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"Death is nothing to us." How good are the Epicurean arguments for this claim?

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iii. “Death is nothing to us.”  How good are the Epicurean arguments for this claim?

Epicureanism is one of the philosophical schools of thought that was very popular during the Hellenistic period and was originally founded by Epicurus who lived from 341-270 BC.  Epicurus continuously rejected the belief that gods interfered in human life and/or caused natural events to occur.  One of his arguments was that if they don’t interfere in human life, they don’t interfere in human death.  If they have no interference in human affairs why should humans fear their interference later, and if they are not concerned with human affairs why should humans be concerned with them?  He denied and dismissed Greek religion as mere mythology.  He believes that if the gods were divine and immortal they have no need, no time, and no interest to interfere in human life, because they are outside it and live in another realm.  “They dwell in no world but in the spaces which separate one world from another.”[1]

He views happiness as a freedom from pain and attaining virtuous desires which are desires that are necessary such as food and sleep, etc.  

Epicurus believes that the mind and soul perishes when the body does, therefore there is no way one survives after death in anyway and he finds it silly for someone intellectual to believe in a judgement after death where one will be rewarded and punished for one’s own actions in their lifetime.  Lucretius presented a symmetry argument in which if we did not feel the events before we were born we won’t feel them after we die.  

Epicurus believes the soul gives life to the body and so the soul cannot exist independently of the body, and for there to be life there needs to be the co-existence of both soul and body.  He believes that if there is no body, the soul ceases to exist, as the body is then replaced by void and void cannot be affected by any interference or anything.  The soul is believed (by Epicureans) to be the “primary cause of sensation”.[2]

Epicurus thinks that we should match our actions in determining them by a moral code, by checking each desire to see if it is the approved kind or not.

There are two kinds of pleasure according to Epicureanism, kinetic and static and the “pleasure we seek as our final end is not kinetic pleasure, but katastematic or static pleasure”.[3]  Kinetic pleasure is the pleasure that is a pain or the removal of something that you want, whereas static pleasure is the pleasure you have when there is no pain in the first place or want to be removed.  Kinetic pleasure is the pleasure of being in static pleasure: absence of pain is just (static) pleasure”.[4]  Pleasure, Epicurus taught, is the absence of pain and ‘ataraxia’, pleasure which is complete, is the absence of trouble which he claims to be our final end.  He sees pleasure as a fulfillment of a desire that is natural, such as feeding yourself if you are hungry. Satisfying needs gives kinetic pleasure and satisfying them in a wrong way results in trouble.

Natural desires are fulfilled by following our nature and it is important to fulfill natural desires in ways that don’t rely on empty beliefs thus removing the pains and lacks that we can’t help but have.  By fulfilling empty desires due to empty beliefs, we will remove some pains and lacks, but in ways which renew them, bring them back, or bring back even worse pains, which then lead to a life of dissatisfaction leading unhappy lives.  According to the Epicureans, to avoid empty mental troubles by empty beliefs the best way is to live by their principles.  

Our final need is not one that is made up of feeding bodily pleasures nor is it one that can be replaced by mental ones, but it is to satisfy needs which results in satisfaction rather than one which leads to further needs and pains.  Epicurus “wants his final end to be complete and self-sufficient.”[5]

Epicureans expects to receive pleasure by developing the virtues of wisdom to do the right thing, courage, justice, and so on which are there ethics that lead to give us pleasure as our final end.  They believe we reach that by being virtuous and committed to our morals as well as others, via friendships and being a part of the community.  Freedom of pain and trouble is what we really want.

If one is already happy and leads a satisfying and Epicurean life, then one will not feel threatened by time and death as it would not give you anything you don’t have already.  They believe that pleasure is equal with time and view happiness as absolute and that it could not be measured as more or less if it is the true kind of happiness.  If we had attained the right amount of pleasure we have lived a complete life’. [6]  Epicurus has established that we aren’t deprived of happiness when we die, as a happy life is not made or justified by duration.  To fear death is a mistake as it makes it hard to achieve happiness if we have empty beliefs.  Fearing death is an empty belief as we don’t feel anything when we perish, in the same way we do not remember anything before we are born.  Lucretius presents this in his symmetry argument where we are upset by the thought of what death deprives us of but not upset when we think of what we were deprived of before we were born is irrational and illogical.  

We think that if a happy life is good then more of it will be better, but this can’t be true as we may lead to fill empty irrational desires.  However if one is satisfied and is leading an untroubled life then it should not matter as they have reached ‘ataraxia’.  

If there were to be a premature death then as we have discussed before, a happy life is a complete Epicurean life, and yes if a teenager dies s/he is not deprived of achieving happiness but maybe has not had a complete life as an elder person as it is harder for a younger person to reach maturity and therefore happiness.

 Epicureans view our end to be passive and there is nothing we can do about it.  Instead of irrationally worrying about our end we should busy ourselves with our current lives and fulfilling the essential tasks in life for our well being rather than relying on the future to complete them:  “Completeness thus lies in a certain time-independent quality of one’s activities, not in whether the activities produce specific (future) results”.[7]

In pursuing happiness and ataraxia, we must plan our life well, by reaching for the right desires and sacrificing some pleasures and accepting some pains in order to achieve virtue.  Happiness can be achieved by one’s attitude in pursuing it by developing an intuitive inner attitude and by also internalizing happiness that we achieve.  It should not affect our temporal life and in pain Epicurus believes one should recall their happier moments and the pleasure that was experienced.  

Epicurus believes that we need not fear anything and that our genuine needs are easily satisfied. “He goes most readily to meet tomorrow who needs tomorrow least.”[8]

The Epicurean Philodemus, author of ‘Choices’, thinks that one should have control of their feelings as they lead to actions, “ our lives could be governed successfully by observing appearances”.[9] He argues against Epicureans notion of happiness and that the only moral end is the feeling of pleasure given at any moment in one’s life.  

The Epicurean classification of desires was necessary in Epicurean ethics.  In Epicurus’ letter to Menoeceus 123-7, he writes that there are desires that are natural and necessary, natural and unnecessary and unnatural therefore unnecessary. He argues that it is pointless to fear death as we fear it when we are present but when we are not present we cannot fear it as we don’t exist.[10]

Lucretius sees death as a “return to sleep and rest”[11] and that we should not mourn the deceased and also should not fear death as if we resent the fact that we are human and not divine, instead we must accept the fact that we have an end and that our bodies will not be tortured in everlasting judgement.  

Philodemus suggests that “Desires depend on us”[12] and on our belief.  He suggests that because the paranoid man thinks of the judgement and punishments after death, it affects his decisions in his life and thus affects his happiness.  Rather than enjoying his life he dwells in his sorrow that it is temporal and that punishment after death is eternal.[13]  On fearing death, Philodemus thinks of them as men who project their troubles onto death and so fear it.  

Philodemus says that the Epicurean distributes his wealth and property amongst those who have helped him and is grateful to all who have benefited him and only keeps what is necessary for him to live.[14]  It is a very post Hellenistic communist way of thinking and one that was unheard of at the time although the Epicureans did refuse to be a part of politics but a part of the community.  

“Nothing to fear in God,

Nothing expected in death,

Easily had is the good,

Easily borne the bad”.[15]

Gods are seen (in human form) as an example in which the Epicureans want to aspire to.  However the Epicureans view religion as damaging to their peace of mind as “it is based on false fear of the gods derived from mental images”. [16]  “They are seen above all in dreams and are themselves dreamlike in substance, insubstantial like the ‘images’ which make up their being”.[17] Epicurus believes that nature embedded thoughts in our minds about gods for a reason and that reason is to view them as an example of what they should aspire to as mortals, “live like a god among men”[18], by accepting the fact that they will cease to exist and leading a moral life lived to the maximum and setting an example for further generations to come and for them to look upto. Cicero views their nature as one that is made up by the mind and not the senses.  Epicurus and Lucretius both agree that since we perish after death and don’t exist anymore, it shouldn’t matter to us.  As Seneca puts it, even if people do not fear death because of their belief in the myths about the underworld, maybe what they fear is that “they will be- nowhere”[19], and end up in limbo.

Lucretius and Epicurus see it as silly to worry about something that cannot trouble us when it arrives and instead makes our lives miserable that are consumed of troubling thoughts that do not affect us later.  Epicurus thinks that if there are gods then they are divine and so are not concerned in human affairs, so then why should humans be concerned with theirs?

Lucretius (on the symmetry argument) says; “nature shows us this as a mirror of the time that will be after we have finally died”.  

On time; A longer life may give you the same pleasure for a longer time but it cannot give you more pleasure if you have achieved the most pleasurable life.  

If you are not living a successful life and do not want to continue living it then it is your own fault for embedding fear in you thoughts making it an obstacle in achieving your happiness.  Lucretius argues that if one always desires what one does not have then it would be impossible for him to be satisfies and in result will always want something that s/he doesn’t have, which Epicurus views as an empty desire and therefore an unnecessary one that would lead to an unsatisfied life and unwanted and regrettable death.  Epicurean’s believe in carpe diem and to always enjoy and live in the present, seize the day.  

One may fear death for the fear of their family and how they will cope afterward which was a major worry in late antiquity as there were all sorts of inheritance rights and laws.  For Epicureans to be happy they must accept the inevitable, that one day they will perish.  

Epicureans have an atomic theory that their body and soul are made to be reused by other generations (reincarnation). As one will die the others too will die; “All have a lease on life, but none has the freehold”.[20]

The Epicurean view that death cannot mean anything is that since pain is evil and pleasure is good in life, when we die they believe that we experience neither, and therefore death cannot harm us as it cannot be evil, so we just cease to exist and just perish.  


  • Long and Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers Volume 1, Cambridge 1987
  • A.A.Long, Hellenistic Philosophy, Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics, Second Edition, California 1986
  • R.W.Sharples, Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics,
  • Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness,
  • Dirk Obbink, ‘The Mooring of Philosophy’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Volume 15, Oxford 1997

Faye Al Ismail

[1] A.A.Long, p.48

[2] A.A. Long, p.52

[3] Julia Annas, p.335

[4] Julia Annas, p.336

[5] Julia Annas, p.339

[6] Julia Annas, p.345

[7] Julia Annas, p.347

[8] Dirk Obbink, p.260

[9] Dirk Obbink, p.266

[10] LS, 24A

[11] LS, 24E

[12] Dirk Obbink, p.272

[13] Dirk Obbink, p.274

[14] Dirk Obbink, p.279

[15] Dirk Obbink, p.259

[16] R.W.Sharples, p.56

[17] A.A.Long, p.48

[18] LS, 23J.

[19] R.W.Sharples, p.94

[20] LS, 24F

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