Sunday Sermon

Epicurus (341–270 BC) wrote:

Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us.

This is the famous observation by Epicurus, later echoed by Mark Twain and thousands more, that “when I’m dead I won’t care that I’m dead.”

When I approach this observation, I usually adopt the mind-set of a radical skeptic or nihilist who remains unconvinced of pretty much everything. That viewpoint has its own set of problems, but it’s convenient if you want to dodge the problems with all the other viewpoints – which is why experienced blog-jousters (and parents of teenagers) will recognize the stance. By asserting nothing, we become nearly irrefutable; that’s one dodge Epicurus doesn’t resort to very much.

I find this observation comforting. Unconvinced of intangibles like “souls” or ideas like “life after death” we are left with nothing, and Epicurus tells us that we’ll dissolve back to nothingness unfeeling and unknowing. When I used to play World of Warcraft, I adopted my own version of Epicurus’ saying as my raiding battle-cry: “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Epicurus tells us, with this calming observation, that when we die all our fuckups and embarrassments, the extra pounds around our waist-line, our embarrassing memories, the marketing webcast we were not looking forward to, our pending tax filings, and our “to do” list: all vanish. Like Roy said, “tears in the rain.”

Continuous bodily pain does not last long; instead, pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which slightly exceeds bodily pleasure does not last for many days at once. Diseases of long duration allow an excess of bodily pleasure over pain.

Epicurus lived it like he said it. He had suffered from kidney stones before, and in 270 he died in great pain. He got in a bath of hot water, and had a sort of going away party with his friends, and drank a great deal, then eventually slipped below the surface of the water. Dying, he dissolved and became as nothing, again.

His last letter, written to a friend, reads:

I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions. And I beg you to take care of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worthy of the devotion shown by the young man to me, and to philosophy.

What’s the worst thing that can happen? It’s that we return to nothing earlier than we expected, an immeasurably brief instant set against the vastness of space-time.



  1. Raucous Indignation says

    No matter how long we live, our lives are inconsequential flickers lost in an unknowable vastness.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    tears in the rain

    Reminds me of the fake Hemingway answer to “why did the chicken cross the road?”.

    “To die. In the rain.”

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Obligatory Bard of Avon

    To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
    Signifying nothing.

  4. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#6:
    Obligatory Bard of Avon

    He must have been such a fascinating person. It’s funny, when I did my “dining philosophers” scenario, it never occurred to me to put Shakespeare at the table. Can you imagine the stories he’d have told about that fabled dinner? We know he was a master lifter of plots from everywhere – Plutarch, Chaucer, Seneca, Aristophanes – what great things would have leapt from his pen if he could have spent an evening with Epicurus and Lao Tze, or Nietzsche? Oh, yeah, and jesus.

  5. felicis says

    This reminds me of life being likened to a sparrow flying through a ball in winter – we go from cold and dark to cold and dark with a riot of warmth and color in between… But I cannot recall the source (or even the exact quote, which was much better written…)