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?

Cato’s Speech on Stoic Philosophy from Lucan’s The Civil War

An excerpt from Lucan’s epic poem The Civil War (or Pharsalia) in which Cato the Younger delivers a speech on Stoic philosophy.

Cato’s Speech on Stoic Philosophy

From Lucan’s The Civil War

Cato-Statue(Quotations from the translation by Susan H. Braund.)

The poet Lucan (39-65 AD) was the nephew and student of the Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger (4-65 AD), and his epic The Civil War (De Bello Civili), also known as the Pharsalia after the Battle of Pharsalus, is steeped in Stoic philosophical themes and terminology.  It describes the Great Roman Civil War (49-45 BC) between Julius Caesar and the forces of the Roman Senate led by Pompey.

In the Pharsalia, Cato the Younger (95-46 BC) is portrayed as a Stoic hero or warrior-sage, because of his defence of the Roman Republic and defiance of the tyrant Julius Caesar.  In Book Two, Cato is introduced as follows by Brutus:

‚ÄėOf Virtue long ago expelled and banished from all lands
you are now the sole support, and Fortune will not with any whirlwind
strike her from you: I call on you, as I hesitate and waver,
to guide and reinforce me with your resolute strength.’

Then Cato’s character is described by Lucan:

This was the character and this the unswerving creed
of austere Cato: to observe moderation, to hold to the goal,
to follow nature, to devote his life to his country,
to believe that he was born not for himself but for all the world.
In his eyes to conquer hunger was a feast, to ward off winter
with a roof was a mighty palace, and to draw across
his limbs the rough toga in the manner of the Roman citizen of old
was a precious robe, and the greatest value of Venus
was offspring: for Rome he is father and for Rome he is husband,
keeper of justice and guardian of strict morality,
his goodness was for the state; into none of Cato’s acts
did self-centred pleasure creep in and take a share.

In Book Nine, Cato marches his beleaguered troops through the deserts of Africa, where they endure many hardships, and suffer many casualties.  However, they are inspired to persevere in the face of great adversity by Cato’s example.  At one point, Cato’s army come across the only temple to Jupiter (or Zeus), under the name of Ammon, in the surrounding lands.  A general who had defected from Caesar’s army, Labienus, urges Cato to consult the oracle about their fate in the civil war.  However, Cato refuses to do so, because of his Stoic principles, and instead becomes a kind of oracle himself, delivering a short speech on Stoic doctrine to reproach and inspire his men.

He, filled with the god he carried in his silent mind,
poured forth from his breast words worthy of the shrine:
’What question, Labienus, do you bid me ask?  Whether I prefer
to meet my death in battle, free, to witnessing a tyranny?
Whether it makes no difference if our lives be long or short?
Whether violence can harm no good man and Fortune wastes her threats
when virtue lines up against her, and whether it is enough to wish for
things commendable and whether what is upright never grows by its success?
We know the answer: Ammon will not plant it deeper in me.
We are all connected with the gods above, and even if the shrine is silent
we do nothing without God’s will; no need has deity of any
utterances: the Creator told us at our birth once and always
whatever we can know.  Did he select the barren sands
to prophesy to a few and in this dust submerge the truth
and is there any house of God except the earth and sea and air
and sky and excellence?  Why do we seek gods any further?
Whatever you see, whatever you experience, is Jupiter.
Let those unsure and always dubious of future events
require fortune-tellers: no oracles make me certain,
certain death does.  Coward and brave must fall:
it is enough that Jupiter has said this.’  So declaring
he departed from the altars with the temples credit intact,
leaving Ammon to the peoples, uninvestigated.