Epicurus sought to calm people’s fears about the gods and death by explaining that, given the construction of the universe, such fears are unnecessary. The strength and persistence of these fears are very evident in repeated and continuing attempts to develop theologies which offer the individual a happy afterlife.
If death itself were an anomaly, an unnecessary intrusion, like an illness or disease that needed eradicating, what would be the appropriate medicine or antidote? According to an old Christian formulation, preserved under the name of Ignatius bishop of Antioch, the bread of the Lord’s Supper is the ‘medicine of immortality’ (φάρμακον ἀθανασίας) and the ‘antidote for not dying but living’ (ἀντίδοτος τοῦ μὴ ἀποθανεῖν ἀλλὰ ζῆν).
This claim purports to answer the centuries-old fear that there is no effective medicine or antidote to enable us to overcome death. A conventional view was expressed by the sixth-century BC poet Ibycus, who lived first in Sicily and then on the island of Samos, where Epicurus spent his early years two centuries later: οὐκ ἔστιν ἀποφθιμένας ζωᾶς ἔτι φάρμακον εὑρεῖν, ‘It is not possible to find a cure once life has passed away.’
The conventional view, while accepting the finality of death, allowed for the possibility, encouraged by poetic visions of an underworld, that there may be a shadowy existence afterwards. Epicurus preferred science to poetry, and focused attention on the need to find a cure for unhappiness in this present life. The ‘four-part cure’ (τετραφάρμακος) of Epicureanism responds to the fact that a great deal of misery stems from misconceptions that give rise to four main fears: that we have reason to be afraid of the gods and what they may do to us, of death and what may come after, of not having enough to fulfil our needs, and of the prospect of suffering terrible things.
These fears are answered by considering the questions in the context of an overall view of the universe as constructed of matter and void. Fearful gods are ruled out, and death is no more than disintegration. Recognizing our relationship to nature quells fears about enjoying benefits and enduring difficulties. Nature both supplies needs and sets limits. As we are part of nature, our goal is to live pleasantly in relation to nature, knowing that necessary needs are abundantly supplied and pleasure is possible in spite of pain.
As Principal Doctrine 20 points out, while our bodies may want more and more (we can be inclined to eat too much, for example), our minds can keep excessive desires under control. This means that we can live successfully on the resources which nature provides, and that we can do so with a great sense of happiness, supremely content when body and mind reach the limits of natural pleasure. The mind does not need to reject the ideal of pleasure in reconciling itself to limits; pleasure up to the limit is fully possible and fully satisfying.
Contentment with limits (for example, when we have eaten enough) means that we can enjoy many pleasures to the full without living for eternity. Even with only barley cake and water to satisfy hunger and thirst, we can be as happy as Zeus as we reach the limit of removing a need. An infinity of time could not improve on the sense of satisfaction which nature makes possible in supplying human needs (Principal Doctrine 19).
Death itself (‘when circumstances bring about an exit from life’ – that is, when life is not cut short unnaturally) cannot take away from a life well lived.
Thoughts for the Day, July 14: ‘The body takes the limits of pleasure to be infinite – and infinite time could provide it. The mind takes account of the end and limit of bodily existence, dispels fears about eternity, and provides for a full and complete life, so that we no longer have a need for an infinite amount of time. But the mind does not shun pleasure nor on decease (when circumstances bring about an exit from life) does it go as if leaving a well-lived life unfinished’ (Principal Doctrines 20).
Ignatius: Epistle to the Ephesians 20.2. Ibycus: fr. 113 (Edmonds (Loeb), no. 28).