And Epicurus said:
“You should accustom yourself to believing that death means nothing to us, since every good and every evil lies in sensation; but death is the privation of sensation. Hence a correct comprehension of the fact that death means nothing to us makes the mortal aspect of life pleasurable, not be conferring on us a boundless period of time but by removing the yearning for deathlessness. There is nothing fearful in living for the person who has really laid hold of the fact that there is nothing fearful in not living. So it is silly for a person to say that he dreads death—not because it will be painful when it arrives but because it pains him now as a future certainty; for that which makes no trouble for us when it arrives is a meaningless pain when we await it. This, the most horrifying of evils, means nothing to us, then, because so long as we are existent death is not present and whenever it is present we are nonexistent. Thus it is of no concern either to the living or to those who have completed their lives. For the former it is nonexistent, and the latter are themselves nonexistent”
The Epicurean attitude toward death is that it is not only meaningless, but is actually an inhibitor to the achievement of pleasure and happiness. This assignment will cover the Epicurean argument itself, and will detail why Epicurus believed that we should not fear death. We will then consider the purpose of such an argument and how it could and/or should be applied to our daily lives. It will then be useful to apply this information to the modern day, and examine if such a concept is viable now in such a different setting and atmosphere, or whether the notion is universally timeless for application to any life, at any time.
When examining Epicurus’s notion of fear of death, it is important to note that by death, he does not only mean the physical, but also the spiritual (Sharples, 93). Epicurus believed in the Gods, but he did not believe that they were the kinds of Gods that were concerned with the everyday workings of mankind. He did not subscribe to the belief that the Gods would punish us for our trespasses, and damn us for not following the rules (Cooper 1998, 49). Like the fear of physical death, constant preoccupation with the fear of angering the God’s, and thereby experiencing the spiritual death of eternal damnation, is a roadblock to pleasure (Sharples, 94). They are both forms of death that Epicurus argues we should not be worrying about, for they are each fears that are unfounded, as the Gods do not care for our conduct, and the body itself is merely a mass of atoms and particles which, when they expire, do not transgress the experience of death itself (Cooper 1998). Epicurus applied this thinking to the soul as well, believing that since the soul too is just made up of atoms, it ceases to exist once we die (Cooper 1998). When we are alive we should not fear death because we are not experiencing it. When we die, we should not fear death, because we are dead, and we know no better (Sharples, 94). The ultimate goal, he believed, was a body that was not experiencing pain, and a mind that was not absorbed by fear and worry (Cooper 1998, 48). In addition to this, Epicurus believed that sensation is vital to enriched happiness, and death itself is the cessation of sensation. Therefore, it should not preoccupy us (Cooper 1998, 49).
Epicurus applied this philosophy as a foundation to a life of happiness without fear and pain. Whilst fearing death may not be a physical pain, it is still a painful prospect which affects the mind and the drive of human beings. Pain is not merely physical, but also mental. Being in fear of death, Epicurus argued, caused people to seek happiness in the wrong places, to pursue the wrong goals and to even behave badly in pursuit of such goals, which not only effects the happiness of the self, but also the happiness and contentment of others (Sharples, 93). If death means nothing to us, then we are released from the fear of the mortal timeline which drives us to pursue unnecessary aims such as immortality and security (Cooper 1998, 49). By removing this fear of ‘deathlessness’, we are free to enjoy a life of mortal pleasure that is unencumbered by fear (Cooper 1998, 49)
Today, the Epicurean theory of avoiding fear of death could very well be applied to our day to day lives. Just like in Epicurean Athens, one still needs to remove oneself from the bustle of modern life, in order to practice true reflection and growth in an environment without external judgement (De Botton, 58). In analysis of death itself, I do not believe that we are any less frightened now that we were a hundred years ago. Scientific advancements for the extension of life, and the curing of illness is evidence that we are not only still frightened of death, but are determined to construct industries that are dedicated to battling the prospect. It would not be useful to cease such causes, even if, from an Epicurean standpoint, they are pointless to pursue at all, for the world is now a different place with regards to scientific advancement and knowledge. However, fear of death is universal, and will continue to transcend time. I believe that its hold over our minds should always be examined, and theories applied, to dispel its negative influence over our lives, goals and attitudes, for such a preoccupation does surely reduce general contentment and pursuit of simplicity.
In conclusion, it could be said that whilst all of Epicurus’s theories on pleasure and happiness could now be considered somewhat dated, fear of death is universal and timeless, and therefore still relevant in the current day. The notion of oblivion beyond death, death being the claimer of sensation, and eternal damnation being inapplicable to human beings, could be useful as a universal tool to dispel fear of death, leaving us to pursue lives free from fear, and goals free of subconscious corruption.
De Botton, Alain. “Consolation for not having enough money” in Consolations of Philosophy , de Botton, Alain , 2000 , 56-70
Epicurus; Cooper, David E. “Epicurus, ‘Letter to Menoeceus’ and ‘Leading Doctrines’” in Ethics: The Classic Readings , Cooper, David E. , 1998 , 47-58
Sharples, R.W. “How can I be happy?” in Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics: An Introduction to Hellenistic Philosophy , Sharples, R.W , 1996 , 82-115