Finding Epicurus in a Time of Immense Woe and Suffering

Tweet Reddit Share

How will I deal with Michigan shutting down the bars on Black Wednesday?

Well, the Fuhrer has shut down Michigan bars for three weeks.

It kills my glorious Black Wednesday streak, which reaches back 33 years.

Oh, the (lack of) memories!

Oh, the hangovers!

I think Black Wedneseday was the last annual night of decadence on my calendar.

In my early twenties, I had no fewer than eight annual occasions that called for a long bout of drinking, ribaldry, and music. They slowly dwindled down to one.

And now it’s gone. I’ll be resigned to drinking at home, shooting pool with fewer than 11 people from two households, and listening to the garage rock playlist I’ve been assembling from The Vault’s 165-hour Spotify collection.

I think I’ll be able to bear it. I suppose someone could argue that maybe, just maybe, there are bigger crosses to bear.

I am, of course, being ironic. Everything will be fine. Although I loathe the ruthless exercise of raw governmental power like this, there’s nothing I can do.

I’ll just have to face it with Stoic resolve.

Or maybe, given the nature of my anticipated response (a night of drinking), Epicurean embrace.

Epicurus and the Stoics

Epicureanism and Stoicism were rivals, but they had a lot in common. Stoicism didn’t reject pleasure and Epicureanism didn’t advocate excessive indulgence. Seneca quoted “the enemy” Epicurus fairly often; Marcus Aurelius did at least once. (Epictetus, on the other hand, shunned him as a “preacher of effeminacy” . . . good man, that cripple Epictetus).

The main difference between them was that Stoicism’s goal was virtue and Epicureanism’s was pleasure.

Both, like every philosopher and person, pursued happiness.

Epicurus’ disciple Philodemus put together the tetrapharmakos (four remedies) from fragments of his master’s teachings:

  1. Don’t fear God.
  2. Don’t worry about death.
  3. What is good is easy to get.
  4. What is terrible is easy to endure.

As Catholics (as anyone in the Judeo-Christian tradition, for that matter), we can safely reject number one as good counsel. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9).

I’d also suggest that Epicurus’ theological understanding may have been a bit, ahem, stilted:

“If God listened to the prayers of men, all men would quickly have perished: for they are forever praying for evil against one another.”

Let’s hope most Christians have moved beyond such Zeus-inspired invocations and prayers.

Epicurus’ second point, however, is good . . . and awfully apt in these Covid times, when an overweening fear of death has prompted otherwise good men and women to give up their rights in exchange for government protection and oppression (and, let’s be clear, it is oppression; the only question is whether it’s warranted . . . on that, people in good faith disagree).

I also like the third point: “what is good is easy to get.”

“The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.”

Amen to that. Whenever I find myself growing anxious, if I dig deeper, I find an embedded vanity. Now, if I could just root it out . . .

The fourth point is also timely: “What is terrible [read: living under Governor Whitmer] is easy to endure.”

It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but if you return to the Stoics and their counsel of resignation, you start to see a real common thread emerge . . . and to see that it is, indeed, possible to endure the terrible.

But, to be honest, I’m a complete hypocrite when it comes to counseling people to resign themselves to suffering. When I get sick, I’m a classic case of, “Should we call an undertaker or Hollywood?”