Cicero on Crafting Your Needs

…the people who run hardest after pleasure are the least likely to catch what they are after.


According to Cicero, four conditions must be met if a person wants to achieve happiness. A person that wants to be happy should have no:

(1) Fears,

(2) Distresses,

(3) Wishes,

(4) Immoderate pleasures.

In the chapter five of Tusculanae Disputationes Cicero elaborates on some of Epicurus arguments how to make sure we don’t end up in the trap of superfluous wishes.

Diogenes, being a Cynic, was even more frank when Alexander urged him to say if there was anything he needed. ‘Yes,’ he answered, ‘stop getting between me and the sun.’ And indeed Diogenes used to argue that his way of life was much superior to that of the Great King of Persia himself. For whereas nothing would ever be enough for that monarch, he himself, he pointed out, had no needs at all: consequently he never felt the lack of the pleasures the king could never have enough of, while the king, on the other hand, was quite incapable of enjoying his pleasures.

Cicero gives examples of practices of food-eating. What could be picked up from the following examples is that rather than just satisfying a need (example, of eating) a more wise approach would be to check if we have taken care of preconditions needed to actually enjoy satisfying certain need.

When Darius was fleeing from Alexander, he managed to get a drink of some muddy water, polluted by corpses.1 However, he declared he had never drunk anything better – since whenever he drank before, he said, he had never known what it was to be thirsty. Similarly, Ptolemy had never felt hungry when he ate and so when, in the course of a tour round Egypt, he got separated from his escort and was given some coarse bread in a cottage, he said he had never enjoyed anything so much in all his life. There is also a tradition about Socrates. He liked walking, it is recorded, until a late hour of the evening, and when someone asked him why he did this he said he was trying to work up an appetite for his dinner.

And we have all heard about the food the Spartans eat at their public meals. Once when the tyrant Dionysius was dining with them he remarked that he did not care for that famous black broth which was their principal dish. ‘No wonder you don’t,’ said the cook, ‘because you haven’t got the seasoning.’ ‘What’s that?’ asked Dionysius. ‘Hard hunting, sweating, a sprint down to the river Eurotas, hunger, thirst. Those are the things Spartans employ to season their banquets.’ And the same lesson can be learnt from animals as well. They are satisfied with any food you fling at them provided their instincts do not reject it; and then they do not bother to look any further.

Sparta, which I mentioned just now, is only one of a number of communities which have collectively trained and habituated themselves to enjoy frugal living. For the Persians, too, according to Xenophon’s description of their eating habits, will eat nothing but cress on their bread. And yet, if they had an inclination for something more inviting, they have the whole earth and everything that grows in it to provide them with the most savoury flavours in any variety and quantity they in any variety and quantity they could desire. However, they are content with a moderate diet; and it means a sound body and unimpaired health. What a contrast between such people and the sweating, belching individuals who stuff themselves with food like fatted oxen! And what the contrast demonstrates is that the true satisfaction to be derived from food comes not from repletion but from appetite – the people who run hardest after pleasure are the least likely to catch what they are after.

Show Comments