Home > Philosophy > ‘Ancient Greek Ideas’ – Assignment Two: Epicurus & Lucretius. Pt. 2

‘Ancient Greek Ideas’ – Assignment Two: Epicurus & Lucretius. Pt. 2

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.’

Part one of this series can be seen here.

From here let us look at some criticisms of (2): Luper states there are two possible problems regarding the interpretation of Lucretius argument. Firstly whether his argument was meant “to address death understood as the ending of life or death understood as the state we are in after life is ended (or both).” (Luper, 2009) Addressing each in kind, Luper states that of the first interpretation the ending of our lives is not bad, since the only thing that follows it is our nonexistence, which is not bad because we do not find our nonexistence before birth disturbing. Luper finds this understanding to be weak however, stating that the point of our concern need not be so much that nonexistence is bad, but rather that the very fact that death ends life, which is in itself good, is the problem, as whatsoever ends good things is bad. Luper’s critique of the second interpretation of Lucretius goes as follows: perhaps Lucretius is simply arguing that the death state is not bad, being that it is simply nonexistence. Here we would turn back to our earlier reaction to pre-vital nonexistence, which does not concern us. Here Luper does concede, that upon this interpretation there is merit to Lucretius’ argument, however the reason our pre-vital nonexistence doesn’t bother us is because it is preceded by existence. Luper states we would not worry so much about post-vital nonexistence either if it were followed by existence. Using the example of a futuristic machine that could destroy and rebuild us after a period of nonexistence Luper argues that we would not see this as negative, perhaps even enjoying our hibernations, while the world changes, perhaps in vast and interesting ways (imagine being able to see the future). The crucial point for Luper is that undergoing temporary nonexistence is not on par with permanent nonexistence; it is the implications of the latter, the sense in which death, so understood in its fullest sense, is final that concerns us.

Now that we have looked at some criticisms of Epicurus’ and Lucretius’ arguments, let’s see if we can’t find some way to salvage them, starting with (1).  In looking to respond to Luper we might first like to see if his conception of ‘death’ really does match up with Epicurus’. Based on argument (1), it would seem that Epicurus is not talking about death in the process or denouement senses Luper uses, or rather, that these terms are irrelevant to Epicurus. To Epicurus, the reason death is nothing to us, in accordance with atomistic physics, is in the destruction of our soul, our sense-experience is removed, which constitutes as Bjarnasan states “the end of the knowing subject.” (Bjarnasan, 2003) For Epicurus all good and bad consist in sense-experience, with death being “the privation of sense-experience…” (Epicurus, letter to Men 15, I-4) It makes sense on the Epicurean view to say that such and such an activity is bad but there is no sense in saying death is bad, as this is not a part of our sense-experience, and thus beyond relevance. Death to Epicurus is any point at which sense-experience ceases, the process or denouement senses would be sufficient definitions, but don’t address the point of Epicurus’ argument. Further, Luper states that he has shown harm at a certain time, this again is not engaging with who argument (1) was aimed at. Even if there is harm created, at a certain time period, whether it’s when we experience dying, in the sense of physical or psychological pain or even when we fret during our lives about death at all, the Epicurean argument is meant to show that a fear of death is absurd, or as stated irrelevant. Epicurean hedonism states that those who live in ataraxia, that is, living “in the present moment and are capable of experiencing the highest pleasure, and a happiness that confers the completeness of life on man.” (Bjarnasan, 2003) will not fear the absence of life, the end of being, as there is nothing to fear in nothingness. Further in Epicurus’ second remedy of the tetrapharmakos, that is his four-part cure to living the happiest life possible, there contains spiritual exercises and meditations on death’s meaning to us, on how to put that meaning into the context of a good life. It is in practice states Bjarnasan as transformative activity that allows a disciple of Epicureanism to “bring about the desired conversion to philosophia and phronesis, and allow the Epicurean follower to live in utter peace without fear of death.” (Bjarnasan, 2003) Luper is focusing on death itself, instead of the removal of death as the object of fear, which is the intent of the Epicurean argument.

Very similar charges could be placed at Luper’s feet for his criticisms of argument (2), his disconnected analysis of Lucretius’ argument does not take into account the entire worldview, and works created to put his argument in context. Still, in addressing Luper’s criticisms directly we see that upon his first interpretation of Lucretius’ understanding of death, that whatsoever ends (death) a good (life) is bad, hence death is bad for us, contains errors. This criticism seems to miss the point, after all, when is death bad for us? After it has occurred? As we have seen this is not a problem for Lucretius as to him there is no knowing subject. How about before death, perhaps during life, or as Luper stated earlier at the point or process of death? Again, Epicurean hedonism provides the answer; Bjarnasan states that to an Epicurean “loss is nothing to us who live in the present moment and are capable of experiencing the highest pleasure, and happiness that confers the completeness of life on man.” (Bjarnasan, 2003)  Regarding Luper’s second point, Bjarnasan states that Lucretius’ argument is “based on the observation that our lives are a brief candles placed between two essentially identical, vast darknesses, neither of which is any more fearful than the other.” (Bjarnasan, 2003)  The reason Lucretius compares pre-vital nonexistence to post-vital nonexistence is that they are the same in the sense that the sense-experience of being dead post-vital is exactly the same as that of pre-vital, which he calls “Nature’s mirror”. Perhaps it is only a dialectical point, but to Lucretius it’s in the looking at this mirror, and seeing our pre-vital nonexistence, how utterly insignificant it is to us, we see what time will be like after our death, “there is nothing terrifying or depressing about soundest sleep” (Lucretius quoted in Bjarnasan, 2003)

In conclusion we have seen that Epicurus and Lucretius expounded atomistic philosophies about the soul, experience and the implications of such. Their arguments on death; (1) the no subject of harm argument, and (2) the symmetry argument were used to show that rationally one did not have to have any fear of death, that it was “nothing” to us because we would have no ability to perceive it. These arguments haven’t been without great discussion and disagreement, and we were able to see just a snippet of that great conversation here in Luper’s sharp criticisms of (1) and (2). Luper felt as long as a harm was shown by death, at some time, then there would be a subject of harm, hence (1) fails, but as we saw, removing total harm was not the point of Epicurus’ argument, rather it was to show that there is no subject by which harm could occur in death. Whatever harm one felt during life by the fear of death could be mitigated by other Epicurean philosophies of what composes the good life, which as we saw, Luper did not engage with. Luper focused on showing that pre-vital nonexistence was different than post-vital nonexistence for his critique of (2), and while that may be true in a sense; it is not relevant in the sense Lucretius meant. It is the sense-experience of post- and pre-vital nonexistence that are the same, not that they might be logically consistent that mattered to Lucretius. If we accept Epicurean argument and philosophies, how do they answer questions about our lives, and the fear we might have of death? It seems from our brief investigation here today, that both the rational argument and the moral framework they provide can help us to couch our fear of death in rationality, thereby reducing it’s effect on our day-to-day lives. We can also, using the Epicurean atomistic model of the universe, not fear an afterlife, as well as using their hedonistic principles to teach us how to live a peaceful and happy life.


Bjarnasan, P.E. (2003). Epicurus’ Second Remedy: “Death is nothing to us”. Akroterion. 48; 21-44. Retrieved http://akroterion.journals.ac.za/pub/article/view/97

Luper, S. (2009). “Death”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2009/entries/death /

O’Keefe, T. (2005). Epicurus (341—271 BCE). The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved http://www.iep.utm.edu/epicur/#SH5a

Smith, N. (2008). Ancient Philosophy. Malden MA. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Categories: Philosophy
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