Death is feared by most mere mortals. Having said that, the way people drive in North Africa is such a case of vehicle leap-frog that it’s almost like a test of their faith in God: “Insh’Allah!” the Egyptians exclaim as they challenge an oncoming Goliath lorry with their twenty year-old David of a sedan.
To have such faith in God is admirable. The cynic in me nags, however: “what if God thinks it’s your time to be crushed by Goliath? What then?” It’s this sort of fear that Epicurus is talking about; fear which is, to me at least, quite rational, as we consider the distress our demise will cause loved ones, count how many bills there are still to pay, regret all the things we have left undone or unsaid, and wonder, “will it hurt?”.
That’s just when we think about our own death. What about the deaths of others? That can often be worse. Any parent who has lost their offspring will readily state: “it’s not meant to be this way; children are supposed to outlive their parents.”, and most would have happily given their own lives to let their child live.
As a true cynic once said: “there are three things you can be sure about in life – birth, death and taxes.” Birth is the easy part. We don’t have much say in how we come into the world. The decision has not been ours. Then there are the omnipresent taxes. You pay them (or not, in some cases), or save up for a multi-million pound studio in a tax-haven like Monaco, but the tax-man is always there, ready to take your money and promptly forgetting to invest it in basic civic needs like road repairs, choosing instead to use it to fuel a war or rescue a building society with whom you’ve never held an account. It’s out of our hands. Unless, of course, we are a government minister.
So that leaves us with the third assured aspect of life: death. From the moment we’re born, we know we must die one day. Most hope it will be a long time in the future. With death, however, there are so many different ways of dying that surely that is where a lot of the anxiety develops. Will we be squished by a 137 bus as we cross King’s Road? Is that headache the onset of a deadly tumour? Will a routine operation expose us to that deadly flesh-eater, MRSA? How old will we be when we die? Will we go in a flash or have a long and painful demise? Will I resolve that rift with Auntie So-and-So beforehand? It’s that unknown quantity of not knowing when and how that feeds the fear.
Epicurus lived in a world where the Afterlife was firmly established in the local belief system. People were buried with items to help them in the world hereafter – vases of oil, tools, accessories, food. If an Ancient Greek didn’t behave well in this life, he might end up in the dark hole of Hades (hell) instead of roaming through the Elysian Fields (heaven). What if his family forgot to pack something vital in the tomb? Would he be able to buy another in the Afterlife?
Epicurus was an atomist. That is, he was one of the first to believe that we are all made of invisible moving particles. What does this have to do with death? Well, if the mind is central to who we are, and the mind is made of these tiny particles, then on death these particles must dissolve into the nothingness from whence we came. Therefore, following death, we are no more. He calls this “total annihilation”. What a comforting thought.
The Epicurean argument following this total annihilation is that if we dissolve completely on death, then there is nothing to fear from the Afterlife because, obviously, there isn’t one. His definition of the living is that they have not yet been “annihilated” and, as they are still alive, death cannot possible affect them and is therefore not a bad thing.
The next part involves the dead. For something to affect a person, that person must be alive because if they are dead, they cannot be affected by anything because they are no more. Therefore, death cannot be a bad thing for the dead because the dead do not exist. Got it?
On the subject of pain, if you are dead, pain cannot reach you because you don’t exist. Therefore, fear of pain on death should not be a consideration. Well, I’m glad we got that clear!
Given all the different beliefs we have in the modern world, this all seems very simplistic. The easiest part to understand is that we don’t know what comes after life. We don’t know if there is an Afterlife. We don’t know if we disappear into a great void of nothing. We don’t know if we will be recycled into a new human or a bee or an elephant or a tree. We simply don’t know. So while we are alive, perhaps we should just enjoy each day as it comes and follow the old adage: Carpe diem! Seize the day.