Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Fourteen: Death is Nothing to Us

Previous: Letter Thirteen: The Natural Goal of Life

Hey Schuyler,

Thanks for keeping us on track. Yes, let's pursue his medical analogy and see where it leads.

I agree with you about the fundamental Epicurean prescription: align your life with what is natural and necessary. Presumably, we can discover a more specific remedy for each disease of the soul that Epicurus identifies. As one big example, he spends a lot of time talking about overcoming the fear of death:

Death is nothing to us; for what has disintegrated lacks awareness, and what lacks awareness is nothing to us. (Principal Doctrine 2)

Train yourself to hold that death is nothing to us, because good and evil consist in sensation, and death is the removal of sensation. A correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable — not because it gives one an unbounded span of time, but because it removes the desire for immortality. There is nothing terrifying in life to one who truly understands that there is nothing terrifying in the absence of life. (Letter to Menoikos, Section 124)

Only a fool says that he fears death because it causes pain ahead of time, not because it will cause pain when it comes. For something that causes no trouble when present causes only a groundless pain when merely expected. So death, the most terrifying of evils, is nothing to us, because as long as we exist death is not present, whereas when death is present we do not exist. It is nothing to those who live (since to them it does not exist) and it is nothing to those who have died (since they no longer exist). (Letter to Menoikos, Section 125)

Most people shrink from death as the greatest of evils, or else extol it as a release from the evils of life. Yet the wise man does not dishonor life (since he is not set against it) and he is not afraid to stop living (since he does not consider that to be a bad thing). Just as he does not choose the greatest amount of food but the most pleasing food, so he savors not the longest time but the span of time that brings the greatest joy. It is simpleminded to advise a young person to live well and an old person to die well, not only because life is so welcome but also because it is through the very same practices that one both lives well and dies well. (Letter to Menoikos, Section 126)

So his argument — his remedy — seems to be that if you train yourself to believe that "death is nothing to us" then you won't fear death, you won't be continually troubled by your own mortality, you won't dishonor your life, you won't have a groundless desire to live forever, and you won't believe things and do things that are driven by such a groundless desire; instead, you will face the prospect of your own extinction without fear, you will be untroubled about death in your day-to-day existence, you will honor your life, and you will enjoy the span of days that is given to you.

Notice how Epicurus says "train yourself that death is nothing to us" and how he focuses on the practices that enable you to live well and die well. Apparently he thought of philosophy as a kind of mental training, and perhaps he counselled his followers to repeat certain phrases to themselves each day or when they were feeling troubled or when they were about to make a decision. That might account for the brief and often memorable aphorisms we find in the Principal Doctrines and Vatican Sayings.


Next: Letter Fifteen: The Infinite Unknown

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus