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A Swedish Virago: Queen Christina of Sweden on Dualism and the Passions

George P. Simmonds
Oxford Brookes University


Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) is not well credited for her contribution to seventeenth-century philosophy. Indeed, most historians pose her simply as a bygone monarch, albeit a most idiosyncratic one [1]. To some she is remembered as the mercurial spinster who went about Europe in men’s clothing, unique in her mastery of equestrianism, shooting and military strategy [2]. Most recall her for her involvement in René Descartes’ death, occurring in the midst of the Swedish winter as he laboured to satisfy her educational demands [3]. The more considered historian might meanwhile describe Christina as the ‘intelligent, independent and artistic sovereign’ (Philippe, 1970, p.695) who possessed the greatest book collection in Europe (Birch, 1907, p.8), who dreamt of making Stockholm ‘the Athens of the north’ (Conley, 2011, §1), and who may well prove to be the closest thing to a Platonic philosopher-queen history has ever seen.

At birth she was proclaimed the male heir to the Swedish empire, and was upon the discovery of her true sex spurned by her mother, who had once again failed to provide King Gustav Adolphus with a son (Stolpe, 1966, p.37). The king proved more tolerant: he would later name Christina his heir and afford her the exacting education suited to a prospective emperor [4]. This unusual series of events came to epitomise her legacy as she assumed the role of the honorary male, adopting the character and temperament of a king in a blatant rejection of womanly life no doubt encouraged by her mother’s refusals. This legacy was a relatively good one, however: under Christina’s rule Sweden saw great relief in the Peace of Westphalia, bringing an end to the Thirty Years War, and later withstood severe political tumult without any major civil conflict (Åkerman, 1987, p.21).

The queen has since been dubbed ‘one of the wittiest and most learned women of her age’ (Stephan, 2006). It is said that she studied ten hours a day, leaving no time to keep up royal appearances. Slovenly dress and tangled, unruly hair quickly became her signature aesthetic (Goldsmith, 1956, p.52) [5]. She was by no means plain in the company she kept, however. Throughout her tenure Christina had a number of distinguished intellectuals at hand, a coterie including Isaac Vossius, Samuel Bochart, Nicholas Heinsius and of course the hapless René Descartes. She valued these men as ‘living libraries,’ as silos of information she admired but ultimately viewed as ‘poor advisers in affairs of the great world’ (M, p.25). This reluctance to heed the counsel of others, together with her scholastic bibliomania, enabled the events of 1654 in which the ‘eccentric scholarly creature’ turned Catholic and scandalously abdicated her father’s throne (Fraser, 1989, p.252). As Birch (1907) explains in the Maxims’ introduction: (more…)


Five States of Nature in Hobbes’s Leviathan

Gregory B. Sadler
Marist College


In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes develops a constellation of notions of considerable conceptual refinement and of lasting rhetorical power. These notions coalesce at their most central point, the ‘state of nature.’ An overly simplistic view of the Hobbesian state of nature forms part of what may be called a standard reading of Leviathan.  This interpretation is prevalent in scholarship engaging Hobbes’s thought and doctrine not for its own sake, but in order to provide a contrast against other thinkers, to fit Hobbes into a broader schema of intellectual trends, tradition, or movements, or to diagnose Hobbes and his thought as the precursor of something particularly unsavory arising specifically in modernity.  Pedagogical uses of Hobbes also typically rely upon (and in the process perpetuate) that reading.  Such interpretations can also be found in scholarship engaging Hobbes in more focused and systematic ways, since studying other portions of Hobbes’s thought is rendered easier and less messy by ignoring ambiguities and puzzles arising when the state of nature is understood in relation to other notions intimately connected with it [1].

My central contention in this paper is that closer attention to Hobbes’s text allows discernment of at least five conceptually distinct ‘states of nature.’ The first of these represents the one the standard reading relies on. I argue that to Hobbes the most important of these states of nature is the fifth, i.e. factional strife leading to breakdown or disintegration of already existing but flawed civil society.  The first state of nature is revealed as a powerful rhetorical construct that does not hold up under scrutiny, but which does not thereby tumble down the remaining edifice of Hobbes’s thought.  Instead, the reverse happens: the heuristic utility of the rhetorical construct is sustained, and enabled to do its work, by the rest of the argumentative and descriptive Hobbesian edifice, the remainder of Leviathan’s first two books.

The primary motivation of Hobbes’s theory as a whole is, by producing what he views as the first genuinely scientific moral and political philosophy, diagnosing and remedying causes and effects of factional strife in already existing and imperfect commonwealths [2]. His goal is not to adequately and realistically describe the state of pre-political or pre-social humankind, nor a historical transition from a pure state of nature to that of civil society.  Rather, he is concerned primarily to illuminate sources of, and solutions to, moral disagreement, escalation of claims and conflicts, in short, breakdown of order. This requires radical reexamination of human nature, production of a new comprehensive theory of human nature, moral norms, and civil society, and advocacy of fundamental transformation of contemporary social institutions, structures, and arrangements in line with the theory. (more…)

Cultivating Our Garden: David Hume and Gardening as Therapy

Dan O’Brien
Oxford Brookes University

Gardens are seen as having metaphysical and theological significance. Many think of the Garden of Eden as the first garden, and the four rivers in Eden, mentioned in both the Bible and the Quran, are represented by four watercourses in Islamic royal gardens and by four paths in the cloister gardens of Christian monasteries and churches. Japanese Zen gardens are designed to aid meditation on eternity, and so-called paradise gardens are earthly attempts to model the celestial gardens of the gods. In this volume, Robert Neuman explores how the garden of Versailles was designed as a reflection of the divine, laid out according to principles of Pythagorean and Cartesian philosophy. This rationalist tradition continues today in the Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Scotland, where the design reflects the ‘birth, laws, and development of the universe;’ the ‘garden … in part, a speculation about the underlying truths;’ the gardener involved in ‘translating the insights of science and philosophy into workable objects.’ [1]

The English picturesque tradition rejects such a formal approach and the laying out of gardens according to precise geometric rules. The British empiricists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the mind as consisting of a flux of thoughts derived from experience, rather than as a collection of innate ideas planted in us by God. This empiricist focus on experience can be seen in English landscape gardens of the time. Gardens are not a reflection of divine structures, but rather, places that are designed in order to affect the flow of our sensations. The focus is on sensation and experience, rather than reason. Here, Elizabeth Rogers notes how gardens can bring about such changes:

The power of ruins to inspire a mood of elegiac melancholy, of dark-toned vegetation to turn the thoughts into paths of sombre reflection, of bright green meadows to soothe the agitated soul, of sunny fields reminiscent of harvest revels to raise the spirits to the level of gaiety, of still brooks and placid lakes to speak of peace and serenity, of loud tumbling waterfalls to induce a thrilling fear. [2]

Gardens, then, can be seen as reflecting the dominant philosophical theories of their time and place. In this essay, though, following various lines of thought of the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–79), I shall argue that gardens can be a refuge away from metaphysics and philosophical reflection and that they can therefore play a therapeutic role.

Part I: Candide

Voltaire, a contemporary of Hume, wrote Candide as a parody of religion and of religious apologies for the existence of evil in the world. That there are morally corrupt people and that the world is occasionally beset by natural disasters looks to be incompatible with a morally perfect God, one who is all-powerful and who could presumably eradicate such evils. ‘One could grumble rather at what goes on in our one [world], both physically and morally.’ [3] Candide’s tutor, Doctor Pangloss, teacher of ‘metaphysico-theologico-cosmo-codology’ – a thinly disguised Liebniz (an Enlightenment metaphysician) – argues, however, that we live in ‘the best of all possible worlds,’ as a benevolent God would have created. His ‘theodicies’ are explanations designed to account for the existence of evil: ‘if Columbus, on an island in the Americas, had not caught this disease [syphilis] which poisons the spring of procreation … and which plainly is the opposite of what nature intended, we would have neither chocolate nor cochineal.’ [4] The humor is pointed, since philosophers and theologians had performed various contortions to explain away the fact that the world does not seem to be the creation of a perfectly benevolent supreme being – and they continue to do so to this day. Candide has many adventures while continuing his philosophical discussions with Pangloss and others; his final optimistic note, though, is not that of his tutor, but the enigmatic claim that ‘we must cultivate our garden.’ [5]

This claim has been interpreted in various ways. Voltaire could merely be suggesting that the world is indeed full of evils and that it would be wise to retreat to our own little patch and make the best of it. There is, though, a deeper sense to such a ‘retreat,’ one that can be illuminated by looking at the philosophy of another great Enlightenment thinker, David Hume, with whom Voltaire was in occasional correspondence. Writing to Hume, Voltaire says: ‘The abetters of superstition [religion] clip our wings and hinder us from soaring.’ [6] Hume claims that we should reject philosophical thinking and return to the concerns of common life – the garden, then, being a metaphor for a life free of metaphysics and theodicy. I shall also argue that gardening itself is exactly the sort of common life activity that could contribute to this therapeutic rejection of philosophy and theology.

Part II: Hume and Common Life

Hume is suspicious of metaphysics and particularly hostile towards organized religion. His Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion contain seminal criticism of various arguments for the existence of God. In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding he argues that there has never been any good evidence for the occurrence of a miracle and there is never likely to be any. And in his Natural History of Religion he provides a naturalistic account of religious belief, one grounded in fear rather than rational insight or evidence. One aspect of Hume’s rejection of religion takes place at the level of common life. His strategy is to remind anyone tempted by religion of their usual everyday ways of thinking. We have to remind ourselves of how we would normally think when not led astray by psychological factors associated with religious belief. In the case of miracles, for example, Hume claims that people are swayed from their usual ways of thinking by several distorting psychological factors. The thought of supernatural intervention fills us with awe, and ‘the passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles being an agreeable notion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events.’ [7] Our vanity is also massaged if we can report such events: ‘But what greater temptation than to appear a missionary, a prophet, an ambassador from heaven?’ [8] It is such factors that cause us to believe in supernatural occurrences; such factors that promote the mere idea of the occurrence of a miracle to actual belief in such a happening. Hume therefore asks us to imagine what would be believed if these factors were not present; if, say, passion and wonder did not give rise to belief, and if our fellows were not impressed with stories concerning such things. If this were so, then we should explain away such improbable events in the way that Hume describes, and this is just what we do in everyday situations. One believes that somehow a melon seed found its way into the greenhouse if melons start to grow there unplanned (as they have done this year in my greenhouse!); one does not believe that such growth is miraculous. Similarly, one should believe that one has been tricked or one has misunderstood when asked to believe that a man has risen from the dead. Hume does not criticize belief in miracles on philosophical or logical grounds; instead, he offers us reminders as to how we usually think, and how we should therefore think when we are asked to believe in miracles.

Hume’s rejection of metaphysics is not limited to religion. Philosophers have an unhealthy attraction to extreme skepticism. Plato sees the world of experience as akin to mere shadows cast on the walls of a cave, shadows of the real things in Platonic Heaven. Descartes meditates on the possibility that our experience of the world could all be a dream or hallucinations planted in our minds by an evil demon. Hume, too, at times adopts such a skeptical perspective and argues that we can only have knowledge of our own sensations; we cannot, as it were, get behind these to take a direct look at the world that we only assume is causing our experience. Further, our experience is regular in various ways: the sun comes up every day and the leaves fall every autumn. We have, however, no philosophical reason to think they will continue to do so. Why think the world (or, rather, our experience) will continue on in the same way? Hume thinks there is no satisfying philosophical answer to this question, and this is worrying: it leads to ‘philosophical melancholy and delirium.’ [9] However, in the face of such skeptical arguments, Hume argues that we should rescind to our everyday thinking: act, as everyone in fact does, as if the sun and the seasons will continue to behave as they always have.

Hume does, however, distinguish between the kinds of reasoning we pursue in everyday or common life. There is the vulgar reasoning of the ‘peasant’ and a more sophisticated form of reasoning.

‘A peasant can give no better reason for the stopping of any clock or watch than to say, that commonly it does not go right: But an artisan easily perceives, that the same force in the spring or pendulum has always the same influence on the wheels; but fails of its usual effect, perhaps by reason of a grain of dust, which puts a stop to the whole movement.’ [10]

Here, the artisan has a more sophisticated grasp of induction. Regularities are sometimes disturbed because there is a ‘secret opposition of contrary causes.’ [11] The artisan explains a broken watch in this way; a kitchen gardener similarly explains his unusually poor harvest as due to cucumber mosaic virus or spider mites. Gardening, then, is the sort of pursuit that aids this immersion in common life and in doing so it inculcates epistemic virtues; it helps us to be good everyday reasoners, developing our appreciation of the regular run of the world. It is an activity especially well suited to this since gardeners must be sensitive to regularities of varying scope – those, for example, manifest by the seasons, the weather, disease, and germination. A garden is in many ways a microcosm of the natural world: we must be aware of long-term and short-term changes and how they embed together. Gardeners are artisans par excellence, having a fine-grained appreciation of the causal structure of nature. And the gardener’s acquiescence in common life reasoning steers clear of psychologically dangerous metaphysical reasoning and, as we shall see, of the cycle of enthusiasm and melancholia characteristic of religious belief.

For Hume, religious beliefs are akin to an illness; they are disruptive to our mental life and action, and thus they should be rejected; not just for epistemic reasons (that is, because they are false), but also for reasons concerning mental health and the security of our human nature. As seen, such beliefs are not rejected by providing philosophical argument to refute them; rather, they are rejected by embracing everyday cognitive standards, by confining ourselves ‘to common life, and to such subjects as fall under daily practice and experience.’ [12] If we are successful in this, then the ‘contagion’ of religion shall not infect us. [13] Hume has a ‘therapeutic’ approach to religious belief. Religion, for Hume, is an ‘infliction,’ ‘a natural frailty,’ nothing but ‘sick men’s dreams.’ [14] ‘As superstition arises … it seizes … the mind, and is often able to disturb us in the conduct of our lives and actions.’ [15] Belief in miracles, say, may undermine our everyday expectations and, if this is severe enough, it may lead to alienation from the regular, everyday world of sunrises and falling leaves.

As well as disturbing our lives and actions, Hume claims that religion also leads to forms of mental illness. ‘Terror is the primary principle of religion’ and this naturally leads to a melancholic frame of mind, with meditations on Heaven and Hell ‘apt to make a considerable breach in the temper, and to produce that gloom and melancholy, so remarkable in all devout people.’ [16] There are occasional pleasures, but these are ‘fits of excessive enthusiastic joy,’ and these for Hume are not the steady pleasures that bring us happiness. They ‘exhaust … the spirits, always prepar[ing] the way for equal fits of superstitious terror and dejection.’ [17] Religion takes one on a roller coaster of enthusiasm and dejection and such violent mood swings are opposed to the ‘calm and equitable’ state of mind that we seek. The extremes of this can be seen in those who pursue the ‘monkish virtues’ and who reject the social life; theirs is a world of wild enthusiasm and dark melancholia. At various places in his History of England Hume notes the connection between religion and mental illness. Cromwell, for example, was ‘transported to a degree of madness by religious extasies.’ [18] We should thus cultivate ways of thinking that keep us engaged in common life, and in a way that involves ‘that undisturbed philosophical tranquillity, superior to pain, sorrow, anxiety, and each assault of adverse fortune.… And the nearer we can approach in practice to this sublime tranquility and indifference … the more secure enjoyment shall we attain within ourselves.’ [19] In an early essay, Hume ‘laments’ those with ‘delicacy of passion,’ those that are affected strongly by the ups and downs of life: ‘men of such lively passions are apt to be transported beyond all bounds of prudence and discretion, and to take false steps in the conduct of life, which is often irretrievable.’ [20] True philosophy should attempt to ‘take … off the edge from all disorderly passions, and tranquillize … the mind.’ [21] We must therefore step down from the philosophical perspective and embrace the everyday – we must cultivate our garden. In doing so, we avoid the roller coaster emotional ride associated with religion, and various other psychological and physical symptoms characteristic of one plagued by metaphysical and religious questions.

Those tempted by philosophy should take note that:

‘There are … many honest gentlemen, who being always employ’d in their domestic affairs, or amusing themselves in common recreations, have carried their thoughts very little beyond those objects, which are every day expos’d to their senses … I wish we cou’d communicate to our founders of systems [to philosophers] a share of this gross earthy mixture, as an ingredient, which they commonly stand much in need of, and which wou’d serve to temper those fiery particles, of which they are compos’d.’ [22]

Cultivating our garden is thus a metaphor for the therapeutic role that common life reasoning has with respect to metaphysical and theological worries. And actual gardening, I shall argue, can play a role in promoting the kind of tranquility that Hume claims should be our goal. Before we turn to this it is interesting to note that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein took to gardening as a cure for his psychological problems. In a letter to the architect Paul Engelmann, he says:

I have broken my word. I shall not come your way, at least for the time being.… For in my present dubious state of mind even talking to you – much as I enjoy it – would be no more than a pastime. I was longing for some kind of regulized work which, of all the things I can do in my present condition, is the most nearly bearable, if I am not mistaken. It seems I have found such a job: I have been taken on as an assistant gardener at the Klosterneuberg Monastery for the duration of my holiday. [23]

Part III: Gardens and Tranquility

Joseph Addison’s (1672–1719) essays in the Spectator impressed Hume and influenced him to write extensively in that style:

‘I know nothing more advantageous than such Essays as these with which I endeavour to entertain the public. In this view, I cannot but consider myself as a kind of resident or ambassador from the dominions of learning to those of conversation; and shall think it my constant duty to promote good correspondence betwixt these two states, which have so great a dependence on each other.’ [24]

And, in one of these essays, Addison notes the relation between gardens and tranquility:

‘A garden … is naturally apt to fill the mind with calmness and tranquillity, and to lay all its turbulent passions at rest. It gives us a great insight into the contrivance and wisdom of providence, and suggests innumerable subjects for meditation. I cannot but think the very complacency and satisfaction which a man takes in these works of nature, to be a laudable, if not a virtuous habit of mind. For all which reasons I hope you will pardon the length of my present letter.’ [25]

Voltaire also comments on this aspect of gardening. In a letter from his garden paradise of Les Délices on Lake Geneva, a few months before the completion of Candide, he writes: ‘in our little Romantic country … we are doing here what one should be doing in Paris; we are living in tranquility, we are cultivating literature without any cabals.’ [26] What, then, is the source of the tranquility that Addison and Voltaire describe?

Gardening brings various psychological benefits to the gardener. There are sensory pleasures: the smells, the quiet, the colors. Such pleasures can also lead one to a deeper engagement with the garden: blooms can hold one’s attention, as can trees and expanses of grass; certain corners of the garden may not be beautiful in the traditional sense, yet the crushed snail-shell or the rotting compost can enrapture. A bloom (or, for that matter, the decaying cabbage) can do so, not because one is focused on the prizes it might win (or on the future benefits that one’s compost will bring to the garden); one’s appreciation, rather, is for the thing itself – the fritillaria flower, the pumpkin, or the crumbly brown texture of what was once kitchen waste. David Cooper takes our ability to appreciate the garden in this ‘disinterested’ way to be a virtue, [27] and William James talks of the psychological benefits of ‘involuntary attention,’ when we find ourselves just looking at the tulip, as opposed to actively looking for the trowel. [28] Such moments of attention are tranquil ones.

Some have also seen gardens as havens, providing psychological protection from the ‘hostile reminders of human mortality lurking in the terrors of nature.’ [29] William Adams, commenting on French gardens, says: ‘To venture into the forest was to run the risk of losing one’s soul. To reduce the forest to an ordered, tidy ideal world was salvation here on earth.’ [30] The tranquillity of gardens, then, can be seen to lie in their sensory pleasures, in the way that they can hold our attention, and in their protective role.

Further, the tranquillity that gardens and gardening bring should not be seen merely in terms of pleasant feelings or states of consciousness; such tranquillity, rather, is rooted in an account of virtue. Gardening is a moral pursuit, but the kind of morality I have in mind here is not that which focuses on the characterization of acts and intentions as right or wrong; but rather morality in the older tradition of virtue theory. Addison, as we have seen, claims that gardens cultivate ‘a virtuous habit of mind.’ Virtue theorists focus on character traits and not on actions: a pursuit is moral if it inculcates virtuous character traits. Isis Brook, in this volume, has noted this moral dimension to gardening: good gardeners have patience, humility, and generosity. Hume is a kind of virtue theorist. The virtues, for him, are those aspects of character which bring us pleasure, those of which we approve, those which are advantageous for our own peace of mind and for the good of society. Gardening, then, is a virtuous activity, one that is moral, and one that as a consequence brings the tranquillity requisite of a good life.

Gardens, as we all know, take work, and Hume sees industry as a virtue:

‘Men are kept in perpetual occupation, and enjoy, as their reward, the occupation itself, as well as those pleasures which are the fruit of their labour. The mind acquires new vigour; enlarges its powers and faculties; and by an assiduity in honest industry, both satisfies its natural appetites, and prevents the growth of unnatural ones.’ [31]

The clearing of weeds or the eradication of slugs can seem a task akin to that of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods perpetually to push a boulder up a mountain. We know the weeds and slugs will keep coming back. Albert Camus, the French existentialist philosopher, asks whether Sisyphus is happy, and answers ‘Yes.’ We, Sisyphean gardeners, can hand on heart also answer ‘Yes.’

The Humean gardener, though, must not be too driven. Virtues have associated vices. One can, for example, be too patient; sometimes there is a need for urgency in the garden: one should water the berberis tonight rather than just wait for it to rain. Conversely, Hume stresses the importance of taking your foot off the pedal: ‘human happiness … seems to consist in three ingredients: action, pleasure, and indolence.’ [32] A balance is required and good gardening keeps this balance. The relentless slug exterminator or the manic composter are not gardening well. One, however, who from time to time leans on his spade, puffing on his pipe, is the virtuous gardener. ‘I lean and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease … observing a spear of summer grass.’ [33] In a recent interview, Monty Don, the TV gardener, talks not of loafing, but pottering. Pottering in the garden may not be as industrious as one could be, but ‘pottering and happiness are very likely bedfellows. There is much to be said for it.… To the potterer, the primary benefits of this low level activity are a sense of wellbeing.’ [34]

In a recent book, Daniel Haybron explores the various dimensions of happiness. [35] There is first attunement. This is manifest in feelings of tranquility or inner surety (what the Epicureans called ataraxia). As one leans against one’s shed after a heavy bout of digging one feels ‘psychically … at home in one’s life’ – one’s day-to-day anxieties have floated away. Such attunement leads to engagement. One steps inside and becomes engaged in activity – potting on, cleaning one’s tools, organizing one’s seed trays. One can become lost in such activity, unaware of the passage of time, and even of oneself. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks of a state of flow in which one loses oneself in this way – the kind of state experienced by the athlete, the knitter, and the dancer. [36] Before one knows it the sun is setting and one must pack away one’s tools. Lethargy or listlessness have melted away in activity. Zeno, the Stoic, talked of happiness as finding a ‘good flow of life.’ Engagement then leads to endorsement, and here pleasurable feelings are important. One becomes conscious of one’s activity, and perhaps of the productivity of one’s plot or the beauty of one’s blooms.

To be happy, then, is for one’s life to be broadly favorable across these three dimensions of attunement, engagement and endorsement. And Haybron argues that the most important is attunement, the state of tranquility, the state that Hume stresses, and the state that characterizes much of the experience of gardeners. The happiness of gardening is perhaps rarely manifest in feelings of endorsement – blooms and good crops are fleeting; it is more commonly manifest in those foot on the spade, quiet moments. Gardening has its obvious sensory pleasures and rewards, but the therapeutic role of gardens lies not just in these, but in the richer psychological grounds for emotional wellbeing that Haybron explores.

Hume himself was an urbanite: Le Bon David, as he was called in France, was more at home in the salons of Paris than in the garden. Much as he talked of the common life, one cannot really imagine him getting his hands dirty. He also betrays certain negative attitudes to country life. He accuses Cromwell of being engaged in ‘rustic buffoonery’ and calls John Knox a ‘rustic apostle,’ although he does praise ‘agriculture; a profession, which, of all mechanical employments, requires the most reflection and experience.’ [37] Gardens do appear in the Treatise, but only as a source of pride, along with our family, riches, and houses, and to illustrate the workings of the imagination – a poet’s description of the Elysian Fields can be enlivened if he has a view of the garden. I am not suggesting, then, that we would find Hume escaping the psychological dangers of his study in his Parisian roof garden. This essay, rather, is a hybrid of my own love of gardening and admiration for the philosophy of Hume. Philosophical problems do not seem important to me when there are slugs with which to deal. Gardening may cultivate wisdom, but not that of the philosopher; rather, that of the common man.

Philosophers and theologians are a strange unearthly breed. They worry about the existence of the external world and about how an all-perfect being can allow evil, and they spend much of their time anxiously attempting to solve such conundrums. Wittgenstein observes:

I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again ‘I know that that’s a tree,’ pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: ‘This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.’ [38]

Well, says the Humean gardener, we shouldn’t – we should just get up, prune the tree, perhaps plant some cyclamen around the roots, and then perhaps sit down again.


[1] C. Jencks, The Garden of Cosmic Speculation (London: Frances Lincoln, 2003), pp. 14, 17, 13.

[2] E. B. Rogers, Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001), p. 238.

[3] Voltaire, Candide and other Stories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 22.

[4] Ibid., p. 11.

[5] Ibid., p. 88.

[6] The Complete Works of Voltaire, ed. T. Besterman (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1968), letter no. 11499R.

[7] D. Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. L. Selby-Bigge, revd. P. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 117.

[8] Ibid., p. 125.

[9] D. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. Selby-Bigge, revd. P. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 269.

[10] Ibid., p. 132.

[11] Hume, Enquiries, p. 87.

[12] Ibid., p. 162.

[13] D. Hume, The History of England, 6 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 1983), vol 1, p. 333; vol. 5 p. 12; vol. 6, p. 491.

[14] D. Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. N. Kemp Smith (Indianapolis: Bobs-Merrill, 1947), p. 86; D. Hume, Natural History of Religion, ed. J. Feiser (New York: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 141, 184.

[15] Hume, Treatise, pp. 271–2.

[16] Hume, Dialogues, 12.30.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Hume, History of England, vol. 6, p. 5.

[19] Hume, Enquiries, p. 256.

[20] D. Hume, ‘Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion,’ in Essays: Moral, Political and Literary, ed. E. F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 1985), p. 4.

[21] ‘The Sceptic,’ in Essays, p. 179n.

[22] Hume, Treatise, p. 272.

[23] L. Wittgenstein and P. Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, with a Memoir (New York: Horizon Press, 1974), p. 37.

[24] D. Hume, ‘Of Essay Writing,’ in Essays, p. 535.

[25] J. Addison, The Spectator, No. 477, September 6, 1712.

[26] The Complete Works of Voltaire, ed. T. Besterman (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1968), p. 6517.

[27] D. Cooper, A Philosophy of Gardens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 94.

[28] W. James, Psychology (Briefer Course) (Indianapolis: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985).

[29] W. H. Adams, Gardens Through History: Nature Perfected (New York: Abbeville, 1991), p. 52.

[30] Ibid., p. 113.

[31] D. Hume, ‘Of Refinement in the Arts,’ in Essays, p. 270.

[32] Ibid., p. 269.

[33] W. Whitman, Leaves of Grass (London: Penguin, 1988), p. 5.

[34] ‘The Joy of Pottering,’ Giles Wilson, BBC News Magazine, June 1, 2008.

[35] D. Haybron, The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[36] M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience (New York: Harper and Row, 1990).

[37] Hume, History of England, vol. 3, p. 369; vol. 4, p. 41; vol 6, p. 90. Hume is thought to have had the Roman writer Columella’s treatise on agriculture, De Re Rustica, in his library, as well as two editions of Rev. Adam Dickson’s A Treatise of Agriculture (1765/1770). See The David Hume Library, ed. D. F. Norton and M. J. Norton (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, 1996), pp. 83, 87.

[38] L. Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ed. E. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969), p. 467.

[Originally published in Philosophy for Everyone: Gardening, ed. D. O’Brien, Blackwell, Oxford, 2010]
[image by ‘Dave Catchpole’]

Could the Stoic and the Epicurean Cohabit?

George P. Simmonds
Oxford Brookes University


There is more to be said of the similarities between Stoicism and Epicureanism than their mere historical coincidence. In their framework (Sharples, R.W. (1996); p.82) and enterprise the two schools share a common interest: to devise a way of life (askêsis) that might cure humanity of its inherent sorrow (Nussbaum, M.C. (2009); p.102). These lifestyles were built upon the beliefs and values of their respective schools, and may to some extent be understood in view of them.

This article hopes to illustrate the governing values of Stoic and Epicurean life in deliberating the prospect of interschool cohabitation: Could the men (and women) of these schools live together in concord despite their differences, or is any hope of harmony dashed by their conflicting principles?

I: The Epicurean

The school of Epicurus, founded in Athens around 300 BCE, is fundamentally hedonistic in its outlook. This is to say the Epicurean sees pleasure as the ‘beginning and end of the blessed life,’ that he regards it as the only true and intrinsic good while viewing pain, its reverse, as the only true and intrinsic evil (Lond, A.A. & Sedley, D.N. (1987); p.113). Though any pledge to hedonism is likely to carry with it negative connotations, the Epicurean seems especially associated with gross and careless self-indulgence. This is a misunderstanding, for in truth the Epicurean advocates great moderation in his pursuit of pleasure.

The Epicurean’s ideas on desire are key to understanding his departure from the sybaritic degenerate. Epicurus holds that humans have a natural desire for pleasure, but that not all desire is worth pursuing. Desire is accordingly split into two varieties, natural and unnatural. Our natural desires concern that which we require for survival and comfort—the need for food, shelter, and sex, for instance. We are rewarded for fulfilling these desires with ‘kinetic’ pleasure, that is pleasure associated with replenishment and the relief of discomfort. Our unnatural desires, however, concern that which is based in false belief and irrational fear, such as the coveting of wealth, beauty and political power (Sharples, R.W. (1996); p.86). Epicurus insists that to be truly happy one must labour to remove these unnatural desires, for though they might provide us with momentary satisfaction, they wreak also great anxiety and cultivate in us an unhealthy need to become invincible. The Epicurean is instead to focus on the pleasures engendered by his natural desires (Nussbaum, M.C. (2009); p.113).

This exclusive commitment to natural desire might seem curiously timid for a hedonistic theory, but this is explained in the Epicurean belief that the limit of pleasure is to be found in the removal of pain. That is to say the Epicurean does not acknowledge any greater pleasure than the simple freedom from physical discomfort (aponia) and mental anxiety (ataraxia). This state of contentment was referred to by Epicurus as ‘katastematic’ pleasure, and can be understood as the Epicurean eudaimonia, the pinnacle of human bliss. Maintaining this state of pleasure is easy: all the Epicurean need do is pursue his natural desires while ignoring (or rising above) his unnatural ones. This in no way involves elaborate pleasure-seeking or debauchery, for the end to human life can be acquired by the most modest of means.

One would be forgiven for questioning the Epicurean’s apparent neglect of virtue and righteousness in his notion of the good, for unscrupulousness is often assumed in the hedonist. In truth, however, virtue plays a rather important role in Epicurus’s account of the good life, for living in a ‘prudent, honourable, and just’ manner is necessary to achieving the ‘pleasure that is the end of human existence.’ This is not, however, to suggest that any Epicurean honours virtue as good per se, for he sees virtue’s value in purely instrumental terms, firstly as a means of living without fear, and secondly as a way of overcoming unnatural desire (Long, A.A. (2006); p.184). The Epicurean is, therefore, virtuous only so he might avoid the accompanying danger and anxiety of behaving otherwise. Virtue can be understood to enjoy an inseparable relationship with pleasure, and it is for this reason that it is fundamental to the Epicurean life.

We might imagine the Epicurean, then, as someone who is content with a simple life furnished with simple things. He would pursue no wealth, luxury or political power for he would be wholly satisfied in his freedom from physical pain and mental anxiety, a freedom he promotes in his conformity to virtuous activity.

II: The Stoic

Despite their aforementioned coincidence, the Stoic and Epicurean conceptions of pleasure and virtue are remarkably different (Sellars, J. (2014); p.7-14). While the Epicurean believes the only true good and evil to be found in pleasure and pain, the Stoic holds that ‘virtue alone is good’ and ‘wickedness alone evil.’ This is to say that virtue and wisdom (‘the two being equated’) are in themselves necessary and sufficient for happiness (Sharples, R.W. (1996); p.100). This idea is based in the Stoic belief that the good life, and therefore the happy life, must be one in accordance with nature. By this it is meant that the good is attainable only in that which is natural to us, for ‘all things in accordance with nature have value and all things contrary to nature have disvalue’ (Long, A.A. & Sedley, D.D. (1987); p.355). For the human being, a naturally rational animal, a life in agreement with nature is to be found in virtue and reason, for to the Stoic there is nothing more fundamental to our nature (Diogenes Laertius: 7.85-6; SVF 3.178). Though all living creatures struggle to resume their natural state, the human alone is concerned with virtue, for it is from his soul that his natural rationality derives. To the Stoic, then, virtue is both an instrumental and final good, and the only means by which he is able to fulfil that which nature accords him (Gerson, L.P. (2008); p.113).

Since the Stoic conceptions of good and evil are concerned only with virtue and wickedness, it follows that they would focus more on intentions than results. The Stoic regards all that does not relate to his virtue—such as wealth and poverty—as neither good nor bad, for something is only worthy of the term ‘good’ or ‘evil’ if it concerns our natural state of fulfilment in reason (Sharples, R.W. (1996); p.102). All states or events of this nature are instead to be deemed ‘indifferent.’ This creates an environment in which no remotely consequentialist ethic could survive, since the Stoic believes that as long as one has behaved in accordance with nature one can and should be satisfied regardless of the ensuing results (Seddon, K. (2005); p.16-7). These events are, after all, beyond our control and paying them unnecessary mind would be to falsely attribute to them some sort of good or evil when they are in fact only preferred or unpreferred indifferents.

It is with this indifference that the Stoic would regard pleasure, the Epicurean’s sole intrinsic good. If asked to compare the good of virtue with that of one’s appetite being satisfied, the Stoic would contend that the two things ought not fall into the same calculation. This is, of course, because ‘for one’s own true nature, all that really matters is one’s reason,’ and only in this may the good be found (Baltzly, D. (2014); online). The Stoic would not deny that a full stomach has value (axia) in that it may better equip us for living in accordance with nature, but he would not attribute to it the intrinsic value placed in virtue and reason, nor would he any other form of pleasure (Osler, M. (2005); p.11).

The Stoic should be pictured as the sort of man whose every conscious action is motivated by his desire to live in accordance with his nature. He would be indifferent to all that which does not concern this fulfilment, namely that which does not relate to his virtue, and would under no circumstances regard an indifferent with anything by the way of intrinsic value.

III: Epicureanism & Stoicism – Could They Cohabit?

In contemplating a Stoic-Epicurean cohabitation this article’s foremost consideration ought to be the schools’ abovementioned views regarding virtue and pleasure. It would be fair to assume that their varying ideas on the nature of the good would create an irrevocable breach between the Stoic and the Epicurean; but in truth their differences in this respect would be of little consequence providing their cohabitation required only practical harmony. This surprising congruence is to be seen in the similarity of circumstances under which each would be satisfied.

Both the Stoic and the Epicurean are capable of living virtuously in a lawful society, for the desire to be a good citizen and respect the laws of authority are equally present in each of them. The Stoic’s need to fulfil his rational nature would motivate him to act virtuously in all given situations: he would respect justice, exercise ‘selfless service’ to his fellow man, and remain always prudent, temperate and brave. The Epicurean, in his wish to avoid complication and chaos, would behave likewise: he would make no transgression of the law, embrace something of an egalitarian philosophy, and direct himself with a virtue not unlike that of the Stoic (Long, A.A. & Sedley, D.N. (1987); p.114). There would in neither of them be a desire to commit crime or behave viciously, for the Stoic would reckon such behaviour contrary to his nature, while the Epicurean would be deterred by its accompanying anxiety. To an observer the everyday behaviour of the Stoic and Epicurean would seem remarkably similar, for a commitment to virtuous activity is fundamental to both. Without virtue the Stoic would cease to live in agreement with nature and the Epicurean would become riddled with disturbance; it is in this mutual reliance upon virtue that they share a close affinity.

With regard to the Epicurean’s hedonism there is no doubt that the Stoic would refrain from ‘consort[ing] with pleasure’ or ‘tolerat[ing] hedonism from others’ (Sharples, R.W. (1996); p.121). But given the Epicurean’s serious moderation it is difficult to imagine a situation in which his pleasure-seeking would be made explicit. Epicurus claims the highest pleasure is attainable by modest means, means which would scarcely move beyond the survival aspect of the Stoic’s self-preservation. In truth the Stoic possesses far more freedom of luxury than does the Epicurean: his indifference to all that does not concern virtue would make him invulnerable to the unnatural desires for which the Epicurean has such suspicion. Given this indifference, however, one might suggest the Stoic would appear discontent beside the hedonist, but even this is to overlook the ‘rational elation’ of joy the Stoic receives as a result of his living in accordance with nature (Gerson, L.P. (2008); p.120). His virtuous and reasonable conduct would afford him a state of tranquillity, a state not dissimilar to the Epicurean notion of katastematic pleasure (Becker, L.C. (1998); p.217). Given these parallels in their commitment to virtue and procuring of bliss we might conclude that the Stoic and Epicurean would be comfortable in cohabitation.

This would be to consider practicalities alone, however. Despite the unusual similarities of the Stoic and Epicurean lifestyles, the schools’ reasons for pursuing these regimes are diametrically opposed. Recall that the Stoic pursues virtue for the sake of virtue, for it is in this alone that he is able to live in agreement with nature. The Epicurean, meanwhile, sees virtue as a means to an end, a social contract whose purpose is to maintain a mutual security. Though it is true that the behaviours of the Stoic and Epicurean may appear similar, if one were to press the other for an explanation as to why they behave the way they do, the men would fall immediately into dispute, particularly considering the Stoic’s emphasis on intentions over results.

In analogy, consider two blacksmiths working together in the forging of a sword. While one volunteers his efforts for the sake of beauty, for he appreciates the art of swordcraft, the other acts so that he might sell the sword for a profit. Practically speaking there would be no basis for conflict between them, but any discussion of their intentions would incite disagreement and the desertion of their collaboration. The Stoic and Epicurean are the same: though they might be content in living similar lives, their motives and values differ to such an extent that any possible cohabitation would require limits that would strain the term ‘harmony.’ Considering the importance each of them place in philosophy as a way of life, to suggest these men live together on purely practical terms, without philosophical discussion or polemic, would be to discount the philosopher’s innately inquisitive nature.

IV: Summary

This article has compared the Stoic and Epicurean notions of pleasure and virtue as a means of considering the possibility of agreement between them. It has demonstrated that though the Stoic and Epicurean have the freedom to live almost identical lifestyles, their varying conceptions of nature and the good would allow only for the most pragmatic of cohabitations. The conclusion to be taken from this is that the schools’ ethics can be reconciled only in practical terms and that any attempt to unite their theoretical conceptions would require unacceptable compromise on either side.

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Original Texts

Seneca. Letters. 121.6-15

Diogenes Laertius. 7.85-6 (SVF 3.178)

Sextus Empiricus. Against the professors. 11.64-7 (SVF 1.631)

All original texts taken from: Long, A.A. and Sedley D.N. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers, Vol. 1: Translations of the Principal Sources, with Philosophical Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.