Peter Jones

Cicero, the lagomaniac

Turns out, hygge and lagom aren’t so Scandinavian after all…

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A year ago, the Danes reached into their groaning cracker barrel and pulled out ‘hygge’ as their own solution to the world’s problems. That was bad enough, but now it is the Swedes’ turn, offering up ‘lagom’ as the shrine before which all must now grovel in untimely worship. Yet what are both of these but replays of two hoary classical injunctions?

‘Hygge’ ultimately stems from the philosopher Epicurus (d. 271 bc):

‘He who needs tomorrow least will approach it with the most pleasure.’ In his take on the subject, the poet Horace (d. 8 bc) urged Leuconoe to ‘trust as little as possible in tomorrow’ and instead carpe diem, usually translated ‘seize the day’. Carpo in fact meant ‘I pluck, gather, pick, pull’, used of fruit, flowers etc., and then of what was transitory – kisses, dreams, the breath of life, etc. So the nub of Horace’s advice to Leuconoe was to gather rosebuds while she could. All very ‘hygge’.

‘Lagom’, meanwhile, goes back even further, to the Delphic oracle and a maxim said to have been inscribed on its temple of Apollo (6th c bc): mêden agan, ‘nothing in excess’. This was probably meant to be understood in the context of another saying inscribed there, gnôthi sauton, ‘know yourself’. What they boiled down to was the virtue of self-control and moderation in all things, i.e. knowing what you could and could not do — referring primarily to material, physical, social and political overreach — because if you strayed beyond the limits of your own capacities, you were storing up trouble for yourself. Cicero pondered how to translate the Greek word for this virtue – sôphrosunê – into Latin: ‘Sometimes I call it temperantia, sometimes moderatio, sometimes also modestia. But I do not know whether this virtue could better be termed frugalitas…’

Swedish publishers will presumably not be looking to overpower the British public with an exhausting bombardment of books on the subject: what could be less lagomanic? They can safely leave that to desperate features editors.