Should we fear death? A very famous argument of why we should not was offered some 2,300 years ago by the philosopher Epicurus. Epicurus (341–271 B.C.E. ) authored around 300 scrolls, but only three letters and a few fragments have survived, being passed down in a biography by Diogenes Laertius four centuries after Epicurus's death. Born of Athenian parents and raised on the island colony of Samos, Epicurus was introduced to philosophy as a teenager when he encountered followers of Plato and Democritus. Democritus's philosophy was to have a lasting effect on Epicurus's mature thinking. In 306 B.C.E. , Epicurus began his own school in an area known as the "Garden." The school was unique in accepting women and even slaves—a point ridiculed by aristocratic critics. The school flourished and soon rivaled the established Academy (founded by Plato) and Lyceum (founded by Aristotle). Students came to deeply revere Epicurus, who became known for cultivating friendship. After his death, they began to celebrate his life with monthly feasts. His ideas spread quickly and with profound effects. The Roman poet Lucretius (95–55 B.C.E. ) espouses Epicurean philosophy in his "On the Nature of Things."
Epicurus was interested in how one could achieve happiness. He believed that unhappiness is a kind of "disturbance in the mind," caused by irrational beliefs, desires, and fears. Among human desires, he argued, some are "natural and necessary," others are "vain." Among the vain are desires for a life of luxury and indulgence. This fuels the myth that epicureanism condones the maxim, "Eat, drink, and be merry." Although Epicurus was the father of hedonism (from the Greek word hedone, meaning "pleasure"), he did not encourage every kind of pleasure, as expressed in his Letter to Menoeceus : "We do not mean the pleasures of profligates and those that consist in sensuality . . . but freedom from pain in the body and trouble in the mind." The chief pleasure sought after was pleasure of the mind—tranquility ( ataraxia )—which can be produced by "banishing mere opinions to which are due the greatest disturbance of spirit" (Bailey 1926, p. 127ff). Epicurus concentrated on two fears: the gods and death. How can these fears be banished as irrational and vain?
Arguing in his Principal Doctrines that "without natural science it is not possible to attain our pleasures unalloyed" (Bailey 1926, p. 97), he turned to Democritus's atomism, which held that the universe and everything in it is the product of accidental forces and composed of small bits of matter called atoms ( atomoi ). Epicurus accepted this as a reasonable explanation of life, and also saw in it the solution to human fears. As he puts forth in his Letter, in death the subject simply ceases to exist (the atoms are dispersed) and is therefore touched neither by the gods nor the experience of death itself:
. . . death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation. And therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to it an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality. For there is nothing terrible in life for the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living. [Death] does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more. (Bailey 1926, pp. 124–125)
Many scholars have objected to this argument by noting that it is often the anticipation of death, not the event itself, that disturbs humankind. For example, the scholar Warren Shibles points out that Epicurus's argument amounts to showing that "we cannot fear the state of death because we will not be conscious after death. But we certainly can fear losing consciousness" (Shibles 1974, p. 38). But Epicurus would most likely reply, as he did to similar concerns, "That which gives no trouble when it comes, is but an empty pain in anticipation" (Bailey 1926, pp. 124–125).
Epicurus. "Letter to Menoeceus." In Epicurus: The Extant Remains, translated by Cyril Bailey. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926.
Epicurus. Prinicpal Doctrines. In Epicurus: The Extant Remains, translated by Cyril Bailey. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926.
Shibles, Warren. Death: An Interdisciplinary Analysis. Madison, WI: The Language Press, 1974.