The Epicurean attitude to death

Epicurus believed, contrary to Aristotle, that death was not to be feared. When a man dies, he does not feel the pain of death because he no longer is and therefore feels nothing. Therefore, as Epicurus famously said, “death is nothing to us.” When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the belief that in death, there is awareness. From this doctrine arose the Epicurean epitaph:

Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (“I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care”).

This is inscribed on the gravestones of his followers and seen on many ancient gravestones of the Roman Empire. This quotation is often used today at humanist funerals. (Part of an edited version of the entry in Wikipedia, not my own words).

On a practical issue, Epicureans (or those who face the prospect of death with resignation or equanimity), are more inclined to have their deaths organised. By this I don’t mean you find an assassin(!), but you do make a Will, along with a Living Will, say what sort of funeral you want, burial or cremation. (I have severe doubts about memorial services. They should be spontaneous or it looks like egotistical control). Anyway, a thoughtful person thinks about the decisions faced by those left behind, discusses them and tries to make the process as unstressful as possible. Those who think they will live forever don’t bother, and cannot imagine what will face the survivors.

7 Comments

  1. The fear of death comes not only from fear of the unknown, but an even greater fear of judgment.

    “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31)

    The Epicurean has repressed both fears.

    • Pascal’s Wager notwithstanding ?, I am completely comfortable with death. There is no “unknown” or “fear of judgement” and no fear of death. Death is nothing. I will be no more. That’s it! To think otherwise would be the greatest of vanities on my part.

  2. “The Epicurean has repressed both fears…”

    …or maybe never had them to start with.
    I’m not sure why so many people (most, if the posts on various chat sites are a representative sample) find it so difficult to imagine that other people think differently than they do, and don’t share the same presumptions or attitudes.
    But it seems this is especially true of believers.
    So many seem literally unable even to imagine not believing in not just A deity, but the very one of their tradition.
    SO curious!

  3. I think the worst aspects of death are the fear of leaving our belongings
    (including our loved ones) behind and suffering the physical pain of death. We may be able to medicate our way through the first but, after lifelong conditioning of believing in ownership it is difficult to accept the second.

  4. Perhaps another reason for the very widespread fear of death is simply a category confusion. The only empirical, experiential experience of death that we have is the death of others — and that experience is indeed often profoundly one of loss and sorrow and emotional pain. But in reality it tells us nothing of our own experience of death, which of course is “nothing to us”.

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