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” (
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” (
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” (
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
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
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.