Philosophy of Death

by  Aamir Butt

philosophy of dearh

Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman philosopher and poet who most likely was born around 99 BC and died 55 BC. During this time he wrote an epic poem titled ‘On the Nature of Things’. The poem explains in detail about the nature of the world we live in from scientific and spiritual angles. Lucretius was a devout follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) and much of the ideas in this poem are those of his master which I am sure he has expanded and developed. I find it astonishing as to how much scientific information is contained in this document, of course it is not all accurate but a lot if it is or is quite close to the scientific facts as we know them. As not much of the original works of Epicurus have reached us this poem spread over six books with over 25,000 verses is the largest source of Epicurean thought and philosophy.
Although a work of scientific knowledge the poem has a higher purpose. And this is to remove the fear of death from those who read and understand it and allow them to lead a life on earth which is full of pleasure and free of unnecessary fears and desires.

Epicurus lived most of his life in Athens where he established his school of teaching in the garden of his house, and so the school was named The Garden. His philosophy is called Epicureanism and since it tends to give life a different angle from the prevalent Abrahamic  religions it has been suppressed and often misunderstood.

Epicurus believes that all humans have a right to live a happy life and happiness is gained through the achievement of moral self-sufficiency (autarkeia) and freedom from disturbance (ataraxia). The goal is to achieve a state of perfect happiness through tranquility of mind . He tells us that;  ‘The main obstacles to the goal of tranquility of mind are our unnecessary fears and desires, and the only way to eliminate these is to study natural science. The most serious disturbances of all are fear of death, including fear of punishment after death, and fear of the gods. Scientific inquiry removes fear of death by showing that the mind and spirit are material and mortal, so that they cannot live on after we die; Death…… is nothing to us for when we exist, death is not present; and when death is present, we do not exist. Consequently it does not concern either the living or the dead, since for the living it is non-existent and the dead no longer exist.’ As for fear of the gods, that disappears when scientific investigation proves that the world was formed by a fortuitous concourse of atoms, that the gods live outside the world and have no inclination or power to intervene in its affairs, and that irregular phenomena such as lightning, thunder, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes have natural causes and not manifestations of divine anger.

Epicurus was one of the first practitioner of theoretical physics and the first principle of Epicurean physics states: ‘Nothing can be created out of nothing, and nothing can be reduced to nothing’ . He developed the atomic theory by proposing that the universe consists of just two components: matter and void. Matter in turn regardless of the size, shape or form of the object consists of tiny constituent components with are invisible, indivisible and absolutely solid, called atoms. When matter is destroyed it breaks into these constituent atoms which are indestructible and can come together again to form matter which may be in a different form to what was destroyed and this cycle goes on and on. Epicurus has also described the motion of atoms and the fact that two objects of different weights fall at the same speed.

Now some of this may have been disproved by science with the aid of such inventions as electronic microscopes etc but to think like this 2400 years ago is pure genius.

Much of the wrath directed towards Epicureanism by the Church is due to its views on gods and morality. Epicurus is credited with the Epicurean riddle that states:

‘Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God.’

This is often a favorite of atheists and thus makes Epicurus an instant villain for the believers, however, first of all it is more of a paradox then a riddle and second, it is very likely that Epicurus may never have had anything to do with it. For unlike the hostility and mockery of God that seems to emit from the paradox Epicurus actually believed in gods and considered them to be very important for humans. According to him gods, are material beings, composed of exceedingly fine atoms, but unlike other compound bodies, they continually gain new atoms to replace those they lose, so that they enjoy immortality. They are perfectly self-sufficient, perfectly tranquil and perfectly happy. They have neither the power nor the inclination to interfere in the affairs of humans. ‘Since they have no interest in our affairs, can they be of any interest to us?’, he asks, and:  ‘Are they to be worshiped?’ The answer he gives is a bit of a surprise: ‘One might suppose that the answer to these questions is an emphatic no, but in fact it is an emphatic yes. The gods being perfect, do not need us, but, because they are perfect, we need them. Although they live in space, the images they, like all atomic compounds, discharge are able to penetrate our world. The images are so fine that they cannot be perceived by our senses, but only by our minds. Such visions are experienced by those whose minds are at peace and, although gods cannot be influenced by prayer or sacrifice, worship of them is beneficial to the worshiper provided the worshiper is free of popular misconceptions about them.

Morality is dealt by the ethical theory. The basis of being happy is to enjoy pleasure and to avoid pain. Here critics of Epicureanism attack it by equating this to instant gratification and sensuality, this is far from truth. Epicurus believes that while we should aim to experience as much pleasure and as little pain as possible but by no means every pleasure is to be taken and every pain is to be avoided, because pleasure sometimes leads to pain and pain sometimes leads to pleasure. It is important to remember that pleasure is limited and the limit of bodily pleasure is reached as soon as desire is satisfied and the pain of want is removed. Pleasure can only be varied, not increased. Important too is the distinction made between kinetic pleasure, derived from the process of satisfying desire (for example, eating to satisfy hunger), and katastematic or static pleasure (the pleasure of equilibrium), which comes when desire is satisfied and the pain of want has been removed. Epicurus, though he did not ignore kinetic pleasure, considered static pleasure to be much more desirable, partly because it is more long lasting and partly because it is pain-free, for kinetic pleasure derived from the process of satisfying desire, is necessarily preceded by pain—the pain of unsatisfied desire.

In Epicurean scheme of things desires are divided into three types: 1. Natural and necessary, like the desire for essential food, drink, clothing, shelter etc. these need to be satisfied to achieve happiness.  2. Natural but unnecessary, this includes sexual desire, which are to be satisfied, if they cannot be suppressed, in strict moderation and in the least disturbing way possible and 3. Neither natural nor necessary, these include the desire for wealth and status, these must be eliminated because they can never be satisfied: they have no limits, so that one will always suffer the pain of want as well as anxiety that one will lose what one has acquired.  Epicurus preached that while the desires of the body, and therefore kinetic pleasure, cannot be disregarded, most body pleasure is achieved not by leading a life of sensual indulgence, but by strictly limiting one’s desires and eliminating all those that are incapable of satisfaction and therefore bound to cause pain. And much more important than bodily pleasure is the mental pleasure.  As we can see that while Epicureanism has often been criticize for being hedonistic and egoist in actual fact its doctrine of pleasure turns out to be something close to ascetism than to self-indulgence.  In a letter to friend concerning a young disciple Epicurus advises: ‘If you wish to make Pythocles rich, do not increase his means, but diminish his desires’  Epicurus believed that true pleasure is impossible without virtue and is inseparable from friendship.

Epicureanism does not offer its followers a life after death, however it does offer them a heaven on earth. In another letter to a friend Epicurus writes ‘You will live like a god among men’. He tells is that it is possible to obtain on earth the perfect tranquility of mind and happiness enjoyed by gods in space and while it is true that gods are immortal while humans are mortal, yet perfect pleasure can be achieved in a limited time, and extension of time, even to infinity, would not produce any greater pleasure and what Lucretius strikingly calls ‘deathless death’ is nothing to us—of no more concern to us than the eternity of past time is to us before we were born.

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(1) Reader Comment

  1. Well written and a balanced review.