Epicurus 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 ought not to be feared or be a source of great anxiety. He did admit that “being alive is generally good.” The context of this notable Greek thinker was primarily a response to the theistic imaginings of the day that predicted very unfortunate occurrences in the “afterlife.” 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’s logically sound.
What follows is a summary of some philosophical points of view about death.
Philosophers of note have poked holes in this argument, most notably perhaps Thomas Nagel (1970). In his 1970 essay ‘Death,’ he showed what was wrong with the primary argument of Epicurus. 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, though the person is unaware of it. Death only magnifies what this simple thought experiment shows.
“Our lives we borrow from each other… And men, like runners, pass along the torch of life.” ~ Lucretius
The brilliant essayist and influence on Shakespeare and Nietzsche, 37-year-old French aristocrat Michel de Montaigne aims in his piece “To philosophize is to Learn to Die” to assuage our anxiety about death. He believed philosophy is valuable because a fear of death subverts a pleasurable (and virtuous) life – the highest good, according to him. Montaigne suggests we concentrate on it, keep it ever-present in our minds, thereby siphoning off the power of our unconscious minds to evoke fear. Indeed, Montaigne blended philosophy, psychology, and writing in wonderful ways. He was a significant influence on Descartes and Rousseau as well.
Montaigne also points out 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.
If death is bad because it truncates our lives and makes the completion of projects impossible, Montaigne suggests we avoid taking on projects of great duration and that we “get busy living,” as Stephen King put it in the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. After all, if an oracle warns a king that a roof will kill him, and he takes every pain to avoid buildings, only to die because an eagle drops a tortoise shell on his head while he was out in the open, as Montaigne points out, one never knows when one’s number is up. In his words: “We don’t know where death awaits us, so let us wait for it everywhere.” Supposedly this will help us prepare for the inevitable, and that which is out of our control.
He also made the prescription, oddly, that we not get too attached to others, and maintain some privacy and mental solitude.
“There is nothing evil in life for the man who has thoroughly grasped the fact that to be deprived of life is not an evil” ~ Michel de Montaigne
One of the interesting questions is, Can philosophy prepare us for one’s death? Medieval religious person Ancius Boethius, for one, believed philosophy had great power and utility, and his most notable work was written in prison: The Consolation of Philosophy. Can philosophy reveal truths, assuage anxiety, and better our lives? I think it can, and the modern profession of “philosophical counseling” would agree.
Perhaps one of the things philosophizing can do for one is to help us see that values such as justice, character, wisdom, and virtue (known to the Greeks as excellence) are the best foci for human beings, rather than money or status. Certainly Socrates and Plato believed this: “A good man cannot be harmed in life or death,” Socrates noted. Answering the question, Why?, philosopher and Harvard instructor Ben Roth suggests “Because it directs us to what matters: caring about truth and virtue rather than bodily pleasure.”
“I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death!” ~ Anne Frank
Indeed, philosopher Robert Nozick points this out: “Death does not always mark the boundary of a person’s life as an end that stands outside it; sometimes it is a part of that life, continuing its narrative story in some significant way. Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Jesus, and Julius Caesar all had deaths that were further episodes of their lives, not simply endings.” This was not the case with Gandhi, however, he points out.
Socrates also exemplified equanimity in the face of the death penalty, quickly and with a rational attitude drinking the hemlock which a majority of Greek citizens at his trial believed was warranted. As well, perhaps the best response to death is to live well and purposefully, preparing for the inevitable by figuratively racking up experience and drinking deeply from the carafe life makes available to most of us, more or less. It is our unlived life that we regret upon dying, it is said.
An effective and classic way to show that, as Epicurus the Greek posited, death and the individual never actually meet: “Do you not know that when death comes, there’ll be no other you to mourn your memory, and stand above you prostrate?” (Lucretius).
“How are we to cultivate the wisdom necessary to confront death? It’s hard to find a consistent message here. Montaigne trained for the end by keeping death ‘continually present, not merely in my imagination, but in my mouth.’ Spinoza went to the contrary extreme, declaring, ‘A free man thinks least of all of death’ ~ Jim Holt. Indeed, Montaigne suggested we train ourselves to think of death daily as a way to, theoretically, rob it of its great fascination and intrigue, siphoning off the anxiety that comes when we try to avoid considering it.
“Let us learn to meet it steadfastly and to combat [death]. And to begin to strip it of its greatest advantage against us…. Let us rid it of its strangeness, come to know it, get used to it. Let us having nothing on our minds as often as death.” ~ Michel de Montaigne
Another hole poked in Epicurus the Greek’s argument is as follows: “The second argument is just as poor”, Jim Holt holds. “It implies that John Keats’s demise at 25 was no more unfortunate than Tolstoy’s at 82, since both will be dead for an eternity anyway.”
Thomas Nagel (1970) makes a good case: “On the one hand it can be said that life is all we have and the loss of it is the greatest loss we can sustain.On the other hand it may be objected that death deprives this supposed loss of its subject, and that if we realize that death is not an unimaginable condition of the persisting person, but a mere blank, we will see that it can have no value whatever, positive or negative.”
“It is being alive, doing certain things, having certain experiences, that we consider good.” ~ Thomas Nagel
Put another way: “If we are to make sense of the view that to die is bad, it must be on the ground that life is a good and death is the corresponding deprivation or loss, bad not because of any positive features but because of the desirability of what it removes.” He astutely points out that the loss of a life – be it a 25-year-old Keats or an 82-year-old Tolstoy is a true loss of potential. Nagel believes Epicurus is just simply wrong that death isn’t bad because you won’t be around when your body dies and your soul disperses.
Robert C. Solomon is a modern philosopher who (in 2002) weighed in on this topic. He believes that spirituality is the acceptance of death as the completion of life (107), “the closure that gives an individual life its narrative significance.” He also refers to death fetishism: making too much of death and refusing to see it in the larger context of life. Solomon would not agree that death is “the ultimate tragedy.”
The ancient Greeks were pretty neutral about death, but it did mark the character of an individual. For example, Homer pointed out that the manner and context in which a person dies is not by any means insignificant, and Aristotle believed that a person’s character and reputation could outlast them. In that way, one could be harmed after death, which contradicts Epicurus, who lived one generation after Aristotle. Socrates, for one, was eager to die since he had lived a long and full life, the law was asking him to take his own life, and he would get a chance to mix and mingle with thinkers and heroes of old in the afterlife, perhaps.
“No man should be called happy until after his death.” ~ Aristotle
The Christians, clearly, revolutionized the idea of death with the vivid prediction of “life after death.” Life is almost a proving ground for what comes after according to orthodoxy.
Solomon goes pretty deeply into denial of death, and the psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross certainly agreed that denial is the first stage a person goes through in response to another’s death (and I believe denial is a common reaction to one learning that one is terminally ill). Montaigne put it this way: “The remedy of the common herd [for anxiety about dying someday] is not to think about it.”
“…Jesus Christ himself; now He finished his life at thirty-three. The greatest man that was simply a man, Alexander, also died at that age. How many ways death has to surprise us!” ~ Michel de Montaigne
Robert C. Solomon makes this one of the pillars of his chapter on death in his book Spirituality for the Skeptic: “But the serious charge is that the view that death is nothing feeds on or leads to the idea that life is nothing, or nothing significant, or even that life is a burden.”
Solomon also asks, interestingly: “But if death is nothing, just the dispersal of atoms (or the substance of our bodies, or our souls rejoining the nature from which they have never really been separated), is life anything more than the atoms or souls conjoined?” I think he is pointing out that Epicurus cheapens the very idea of life when he claims that death is not a tragedy. One of Solomon’s theses is: “The meaning of death comes down to the meaning of life, nothing less, and nothing more.”
Solomon aptly claims that “All too often, we approach death with the self-indulgent thought that my death is a bad thing because it deprives the universe of me.” This is a trenchant thought. As well, he notes that it is absolutely tied up with a social context. “When I think of my death, I cannot help but think of how others will see me, how others will think of and remember me.”
“When I worry about how I will die, it is for others as well as myself (my pain, my humiliation) that I am concerned. …After all, what difference could it make to me, posthumously, whether I exited the hero, the coward, or the clown?” (Solomon)
“[Death] catches you the same, whether you flee like a coward or act like a man –“ ~ Michel de Montaigne
The context of death as a part of life is illustrated with this quote: “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.” (Solomon)
On page 121, he hits another home run: “In place of the ‘death is nothing’ argument, we should argue that it is the richness of life that provokes the pathos surrounding death. I want to live because of my wealth of friends and social responsibilities. I want to live because I love. I want to live because I am steeped in my projects, virtually all of which are social projects…. I want to live because others need me, and because I care for and about others. I am definitive of their world as they are of mine.”
“One does tend to become a mere memory, and, after a generation or two, not even that. …In thinking about death, it becomes clear to me that what I really care about is the people I leave behind. …In itself, death is nothing and dying nothing worth celebrating. It is ultimately significant because our lives are significant and our significance is entirely wrapped up in other people.” (Solomon)
“When death comes, let it find me at my work.” ~ Ovid
He points out that death isn’t insignificant, “but it surely can be made into something, a noble death, a death not just one’s own, but with others in mind and for the sake of others. According to [philosopher Martin] Heidegger, this may be an inauthentic death, but it is a death such that the Homeric heroes would have contemplated.”
We are treated to this idea: “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.”
Stephen E. Rosenbaum defends the Epicurean/Lucretian points of view in his article “How to be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus” (1986). One of his main points is this: “The prospect of death is at best a disquieting annoyance; it is at worst a terrifying mystery. However we react to the prospects of our deaths, we try to suppress our thoughts about death, and live as if our time were endless.”
“We can see a person’s regret over the way he has lived as being due to the ratio of important things he has left undone to the important things he has done.” ~ Robert Nozick
The idea of questioning whether life is good or bad is an interesting one. We probably gloss over the crucial question, when it is important to determine if life is, on the whole, better than it is worse. Would not life ending be a blessing for many millions of persons on the planet today? Even in the modern world, life for many people is a “rat race” in which we try and try to get ahead, avoiding life’s slings and arrows. Many, including the young, live very hard lives and suffer significant misfortune. The idea of death as a blessing strikes many who are facing terminal illnesses or other calamities wrought by Nature or God, depending on your point of view.
“A state of affairs is bad for a person only if the person can experience it at some time,” Rosenbaum notes. The Epicurean point he is making is that, in the absence of any afterlife, we never know we are dead, and do not experience any pain or deprivation. It is like a dreamless sleep. He refers to this as the abysmal nonexistence of being dead.
A keystone of his defense of Epicurus involves the context in which Epicurus was suggesting we all just relax: “Simply, he was trying to show us the truth about being dead so that we might not be excessively troubled about it….to achieve ataraxia”.
“To finish what I have to do before I die, even if it were one hour’s work, any leisure seems too short to me.” ~ Michel de Montaigne
Rosenbaum, in defending Epicurus, must take on Thomas Nagel’s arguments against him. On page 221 he does so, and uses the loss of a business as compared to the loss of one’s life (with the point being that if one loses a business, they are alive to experience that loss, unlike with death). His conclusion to that section is “Therefore, the argument that death is a loss and is thus bad is not convincing.”
Further, he writes this: “Nagel tries to deny the conclusion [that ‘what a person does not know may well be bad for the person.’] directly by characterizing death as a loss to the person who suffers it, and, taking losses to be bad, concludes that a person’s death is bad for the person. He seems relatively unconcerned about the proposition that once a person dies, that person no longer exists, and thus cannot experience the loss, a proposition which he accepts.” Nagel’s point of view would find common cause with Homer, the larger-than-life putative author of Greek epics, who believed that a person’s character and manner of death are critical in evaluating the honor they deserve. This was not perceived as permanent, as in the case where one was posthumously discovered to have been a coward or thief.
Rosenbaum upholds the “symmetry argument” of Lucretius: “…there is no reason to think that being dead is any worse than not having been born yet.” It’s a bit complex, fairly fascinating, and somewhat esoteric or inscrutable.
“The idea of death brings an authenticity to social life: there may be no better way to clear our calendar of engagements than to speculate as to who among our acquaintances would make the trip to our hospital bed.” ~ Alain de Botton
This argument is quite worth noting, and is from Rosenbaum: “One might claim that the badness of our deaths lies in our anticipation of losing the capacity to experience, to have various opportunities and to obtain various satisfactions…. [italics added]. However, the anticipation of either bad experiences or of the ability to experience simpliciter is something that can occur only while we are alive. …[T]herefore we do not experience the anticipation of being dead when we are dead” (p. 223).
One of Rosenbaum’s strongest and most salient points is this: “Lucretius offered a very interesting psychological explanation of the terror of death. He hypothesized that we have a very difficult time thinking of ourselves as distinct from our bodies. …This way of thinking is perhaps exemplified in the custom, in some societies, of placing a dead person’s body inside a sturdy, well-sealed box, fitted with comfortable bedding” (p. 224).
Two other notable points he makes (on p. 224) are that the Christian concept of hell is one reason we obviously fear death, and that since pain and death are usually conjoined, dying per se may be bad, and that is why we have anxiety when we imagine ourselves dying.
“…for why should we fear to lose a thing which once lost cannot be regretted? And since we are all threatened by so many kinds of death, is there not more pain in fearing them all than in enduring one?” ~ Michel de Montaigne
Nozick asks an interesting question on page 26 of his book The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations: “Why do we want to be told that we continue in time, that death is somehow unreal, a pause rather than an ending?” He is asking about religions that claim we will live on after our bodily death; that we are immortal. “Do we really want to continue always to exist?”, he asks. “How greedy are we? Is there no point when we will have had enough?”, he queries.
His answer is interesting, and gets at the idea of whether or not death can be a good thing, or if it is surely and unequivocally bad. “I understand the urge to cling to life until the very end, yet I find another course appealing” he reveals on page 27. “After an ample life, a person who still possesses energy, acuity, and decisiveness might choose to seriously risk his life or lay it down for another person or for some noble and decent cause.” Though not proposing a rash suicide, he is persuasive that “a person might direct his or her mind toward helping others in a more dramatic and riskier fashion than younger, more prudent folk would venture.” This is the stuff of heroes, more often depicted in fiction than borne out in reality. However, we do have the model of the mighty Socrates who laid his life down for his polis.
Nozick continues weaving an inspirational fantasy for those noble individuals who have a willingness to risk: “These activities might involve great health risks in order to serve the sick, risks of physical harm in interposing oneself between oppressors and their victims…” such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. “Such a path will not be for everyone, but some might seriously weigh spending their penultimate years in a brave and noble endeavor to benefit others, an adventure to advance the cause of truth, goodness, beauty, or holiness – not going gentle into that good night or raging against the dying of the light but, near the end, shining their light most brightly.” Rarely has such a lofty and noble suggestion been made by a philosopher.
‘The great use of a life,’ William James said in 1900, ‘is to spend it for something that outlasts it.’ This outlasting cause was then, as in earlier days, the happiness of mankind.” ~ Ralph Barton Perry
“Look upon death as a going home.” ~ Chinese proverb
“What immortality means to me now is that we are all parts of a whole, cells in the body of life; that the death of the part is the life of the whole; and that though as individuals we pass away, yet the whole is made forever different by what we have done and been.” ~ Will Durant
“The meaning of life is that it stops.” ~ Franz Kafka
“Do not fear death so much; but rather, the inadequate life.” ~ Bertolt Brecht
“Time is the raw material of our life, and a conscious awareness of our eventual death helps us to keep our life on a meaningful track and avoid meaningless, life-wasting detours.” ~ Copthorne MacDonald
“When you’ve come as close to ending your life as I have, you really come to appreciate how meaningful life can be.” ~ Jenni Prisk
“Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave. I know.
But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.” ~ Edna St. Vincent Millay
“The dead carry with them to the grave in their clutched hands only that which they have given away.” ~ DeWitt Wallace
“Four givens are particularly relevant for psychotherapy: the inevitability of death for each of us and for those we love; the freedom to make our lives as we will; our ultimate aloneness; and, finally, the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life.” ~ Irvin D. Yalom
“To live, and act, and serve the future hour;
And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,
Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower,
We feel we are greater than we know.” ~ William Wordsworth
“There are no ultimate accomplishments that transcend life and death, and undertaking great works has worth only as it enriches our lives.” ~ Jack Hernandez
“You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die. Or when. You can decide how you’re going to live now.” ~ Joan Baez
“The grave is already dug and man continues to hope.” ~ Yiddish proverb
“Even in birth we die; the end is there from the start.” ~ Manilius
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