Tag Archives: Epicurus

How would you define virtue? Its opposite?

I will place under this a syllabus of the doctrines of Epicurus …
                Virtue consists in
                                1. Prudence.
                                2. Temperance.
                                3. Fortitude.
                                4. Justice
                To which are opposed,
                                1. Folly.
                                2. Desire.
                                3. Fear.
                                4. Deceit.
To William Short, October 31, 1819

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders seek wisdom from others.
Jefferson summarized the doctrines of Epicurus in about 20 easily understandable points  appended to this letter. In his last two posts, he warned his friend against indolence and proposed fortitude as the anti-dote. Short admired the philosopher, and Jefferson reminded him, “…fortitude, you know, is one of his [Epicurus’] four cardinal virtues.”

Here, Jefferson summarized Epicurus’ view of virtue in four points and the opposite of each. The former President could have written these himself!

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 … fortitude [Webster’s 7th New Collegiate: strength, strength of mind], you know, is one of his [Epicurus’] four cardinal virtues. That teaches us to meet and surmount difficulties; not to fly from them, like cowards; and to fly, too, in vain, for they will meet and arrest us at every turn of our road.
To William Short, October 31, 1819

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Effective leaders must have fortitude, a strength of mind.
Jefferson’s post two days ago warned about the dangers of sloth. From the same letter, he now encouraged his younger friend of many years to draw wisdom from Epicurus, whose values Short claimed to embrace. Fortitude was what Short needed in the face of indolence (sloth), and no less an authority than Epicurus recommended it as a key virtue.

Fortitude enabled one to face difficulties and perhaps overcome them. Cowards fled difficulties, thinking they would escape. Not so, said Jefferson. Escape brought only temporary relief. Those same difficulties would return and vex time and again, until confronted and overcome with … fortitude.

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Stir yourself. Get up. Move. NOW!

… you are not a true disciple of our master Epicurus, in indulging the indolence [avoidance of pain, sloth] to which you say you are yielding … Your love of repose will lead, in its progress, to a suspension of healthy exercise, a relaxation of mind, an indifference to everything around you, and finally to a debility of body, and hebetude [dullness] of mind …  Weigh this matter well; brace yourself up …
To William Short, October 31, 1819

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Diligent leaders both warn and encourage.
Sixteen years younger than Jefferson, William Short (1759-1849) became the elder man’s protégé as a college student and beyond. When Jefferson was America’s ambassador to France, 1784-89, William Short was his secretary. Short continued in diplomatic service for several decades. When he returned to America to stay, he became a successful businessman and landowner.

Short was 60 years old at the time of this letter. The two men had been friends for forty years. Characteristic of close friends, Short confessed indolence at this stage of life. Jefferson, concerned for the younger man he once called an adoptive son, warned against it.

The bulk of this letter deals with philosophers: Epicurus, Epictetus, Plato, Socrates, Cicero, and Jesus. The 76 year-old Jefferson uses Short’s fondness for Epicurus to challenge his friend. Jefferson, who was always busy at something, hated sloth. Here’s the progression Jefferson saw from indolence:
– Ceasing to exercise
– A undisciplined mind
– Indifference to everything
– A weakened or ill body
– A dull mind

Maybe Short heeded his friend’s warning? He lived 30 more years, to the age of 90 (ancient at that time), maintained his status as a wealthy man, and became a philanthropist.

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