Tetrapharmakos – Fourth Dose

This is the last in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

Step 4: τὸ δὲ δεινὸν εὐκαρτέρητον – What is Terrible is Easy to Endure

Epicurus writes that “[c]ontinuous pain does not last long in the flesh; on the contrary, pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which barely outweighs pleasure in the flesh does not last for many days together. Illnesses of long duration even permit of an excess of pleasure over pain in the flesh.”

If, as Protagoras said, man is the measure of all things, then one man—Socrates—is the measure of all Greek philosophy. Would he agree with Epicurus’s statement about pain and endurance?

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates muses on the odd pleasure he experiences upon having his chains removed: “How singular is the thing called pleasure, and how curiously related to pain, which might be thought to be the opposite of it; for they are never present to a man at the same instant, and yet he who pursues either is generally compelled to take the other; their bodies are two, but they are joined by a single head.” This curious connection between pain and pleasure may lend weight to Epicurus’s point of view. One can endure almost anything because even truly awful pain must have its related pleasure.

In Xenophon’s Apology, however, Socrates identifies a sort of suffering that is chronic and worth dying to avoid. In the face of capital charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, Socrates decided to commit suicide by jury. He reasoned that it would be better to die while still at the peak of his mental powers than face the possibility of a protracted physical and psychological decline in old age. “If my years are prolonged, I know that the frailties of old age will inevitably be realized,—that my vision must be less perfect and my hearing less keen, that I shall be slower to learn and more forgetful of what I have learned.” Old age, to Socrates, was both terrible and impossible to endure—the exception that proves Epicurus’s rule.

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Beer of the week: Latitud Cero° Concordia – This Helles-style lager comes from La Paz Cerveceria in Ecuador. It’s straw-colored, with a slight haze. The aroma is of light toast, caramel and grass. The body is more substantial than I’d have guessed, which results in an uncommonly long finish for such a light lager.

Reading of the week: The Apology of Socrates by Xenophon – Those familiar with Plato’s Apology may be surprised how different Xenophon’s version is.

Question of the week: Is suicide acceptable in the face of protracted suffering?


Tetrapharmakos – Third Dose

This is the third in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

Step 3: καὶ τἀγαθὸν μὲν εὔκτητον – What is Good is Easy to Get

According to Seneca, The Garden of Epicurus bore the following inscription: “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.” As a result of the Epicurean focus on pleasure, Epicureanism is often misunderstood as decadent and gluttonous. We associate Epicureanism with good food, good drink, and plenty of both. But that is not a fair characterization.

“By pleasure,” writes Epicurus to Menoeceus, “we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.” Good things are those that satisfy our basic needs. Striving for more than our minimum requirements actually decreases our pleasure because it makes us anxious. Because luxuries are hard to acquire, the effort to get them results in a net loss of pleasure. To say nothing of the unpleasant aftereffects of overindulgence.

As Montaigne put it, “If you found your pleasure upon drinking of the best [wine], you condemn yourself to the penance of drinking of the worst. Your taste must be more indifferent and free.” Why spoil your palate on expensive wine and deny yourself the pleasure of cheap wine? There is more pleasure in prudently settling for the basics than anxiously scrambling after the best.

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Beer of the week: Chaski Porter – Given Montaigne’s dictum about settling for cheap wine, I suppose that I should have paired this week’s reading with a cheap beer. But I got this Peruvian porter from Barbarian Cerveceria Artesanal at a very good price, and by drinking only one at a time, I maximize the pleasure while minimizing anxiety over my beer budget. Chaski is very carbonated. It is dark brown with a rocky, tan head. The aroma has hints of soy sauce and chocolate. The beer is a bit thinner than expected, with coffee notes dominating. I am not a big porter drinker, but Chaski is pretty good.

Reading of the week: Of Drunkenness by Michel de Montaigne – The philosophy of Montaigne is difficult to pin down. It is not accurate to call him an Epicurean, but he was certainly influenced by Epicureanism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy relates that Montaigne’s Essays quote one verse out of every sixteen in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things.

Question of the week: Is there not a certain pleasure in working toward and attaining something beyond our basic needs?


Tetrapharmakos – First Dose

This is the first in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

In his Life of Epicurus, Diogenes Laërtius relates forty Principal Doctrines of the Epicurean school. The first four of these doctrines came to be known as the Tetrapharmakos: the four-part cure. The Tetrapharmakos is a prescription for living a good life.

Step 1: Ἄφοβον ὁ θεός – Don’t Fear God

There are a number of ways to arrive at this maxim. The traditional Epicurean way is rather pious. Epicurus and his followers believe in God. Well, the gods. And for the Epicureans, God is perfect. But, a perfect being could have no cause to act at all, let alone act in a response to the thoughts or deeds of an infinitesimally insignificant such as man. Diogenes Laërtius put it this way: “A blessed and eternal being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; hence he is exempt from movements of anger and partiality, for every such movement implies weakness.”

Lucretius, the poet laureate of Epicureanism, expressed this belief in verse:

For all the gods must of themselves enjoy
Immortal aeons and supreme repose,
Withdrawn from our affairs, detached, afar:
Immune from peril and immune from pain,
Themselves abounding in riches of their own,
Needing not us, they are not touched by wrath
They are not taken by service or by gift.

God is simply too perfect–hence perfectly content–to be moved to either anger or love by humans.

Another (significantly less pious) way to arrive at the maxim may seem obvious to us: atheism. If there is no God, then there is clearly no need to fear God. Lucretius certainly does not entertain that line of thought directly, but gets within spitting distance. He writes:

Likewise, thou canst ne’er
Believe the sacred seats of gods are here
In any regions of this mundane world;
Indeed, the nature of the gods, so subtle,
So far removed from these our senses, scarce
Is seen even by intelligence of mind.
And since they’ve ever eluded touch and thrust
Of human hands, they cannot reach to grasp
Aught tangible to us. For what may not
Itself be touched in turn can never touch.

So the nature of God is so subtle that it is utterly beyond our senses, and only very faintly perceptible by our reason. But if we can’t perceive God, and we cannot affect or be affected by God, then it really makes no difference whether God exists at all, right? So although Epicurus and Lucretius were clearly not atheists, their philosophy seems open to those who are.

So much for why the faithful and why atheists should not fear God. But what about those who doubt God’s perfection and consequent aloofness? What if God is active in the world? In that case, God must be unpredictable because we cannot know what will move God to wrath or good humor. Such a God is not worth fearing because no amount of worry or supplication can assure us of ending up on the right side of an unpredictable and capricious God.

So, whether you are a believer or an atheist, take the first dose of the Tetrapharmakos and don’t fear God. For best results, take with beer.

Beer of the week: Chicha Tu Mare – This Peruvian sour ale is brewed with corn, quinoa, and honey. It is a hazy, orangish brew with big, quickly-dissipating bubbles. Sour fruit notes dominate the aroma. The beer is both sour and astringent. The astringency makes one’s mouth feel dry, then the sourness activates the salivary glands. The honey is very subtle, mostly in the aftertaste. I suppose that a light body is typical of sour beers generally, but I think I’d like this beer to be a bit heavier.

Reading of the week: Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, Epicurus – As mentioned above, the Tetrapharmakos only refers to the first four of forty total Epicurean Principal Doctrines. This reading consists of is the whole list, including number 34: the controversial position that acting unjustly is an evil only so far as it creates a fear of being caught and punished.

Question for the week: Can the maxim “don’t fear God” be squared with religious revelation? Or does it really only work for those who have reasoned the existence of a perfect God (or reasoned the non-existence of any God)?


Wanted: One side-kick, must love beer, Spanish speaker preferred

So often, late January is the time when New Year’s resolutions fall apart. There are a number of reasons for these failures. Most of the problems involve impulse control and will-power. However, a many people set unrealistic goals and bring about their failure in that way.

The most extreme and strict resolutions are so prone to failure because an all-or-nothing attitude can make even the smallest of hurdles insurmountable. You couldn’t get to the gym today? Might as well eat a whole pizza, resolution over.  It has almost become a recurring theme on this blog to encourage moderation. Moderation in drinking, moderation in studying and now moderation in self-improvement. By being moderate in what we hope to accomplish, we will experience only moderate setbacks. If we wish to make tremendous changes, the obstacles we face will be tremendous.

Still, one must admit that there is some sort of virtue in attempting great self-improvement. So how can one seek greatness without falling on every small difficulty? The answer may be in the attitude of the man of La Mancha. Don Quixote’s goals and aspirations were extremely high; higher than even conceivably attainable. However, when he encountered setbacks, he simply added them to the list of things that he would overcome. Each time that something went wrong, and that was quite often, he saw an opportunity to make his glory even greater. Sure he was delusional, but perhaps a bit of delusion is exactly what is needed to drive one to greatness. So remember, those windmills really are giants. And if they knock you down, get right back on your horse and chase down the wizard who sent them to get you.

Beer of the Week: Cusqueña Malt Lager – While Cervantes was writing about our quixotic hero, the Spanish Empire was growing. Although the Spanish no longer control Peru, their influence there will probably never go away. Cusqueña, however, may not stand the test of time. The most exciting part of this beer is the fact that it’s from Peru. The look isn’t at all bad. It is a pale gold with a pure white head. From there, it is pretty much down hill. It is reminiscent of a standard American macrobrew, although it may have a bit more flavor. The finish is rather wet, which doesn’t help the overall appeal.

Reading of the week: Don Quixote, Part One by Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote tilting at windmills is the most iconic scene of Cervantes’ masterpiece. Taking on 30 or 40 horrible giants can be quite daunting, so “if thou beest afraid, go aside and pray, whilst I enter into cruel and unequal battle with them.”

Question of the week: If you take on a quixotic project, how important is it to have a Sancho Panza?