It’s generally believed that it was the Epicurean philosopher from Syria Philodemus of Gadara who organized the core of the teachings into the Four Remedies, the Tetrapharmakon in Greek.
There are, to be fair, many more than four remedies in Epicureanism. However, the Four Remedies are known to be the core of the doctrine:
Do not fear the gods
Do not fear death
What is pleasant is easy to attain
What is painful is easy to endure
In his Principal Doctrines 11-12, Epicurus –who 2,300 years ago was among the first to propose the idea of the atom– argued for the study of science as a way to emancipate ourselves from irrational fears. For naturalists who don’t believe in gods or spirits, the first two negative statements may be translated as “Do not fear chance or blind luck, for it is pointless to battle that which we have no control over. It generates unnecessary suffering”.
The second remedy is elaborated in a series of teachings and aphorisms which serve as a form of cognitive therapy to deal with the trauma of death. Among them, the most memorable is the following:
“Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not”
The latter two positive statements lead to Epicurean teachings on how we should evaluate our desires and discern which ones are unnecessary versus which ones are necessary, which ones carry pain when satisfied or ignored versus which ones don’t. By this process of an analysed life, one learns to be content with the simple pleasures in life, those easiest to attain. The best things in life are free.
“The wealth required by nature is limited and easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity; Do not spoil that which you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” – Epicurus
One of the first tasks of every convert to Epicureanism is to become mindful of her desires and whatever pain or anxiety they may be generating. Another task is to learn to relish and appreciate the simple things when they’re in front of us. The good friends, the good foods and the refreshing beverages, the family, the good music, our proximity to nature, even our view of the sky. There are so many things we take for granted in our hectic lives, particularly when we live in the city.
As to the Fourth Remedy, Epicurus reminded us of the temporal nature of bodily pain. We may get a fever, or a stomach ache, but within days our immune system fights it. In the case of more chronic pains, one gets used to them after some time. In nature, no condition lasts forever. The impermanence of all conditions is a consolation when we consider whatever pain they generate.
Then there are mental pains and anxiety. These are systematically worked through via the cognitive therapy of working with our desires and mindfulness. The resolution to follow Epicurus is a resolution to protect one’s mind. It’s impossible to be happy if we can’t control our anger and other strong emotions: we will go from one perturbed state to the next and never taste imperturbability, ataraxia.
One technique to try out is to stop and start again. If we catch our minds degenerating into negative thought streams, we can try the mantra “Live as if Epicurus was Watching“. It really does work, if used with intent. One becomes mindful. A chilly, snowy winter no longer feels like slush beneath our feet. Instead we may notice the snowflakes in the distance and the beautiful colors of winter. Sometimes at my mindful recollection of this mantra, what used to bother me no longer really matters.
A dismissive attitude towards pain takes discipline but it can be cultivated if we are mindful and develop a resolve to protect our minds.
Read Death and the Skeptic, an article written by yours truly for The Humanist, a publication of the American Humanist Association, on Epicurean and Buddhist teachings for coping with death