To the people living at the base of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. it seemed as if the world was ending. From across the Bay of Naples, Pliny the Younger watched the eruption and wrote down what he saw. The sea recoiled, lightning flashed inside the monstrous dark clouds, buildings tottered, and when blackness covered everything the people were convinced that “there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world.”
For thousands of men, women, and children in the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum it was the end. The destructive force of the volcano killed them almost instantly. Yet despite all the destruction that day, the volcano also seemed to rain down irony. Destroyed, Pompeii and Herculaneum are among the best preserved Roman sites in the world.
In one villa in Herculaneum the heat of the eruption carbonized a whole library. Any book lover should weep. Except that when all the other works from antiquity have turned to dust and been lost if not copied again and again, the rolls in this library were saved. Black lumps, but legible in parts.
On one small portion of a roll was found a strange four-line summary of the philosophy of Epicurus.
Don't fear god,
Don't worry about death;
What is good is easy to get,
What is terrible is easy to endure.
You have to wonder whether the owner of the library found comfort in this aphorism on that last day. I hope so. I believe that Epicurus’ philosophy is just as important to us, just as valuable, today as it was two thousand years ago.
Very few of us will ever face annihilation by volcanism. In many ways the dangers we face are more terrible. A wave of scalding ash at least has the benefit of being a rather swift end. With current life expectancies we have eight or so decades to play with. Eighty years. That is both a long time to fill and a short time to do everything. What will you do with existence? Does Epicurus’ answer on the life well-lived still make sense?
Every age has lamented the passing of a Golden Era, which existed until recently. Cicero cried out on the Senate floor, “Oh, the morals! Oh, the times!” Any politician can win votes by harking back and promising to make us great again. Every age is different; to directly compare the challenges and situations of one to another is sloppy thinking. Human nature never changes however. The existential angst of finding ourselves adrift in the universe is a thread that ties us to our uttermost ancestor who was able to think. Advice, questions, and comfort that transcend the accidents of time and place are just what Epicurus offered. His words will matter for as long as humans are humans.
The Teachings of Epicurus
Vain is the word of a philosopher, which does not heal any suffering of man. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind. - Epicurus, fragment
Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.) was a thoroughly modern mind in an ancient setting. Taking up the atomic theories of Democritus and Leucippus and saying that empirical knowledge about the world could be gained through the senses, he came close to a scientific worldview. But Epicurus was not some dry theoretician. He knew that understanding the world around us has a purpose, and that purpose is the pursuit of a pleasant life.
It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn't know the nature of the universe but still gives some credence to myths. So without the study of nature there is no enjoyment of pure pleasure. - Principal Doctrine 12
I have written before about why Epicurus’ views on pleasure are so important today. While the Epicurean pleasure principle is fairly well known it is important to realize that his was a complete philosophy. The four little sayings recovered from Herculaneum is the ideal entry into the workings of the Epicurean system and the path it offers us to escape the existential angst at the core of all humans.
The four sayings quoted above are known as the tetrapharmakos, or “four-part cure.” This is a reference to a Roman medicine made of tallow, wax, pitch, and resin, all mixed with pork fat. Quite what that mixture would cure, apart from a desire ever to visit the prescribing doctor again, I’m not sure. For the Epicurean tetrapharmakos, the aim was to cure life of one of its worst diseases: fear.
Unhappiness comes either through fear or through vain and unbridled desire, but if a man curbs these, he can win for himself the blessedness of understanding. - Epicurus, fragment
We have little left by Epicurus’ own hand: two lists of sayings (the Principal Doctrines and the Vatican Sayings), a handful of letters, and some fragments recovered from quotations in the works of other writers.
What makes the recovery of the library at Herculaneum so exciting for Epicureans is that it seems to be composed of texts by Epicurus and his followers that we are only just now getting to read.
Most of these are big books on heavy subjects. Many of them were written by a man called Philodemus, who was not the most inspired of writers. While he wrote extensively on matters of pleasure it turns out that reading him is unlikely to be a pleasant experience. These were works by philosophers for philosophers. The tetrapharmakos is for the outsider, a simple set of sayings to calm the mind and prompt the individual toward good living. Another Roman Epicurean, Lucretius, explained why it was necessary to make philosophy open to all like this.
Physicians, when they wish to treat children with a nasty dose of wormwood, first smear the rim of the cup with golden honey. - Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
Don’t Fear God
For there are gods… [but] the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions. - Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
The Epicureans were called atheists in the ancient world and it is still an “insult” used against the philosophy today. The Epicurean view of the world is that it is “atoms and void.” All things spring from the natural behavior of atoms as they move in the void. That seems to leave little room for the intervention of gods.
That is exactly what Epicurus taught. For him the gods were infinitely remote beings who did not care the least for humans. They are serene and joyful creatures, composed of atoms just like everything else. They exist somewhere in the universe but not on Earth and never stooped to alter even the falling of a single atom. This belief is certainly idiosyncratic but easily understood. Spinoza said, “If triangles had a god, they would give him three sides.” Epicurus, who believed in tranquillity and pleasure and avoiding unnecessary troubles, made gods in the image of this ideal.
Obviously there is no need to fear this sort of a god. If the gods are perfectly content why would they do anything to harm us, or do anything new at all? As Lucretius puts it: What could tempt those who had been at peace so long to change their old life for a new? The revolutionary is one who is dissatisfied with the old order.
But what if God is not, or the gods are not, like the Epicureans believed? Should we fear them then? This is where a little bit of Epicurus’ empiricism will be revelatory. Epicurus would suggest we do a bit of experimental theology. Let’s examine the results of prayer.
If God listened to the prayers of men, all men would quickly have perished: for they are forever praying for evil against one another. - Epicurus, fragment
Alas, the efficacy of prayer turns out to be a non-testable hypothesis. If the object of prayer occurs then “God did it!” If it fails to occur then that was part of God’s plan. We shall have to look elsewhere to see the might of the gods.
It is a common observation that the ability of gods to interfere with the natural order of the universe has shrunk remarkably with the invention of cameras. They used to be everywhere doing all sorts of noteworthy things. Now they tend to mostly appear in pieces of food. If the demonstrable limits of a deity’s awesome powers is to spell out their name in the seeds of a tomato or burn their image in a slice of toast then I really cannot see any reason to fear them. I have always preferred crumpets for breakfast anyway.
Perhaps they are just shy. All things that happen at the moment certainly seem to occur within the bounds of the laws of nature. If the gods only make things happen in accordance with nature then by understanding nature we can be prepared for things that may happen and not fear them as unexpected and punishing events.
The gods are certainly taciturn. Billions speak to various gods, and the few who hear a god speak back tend to be in insane asylums. Until the gods decide to come back from their holiday it seems safe to assume that they will do us no harm in this life and are therefore not to be feared.
At least not in this universe. Should we be afraid of the next life?
Don’t Worry About Death
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. - Principal Doctrine 2
We can no more escape our deaths than our shadows could wander off by themselves. Every life ends in death and yet it is often the last thing on our minds. Literally. I’m sure for many people their last thought is one of surprise that death has come for them. If we are being pursued by this unavoidable predator, shouldn’t we be in a constant state of fear?
It depends on who you think you are. Are you a soul attached to a lump of flesh? Are you a spectacularly complex computer made of meat? Something else?
That is not a position everyone would accept even today. The marvelous abilities of the mind make it seem that life must be a special sort of thing. A soul must be the animating force, they think, and death must be the soul leaving the body. But is death really such a strange thing?
When a house is knocked down you don’t stand over the bricks and ponder, “Where has the house gone?” Take a hammer to a computer until it stops working, you don’t wonder where the computer has gone. All the parts are still there but some function is no longer possible. Why linger over a corpse and theorize over where the person, the soul, has gone?
Moreover, when the whole frame is broken up, the soul is scattered and has no longer the same powers as before, nor the same notions; hence it does not possess sentience either. - Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus
Of course many, probably most, people do believe that we have an immortal soul. For me this is a greater cause of anxiety than the idea of no longer existing. I get bored during long films, what am I going to do with eternity? The reason I do not fear living after death is that it seems so unlikely.
I have never seen heaven, I have never met someone I trust who has been to heaven; there is no reliable source for the existence of life after death. I understand the urge to hope something nice happens to our loved ones. As a child my elderly relatives who had “gone” I imagined to be on holiday by the seaside. My childhood dog is living on a great big farm in the country. Perhaps yours is too. Mine is now the oldest dog which ever lived. Is the great big farm for childhood pets really so different from my grandparent’s holiday, or the white clouds of heaven, or the halls of Valhalla? That is a glib way of thinking about the stories we are told of the dead, but close questioning makes things even worse.
Are you the same being as your soul? I often hear that we are not people with souls but rather souls with bodies. If we are identical with our souls then people are nowhere near as terrified of death as they should be. Think of all the old people who die with dementia, raving and hysterical. If they are the same as their soul does that mean they will spend forever like that? What about the depressed who take their own lives?
What if you are not the same as your soul? How does that help me escape the fear of death? I die but someone or something else, my soul, gets out of my body. This article was written by me, comes from me, but it is not the same thing as me. A soul which is not me does not make me immortal any more than a child makes a parent immortal.
But since there is no evidence for existence after death of the mind, or of an immortal soul of any sort, we should not fear. Dementors and Death Eaters cause nightmares but I am never going to meet one in real life.
Okay, so that deals with the fear of an afterlife, perhaps, but what about the fear of simply ceasing to exist? The idea of blinking out of existence is one as familiar as the fear of the dark.
Yet we turn off the lights before we go to sleep. Think about sleep. You lay down, close your eyes, and… Nothing. On nights where you don’t even dream it seems as if no time has passed at all. If you had not woken up you would never have known it. You will not feel pain, or worry about not existing, or anything else.
Lucretius asks whether you were troubled by events that happened before your birth. When Carthage attacked the Romans did that distress you? Nothing bad can happen to the person that does not exist.
What harm would it have done us to remain uncreated? Are we to suppose that our life was sunk in gloom and grief till the light of creation blazed forth? True that, once a man is born, he must will to remain alive so long as beguiling pleasure holds him. But one who has never tasted the love of life, or been enrolled among the living, what does it matter to him if he is never created? - Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book V (Penguin, 2007)
The fear of death itself is irrational and by refusing to think about death when we have the chance only increases our fear as death approaches. The Epicurean injunction “Don’t worry about death,” is both a call not fear it and to understand the nature of it.
Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain him when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer. - Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
What Is Good Is Easy to Get
It is pointless for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself. - Vatican Saying 65
We all know people who are never happy with what they have. Maybe you’re one of them. “Nothing satisfies the man who is not satisfied with a little,” Epicurus said. “Don't spoil what you have by desiring what you don't have; but remember that what you now have was once among the things only hoped for.”
This part of the tetrapharmakos goes directly against the common misconception of what being an Epicurean means. When Epicurean is used today it is most often to describe a foodie, a pleasure seeker with refined tastes, or simply a glutton. Epicurus preached a simple life where not every desire has to be fulfilled for us to be happy.
Of our desires some are natural and necessary, others are natural but not necessary; and others are neither natural nor necessary, but are due to groundless opinion. - Principal Doctrine 29
All desires that do not lead to pain when they remain unsatisfied are unnecessary, but the desire is easily got rid of, when the thing desired is difficult to obtain or the desires seem likely to produce harm. - Principal Doctrine 26
Epicurus is calling us to examine all the things we think we want. A frustrated desire is painful, as anyone who has ever had an unreturned crush knows. What do we do when the beloved does not feel the same way about us? Do we nurse that affection forever, or do we let it go? What about the person who is convinced that if only they had a Porsche they would be happy? They save up, forgoing the simple pleasures of life, in pursuit of their desire, only to die the day before their expensive car is delivered.
The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity -- Principal Doctrine 15
Humans need very few things: a full belly, good friends, and a place to call home. When these basics are satisfied it is possible to add other simple pleasures to life, but multiplying our needs only multiplies our fears that they may not be supplied. Once you have the necessities of life, and recognize they are the only things you require, you can enjoy other opportunities that come along without the addict’s terror of losing them.
We regard independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win. Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when once the pain of want has been removed, while bread and water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips. - Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
What Is Terrible Is Easy to Endure
I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and a troubled stomach, so violent that nothing can be added to my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical conversations with you, counterbalances all these afflictions. - Epicurus, Letter to Idomeneus
Epicurus, who taught that pleasure was good and pain evil, died in agony, probably of kidney stones. Today we wince for people suffering the same, so imagine the pain in an age without effective medicine. Yet he wrote the above letter to his friend and called himself happy. At the end, was he out of his mind?
Whenever the tetrapharmakos is discussed the first three points are understandable even to those who don’t agree with them. But this final one seems to be nonsense at worst or a moronic attempt to convince ourselves that things are not as bad as they seem, like the cheapest mantra from a new-age self-help book. What is terrible is easy to endure.
In reality it is neither nonsense nor moronic. It is, however, a product of its time.
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. - Principal Doctrine 4
Modern medicine is wonderful. The advances made in the 20th century would seem like incredible magic to an Ancient Greek. We can cure diseases, we can slow their spread, we can ease pain. We can also prolong life far beyond what would occur if nature was left to run its course. To Epicurus it must have been simply a fact of life that if something was truly terrible then it could not last long. An infection causing a high fever and pain would be over quickly, either because you got better or because you died.
But what about a patch of skin that is annoyingly itchy? You don’t die of that. But you can become accustomed to it. You go about your life and do not dwell on it. It may be a long time before it gets better but you can always find some pleasure to counterbalance the pain. With the right mindset even great pain can be overcome, just as Epicurus in his final days thought about the conversations that comforted him.
Let us not blame the flesh as the cause of great evils, nor blame circumstances for our distresses. - Epicurus, fragment
But I’m focusing on the terrible things that happen to bodies. What about the terrible things that happen only in our mind? We have already seen that Epicurus thought we should eradicate fears by studying nature. All the terrible things that happen in our minds we do to ourselves.
When a loved one dies it seems terrible to us if we have not prepared our minds.
While we are on the road, we must try to make what is before us better than what is past; when we come to the road's end, we feel a smooth contentment. - Vatican Saying 48
If we have accepted Epicurus’ teachings we cannot feel bad for the dead person; they no longer exist and are completely untroubled. We can mourn them because we will no longer have the pleasure of their company, but that is cultivating a desire that can never be satisfied. The dead are gone. What we should do is remember the times we spent with them and recall the love we felt for them.
Sweet is the memory of a dead friend. - Epicurus, fragment
Remember the Tetrapharmakos
In my garden there is a cherry tree. It has been with me since I was young. In the spring it sends out shoots and buds and showers the garden with its blossoms. In the summer I sit under the green leaves and read in the shade. In the autumn I pick its fruit. There is no season at which I do not love that tree. Even winter gives me the pleasure of looking at its bare branches and recalling the good times, and hopes for more.
If a wind knocks it down, or a disease withers it, or I have to move away, I will miss it. Of course I will; it is human nature. But just as it is in my nature to regret a loss it is the nature of the universe to change. By accepting that bad things may happen we cherish the good times all the more. No matter what happens I will still have those pleasant memories to ease my pain. My friends, all those I care for, are an orchard of cherry trees.
Remember the tetrapharmakos and the teachings of Epicurus and we can live so well that when death comes, as we know it will, that we are not scared either for ourselves or our friends. It also reminds us to live while we can and not to trade the reality of now for a future that is uncertain.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow. - A. E. Housman, "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now"