Epicurus – Tetrafarmakos – An Interpretation

Epicurus – Ancient Greek Philosopher

(342 – 270 BCE)

Tetrafarmakos – An interpretation

“The more I learn about this extraordinary Athenian thinker, the more strongly I recognize Epicurus as the proto-existential psychotherapist”, Irvin Yalom (2008)

Epicurus or “Epicure” as he is more commonly called in English, is a widely known ancient Greek philosopher, whose way of life is often referred to as “Epicurean” in the English speaking world, especially in reference to food and culinary pleasures. However, in the original Ancient Greek context, Epicurus is revered as a philosopher that tried to liberate people of the anxieties that plague the human condition and attempted to provide a simple guide to happiness, based on what we now consider an existentialist way of thinking.

Epicurus was of the view that we are able to self-govern our lives, make our own laws and rules of conduct which we can follow not because of a fear of god or punishment but because they are right for us (modern philosopher, Cornelius Castoriadis,1999, expands on this concept of autonomy).

Hecht (2004) affirms that Epicurus not only “said that human beings can manage to be virtuous in this chaotic, unsupervised world, [but that] they can actually be happy”.

Yalom (2008) agrees that for Epicurus “there was only one proper goal to philosophy; to alleviate human misery”.

According to Epicurus’ philosophy the primary roots of misery, were:

  • The fear of God
  • The fear of Death
  • The fear of bad things happening
  • The fear of not being able to acquire the basics in life.

Epicurus proposed a “four-part cure” to overcome the primary roots of misery that are inherent to the human condition, which he called “Tetrafarmakos”. “Tetra” meaning four and “farmakos” meaning medicine, in Greek.




Tetrafarmakos, the “four-part cure”, serves as a practical guide on how to alleviate the common anxieties and steer oneself towards leading a happy life, according to Epicurus.

Central to Epicurus’ philosophy is that the purpose of life is, “Pleasure”. More specifically, his main doctrine was that the purpose of life is “to pursue pleasure and avoid pain”. It is interesting to note here that the Cyrenaic school (the school of thought that was started by Aristippus of Cyrene, pupil of Socrates) that also existed at the time, promoted a similar idea i.e. the purpose of life is “to pursue pleasure and avoid pain”, but the Cyrenaic approach was a hedonistic one, in the extreme. For instance, Aristippus lived luxuriously, pursued sensual gratification and took pride in extracting enjoyment from all circumstances of every kind.

On the other hand, Epicurus assumed a completely different approach to “Pleasure”. As A.C. Grayling (2010) notes, Epicurus “argued that the conventional pleasures of eating, drinking and sensuality carry within them the seeds of pain and are accordingly to be avoided [in excess], and true pleasures – the intellectual pleasures of enquiry, gaining knowledge; conversing with friends under the shade of a tree, sipping water and eating bread when hungry – are to be preferred”.

The Cyrenaic school is thus, more akin to “Epicure” as we define it or assume it today, in the English world, than Epicurus actually was.




Epicurus sought to provide a philosophy on how to minimise the inherent “seeds of pain” of the human condition, regardless of whether in pursuit of pleasure or not, by positing the Tetrafarmakos paradigm.


In summation, Epicurus outlined four “anxieties” inherent in the human condition and the following four “cures”.


  • The fear of God
  • The fear of Death
  • The fear of not being able to acquire the basics in life.
  • The fear of bad things happening

Cures (or conditions to aim for) to these anxieties:

  • Don’t fear god,
  • Don’t worry about death;
  • What is good is easy to get, and
  • What is terrible is easy to endure.

—Philodemus, Herculaneum Papyrus, 1005, 4.9-14

Epicurus provides reasons and processes of thought that may be adopted towards attaining these “cures”- conditions to aim for. He suggests that these processes constitute the Tetrafarmakos – a “four-part cure” of the core human anxieties.




Anxiety 1 – The Fear of God

Αρχή Σοφίας ονομάτων επισκεψις”-
The beginning of wisdom is a definition of terms – (Socrates).

For Epicurus, the God(s) were, if anything, beings that did not have anything to do with the creation of the world and did not interfere with it. As supreme beings, Gods knew only happiness and lived in between the different universes. He declared: “A happy 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” (Hicks 2009) The God(s) for Epicurus did not serve any other purpose apart from offering an image of the ideal state of ataraxia (tranquility), for us to emulate. But why did he perceive God(s) to have nothing to do with this world or the creation of the universe? His refutation reverberates through the eons:

“If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able to, Then He is not omnipotent.

If He is able, but not willing, Then He is malevolent.

If He is both able and willing, Then whence cometh evil?

If He is neither able nor willing, Then why call Him God?”, Epicurus

Hence, since Epicurus perceives evil to exist, but God(s) are tranquil, eternal and devoid of anger and weakness, then God(s) did not create the world nor do they interfere with it, by definition.Therefore, the anxiety about being judged every moment or spending years to figure out how someone else would desire one to live one’s life, is unreasonable. Hence, autonomy to self-govern one’s life based on the Epicurean principles such as, “seeking pleasure and avoiding pain” for him or herself and his or her fellow human beings is enough and sufficient.

Anxiety 2 – The Fear of death

“Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling, and that which has no feeling is nothing to us” (Hicks 2009).

The Epicurean dismissal of the idea of an afterlife and the rational answer to the existentialist fear comes from this quote. Being a materialist and most probably influenced by the teachings of Diagoras of Milos (atheistic approach to life), Protagoras (“of all things the measure is Man”), Anaxagoras (the sun is a stone and not a God) and finally directly influenced by Democritus’ (everything is built by atoms including the stars, Gods etc) atomism, Epicurus posited 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”.(Csikszentmihalyi 2008)

Today, especially with the increase of the living standards and the aversion with which society treats the death experience, people are more unprepared to deal with or face the existentialist fear of Death. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes “Death has a 100% success rate”, hence, reviewing Epicurus and the other philosophers on this matter, is useful.

On this matter, Yalom (2008) contends that the existentialist fear is the hidden or obvious cause of a plethora of psychological conditions e.g. anxiety. Hence, this has to be dealt with, in order to be overcome. Unless we face our fear of Death and focus on consciously alleviating it, it will continue festering. Moreover, the question of Death in today’s technologically advanced world receives no convincing answer but rather the problem is exacerbated instead.

As Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, psychologist and academic, suggests:

“The shields that have worked in the past—the order that religion, patriotism, ethnic traditions, and habits instilled by social classes used to provide—are no longer effective for increasing numbers of people who feel exposed to the harsh winds of chaos. The lack of inner order manifests itself in the subjective condition that some call ontological anxiety, or existential dread. Basically, it is a fear of being, a feeling that there is no meaning to life and that existence is not worth going on with” (2008)

Hence, Epicurus contribution to this eternal question remains as current, as ever.


Anxiety 3 – The fear of bad things happening.

“Continuous pain does not last long in the body; on the contrary, pain, if extreme, is present a short time, and even that degree of pain which barely outweighs pleasure in the body does not last for many days together”. (Hicks 2009)

Epicurus contends that when the pain is potent it usually lasts for a short period and when it is mild it could last for longer. Not believing in Karma or the afterlife, allowed Epicurus to remove the fear of theodicy from the equation. In the words of J. H. Holmes

“The universe is not hostile, nor yet is it friendly, it is simply indifferent.”(Csikszentmihalyi 2008)

For Epicurus, however, chance plays a role. If someone actively pursues the “maximization of pleasure and avoidance of pain” he or she will receive some comfort in the fact that they, themselves, could potentially control and change their circumstances and that there is no one out there “to get them”.


Epicurus, leading by example, put together his school of thought called, “The Garden”, and declared and lived by his principles. Epicurus also noted that it is the attitude we take towards things that is important and promoted the Heracletian saying: “Bad witnesses are the eyes and ears of men with barbarous souls”, as did Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, through statements such as, “men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them“.

Epicurus preferred to focus on the things he could change without worrying too much about the things outside of his sphere of influence. He declared, ΛΑΘΕ ΒΙΩΣΑΣ- “Live Unobtrusively”.

By creating “The Garden” and surrounding himself with friends, Epicurus maximized his chances to live happily, according to his own beliefs.


Anxiety 4 – The fear of not being able to acquire the basics in life.

Nature’s wealth at once has its bounds and is easy to procure; but the wealth of vain fancies recedes to an infinite distance” (Hicks 2009).

This is one of the most potent moments in his philosophy as it is clear that it talks straight to the centre of the consumerist society of 300 BCE as well as that of today. His dictum that

“Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little”

may hold true today just as it did in Epicurus’ time. We can view the connection between the two eras through the work of Pitrim Sorokin.

Sorokin divided “Western Civilization”, as we refer to it today, into three distinct epochs based on the set of priorities that justified the goals of existence that each held. Sorokin defines these epochs, as:

i) the “sensate” (where the organisation of one’s goals is done around the concepts of pleasure and practicality),

ii) the “ideational” (where the focus is on abstract principles, asceticism, and transcendence of material concerns), and

iii) the “idealistic” (which is a combination of the “sensate” and the “ideational” i.e. acceptance of a concrete sensory experience with a reverence for spiritual ends) phases of culture.

Sorokin supports the view that Epicurus’ era and our modern world belong to the same cultural phase, as that of, “the sensate”. Hence, Epicurus’ answers to the questions and fears of the “sensate” society of 300 BCE become relevant today, as well.

Csikszentmihalyi explains the elements of “the sensate” epoch as follows:

“the Sensate cultures are integrated around views of reality designed to satisfy the senses. They tend to be concerned primarily with concrete needs. In such cultures, art, religion, philosophy, and everyday behaviour glorify and justify goals in terms of tangible experience. People in a sensate culture are not necessarily more materialistic, but they organize their goals and justify their behavior with reference primarily to pleasure and practicality rather than to more abstract principles. The challenges they see are almost exclusively concerned with making life easier, more comfortable, more pleasant. They tend to identify the good with what feels good and mistrust idealized values” (Csikszentmihalyi 2008).

Today, in some cases, consumerism has replaced the meaning of life. Epicurus, although a materialist, promoted the idea:

“I possess things, I am not possessed by them”.

Today, meaning is sought to be filled through material possessions and consumption styles by many, and may even provide a sense of identity.

Erich Fromm, famous psychologist, provides the following insight into this case in point:

‘I am what I have’, since ‘my property constitutes myself and my identity’.

Alain De Botton refers to a by-product of this condition as “Status Anxiety”. In both his book and documentary by this same name, he highlights that looking at exogenous ways for meaning in one’s life, eventually leave one wanting.

Csikszentmihalyi (2008) purports that:

“…there is no inherent problem in our desire to escalate our goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way. The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure from the present. When that happens, they forfeit their chance of contentment.”

Epicurus did not focus on things per se but on the experience we derive from them. He focused on the simple things in life such as, food, shelter and friendship which may be attainable without much effort. In today’s well-connected globalised society this may seem like an antiquated view since we have knowledge of places on earth where even these basics are deemed as luxuries. However, for most of the Western world, having a meal and a roof over one’s head is not unachievable for most people.



As we seek to remove the common anxieties outlined by Epicurus, pursue happiness and seek experiences which provide enjoyment and purpose, I believe that the essence of the Epicurean Tetrafarmakos may be a useful paradigm to consider in our modern world.

Castoriadis cautions however that, Ancient thought should not be viewed as a protype or a model for emulation, but rather as a lifegiving force that can and should inspire us and prompt us to review these eternal questions and revisit them anew, considering the knowledge accumulated through the centuries and what holds true to us (Castoriadis 1999).

This echoes the words of another famous writer, Nikos Kazantzakis, who said that, “we are only faithful to tradition, when we surpass it” (Στεφανάκη 1997).


Έρρωσο (May you have strength)



George Vrakas








  1. – Διογένης Λαέρτιος, 1994, “Βίοι Φιλοσόφων”, Κάκτος, Αθήνα – (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers)
  2. Κορνήλιος Καστοριάδης, 1999, “Η Αρχαία Ελληνική Δημοκρατία και η σημασία της για μας σήμερα, εκδ. Υψιλον, Αθήνα (also, Cornelius Castoriadis – )
  3. – Jennifer Michael Hecht, 2004, “Doubt, a history”, HarperOne, New York
  4. – Irvin Yalom, 2008, “Staring at the Sun”, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
  5. – AC Grayling, 2010, “Ideas That Matter”, Phoenix, London
  6. – Hicks R.D, 2009, “Epicurus – Principal Doctrines”, e-article, viewed 25th May 2012, <http://classics.mit.edu/Epicurus/princdoc.html&gt;
  7. – Nikki M, 2012, “Epicurus Tetrafarmakos and its relevance in Today’s World”, Blog, viewed 27th May 2012, < http://nikki-m.hubpages.com/hub/Epicurus-Tetrapharmakos-and-its-Relevence-in-Todays-World&gt; – Csikszentmihalyi Mihaly, 2008, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, HarperCollins, NSW
  8. Στεφανάκη Γ., 1997, “Συμπόσιo: η πρώτη φυγή του Oδυσσέα“, Καθημερινή, viewed 25th May 2012, <http://wwk.kathimerini.gr/kath/7days/1997/11/02111997.pdf&gt;


  1. Μάριος Βερέττας Εμείς οι Επικούρειοι, εκδ. Μ. Βερέττα
  2. Alain De Botton – The Consolations of Philosophy, Random House Publishers
  3. Alain De Botton – Status Anxiety, Vintage Books (also as a DVD by ABC)
  4. Alain De Botton – Philosophy, A Guide to Happiness (DVD)
  5. Επίκουρος Άπαντα, εκδ. Κάκτος
  6. Διογένης Οινοανδεύς Η Μεγάλη Επιγραφή των Οινοάνδων, εκδ. Θύραθεν
  7. Επίκουρος Ήθικη, εκδ. Εξάντας
  8. Χ. Θεοδωρίδης Επίκουρος, η αληθινή όψη του Αρχαίου κόσμου. Εκδ. Εστία
  9. Irvin Yalom – Existential Psychotherapy, publisher BasicBooks





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