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A Dose Of Epicurus: Ancient Philosopher Cures Italy's COVID Souls

In Italy, Epicurus's "Letter on Happiness" is being sold at pharmacies to help people face down the stress and anxiety of COVID times.

A photomontage of a bust of Greek philosopher Epicurus with a COVID-19 facemask

Epicurus's "Letter on Happiness", a treasure trove of pandemic wisdom

Mario Baudino

TURIN — Go into an Italian pharmacy and you might just see ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus being hawked as a cure to the mental health toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of course, his "Letter on Happiness" does not replace the vaccine — the only lasting solution! — but even after your second dose, the words of Epicurus can still help with the lingering trauma of the global pandemic. For yes, there are afflictions that medicine cannot solve — the seemingly invisible maladies of the mind and soul, for example.

The idea started with a pharmacist from Viareggio in northern Italy: He placed an edition of the famous "Letter on Happiness" on his counter, at the modest price of one euro; and for the entire summer it sold like hot cakes, so much so that the enterprising pharmacist has announced he's ordering a second shipping.

The wisdom of serenity

In fact, millions of copies of The "Letter on Happiness" have been sold and it even ended up at the top of the paperback bestseller list. It's only a few pages long, but the words are simple, reasonable, a veritable treasure trove of wisdom — even if the author has long been misunderstood, often reduced to the rank of libertine.

But Epicurus is not an unrestrained libertine, as in the famous invective of Shakespeare's comedy "Falstaff," where the jealous Mr. Ford denounces Sir John, his presumed rival, as "damned Epicurean!" alluding to his sexual lust (but mainly, it seems, for rhyming needs).

In truth, Epicurus is the philosopher who teaches us serenity. Or, as Ilaria Gaspari wrote in her book Lessons of Happiness: "I understand that being a good Epicurean doesn't mean being dissolute or monkish in the severity toward myself, but letting myself live with subtle fatalism, without falling prey to anxiety."

A photograph of an old book open on a table

Not out of place next to pills?

Armando Arauz

The mortality of life

In the "Letter on Happiness" Epicurus makes many interesting points, for example about superstition and gods: "Someone who rejects the popular religion is not irreligious, but someone who attributes the judgments of people to divinity is."

He also had advice for grappling with death that rings especially true during a time of mass mourning: "Then, get used to thinking that death means nothing to us, since enjoyment and suffering are both feelings, and death is nothing but the absence of feelings. The exact consciousness that death means nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, without the deception of infinite time that is induced by the desire for immortality." Because death, in fact, "does not exist for us. When we live, death is not there, and when death is there we are not there. Death is nothing for either the living or the dead. Because for the living it is not there, while the dead are no more."

It's an ancient teaching, repeated countless times and difficult to absorb; but who ever said that wisdom was a simple and easy matter? In pharmacies, next to pills of all kinds, it doesn't feel completely out of place — and maybe it really does have its own effect — placebo though it may be.

Epicurus' success in these COVID times proves that philosophy is anything but useless. And the dosage is obvious: Take it in the evening, maybe even more than once, possibly after being vaccinated.

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