Facing up to Death
‘Get used to believing that death is nothing to us. For all good and bad consists in sense-experience, and death is the privation of sense-experience.’
‘Death […] the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist.’
(Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus, 124-126 (as cited in Inwood & Gerson, 1994, p. 29)
‘Death is nothing to us nor does it concern us at all […] just as in time gone by we felt no distress […] so too, when we will no longer exist […] surely nothing at all will be able to happen to us, who will not exist then…’
‘And even if the nature of the mind and power of the soul have feeling after they have been dragged out of our body, still this is nothing to us, who consist of the conjunction and connection of body and soul joined tightly together as one.’
(Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Bk III, 830-846 (as cited in Smith et al., 2008, pp. 337, 338)
‘Epicurus’s famous argument…is about as absurd as any I have seen […] The self-deception of people like Epicurus is not conscious; we cannot relieve our anxiety by swallowing beliefs of whose inanity we are aware. But deception is nonetheless at work.’
(Luper-Foy, 1993, p. 270)
In these quotations, Epicurus and Lucretius present the notion that ‘death is nothing to us’, and so is not a rational basis of fear. Death presents no threat, so life should not be wasted in terror of its end, or expending futile effort in an attempt to buy immortality. While liberating and consoling for some (Rosenbaum, 2010; Buetow et al., 2009), the Epicurean arguments have been largely unsuccessful in removing the fear of death. The Epicurean viewpoint has been scorned as ‘absurd… self-deception’, like Luper-Foy (1993) in the quote above, with similar sentiments expounded in Nagel (1979), Parfit (1984) and Feldman (1991). These criticisms of the Epicurean stance on Death are given strength by the tendency to view human lives as narratives. While this may be a natural human tendency, on an intellectual level, the criticisms ultimately fail to respond to the formidable Epicurean arguments. To show how the Epicurean viewpoint can overcome this negativity, the view must be understood in context, understanding their physical and ethical reasons for their viewpoint. Following this account, criticisms and possible responses will be discussed.
Epicureans aimed at the abolition of the unreasonable fear of death; they wanted people to be able to enjoy their lives free of unnecessary pain, both physical and mental. From their viewpoint, the fear of death is one of the primary inhibitors of a good life; this was seen as being derived largely from incorrect assumptions about religion and the gods; specifically, the idea of an ‘after-life’ where one would be judged and either blessed or punished for their actions in life (Epicurus, LtM 123-124 in Inwood & Gerson, 1994, pp. 28-29; See also Lucretius`, 1-66-83`; 3-960-975 in Smith et al., 2008). Therefore, the concept of ‘Death is nothing to us’ is a statement which concerns an individuals’ ‘correct’ position in relation to their own death. The Epicurean position is not, however, a statement of disdain for life, nor is it an insinuation of a lack of concern or care about our fellow creatures. Seen in this way, the Epicurean conception that ‘death is nothing to us’ is more like an attempt at a kind of ‘cognitive therapy’ designed to remove our fear of death by showing that this fear is baseless (Sanders, pp. 213, 214). For someone with a fear of death, life becomes difficult to enjoy, and can lead to a lust for inconsequential things like power, money and fame, as if this would provide immortality (Lucretius, On Nature 3-35-94, in Smith et al., pp. 335, 336).
This view was directly related to their ‘physics’; the Epicureans were entirely materialistic in outlook and largely accepted the atomism of Democritus. The body and soul formed an interdependent ‘aggregate’; since the body was accepted as being formed of matter, the soul, conceived by Epicureans as the primary receiver of sensation, required a material basis in order to interact with the body, as ‘incorporeal objects would be unable to act or be acted upon in any way’ (Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus, in Smith et al., 2008, pp. 314, 315; Konstan, 2003). This aggregate could not be separated without deleterious effects; bodily death, for Epicureans, entails the dissolution of the soul, the annihilation of the self, because once the ‘soul’ loses its bodily containment, it is dispersed and, like Pandora’s Box, cannot be reconstituted (Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus 63-67, in Inwood & Gerson, 1994, pp. 13-14). The Epicureans judged that their physics showed first that everything that made a person was material, and then showed that all matter must be recycled, creating a cycle of life and death, which meant that ‘Nothing is handed over to the underworld and black Tartarus’ (Lucretius 3-966, in Smith et al., 2008). No ‘after-life’ is possible; everything that goes into our formation must return to its components after our lease on life is up (Lucretius, 3-971, in Smith et al., 2008). This is not even just life forms themselves, but everything in nature, including worlds; Everything has its time, and everything dies, including worlds; since ‘everything has come into being from the infinite: all […] have been separated off from it as a result of individual entanglements. And all disintegrate again, some faster, some slower, and through differing kinds of causes’ (Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus, in Smith et al., p. 315). Understanding this truth, while difficult for some to accept, should make it easier to endure in the face death, since we understand that death is not a punishment, it is just a part of the natural cycle of life.
In all of their arguments leading to their belief that ‘death is nothing to us’, the Epicureans are implying that death is a state which begins ‘at the end of a person’s dying and at the beginning of a person’s being dead’ (Rosenbaum, 2010, p. 177); however, even the idea of a ‘state’ is not quite correct. For the Epicureans, death was the complete cessation of experience, the annihilation of the self; there is no co-temporality with death (Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus, 124-126 as cited in Inwood & Gerson, 1994, p. 29). There is no ‘state’ to be in; at least not in the way we commonly use the term for physical or psychological attitudinal states, because there is no spacio-temporal location, and no ‘self’ to be in it.
The Epicurean View and its detractors
This section will highlight the arguments made by Lucretius and Epicurus in support of their claim that ‘Death is nothing to us’. First, Lucretius’ ‘Asymmetry’ argument:
- There was a time before our conception/birth in which we did not exist.
- We felt no distress in this pre-natal non-existence
- There is a relevant symmetry between our pre-natal and post-mortem existence
- Death brings non-existence
- We will feel no distress in our post-mortem non-existence
- Death is nothing to us
The central message of the Asymmetry argument is that ‘death is nothing to us’ because we suffer no more after we are dead than before we were born. We generally do not mourn the time before we existed, and since that non-existence is of the same kind as our future non-existence, we should likewise not mourn the time after we will cease to exist.
Lucretius’ asymmetry argument is heavily criticised. There is no symmetry between our past non-existence, and our future non-existence: ‘… life familiarizes us with the goods of which death deprives us’ (Nagel, 1979, p. 9), and, according to Parfit, (1984, pp. 149-187) we are inherently ‘future biased’. Both Nagel and Parfit want us to consider that so our death has relevant differences to our pre-conception non-existence. We care more for our future, than our past because we now know what it is like to have some life; before our birth, there was no ‘us’ to have a comparison, but now that we are alive, we have the opportunity to compare them, and death is found wanting. We do not wish to give up what we have gained. The inevitability of our death is no comfort because it will always take away the possibility of ‘indefinitely extensive’ (Nagel, 1979, p. 10) future goods. Nagel (Nagel), along with others, have further criticisms of the ‘standard’ epicurean argument which follows.
Closely related to O’Keefe (2005):
- Death is the privation of experience, the annihilation of the self.
- While we exist, death is not present (there is an ‘I’ which is the subject of experience).
Death does not affect us while still living. (from 1 and 2)
So, death is not bad for us while living. (from 3)
For something to be good or bad for somebody, that person has to exist to experience it (the existence requirement).
- All good and bad consist in sense experience
- The dead do not exist. (from 1) (the termination thesis)
Therefore, death is not bad for the dead. (from 5 and 6)
- Therefore death is bad for neither the living nor the dead. (from 4 and 7)
- Death is nothing to us
Epicurus is effectively arguing that when we die, we cease to exist, and so have no sensation and no awareness. While the idea of ‘annihilation’ is often cited as a basis of fear, it was in fact a significant reason why both Epicurus and Lucretius believed that ‘death is nothing to us’. If there is no ‘I’ to have sensations or experiences, then there is no ‘I’ to suffer (Morel, 2009, p. 498). Feldman (1991) describes this as the ‘termination thesis’; the idea that existence is a requirement for harm. This is axiomatic for Epicureans; ‘all good and evil consist of sense-experience’ (Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus, 124-126 as cited in Inwood & Gerson, 1994, p. 29), and so we are unable to have ‘goods’ or ‘evils’ without the ability to perceive them. They are completely subjective, and since death is the annihilation of the self, there is no subject which remains to be harmed. Intellectually, there is much here that is easily agreed; it is commonly accepted that dead bodies have no sensation, and cannot feel pain or pleasure. Medical autopsies are performed, bodies are donated to science and medicine, bodies are buried or cremated, and these, while they would be considered horrifying if they happened during life, are considered ‘nothing’ in death. Noting this, the argument largely centres on the epicurean ‘negative hedonism’ (Luper, 2009), where ‘all good and bad consist of sense-experience’ (Epicurus, LtM 124-126 in Inwood & Gerson, 1994, p. 29), and hinges on the existence requirement. This argument comes under attack with intuitively plausible ‘common-sense’ notions.
It is commonly accepted by theorists that the dead do not exist, or exist no longer; that death is the annihilation of the self. This is a statement of the ‘termination thesis’ (Feldman, 1991). While usually this premise is granted by critics, there has been a challenge to this. Feldman (1991) rallies against the termination thesis. He discounts ‘non-existence’ at premise 6, and claims that we will have post-mortem existence; it will simply be an existence as a corpse (1991, p. 212). This view makes some sense of our commonly used language, in that we often ascribe a kind of existence to the dead; we talk about the dead much the same as we did when they were alive. However, with the ‘self’ being identified essentially as our bodies, this idea provides little consolation. Not only does it do little to remove the fear of death, in some ways, like Lucretius’ example of the man imagining his body after death (Lucretius, 870-887, in Smith et al., 2008) it can serve to create more tension. Existing as a body leaves open the terrifying possibility of post-mortem suffering, and doesn’t really respond to the concerns we have of death. Fred Feldman himself highlights this when he says ‘such survival may be of very little value’ (Feldman, 1991). Defeating the ‘termination thesis’ does not appear to be easy, but the existence argument can be attacked on another front. Deprivation theorists (Luper, 2009) commonly attempt to argue that, against the ‘existence requirement’, that one can be harmed in death.
Nagel proposes a ‘deprivation account’ (Feldman, 1991) of the harms of death to challenge the ‘existence requirement’ for harm. Rather than it being a harm in the sense of causing suffering, death is an ‘evil [..] because of what it deprives us of’ (Nagel, 1979). In death, we do not exist; as previously mentioned, for the Epicureans, this was what made death neutral – we could feel neither pain or pleasure, and so non-existence is simply ‘nothing to us’. For Nagel, however, it is this non-existence that deprives us of the ‘goods of life’. Being alive is good for its’ own sake; its general ‘desirability’ makes its loss an evil against their ‘future possibilities’ (Williams, 2007). This deprivation account considers death generally an evil, regardless of the age of the ‘victim’, but particularly in the case of ‘premature’ death, where it seems unfair and considerably more tragic to die at a young age, than it does at an old age (Nagel, 1979). Williams, and also Trisel (Williams, 2007; Trisel, 2007) argue that the deprivation argument implicitly requires that:
- A persons future is valuable (for its own sake)
Death pre-empts a persons’ future
- This can be premature by degree – ‘The degree of harmfulness of a person’s premature death thus depends on how premature it is’ (Feinberg 1993, in Trisel, 2007, p. 57)
- Death has a negative value for a person
Since life is generally held to be a good, for the purposes here, Premise 1 will be assumed. Premise 2, however, as both Williams and Trisel (Williams, 2007, p. 267; Trisel, 2007) note, has flaws which make this view difficult to countenance. There is inherent ambiguity in the notion of ‘premature death’ (as noted by Sanders, 2011; Williams, 2007; Trisel, 2007). While it may be intuitive to consider death to be cutting short someone’s ‘future’ life, because ‘we are incapable of pursuing projects that give us meaning’ (Luper-Foy, in Feldman, 2000), it brings forward the question of what it means for it to have been possible for that person to live longer than they did; we may consider a life shorter than the ‘national average’ to be premature, but there is no justifiable way to accurately determine how much life they would have had. Additionally, how could we possibly determine what kind of future, or how good this life would have been? (Williams, 2007, p. 267). Our future, at best, is based on possibilities and probabilities; as Williams notes, ‘People have many potentialities, but the course of living involves developing a few of them and suppressing most’ (Williams, p. 275). On this view, it makes any death premature; as Nagel puts it: ‘If there is no limit to the amount of life that it would be good to have, then it may be that a bad end is in store for us all’ (1979, p. 10).
Epicureans respond to these notions with the concept of ‘ataraxia’, a state of tranquillity, and a living for the present.
But a sensible person, once he has learned that it is possible to acquire everything sufﬁcient for a happy life, from that point on walks about as one already laid out for his burial and enjoys each single day as if it were an eternity. When it is taken from him, he neither <considers the things being taken from him> surprising nor goes along with them as if he were thereby missing out on some aspect of the best possible life. But if he extends his life, he accepts any added time, as he reasonably should, as though having happened on an unexpected piece of good fortune and gives thanks accordingly to the way things are (Philodemus, in Sanders, 2011, p. 225).
When in this state, a balanced, negative hedonism, neither additional time nor further accomplishments can augment this state; ‘tranquillity is complete at each and every moment one experiences it’ (Sanders, p. 222). While one can add a greater number of instances of ‘ataraxia’, one’s pleasure is not increased by these greater instances; we do not simply choose on the basis of quantity, but the quality (Epicurus, LtM 124, in Smith et al., p. 316). The quality of the ‘complete’ life surpasses the quantity of time in which it was experienced (Schumacher, 2010), and as is suggested by Watts, ‘life requires no future to complete itself nor explanation to justify itself. In this moment it is finished’ (2011, p. 152). Stoyles (2011) in a mixed review describes this view as an example of a kind of ‘momentary well-being’, and as such, death cannot be ‘bad for the person who dies… but death can be bad insofar as it affects narrative well-being and the narrative significance of certain states within our lives’ (p. 17). It can be bad because of our death making our life-story unfulfilled, or affect the meaning behind our actions at the time periods before our death. This highlights the apparent ‘narrative structure’ (Fischer, 2006) in the lives we create.
It has been suggested since Plato’s Republic that stories, the narratives we tell, have significant power over us, and serve to shape and define us (377a, in Smith et al., 2008, p. 158). We see these narratives, and they highlight “possible lives” (Bruner, 2004, p. 694) which we might have had. We might expect certain ‘promises’ with regards to our futures (Williams, p. 271), that our narratives have certain ‘stages’ (Striker, in Sanders, p. 221), and that a life without these components is unfinished. Though the question needs to be asked: what is an unfinished life to the person who dies? The idea of prematurity is in the eyes of those who are left behind, not in the mind of the now deceased person. Notice Velleman’s point that ‘… the conclusory emotion in a narrative cadence embodies not just how the audience feels about the ending; it embodies how the audience feels, at the ending, about the whole story’ (2003, p. 19 emphasis added). It is important to see, however, that these narratives are about someone, usually retrospectively, and not judged themselves, but externally by an audience. Our conclusions are not told by us; they are told about us, since we cannot know definitively how and when we will die. This idea of being deprived of experiences allowed to one person is one of hindsight; the reflective capacity to look back at our history, and rather than seeing what has been accomplished, those that have been left undone are what are salient. This would likely be true for any long life; there would always be something that was ‘missing’. As Watts suggests, ‘even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly’ (Watts, p. 52). Fischer (2006) disagrees; our lives could instead be like ongoing ‘soap-operas’ which have no conclusion, they just continue (p. 380). However, the analogy seems to require having multiple consecutive lives rather than one single, unified life. Perhaps another feature of a life as a ‘soap-opera’ is missed, in that our lives indeed already play out as an endless soap opera; however to continue with new stories and new events, the soap opera both requires new characters, and the exiting of others.
The Epicureans present deceptively simple, but intellectually formidable arguments against a fear of death. We should not fear our mortality; we will not be present during our death. Our lives are what give our death its meaning, and our deaths in effect only have meaning for those that are left behind. We should focus on living our lives; we may not be immortal, and we may not have any cares once we are dead. However this does not stop us from having cares in the here and now and enjoying the pleasures that come from life itself. While this notion may be difficult to accept for those who see life as a coherent narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, it is important to note that this is essentially a human construct, and nature doesn’t conform to human will, human stories must adapt to nature.
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