BMCR 2022.02.03

Epicurus and the singularity of death: defending radical Epicureanism

, Epicurus and the singularity of death: defending radical Epicureanism. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. Pp. vii, 221. ISBN 9781350134041 £76.50.

Preview

David B. Suits’ new monograph on the Epicurean view of death approaches the subject with much-needed, serious philosophical interest. That may sound like an obvious approach, but as those who study Epicureanism can testify, this perspective is often lacking. Indeed, from ancient to modern times, Epicurean views on death (and many other subjects) have often been ridiculed as if they were devoid of seriousness. To Epicureans, death is annihilation, the breakdown of the atomic connections that make us ourselves, and there is no afterlife. While oblivion might sound scary, in his Letter to Menoeceus Epicurus famously taught (Ep. Men. 125): “death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist. Therefore, it is relevant neither to the living nor to the dead, since it does not affect the former, and the later do not exist.”[1] Lucretius puts it this way (DRN 3.830-1): “Death is nothing to us, of no concern whatsoever, once it is appreciated that the mind has a mortal nature.”[2] Suits argues that death is like a black hole—a singularity, unique from all other experiences because values which apply to other parts of life “(good, bad, harm, misfortune, etc.) no longer apply” (p. 21). He considers the ramifications of this and argues in favor of what he calls “Radical Epicureanism”, whereby we see our own deaths as insignificant to ourselves.

This view remains deeply controversial.[3] As Suits makes clear in his introduction “The Epicurean View of Death”, their perspective on death centers on one’s own view of one’s own death, not how our death might affect others. It is egoistic (as indeed all claims in Epicureanism are, being dependent upon sense perception), drawing conclusions about how we should feel about death while living. If death is, as Epicurus believed, annihilation, then we should feel nothing—neither positive nor negative—about it while alive; once we are dead, there is nothing to feel (positive or negative), because there is no “we” once we are dead. Therefore, death is neither good nor bad. As Suits notes, “By “death” [Epicurus] does not mean the process of dying, but rather having died—nonexistence after having existed” (p. 2). While dying may be painful (or not), death is neither painful nor pleasurable; it is the removal of all sensation and self, completely. While that is admittedly contrary to much religious dogma (both in the ancient and modern world), the monograph invites us to take this argument seriously and to see if the consequences of this view of death are acceptable.

It accomplishes this aim by considering how the Epicurean view of death can account for a number of topics closely related to it. Each chapter deals with one topic in a logical fashion and addresses points that are potential stumbling blocks to accepting “Radical Epicureanism”. After laying out ancient Epicurean theory in “The Epicurean View of Death”, Suits takes a more positive line of argument, defending “Radical Epicureanism” in Chapter 2, before examining how Epicureans would view “Premature Death and the Complete Life” in Chapter 3. These early chapters are the ones that most closely examine ancient Epicurean evidence. From there, he moves on in later chapters to deal mainly with modern scholarship and provides additional apologetics in defense of his Radical Epicurean view. Chapter topics include: (4) how to talk about pre-/post-death properly (“Counterfactual Comments”); (5) “Death and Deprivation”; (6) time (“A Critique in Four Dimensions”); (7) “Killing”; (8) “Immortality”; (9) contracts and wills (“Will He Nill He”); and (10) “Suicide”.

Perhaps the strongest chapter in the book is “Death and Deprivation”. In it, Suits deals with the predominant belief that “Death can be an evil”. He argues against “popular wisdom” that “death is bad not because it is painful in any sense, but because it interrupts a life, causing or representing a loss for the one who died” (p. 82). This is probably the most counterintuitive part of Epicurus’ theory: how is someone who dies at 5, or 23, or 40, or 60 not deprived of goods in life that she might experience in a full life of 80 or 100 years? Taking a step-by-step approach, Suits considers and rebuffs various philosophical arguments that see death as a deprivation, whether it comes early or late. Ultimately, he concludes that, while in popular expression we often speak of death as being bad for the one who died, it is actually we (the living) who are suffering from deprivation, i.e. the loss of the person, not the dead, who experience nothing (good or bad).

The topic that is sure to be the most divisive is Chapter 7 “Killing”. Here, Suits argues against the concept of a “right to life”, instead making the case that causing suffering is wrong, not strictly killing. While utilizing Philodemus in Chapter 3, it might have helped to draw upon On Death again here. For instance, Philodemus argues that “a man of sense will not distinguish the factors that produce death, all of which lead equally to unconsciousness and non-existence, except those…” (28.14-18). The text is fragmentary, but it seems to refer to factors that cause pain and “toil” consistent with the hedonic calculus of Epicureanism (28.18).[4] Suits argues positively for empathy as a necessary moral response, making us aware of and considerate of other people’s suffering. He concludes that attempting to kill is wrong because it has much potential for causing suffering: (1) for the person who might be left injured but not dead and (2) more for the living who lose a person they value. This was not entirely convincing. Is that really all there is to why murder is wrong? Is killing not also ethically wrong (perhaps also causing the killer psychological pain)? Is killing not a way of acting/living badly?[5] If someone does not have friends or loved ones, does that really mean that killing them is acceptable, provided there is no suffering? The arguments may be convincing to some in the case of abortion (which is addressed in this chapter, pp. 151-4), but they ultimately are not persuasive for all cases.[6]

Suits’ project is ultimately a work of modern philosophy, but one which is informed by ancient Epicureanism. The monograph engages with a wide range of contemporary scholarship on the Philosophy of Death (and Life), while also discussing relevant passages from Greek and Latin texts which deal with the Epicurean view of death. These include Epicurus’ own works (principally, the Letter to Menoeceus, one mention of the Letter to Pythocles, the Principal Doctrines (Kuriai Doxai) and the Vatican Sayings), as well as Lucretius (DRN), Philodemus (De morte), Diogenes Laertius (Book 10 on Epicurus), and Cicero (De fin.). All of these are discussed through English translations; neither Greek, nor Latin play any meaningful role in the analysis. Passages from the ancient texts are mostly utilized in Chapter 3, “Premature Death and the Complete Life”, to provide a basic sense of Epicurean views on death in the ancient world. As a Classicist, I missed more textual analysis of how ancient Epicureans argued about death, particularly in Philodemus’ On Death and the end of Book 3 of Lucretius’ De rerum natura. To put it into perspective, in the index there are fairly minimal references to Classical texts throughout the 200 pages (several discussions are a few pages long, but no more than 5): 13 to Epicurus, 4 to Lucretius, 3 to Philodemus, 4 to Cicero, one each to Plato and St. Augustine (none to Aristotle or the Stoics). Perhaps the most glaring omission in the bibliography is B. P. Wallach’s Lucretius and the Diatribe Against the Fear of Death. The book would also have benefited from more consideration of other schools of ancient philosophy, especially Platonism and Stoicism. For instance, it would have been helpful to contextualize Epicurus’ theories on death in the ancient world in relation to alternative theories, perhaps with discussion of Epicurus’ argument that “death is nothing to us” in comparison to the Platonic view of life as a “practice for death” (Phd. 81a).

While Suits founds his arguments upon the Epicurean view of death, the reasoning and argument is much more modern. Unlike Aristotle and the Stoics (and most modern philosophers), Epicurus avoided logical argument, instead appealing to the evidence from our senses as a kanon (a yardstick), which functioned as the criterion of truth.[7] Suits is systematic, as in his five requirements for deprivation (D1-D5, pp. 84-7), which he analyzes and logically picks apart over the rest of the chapter. One of Suits’ most engaging stylistic touches (and one firmly in line with ancient Epicurean methods) is that he often crafts an imaginary scenario to help the reader conceptualize how to think about death. Lucretius and Philodemus would surely approve. All chapters begin with a “Prelude”, which usually takes the form of a short story in which readers imagine a humorous scenario (often with surprising conclusions). These exercises have a way of reifying the lessons of the logical arguments and making them more vivid.

Editing and proofreading of the monograph were excellent. The only typos I found were a missing preposition, “to”, in the last sentence of paragraph one on page 60, a missing “of” on p. 138 (end of paragraph), and “seems to saying” for “seems to say” on p. 194. It also has great cover art and the quality of the book is outstanding (appropriately, since it is not an inexpensive volume).

Overall, I would recommend the book to anyone interested in the Philosophy of Life or Death, as well as the modern field of Philosophy as a Way of Life. For those working on ancient Epicureanism, it is helpful, but not essential, as much of the discussion relates to modern philosophy. The lack of close readings of the ancient Greek or Latin texts makes the monograph less useful for philologists studying Epicurus, Lucretius, or Philodemus. Nevertheless, the work is valuable for thinking through how Epicurean theories remain relevant and how they can still be utilized to address important concerns in the modern world including life and death.

Notes

[1] P. 3. For translations of Epicurus’ letter, Suits relies on B. Inwood and L. P. Gerson (trans.), The Epicurus Reader, Indianapolis 1994.

[2] P. 47. This translation used by Suits comes from (but is not cited from) A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, 2 vols., Cambridge 1987. In the bibliography, Suits cites the Loeb translation of De rerum natura by W. H. D. Rouse, revised by M. F. Smith, Cambridge, MA 1992, however he never cites the two volumes by Long and Sedley from which his translation in fact comes.

[3] In popular culture, we can see evidence of revulsion at Epicurean thought in some of the reception of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, New York 2012, which was criticized vociferously in religious journals. While scholarly criticism was directed at Greenblatt’s explanations of Medieval and Renaissance cultural history (see Michael W. Heren’s review (2012), JML 22, 295-301), much criticism in religious journals was directed at Epicureanism, itself (see Paul D. Miller (2012) “Pulitzer Prize-Winning Anti-Christian Screed (The Swerve)” on patheos.com).

[4] W. Benjamin Henry (trans.), Philodemus, On Death. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009.

[5] See Philodemus, On Death 36.27: “Still, for the man who lived badly… it is impossible to conceive [how] he will have obtained any relief from his wretched life.”

[6] Note the parenthetical “How extensive the anguish is and how intense it is, are contingent matters for each instance of death. But in addition (and this is important also for the hermit case) people are made to wonder whether the killer might kill again, causing similar or even greater grief” (p. 148).

[7] See Long and Sedley 1987, 87-90 and D. Clay, Lucretius and Epicurus, Ithaca 1983.