Death is a common topic of speculation and frequently anxiety. In the time that Epicurus was laying out his way of life and sharing it with others this was the case. Epicurus, though, claimed that we should not fear death because, “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” (Letter to Menoeceus, 125). Death is frightening to people for many reasons: they do not know what to expect from death, they fear the punishment of gods, they dread not accomplishing certain things in life, etc. Epicurus argues that when we die we no longer exist. If we no longer exist then this state is not a bad one and if somehow it were, we would not exist to experience it. So, death is not an experience to dread at any point in life.
The strongest arguments that Epicurus makes about death stem from his belief that the soul is material and mortal. This may also be the most contentious argument he makes. As an empiricist, Epicurus relied on his senses to provide him with the information he used to make judgments and evaluations about the world around him. Epicurus believed in the soul and believed that the soul provided locomotion to the body as well as created facial expressions and the like. For the soul to do this, however, the soul must be material. Here is a simplified argument for materialism that would have been in line with Epicurus thinking about the soul:
- Soul and body can causally interact only if souls are material
- Soul and body do causally interact.
- Therefore, souls are material.
Epicurus thought that an argument claiming the soul was immaterial, or as he said: “incorporeal,” made little sense because something that was of the void could neither act or be acted upon and the soul both acts and is acted upon (Letter to Herodotus, 67).
This materialistic view of the soul leads Epicurus to his most profound argument for not fearing death. If the soul dies when the body dies there is no reason whatsoever to fear death, because we simply will not exist to experience it. Once again Epicurus looks to his senses to provide him with knowledge of the world and draws conclusions from it about the soul. When people die they no longer have locomotion, they decay and the warmth leaves their bodies. The material soul must scatter with death and leave the body cold and no longer hold it together. As an atomist, Epicurus would claim that all the elements, atoms, of the body are simply dispersed back into the world – including the soul. This eliminates the possibility of sense-perception, since the soul only has access to sense perceptions while it is within the body and through the body has access to the sense organs. Emotional response is impossible for the disembodied soul for the same reasons, so death is not a pain in either capacity. Any fears about eternal afterlives of punishment and discontent are dissipated with the atoms of the soul. Without the notion of an eternal soul people can get down to the business of living well and experience life. It does no good for a person to dwell on death because it will have no effect on them once it is upon them. If a person acknowledges this and attempts to live according to Epicurean philosophy then they will have a chance at eudaimonia. Some might acknowledge this and still fear death. They may fear non-existence.
Why should we fear non-existence? Some might claim that not existing means not experiencing pleasure and missing out on important things in life. Some may argue that the end of a good life cannot possibly be a good thing. Epicurus might simply point to the previous argument and claim that we will not experience non-existence, then further claim that we should not dread some pain that we will not experience. There are two arguments that appeal to reason in hopes to convince us that we should not fear non-existence or death. One is an argument from symmetry (Analogy):
- Our pre-vital and post-mortem non-existence are directly analogous.
- Hence, it is rational for us to fear our post-mortem non-existence
- only if it is rational for us to fear our pre-vital non-existence.
- 3. It is not rational to fear our pre-vital non-existence.
4. Hence, it is not rational for us to fear our post-mortem non-existence.
The other argument appeals to rationality in another way, claiming that it is not rational for us to fear an event or time we will not exist to experience:
- A subject S can rationally fear at t1 some state of affairs at t2 only if S will exist at t2.
- We go out of existence at the moments of our deaths.
- Hence, it is not rational for us to fear death.
Epicurus argues that we do not have sensory experience before we are born, we do not recall it, we are not conscious of it and we have no memory of our non-existence before life (Introduction, ix). These things being true we have no reason to fear non-existence after life, which will be just the same as non-existence before life. Some might argue that these are not true analogues and that we should, in fact, fear non-existence after life because it is somehow different to not exist after existing than it is to not exist before existing.
Attempting to somehow differentiate between two states of non-existence seems absurd. It does not appear to me that you can qualify, or make conditional, non-existence. It is not as if our non-existing self will have memories or feelings with which to fondly recall things from life it is no longer experiencing. Anyone who at this point wishes to argue about what the non-existing will feel and remember is to re-read the argument from materialism. Thomas Nagel raises the point that non-existence after death is different because, “death entails the loss of some life that its victim would have led had he not died at that or any earlier point” (Nagel, 7). However, Epicurus would respond to this counter-argument by stating that we no longer exist to experience the deprivation of life and therefore could not be bothered by it. The point of the latter argument above is that: it is not rational to fear an event or time which we will not experience. Some anxiety about the future for various reasons can promote a will to do good things that will carry on, but to dread things in the future that we will not experience, things which may never happen, etc. is completely irrational. Fearing death falls into this category. Fearing an experience that we will not have is hard to justify. It makes just as much sense to fear death as it does to fear something that will happen two-thousand years from now.
Dualism presents the strongest potential counter-argument to Epicureanism. If the soul did exist apart from the body then, potentially, we could experience something after death. I find no argument for dualism particularly convincing, but should we grant that the soul exists apart from the body it does not damage Epicureanism that severely. Any further claim about the soul after death cannot be supported by a rational argument. If we grant that the soul exists after death many of Epicurus’ thoughts still apply. The soul without a body could not experience physical pain – as it would not be a physical object – and so we could not fear physical pain after death. Furthermore, if we were disconnected from our physical body we would have no means for experiencing the world in any meaningful way. We would not be able to observe those still alive, nor could we communicate with them. We would not somehow see what we were missing out on, without a brain to store memory we would not even know, in a real sense, that something was amiss. If some immaterial aspect of ourselves just drifts about the world after we are dead we still have no rational reasons to fear that state. It makes no more sense to fear death now than it did before we granted the soul immaterial status.