The Writings of Epicurus
“Death is nothing to us”: Epicurus’ Blunder
In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus outlines his philosophy of attaining happiness and details the proper attitude that Epicureans should have toward the gods and toward death. In reference to the latter, following his Sense-Experience Argument and Unnecessary Pain Argument, Epicurus famously states that, “…death is nothing to us” (125). Epicurus’ arguments regarding death are formulated on the principle that death is “…the absence of life” (125), as in a permanent state of death, rather than a momentary act of dying. However, it is impossible to attain the permanent state of death without experiencing a dying moment and Epicurus seems to overlook this inextricable link between state (permanent death) and cause for state (momentary act of dying). Thus, it is necessary to evaluate Epicurus’ arguments based on a complete definition of ‘death,’ which is comprised of both a momentary act of dying and a subsequent, permanent state of death. Both arguments are deductively valid, but will be proven unsound. Note that Epicurus’ hedonist value system will be accepted for the purposes of this paper; pain will be considered bad and pleasure, defined as the absence of pain, will be considered good.
Epicurus’ hedonist value system is derived from his teleological views of the gods, of which a thorough evaluation would exceed the scope of this paper. Through the evaluation of Epicurus’ Sense-Experience Argument and Unnecessary Pain Argument, it will be concluded that death cannot be ‘nothing’ and that death should be feared in particular instances. Death is bad only if the momentary act of dying is painful and should be feared only if this pain is greater than the mental pain associated with anticipating and fearing death. On the other hand, death is good and should not be feared only if the momentary act of dying is pleasurable due to a net decrease in pain, as this is made possible through the absence of previously existing pain. First, Epicurus’ Sense-Experience Argument and Unnecessary Pain Argument will be reconstructed, clarified with additional textual references, and briefly evaluated in overview. A thorough evaluation will follow and the conclusion of the previous paragraph will be demonstrated.
Sense-Experience Argument 1) All “…good and bad consists in sense-experience” (124). 2) “Death is the privation of sense-experience” (124). 3) Death is neither good nor bad This Sense-Experience Argument is deductively valid. Premise 1 can be further clarified with reference to his later comments on pleasure and pain. Pain is bad and pleasure – which Epicurus defines as the absence of pain – is good (128). Because it is through sense-experience that we perceive pleasure and pain, which are good and bad, respectively, the good and bad consist in sense-experience. Epicurus then also clarifies that pain refers to “…pain in the body or disturbance in the soul” (131). All people strive for pleasure as the chief good, as Epicurus defines pleasure as the “…first innate good” (129). Premise 2 may also be clarified by noting Epicurus’ definition of death: “…absence of life” (125). Absence of life represents a permanent state of death, rather than a momentary act of dying. While Premise 1 will be proven true, Premise 2 will be proven untrue and, thus, the Sense-Experience Argument will be determined unsound. Premise 2 can only be true if the permanent state of death is completely separated from the momentary act of dying, which Epicurus seems to suggest is the case, but this is impossible. Because these are inextricably linked, and it is impossible to attain the permanent state of death without experiencing either pleasure or pain at the moment of dying, death necessitates either a pleasurable sensory experience or a painful sensory experience. Thus, Premise 2 is untrue and the Sense-Experience Argument is unsound.
Epicurus extends his Sense-Experience Argument to his Unnecessary Pain Argument in order to persuade fellow Epicureans not to fear death, based on the notion that death is void of pain: Unnecessary Pain Argument A) While present, death is painless and causes no distress (125). B) That which while present causes no distress causes unnecessary pain when anticipated (125). C) Death creates unnecessary pain when anticipated (125). The Unnecessary Pain Argument is also deductively valid but unsound. Because Premise A is dependent on Premise 2 from Epicurus’ Sense-Experience Argument, which was already labeled untrue, Premise A is also erroneous. Because it is not always true that death is the privation of sense-experience (Premise 2) due to the necessity of a momentary act of dying in which sense-experience is present, it is also untrue that death is always painless and causes no distress (Premise A). Premise B will be refuted for the same reason: because the anticipation of death could lead an individual to avoid death and, thus, to avoid a painful act of dying, it could actually prevent unnecessary pain. Therefore, Premise 2 of the Sense-Experience Argument and Premise A and Premise B of the Unnecessary Pain Argument will be refuted and both arguments will be proven unsound, leading to the conclusion that death may be either good or bad depending on an individual’s situation (refuting Conclusion 3), and that it may be advantageous for an individual to anticipate death (refuting Conclusion C). First, it can be demonstrated that Premise 1 of the Sense-Experience Argument is true by considering it in light of its strongest counterarguments, leading to the conclusion that the good and the bad do consist in sense experience. It is arguable that the removal of pain through death is good and the removal of pleasure through death is bad. If an individual suffered a life of constant pain, perhaps due to the mental and emotional pain of a life sentence of solitary confinement or the physical pain of excruciating chronic health issues, the removal of their life’s pain may be considered good. Because it is bad to be in pain, remaining alive could also be bad because it allows the pain to continue. Therefore, remaining alive in this scenario is bad due to the presence of pain.
\Epicurus also writes that the wise man “…savours not the longest time [of life] but the most pleasant” (126). If a life were destined to be absolutely painful and devoid of pleasure, the most pleasant (least painful) option would seemingly be death, assuming the momentary act of dying was not exceedingly painful. This counterargument is unsound. Because the permanent state of death prohibits an individual from perceiving the absence of pain (pleasure), death is worse than even the most painful life, which would certainly have a finite number of pleasurable moments to supplement the pain. Therefore, the good would exist only in life, where sense experience is possible and at least some amount of pleasure can be experienced. Although, the opposite is true, as well: because the permanent state of death prohibits an individual from perceiving pain, death is better than even the most pleasurable life, which would certainly have a finite number of painful moments alongside the abundant pleasurable moments. In this scenario, the bad would exist only through the sensory experience of life, where the sensation of pain will be felt. Therefore, Premise 1 is demonstrated to be true. Premise 2 of the Sense-Experience Argument, on the other hand, is untrue because one cannot enter the permanent state of death without experiencing the momentary act of dying, which is necessarily either painful or pleasurable. Given that the momentary act of dying is necessarily painful or pleasurable, which is possible only through sense-experience, death (the moment of dying plus the permanent state of death) is not the privation of sense experience. Some individuals’ moments of death would be expected to be painful in some regard. If this moment was painful, the act of dying would be bad, by Epicurus’ definition of bad, and so it should be feared. On the contrary, an individual’s dying moment could instead be pleasurable. If an individual suffered through an excruciating “…pain in the body [or] disturbance in the soul” (131), the lesser pain of the dying moment could distract from the other greater physical pain or greater pain of the soul.
Given that Epicurus considers absence of pain pleasure, the absence of a certain portion of net pain in the body or soul, due to the distraction of lesser pain, could be pleasurable. Therefore, the dying moment of an individual could be either pleasurable or painful. Once this dying moment has continued to completion, though, and the permanent state of death has begun, sense-experience would cease. The permanent state of death is the privation of sense-experience, but its obligatory companion, the momentary act of dying, is not the privation of sense-experience, and so Premise 2 is untrue. Because Premise A of the Unnecessary Pain Argument is derived from Premise 2 of the Sense-Experience Argument, Premise A is also untrue. Thus far, it appears that death is bad and should be feared only if the momentary act of dying is painful and that death is good and should not be feared only if the momentary act of dying is pleasurable due to a net decrease in pain. Premise B of the Unnecessary Pain Argument is untrue, as well, because in fearing the permanent state of death (which causes no distress when present) an individual may be prompted to avoid a painful act of dying. Epicurus seems to concede that it may be appropriate to fear the momentary act of dying, but not the permanent state of death, when he writes, “…he is a fool who says that he fears death not because it will be painful when present but because it is painful when it is still to come” (125). Although, if the anticipation and fear of the permanent state of death – which Epicurus considers foolish – leads an individual to act in such a way that they avoid a momentarily painful act of dying, the individual would avoid physical pain through their anticipation. Given that there will never be pain in the permanent state of death, the only pain that this individual avoids is precisely this cursory pain of dying. It cannot be refuted that this anticipation will create some form of mental pain or a “…disturbance in the soul” (131), and so the pain created through the anticipation of death is only unnecessary and damaging if it is greater than the physical pain of the momentary act of dying that the anticipation allows the individual to avoid.
While the anticipation of death does not guarantee an individual to avoid a painful act of dying, the mere possibility that it could allow for this is sufficient reasoning to refute the accuracy of Premise B. Therefore, it may be concluded that death is bad and should be feared only if the momentary act of dying is painful and only if this pain is greater than the mental pain associated with anticipating and fearing death. On the other hand, death is good and should not be feared only if the momentary act of dying is pleasurable due to a net decrease in pain, as this is made possible through the absence of previously existing pain. Epicurus wishes to define death as “…the absence of life” (125), as he specifies immediately after his Sense-Experience Argument, but this ignores the inextricable link between the absence of life (a permanent state of death) and the specific moment in which death occurs (momentary act of dying). If this definition is accepted, both Epicurus’ Sense-Experience Argument and Unnecessary Pain Argument are deductively valid and sound.
Because it is impossible to attain the permanent state of death without experiencing a dying moment, however, both arguments are unsound. As the dying moment immediately precedes death while an individual is still alive and sentient, it is perceived through sense-experience as either pleasure or pain. This pleasurable or painful dying experience is why it is impossible that “…death is nothing to us” (124). Once the permanent state of death is achieved, and after either pleasure or pain is endured in the dying moment, Epicurus is certainly justified in claiming that death is nothing to us.
What Type of Lifestyle would an Epicurean Truly Lead?
In his Letter to Menoeceus and the Leading Doctrines, Epicurus claims that happiness is derived from the fulfillment of pleasure as well as the absence of pain. Most people today would probably agree with Epicurus on that point, and seemingly in other points of his work, such as his argument that happiness is episodic and that people searching for happiness are always actively avoiding pain. Given the emphasis in American culture on pleasure, one might think Epicurus is the philosopher who captures what happiness is because his argument states happiness is derived from the fulfillment of pleasures and the absence of pain. However, examining the text more thoroughly reveals that Epicurus argues that a happy person is going to be one who has simplistic desires because a happy life relies on the absence of pain. Therefore, I argue that Epicurus’ definition of happiness contradicts itself by saying the happy life is a neutral state but on the other hand, the way he works through his argument often advocates for experiencing intense pleasure.
Epicurus defines happiness as the fulfillment of pleasure and the absence of pain. He addresses what pleasure and pain are in his Letter to Menoeceus and his Leading Doctrines. In point III of his Leading Doctrines, he states, “The limit of quantity in pleasures is the removal of all that is painful. Wherever pleasure is present, as long as it is there, there is neither pain of body nor of mind, nor of both at once.” (37) Here, Epicurus justifies my argument that his definition of happiness relies more on the absence of pain than on the presence of pleasure. Later in point VIII of the Leading Doctrines, he states that “No pleasure is a bad thing in itself: but the means which produce some pleasures bring with them disturbances many times greater than the pleasures.” (38) But he states later that it is acceptable to endure the pain of something if in the end it brings pleasure. (36) He also says that pleasures are different depending on their sources. There is the pleasure that is short term but is very intense, and the opposite, a pleasure that is long term and low intensity. Also, there is the absence of pain, which should in itself bring pleasure. These pleasures are brought on from different sources. This proves that Epicurus believes that happiness is episodic and is dependent on the state of sensation a person is experiencing.
Following that point, Epicurus argues that knowledge is important because it allows a person to know what brings them pleasure, what the consequences of some pleasures are, and what brings pain. Knowledge allows for someone to differentiate the types of pleasures that come from different sources. Epicurus states that this knowledge stems from reason. This rationality is needed to figure out which pleasures a person should pursue and the knowledge is derived from experiences. This is justified in point XXIII and XXIV when Epicurus states “If you fight against all sensations, you will have no standard by which to judge even those of them which you say are false,” therefore resulting with “you will confound all other sensations as well as the same groundless opinion.” (39) When using reason in regard to pleasures, Epicurus states two rules. The first is to work to avoid pain. The second is to ask if the absence of a certain pleasure will cause pain. This again shows that the absence of pain is more important in Epicurus’s definition of happiness than the presence of pleasure is.
Because Epicurus’s argument relies on pleasure and sensation, the topic of death is prominent in his argument. He argues that one should not fear death because “death is deprivation of sensation” and therefore that person is not feeling pain. (35) Death does not affect a person when they are alive if they can comprehend that there is no pain in not living. In point II of the Leading Doctrines Epicurus states “Death is nothing to us: for that which is dissolved is without sensation; and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.” (37) An Epicurean would have to fully comprehend that death is not something to fear because it can bring no pain. This shows that an Epicurean would have to avoid thinking about death as a negative experience because they will not be experiencing any type of sensation, and therefore could not feel pain. However, this may be difficult to do because the thought of death often causes anxiety and is painful in anticipation.(35) Epicurus states that a life’s not meant to be longer than it is pleasant: “And just as with food he does not seek simply the larger share and nothing else, but rather the most pleasant, so he seeks to enjoy not the longest period of time, but the most pleasant.”(35) Because of this, an Epicurus would need to aim for the least painful life, not the longest life. Does this argument therefore, suggest that Epicurus would advocate for a person to engage in a very pleasurable experience that could potentially kill them? In this situation, an Epicurean would not be afraid of death, would be experiencing a level of pleasure, and would be living by the idea that it is better to live for more pleasure than to have the longest life. On one hand, this shows that a person should live avoiding painful experiences which could often lead to death or cause death themselves, but on the other suggest that dying in a state of extreme pleasure would satisfy Epicurus’s argument.
As previously stated, Epicurus suggests that a person ask themselves if the absence of a certain pleasure will result in pain. If it does, he argues that they should avoid it, because happiness is derived from the absence of pain. This therefore means an Epicurean can not have close relationships with people. If pleasure is derived from the company of someone else and through the relationship had with them, there will be pain when they are gone. Humans find pleasure in many different types of relationships whether they are close or distant.
First, there are familial relationships. If we find pleasure in our family, but they could be gone at any time resulting in pain, are humans not supposed to have relationships with family members? Should we not rely on our parents, grandparents, siblings, or guardians even when we are merely infants? As a child, one must rely on these people, because a child does not have the capacity to care for itself yet. But does this mean that if the child meant to live an Epicurean lifestyle cannot be happy because they are deriving their pleasure from the guidance, care, and love that they are receiving from their family?
Next, consider intimate, loving relationships. This is often where the most intense relationships are found, and the loss of this type of relationship brings extreme pain. As I stated before, Epicurus argues that the absence of pain is happiness. Does this mean that Epicurus would advocate for not falling in love with someone? This could be problematic for multiple reasons. First, we derive pleasure from love and an intimate relationship with someone. Secondly, this could be problematic for the human race as a whole. Human reproduction is largely based on the loving connection two people have with one another. If people were to live an Epicurean lifestyle, and no one was to have loving relationships, the population would decrease immensely.
Lastly, considering friendships, it is the same situation. The pleasure of a friend’s presence can be absent at any moment. Even if a person is not dead, but they are not present, and their absence causes pain, an Epicurean would have to question whether it is worth having a relationship with them. Because the absence of this friend causes pain, an Epicurean should not engage in this relationship if he or she desires to be happy. Epicurus may contradict himself here because this is what his argument leads to, however in his Letter to Menoeceus he states “Meditate therefore on these things and things akin to them night and day by yourself, and with a companion like to yourself…” (37) This is where Epicurus contradicts himself, and it can be applied to all three types of relationships. He advocates for finding someone with similar interests to reason with, but what will happen when they are gone?
On top of living without relationships, Epicurus’s argument and definition of happiness lead to the conclusion that the correct way to live is without materialistic ambition or the desire to move up in social standing. What would this mean for someone who desires to follow the American Dream? This person desires to be financially successful and can afford luxuries that will bring them pleasure. However, Epicurus states that “For it is not continuous drinkings and revellings, nor the satisfaction of lusts, nor the enjoyment of fish and other luxuries of the wealthy table, which produce a pleasant life.” (36) For a person that does not start life with these luxuries and does not see them as the norm, the absence of these luxuries does not bring pain, and therefore they are not needed for a happy life.
Adding to this idea, Epicurus states that “pleasure is the first good and natural to us.” (36) And since pleasure is natural to us, it is the necessities and basic goods that bring us pleasure. In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus also argues that “That all that is natural is easy to be obtained, but that which is superfluous is hard. And so plain savours bring us a pleasure equal to a luxurious diet, when all the pain due to want is removed; and bread and water produce the highest pleasure, when one who needs them puts them to his lips.” (36) This connects back to Epicurus’s point VIII in the Leading Doctrines. These two points together state that if something is hard to achieve or it causes pain, it is better to not take the route of pain but take the easier path and only end up with pleasure. When this is done, the simplest things, like bread and water, will bring the most pleasures. Therefore, an Epicurean would need to live a bland lifestyle and at the same time not yearn for the luxuries that they could have if they endured pain in order to acquire them. Epicurus argues that absence of all of these luxuries would not bother an Epicurean and would not bring them pain.
This presents two contradictions in Epicurus’s argument. First, by looking back on the example of the person growing up without luxuries and therefore not feeling pain without them, it is necessary to look at the opposite. What about a person who is born wealthy and experiences these luxuries daily and sees them as normal and plain? If the absence of these luxuries causes pain, wouldn’t these luxuries be necessary for this wealthy person to be happy under the definition of Epicurus–living without pain? Secondly, Epicurus states that if something is hard to obtain, it is better to take the easy route and experience the pleasures brought on by that. However, if a person is very wealthy and can therefore easily buy luxuries, they are abiding by what Epicurus says, but they are not enjoying the plain savors that he talks about. In this paper, I argued that an Epicurean lifestyle is not what one would perceive upon a first reading of his Letter to Menoeceus or his Leading Doctrines because deeper inspection shows contradictions in Epicurus’s arguments. He advocates for living without a fear of death, living without close relationships with people, and taking the most pleasure out of simplicities. However, working through Epicurus’s argument shows that he contradicts himself, and although his argument advocates for a bland lifestyle, it can also be interpreted that the experiencing of very intense pleasure is allowed and fits within his definition.