Epicurus' Letter on Happiness
This summary, of some of the elements of the way to live a happy life as recommended by Epicurus, takes the form of a letter to Menoeceus, one of his pupils. It has been preserved for us by being quoted in a book 'Lives of Eminent Philosophers' by Diogenes Laertius. The book was written between 220 - 250 AD in Greek, and it survived in one or two manuscripts to be republished after the Dark Ages in the sixteenth century.
Epicurus to Menoeceus: Greetings!
Never delay in seeking knowledge when you are young, nor slacken in the search when you grow old, because, no matter what your age, it is never too early or too late to gain sound understanding. To say that the time for learning hasn't come yet, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the time for happiness has not yet arrived, or that it has passed. Therefore, both old and young ought to seek comprehensive knowledge, the older so that, as they grow into old age, they may delight in good things enriched by understanding; and the younger so that, while still young they may also be old, because, like the old, they are prepared for the future.
Learn about the things which bring happiness, because, if happiness is present we have everything, and, if it is absent all our actions can be directed towards obtaining it.
Do those things which I have continuously taught you, and train yourself according to our system. Treasure it as the basis for right living.
First, believe that God is a living being, both immortal and happy, according to the idea of a god indicated by the common sense of mankind; and so believing, do not assert about him anything which denies his immortality or which does not conform with divine bliss, but believe about him whatever may uphold both his happiness and his immortality. For certainly there are gods, and their existence is clearly seen, but they are not as is generally believed, because people do not consistently maintain the views they form about them. It is not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitudes, but he who collaborates with what they believe, who is truly blasphemous. For the common statements about the gods are not true conceptions but false assumptions; according to these the greatest misfortunes which happen to the wicked, and the greatest benefits which happen to the good, come from the hands of the gods. People, being accustomed to their own good qualities, believe the gods recognise such good qualities as their own and love people like themselves, and hate as alien anything that is different.
Accustom yourself to the belief that death is nothing to us, because pleasure and pain are present only where they are felt, and death is the absence of all feeling. A correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding eternity to our years, but by taking away the yearning for immortality. There can be nothing to fear for anyone who has thoroughly understood that when we are not alive we are not susceptible to suffering. It is nonsense therefore for anyone to say that they dread death. It will not hurt when it comes. It is the anticipation of death which hurts. Such a thing which causes no problem when it is here causes only artificial fear when anticipating it.
Death, therefore, the most terrifying of evils, is nothing to us, since as long as we are alive death is not present in us, and when death comes, we are no more. It is nothing then, either to the living or to the dead, for it is not found in the living, and the dead no longer exist.
Nonetheless, in the world generally, people at some times shun death as the greatest of all evils, and at other times yearn for it as a release from the trials of life. Life is not spoiled by its ending, and the mere