Fear of Death and Epicurean Philosophy

Charon, the ferryman of Hades carrying souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx.

In his famous letter to Menoeceus, the philosopher Epicurus argues that we should become accustomed to the belief that death means nothing to us. That the fear of death is an irrational source of anxiety in our lives and serves no purpose in a life of happiness.

This article explores the fears associated with death (of being dead, dying too early and the process of dying) and attempts to provide the associated Epicurean response.

Epicurean Philosophy

The Greek Philosopher Epicurus set forth reasons against the fear of deathEpicurus (341-271 BCE) was one of the most influential philosophers of the Hellenistic period. He studied the philosophies of Democritus and Plato, and founded his own philosophical school (“The Garden”), a self-sufficient commune near Athens. Epicurean ethics (like other systems of ethical thought) are shaped by his views on what the universe is like, and what we humans are. He believed that reality consists of uncuttable bits of matter moving through empty space, and bodies are collections of atoms that have joined together after they collided.

Epicureans believed in ethical hedonism, whereby pleasure is the measure of what is good and pain is the measure of what is bad. Not just immediate pleasure either, pleasurable consequences are weighed against painful consequences. For example, you might decide that consuming a lot of alcohol tonight is not worth it, as tomorrow you will have a headache and consumed an excess amount of calories.

The fear of being dead

According to Epicurean philosophy, the mind and body are one (atoms in the void). When we die, they both to cease to exist.  If we no longer exist after our death, we are unable to perceive anything good or evil. Without perception, it follows that we cannot suffer any harm while in this state.

Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not

An example of this state of non-existence is the period before our birth, a period of time that didn’t bring us harm nor fills us with dread when thinking about it.

Therefore, the fear of being dead is an irrational fear as when it does occur, it will no longer be of concern and hence, the fear of death is nothing to fear at all.

The fear of dying too early

Another fear of death concerns dying prematurely. The problem with this argument is the ‘quantification’ of premature (considering there are infinite experiences in life), aren’t most people likely to consider their death at any time  ‘premature’?

The Epicurean response removes this conundrum by the attainment of ataraxia, a tranquil state of happiness that cannot be increased by further accomplishments nor a longer life. In simple terms, it is living well (in the present), as we may not know what tomorrow brings.

And even as people choose of food not merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely that which is longest.

And he who admonishes the young to live well and the old to make a good end speaks foolishly, not merely because of the desirability of life, but because the same exercise at once teaches to live well and to die well.

Therefore, the fear of a premature death is an irrational fear as it deprives the individual of nothing and is not to be feared.

The fear of the process of dying

Fearing the  process of dying appears to be a rational fear, but what we are fearing is pain and not actually the process of dying. Some people experience death peacefully while others pass in extreme pain.

The object of fear should therefore be pain rather than death.

Epicurus himself passed away from a stone which prevented him from urinating, an understandably painful condition.

For Epicureans, modern palliative care would have been considered a boon as it allows us to minimise the pain experienced during the process of dying. Therefore, we should not fear the process of dying but rather pain which has it’s own remedies.

The fear of the unknown

In Epicurean philosophy, we can see the influences of Socrates and his own views upon the fear of death:

Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good; for one of two things — either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.

Socarates, that wise manIf we are in a state of unconsciousness, then Socrates agrees with the Epicurus viewpoint, that no harm can come to anyone who cannot perceive harm.

If it is a migration to another world, then we shouldn’t fear what we don’t really know (it may actually be a benefit):

 But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead abide, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this?

The point is that we should not fear the unknown which only might negatively impact us in the future but definitely negatively impact our present. It is the equivalent of dreaming about winning the lottery, it serves no purpose in the present nor is it a useful thought for our future.

Objections

Doubters may claim that the natural aversion to death is innate, but to do so discounts our ability to reason and control our instinctual nature.

Furthermore, we must separate rational fears that are related to death but are not actually the fear of death itself, these being the fear of the process of dying, losing loved ones or the impact our own death has on others. It is through this separation that we understand the fear is not of death itself but what our death means to others.

When we understand our fear properly, we have an opportunity to address it. The last lecture from Randy Pausch is a great example of this.

Conclusion

At first, the statement from Epicurus that death means nothing to us might be a little hard to swallow. Upon an examination of the fear of death and the individual fears associated with it,  a rational reasoned response has been given to each.

If anything, it is a timely reminder that our time is finite and in the words of Tim Robbins (Shawshank Redemption), we should get busy living or get busy dying.

Scott McCulloch
Scott is a web programmer, author and ancient history student. He is the founder of Ventrian - a provider of DotNetNuke Modules and Ancient Life - an Ancient Greek & Roman history blog

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