Epicurus Wants You To Stop Fearing Death, But He Is Not Convincing

As a materialist atheist, obviously, I don’t believe in life after we pass away. The idea of death is not a pleasant one, so many atheists have begun to look at arguments which softens the its image or makes it more palatable.

Epicurus_Louvre_on_death

One thinker that atheists frequently cite is Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher, whose main objective was achieving peace of mind and a happy life. Epicurus defined happiness as freedom from fear and a life without pain, and he basically defined pleasure as the absence of pain.

With that mentality, it’s not strange that Epicurus did not fear to die. Death, itself, is not painful, or it doesn’t make you suffer, so why should you fear it? His attitude toward this concept is captured in this quote:

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.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy expands on this:

If death is annihilation, says Epicurus, then it is ‘nothing to us.’ Epicurus’ main argument for why death is not bad is contained in the Letter to Menoeceus and can be dubbed the ‘no subject of harm’ argument. If death is bad, for whom is it bad? Not for the living, since they’re not dead, and not for the dead, since they don’t exist. His argument can be set out as follows:

  1. Death is annihilation.
  2. The living have not yet been annihilated (otherwise they wouldn’t be alive).
  3. Death does not affect the living. (from 1 and 2)
  4. So, death is not bad for the living. (from 3)
  5. For something to be bad for somebody, that person has to exist, at least.
  6. The dead do not exist. (from 1)
  7. Therefore, death is not bad for the dead. (from 5 and 6)
  8. Therefore death is bad for neither the living nor the dead. (from 4 and 7)

That is, to me, however, a very unconvincing way of abating this particular fear. What I fear is not the idea of death, but what its nature truly is, that is the absence of life. I’m not afraid of what is going to be added to my sufferings, but of what it is going to deprive me of.

I fear death because of losing my friends, all the books I will not read, all the films I will not watch, all the video games I will not play, all the kisses and sexes I will miss, of all the places I will not visit, of all the foods I will not taste, of all the things I will leave unwritten, of the fact that I will no longer know what is happening in the news, and my inability to continually fight for a better future.

Telling me that being dead is like not being born or annihilation is hardly any consolation, I enjoy being alive and I don’t want it to end.

The root of this wrong attitude is the incorrect definition of happiness: a life free of fear and suffering sounds awfully boring, if there are no positive pleasures to seek. I mean, the existence of horror genre in fiction and kinky sexual fetishes show that we actively seek fear and suffering in the correct context. And the simple truth is, in pursuit of pleasure we will happily put up with some pains, like exercising for the high of adrenaline rush.

Maybe Epicurus’s boring life is so analogous to dying that he doesn’t mind losing it. However, if you want me to stop fearing it you need better reasons.

Image credit: Sting  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic via Wikipedia


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About Kaveh Mousavi

Kaveh Mousavi is the pseudonym of an atheist ex-Muslim living in Iran, subject to one of the world’s remaining theocracies. He is a student of English Literature, an aspiring novelist, and part-time English teacher. He is passionate about politics, video games, heavy metal music, and cinema. He was born at the tenth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. He has ditched the Islamic part, but has kept some of the revolutionary spirit.