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Being unhappy in your leg

10 Oct

In Caryl Churchill’s play ‘Love and Information’ at the Royal Court one scene features a boy who can feel emotion but never experiences physical pain. When a friend pinches his leg he feels nothing. So he asks the friend to explain  to him what pain is like. She gets him to think about a time when he’s been unhappy, when someone’s been horrible to him and it hurts. “So it’s like being unhappy but in your leg?” the boy responds.  

The Greek philosopher Epicurus believed that we achieve happiness by banishing (or at least coming to terms with) the pains of the body and of the mind. So for him the idea of being unhappy in your leg would not have been strange. And in fact (I speak as someone who’s got both toothache and a strained muscle at the moment) it is quite hard to be happy in your head when your body’s feeling pretty miserable.

But hopefully not impossible. On his deathbed Epicurus composed a letter to one of his friends. ‘On this blissful day, which is also the last of my life, I write this to you.  My continual sufferings from strangury and dysentery are as great as they possibly could be.  But the cheerfulness I  feel when I remember our past conversations outweighs all these afflictions.’