[Starting Points] Philosophy and Death: Epicurean Answers

I recorded a short series of lectures for Academia Courses on the question of whether we should fear death. Those lectures are no longer paywalled: anyone with a (free) Academia account can access them. This post covers ground I explore in the first full lecture in the series.

Is Death a Misfortune?

Most people regard death as a misfortune. But it’s different from other misfortunes in two ways. First, it’s inevitable. You can put off death for a while, but no one can put it off indefinitely. Second, you don’t experience it. Most other misfortunes are unfortunate experiences: I lose my job, I break my leg, you break my heart. Those experiences are unfortunate because they’re accompanied by pain and sorrow. By contrast, death isn’t accompanied by anything at all. And that’s the distinctive misfortune of death: it’s the end of experience altogether.

But is it a misfortune at all? The Greek philosopher Epicurus thought not. Death can’t be bad for you, he argued, because you don’t experience its badness.

Epicurus (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Epicurus: You Don’t Experience Death

Epicurus (341–270 BCE) lived a generation after Aristotle and was fifteen years younger than Alexander the Great. That makes him one of the earliest philosophers of the Hellenistic period. This was a time when Greek culture spread across the Mediterranean and Near East in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. These were turbulent political times. Many Hellenistic philosophers associated the good life with ataraxia, tranquility or freedom from disturbance. How tranquility is best to be achieved was a matter of some debate.

For Epicurus, we find tranquility by eliminating unnecessary disturbances and thus freeing ourselves to pursue our natural pleasures. Unlike many Hellenistic philosophers—most notably the Stoics—Epicurus thought pleasure was a good thing. But contrary to modern associations of the word “epicurean” with indulgence in fine food and drink, Epicurus himself thought the best pleasures are simple, modest—and principally intellectual.

Immodest desires to accumulate great wealth or fame, according to Epicurus, are misplaced attempts to allay the fear of death. The attempts are also futile. We can’t buy our way free of this fear of death, Epicurus says. But if we take the right view of things, we’ll see there’s nothing there to fear.

Epicurus’ argument is disarmingly simple. If you’re right to fear death, that must be because it’s bad for you. But when is it bad for you? Not when you’re alive because death hasn’t touched you then. And not after you’re dead because then there’s no you for whom death is bad. If there’s no time at which your death is bad for you, then it’s a mistake to think of it as bad.

Lucretius (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Lucretius: The Symmetry Argument

Epicurus’s ideas had lasting influence. He founded a philosophical school in Athens, the major intellectual hub of the Greek world. Succeeding generations of philosophers preserved and expanded on his teachings.

The most important later Epicurean was the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (c. 99–c. 55 BCE). Lucretius is famous for his philosophical poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things)—and really, wouldn’t it be better if more philosophy was written as poetry? The poem is the most thorough account of Epicurean philosophy that has survived to the present day. The story of how it wound up exercising a deep influence on the European Renaissance is the subject of a celebrated book by literary historian Stephen Greenblatt.

Lucretius gives his own account of why death shouldn’t disturb us. His argument builds on a symmetry between the time after our death and the time before our birth. That endless stretch of nonexistence before your birth doesn’t inspire fear, Lucretius observes. So why should the endless stretch of nonexistence after your death?

A natural response is that we fear the future, not the past. If I broke my leg a year ago, I might look back on it as a misfortune but I don’t fear the past. What I fear lies ahead of me.

But I do look back on past misfortunes as misfortunes. Is it a misfortune that I wasn’t alive in 1950 or 1900 or in 2000 BCE? Not really. So why is it a misfortune that I (presumably) won’t be alive in 2100 or 2150 or 10,000 years from now?

Lucretius’s deeper point is that nonexistence isn’t a misfortune. Like Epicurus, he wants us to see that it’s only the events we experience that can be good or bad for us. What lies beyond the horizon of our experience shouldn’t concern us at all.

Misfortunes You Don’t Experience

These Epicurean arguments lean on a hidden premise: that something can only be good or bad for you if you experience its goodness or badness. This premise is connected to the Epicurean emphasis on pleasure. Pleasure is something we experience. If pleasure is the good and its opposite the bad, then what are good or bad are experiences.

But is that so? Take a classic example: your partner is cheating on you behind your back. You don’t know about it and consider yourself blissfully in love. Are you suffering a misfortune? Here’s one reason to think so: if you find out about the cheating you’ll be devastated.

Okay, the Epicurean might reply, but then what hurts isn’t the cheating (since you don’t know about it at the time) but the finding out. But this answer gets things back to front. It’s not that being cheated on is bad because finding out about it hurts. It’s that finding out you’ve been cheated on hurts because it’s bad to be cheated on. If the only thing bad in this situation is the pain of finding out, you shouldn’t be upset at the partner who’s cheating on you but at the friend who breaks the news to you.

This argument suggests that things can be good or bad for us independent of our experiencing them. But on its own it doesn’t defeat the Epicurean argument about death. In the cheating case, I might be suffering a misfortune without experiencing the misfortune. But there’s at least a me who’s suffering the misfortune—and who could conceivably find out. No one can cheat on me if I’m dead.

Further Thoughts

Thomas Nagel has an influential argument that we should consider death a misfortune. The cheating case is one of several objections he raises against the Epicurean position. Curious what the others are? Check out my lecture course!

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