Many people fear death and it has been argued that one major appeal of religion is that it enables people to think that they are immortal, that even if they physically die they will still live on in some spirit form.
Sam Dresser discusses how taking the approach of the Epicurean school of philosophers can reduce the fear of death without invoking an afterlife.
There is always more life to be lived, and it is painful to have that taken away. The best way to get at this fear, perhaps, is to contemplate the almost unbearable thought of your future absence: one day, at family dinners, a place will no longer be set for you. The day after you die, the newspaper will still be published just as it was the day before. And the morning after your funeral, friends will make their morning coffee. You will be gone for good, though, and that certainly is a terrifying impediment.
So how can the fear of death be overcome? One popular strategy is to plan for a sequel to life, which, it’s usually expected, will take place in another, happier realm. Resurrection, whether as a human or otherwise, has won a great many adherents. And there have been several religions, as well as philosophers, that have promulgated a view of time as cyclical: we’ve done this before, and we’ll do this again. Death as a mere interlude.
According to [the Epicurean] tradition, the first thing to do to overcome the fear of death is to try to articulate to yourself what it would be like to be dead. Imagine yourself, but rather than alive – dead. (Remember, we’ve cast aside the afterlife.) As you’ll swiftly appreciate, there is an intractable contradiction right at the centre of this first actionable item. You cannot imagine what it would be like to be dead, because death is an absence of existence. There is, literally, nothing to imagine – because nothingness itself cannot be imagined. There is no perspective, no view from nothingness, nothing to which it can be approximated. So that is the first recommendation: realise that being dead isn’t an experience. Death itself isn’t really a thing at all. In Epicurus’ words: ‘Death is nothing to us.’
To drive the point home, let’s turn to the Roman poet Lucretius. He was a saltier and more ironic Epicurean of a later generation, the 1st century BCE, whose unexampled poem On the Nature of Things fell afoul of early Christians because of its crypto-atheism. In the poem, Lucretius proposes an idea, later termed the ‘Symmetry Argument’, that hints at the second thing you should do to overcome the fear of death: try to recall what it was like before you were born. Not how the world was, which is the task of historical imagination, but what it was like to be you – before you were created. You’ll discover that prenatal existence isn’t something that can be thought about, much less experienced. The symmetrical part of the argument, of course, is that you have the very same difficulty in imagining what it is like to be dead. Indeed, according to Lucretius, you-pre-existence is the same thing as death or post-existence: both involve the absence of you. No doubt you don’t fear your prenatal existence and logically speaking, given their equivalence, it follows that you should fear death the exact same amount, as in not at all. (As the novelist Vladimir Nabokov put it in his memoirs: ‘common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.’)
This brings us to the third thing to do to calm your existential angst: examine how much ‘nothing’ – nonexistence – can reasonably be feared. That is, are there any good reasons for your pending death to trigger the emotion of fear? It is reasonable to be fearful of things to the extent that those things can cause you harm.
But death itself – not the process of dying, which is something different – doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing that one can reasonably be fearful of because it isn’t anything. It’s not uncomfortable or hurtful to be dead. It’s not as if you’re being deprived of life or of more contented years because, again, you simply aren’t there to be deprived in the first place. For you, there is nowhere to locate the harm of being dead since being dead isn’t a state of being. It’s not something that strictly speaking happens to you and so it can’t be harmful.
His argument by itself isn’t strong enough to completely release us from the dread of a terminal existence. I doubt that anything is – or rather, I wouldn’t trust anything that, truly and fully, did free one from fear of death (there are certain brands of fanaticism, for instance, that appear to do just this, with obviously horrific results). But as the contemporary philosopher James Warren emphasises, Epicurus’ argument should be borne in mind as part of a ‘cognitive therapy’ for dealing with one’s own life. It can have its fruits. It can lighten a little the fear of death, which in turn can subtly augment your enjoyment of life – and that is, on the whole, one of the great purposes of being here in the first place.
These ideas have been around in various forms and I am pretty sure that readers of this blog will find them familiar but I thought the essay was well written and worth passing along.
Marcus Ranum says
As we age, more of our friends die unless we’re the one that dies. So I’ve had cause to have that conversation with a few people with terminal cancer. I’m a staunch epicurean, for what that’s worth, and I don’t favor bullshitting the dying. So, I’ve usually explained things in terms of “FOMO” (“fear of missing out”) -- yes, you’d be agonized if you were sitting at the table and there was wine and pizza but none for you, except you won’t be and you won’t know and besides, our generation has fucked the planet over so badly that soon they won’t be missing us, they’ll be cursing us, and who wants that? OK, that last bit, maybe I leave that out.
I would say, death is hard, not on the dying but on those left behind.
It is not death I fear, nor the state of being dead. It is the lead-up to death. Chronic illness, loss of one’s faculties and so forth.
Rob Grigjanis says
The Sumerians had a weird notion of afterlife. It was certainly nothing to look forward to.
Time-travelling missionaries would have a field day.
I know that I’ve said this to you before, Mano, but I have to disagree with Dresser here. We have no problem imagining what it would be like to be dead because we enter precisely that experience when we sleep.
Sure, we lie to ourselves that we know we’re going to wake up and we occasionally dream, but people die in their sleep all the time and we can’t rationally be certain that each time we fall asleep that we will wake up.
Cheers for sharing your thoughts during the presentation Sunday night. I really enjoyed the talk.
@1 Marcus Ranum
Singer-songwriter Warren Zevon’s advice on life when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer was “enjoy every sandwich”. This subsequently became the title of the posthumous tribute album (featuring Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen among others).
The Epicurean view makes sense to me. I didn’t exist before I was born so why should I be troubled about not existing after I die?
I imagine an ancient tyrant being told “your majesty, the people are rising up in revolt against you”
“Tell them they will be killed”
“Your majesty, they say they do not fear death”
“Tell them they will be punished after they die”
“They’ll never fall for that your majesty”
“Just try it, favoured minion, just try it”.
Sleep is a sneak preview of death.
Marcus Ranum says
Sounds like the Sumerians believed in “uploading”…
“he almost unbearable thought of your future absence”
Huh? I’ve been absent and many places my entire life -- I’m not capable of bilocation. The thought was almost always easy to bear.
If this is Epicurean I’ll stick to Mark Twain -- I’ve been absent for millions of years and never suffered a bit.
Also already as a kid I realized what @2 Anat wrote. Perhaps that’s why I was lost for religion the moment I started to think about it (I was 12 or 13).
Rob Grigjanis says
I wouldn’t argue the point, but I have a hard time believing people who say they have no fear of death, atheists or theists. Seems like whistling past the graveyard. If someone put a gun to your head, you wouldn’t shake with fear, shit your pants, and beg for your life? I don’t know that I would, and I hope I could be stoic about it, but I wouldn’t want to put it to the test.
The closest I’ve come to existential dread (if that’s the right term) in the last 10 years was when they found out the mass of the Higgs boson. It implied that our universe might be metastable; bubbles of stable vacuum could form and expand at or near the speed of light. It wasn’t so much the dying that bothered me, but the complete eradication of everything about us. To which the response might be “you’ll be dead anyway so it doesn’t matter”. Right. That’s the logical answer. Actually the better answer might be “we’re far more likely to get hit by a killer asteroid”. Phew! Okay then.
The Epicurean view is expressed at the end of The Life of Brian with the song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
Life’s a piece of shit
When you look at it
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true
You’ll see it’s all a show
Keep ’em laughin’ as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you
Always look on the bright side of life
I mean, what have you got to lose?
You know, you come from nothing
You’re going back to nothing
What have you lost? Nothing
Sleep is nothing like death, for it is a very active process (even death is quite active, biologically speaking, but I think everyone recognizes the difference in activities).
While not everyone feels that they experience it, your unconscious body does -- and the conscious you is a subset of that.
Mano, you’ll get this. I’m still an active professor, and I take summers off — no teaching.
At the start of every summer, I make a list of all the wonderful projects I want to work on over the next three months. Fantastic stuff. Life-changing, maybe even world-changing. Things I want to write, design, make.
And as May chugs into June chugs into July chugs into August, of course I accomplish a handful of things on my list, but I also see more and more items slide over into the “maybe next year” column. This is the week I stare wistfully at my summer-beginning list and wonder if I’ll ever get a chance to tackle some fairly important stuff.
That’s what I fear most about the last few decades of my life, post-retirement. Watching things slide off of my “to-do” list onto my “it’ll never happen” list. *shudder*
Or as Keats said so much better:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
Mano Singham says
I understand completely. In fact, I had been thinking of writing my latest book for some time but it kept getting put off the way you describe. That is one main reason I decided to retire when I did, to write the book, because I felt that it would keep getting postponed and I would regret not doing so. So I retired and set a daily regimen of writing on the book until it was done.
Of course, I had the luxury of retiring even though I could have continued working. But I have never regretted that decision.
Thanks for the Keats poem. It captures it so well.
Rob Grigjanis I assume you have never been profoundly depressed? When everything is that bleak being nothing has enormous appeal, in so far as anything at all matters when you are profoundly depressed..
Rob Grigjanis says
Jazzlet @16: I should have qualified, with “most people”. Sorry.
In the first half of the 90s, I was very ill (it was why I left physics), and for a good part of that period, I can honestly say I didn’t care whether I lived or died. Because I couldn’t sleep well, I often went on long walks at night, and not caring where I went, sometimes ended up in some dodgy parts of town. There were a few times when things could have gone badly for me, and I think I emerged unscathed precisely because I didn’t care.
So yeah, I should’ve known better than to make such a blanket statement.
In his pursuit of atheist activism, Mr Singham misunderstands religion. he writes:”… one major appeal of religion is that it enables people to think that they are immortal, that even if they physically die they will still live on in some spirit form. ”
Some religions advocate an afterlife. Some religions do not advocate an afterlife. Even atheists yearn for an eternal life. Jean-Paul Sartre (atheist): “Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”, “One always dies too soon or too late. And yet, life is there, finished: the line is drawn, and it must all be added up. You are nothing other than your life.”
One often associates the fear of death with the desire of eternal life (which Epicurus proposed) but that is not often the case. Wishing someone 100 years of life is a blessing in some cultures, a curse in others. Christianity proposes the possibility of an eternal life in Hell: who wants that? And yet people are attracted to Christianity.
Epicurus was not an atheist (his God is not omnipotent given that Man has free will, God is not a puppeteer, thus not omnipotent). Epicurus does not dismiss the possibility of afterlife; even Sam Dresser understands that (“Imagine yourself, but rather than alive – dead. (Remember, we’ve cast aside the afterlife.)”)
Is an essential component to life is the fear/dread of death? The struggle for survival is evident in all life forms. Do lambs walk happily to their deaths in the jaws of lions? Are bacteria suicidal? Can bacteria be suicidal? The animals’ fear/dread of death is not a sign that animals are seeking religion.
When bees fight to the death in the defense of the hive, are they doing this in a psychotic state? Under normal circumstances, said bees act to preserve their own lives.
Sam Dresser is correct to state an absolute fearlessness of death is bad. Think suicide bombers.
However, Sam Dresser has committed a sin of omission by not fully quoting Epicurus who wrote:
“Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”
“Death, therefore, the most awful of evils…”
When it comes to EVIL, should one fear it? dread it? fight it? avoid it? hate it? love it? tolerate it? embrace it? discount it?
“That God does not exist, I cannot deny, That my whole being cries out for God I cannot forget”
Yeah, no, I find this sort of thing is the exact opposite of reassuring. The thought of oblivion causes me a sense of despair that I can assure you doesn’t arise from simply not understanding the concept.
John Morales says
Or could it be that because Mano (Mr Singham to you) misunderstands religion, he pursues “atheist activism”? 😉
(Your conclusion is hasty and unwarranted)
More to the point, you are essentially making the claim that it is not the case that “one major appeal of religion is that it enables people to think that they are immortal, that even if they physically die they will still live on in some spirit form.”
I put it to you that it indubitably is the case in Islam and in Christanity — care to dispute me?
(Those are religions, no?)
This is true; since religion is just wishful thinking, it is unlike science or mathematics, which converges on actual facts, and only informs, rather than advocates.
(Then there are doctrines such as Buddhism and Taoism, which can be but need not be religions)
Some might, but that’s not a generality.
But surely you see that, just because some atheists might indeed yearn for such a ridiculous conceit, that does not entail that religion does not.
You imagine this is somehow indicative of atheists’ yearning for eternal life?
True… some people. Wishful thinkers, fearful people. So what?
[Some garble elided here]
Um, there is no “should” absent some goal. So, it depends.
(Also, EVIL is rather subjective, no?)
Fine, JPS was a needy fellow, but at least he realised he yearned for an impossibility.
(Some of us atheists are not so needy as to yearn for stupidities)
Anyway, just saying, your musings are amusing, but vacuous.
And you most certainly have not made any case that Mano misunderstands religion; on the contrary, I get the vibe that you yourself are the one who misunderstands.
PS Euler’s number? You wish.
Rob Grigjanis says
John @20: Not ‘Mr Singham’. Professor Singham.
Some atheists are very much like some theists in that they think people who don’t share their views are deficient in some way.
John Morales says
Rob, I quoted “Mr Singham”, so yeah, to the fried fish it is indeed “Mr Singham”.
(Also, it was something to which I drew attention, even if a little more obliquely than you did 🙂 )
John Morales says
No response yet, Rob?
Well, I take the opportunity to elaborate.
That’s certainly not me, is it?
My claim, on the contrary, is that whatshisname purportedly exhibits a surfeit of neediness; no deficiency in that regard!
Point of the whole post is to note that religion is basically a crutch for the needy.
It’s for people who need wishful thinking to cope with reality.
I know I should probably pity them — that is, the religious people. On the other hand, they mostly exhibit a need to impose their (silly) beliefs on others, which is a bother.
So, piteous as they may be, I’m not inclined to pity them. I’m merely annoyed.
Rob Grigjanis says
Sorry, I didn’t see anything worthy of response.
And a surfeit of glibness (or vacuity, or anything at all) is not a deficiency “in that regard” either. Now that we have that silliness out of the way…
I’ve long had my own list of behaviours/attitudes exhibited by many people, that I’ve found confusing if not incomprehensible. For example, people who like to go to the beach. Or those who believe in a deity of some sort. Those who always seem to need to be in an intimate relationship. Those who don’t like physical exercise (which does not include those who can’t exercise). Those who seek to acquire far more wealth than they could possibly need. Those who admire people who acquire that wealth. The last two groups are the ones I can’t help but feel contempt for. The others? Simply beyond my understanding, and accepted as such (i.e. as a failure of insight or imagination on my part).
Of course, I also recognize that I have behaviours/attitudes that reasonable people might find objectionable. I smoke. I support Leeds United.
Maybe more later, if I’m not too annoyed. Right now, my coffee cup is exhibiting a surfeit of emptiness.