Many writers, philosophers, theologians, and physicians have reflected over the centuries on the nature of death, including whether death is “good” or “bad”. Philosopher Thomas Nagel phrased the issue thusly: “If death is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence, the question arises whether it is a bad thing to die.” In this blog, I will analyze death vis-à-vis meaning in life, and reflect on how we can integrate beliefs about the nature of death into our own lives. Epicurus’ ideas will be the keystone.
All of the first civilizations had a remarkable view of death, including Mesopotamia, China, Egypt, the Hebrews, and of course, the Greeks. With dozens of distinct city-states, the Greek world’s theology was more multifarious than it was homogenous, but a few thinkers stand out as salient. First in prominence would probably have been Epicurus (341-271 B.C.E.). He grew up on Samos, having been born seven years after Plato died (and was thus a contemporary of Aristotle). He wrote prolifically, but unfortunately for us, little of what he wrote survived. Thus, Lucretius and Cicero provide the bulk of the transmission of Epicurean thought. It is Epicurus’ views of death that concern us here.
Death would be considered by Epicurus to be not bad. His view was that we feel dread when we reflect upon death because we tend to believe, erringly, that we will experience being dead in some way. That we will possibly feel pain or some other negative outcome. Remember, Hades and Cerberus and other haunts awaited the Greeks, according to religious views of the day, so one could easily imagine bad things occurring in death (i.e., after one died). Epicurus counsels that we nix this idea because death involves annihilation, not sentience; the “mind” becomes dispersed (he believed it was made up of atoms, amazingly). In this case, “death is nothing to us” because we will not be there to experience any pain, as it were. “Death, Epicurus insists, is nothing to us, since while we exist, our death is not, and when our death occurs, we do not exist….” Essentially, when alive, we cannot know death; and when dead, we cannot experience or feel or know anything (including pain). The two are basically incompatible. Nothing bad can truly happen to one who is deceased, because the now-dead body is not “the mind.” Thus, death is not bad, and fearing it is irrational.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may/ Old Time is still a-flying:/ And this same flower that smiles today,/ Tomorrow will be dying. ~ Robert Herrick
There is also “the symmetry argument,” recorded by Lucretius. Essentially, why would one regret or fear dying and not being around for the rest of eternity (or at least, a long period of time) when one did not in fact regret the fact that one did not exist before the time at which they happen to be born? If we don’t regret not being here before birth, we should not despair not living any longer than the allotted time, either. Put differently, “[W]e do not consider not having existed for an eternity before our births to be a terrible thing; therefore, neither should we think not existing for an eternity after our deaths to be evil.” Here, too, death is not regarded as bad because it involves no pain.
Being alive is good, if lived properly, Epicurus maintains. However, it is not reasonably expected to last forever. He believed that a life contains the same amount of goodness, regardless of duration. Think of it as 500 marbles in a quart jar versus 500 marbles in a bathtub – same number of marbles. Thus, indefinite existence would not be infinitely better than a briefer period of living. We are urged to identify with the whole of the cosmos and reduce myopia and self-centeredness, according to lecture (paraphrased). The fact that life ends is not necessarily good, but it is not bad.
Epicurus’ argument is physicalistic, and I think it is valid. The reason it does not count as sound is because of the premise that pain is bad.This might just be quibbling, but I think that some aspects of pain could be considered a good, such as a child receiving punishment so that he or she will reform, or working out in preparation for a race. It also cannot be shown that the lack of pain is good. I am thinking of a lazy person who sits around eating Cheetos; he is experiencing no pain, per se. Secondly, Epicurus is predicting with no convincing evidence that one cannot sense anything post-mortem; many billions of people have died hoping that they are about to meet their maker and receive some great reward. For all we know, that may be true (however unlikely immortality of the soul may be).
Why do we hunger so much for something as insubstantial as wisdom? I think it is because humans, unlike all other creatures, have that second relentless cognitive clock ticking inside their heads, counting down in a covert yet unassailably certain way the hours and minutes of our remaining time on Earth. Just as we literally hunger for food and water to forestall physiological death, we figuratively hunger for wisdom to forestall spiritual and existential death. ~ Stephen S. Hall
I think it could also be criticized from the perspective of what is known as the deprivation account(of death). Though Epicurus would deny that a deceased person is deprived of anything, I think a case can be made that one is in fact. One question is, Is death worse (i.e., more bad) if it occurs to an infant than if it occurs to an elderly person? To some degree, yes, simply because the infant could be conceived of as deprived of a rich, full life. The fact that they have been spared what may be considered a difficult, even absurd, existence is a counterpoint, but not critical to the deprivation account. Essentially, dying involves something bad because a deceased person will never see a sunset, have a child, write a book, cook a meal, or see the Seven Wonders of the World. Indeed, they will not, and thus, it is at least not a good thing to die, and, at worst, a bad turn of events, indeed. We pity a person who dies young, “in the prime of their lives.”
Another aspect of Epicurus that does buoy his point is the question, Do we really want to live for hundreds of years? Or for an eternity? From philosopher Bernard Williams’ perspective, it would be a bad thing to in fact live beyond a reasonable amount of time. After 300 years, for example, one would wear out, experience everything, and basically grow tired of heretofore rich “categorical desires” such as family, erudition, and fitness. On this account, meaning can only come from a life that is necessarily finite in duration. According to Kafka, “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Viktor Frankl, the existentialist, agrees that life must have definite boundaries to be meaningful.
As well, philosopher Shelly Kagan believes that fear as an emotion is in response to cognitions about a) something bad b) that may or may not occur. We know death will certainly occur, and we can prepare accordingly, so it isn’t to be feared, per se. It’s simply part of the human experience: life has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Something without end is almost inconceivable, and potentially torturous. Indeed, the fact that we human beings are analogous to mud that woke up for a short time should simply be conceived of as a wonderful opportunity, and thus, death isn’t bad per se. Life is good, but all good things eventually end. A feeling of being lucky, or gratitude, is the correct response to life. We should perhaps worry about our “unlived life” and car accidents if we must worry.
I always say that death can be one of the greatest experiences ever. If you live each day of your life right, then you have nothing to fear. ~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
The case of Gillian Bennett and her decision to commit suicide is also enlightening. It is certainly interesting to contrast her suicide with David Foster Wallace’s. It indicates, I think, that life is good only to the extent that it is perceived as good. One uses one’s rationality to perceive one’s situation, and if one surmises that only pain will result from more of life, then despair or acceptance will result. In such a case, death can be considered at least not bad; a relief from suffering. I don’t think Bennett feels that her immortal soul will live on in heaven, but just simply not suffering what she considered a fate worse than death is valid. I believe she is right, and should have the right to end her life and usher in an early death if someone in her case believes it is warranted. There are, however, a number of considerations, such as the questions raised by philosopher Fred Feldman, such as whether a person committing suicide is a) rational and b) moral. There is a question as to whether life is truly bad if a despairing person is, say, a) not very elderly and 2) not completely bereft of any hope of future improvement. Depression is not a justifiable reason to cause one’s own death unless it is absolutely chronic and unabated and recovery is hopeless.
Philosopher Samuel Scheffler reflects on posterity. He imagines “the afterlife” as being significant for the meaning a person who is alive. If the Earth were destroyed 30 days after one’s death, it will have an impact on one’s cognitions and feelings. We are drawn to consider what our legacy will be, and how we are spending our time. Epicurus would, however, take issue with imagining oneself as dead, and Scheffler’s novel idea treads upon that. As philosopher Mattias Risse notes, the methodology is questionable because (paraphrasing) you can’t really imagine the world ending or not ending without your being involved in some way. It seems as though we would feel profoundly dismayed if the world were to come to an end shortly after we bowed out, though. Thus, being alive is good and being dead is deprivation. The world ending is the ultimate deprivation.
No doubt one will have regrets in dying about the things that one did or did not do, those who may have been hurt, egregious mistakes and blunders one may have made. ~ Paul Kurtz
Many of these considerations and points of view impact the question of the soundness of Epicurus’ belief that life is good, pain is bad, and that since death is the absolute cessation of all things that could be conceived or felt, it isn’t bad or worthy of fear. It is also worth noting that these accounts are mostly physicalisitc, and no possibility of reincarnation or “heaven” is considered realistic. Despite its problems, I think that Epicurus’ argument that death isn’t bad because we won’t “be there” to experience it makes a certain sense, and will, I think, be somewhat comforting on my deathbed. It would be irrational to, like Tolstoy’s character Ivan Illych, be terrified of death; haunted by the awful feeling that it is impending. The less “unlived life” the better, I would imagine.
Ideally, we all could find meaning by knowing that life is going to someday end, but stop short of fearing it the way one would fear the possibility of a car crash, or to take a dismal deprivation account view of death. Some deaths are more senseless than others, and less meaning can reasonably be extracted from pondering those. We know life has the potential to be good while we are alive, and that is key. Death has the potential to bring the fleeting quality and the sacredness of life to the fore, and thus, death is at least instructive vis-à-vis meaning in life (perhaps ironically). It was not until Ivan Illych was pondering death that he came to certain realizations, such as the artifice that characterized his family’s approach to the world.
It isn’t rational to fear death per se. The absence of or end to life isn’t good, but it needn’t be a source of anxiety and pessimism for the living. Writer Van Bryan sums up Epicurus’ legacy thusly: “Epicurus believed that finding a life of peaceful contentment devoid of pain or fear should be the goal of every life. He believed that the one thing that was holding people back from truly accomplishing this feat was the fear of death.” Sad, yes; regretful, perhaps, but fearfulness doesn’t seem rational or warranted. Death isn’t demonstrably bad, so why perceive it as such? It can only serve to depresses one.
When we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings. ~ Sogyal Rinpoche
Three other quotes about death for your consideration:
“Life is not lost by dying; life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand, small, uncaring ways.” ~ Stephen Vincent Benet
“Get busy living, or get busy dying.” ~ Frank Darabont
“It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know that you must do.” ~ Elizabeth Kubler-Ross