Coronavirus

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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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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