Epicurus on the Fear of Death
You know, it's really very peculiar. To be mortal is the most basic human experience and yet man has never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly. Man doesn't know how to be mortal. -- Milan Kundera, Immortality
Epicurus (341-270 BC) was a Hellenistic philosopher's whose chief goal was to convince his spectators that death is not something bad for the person who dies even though it means "total annihilation of that person."
The prospect of death has is sometimes a "disquieting annoyance" or, in more severe cases, "a terrifying mystery."
Epicurus and Epicurean thinkers held that the chief cause of human unhappiness stemmed from an irrational fear of death.
There are many questions that are raised when it comes to the topic of death and Epicurean ideas. Oftentimes, philosophers will return to Epicurus in trying to make sense of man's fear of death. For example, some of the often raised are: 1) Is being dead bad for the dead person? 2) Is it bad for someone that he or she must die? 3) Is it bad for someone to die sooner than later? 4) Is the process of dying (going from alive to dead) a bad process for the person?
Just looking at these four different questions, we can begin to see what are the main fears associated to death. Epicurus worked toward the elimination of fear related to death rather than looking at whether or not death is harmful; however, this is just "a matter of emphasis."
If we are to realize that fear is an emotion felt when we think of something that may be harmful to us, then we also must realize that there will be a fear that goes along with each of the aforementioned questions. That means that if any question is answered with a 'yes,' then fear will most likely be present. The fears will then be: a fear of being dead; a fear of dying; a fear of dying too early; and/or a fear of the process of dying.
Fears are normally based on something and that fear can be subject to both reasoning and argument. Fear may have a very legitimate cause, in which case it is warranted, "or it may not, as is the case of the fear of death, according to Epicurus."
For example, a person may fear dogs because as a child a dog bit him or her, resulting in a trip to the emergency room and 100 stitches. This justifies, to a certain degree, a the person's fear of dogs. Epicurus' argument would be that a fear of death is not warranted because there is not rational reason to fear death.
Yet when people talk about a fear of death, they seem to not just be talking about an abstract fear, rather, it is more a fear of the four questions that were mentioned before -- and these fears are all quite distinct from one another. While there are four questions to look at, there are really three distinct processes that are being discussed: dying, death, and being dead.
Yet, just because these questions and these processes are distinct from one another does not mean that they are unrelated:
It is possible that someone is assailed by the fear of mortality principally because they fear the state of being dead which awaits them. Also, if one fears mortality then one will perhaps fear premature death because any death will count as premature. All the same, these fears are not necessarily compresent. It is possible for someone not to fear the state of being dead but to dear the fact that he or she is going to die. It is also possible for someone not to fear being dead but to fear the process of dying which precedes that state. Similarly, it is possible that someone feels no distress at the bare fact that his life is going to end but nevertheless is afraid that he might die before he has lived a satisfying life. And it is possible both to feel none of fears 1, 2, and 3 but be afraid of the process of dying (4) and also feel a combination of some or all of 1, 2, and 3 in addition to this fear.
Epicurus addressed each one of these different fears, which illustrates that there is not just one Epicurean argument against the fear of death. More exactly, they had an arsenal of arguments "which could be deployed against the various different kinds of fear of death."
As a word, "death" is really ambiguous as is can refer to dying, death, or being dead. However, a person can only really experience dying because it happens during his or her lifetime. A person cannot experience death or being dead per se. Epicurus said: "So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more."
Epicurus' views on death were completely reasonable and even rather simple. His believed that his arguments, if accepted, would lead to a more pleasant life experience. Death is not something evil for Epicurus, however, even if death is not evil, it is unknown and for that reason alone it seems perfectly normal that a person should fear death. The idea of good and evil should not even make their way into the argument (many philosophers have expounded on the evil of death and the idea that man should not attempt to quiet a fear of death) because they are ideas that a person can only speculate about and thus the speculation will cause dread -- for in talking of good one must also believe that there is also the idea of evil. If one were to think of death how Epicurus thought death should be thought of ("Death…is nothing to us"), then there would be nothing to fear because "nothing" cannot be feared.
However a person reacts to the idea of death, for the most part, individuals tend to suppress their thoughts about it, living as if time were never-ending. However, even though we may try to suppress these ideas of death, they most always come up, and when they do, they are so burdened with questions, doubts, and fears that they plague a person more than if he or she had simply dealt with the feelings. Epicurus offered a sort of remedy to people when it came to the topic of death. He essentially argued that because death is neither good nor bad for the person who is dead and since the fear of that which is not bad for one is groundless, it is irrational to fear death; therefore, no one should fear death.
Part of Epicurus' reasoning about why one should not fear death is the fact that death is a state of non-existence. How can something that does not exist be harmful? Yet, those who fear death fear it precisely because they fear not existing because as humans they exist and they most likely believe that existence is good (i.e., life is good/death is bad). The bottom line when it comes to Epicurus and whether or not one believes with his arguments is how one fears death. If there were proof that life existed after death, the issue would (arguably) be different; however, if one did know that there was life after death, he or she still would not know whether death was good or bad or neither.
Philosophers have always applied themselves to the topics of death and dying. For Plato (and Christian philosophers who were under his influence), the way to prepare for death was to "construct proofs for the immortality of the soul and to prescribe a pattern of thought and conduct that would ensure a blissful afterlife."
Epicurus, a "physicalistic" philosopher, could not accept the "dualistic analysis of death as the separation of a self-subsistent soul from the body," denying that "death is merely an unpleasant experience that one passes through; rather, it is a terminal experience, culminating in the irrevocable suspension of consciousness."
The mythical idea of a miserable and eternal afterlife in Hades creates quite a powerful fear of death. Myths of afterlives erroneously depict death as a state of existence that people experience. Epicurus claimed that people
…anticipate or have forebodings of the eternal terror related in the myths, or even fear the absence of sensation in death as if it concerned them… but tranquility belongs to him who frees himself of all these misconceptions and has a continuous remembrance of the whole and the most important truths.
Epicurus' physicalism quells this fear by teaching us that death is simply the "cessation of experience."
The human body will just decompose and there is no pain involved because…