Tag Archives: Ancient Philosophy

Change & Motion in Pre-Socratic Philosophy


The Pre-Socratic philosophers were involved in a search for the true nature of reality.  One of the questions they looked for answers to was the problem of change.  On one hand, change seems obvious; sensory experience provides ample evidence for change.  On the other, change is a denial of stable identity and knowledge.  The primary two philosophers who wrestled with this problem, Heraclitus and Parmenides, positioned themselves at opposite ends of a continuum; at one end, with change as a ‘constant’, there is Heraclitus, while at the other end, with a total unity, and only apparent change, there is Parmenides.  Through an examination of their remaining fragments, their arguments for, and against change will be highlighted, and some interesting similarities mentioned.  To close, a brief summary and evaluation will be presented.


Change is fundamental to Heraclitus’ system, however his thoughts are as interconnected as his theory.  To enable a full appreciation of his change doctrine, mention must be made of his epistemological stance and his views on ‘the one and the many’ (McKirahan, 2010, p. 129).  This will proceed into his discussion of change, and the Logos which orders it.

Heraclitus leans towards empiricism; he tells us that ‘All that can be seen, heard, experienced – these are what I prefer’ (DK22B55, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 115).   The correct use of the senses can provide useful information, which must then be analysed through the understanding of the Logos.  This is because some, even after they have heard the truth, are like the deaf; they fail to comprehend (DK22B34, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 114).  Sensory experience must be supplemented through the Logos, which is ‘common’ to all, just as thinking is. (see DK22B2 & DK22B113, in McKirahan, 2010, pp. 112, 114).  To speak with understanding, one must rely upon this Logos (see DK22B114, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 117).

‘Listening ….. to the Logos, it is wise to agree that all things are one’ (DK22B50, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 116); however this unity is not a simple one.  It is a unity comprised of many interconnected parts, and can be separated and re-formed.  Things taken together are whole and not whole, <something that is> being brought together and brought apart, in tune and out of tune; out of all things there comes a unity and out of a unity all things’ (DK22B10, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 116).  While it is important to see the diversity in the nature of things, it is just as necessary to see the unity which underlies it.  Likewise, it is important to see the diversity within the apparently unified whole.  These connections are not always obvious, however this does not deny their power (see DK22B54, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 117).

This unity in diversity concept is highlighted in several statements made by Heraclitus.  Whilst seeming to be contradictory, by looking for the unapparent connections, through changing perspective, the unity becomes apparent.  While ‘the road up and down is one and the same’ appears contradictory, by understanding it in context of perspective between two places, the contradiction dissipates, and the unity becomes clear.

Heraclitus also brings the world’s dichotomous nature to the fore.  Without knowledge of injustice, it would be impossible to understand what justice is.  Without disease, health would be unappreciated; without hunger, satiety would be meaningless (see DK22B23 & DK22B111, in McKirahan, 2010).  This is not just a feature of language; it is a fundamental opposition driving change.  All things come to be through opposition, though a constant, equal exchange like ‘… goods for gold, and gold for goods’ (DK22B80, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120).  This is a constant feature of the cosmos; ‘… the ever-living fire is kindled in measures and extinguished in measures’ (DK22B30, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120), just as the turnings of the cycle of elements are exchanged for one another, in the same ratios  (DK22B31, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120).  This constant war of all things is entirely necessary (DK22B80, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120).

This constant cycle of change and motion, with opposites constantly vying for supremacy, is epitomised in Heraclitus’ river fragment ‘Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow’ (DK22B12, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 118).  While the identity of the river is somewhat constant, this quote suggests that the rivers very identity relies upon the constant flow of water.  The river could not actually be a river if it was not constantly in motion (Kirk & Raven, 1957, p. 194).

The change Heraclitus sees has both randomness and order.  While ‘the most beautiful kosmos is a pile of things poured out at random’ (DK22B124, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 117), there is an underlying unified order, the Logos.  The logos, therefore, also represents Heraclitus’ ultimate metaphysical principle, in addition to being an epistemological one.  It is an incarnation of ‘the ever-living fire’, the true nature of the soul, the ultimate power, and the law which judges (DK22B66, in McKirahan, 2010, pp. 120, 141).

For Heraclitus, then, the cosmos is in a constant and dynamic cycle of change and motion.  However this view was challenged by the arguments put forward by Parmenides, who considered rational thought to be superior to sensory experience.  This rationalism led him to the belief that there was no becoming, only ‘what-is’, which remained static.


Change and motion are impossible for Parmenides.  To understand why, his epistemological position must be considered, along with his distinction between reality and the world of appearances.  Then his argument on the true nature of reality will be presented, leading into a discussion of his argument against change and motion.

Parmenides rejected the notion that the senses could be used to gain true knowledge, which places him firmly with the rationalists.  He considered the senses to be a source of illusion, causing the ‘real world’ to appear different to its actual nature.  His goddess warns him not to follow the path which his senses lead him, as this will send him to the path of mortal opinion, instead of Truth.  For truth, he must ‘not let habit, rich in experience, compel [him] along this route to direct an aimless eye and an echoing ear and tongue, but judge by reason the much contested examination spoken by me. (DK28B7, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 147).  This is not a typical goddess; he is not asked to blindly follow her dictates, but instead is required to critically evaluate the reasoning she provides, and judge by reason.

The path travelled by sensory experience is the world of appearances, to be understood as the ‘mere opinions of mortals, in which there is no genuine conviction’ (DK28B1, in Smith et al., p. 31).  This route allows all manner of incorrect assumptions, including the belief that it is possible to know ‘what is not’.  However, it is impossible to ‘know what is not […] [or] declare it’ (DK28B2, in McKirahan, 2010, pp. 146, 154).  Instead of this path, he is told he should follow truth.

The truth is ‘that what-is is ungenerated and imperishable, whole, unique, steadfast, and complete’.  It has no beginning, nor end, because this would require it to come from ‘what is not’, that is, nothing; there is also no reason for it to begin at one time, as opposed to any other (DK28B8, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 147).  These comprise the first components of the argument against genesis, that ‘nothing comes from nothing’, and an early form of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.  Parmenides’ goddess follows this up with the impossibility of generation; since if something came to be, then this would mean there was a time where it did not exist, and would require creation ex nihilo.  This argument can be summarised as follows:

  1. Nothing can come to be or cease to be
    1. If it did, must be a time when it did not exist
    2. If it did not exist at a prior time, it must have been created from nothing
  2. Ex nihilo nihil fit (nothing comes from nothing)
  3. There is no sufficient reason for anything to begin at any one time, as opposed to any other
  4. what-is is ungenerated and imperishable, whole, unique, steadfast, and complete

The goddess goes on to claim that this totally unified reality is indivisible, because it is entirely the same as everything else.  There is no space, no gaps; ‘what is draws near to what is’ (DK28B8, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 147) and it is motionless, ‘without starting or ceasing’ since without a coming to be, or passing away, there is no change; and motion is essentially a type of change.  This is essentially the refutation of change and motion; it could be standardised as follows:

  1. There can be no change
    1. Change implies difference from one time to another
    2. There is no difference, it is entirely the same, and indivisible.
  2. There can be no movement
    1. Movement implies a ceasing to be (in one place) and a coming to be (in a different place)
    2. There is no space within ‘the limits of great bonds’ (DK28B8, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 147)

This leads us to the conclusion that change and motion cannot exist, since they entail difference and a ceasing to be of one kind, and a coming to be of a different kind.  This is impossible, because Being is inviolable (DK28B8, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 147), and genesis is impossible from nothing (Kirk & Stokes, 1960).


From the outlines above, the differences between these two accounts of change are highly visible, though it makes it easy to draw the conclusion that Heraclitus and Parmenides have nothing in common. However they do have some commonalities, even if they use these towards opposite ends.  Two similarities which become apparent are the distinction between appearance and reality, and the necessity of the conservation of mass and energy.

Firstly, both Heraclitus and Parmenides drew a distinction between appearance and reality. Heraclitus found that ‘humans are like the inexperienced’ when trying to understand him, and the Logos (DK22B1, in McKirahan, p. 112), just as they are unable to grasp how a bow, ‘though at variance with itself, it agrees with itself’ (DK22B51, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 116).  This is similar to the conception found in Parmenides Proem, where his Goddess tells him that there are different conceptions of reality; a ‘Truth’, and the way of mortal opinion (DK28B1, in McKirahan, 2010, pp. 145,146).  This is compounded by the lack of judgement that the mortal ‘hordes’ have, in their inability to use reason (DK28B6, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 146).

Secondly, Heraclitus and Parmenides both appear to agree with an early conception of the ‘law of the conservation of mass and energy’, though they take this concept towards opposing ends.  Heraclitus uses the idea of conservation several times; firstly with the notion that the elements are transformed in accordance with the measured ratio of its quantity prior to transformation (DK22B31, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120), and secondly, that the cosmos is kindled in measures and being extinguished in measures (DK22B30, in McKirahan, 2010, p. 120).  While all things change, or are transformed, these are done in equivalent measures.  Parmenides, on the other hand, uses the concept of conservation to argue against generation or perishing.  With the unspoken premise that there is something which exists, any generation or perishing would mean creation ex nihilo, or perishing into what-is-not.  Since Parmenides believes he has provided strong reasons for discounting these possibilities, the essential unity of being must be conserved eternally, and so discounting any possibility of change or motion.


There are substantial difficulties in analysing the Presocratics, not least the fragmentary nature of their writing.  Heraclitus and Parmenides each offer individual challenges, with the lack of explicitness in their writing, it becomes possible to put forward various alternative interpretations.  However, their contribution to science and philosophy has been profound.  They presented new ways of thinking, highlighting the ways in which the world is viewed, and forcing a reinvestigation of those beliefs.  They challenge all of science and philosophy to account for their findings, and the fact that these ideas, in some respects, are still relevant to ongoing discussion on the possibility of change after more than 2000 years is testament to their worth.




Curd, P. (2009) ‘Parmenides and After: Unity and Plurality’ in M. L. Gill & P. Pellegrin, (eds.), A Companion to Ancient Philosophy, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 34 – 55.

Curd, P. & McKirahan, R. D. (2011) A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia, 2nd ed.,  Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing Co.

Graham, D. W. (2008) ‘Heraclitus: Flux, Order, and Knowledge’ in P. Curd & D. W. Graham, (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 169 – 188.

Kirk, G. S. & Raven, J. E. (1957) The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection Of Texts, London: Cambridge University Press.

Kirk, G. S. & Stokes, M. C. (1960) ‘Parmenides’ Refutation of Motion’, Phronesis, 5 (1), 1 – 4.

McKirahan, R. D. (2010) Philosophy before Socrates: An Introduction with texts and commentary, 2nd ed.,  Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing Co.

Roochnik, D. (2004) Retrieving the Ancients: An Introduction to Greek Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Smith, N., Allhoff, F. & Vaidya, A. J. (2008) Ancient Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary, Blackwell Readings in the HIstory of Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.



Facing up to Death

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:


  1. There was a time before our conception/birth in which we did not exist.
  2. We felt no distress in this pre-natal non-existence
  3. There is a relevant symmetry between our pre-natal and post-mortem existence
  4. Death brings non-existence
  5. We will feel no distress in our post-mortem non-existence
  6. 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.

Epicurus’ Argument

Closely related to O’Keefe (2005):

  1. Death is the privation of experience, the annihilation of the self.
  2. While we exist, death is not present (there is an ‘I’ which is the subject of experience).
  3. Death does not affect us while still living. (from 1 and 2)
  4. So, death is not bad for us while living. (from 3)
  5. For something to be good or bad for somebody, that person has to exist to experience it (the existence requirement).
    1. All good and bad consist in sense experience
  6. The dead do not exist. (from 1) (the termination thesis)
  7. Therefore, death is not bad for the dead. (from 5 and 6)
  8. Therefore death is bad for neither the living nor the dead. (from 4 and 7)
  9. 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:

  1. A persons future is valuable (for its own sake)
  2. Death pre-empts a persons’ future
    1. 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)
  3. 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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