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Epicurus' Tetrapharmakos and its Relevence in Today's World

Updated on July 28, 2012
Tetrapharmakos | Source

The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, believed that there were four rules to live by in order to create the happiest life possible. Epicurus defined happiness as, not only the presence of pleasurable feelings and experiences, but the absence of pain and other negative consequences. These rules were called the Tetrapharmakos, meaning "four-part cure." The rules were:

1. Don't fear god
2. Don't be afraid of death
3. What is good is easy to get
4. What is terrible is easy to endure

What is Good is Easy to Get

Despite Epicurus' teachings about pursuing pleasure being of the utmost importance to happiness, he did not mean for people to engage in these activities to excess. He valued the "simple things" in life, especially that of friendship. That which is good, simple things such as food, water, shelter, friendship, Epicurus believed, are attainable with minimal effort.

Today, this may seem like an antiquated view, especially when there are so many people suffering all over the world from hunger and other disasters, however, for the majority of people, finding a shelter and food is not unfathomable, we are just used to it being available to us at all times. Shelter can be something as simple as a tent and food might be easily found on the branches of a tree, or by hunting. Enjoying these things to excess, however, would only impede a person's overall happiness. Anything to excess has its consequences.

Don't Fear God

To Epicurus and his followers, gods were nothing to be feared because the gods were not involved with the human world or its problems. Gods were, Epicurus suggested, beings that knew only happiness and should be emulated by humans. They did not judge every person's actions or motivations, nor did they demand or deserve any kind of worship or sacrifice.

Today, many people decline to believe in God, or any deity, while still more hold the stance that, as humans, our ability to understand any supreme being is limited at best. On the other hand, there are countless people that struggle to try to understand God and to live as they believe He wants them to. Other people struggle to define their belief, researching and talking to people of all faiths, trying to understand the universe and their place in it.

To live by rule one of the tetrapharmakos, one does not necessarily have to be an atheist. One simply has to live their life without the constant worry of whether or not they are being judged right at this moment, or spending years trying to figure out how to live his or her life. By worrying about god all the time, one is inviting pain or other negative feelings into their life, the presence of which, blocks the ability to be happy.

Don't Worry About Death

Epicurus did not believe in an afterlife. He did not believe in Heaven or Hell. He did not believe in reincarnation. He believed that, when a person died, they could no longer exist, and therefore, they would feel no worry or pain. Because of this, Epicurus said that to worry about death was useless. As long as you are alive, then you are not dead, and therefore should not worry.

Today, many people spend their entire lives worrying about death, whether they believe in an afterlife or not. Many are afraid of their own death, or perhaps their families' and friends' deaths. Some people are so afraid that they might restrict themselves from seeking many pleasurable experiences. The constant fear and worry about death can be constricting, and therefore, according to Epicurus, needs to be cast away before someone can truly be happy.

What is Terrible is Easy to Endure

Some suffering in life is almost unavoidable. Sometimes, injuries and sickness just happen, but Epicurus advised that, to worry about these only adds more pain. Injuries heal, and sicknesses pass for the most part, and are usually followed up by a return to a state of happiness.

By taking care of the mind and body, many situations of pain, the potential consequences of over indulgence, can be evaded. In the case that pain does occur however, it is usually short-lived if properly taken care of. This includes both physical and emotional pain. Knowing that the pain will subside can, in itself, help the sufferer to endure it.

In the case of chronic pain, especially very high levels of pain, the person may not feel as if they will ever return to happiness, but by going back and following the first three rules, it is possible that the pain will subside. Many doctors advise patients of chronic pain to fix certain areas of their lives, such as the way they eat, or how much exercise they get, in order to alleviate the pain naturally.


It is possible to incorporate the Tetrapharmakos to life today in order to lead a happier, simpler life. Coming to peace with your god, beliefs, or lack thereof can take a worry that has plagued many people out of the equation. The same could be said about death. While we are alive, there is no reason to worry about death, since we are not dead! The death of a loved one is painful, of course, but to worry constantly about death and dying will not do anything to change the fact that the human death rate is 100%.

The last two rules are probably the hardest to apply to every day life. "What is good is easy to get" is certainly applicable on the personal level, for me at least. I would assume that almost everyone that has a computer and has access to this website would also have access to the simple needs that a human has- Food, water, air, friends, family, conversation, and other basic things that bring us happiness. As a philosopher who valued quiet, calm life, I would assume that this was his way of applying this prinicple.

To impose this rule on a global scale, it is far more difficult. Due to our ever-increasing awareness of what is going on in the world around us, we understand more and more that there are people in the world who do not have easy access to even very basic needs. It would be naïve to think that someone who was starving could just walk outside and pick an apple off the tree in their front yard. While constantly worrying about the state of the world would be a negative force, doing a little bit to help people in need can make a huge impact. Volunteering, donating needed supplies, or even just spreading the word to a few people can make a difference without causing stress.

The last rule, "What is terrible is easy to endure" is likely the hardest rule of the four to apply to everyday life. While it is true that there are horribly painful things out there, the knowledge that the pain will not last forever can be very helpful in getting through hard times. I would venture to say that it is almost stronger than hope, because hope is the possibility, whereas knowledge is definite.

The four rules can help to bring appreciation to the simple things in life, while teaching how to handle the negative in a way that will not cause unneeded stress and anxiety. While not perfect, Epicurus' Tetrapharmakos are still a very good framework to living a quiet and calm life.


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    • sarahspradlin profile image

      Sarah Spradlin 

      2 years ago from Little Rock, Arkansas

      Very interesting. Thanks!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      All four are utterly asinine. And no, not in a subjective way, these are all objective claims that are objectively fallacious.

      1. Posits gods, claims to know what they do, claims they do nothing.

      2. Amounts to an argument in favor of suicide that then goes self-contradicted, as all 'ataraxia' worship does, including Buddhism.

      3-4. Complete and undebateable argument from privilege. That anyone thinks it's 'useful' or 'interesting' is based solely on mental contortion into a tense different from the one used.

    • mercuryservices profile image

      Alex Munkachy 

      6 years ago from Honolulu, Hawaii

      In college Epicurus was my favorite greek philosopher because he was the most chill. Thanks for the refresher, I haven't thought of the Tetrapharmakos in a while.

    • nikki_m profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      Mitch J, thanks for the comment! I believe that what you say is a very common view of what we as a culture believe to be "good things". We work hard to get the things we want, and we are very proud of those things (cars, houses, clothes, vacations, etc...). While there's nothing wrong with that view at all, I believe that Epicurus was referring to more basic necessities as being good.

      Friends, family, drink, an excellent meal, and a good conversation, those are all fairly easy to obtain, yet they bring us a lot of happiness. Think about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Those things I listed actually go pretty far to fulfill each layer of the hierarchy, which (at least from Maslow's standpoint) should allow us to be happy.

      As a culture, we have added a lot of flair and frosting to what we "need" to be happy. It's my interpretation that Epicurus would teach us to value the small things, even if they are easy to get, because they are what makes us whole as a person.

    • profile image

      Mitch J 

      7 years ago

      excuse my many typos in the last comment, I wrote in a hurry.

    • profile image

      Mitch J 

      7 years ago

      I was under the impression that one should work hard and smart to attain good things in life, and what comes easy or is easy to attin usually isn't right. I mean one should work hard to attain these good things or how would anybody appreciate the them as oppose to taking them for granted, no?

      That's my opinion on Epicurus "What is good is easy to get".

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Hey Nikki,

      You've gone to where I would have gone next. If Epicurus didn't believe in the afterlife, then his 4th is hard to support. If we do, however (I do, though not attached to religion) then the 4th has some meaning. Life is only a short part of existence.

      But it only teaches us something if we are uncertain of that. ;)


    • nikki_m profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      AntonOfTheNorth, Thank you for reading and for the very well thought out comment. I agree with you, that the last rule, "What is terrible is easy to endure" is probably one of the hardest concepts to apply to modern day life. I'm sorry to hear about your father, and I know that there are many people out there who suffer every day, from physical pain, emotional pain, or lack of basic necessities. This has been made even more apparent over time as our connection with the rest of world becomes more solid.

      The way I interpret this to my own life (and this is purely personal) is that pain, even intense pain, will pass. Wounds will heal over time. Eventually, we all die, and this can be painful, but in the large picture of my life (at least I hope) the time spent in pain is small compared to the time spent in happiness. I am very fortunate in that, if something were to happen, I have many friends and family members that would help see me through it (they would take me in if I had nowhere to go. They would give me food if I had none.)

      Again, that is the way I use that idea to fit it into my personal situation. It is the idea I struggle with most, out of the four, but I do come back to it when I get to the point where I don't think I could possibly handle a bad or prolonged stress or painful situation. I understand that, especially for the underprivileged or the chronically ill people of the world, this seems naïve, and it is in no way a perfect philosophy (as is the case with most) but I do hope it inspires some thought!

      Again, thank you for your comment. I don't think I have ever put into words my exact thought process for that rule as it applies to my life, and it was nice to see it for myself :)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Hi There!

      Thank you for the article.

      I am not very familiar with Epicurus (he doesn't know me either, I suppose) so I may be leaping to conclusions here.

      "Do not fear God" Fair enough

      "Do not fear Death" Also okay. Pointless to fear the inevitable.

      "What is good is easy to get"

      "What is terrible is easy to endure"

      Really? Epicurus must have led a fairly sheltered and privaleged life.

      Epicurus' philosophy appears to be based on the notion that 'happy' is normal and anything else is a temporary deviation from normal. Observable life would teach otherwise.

      I know many people for whom getting enough food and shelter is a daily struggle.

      Love is good. Not always easy to get that, and not always easy to keep once you have it.

      Most of what I value I obtained through some fairly serious difficulty.

      And I can't imagine the fourth holds true for, say, the victims in Auschwitz, or of any of the troubled regions in Africa.

      My father recently died painfully from lung cancer. He knew for a year that his life was going to get bad, worse, and then stop. It takes a loose interpretation of Epicurus for the 4th to hold true. I'm pretty sure Dad would rather have lived than died at the end of that, fearing death or not.

      Epicurus' sounds like someone who obtained what he has relatively easily to come to those rules for life.

      I submit most people don't have it that good.


      "Epicurus most likely was wrong about death as no one can prove he was right, and if wrong he is very likely spending eternity in hell."

      No one can prove him wrong either. Equally, no one can prove eternity, life after death or hell, so this statement is simply an opposing opinion.

      "foolishness to embrace a path that could lead to your destruction. "

      There is no path that does not lead there eventually, at least for the body.

      If your reality is based on the sure knowledge of life after death, of the love of a diety, and a sure way to live in the world based on religious writing, you too are following a philosphy, just as Epicurus was. Its just not the same one.

      "There can be found more evidense of the possibility of an eternity in hell "

      Evidence? I haven't seen any evidence of hell, except for those who live it here on earth. I've seen book after book of opinions on hell and its nature. None definitive and few agreeing with each other precisely what it is (or heaven, or god, or good or evil). This is a subjective opinion, just like Epicurus'. Its just different.


    • nikki_m profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      That is the thing. I would toe along to keep from tripping over anything whether or not I was warned about a cliff.

      Like I said in the article, trying to apply the tetrapharmakos to modern day life need not be a case for atheism. Even if you are a believer in religion, I think almost everyone can agree that worrying about death day in and day out is stressful! The trick would be finding that balance, living a good life so that the worry over whether or not you were bound for Hell is a non-issue.

      Thank you for the ratings! Like I said, I do enjoy thoughtful discussion and I appreciate you sharing your point of view :)

    • tsadjatko profile image

      8 years ago from now on

      "I would probably take the warning into consideration and keep toeing along so that I didn't trip over anything." So you would stay open to the possiblility that you don't have the answer! Ah, but an Epicuran would say - I don't believs there is a cliff because you haven't shown it to me and would he would fall prey to reality.

      If there is no way of knowing something it is foolishness to embrace a path that could lead to your destruction. There can be found more evidense of the possibility of an eternity in hell than a belief that when you die there is nothing. To subscribe to such a belief even in Epicuran times when the prospect of hell is no less a possibility than his whimsical belief is not intelligent nor commendable - it is foolishness.

      Just my two cents, and I thank you for allowing me to post it. I gave you an Up and useful and interesting.

    • nikki_m profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      But, thank you again, tsadjatko, for stopping by. I do enjoy thought provoking discussion

    • nikki_m profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      Thank you for pointing out that error in my comment. Reason was not the word I was looking for. "Way" would be more appropriate. There is no way to prove anything about the afterlife, since one of the side-effects of dying is the inability to come back and tell everyone about what awaits us. We lack the ability to observe Heaven and Hell or reincarnation. Unfortunately, the only way to know for sure what is there, is to be there.

      To follow up on your analogy, were I blindfolded walking through a forest and I was warned that there was a cliff ahead, but no one had ever seen the cliff, been to the cliff, documented the cliff, observed the cliff, mapped the cliff, or had any proof of the cliff's existence, I would probably take the warning into consideration and keep toeing along so that I didn't trip over anything.

    • tsadjatko profile image

      8 years ago from now on

      ..."there's no reason to prove Epicurus wrong"? If you were blindfolded walking in the woods and I told you if you continue to walk in the direction you are going you will fall off a cliff to your death, and you had heard there was a cliff in the area but never believed it and you knew I was not blindfolded and had nothing to gain buy telling you a lie, to the contrary you knew I cared for you enough to not want to see you dead, I suppose you'd just keep walking blindfolded off the cliff? Then you would be Epicurus.

    • nikki_m profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri

      tsadjatko, Thank you for stopping by and reading and sharing your thoughts. I will have to respectfully disagree with you as I am a firm advocate of beliefs being more than "soul insurance." Unfortunately, there's no reason to prove Epicurus wrong his views either way, so there will always be different views. Thanks again for your input!

    • tsadjatko profile image

      8 years ago from now on

      Well, sounds to me like the blind leading the blind - what one believes does not make it reality. Epicurus most likely was wrong about death as no one can prove he was right, and if wrong he is very likely spending eternity in hell. Yep, sounds like that is a philosophy I'd throw in the trash.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      An intriguing philosophy, nikki_m. Following thse principles would definitely make life a lot more bearable. Rated up and interesting.


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