The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus emphasises that, in a world that works according to physical laws, nobody ought to be afraid of either the gods or one’s own death – for when death arrives, we will be gone. But is this a convincing argument?
“Everything in life has an end. Only a sausage has two,” goes an old German joke.
Our very own death, and that of everyone we’ve ever known, is one of the few things in life that are perfectly certain. And still, we manage to get up and out of bed every day, and to live our lives as if they’d last forever. How do we do this? And how can philosophy help us overcome fear, anxiety and depression without the need to employ unprovable assumptions about an afterlife?
This was Epicurus’ question, asked by the Greek philosopher 2300 years ago. His answer is as important today as it was in Epicurus’ time.
The philosophy of atoms
Epicurus (341-270 BC) was, much like we are today, an atomist. Influenced by Democritus (460-370 BC), he believed that everything in the world was composed of material atoms, little bits of matter that combined in various ways to create all the different kinds of things that we see in the world.
Of course, neither Democritus nor Epicurus knew anything about protons or electrons (although, it must be said, the very word “electron” is ancient Greek and means amber: because by rubbing amber against cloth the Greeks could create a static charge that they could experiment with).
Epicurus (341-270 BC)
Epicurus (341-270 BC) is often seen as an advocate of a luxurious life, rich in good food and other pleasures. This is incorrect. Epicurus was, if anything, an ascetic: someone who thought that pleasures and good food have a negative effect on our happiness and that we should train ourselves to enjoy the simpler pleasures of life.
What they meant by an “atom” is not what we mean today when we think about CERN. Rather, Epicurus just liked the idea that all the many things in the world could be understood out of a few basic principles. This was a project that had already fascinated many philosophers before him: Thales of Miletus thought that water was the first substance from which everything else sprang; Anaximander thought it was endlessness; Anaxagoras, the air; Heraclitus, fire.
The main feature of this kind of explanation for Epicurus was that it did away with gods. Because, for Epicurus, the fear of gods was a major source of human anxiety.
A rational universe
If gods didn’t exist and everything was made up of physical atoms that flew around following the laws of nature, then also the human soul, so Epicurus thought, must be made up of these same atoms. Only, in the case of the soul, the atoms would be finer than those that made up the material world of things. These soul-atoms are what enables us to perceive the world and to have thoughts and feelings about it — particularly the feelings of pleasure and pain.
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Thales of Miletus
Thales of Miletus (~624–548 BC) is generally cited as one of the first philosophers, although his contributions extended to many sciences and even to business endeavors. He taught that the first element, out of which everything else is made, is water, and that everything around us is filled with souls.
In a universe like that, death would be nothing but the dissolution of the body into its constituent atoms that would go on to form new things. Consciousness would cease with death and so neither would we be able to perceive our own death, nor would there be any afterlife to experience.
Gods also didn’t exist in Epicurus’ world. Greek gods, particularly, were emotional and unpredictable, favouring their own friends and relations and viciously going after anyone who displeased them, often including the other gods. By clearly stating that the atoms moved around and acted only based on fixed, physical laws, Epicurus got rid of both the gods themselves and their random acts of spite.
Pleasure, Epicurus writes, is “the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.”
Pleasure, Epicurus writes, is “the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul” (Menoeceus, 7). We’re in charge of living a life that reduces the pain in our bodies. But realising that the world is just atoms can take care of most of what troubles our souls.
Should we fear death?
Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality.
For life has no terror; for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are no terrors for them in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the person who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. 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. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer. (Letter to Menoeceus)
There are multiple interesting thoughts to unpack in there.
First, the mortality of life becomes “enjoyable,” not by adding more years to a limited lifespan; but by taking away the wish to be immortal. This is an instance of a more general Epicurean move. The same can be said of the enjoyment of good food. Epicureans would find simple food enjoyable, not because they need to add complex spices and rare delicacies to their food, but because they have taken away from the food the expectation that it will be unusual, expensive or rare. An Epicurean enjoys a slice of bread just fine because he knows that bread can satisfy his hunger and that this is all that’s needed for perfect happiness:
Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when one the pain of want has been removed, while bread an water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips. (Letter to Menoeceus)
Second, Epicurus addresses our common disposition to fear something in the expectation that, when it finally comes about, might not be that bad after all. Most of us know this fear in the expectation of a dentist appointment, an examination, or a long-haul flight in economy class. But we should remind ourselves, he insists, that “whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation.” And since we seldom know exactly how bad things will be when they happen, it’s better to not give oneself over to the possibly “groundless pain in the expectation”.
This is particularly true of fundamental fears like the fear of death (or dying). I might cultivate this fear for years, and it might poison my life — only to find, in the end, that my death might be an easy one: a death in sleep, a quick and fatal car accident, a bomb tearing me to pieces before I can realise what’s happening. What good does such a fear do, then? And even if it all does come about as I feared and I have a long, painful death — did the anticipation of that improve the actual experience in any way? If not, then it would have been more rational to not think about my death in advance.
So for Epicurus it’s all very neatly arranged, just like the atoms in his material universe. When I’m still here, death is not. When death comes, I’ll be gone. What is there to fear?
“Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation.” (Epicurus)
What is there to fear?
If you think about it for a moment, you’ll probably come up with a number of things. Here are some of mine.
First, we can’t know if there’s really not going to be any awareness after death. Even if we accept Epicurus’ theory of atoms, who says that the atoms of my soul are going to disperse after death? Perhaps my soul’s atoms will stay together. And if not, will they lose their sensitivity to stimuli after they’ve gone each their own way? Or will I still feel myself, only now in a dissociated and distributed state? There doesn’t really seem to be any necessary conclusion from Epicurus’ atomic theory to the claim that we won’t experience a personal death.
Second, the fear of death need not be primarily a fear of an afterlife. Even if I believe that I will just fall apart and cease to exist (and to feel), I can still be unhappy about all those desires of mine that will be left unsatisfied. About the books I’ll not have written. About the future experiences I’ll never have, for example to see my children grow up. And, perhaps most importantly, I can feel sadness about the effect of my death on others: my family, my friends, those who depend on me for their lives and their well-being.
Third, I can reasonably fear the time before my death and the circumstances surrounding it: a possible severe illness, months in bed with an incurable disease and intolerable pain, the terror of the moment when I realise that now, finally, the moment of my death has arrived — that now it’s for real.
One could even argue that the fear of death is a biological necessity for all life on Earth. The biological evolution on this planet creates organisms who’ll do anything to survive. Those who don’t care quite as much, those who are okay with the notion of their own death — they will never make it in the evolution game. Here we are today, at the end of four billion years of Darwinian evolution, highly developed killers, finely tuned survival machines: the best, the most efficient, the most brutal, those with the greatest horror of death. All those others, the better Epicureans: they never made it out of that primordial ocean.
Are some desires better than others?
Epicurus believed that the most reliable way to be happy is to reduce one’s desires until it’s easy to satisfy them. He distinguishes three types of desires: natural and necessary, natural and unnecessary and vain.
Travels with Epicurus
In a remarkably honest and beautiful book, “Travels With Epicurus,” an old man, philosopher and writer Daniel Klein, travels to the Greek island of Hydra in search of a better, more dignified way to grow old and die.
One thing he realises very soon is that it’s not death itself that he fears. It’s what he calls the “old old age.”
Old age is fine as long as one can still move around with reasonable ease, as long as one can talk, read and write, visit friends and have meals and coffee in tavernas. But life becomes a problem in that old old age in which we are confined to one room, one chair, one bed with no prospect of ever leaving this place, of ever resuming our previous life.
Daniel Klein, on his Greek paradise island, comes upon the only customer of Hydra’s “old folks’ home,” a man called Spyros:
A man in his eighties or nineties is sitting on a bench next to the villa’s courtyard gate. … I say “Good afternoon” in Greek, but he does not respond. I nod to him, … but he does not respond to this either. … I cannot help wondering how much longer I have until I become like Spyros. Senility and incontinence is what we have to look forward to in old old age. … This stage of life is coming up next for us old folks, whether or not we choose to be conscious of it. (Klein, Travels With Epicurus, Ch.6)
For some reason, Epicurus atomic theory fails to provide comfort here. Spyros might be just atoms flying around in the void and his soul’s atoms might disperse one day and annihilate whatever was Spyros before — but right now, sitting alone with his failing body in that courtyard, he is a person who is suffering and unable to do anything to end that suffering.
One wonders if removing the gods from the equation was really such a fine move for Epicurus’ cause. Religious people are generally happier and better able to deal with the hardships they encounter in their lives. Taking away God and replacing him with atoms whirling about in the void doesn’t seem more comforting than an afterlife at the side of a benevolent and just God.
Religion and Happiness
Religion has a profound effect on happiness. Multiple studies have shown that religious believers are generally happier people, an effect that is more pronounced in poorer countries.
Epicurus, the man who insisted that dying is nothing to be afraid of, died himself of kidney stones in an age where there was no treatment for the condition, no surgery, not even painkillers.
At the end of his life, Epicurus may have dictated the following letter to one of his friends (but its authenticity is not certain):
I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions. And I beg you to take care of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worthy of the devotion shown by the young man to me, and to philosophy. (Epistle to Idomeneus)
In a way, his own death could be seen as mocking the philosopher who once wrote that “continuous pain does not last long in the body; on the contrary, pain, if extreme, is present a short time.”
But then, one might also ask: had Epicurus known what was coming at the end of his life, and had he spent days and weeks being afraid of it, would this have changed anything for the better?
Perhaps, after all, looking away and letting the atoms do their thing is all that’s in our power to do.
Thanks for reading! You can both support Daily Philosophy and get Daniel Klein’s book about his travels to Hydra here:
Daniel Klein: Travels with Epicurus.
A wonderfully human meditation on old age. A man travels to a Greek island with a suitcase full of books, in search of a better, more dignified way to age.
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