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Ancient: Epicurus’ Cure for Unhappiness

In this video, Monte discusses the “tetrapharmakos” or “four-part remedy” developed by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) and his followers to treat unhappiness and anxiety. The tetrapharmakos consists of four maxims which encapsulate the Epicurean outlook on god, life, death, pleasure, and pain. The maxims can be meditated upon in order to alleviate worries and concerns that continue to plague us as much as they did the ancients.

Speaker: Dr. Monte Ransome Johnson, Associate Professor, University of California, San Diego.
Created by Gaurav Vazirani.

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  • leaf blue style avatar for user Valentine
    How does the second maxim deal with the possibility of someone (cough, me, cough) being absolutely terrified of not existing?
    (13 votes)
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    • ohnoes default style avatar for user Cyan Wind
      Good question. Though I don't have any answer for your problem, I can feel and share your anxious. Sometimes in my life, I deeply think about death and guess what: I am afraid of not opening my eyes some days, of not perceiving anything anymore. At those moments, I truly wish that a random God would suddenly appear and talk to me: "Never fear! There is an afterlife in which you will be wandering around for eternity!"

      Well, guess we treasure our souls (not the bodies) so much, heh?
      (16 votes)
  • leafers tree style avatar for user Kevin
    So, in other words, to use a nerd reference, Epicureanism is like living like a hobbit. Just enjoy the simple pleasure of smoking tobacco, tea, and cakes, and care not for the world outside the shire.
    (7 votes)
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  • ohnoes default style avatar for user Cyan Wind
    A bit off-topic question: If the first maxim of tetrapharmakos clearly said "Don't be afraid of God!" or I should say "Don't be afraid of God's punishments!" 2000+ years ago, how could Catholic Church gain power through time and enforce their rules on people, e.g. Galileo's affair?
    (4 votes)
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    • mr pants teal style avatar for user monkey77
      Your question is incredibly broad, but the short answer is that Epicureanism was not as popular amongst both intellectuals and the general public as other traditions. Additionally, it declined as Neo-Platonism gained popularity. Neo-Platonism became the dominant philosophical tradition and Christianity eventually spread into philosophy. The philosopher Boethius was the last important heathen philosopher of late antiquity, and he was executed in about 524 AD.

      The rise of Christianity was greatly helped by the roman emperor Theodosius making it the official state church.
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Daniel Arcese
    Although things like fame and political power are "unnatural and unnecessary desires" they lead to social status and control which make the "natural desires" even easier to obtain
    (3 votes)
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    • leafers seed style avatar for user Boniface Wolfsong
      However, because fame and status make it easier to acquire the "natural desires," these then have a tendency to accumulate, since we really don't need that much to survive. Once they do accumulate, then others will see this as an opportunity to take them from you, in order for them to achieve their own desires. This then, puts you at risk of losing your life, because you desire to protect your stockpile of things that fulfill the "natural desires."
      (6 votes)
  • leafers sapling style avatar for user Esse Keen
    "Terrible things in life are easy to endure".

    This reminded me of something I read Nietzsche wrote: “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.”

    I know almost nothing about Philosophy, but is Nietzsche in some way influenced by Epicurianism?
    (4 votes)
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  • piceratops seedling style avatar for user Scott Loden
    When Monte Johnson mentioned at that "this" was the character of a hedonistic philosopher, I am confused as to whom/what he was referring. Was Epicurus so fervent about adhering to his own principles of minimalism that he was a hedonism in respect to his intellect by trying to get the most out of life by rationing his intake and savoring the tiny things he did get, or was the part about indulging in ice cream and trying to maintain satisfaction level after trying all the flavors in different variations a hedonistic philosophy? Was he possibly being ambiguous and broaching that perhaps Epicurus was being too stingy, but still also in fact truly referring to the ice cream example?
    ...
    Is it the fact that he willed himself to perform this act of enjoyment rather than letting his natural instincts satiate his taste for cheese without forcing himself to ration? ...He used his intellect to say this is optimum satiety?
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf red style avatar for user Velvetia
    So if Epicurus took a positive spin on life, did he create euphemisms?
    (3 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Katelyn  Seiple
    A little off topic but, what is the difference between philosophy and psychology?
    (2 votes)
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    • male robot donald style avatar for user Julien
      Philosophy is the study of thinking or greek, "The love of Wisdom". But phycology is the study of the mind and how it works. Ex. decision making parts of your brain. If you want to know more about it, go on to youtube and search up crashcourse. It is a page with almost all topics from study of games to, yes you guesses right, philosophy and phycology.
      (2 votes)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user menegay
    At , the argument to support that "terrible things in life are easy ('EASY!') to endure" feels like a cop-out. First of all, the maxim is essentially picking a fight with all the terrible things that can happen to someone by putting "easy" in the same sentence to negate the terrible aspects of... things in life. Of course "terrible" and "easy" are naturally at odds with each other so it's going to be an interesting argument to play out.

    So, what's the argument? In a nutshell, it's "pain sucks but it's usually not that bad. And if it's really really bad, like "terrible-bad", you can always just end your life."

    Hold on what? That's his answer?! End your life if it's too painful? I was expecting more from a great philosopher. This can't really be his answer, right?
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user S. den Oudsten
    I have an issue with the 3rd maxim and I was wondering how others view this.
    Take the basic need for food/water and shelter. These are no longer freely available in modern day society, through privatization of basically everything, from the water we drink to the ground we stand on.

    For example, I cant simply walk into the woods, pick a nice spot and build myself a hut to call home. I could turn my garden into a mini-farm but to do so you need to invest quite a lot and I wouldn't dare say it is easy to acquire. Also, I do not think I need to elaborate on how many examples there are of people finding it quite difficult to obtain food and shelter on a regular, secure basis. The fascination with the illusive idea of wealth seems to fuel the substantial problems that poverty causes. I.e. the basic things we need become difficult to acquire.

    Does this theory (at least concerning this 3rd maxim) still hold up in modern day society? What is your view?
    (2 votes)
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Video transcript

(intro music) Hi, my name is Monte Johnson. I teach philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and today I want to talk about Epicureanism's four-part cure for unhappiness, the Tetrapharmakos. God is nothing to fear, death is nothing to worry about, it is easy to acquire the good things in life, and it is easy to endure the terrible things. These four maxims are the first four capital doctrines of Epicureanism, collectively known as the "Tetrapharmakos." "Tetrapharmakos" literally means "four-part remedy," or "cure." The term originally referred to a medical concoction of four drugs, but the Epicureans mean by it the encapsulation of their philosophy in a formula of four easily digestible maxims that one can meditate on in order to relieve anxiety, much like modern cognitive behavioral therapy. As Epicurus says, "Meditate on these ideas day and night, "and the ones related to them, both alone and with "someone like yourself, and you will never be badly "disturbed, whether awake or dreaming." In order to see how the maxims might contribute to our tranquility, let's briefly expand on each part of the tetrapharmakos. First, God is not to be feared. Traditional religion presents us with terrifying visions of superpowerful gods, such as Zeus with his thunderbolts, or Poseidon who, with a rattle of his trident, can cause earthquakes and storms. The perceived need to mollify such gods with sacrifices is the source of much distress, worry, and expense, and has had terrible consequences. But for both scientific and theological reasons, the divine should not be thought to be the cause of natural disasters. Epicurus, in his treatise on nature, gave a comprehensive account of the universe and its origin, including living things and human beings. This account removed from natural philosophy the need for any appeal to God as a creator or maintainer or end of nature and natural phenomena. Epicurus says that if we consider God to be an invulnerable and happy living thing, then God must be completely unbothered and unworried by human affairs, and unaffected by either anger or pity, which are kinds of suffering incompatible with divine perfection. It is, in fact, impious, according to Epicurus, to represent God as inflicting punishment on human beings, whether through natural disasters or in the afterlife, and it is unholy to sacrifice human goods as if we could possibly influence or benefit a god. Second, death is nothing to be worried about. In connection with the first maxim, there is no need to worry that God will punish you after death. Furthermore, our natural science tells us that when our body breaks down, the living thing ceases to exist. There is no immaterial soul that can be tormented or rewarded in the afterlife. Death is nothing to us, for it can affect neither the living nor the dead. It cannot affect you when you're living, because then you're not dead yet, and it cannot affect you when you're dead, because then you don't exist anymore. The ancient fear of dwelling for eternity in the darkness of subterranean Hades is baseless, as is the medieval worry about being tortured in Hell. As for lamenting the loss of everything you could have experienced had you died later, you need not worry about that any more than you worry about everything you could have experienced in the time before you were born. The time before you were born and the time after you die are equal, but there is no more reason to regret that you will not be alive in the distant future than there is to regret that you were not alive in the distant past. In fact, it is comforting to realize that everything in life is limited, and that beyond a certain point, all striving and suffering necessarily ends. And once one removes the fear of death and longing for more life, almost all other fears disappear, and we become free to enjoy the lifetime we have. This brings us to the third maxim of tetrapharmakos: the good things in life are easy to acquire. When we consider the things we want, it is comforting to realize that our true needs are limited and fairly easily available from nature, and that the things that are difficult to obtain, we just don't need. Air is available for our breath, water for our thirst, fire for warmth, and earth for ground to stand on. The minerals, plants, and animals supply our needs for shelter and sustenance. There are plenty of people around to become our friends. When we realize that we have enough, not just to survive, but to alleviate most of our pain, we necessarily become relieved and tranquil. True relaxation and happiness becomes possible. We can focus not only on survival, but on a deeper, more aesthetic appreciation of the universe that seeks to understand the nature of things, not only to provide what we need and to eliminate our fears about the divine and about death, but simply to be amazed at its beauty and sublimity. Epicurus describes this state as "god-like" because when we are in it, we are invulnerable, happy creatures who do not fear nature, but take delight in it. Now, if the idea that the good things in life are easily available seems doubtful to you, consider Epicurus's three-fold division of desires into those that are natural and necessary, like our desires for air, water, food, or shelter; those that are natural but not necessary, like our desires for expensive food and drink, mansions, or sex; and those that are neither natural nor necessary, which Epicurus calls "hollow," or "empty." Desires for fame, riches, glory, political power, and immortality, common though they are, are all hollow. Their pursuit causes more unhappiness than happiness, not only because they are difficult or impossible to achieve, and so efforts in this direction are futile and frustrating, but also because they are unlimited. Not being related to any natural need, there is no amount of wealth, influence, or life extension that will satisfy us and allow us to live a relaxed, tranquil life. Ease of living comes by appreciating just how little we need to be happy or flourish, and how abundant nature seems to be in supplying our needs. All of our pleasures boil down to just two kinds. On the one hand, there is the pleasant, agreeable, sweet stimulation that Epicurus calls "kinetic pleasure," and on the other hand, the tranquil, satisfied, self-sufficient, and self-assured state that comes when all pain is relieved, which Epicurus calls "static pleasure." Both kinds are good, but both are naturally limited. The most intense kinetic pleasures come from satisfying our natural needs. Thus, drinking when we're thirsty, eating when we're hungry, warming up when we're cold. Once these natural and necessary desires are satisfied, we reach the more stable condition of static pleasure. At this point we cannot increase our pleasure any more, but can only vary it. I can have either chocolate or vanilla ice cream, or I can have both, but beyond a certain point, eating ice cream will not be any more enjoyable for me, nor will eating any other food. When one is very thirsty, simple water is what one most desires, and simple foods when one is most hungry. Accustoming oneself to enjoying simpler pleasures makes the enjoyment of luxuries all that much more enjoyable when windfalls happen to come along. That is why Epicurus, who practically lived on bread and water, asked to be brought a pot of cheese every once in a while, so that he could, as he put it, "indulge." This is the character of the hedonistic philosopher who devoted his life to pleasure. Epicurus does not need to go to the trouble of always having a pot of cheese with every meal, and as a general rule, one is better off eliminating a desire, rather than working too hard to satisfy it. In fact, it is often necessary to forgo one pleasure in order to enjoy a greater pleasure later, just as it is often necessary to undergo some pain in order to avoid a greater pain later. That brings us to the fourth and final maxim of the tetrapharmakos: the terrible things in life are easy to endure. Acute pain, although sharp, is short. Chronic pain, although long-lasting, is dull. If pain ever becomes too intense for too long, there's always the option of ending life, at which point no harm can come to us whatsoever. Once again, we should appreciate and be relieved at how the limits of nature have benefited us, and we should derive tranquility from this. And when this appreciation takes an intellectual form of research and philosophical discussion, it offers rewards that more than offset and compensate for life's annoyances, pains, and sorrows. Even though Epicurus was suffering from painful kidney stones at the end of his life, he wrote to his friend Idomeneus, "These pains I have offset with the joy "I feel when I recall our philosophical conversations." Subtitles by the Amara.org community