Musings

Epicurus and the tetrapharmakos ― 3 min read

The tetrapharmakos as found in the Herculaneum papyrus in the Villa of the Papyri

The tetrapharmakos

Don’t fear the gods,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure.

—Epicurus, The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia

This was known as the tetrapharmakos or the "four-part remedy". It was devised by Epicurus who was an ancient Greek philosopher living from 341 to 270 BC.

Epicurus believed that the greatest happiness was achieved when you rid yourself of all suffering. Furthermore he believed that ridding yourself of all suffering was remarkably simple and these four lines hold much of the answer.

Explanation of the tetrapharmakos

Much of our suffering is created by our own minds (see also suffering and pain). By critically evaluating the patterns of our own minds we are able to remove large parts of our own self-created suffering. Let's go through each line and expand on it a little:

Don’t fear the gods - We have nothing to fear from the gods as they are perfect beings who do not concern themselves with the world of mortals. Epicurus has much more to say on this but I feel it is a far less controversial idea these days than it was in his times and for many centuries afterwards.

Don’t worry about death - Death is nothing to worry about because when we exist death is not present and when death is present we don't exist.

What is good is easy to get - There are very few things we actually need in this world and obtaining just a little food, water, air and shelter is very easy to do for humans and animals alike. However, excess greed and desire are likely to bring all sorts of troubles your way if you pursue them mindlessly.

What is terrible is easy to endure - Most physical pains and ailments are short-lived and for most of us we spend the majority of our lives in good health. In this way we can have confidence in our ability to endure and get through the unfortunate things that may befall us.

Reflections

I think there is a lot of truth in these lines when it comes to availing ourselves of much of the suffering we experience in life. Furthermore it is remarkable how relevant such ancient wisdom still is today. For all our technological advancement I wonder how much progress we've made in the field of wisdom.

So much of our suffering is created by our own minds and getting a handle on that and changing that can result in very real improvements to our lives. In the tetrapharmakos Epicurus specifically addresses our spiritual fears, our existential fears, the distress we cause ourselves through excess desire and the fears we have for our health. However, we can use our reason to free ourselves from any other suffering that comes from the mind and rid ourselves of everything that causes us distress and does not serve us.

Next time we are in any sort of turmoil let's remember Epicurus and how he said that he was ready to rival Zeus for happiness, as long as he had a barley cake and some water!


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