Epicurus and Death

December 01, 2020

Epicurus is sometimes seen as anti-Stoic. Certainly Epictetus and other Stoics seem to have reviled him, as I wrote yesterday.

Epicurus was pro-pleasure and anti-principle, believing that most of human affairs are conventional, and therefore that they can and should be revised over time. The Stoics tend towards asceticism and belief in absolute principles. Catherine Wilson makes the case for Epicureanism as anti-Stoic well in this piece. She worries that Stoicism’s opposition to emotion will reduce the pleasures of life.

It’s worth noting, though, that William B. Irvine (in A Guide to the Good Life) interprets the Stoics differently. In his reading, Stoicism is about “banishing negative emotion” (p5–10) — not all emotion.

I probably fall between the two interpretations; some of the Stoics seem to me anti-emotion, and others seem anti-negative-emotion. It doesn’t matter much either way, at least not to me. I have found reading the Stoics useful, even though I’m now quite interested in Epicureanism. I don’t necessarily find a hard contrast between the two schools of thought.

And more generally, I find the fear that Stoicism will diminish emotions to the point of reducing enjoyment of life to be rather far-fetched. Similar points are raised as a way of avoiding or attacking Buddhist thought and practice.

To me, the straw man of “I’m worried Stoicism will make me totally indifferent” is a bit like an obese person saying “I’m worried that exercise will make me too thin.” It’s not out of the realm of possibility that this could eventually happen, but one has plenty of time to change tack before it does — not to mention a huge amount of work.

Stoic (or Buddhist) practices can be useful for managing emotions or suffering. If you have the “problem” of too little emotion or too little suffering, then you probably don’t need to do those practices. You can also stop using them when you stop needing them, much as the Buddha suggested doing with his teachings. Surely this is all just common sense?

I’m a bit of a pragmatist about these things; if a Stoic approach works in one situation, great, but no need to commit to it for life. Likewise, if Epicurus is useful, then read him alongside, or later. Anything more rigid than that smacks to me of dogmatism.

I’m actually thinking today about whether Epicurus is himself a religious pragmatist. From the Letter to Menoeceus, p649 in Diogenes Laërtius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers:

First believe that God is a living being immortal and blessed, according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of mankind; and so believing, thou shalt not affirm of him aught that is foreign to his immortality or that agrees not with blessedness, but shalt believe about him whatever may uphold both his blessedness and his immortality. For verily there are gods, and the knowledge of them is manifest; but they are not such as the multitude believe, seeing that men do not steadfastly maintain the notions they form respecting them.

In my (possibly biased) reading, he seems to think it worthwhile to believe in a God, not as a commitment to the truth value of a metaphysical claim, but because of its relationship to notions of blessedness and immortality. He thinks that the fact that people experience gods means that they are real, at least phenomenologically. (Here I’m thinking of the claim made by Julian Jaynes.) Like Jaynes, he suggests that uncertainty about the nature of the gods has increased over time, and that people are no longer certain how to interpret the gods.

The preoccupation with immortality is interesting given Epicurus’ rather strong take on death, which comes just a page later (p651):

Accustom thyself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of all sentience; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an illimitable time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality.

Not caring about death improves life, not by lengthening it, but by removing the desire for immortality, which is, of course, unattainable, and the desire therefore unfulfillable. I suppose I was thinking along related lines when I did my fast, and wondered about whether I could slow down time by doing very little. Doing nothing does reduce desire, strangely enough.

He continues:

For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly apprehended that there are no terrors for him in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect.

This is actually something I’d written about and half-forgotten in this post on fear: “If one doesn’t fear death, or value life, then one can’t really be threatened or coerced.” The post came up recently because I was collecting sources which advise favouring process over outcome, which I suspect Epicurus would also endorse.

Whatsoever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.

Death does not hurt when it is present: it can’t, because when it’s present, you’re dead. Because life and death cannot overlap, there is nothing for us to fear.

On the other hand, Epicurus does not welcome death. Non-Epicureans both fear death and commit suicide, but Epicurus disapproves of both. As Wilson writes, “But as well as believing that death was not an evil, Epicurus also believed that being deprived of life is the worst thing that can happen to the individual.”

In this passage, he explains why:

But in the world, at one time men shun death as the greatest of all evils, and at another time choose it as a respite from the evils in life. The wise man does not deprecate life nor does he fear the cessation of life. The thought of life is no offence to him, nor is the cessation of life regarded as an evil. And even as men choose of food not merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely that which is longest.

Just as one seeks the best food, and not just the largest quantity, one should seek the best life, not just the longest. (This seems to relate to the point yesterday, that we should neither seek every pleasure, nor shun every pain.)

I thought it worth comparing the above with Golden Saying XLV of Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher who accused Epicurus of effeminacy (several centuries after Epicurus’ death).

In it, Epictetus argues that banishment is ineffective as a deterrent, because one can always go somewhere else, and imprisonment is ineffective as a deterrent, because one can always commit suicide. (Is this part of Sartre’s radical freedom? I could never quite figure that out.)

I think that the arguments, though different in emphasis, are comparable. Epicurus argues that if one does not fear death, then life holds no terrors — and presumably, fearing nothing, one cannot be compelled, coerced, or intimidated. Epictetus argues that one cannot be punished, because one can always leave any situation — in the worst case, via suicide.

The Epicureans were opposed to suicide and to war, whereas the Stoics thought self-sacrifice (and possibly conflict) were sometimes necessary. But for the reader, is the advice so different?

Finally, to come back to the question of divinities, perhaps the focus on the immortal and benevolent aspects of “God” or “gods” is not so strange, since Epicurus also espoused the immortality of atoms.

Today, perhaps a useful interpretation of all of the Epicurus above would be something like: “Though you are mortal, there is nothing to fear in death, because ‘you’ and death are mutually exclusive. Not fearing death, you have nothing to fear in life. But in your indifference to death, and your knowledge of your own mortality, you must not abandon immortal ideals.”

See also Epicurus and Epicurus and Happiness.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.