THE LAST DISEASE OUTBREAK of pandemic proportions to visit humanity was the Spanish flu in 1918, which killed fifty million people. Prior to that, the bubonic plague (a.k.a. the Black Death)—which, like today’s novel coronavirus, is believed to have originated in Asia—notoriously wiped out seventy-five to 200 million people in Europe and Asia in the middle of the fourteenth century. Just as Italy has been an epicenter of the current pandemic, it’s believed that Italian merchants brought the Black Death to Europe in their merchant ships. At least one third of the European population is believed to have perished.
Understandably, mass hysteria took over the population and minorities were blamed and persecuted. We know from inherited myths that plagues that may have occurred in Egypt were attributed to divine retribution due to oppression of slaves. And during the present health crisis, many religious movements are either repeating their jeremiad about end-time fantasies and about our supposed collective sin, with some actively celebrating and pursuing their demented ideas about how the world should end, and others making false and dangerous claims related to faith healing and discouraging our reliance on science. Those of us who do not suffer from end-time fever will seek more prudent things to do with our time.
It is impossible for someone who is completely ignorant about nature to wash away his fears about the most important matters if he retains some suspicions about the myths. So it is impossible to experience undiluted pleasure without studying what is natural.
—Epicurean Principal Doctrine 12
I mostly use Epicurean philosophy as my “operating program” or tool to manage my own lifestyle. In the third century BCE Epicurus of Samos, Metrodorus of Lampsacus, and their lifelong friends and companions founded the Epicurean “garden” as a philosophical school in Athens, where they taught a materialist ontology (all things are bodies made of particles and void) and an ethics of rational pursuit of pleasure. To me, it’s the most scientific, useful, and reality-based philosophy of life available.
As an Epicurean, it is important for me to know—and make sure that my loved ones know—about the natural causes and scientific explanations for the current coronavirus, as well as accurate methods of evading transmission and practicing self-care. Since there is a psychology of mass hysteria at play during epidemics, it’s also important that we protect ourselves from the charlatans and the bad ideas that will attempt to exploit our existential vulnerabilities at times like these, turning an already bad situation worse.
Aristippus of Cyrene, who invented pleasure ethics, taught that we should be adaptable and flexible, seeing opportunities for pleasure in every situation. In his Epistle to Menoeceus, Epicurus teaches that health is—together with security and happiness—one of the three groups of categories of pleasures that are considered natural and necessary. These are pleasures where nature does not give us a choice: if we neglect them, our bodies and minds will suffer—but the gospel of happiness taught by Epicurus also teaches that nature has made the needful things the easiest to procure. A good Epicurean will not postpone her happiness and, rather than succumb to superstitious fear and lose her peace of mind, will be diligent in doing the common-sense things we must do to prevent infection, and will also build her pleasure regimen around the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
Epicurus advises us not to postpone our happiness, and says that pleasure is the alpha and omega of a good life, our point of reference in all our choices and avoidances. Here are a few ideas on how to live pleasantly during times of coronavirus.
The Pleasures of Nesting
More than a century ago at the onset of the 1918 pandemic, the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, decided not to cancel a parade that had been planned for September 28 to help finance the First World War. At the time everyone believed that the “Spanish flu” was mostly a problem in Spain. By October 1, the University of Pennsylvania had over 600 reports of new cases, and within six months 16,000 people had died there. The Spanish flu is believed to have killed around fifty million people in total. Saint Louis, Missouri, on the other hand, banned parades and followed strict quarantine protocols, and only had about 600 deaths. After the First World War ended, Ireland hosted huge celebrations after which Spanish flu cases and deaths multiplied, demonstrating again the importance of social distance during epidemics.
Since in these times we must avoid contact, we should focus on the pleasures of privacy and make our home a refuge of tranquil pleasure. These are times to make the most of the intimate pleasures. We may read or write in our journal, or engage in other private pleasures and hobbies that we at other times find easy excuses to dismiss for being too idle.
We may watch movies (or binge-watch our favorite shows) at home alone or—better yet—virtually with loved ones or friends, and cook and eat at home. Research shows that isolation is a risk factor on par with obesity and smoking, so bonding with familiar faces from time to time (via social media, if there is no other way) is important.
We should take some time to focus on activities related to hygiene—for instance, we should keep all the surfaces of our homes and work environments clean with disinfectants—and make these activities enjoyable. I like to do that by playing lively music when I’m cleaning. Others wanting to practice Epicureanism during these times may use bubble baths, or otherwise build their pleasurable lifestyles around other hygiene rituals.
The Pleasures of Studying Philosophy
To devote ourselves to reading and thinking about pleasant things is a way to implant a near-constant pleasant feeling in ourselves.
—Julien Offray de La Mettrie, in Anti-Seneca
We may rid ourselves of any lingering fear of gods and of death through the study of nature and of philosophy. Epicurus advised his pupils to study both by themselves and with others and taught that, with the study of philosophy, pleasure and learning come at the same time.
There is the enjoyment we get from the friendships we form while studying and learning together with others, and of course there are the literary pleasures mentioned by La Mettrie. In addition to the writings of Epicurus of Samos and Philodemus of Gadara, we are fortunate to have A Few Days in Athens—a classic of Epicureanism in the English language written by Frances Wright, whose mentor was Thomas Jefferson. Then there’s the great epic poem by Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), the closest thing to an Epicurean bible that we have. It’s the most complete treatise of Epicurean physics, anthropology, and epistemology from antiquity that has survived to this day.
In one passage, Lucretius narrates the religious sacrifice of Iphigenia to the gods due to superstitious fear with the conclusion: Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum! (“To such evil deeds does religion persuade”). This quote has become a frequently used meme among the modern Epicureans who wish to comment about the evils of religion in our day. It’s used whenever a terrorist act or some other evil inspired by religion takes place. The Iphigenia episode is reminiscent of what happens when pastors rely on faith healing rather than real science, when members of certain Protestant sects reject blood transfusions for their own children because of their beliefs about the supernatural power of blood, or when parents keep their children from being vaccinated because they doubt scientific information—usually in deference to religion. When an innocent child or other innocent victims are sacrificed for nothing, life is wasted, and yet the gods remain deaf to the cries of mortals and nature continues to take its course. Unless we—in our roles as philosophers—frequently comment and offer frank criticism to the public about these problems, there is no opportunity for moral and intellectual development for anyone.
Lucretius starts his poem praising Venus, the “Great Mother” who is also a poetic metaphor for both pleasure and matter, and the originator of all things, and he ends the poem discussing death and describing in morbid detail the deadly pandemic that struck Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War.
On the Nature of Things is divided into six books. In the third, Lucretius discusses how we need not fear hell, and how the soul (“psyche” in Greek) is physical, embedded into the body, and therefore mortal together with the flesh. Later in this chapter he mocks the belief in reincarnation and finds amusing the idea that souls are waiting in line—holding tickets to this great show that is Planet Earth—to incarnate. He argues that the eternity after death is comparable to the time before birth, of which we have no memory because we didn’t exist. He explains how the recycling of all the atomic particles of our bodies is necessary in order to produce the bodies of other sentient beings and non-sentient things, and he compares death to a dream from which one never wakes. In the end, there is nothing to fear. We are not there to experience anything.
As for our apprehensions about how others who love us or who may depend on us will manage after we’re gone, this is a legitimate anxiety. We must keep in mind what is in our power to control (make sure that there are auxiliary and secondary networks of assistance in place, and that a will is written) and channel our anxiety into strengthening the self-sufficiency and the social networks of our loved ones. In times when we’re reminded of death, it’s also natural to talk more frequently with family, to forgive or ask forgiveness, and to otherwise give closure to issues that remain unsaid with loved ones.
Finally, in a passage of the poem that feels like an epiphany and shows the power of art to render life meaningful, Lucretius personifies nature as his muse and places inspired words on her lips: nature appears and admonishes mortals to be grateful for the time and the life that they’ve had the good fortune to enjoy. She tells us that at the end of our lives, we should be prepared to leave this world as a guest who is satisfied after enjoying all the amenities and delicacies that she easily made available in life’s banquet.
We find additional consolations and teachings in Epicurus’s short Epistle to Menoeceus concerning fear of death, and fear of disease and pain, that are relevant to these times of pandemic. He says that nature sets limits to all our pains, and that since death is non-sentience, the only way in which it makes us suffer is in the anticipation of something that we won’t actually be there to experience.
The Pleasures of Ataraxia
The steadiest pleasure we can cultivate is just keeping a pleasant disposition. Ancient Greek philosophers used the word ataraxia for their ethical moral ideal of a tranquil, pleasant feeling of imperturbability. We don’t need to avoid the news, although it’s frequently useful to diminish our consumption of news media for the sake of peace of mind.
It is imprudent to panic. Fear tends to exaggerate the evils that may or may not come. It freezes us and keeps us from engaging in appropriate action, if necessary. Epicurus taught us that death is nothing to us. For as long as we live, we should be concerned with the quality of our lives and the lives of those we love.
Humanity has faced massive disease epidemics before: a new disease emerges from contact with animals for which our species hasn’t evolved natural defenses, and it takes some time for our immune systems to adjust (and, in more modern times, for a vaccine to be developed to assist). Scientists are still studying the ways in which the Black Death changed the genetic makeup and natural defenses of modern people. Nature itself teaches us how to avoid and to respond to diseases: we feel disgust when we smell something foul that we probably should avoid, and we have many other reflexes that help us to survive. Nature also gave us the pleasure faculty as a guide to help us know what is choice-worthy, and pain as a guide to what is avoidance-worthy. If we study Epicurean philosophy and use our faculties, we can learn, or at least attempt, to live more pleasantly in the midst of the inconveniences and challenges posed by the current health crisis.
Published in the May / June 2020 Humanist