nothing else.  It grew into a great black snake with big black wings: a dragon!  It grew so big that one day it climbed out of the well, and then it crawled all over the land causing chaos and devastation, upsetting all the people.  It wrapped itself round and round cows, squashed them, and ate them.  It squashed the sheep and ate those too.  The people were so scared of the worm that as soon as they saw it coming they started running around waving their arms in the air and going “woo-woo-woo!”  When the worm was really, really angry it would wrap its tail around a big tree, rip it right out of the ground, wave it about like a big wooden club and crush the people’s houses into tiny pieces.  SMASH!  At night it would crawl all over the land causing more devastation and during the day it would wrap itself ten times around a big hill and squeeze it tight, as it went to sleep.  The people who lived near Lambton Castle started to call the place “Worm Hill” because that’s where the worm slept all day long, snoring, with smoke coming from its nostrils.

When John Lambton returned home his mother, his father, and his friends were all very happy to see him because he’d been gone for so many years, and they were proud of him because he had become a hero far away in the Holy Land.  He saw right away that something was very wrong, though, and he was very sorry for the people.  He saw the great big worm wrapped ten times around Worm Hill, squeezing it, as it slept, smoke coming from its nostrils.  He saw that the tiny worm had grown into a huge monster!  His mother and father told him what had happened, and that the worm had eaten all of the cows and sheep, and crushed all the houses.  The people told him that when they tried to cut the worm in half the two pieces would crawl back together and become one again, all fixed, good as new, as if by magic – so nobody could stop the worm.  The worm’s anger had turned into a powerful magic spell that protected it and made it very strong.  John Lambton was a hero now, though, not a little boy any more.  Deep inside he knew for sure that it was his job to stop the worm somehow and save the people – that had become his destiny.  He just didn’t know yet how he was going to do it.

John Lambton remembered something from his childhood, though.  There was a strange old woman who lived in a dark cave, hidden in the woods.  When John Lambton was a little boy, the people called her a witch.  Now, though, he realised she was actually a wise old woman.  She was a philosopher too and he knew that he needed her wisdom to help him beat the worm.  So John Lambton visited the witch’s cave, deep in the woods, late at night, when it was dark.  They both sat by the fire in her kitchen, drinking green tea, and John Lambton talked to her about his adventures far away, with the knights in Palestine.  He saw that she was wise and good, and they became friends.  So John Lambton told the wise old woman the secret that was whispered to him by the philosophers in the Holy Land.  The secret was a very special story: it was a little story within a story…

The Stranger in the Alleyway

The story goes like this…  Once upon a time, many hundreds of years ago – nearly two and half thousand years ago – there was a famous soldier, a general who led an army of ten thousand men.  His name was Xenophon.  When Xenophon was a young man, before he became famous, he was walking through the city of Athens late at night.  He walked down a very narrow street, an alleyway, between two tall buildings, and it was very dark.  Suddenly, a mysterious figure at the end of the alleyway blocked Xenophon’s path by holding out a great wooden staff or walking stick.  Xenophon took a step back in surprise.  Then the man asked him a very strange question.  He said: “Do you know where someone should go if he wants to buy goods?”  He meant lots of “good things” like food, and clothes, and jewellery.  Xenophon was brave so he answered confidently: “Yes, of course, Athens has one of the finest markets in the world; you can buy whatever goods you like just a few streets from here.”  “I see”, replied the stranger, “so then can you tell me where someone must go if he wants to become a good person?”  Xenophon was startled – he didn’t know what to say.  He didn’t know the answer to that question.  So the stranger lowered his staff and stepped out of the shadows…  He introduced himself and said his name was Socrates.

He had a snub nose and a big round belly, but Xenophon recognised him immediately, and he knew he was an old soldier, a war hero, and he was also a very wise man.  In fact, some people say Socrates was the wisest man who ever lived, the greatest philosopher of them all.  Socrates said to Xenophon, “You should come with me then and together we’ll try to discover how someone can become a good person.”

So they became best friends and used to talk and talk for hours together.  Many years later, Xenophon wrote a book about all the wise things he remembered his friend saying, called the Memorabilia of Socrates.  One of the things he remembered was this…  Most people say there are lots of good things and lots of bad things in the world – all sorts of different things… but Socrates said they’re all wrong.  He said there’s only one truly good thing in the world, and it’s inside you, not outside.  That was one of the things Socrates used to say, and he said it to his friend Xenophon, who remembered it and wrote it down.

So that was the story of Socrates and Xenophon and it was the secret whispered in John Lambton’s ear by the philosophers of the Holy Land.  They remembered this ancient story when everyone else had forgotten it.  It puzzled him, though, because they didn’t tell him what it was called, this good thing, that was only inside and not outside.  So he had to think about it himself, for a long time…  As he was telling this story to the old woman, though, John Lambton suddenly realised the answer: the good thing inside doesn’t really have a name!  It’s two things rolled into one: wisdom and bravery combined.  So John Lambton told this to the wise old woman and she understood and agreed with him.

When she heard this secret, the old woman saw that John Lambton was a hero and that he was learning wisdom.  The wise love the brave, so the old woman helped John Lambton as best she could.  She told him another secret, a second secret whispered in his ear.  So as John Lambton left the darkness of the witch’s cave and walked through the woods, back out in the daylight, he knew that he could now defeat the worm.

The Witch’s Secret

John Lambton’s best friend was a blacksmith, a man with a hammer and an anvil who makes things out of metal.  His name was John Smith, but everyone just called him Mr. Smith or Smithy, because that was his job, and he did it very well.  So these two friends, John Lambton and John Smith, met and spoke about the devastation caused by the worm.  Then they worked together all night long, hammering metal and making things.  John Lambton made a great longsword, and he called it “Hard Belly”, after another famous sword.  He joked that it had such a tough belly that it could eat anything, and that it was going to eat a dragon for breakfast!  His friend, Smithy, made John Lambton a very special suit of armour.  He made great big metal boots and metal greaves for John Lambton’s legs…  metal gloves or gauntlets and metal bracers for his arms…  a metal breastplate to go on his chest… and a shiny metal helmet for his head… a whole suit of armour, made with love, that shone in the sunlight like the great shield Invictus.  On the breastplate Smithy had engraved a beautiful picture of a lamb’s head, the symbol of Lambton Castle.

John Lambton told Smithy that the witch was really a lady-philosopher, a wise old woman.  She’d said they must cover the metal armour in lots and lots of sharp spikes.  So that’s what they did, the two friends working all night long together, side by side.  They used lots of broken spears and swords to make sharp spikes and when they were finished the suit of armour was bristling all over with them.  When John Lambton first tried on his new suit of armour, Smithy joked that he looked like a shiny metal hedgehog or porcupine.  Then they both rested a little while and told each other jokes and stories until morning.

At daybreak, just as the sun was rising, John Lambton put his spiky suit of armour back on and picked up his mighty longsword, called Hard Belly, and the great shield Invictus.  The wise woman had explained to him that to defeat the worm he would have to stand in the River Wear and fight there so that’s where he went, riding the mighty war-horse Bucephalus.  When he reached the banks of the River Wear, John Lambton climbed down from his big horse.  He waded into the river, at the spot where he first caught the worm when it was small and he was fishing as a boy.  He stood in the water, looked upstream, and waited there patiently for a moment.  In the distance he saw the worm coiled ten times around Worm Hill, and it was just beginning to go to sleep.  Then John Lambton called out at the top of his voice “Baarooooooo!  Baarooooooo!”, a special sound the witch taught him to make.  When the worm heard that sound it knew John Lambton was there and it awoke from its slumber.  When it saw him standing in the river it was angry.  Its eyes widened and they glowed red like fire, then they narrowed and turned black with rage, and it squeezed the hill harder than it had ever squeezed before, so the hill shook, and the rocks crumbled, and cracked, and rubble tumbled down the hillside.  People say that even today there are marks on Worm Hill where the dragon squeezed it so tight.

When John Lambton saw that the worm was awake he knelt down on one knee in the river, and the water came right up to his shoulders, and flowed around him, but because his spiked armour was heavy the river didn’t wash him away.  He knelt down and leant on the hilt – the handle – of his mighty longsword for support.  He watched the great black dragon uncoil itself from the hill and slither down into the River Wear.  He saw it swimming toward him, coming faster and faster and faster downstream, as it grew angrier and angrier, rushing down the river toward him.

Now, even though his eyes should have been wide open with fear, John Lambton closed his eyes, and he relaxed inside, he calmed his mind, because he needed to concentrate and he needed to call up all of his bravery to defeat the giant worm.  Even though his hands should have been shaking with fear, they weren’t, they were calm and steady…  Even though his heart should have been pounding fast – boom, boom, boom – it was slow and steady, and its rhythm was peaceful…  Even though his muscles should have been tense, and his face should have been wrinkled with fear and worry, they weren’t…  His face was calm, and his body was relaxed.

For one minute his eyes remained closed, and he remembered what the wise women had taught him, and what the wise men in the Holy Land had said.  The witch told him to speak to his heart and to summon up his bravery and the wise men told him the secret of bravery: it was something the philosopher Socrates had said long, long ago, in the distant past.  So he spoke to his heart and he said: “Worm, you can crush me but you cannot harm me…”  John Lambton realised now that nothing could ever harm the goodness inside of him, whatever the outcome of the battle.  There was nothing the worm or anyone else could do to take away his wisdom and bravery because it came from deep within him, from his heart, right at his very centre.  He whispered those words to himself three times as he knelt in the river… and he took a deep breath in… and then he breathed out slowly… and he raised his head… and he opened his eyes, and looked up… and the dragon was upon him!

The Wyrm Battle

As the worm rushed down the River Wear toward John Lambton, one of friends was watching from the river side, high up in a tree where he’d hidden.  John Lambton’s friend was called Catweazle, and he was a bard, a man who writes songs and plays music.  Catweazle was very circumspect, which means he always paid attention and knew everything that was going on.  He saw everything that happened in the river.  He watched the whole battle unfold, and he wrote a song about it.  Other people heard his song and they wrote songs of their own, about the hero John Lambton, and the dreaded worm, and those songs have been sung for hundreds of years.  This is what Catweazle the Bard saw that day…

The worm leapt upon John Lambton but because the brave knight was kneeling deep, up to his shoulders, in the water, it couldn’t see that he was covered in spikes, like a metal hedgehog or a porcupine.  It wrapped itself round and round his body and tried to crush him with all of its might but when it did this the worm got a nasty surprise – it got spiked!  The worm cried “Rooooaaaaaar!”, which means “Ouch!”, because it hurts to grab something spiky – the suit of armour was like a big metal cactus.  The worm had to let go of John Lambton right away, but as it let go it thrashed its massive tail and knocked John Lambton off balance so he didn’t see what was coming.  The dragon opened its great big mouth as wide as it could, as if it were about to bite John Lambton or even swallow him whole… but Catweazle saw what was happenning from up in his tree and he yelled “Look out!  Look out!”  When John Lambton heard his friend, quick as lightning, he threw his great shield, called Invictus, as hard as he could, right into the dragon’s mouth.  It wedged right there in his jaws and though the dragon tried to bite down he couldn’t break the shield – it was stuck in his mouth.

So for a moment, the worm was distracted as it tried to shake the shield loose, and get it out of its mouth.  When he saw this, the knight rose out of the River Wear and he lifted his mighty longsword, Hard Belly, high over his head, and brought it down with all his strength, so powerfully that it chopped the dragon clean in half.  John Lambton was fast, though, as well as strong.  So he kept swinging his sword again and again, until the worm was sliced up into a hundred tiny pieces.  Usually the worm’s anger created a magic spell that protected it, so that when it was chopped into pieces, those pieces would be drawn back together, to join together, and fix him.  Today the worm was in the River Wear, though, and the waters were flowing fast and strong around him, and around the knight John Lambton.  So all those pieces were swept away, down the river, and into the sea, before the worm’s magic could join them back together again.

Now some people say that the dragon’s magic was so powerful that he’s still alive even though he’s in lots of little pieces spread across the bottom of the ocean.  John Lambton’s father told him, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere”, though, and he said that means the worm is gone for good and he’s never coming back.  Anyway, the people were all very relieved, and very happy.  Catweazle sang his song about the brave knight Sir John Lambton and how he tricked the great worm, and beat him, and saved the people, and their sheep and cows, and houses.  John Lambton danced.  His mother and father danced.  His friends Catweazel and Smithy danced.  Even the wise old woman, the witch, danced.  The people were all so happy they danced to Catweazle’s song.  They told John Lambton they were very proud of him indeed.  So his story became a famous legend, a great story, that people have told their children, for hundreds of years… and now you know that story, and one day perhaps you’ll be able to tell your children the legend of the Lambton Worm too.

– 🐲 –

 

Appendix: The Song

One Sunda morn young Lambton went

A-fishing in the Wear;

An’ catched a fish upon he’s heuk

He thowt leuk’t vary queer.

But whatt’n a kind ov fish it was

Young Lambton cudden’t tell-

He waddn’t fash te carry’d hyem,

So he hoyed it doon a well

 

Chorus

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,

An’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,

An’ Aa’ll tel ye ‘boot the worm.

 

Noo Lambton felt inclined te gan

An’ fight i’ foreign wars.

He joined a troop ov Knights that cared

For nowther woonds nor scars,

An’ off he went te Palestine

Where queer things him befel,

An varry seun forgat aboot

The queer worm i’ tha well.

But the worm got fat an’ grewed an’ grewed,

An’ grewed an aaful size;

He’d greet big teeth, a greet big gob,

An greet big goggly eyes.

An’ when at neets he craaled aboot

Te pick up bits o’ news,

If he felt dry upon the road,

He’d milk a dozen coos.

This feorful worm would often feed

On caalves an’ lambs an’ sheep,

An’ swally little bairns alive

When they laid doon te sleep.

An when he’d eaten aall he cud

An’ he had had he’s fill,

He craaled away an’ lapped he’s tail

Ten times roond Pensha Hill.

The news ov this myest aaful worm

An’ his queer gannins on

Seun crossed the seas, gat te the ears

Ov brave an’ bowld Sor John.

So hyem he cam an’ catched the beast,

An’ cut ‘im in twe haalves,

An’ that seun stopped hes eatin’ bairns

An’ sheep an’ lambs an’ caalves.

So noo ye knaa hoo aall the foaks

On byeth sides ov the Wear

Lost lots o’ sheep an’ lots o’ sleep

An leeved i’ mortal feor.

So let’s hev one te brave Sor John

That kept the bairns frae harm,

Saved coos an’ calves by myekin’ haalves

O’ the famis Lambton Worm.

Lorem ipsum and the Meaning of Life

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?

A Manifesto for Modern Stoic Communities

What is someone despises me?  Let them see to it.  But I will see to it that I won’t be found doing or saying anything contemptible.  What if someone hates me?  Let them see to that.  But I will see to it that I’m kind and good-natured to all, and prepared to show even the hater where they went wrong.  Not in a critical way, or to show off my patience, but genuinely and usefully. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.13

Zeno-Poster-British-MuseumHere are some principles derived from ancient Stoic literature, and adapted slightly to serve as a set
of basic guidelines for the attitude and actions of those wishing to engage in online communities, in accord with Stoic wisdom and virtue.  Please help me to improve them by suggesting changes or additions in the comments below, and I’ll try to revise them accordingly.

These are intended to help contribute to the development of a healthy Stoic community and also to help Stoics deal with difficult encounters with others online, including responding appropriately to so-called “internet trolls” and “flaming”.

  1. I believe that virtue is the only true good and vice the only true evil, although it may also be natural and rational to prefer to get or avoid other things in life.
  2. I view others who believe that virtue is the only true good as if they were my brothers and sisters, and the wise and virtuous as my truest friends.
  3. I look to Nature and the actions of wise and good people (people who live according to Nature) for guidance as to how I should lead my own life.
  4. I view the rest of humanity, the remainder who are neither wise nor good, as if they were children insofar as they lack moral insight, and so I wish them to learn and to flourish, fate permitting, even though they do not share my most cherished beliefs and values.
  5. I seek to lead primarily by example, demonstrating virtue to others through my words and actions.
  6. I try to empathise with others by understanding the beliefs that guide their actions but I accept that I can never be certain what other people’s motives are, and therefore whether they are truly virtuous or vicious.
  7. I accept that all human beings, myself and the founders of the Stoa included, lack perfect wisdom and virtue, and therefore nobody is treated as an absolute authority.
  8. When others do wrong, I view that as due to their ignorance concerning what is truly good, bad, and indifferent in life, rather than voluntary malice.
  9. I forgive others for any foolish or vicious actions carried out in ignorance.
  10. I remember that nobody can truly harm me through their words or actions, as only my voluntary actions can be virtuous or vicious, and therefore truly helpful or harmful to me.
  11. I try to cultivate a sense of affinity with the rest of mankind, and a natural affection toward others, on the basis of our shared humanity and capacity for reason and virtue.
  12. I accept that the actions of others are ultimately beyond my direct control, and that whether they become virtuous or vicious, and whether they flourish or not, is never entirely up to me.
  13. I would prefer others to flourish and become wise and virtuous, and seek to help them do so, fate permitting, but if they do the opposite, I accept that with indifference, as lying beyond my direct control.
  14. I seek to cultivate the virtues of practical wisdom, justice or fairness, courage, and self-control in myself and others.
  15. I seek to live in harmony and accord with the rest of mankind, through my philosophy of life, and encourage others to live in harmony also, by setting an example to them of virtue.
  16. I view the things that the majority of people fight over with relative indifference, as lacking any value whatsoever in relation to virtue, including my physical health, material wealth, and reputation among others.
  17. While I prefer that other people should be friendly toward me, I do not need anyone to treat me as I would prefer, or demand that they should do so.
  18. I am at all time cautious to avoid acting foolishly or viciously toward anyone else, or allowing myself to feel excessive desire or aversion toward them, or indeed toward anything external to my own character.
  19. I view the wise and virtuous as if they were my closest friends, taking time to contemplate and admire their character and actions, and seeking to learn by emulating their example.
  20. However, I also look for the seeds or traces of wisdom and virtue in others, even in the character and actions of those who behave like enemies – I look for the good in other people, in other words, and seek to learn from it.