Here’s the link to this article by Bart Ehrman.
April 27, 2023
“You need to realize that death is nothing to us. Everything that is good and bad in our lives comes from the experiences of our senses. But death brings an end to our senses/experiences. And so having the right understanding – that death is nothing to us – makes our mortality enjoyable, not because we will live forever but because we don’t pointlessly long to live forever. For there are no terrors in life for the one who fully understands that there are no terrors in not living.
It is absurd for people who fear death — not because it is afflicting them now but because they expect it will be horrible when it comes. For this allegedly most awful thing – death — is actually nothing to us: when we exist, we are not dead, but when we are dead, we no longer exist. And so death is completely irrelevant – both to those who are living and to those who are dead. Those who are living are not experiencing it and those who are dead no longer exist.”
These are not my words – just my idiomatic translation of the words of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, in his letter to an unknown person named Menoecus (taken from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers). Epicurus has had a millenia-long bad reputation as a complete “hedonist.” But almost all his bad reputation is ill-deserved. He was a great philosopher with a view of life and how to live it that has a LOT to commend it. In fact, it is a view that many of us have today, based on scientific views that are analogous to those most of us share (VERY different as well, since he was living, well, 2300 years ago!).
Short story: Epicurus believed that people’s false religious views cause completely unnecessary psychological trauma and pain, and that life could be very much enjoyed apart from superstition and fear of death.
Here I’ll give his views in a nutshell:
- The world was not created by divine beings but is made up of atoms that are tiny, indivisible particles that combine in various ways, and we are all – rocks, plants, animals, humans, gods – made up of them. The atoms come together for a time and will disperse and recombine again later in various ways.
- As indicated, the gods too made up of particles and are the height of perfection, completely undisturbed and at rest – and have Zero involvement with us. They are what they are, existing in perfection and peace. (Epicurus lived in a polytheistic world; almost no one was an “atheist” in our sense. So naturally he assumed there were gods. But he was accused of being an atheist because he maintained the gods had nothing to do with us and we have absolutely nothing to fear from the gods.)
- Life is a gift and life is short. It’s not a gift *from* someone/something. It’s just something we’re incredibly lucky to have. And we won’t have it for long. So we should enjoy it.
- The goal of life is therefore enjoyment, for as long as we can.
- That means we should strive for “pleasure.” This is especially where Epicurus got into hot water with other philosophers.
- The Greek word for pleasure is hēdon, from which we get our world “hedonism.” Our modern use of the term, though, conjures up the wrong idea, at least with respect to Epricurus. Our view of a “hedonist” is someone who strives for all the physical pleasure that can be found – drinking bouts, endless orgies, drugs, careless and carefree riotous living that is completely self-centered, uncaring, reckless, anti-social, and harmful to self and others.
- That’s the opposite of what Epicurus meant. He explicitly and vehemently argues *against* that kind of lifestyle — precisely because it is indeed harmful to self and others. How can a lifestyle that leads to serious additions, depression, and isolation be “good”? That kind of life strives to resist a meaningful existence. It is strictly to be avoided.
- What then is “pleasure”? For one thing, it is the fulfilling richness that can come from knowing what is good for you and meaningful. That involves simple pleasures of friends, interesting and meaningful discussions, reading, thinking, trying to understand the world and life and our place in it, enjoying meals together, and relishing the time we have for as long as we have it and realizing we won’t have it forever and don’t need to have it forever.
- Above all, a life of pleasure is a life without pain. We should take good care of ourselves, treat ourselves well, and not put ourselves in positions of threat and danger. We should do our best to avoid bodily pain. And – in Epicurus’s view – when we do experience pain we should realize that most pains are endurable and do not need to affect our mental states if we have the right attitudes toward them; moreover, pains that seem unendurable do not last long (again, that’s just his view).
- The same applies to mental anguish and pains, which are often worse than physical.
- Because we are made up of atoms that will return whence they came, there is no life after death. Our souls disperse with our bodies. It is absurd to feel anguish about death. It will come whatever our fears are, and when it comes, we will have no fear. We won’t suffer. We won’t regret dying, we won’t be upset, we won’t be terrified, we certainly won’t feel any pain. We won’t have any bodies. We won’t have any minds. Our atoms have dispersed. We won’t exist any more.
- So there is nothing to fear or even regrate. That’s how it should be. It’s how nature works. Fearing that it will happen makes no sense. We won’t mind when it does happen, so why should we mind before it does? There won’t be any pain or anguish then, so why should we feel pain and anguish about a future of no pain and anguish?
- Death is nothing to us.
So, those are the views of Epicurus in a nutshell. I’ve long been attracted to them. I’m interested in your thoughts. What do you think?