CHAPTER II - EPICURUS AS A MENTAL HEALER
BY: GEORGE LINCOLN WALTON, M.D.
CONSULTING NEUROLOGIST TO THE MASSACHUSETTS GENERAL HOSPITAL
EPICURUS AS A MENTAL HEALER
'Tis to believe what men inspired of old, Faithful, and faithfully
The suggestions offered in the following pages are not new. Many of them
were voiced by Epicurus three hundred years before Christ, and even then
were ancient history. Unfortunately Epicurus had his detractors. One, Timocrates, in particular, a renegade from his school, spread malicious and
unfounded reports of his doings and sayings, reports too easily credited then, and starting, perhaps, the misconception which to-day prevails
regarding the aims of this philosopher.
But when Marcus Aurelius, nearly five centuries later, decided to endow a
philosophical professoriate he established the Epicurean as one of the four standard schools. The endorsement of such a one should surely predispose
us to believe the authentic commentators of Epicurus, and to discredit the popular notion which makes his cult synonymous with the gratification of
the appetites, instead of with the mental tranquility to which he regarded sensual pleasures so detrimental that he practically limited his diet, and
that of his disciples, to bread and water.
It is of special encouragement to such of us as painfully realize our meagre equipment for reaching a high plane of self-control, to learn that
Epicurus was by nature delicate and sensitive. At seven years of age, we are told, he could not support himself on tiptoe, and called himself the
feeblest of boys. It is said that in his boyhood he had to be lifted from his chair, that he could not look on the sun or a fire, and that his skin
was so tender as to prevent his wearing any dress beyond a simple tunic. These physical characteristics suggest the makings of a first class "fuss"
and inveterate worrier. In this event his emancipation from such tendencies must have been due to the practice of his own philosophy.
As an antidote for the fear of death and the miraculous in the heavens Epicurus urges the study of Nature, showing his appreciation of the fact
that one thought can only be driven out by another, as well as of the importance of the open air treatment of depressing fears.
That he recognized the doubting folly and its evils is shown by the following Maxim for the Wise Man:
"He shall be steady in his opinion and not wavering and doubtful in everything."
To the hypochondriac he said:
"Health in the opinion of some is a precious thing; others rank it among the indifferent." Again:
"If the body be attacked by a violent pain the evil soon has an end; if, on the contrary, the pain be languishing and of long duration it is
sensible beyond all doubt of some pleasure therefrom. Thus, most chronical distempers have intervals that afford us more satisfaction and
ease than the distempers we labor under cause pain." And further:
"The Wise man takes care to preserve the unequivocable blessing of an
undisturbed and quiet mind even amidst the groans and complaints which
excess of pain extorts from him." He states, again, that one can be happy though blind.
Regarding insomnia, he recognized the futility of expecting restful sleep to follow a day of fret and worry. He says:
"He shall enjoy the same tranquility in his sleep as when awake."
Epicurus realized that the apparent inability of the old to acquire
new habits is due rather to lack of attention, and to indifference or
preoccupation, than to lack of aptitude. He placed, in fact, no limit to
the age for learning new methods, stating in his letter to Meneceus,--
"Youth is no obstacle to the study of philosophy--neither ought we to be
ashamed to concentrate our later years to the labor of speculation. Man has
no time limit for learning, and ought never to want strength to cure his
mind of all the evils that afflict it."
Epicurus does not counsel seclusion for the cultivation of tranquility, but
holds that mental equipoise "may be maintained though one mingles with the
world, provided he keeps within the bounds of temperance, and limits his
desires to what is easily obtained."
Curiously enough, in view of the idea of epicureanism which has become
proverbial, Epicurus regards the avoidance of excess a logical and
necessary step toward the tranquil life, and among other admonitions is
found the following Maxim:
"The Wise man ought never to drink to excess, neither must he spend the nights revelling and feasting."
We may conclude our selection from the Maxims of Epicurus by one which strikes a body-blow at worry and the allied faulty mental habits:
"That being who is happy and immortal is in no way solicitous or uneasy on
any account, neither does he torment or tease others; anger is unworthy of
his greatness ... for all these things are the property of weakness."
Such then, was the real Epicurus, not a seeker after effeminate luxury, but
a chaste and frugal philosopher, serene of mien, and of gentle disposition,
firm in his friendships, but sacrificing to them none of the high ideals
which characterized his thought. He erred, doubtless, in the avoidance of
responsibilities and in narrowing his efforts to promoting the happiness
of his own immediate circle, but he was fearless in the defence of his
principles and steadfast in the pursuit of the tranquility which for him
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Why Worry - Epicurus as a Mental Healer