Epicurus’s remedies can help us face the stress of new variants, writes Tom Hodgkinson
More lockdowns and restrictions and Omicron anxiety may be extremely irritating as we idlers love merry-making. However the Epicurean in me reflects that they do at least give us government-mandated opportunities for staying in bed, for cancelling appointments, and generally loafing around at home doing nothing.
This may be a good time, in fact, to take a look at Epicurus’s Tetrapharmakon or “four-part cure”. Maybe his cures have an equal claim to bring us happiness and health as those of big pharmakon.
Here are his remedies, which I think are rewarding to ponder:
One: A blessed and indestructible being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; so he is free from anger and partiality, for all such things imply weakness.
Sometimes shortened to “don’t fear God”, Epicurus is trying to tell us that gods, if they exist, take no interest in the affairs of men. And he also implies that if we humans want to be happy, we should become godlike beings ourselves. The gods of Epicurus were the ultimate idlers: they sat around doing nothing, and they didn’t bother anyone. (I also take this to mean “get off Twitter”). See Epicurus’s pupil Leontium, above. She’s got the right idea: a sofa, a jug of wine, and some sort of lyre. That’s all you need.
Two: Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us.
Here Epicurus is trying to convince his listeners that there is no life after death, no hell below us, above us only sky. This should relieve anxiety about everyday life and make us live well, without fear.
Three: The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When such pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together.
This point is sometimes shortened to “what is good is easy to get”. This is an argument for the “bare necessities” of life. You may consult the lyrics of this excellent philosophical ditty for a lucid explanation of Epicurean doctrine, but essentially he’s saying that you can be very happy if your basic needs are supplied. Lusting after yachts and bigger houses and silly cars will bring heartache.
Four: Continuous bodily pain does not last long; instead, pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which slightly exceeds bodily pleasure does not last for many days at once. Diseases of long duration allow an excess of bodily pleasure over pain.
Sometimes shortened to “what’s terrible is easy to endure,” here Epicurus is trying to give us the strength to cope with calamity and pain.
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