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Dealing with COVID-19: Lessons from Epicureanism

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There is no shortage of articles and podcasts on how to cope with the stress of living in a world shaped by COVID-19. Even though the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) gave the “all-clear” on May 14 on masks and activities for those fully vaccinated, it should be remembered that as of May 21, only 38.1% of the American population have received the COVID-19 vaccine.

There are still many places in the world, like India, where the pandemic takes thousands of lives every day. There is no telling when Americans will be fully back to “normal” but for many people on the planet, it may be years. That will impact us in numerous ways.

Impacts of COVID-19 and How It Has Distracted Us from Our Lives

You may have heard the statement that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. Despite the liberation from masks for the vaccinated, we are now facing inflation that could grow worse. Whether this inflation is truly “transitory” remains to be seen.

Because of previous issues with supply chains, the prices of product like lumber are hitting new highs. Similarly, prices will go up on many items like chicken, not because there are fewer chickens, but there are fewer people in the plants to process them. As of the end of April, there were 8.1 million job openings that businesses were unable to fill.

The disconnect between the number of people unemployed and the number of unfilled jobs has fueled debates about additional money for the unemployed. In the same vein, a restaurant where my oldest child works is closing every day at 5 p.m. because they cannot find anyone to work for what they pay, even though they offer bonuses and have raised their starting wage. I hear more of these stories daily on CNBC.

Additionally, there are events like a primary bridge linking Arkansas to Tennessee in Memphis being closed over a dangerous crack (stopping both road and river traffic) and a Congress that cannot decide on the definition of infrastructure. My point is that when COVID-19 was the focus, it was also a distraction and could be made a patsy for all the ills that befell us.

Despite the attention the pandemic received, there were and are still many things that could cost us sleep at night. But maybe turning to the wisdom of ancient philosophers would be beneficial.

While all ancient Greek and Roman philosophies touted the best kind of life, one that would lead to “eudaimonia,” there is one philosophy — epicureanism — that is particularly relevant to life today. It has claimed many recent adherents, but in a modified form. If you do a search on YouTube, you’ll see many videos promoting the values of epicureanism. This philosophy promises to help you look back at the end of life and see a life well-lived, regardless of the circumstances that befall you.

What Is Epicureanism?

Epicureanism is often associated with hedonism and indulgence, but the true message of the Greek philosopher Epicurus was quite different. Somewhat contemporary with Aristotle and living between 341 and 271 B.C., Epicurus focused on how to live the best and happiest kind of life and offered his advice to all without judgment.

Simply put, epicureanism is more about the absence of pain than the accumulation of pleasures. Like Buddha’s Noble Truths that suffering is caused by want and to stop the suffering you should stop the wanting, Epicurus taught us that living a simple life was the best. Having more things just means more to worry about.

Living by his teachings, Epicurus existed on mostly bread and water, relishing it when someone provided an occasional pot of cheese. When he died of kidney stones at the age of 72, he penned, “But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all of these afflictions.”

Epicurus and the Four-Part Cure for Unhappiness

Epicurus offered his “tetrapharmakos,” a four-part cure for unhappiness. The four components are that:

  • God is nothing to fear.
  • Death is nothing to worry about.
  • It is easy to acquire the good things in life.
  • It is easy to endure terrible things.

University of California San Diego philosophy professor Monte Johnson asserted that your goal is to meditate on these maxims from Epicurus and that by doing so, you can eliminate fear and find true happiness. Much like the Buddhist practice of meditating on the impermanence of all things, understanding what Epicurus meant by his tetrapharmakos requires a deeper dive.

Epicurus Saw the Gods as Devoted to Tranquility and Nothing to Fear

Epicureanism was not atheistic, but he saw the gods as devoted to tranquility. They were to be emulated but not feared. Fretting over us and determining our fate was just too much for the gods to bother with.

Related link: What Value Does a Philosophy Degree Hold in the Real World?

Different Viewpoints on Death

As for death being nothing to worry about, Georgia State University instructor Tim O’Keefe presents a logical argument to back it up, taken from Epicurus’ “Letter to Menoeceus.”

There is also an argument concerning life and death symmetry. Essentially, you never worry about what you were before you were born (most likely), so it makes no sense to worry about what will happen after death.

Whether or not you buy into those thoughts, the last two maxims of epicureanism – about acquiring the good things in life and coping with terrible things – are much easier to incorporate into life today.

Acquiring the Good Things in Life: Do We Really Need Them?

Weber State University philosophy instructor Marc Nelson refers to Epicurus as the “first millennial” because he cared less about things and more about doing things that mattered to the individual. When we focus on accumulating things — such as more wealth, bigger houses and cars — and adding more things we need to work more to pay for and maintain, we are setting ourselves up for more stress.

Nelson suggested that unless you are working in your dream job, you might want to think about doing less of it and spending more time doing the things that enrich your life. Not all of us can accomplish this goal, but one thing that many of us have learned is that our fortunes are not always in our hands.

Maybe now is a good time to look around as we rebuild our existence in a post-pandemic world and ask ourselves if what we are replacing is really something we need. Maybe it is time to question how much of our lives are controlled by things we thought we needed. If we can live without them, perhaps we should.

Enduring Terrible Things

The last maxim of Epicurus about enduring terrible things is maybe even more profound. It is not the “what doesn’t kill me will make me stronger” kind of thinking. It is more “I will get through this. Now what can I learn from the situation? And if it kills me, then all suffering will be over.”

In this way of thinking, death is not to be sought, but it is not to be feared. We all have to do it someday.

In America, many misfortunes are temporary. If we can endure hard times, we know there is light at the end of the tunnel.

We are fortunate to have so many resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for those in need. For many people, we do live in a land of great opportunity for those who are willing to accept their lot in life and can relish extras such as a “pot of cheese.”

Building Back Better

One idea President Biden has promoted is the idea to “Build Back Better.” Perhaps this is one lesson we can truly embrace from Epicurus. We cannot all live in a garden, surviving on bread and water, but we can ask ourselves if the “stuff” we accumulate is really something we need. Maybe this pandemic and everything associated with it is a great opportunity for many of us to reconsider what’s important in our lives and build back better.

One way to build back better is to have a better understanding of Epicurus as well as Socrates, Thales, Plato, Aristotle and a host of others who laid the foundation of what is seen as Western philosophy. They are all covered in our Ancient Philosophy class, just one of the courses required for our B.A. in philosophy.

As Socrates claimed, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” There may be no better way to examine life than studying philosophy.

Dr. Steve Wyre received his B.A. and M.A. in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma and his Ed.D. from the University of Phoenix. He has been teaching various ground-based philosophy courses since 2000 and online since 2003. Steve has also served as a subject matter expert (SME) for courses in ancient philosophy, ethics, logic and several other areas.

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