Cultivate your garden

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27 December 2012


This was the advice of the hedonistic Greek philosopher Epicurus of Samos (341 to 270 BC). In the second half of the Classical Period (776 to 323 BC), Greeks lived in city states, where, in theory at least, they could often play an active role in local government. In the succeeding Hellenistic Period (323 to 30 BC), however, during which Epicurus lived much of his life, the Greek world had become globalised thanks to the conquests of Alexander the Great (356 to 323 BC) and the individual citizen had much less political importance. How was he (sadly, it was always a “he” in the culture of the time) to attune himself to the vast cosmopolis in which he now lived?  Epicurus’s answer was: keep out of politics,  cultivate your garden and aim at the pleasure of a refined intellect.




少无适俗韵, 性本爱丘山。

误落尘网中, 一去十三年。

羁鸟恋旧林, 池鱼思故渊。

开荒南野际, 守拙归园田。

方宅十余亩, 草屋八九间。

榆柳荫后檐, 桃李罗堂前。

暖暖远人村, 依依圩里烟

狗吠深巷中, 鸡鸣桑树巅。

户庭无尘杂, 虚室有余闲。

久在樊笼里, 复得返自然


[by] Tao Yuan-ming

From early youth I have been out of tune with the vulgar;

By nature I love the hill and mountain.

For thirteen years I have fallen by error

Into the world’s thick web.

A bird in a cage yearns for the old forest;

A fish in a pond thinks of its former stream.

I have reclaimed the wasteland in the South

And come back to farm and garden

To stick to my dull life as of old.

I have more than ten mou of land,

With eight or nine rooms in a thatched hut;

Elms and willows shade the eaves behind,

While peach and plum trees grow in front of it.

Distant villages can be dimly discerned;

Neighbouring chimneys emit their smoke gently.

The dogs bark in deep lanes,

And roosters crow on the tops of mulberry trees.

Within doors there is no worldly care;

In the vacant rooms there is leisure.

Long confined in a cage,

I am again at one with nature.


Tao Qian (aka Tao Yuan-ming). Chinese poet (365-427 AD).



[ by Horace]


Odi profanum uolgus et arceo.

Fauete linguis: carmina non prius

     audita Musarum sacerdos

     uirginibus puerisque canto.

Regum timendorum in proprios greges,               5

reges in ipsos imperium est Iouis,

     clari Giganteo triumpho,

     cuncta supercilio mouentis.

Est ut uiro uir latius ordinet

arbusta sulcis, hic generosior               10

     descendat in campum petitor,

     moribus hic meliorque fama

contendat, illi turba clientium

sit maior: aequa lege Necessitas

     sortitur insignis et imos,

     omne capax mouet urna nomen.               15

Destrictus ensis cui super impia

ceruice pendet, non Siculae dapes

     dulcem elaboratum saporem,

     non auium citharaequecantus               20

Somnum reducent: somnus agrestium

lenis uirorum non humilis domos

     fastidit umbrosamque ripam,

     non Zephyris agitata tempe.

Desiderantem quod satis est neque               25

tumultuosum sollicitat mare,

     nec saeuus Arcturi cadentis

     impetus aut orientis Haedi,

non uerberatae grandine uineae

fundusque mendax, arbore nunc aquas               30

     culpante, nunc torrentia agros

     sidera, nunc hiemes iniquas.

Contracta pisces aequora sentiunt

iactis in altum molibus: huc frequens

     caementa demittit redemptor

     cum famulis dominusque terrae               35

fastidiosus: sed Timor et Minae

scandunt eodem quo dominus, neque

     decedit aerata triremi et

     post equitem sedet atra Cura.               40

Quod si dolentem nec Phrygius lapis

nec purpurarum sidere clarior

     delenit usus nec Falerna

     uitis Achaemeniumque costum,

cur inuidendis postibus et nouo               45

sublime ritu moliar atrium?

     Cur ualle permutem Sabina

     diuitias operosiores?


I hate the vulgar crowd, and keep them at a distance:

grant me your silence. A priest of the Muses,

I sing a song never heard before,

I sing a song for young women and boys.

The power of dread kings over their peoples,

is the power Jove has over those kings themselves,

famed for his defeat of the Giants,

controlling all with a nod of his head.

It’s true that one man will lay out his vineyards

over wider acres than will his neighbour,

that one candidate who descends to

the Campus, will maintain that he’s nobler,

another’s more famous, or has a larger

crowd of followers: but Necessity sorts

the fates of high and low with equal

justice: the roomy urn holds every name.

Sicilian feasts won’t supply sweet flavours

to the man above whose impious head hangs

a naked sword, nor will the singing

of birds or the playing of zithers bring back

soft sleep. But gentle slumber doesn’t despise

the humble house of a rural labourer,

or a riverbank deep in the shade,

or the vale of Tempe, stirred by the breeze.

He who only longs for what is sufficient,

is never disturbed by tumultuous seas,

nor the savage power of Arcturus

setting, nor the strength of the Kids rising,

nor his vineyards being lashed by the hailstones,

nor his treacherous farmland, rain being blamed

for the state of the trees, the dog-star

parching the fields, or the cruel winter.

The fish can feel that the channel’s narrowing,

when piles are driven deep: the builder, his team

of workers, the lord who scorns the land

pour the rubble down into the waters.

But Fear and Menace climb up to the same place

where the lord climbs up, and dark Care will not leave

the bronze-clad trireme, and even sits

behind the horseman when he’s out riding.

So if neither Phrygian stone, nor purple,

brighter than the constellations, can solace

the grieving man, nor Falernian

wine, nor the perfumes purchased from Persia,

why should I build a regal hall in modern

style, with lofty columns to stir up envy?

Why should I exchange my Sabine valley,

for the heavier burden of excess wealth?

Odes  III. I  Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace). Roman poet (65-8 BC).


After leaving public office in Peking in the north of China, whether as retirees or because of a spat with their superiors, Chinese civil servants often moved south towards the Yangtse River, where they settled in towns such as Suzhou, which was (and still is) famed for its gardens. When in office, they had functioned as buttoned-up Confucian officials necessarily subservient to the formal rituals of the imperial court. Afterwards, in retirement, sloughing off the stifling Confucianism of the bureaucracy, they often became Taoists, seeking thereafter to live life in accordance not with orthodox prescription but with the rhythms of Nature.

A mou is 0.667 of a hectare.



 You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)

2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)

4. Capitalism in practice  (4 July 2012) 

5.Ladder  (21 June 2012)

 6. A tale of two cities (1)  (6 June 2012)

 7. A tale of two cities (2)  (7 June 2012)

 8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.


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