Home > Philosophy > ‘Ancient Greek Ideas’ – Assignment Two: Epicurus & Lucretius. Pt. 1.

‘Ancient Greek Ideas’ – Assignment Two: Epicurus & Lucretius. Pt. 1.

Argue for and against Epicurus’ and Lucretius’ view that “death means nothing to us”, i.e. describe their view, criticize it, and then defend it.’

Should we be afraid of death? Is it the end, or merely the beginning? Ancient Greek atomistic philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE) began a tradition of philosophical thought that was assumed by followers such as Lucretius (died c. 50 BCE). Their philosophies and insights may help provide us with some illumination into these pivotal questions about the nature of death and what it might mean to us. In tackling the aforementioned questions it might help us to first introduce and discuss what these thinkers thought of the soul, particularly in regards to their atomistic doctrines in an effort to explain the significance of death to them. Once we have done this we will begin our main thesis, that is, we will describe, criticize and defend two main arguments put forth by Epicurus and Lucretius: (1) the no subject of harm argument and (2) the symmetry argument.

To understand what death means to Lucretius and Epicurus we must first briefly look at the lense through which they interpreted the world, in this case atomism, as defined by Tim O’Keefe from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Epicurus believes that the basic constituents of the world are atoms (which are uncuttable, microscopic bits of matter) moving in the void (which is simply empty space). Ordinary objects are conglomerations of atoms. Furthermore, the properties of macroscopic bodies and all of the events we see occurring can be explained in terms of the collisions, reboundings, and entanglements of atoms. (O’Keefe, 2005)

From this view Epicurus and Lucretius considered the soul to be, like the body, corporeal in nature; that is, made up of atoms.  While the body is alive, as in while the body has its atoms properly arranged, and the soul is “diffused through the whole aggregate” as Epicurus would say, the mind is able to engage with sense perception and thought. According to Lucretius all atomic compounds eventually disperse. When the body dies the container housing the soul breaks, causing the atoms to disband and death becomes final, with consciousness disappearing and no punishment in the afterlife to be had, or the ability to regret a life lived as the mind innervated by the soul no longer exists.

This theory of death as annihilation led Epicurus to posit that “…death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of all sentience, therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable…” (Epicurus quoted in Smith, p. 316, 2008).  Epicurus and Lucretius provide two arguments for this position; we shall start with (1):

  1. Death is annihilation.

  2. The living have not yet been annihilated (otherwise they wouldn’t be alive).

  3. Death does not affect the living. (from 1 and 2)

  4. So, death is not bad for the living. (from 3)

  5. For something to be bad for somebody, that person has to exist, at least.

  6. The dead do not exist. (from 1)

  7. Therefore, death is not bad for the dead. (from 5 and 6)

  8. Therefore death is bad for neither the living nor the dead. (from 4 and 7) (O’Keefe, 2005)

Stephen Luper from The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy helps us understand this argument stating that what Epicurus is saying above is that for death to be harmful to us, there needs to be a subject by which harm can occur at a certain time. In regards to time states Luper, this can happen at two times, either while the subject is alive or when deceased. As stated above Epicurus believes the subject to have no consciousness after death, so we can only be concerned by deaths significance during life, but according to Luper it is unlikely death will have a direct effect on us while we are alive, simply because we are so. (Luper, 2009)

From here let us briefly outline and describe Epicurus and Lucretius’ other argument, (2):

According to the symmetry argument, posed by Lucretius, we can prove the soundness of it to ourselves by thinking about our state before we were born:

Look back at time … before our birth. In this way Nature holds before our eyes the mirror of our future after death. Is this so grim, so gloomy? (Lucretius 1951, quoted in Luper, 2009)

Again Luper helps us; he states that the aim of Lucretius’ argument here is to point to the irrationality of objecting to death since we don’t object to “pre-vtial nonexistence”. The two states are similar in all respects, hence objecting to one would mean to object to the other, and that would be pointless.

Now that we briefly outlined two arguments provided by Epicurus and Lucretius on why death means nothing to us, we will now look at scholarly criticisms of them, before we turn to seeing how they might succeed under those critcisms. Starting with (1): Luper states that there is a lack of clarity from Epicurus in this argument in two senses, one: that what he means by ‘death’ is unclear (Luper grants for his purposes that it might simply refer “to the process by which our lives are ended” Luper, 2009). Two, Epicurus’ intent might have been to show that death nor posthumous events affect us at all. From this it follows that death and posthumous events are harmless (if we assume that events only harm us if they occur at some time).  Luper considers two theses: the weaker thesis that death and posthumous events cannot effect us in a way that is bad for us, and the stronger one: that it might be “possible to show that posthumous events do not affect us” (Luper, 2009).  Let us focus on the stronger thesis today.

To criticize Epicurus’ argument Luper adopts what he calls the “casual account of responsibility” (Luper, 2009), which states:

  1. An event (or state of affairs) can affect some subject (person or thing) S only by having a causal effect on S (the causal impact thesis).

  2. A subject S cannot be causally affected by an event while S is nonexistent.

  3. A subject cannot be causally affected by an event before the event occurs (the ban on backwards causation). (Luper, 2009)

Luper states that from this causal account, including some appropriate assumptions it follows that post mortem events (such as kicking one’s corpse) cannot affect us if we are dead, for two reasons. One: to be affected is to be affected causally, two: nonexistent people cannot be causally affected by any event. It follows from this that the state of being dead cannot affect us while we are dead. Here Luper is assuming Epicurus’ philosophy on death as annihilation, people cease to exist when they die. To Luper, because of the causal account just described it follows from this that neither being dead, nor any events that follow can affect us while we are alive, given the ban on causation working backwards. The problem for Epicurus’ argument arises when we ask the question of how death might affect us at the moment of death. This is a special problem because we have an example of a living person who is harmed by death as it occurs. Luper defines in two ways how this problem may be avoided, one: that death occurs only after we are nonexistent, and two: that death is instantaneous and thus cannot affect us. There are two senses, in which the term ‘death’ may be used here, one: the process sense (in which death occurs over a period of time, and can obviously affect us), or two, the denouement sense (the end of the process sense, and when the last trace of life are gone). Even if we opt for the denouement sense, death still affects us, to a lesser degree Luper admits, but we would still be affected by the loss of our vital capacities. Luper accepts that the Epicurean can simply grant that the dying process can only affect us as we die, not before, and certainly not after but doesn’t find this convincing however, claiming that we have met the very criteria Epicurus’ argument was meant to avoid: “We have a subject, harm and time: the subject of death is a live creature who endures its effects at the very time the creature dies.” (Luper, 2009)

Part two shall be offered up shortly.

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