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.

14 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.

      • “You should live your live and try to make the world a better place for you being in it. Whether or not you believe in god.
        If there is no god, you have lost nothing and will be remembered fondly by those you left behind.
        If there is a benevolent god, he will judge you on your merits and not just on whether or not you believed in him.
        ~ Michael Martin

      • Yup, death is nothing but the issue is the ‘dying’ which could be very painful & last a long time. I’d like it quick. A bullet in head, a severe bang on the head that is hard enough to kill but no long lasting painful disease that is 6 months of severe pain. ‘They’ claim they have good pain meds now, but I disagree. There are no good meds to remove pain. If there is they put you in such a fog that you can’t talk or think. I like Pascal’s wager!

  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”.

  5. Imagine if you created 2 robots – one that was “non curo” and one that was “curo” and cared, that is, that feared dying. You’d be rebuilding the “non curo” robot all the time because it was constantly having fatal accidents or committing suicide for trivial reasons. When natural selection is the creator, “non curo” creatures do not survive as long as the “curo” ones who protect themselves more aggressively. Curo creatures win the survival contest and pass the trait down. (They win it even when the advantage is slight because of the compounding effect across generations.) Repressing that mechanism is quite an intellectual accomplishment – by Epicureans, Buddhists, even Christians or Muslims who believe in a positive afterlife for themselves. Surely many hold it as an intellectual ideal, but still have to take a deep breath when stepping in to the void.

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