Epicurus (341-271 BCE) put forth an argument centuries ago that still retains much appeal and boasts some notable adherents (e.g., Rosenbaum, 1986). His thesis was that the actual occurrence of death (as distinguished from any possible afterlife or the act of dying) was not a bad thing, and thus the great anxiety our fear of death brings many people is unwarranted. He did admit that “being alive is generally good.” Epicurus believed that no post-mortem experience was likely, and that we never really know death because where we are, it isn’t, and where it is, we aren’t. It is appealing, and though it contains a meritorious theoretical/cognitive technique to stave off anxiety, I believe that Epicurus’ argument is somewhat shallow and incomplete, it doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny.
Philosophers of note have poked holes in this argument, showing that death is ideed a loss, and thus, something to be lamented. In other words, if being alive is generally good, then the loss of it is generally bad. In philosopher Thomas Nagel’s 1970 essay ‘Death,’ he kicked out one pillar supporting the claim of Epicurus. He asked, Cannot something be considered “bad” even if it is not directly and viscerally experienced? Nagel would have us consider the case of an intelligent person who has a brain injury which renders him mentally like a contented baby. This would definitely be a grave and unfortunate situation, clearly visible to onlookers, though the person is unaware of it. Thus, death can be considered a loss (rather than the “nothing to be feared” Epicurus posited).
Epicurus held that people fear death in anticipation of our being aware of its loss; as though we would be able to perceive our post-mortem corpse and recoil. It is really the anticipation of death that bothers one while one is still living. Death might never meet the person, as Epicurus posited, and never experience that badness; but the fear is real, and one might have fifty years to stew about it. Pioneering French essayist Michel de Montaigne had some opinions about what we fear and how to subvert it, suggesting in effect that we “get busy living”, as Stephen King put it, or that we use our leisure to think (i.e., philosophize). He believed philosophy is valuable because a fear of death subverts a pleasurable (and virtuous) life – the highest good, according to him. This counterargument about the irrationality of fearing death can essentially be characterized as: Epicurus believed death is not bad, so why fear it; Montaigne leads us to accept that death can be frightening and hold some loss for us human beings, but instead of simply subverting fear with a cognitive technique (Epicurus’ approach), work hard every day to get over the fear of eventually no longer being alive. There is a slight difference. It is as though Epicurus advises we live because we will never encounter death per se, and Montaigne tries to engage in a richer, long-term shift of one’s cognition and activity to prepare for it. “It is essential that we force ourselves to think, no matter how dramatic or grizzly the death, that the proper moment of death is nothing less than the whole narrative of a life,” philosopher
Philosopher Shelly Kagan asks, “Is Death Bad For You” (CLICK)
Montaigne points to a powerful counterargument in the form of a quote by the mysterious Roman, Lucretius: “If you have made your profit of life, you have had your fill of it; go your way satisfied. Why, like a well-filled guest, not leave the feast of life?” (Montaigne, 46). It is also noted that the Egyptians would have a corpse in a casket brought out at notable feasts, a morbid but effective way to point out that our days are numbered. These ideas can help us cope and feel less fearful while alive, not because death is not bad, but because if we live rightly, wisely, we won’t be as regretful to meet that bad end.
One carries one’s baggage with them into the afterlife, as Homer and Socrates believed. Our loss is indeed felt by those friends and family and observers who remain alive; this is one of the reasons friends and family grieve and feel depression in relation to the loss of a loved one’s life. After a well-lived, long life, Socrates for example wanted to be sure his character and reputation were not besmirched by a cowardly death. The Greeks felt that a dead person could be harmed if their behavior in life ended up disgracing them. It is as though Socrates disagreed with Epicurus in that he knew he would live on after the hemlock, and his reputation while on Earth was supremely important. Socrates believed that to go on living after betraying his values was a fate worse than death.
“Do not fear death so much; but rather, the inaequate life,” the noted German poet Bertolt Brecht counseled. This quote elucidates the fact that if one has lived a full and excellent life – that of virtue and passion and strong social relationships – one can likely be content that their body may die, but all is not lost. If we do this successfully, we will not only find meaning in life, but will find meaning in our death. We needn’t pull the Epicurean trick that we will never know we are dead. Death is a true loss, but it is much less significant if one lived in such a way that the amount of unlived life, as it were, is minimal. One’s attitude would then be, “This is a loss for both myself and my family and friends, but I have lived such that they will remember me and my legacy will not be put out like a flame when my body dies.”
At the end of the day, Epicurus’ argument is well-taken, in that there was a fervor at the time about Hades, which caused anxiety. It is probably literally true that we never meet death, consciously, and that an afterlife is fantasy; it is the dying and suffering and the loss of a chance to go on living that we fear. It takes more work – cognitively and morally and otherwise – to prepare for death and meet it with a sense of acceptance of the evanescence of life than to simply convince oneself that death and I will never meet, so don’t worry about it! If Epicurus were alive today, his view would probably be considered pap and the stuff of self-help gurus, whereas the work to accept one’s eventual death is more complex and more work than he advised.
“We fear death because it brings an end to our lives. That much is a truism. But we can appreciate death insofar as we identify with the people around us, with our culture, with humanity, and with life. To the extent to which we can do so, death is not the end at all, so long as we do not cheapen our spirituality with the idea that as individuals we will in the end cheat death and gain some sort of eternal personal life.” ~ Robert C. Solomon
Below is another, longer version of an analysis of the fear of death.