BMCR 2005.07.68

Facing Death, Epicurus and his Critics

, Facing death : Epicurus and his critics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004. viii, 240 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780199252893 $45.00.

To modern ears, the word Epicurean indicates (if anything) an interest in fine dining. But at least throughout the early modern period up until the 19th century, Epicureanism was known less for its relation to food preparation and more so, if not scandalously so, for its doctrine about the annihilation of the human soul at death, its denial of human immortality, and its attempt to justify the claim that death should not be feared since “Death is nothing to us” ( Kyriai Doxai [hereafter KD] 2). Epicureans — like many ancient schools of thought — sought to establish an objective “morality of happiness” or rational teaching about right conduct which allowed its practitioners to arrive at a kind of well-being. Epicureans identified such well-being or happiness with “freedom from disturbance” ( ἀταραξία), and insofar as the fear of death undermined such contentedness in life, they presented arguments against the claim that death was a bad thing. Put more concisely, Epicureans believe that (as James Warren [JW] puts it), “if we think about death correctly, we think about living a good life correctly, and vice versa” (7). But whereas other ancient thinkers — most famously Socrates and his students — had sought to cure the fear of death by positing an immortal soul which philosophy was to prepare for life after the death of one’s body, Epicureans took the opposite route and argued that in part it was the longing for an impossible immortality that contributed to the fearfulness of death.

JW has done both classicists and philosophers the service of presenting a detailed analysis of the philosophical arguments which Epicureanism — as found principally in the sayings and correspondence of Epicurus, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, and Philodemus’ De Morte — presented about facing death. As the book’s title accurately reflects, the presentation of the arguments is organized in large part as a response to the criticisms which both ancient and modern thinkers such as Cicero, Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams have made against the Epicurean belief about death. JW is principally concerned with the accurate presentation and fair evaluation of philosophical arguments. Much of his analysis will appeal to philosophers interested in the problem of death or the cogency of ancient ethical thought, but, as he also notes, questions about death and how to live a good life are hardly the problem only of philosophical specialists. “If any questions are worth pursuing, these are” (vii). Insofar as JW’s task requires careful scrutiny of ancient texts, he also sheds light on the proper understanding of difficult Epicurean texts, especially in those cases where different passages from different Epicurean authors appear to be in tension.1 For the aid of philosophers coming to Epicurus without the skills of classicists, JW translates all Greek and Latin texts into English; at the same time, all translations are accompanied by the passage in its original language. The citations and corresponding bibliography are extensive, covering not only the relevant works of contemporary philosophers such as Nagel, Williams, Feldman, and Parfit, but also the philological works of classicists writing on Epicureanism in English, French, Italian, and German. The volume concludes with a helpful index locorum.

The Epicurean belief that “death is nothing to us” is meant to correct the mistaken beliefs which people have that generate a fear of death. But as JW acutely notes, precisely what is fearful about death is ambiguous. On his analysis, it could include at least four analytically distinct fears: 1) the fear of being dead (namely, of not existing); 2) the fear that one will die (namely, apprehension about being mortal); 3) the fear of premature death (namely, of dying too young or before one has completed one’s goals in life); and 4) the fear of the process of dying. JW claims that “there is no single Epicurean ‘argument against death’. Rather, they had an armoury of arguments which could be deployed against the various different kinds of fear of death” (4). Thus, JW organizes his book into chapters which consider the “armoury” of arguments made against each of these four fears. After an initial introductory chapter which analytically distinguishes the different fears of death, JW next devotes chapters to: the argument that, since humans are without perception of death and the process of death, neither should be feared (chapter 2); the “symmetry argument” which seeks to prove that apprehension about the coming end of life is as irrational as apprehension that one’s life did not begin earlier (chapter 3); and the Epicurean analysis of what constitutes “completeness” ( τέλειον) in life (chapter 4). In these first four chapters, JW lays out all the arguments which the Epicurean makes against each of the four fears, considers counterarguments which have been made by ancient and modern authors, and then evaluates the overall strengths and weaknesses of each argument. A fifth chapter considers a slightly different argument, namely one which alleges that either the historical fact that Epicurus wrote a will or the Epicurean attitude towards suicide generate inconsistencies between Epicurean theories and actual Epicurean practice. Finally, a sixth chapter summarizes and evaluates as a whole the Epicurean project to rid humans of their fear of death.

Although all of JW’s analyses are thorough and detailed, let me focus upon his evaluation of some of the more central — and more difficult to justify — claims which Epicureans make to give a sense of JW’s argumentation. With respect to the fear of being dead or not existing, Epicureans claim that since the atoms which make up a person dissipate upon death, then there is no person who could perceive any postmortem harm, and thus there is nothing to fear about death itself. Philosophers like Thomas Nagel have raised against this argument examples which appear to justify the belief that postmortem non-perceived harms are something in fact that should be feared.2 For instance, there seems to be something fearful about the death of an individual who does not get the chance to see his or her children grow up, but such a scenario seems to be an example of something which “harms” that individual even though the individual is dead and incapable of feeling or perceiving anything. The case is related to the problem of dying before one’s life is “complete,” but a merit of JW’s analyses of the different fears of death is that it shows that the Epicurean has two distinct arguments against the claim that such a scenario is fearful, one of which concerns the question of fearing something which happens after one’s death, the other which concerns the question of fearing that one’s life ends before it is complete.

With respect to the first question, JW suggests that the source behind our intuition that premature death could be an unperceived harm is a “comparative” evaluation with a non-tragic death. For instance, it is not implausible to say that a child raised in a less developed country has been “harmed” in comparison to a child growing up in a country with adequate access to schooling and health care.3 Even if the child raised in the less developed country never perceives the harm, in comparison to the life she or he might have lived elsewhere such lowered access to resources seems to be a “harm”. But, although the case of children being raised with different levels of access to resources may have a place within the question of global justice, the case of such “unperceived” comparative posthumous harms fails as a counter argument to the Epicurean position. In the original example, it was thought that dying before seeing one’s children grow up is an unperceived harm because we know of other individuals who have had that opportunity, and comparatively the former individual seems to be “harmed.” One of the main problems with such a counter argument, according to JW, is that it ends up proving too much. Since one could imagine for almost every death a comparative case which was better, the counter argument makes almost every conceivable death a “harm” to the individual who died. In JW’s words, “given the thought that death may rob us of goods we would have experience were we to die later, it is difficult to resist the thought that any death will fit this description” (32-33). But the force of the counter argument is supposed to seize upon the case of a “tragic death” where someone is prematurely struck down before life is complete. If all deaths are tragic, none is.

If the claim that death is to be feared because of unperceived harms in the case of comparative loss is unpersuasive, what about the claim that death is to be feared instead because it sometimes strikes before one has arrived at completeness or fullness in life? Solon famously claimed that we must “look to the end” ( τέλος) and call no man happy until his life is complete; Aristotle picks up on Solon’s remarks in part because eudaemonists have traditionally placed special emphasis on “completeness” ( τὸ τέλειον) as a criterion of a life well-lived (see EN I.10.1100a11 with EN I.7.1097a28-34; cf. Philebus 20b-23b). Should not all fear death because death can strike prematurely, before one has reached the various goals and stages of a life well-lived? JW persuasively argues that Epicureans were concerned with addressing the fear of premature death but that they countered such a fear on the basis of their understanding of completeness and pleasure (124-35). A complete life is a good life, but for the Epicureans, the good is pleasure and the highest pleasure is one in which all pains have been removed (KD 18, 21). In Epicurean terminology, such a katastemic pleasure (which exists without desire or pain, as opposed to a “kinetic” pleasure, which is one which accompanies the process of removing a pain [138]) is not increased due to duration nor can it be “summed” to produce a greater pleasure (KD 19, 20). Rather, the acquisition of such a pleasure is almost the same as living a complete life. Such a position has at least two surprising corollaries. First, the Epicureans seem to reject the notion that there was a “narrative structure” to life such that it included morally relevant stages — such as raising a family or succeeding in one’s vocation — which were necessary for human completeness. In JW’s words, “what is appropriate for a human, no matter how old, is to live a life free from pain. Youth, maturity, and old-age are entirely alike in that regard” (133). Second, the doctrine implies that young people, however rarely, were able to obtain “complete lives,” and JW cites evidence of Epicurean teen-age “prodigies” reputed to have obtained happiness at an early age.4 No doubt, acquisition of such enlightenment would be extraordinarily difficult for a young person (and Epicurus shares the common suspicion that youth are distracted by their desires [see Sententiae Vaticanae 17]), but nothing in principle rules it out.

In the words of Philodemus, such an Epicurean sage of any age walks about “already prepared for burial” ( De Morte XXXVIII.14-19). Here and in his remarks about the Epicurean ambivalence about suicide, JW finds weaknesses in a position which on the whole he seems to find persuasive.5 As he notes “it is difficult to capture adequately just what it would be like to live with this attitude. Indeed, it is perhaps questionable whether such an attitude is coherent or whether anyone can hold such an attitude sincerely. Certainly, this kind of day-to-day existence which appears to find in every moment completeness and fulfillment is quite unlike the experience of most people” (152-53; cf. 217 and JW’s remarks about suicide and positive reasons for living 202-210). Although I found most of Facing Death well argued and persuasive, I think JW here unfairly dismisses the plausibility of the Epicurean account on the grounds that such a transformation would be very difficult for most if not almost all people. Such a criticism seems unfair to ancient ethical doctrines since many such life philosophies require a truly radical “conversion” or “revising of priorities” which would be extraordinarily difficult for most people.6 Of course, many have scoffed at the implausibility of the Stoic notion that one could be happy upon the rack, or the Socratic notion that only philosophers possess true virtue or the Platonic notion that philosophy and politics might coincide in the person of the philosopher king. But even “common sense” Aristotle claims that only a rare few will be truly motivated by the καλόν rather than by the fear of punishment. It seems to me that there is an inherent and unapologetic “elitism” (albeit one based only on the merit of one’s mental powers) in all ancient ethical theories, one almost implicit in the saying χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά (“noble things are hard”). Such views may appear implausible to the common sense of modern philosophers, but ancient lovers of wisdom seemed to be a lot less commonsensical.


1. A case in point is JW’s analysis of the “symmetry argument” found in De Rerum Natura 3.832-42, 972-95. Interpreters had often thought that Lucretius supplements the arguments of Epicurus to shore up a gap in the argument against feeling distress about mortality. Through an exhaustive analysis of the symmetry argument in Lucretius and other ancient authors, JW proves that such an interpretation misunderstands the argument and that the conclusion of the Lucretian passage is ultimately no different than that of the arguments found in KD 2 (58, 100-05).

2. See T. Nagel, “Death,” in his Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 1-10.

3. This case, and its relevance to the Epicurean argument about death, JW cites from F. Feldman, Confrontations with the Reaper. A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 137-8.

4. See p. 134, fn. 50. Plutarch and Philodemus mention an eighteen-year-old Pythocles lauded for becoming an Epicurean sage.

5. The main difficulty JW finds in the Epicurean doctrine about death concerns the claim that ἀταραξία is a necessary and sufficient condition of a complete life (155 ff). In sum, “at any point until ataraxia is reached it is reasonable to fear premature death. But if it is reasonable to fear premature death, this is sufficient to make it impossible for anyone not yet in ataraxia to attain ataraxia” (157). Although I see the problem he points out, I suspect that it simply underscores that the Epicurean needs to go through an almost ineffable conversion, similar in its inexplicability to the περιαγωγή described in Republic VII.

6. See further J. Annas, Morality of Happiness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 329 ff. Of course, early Christian communities also struggled with the problem of exclusivity and extraordinary conversion, but once Christianity became the public religion of an empire, its standards for an individual’s inclusion necessarily became lower.