Tag Archives: Death

Be thoughtful rather than mournful

Vatican Saying 66 (quoted below) encourages thoughtfulness instead of lamentation. It seems most likely that the saying refers to circumstances in which a friend has died.

In the Epicurean view, sadness at death is alleviated or even removed by the consideration that death is a natural part of the way things are. So long as it is not untimely, death does not prevent us from enjoying a life of happiness and fulfilment, and does not take away from a life well lived.

Epicurus emphasized the possibilities for pleasure and contentment in this life and condemned the wastefulness of allowing fears about death to spoil the enjoyment of life. From the playwright Menander, a contemporary of Epicurus, we have a fragment which reflects a philosophical appreciation for the natural wonders of this life. The following is an adaptation.

I call that person happiest, my friend,
Who has the chance to look upon the sun
That lights us all, to gaze up to the stars,
To see the clouds, and water, and the fire
Of lightning in the sky – these things so great
And grand and wonderful; and who has learned
To live without distress, and known such joys
That one can go as quickly as we come,
To that dispersion whence we all are formed;
Not only we but those things marvellous
That you will see always, though you live
A hundred years or only very few.
And greater things than these you will not see,

Thoughts for the Day, September 21: ‘Let us sympathize with our friends not with wailing but with thoughtfulness’ (Vatican Sayings 66).

Verses: SRP after Menander, fr. 373, from the play The Counterfeit Baby, or The Rustic (Ὑποβολιμαῖος ἢ Ἄγροικος, trans. Allinson). An old edition of the Greek is available online (A. Meineke (ed.), Menandri et Philemonis reliquiae, Berlin, 1823, p. 166, from Stobaeus). A text and translation are given in the Loeb edition of Menander (an older version by F.G. Allinson is available online; the more recent edition by W.G. Arnott should also be consulted). The dramatic context is not exactly Epicurean; it suggests that a short visit is better than a long stay, whereas in the Epicurean view old age has special advantages. I have adapted the sense in a number of ways in an Epicurean direction.

See also ‘A life that is finite but full and complete’; ‘Staying in control whatever happens’; ‘Making life better, becoming happier’.

Simplicity, complexity, simplicity

In concluding one of his Epistles to Lucilius (22.13-17), Seneca cites in Latin two versions of a sentiment expressed in Vatican Saying 60 (quoted below):

Nemo non ita exit e vita, tamquam modo intraverit, ‘Everyone goes out of life just as if he had but lately entered it’, specifically attributed by Seneca to Epicurus; and Nemo aliter quam quomodo natus est exit e vita, ‘No one leaves this world in a different manner from one who has just been born’ (trans. R.M. Gummere, reading in the second instance qui modo (Wolters) for quomodo of the manuscripts).

After quoting the first version, Seneca suggests a couple of ways in which an old person may be considered to be like a young person: an old person, or indeed a person of any age, is just as afraid of death and ignorant of life; and an old person has nothing finished, through putting things off.

Seneca then quotes the second version and denies that it is true, alleging that through our own fault ‘we are worse when we die than when we were born’ (peiores morimur quam nascimur). When we come into the world we are free of desires, fears, superstition, treachery and such things. We should go from life as we were at the beginning, having learned wisdom; instead at the approach of death our courage fails us.

Having denied the truth of the saying, however, Seneca comes close to acknowledging its applicability. We fret at death because we go from life stripped of all our goods; we have nothing – just as we had nothing when born, though he does not say that explicitly.

Perhaps his final point is the most poignant: we do not care how well we live but how long, whereas what is within our power is not how long we live but how well (omnibus possit contingere, ut bene vivant, ut diu, nulli). He implies: the will to live is there at the end as at the beginning, and what have we learned in the meantime?

Thoughts for the Day, September 15: ‘We all go from life as we were when just born’ (Vatican Sayings 60). Or, ‘Everyone goes from life as if just born.’ The Greek has πᾶς ὥσπερ ἄρτι γεγονὼς ἐκ τοῦ ζῆν ἀπέρχεται. In the first translation, the ‘we’ form has been used for gender neutrality; the second translation is phrased to avoid the same problem.

Staying in control whatever happens

Vatican Saying 47 (quoted below) seems best explained as a declaration of confidence in the face of approaching death. Life is full of challenges, and one of the largest challenges is to ensure that one’s life is guided as far as possible by reason rather than chance. This is possible for a wise person (Principal Doctrine 16):

For a wise person chance is of brief effect, whereas reason, having organized the greatest and most important matters in the past, continues to do so throughout life and into the future.

The imminence of death is a challenge in itself: can a philosophically minded person maintain a confident attitude as the final months and days and hours of one’s life dwindle to nothing? Of some assistance is the fact that, as time and circumstances close in and opportunities narrow, there is a smaller field for chance (ἡ τύχη) to have much effect. The chanciest phases of one’s life are behind, including the youthful phase when there is so much uncertainty: ‘For the young person in the flower of youth roves about distracted by chance events’ (ὑπὸ τῆς τύχης ἑτεροφρονῶν, Vatican Saying 17). In contrast, the old person’s activities are more constrained. Ironically, the less of life there is to go, the more freedom a person has (one might say) from the effects of chance. The great, life-long battle with chance is mostly over. And so, as Vatican Saying 47 puts it:

Chance, I have got the better of you, and I have closed off all your ways of entrance; and we will not yield ourselves up to you or any other circumstance.

Necessity remains; but no one can effectively fight against the force of universal necessity. It is, as the Letter to Menoeceus says, ‘beyond anyone’s control’, whereas ‘chance is variable’ or ‘unstable’ (τὴν μὲν ἀνάγκην ἀνυπεύθυνον … τὴν δὲ τύχην ἄστατον, § 133). And at the very end, as Vatican Saying 47 states in unequivocal and perhaps somewhat confronting terms, one must let go of life, declining to hold on to something that cannot be held on to any longer.

Life has to be dismissed as meaning nothing further for the person who is going from it. The important question is whether the time up to that stage was used well. It is obviously by then too late to try to live a better life. Happy is the person who can look back on a life well lived, and fortunate those who still have time to understand and heed the message of the final victory cry.

Thoughts for the Day, September 7: ‘Chance, I have got the better of you, and I have closed off all your ways of entrance; and we will not yield ourselves up to you or any other circumstance. But when the inevitable takes us off, we will spit mightily on life and those who vainly cling to it, and go from life with a beautiful victory song, proclaiming, ‘We have lived well.’’ (Vatican Sayings 47).

Old age as a time of birth and death

Ancient texts handed down in manuscript form inevitably contain transmissional errors. It is necessary, therefore, from time to time to correct details in a text in order to restore as far as possible the original wording and meaning. However, it is important in the first instance to be reasonably sure that a text actually needs correction. The fact that a meaning may not be readily apparent could be a result not of a faulty text but of faulty understanding of the text.

These issues are relevant for understanding Vatican Saying 42. The Vatican manuscript reads (according to Wotke’s text and apparatus):

ὁ αὐτὸς χρόνος καὶ γενέσεως τοῦ μεγίστου ἀγαθοῦ καὶ ἀπολύσεως.

The expression ὁ αὐτὸς χρόνος (‘the same time’) and the word γενέσεως (‘beginning’, ‘birth’, ‘production’ and so on) are capable of a range of meanings, adding to the interpretative uncertainty. Much depends on the last word, ἀπολύσεως, but this word also can bear a number of senses (e.g. ‘release’, ‘separation’, ‘departure’, ‘death’) and moreover was corrected in the first edition to ἀπολαύσεως, ‘enjoyment’.

With that correction accepted, one finds for example the translation, ‘The time of the beginning and enjoyment of the greatest good is the same’ (O’Connor, Essential Epicurus, p. 81). Quite different is the translation by Inwood and Gerson, which retains ἀπολύσεως but introduces (cf. the edition of Arrighetti) an explanatory insertion, τοῦ κακοῦ: ‘In the same period of time both the greatest good and the dissolution <of bad> are produced’ (Epicurus Reader, p. 38).

Both these translations correct the text on the assumption that a satisfactory meaning cannot be obtained otherwise, but they make different corrections with entirely different results – a great hazard of correcting a text at all. Is it possible to interpret the text satisfactorily without changing it?

The version in the Epicurus Reader appears to refer to the point at which pleasure increases to its greatest extent and pain which pleasure is replacing disappears (as in eating to sufficiency and overcoming hunger). This interpretation frames the saying in terms of the Epicurean theory of pleasure and the notion of limits. O’Connor’s version also seems to refer to the process of enjoying pleasure as a good.

I suggest that a more coherent interpretation can be achieved by framing the saying in terms of the Epicurean theory of old age. A number of Epicurean sayings show that Epicurus was fond of ironical contrasts, and we may see him using one here in the proposition that old age, while naturally associated with death (a possible meaning of ἀπόλυσις), can also be a time of birth (γένεσις), not physically but morally. As Vatican Saying 17 indicates, when a person who has lived a good life comes to old age, experience and gratitude can combine to produce a new stage of moral experience:

A young person is not the one to be pronounced happy but an old person who has lived a good life. For the young person in the flower of youth roves about distracted by chance events; but the old person has come to anchor in old age as in a harbour, having locked in by a firm sense of gratitude good things (τῶν ἀγαθῶν) which one could scarcely hope for previously.

The word ἀπόλυσις occurs with the sense of ‘decease’ in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 5.71, where the Peripatetic philosopher Lyco specifies in his will that certain things are to be done ‘after my decease’, μετὰ τὴν ἐμὴν ἀπόλυσιν.

Thoughts for the Day, September 2: ‘The same time of life is a time both of birth – of the greatest good – and of decease’ (Vatican Sayings 42).

C. [also K.] Wotke and H. Usener, ‘Epikurische Spruchsammlung’, Wiener Studien 10(2), 1888, 175-201, at p. 194.

Thwarted by necessity

If everything in the universe happens according to universal laws, if the way the universe is constructed means that every event proceeds of necessity from what has gone before, if all of existence is subject to a rigid determinism, the impression we may have that we can make free and significant choices must be illusory. No matter how much free will we may seem to exercise, we must be operating according to laws and mechanisms that control our every thought and move.

This kind of approach has been influential in the history of philosophy. Stoicism is well known for it, but even Epicurus’ atomist predecessor Democritus held a deterministic view of physical reality. Epicurus disagreed, and believed there must be some slight deviation from complete rigidity – some slight ‘swerve’ (παρέγκλισις: Usener 280; Latin clinamen) – to explain the behaviour of atoms. This opens the way for life to be influenced by three factors: necessity, chance and human agency – but not all-controlling fate (Letter to Menoeceus 133). Human decision-making can play a large part in shaping the course of our lives: thus in the life of a wise person the most important matters can be organized by the exercise of reason (Principal Doctrine 16).

Seneca the Younger’s Letters to Lucilius provide interesting insights into thought patterns which a Stoic may adopt in an attempt to come to terms with necessity and determinism. For example, in Letter 61 Seneca advises accepting necessity rather than rebelling against it, desiring whatever circumstances require of us and thus never needing to act unwillingly. Then even the prospect of death will not cause sadness, as death is part of the necessary order of things.

The inevitability of death was a key part of the Stoic argument that we must be reconciled to whatever happens. Epicurus took a different approach, rejecting fatalism and emphasizing the fact that circumstances provide opportunities for a positive response. Life is limited in duration but this is an encouragement to make the most of the time available. Gratitude is a powerful factor in responding positively to life, and by casting off unnecessary fears, living according to natural limits and maintaining friendly relations with our fellow human beings we can enjoy a profoundly happy and satisfying life.

Epicurus’ approach was philosophically objectionable to those who saw a need for emotional detachment in the face of hard necessity. Well, says Epicurus in Vatican Saying 40, if everything is controlled by necessity they can have no complaint against my views, which must themselves be part of that necessity to which they wish to be reconciled.

Thoughts for the Day, August 31: ‘If you say that everything happens by necessity, you have no grounds for complaint against someone who says that everything does not happen by necessity; for you are saying that what the person is doing itself happens by necessity’ (Vatican Sayings 40).

Life is to be valued and respected

The interpretation of Vatican Saying 38 turns on the meaning of μικρὸς παντάπασιν, literally ‘altogether small.’ In what way is a person to be considered ‘altogether small’ for thinking that there are many good reasons for leaving life (εἰς ἐξαγωγὴν βίου)?

On general grounds one can see that Epicurus would be arguing on the basis of his view of nature as an abundant provider of all that we need for a happy life. Given the wealth that is available from nature, and given that we are capable of discovering this wealth and choosing to benefit from it, it is up to us human beings to learn how to enjoy it, and it is our own fault if we decide that life is not worth living. Pain and suffering should not deter us (Epicurus would argue) because they occur within tolerable limits. Our main problem is in adjusting our outlook and desires to what we naturally need and what nature supplies in fulfilment of our needs. Presumably a person is ‘altogether small’ who cannot adequately appreciate, or who refuses to appreciate, what nature and life have to offer.

This approach, which addresses a failure of insight and imagination, may be contrasted with the approach taken by Aristotle in his Nicomachaean Ethics (Book V 1138a 5-14). The text there is evidently somewhat confused and difficult to translate and interpret, but it is at least clear that Aristotle is treating the question in the context of justice and injustice. It is unjust to kill another person except under specified circumstances; is it then unjust to kill oneself? Is suicide an instance of a person both committing and suffering injustice at the same time? Aristotle seems to accept an officially sanctioned view that, because there is a voluntary element, it is an offence against the state. Whether there is injustice to the individual is a question (he says) that falls under the heading of the voluntary suffering of injustice, discussed in an earlier passage, where he decides that being treated unjustly is involuntary (1136b2-14).

We might deduce from this (the argument does not seem completely worked out) that suicide is partly voluntary and partly involuntary – surely not an inappropriate assessment; though it might alternatively be thought of as an anomaly in which passive injustice is voluntary, in combination with active injustice.

Both Aristotle and Epicurus are in the fortunate position of being able to look upon the matter from the point of view of detached reason, something presumably in short supply for a vulnerable person. It seems likely that Epicurus’ condemnation of a proponent of suicide is directed not at a person at immediate risk but at philosophers (such as the Stoics?) whose reasoning may put a person at risk. From an Epicurean perspective, their ‘many sensible reasons’ evaporate and the insignificance of the thinker becomes apparent when the alleged reasons are measured by more comprehensive philosophical standards. Nature provides a strong basis for optimism not pessimism, and it is faulty reasoning to see reality in a dim light.

Thoughts for the Day, August 29: ‘It is degrading for a person to hold that there are many sensible reasons for committing suicide’ (Vatican Sayings 38).

The literature includes Michael Cholbi, ‘Suicide’, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 18/5/2004, revised 29/7/2008.

We are never completely safe

The ancient city of Carthage (Greek Καρχηδών) in northern Africa (modern Tunis) fought intermittently over a period of centuries against Greeks and then Romans to maintain control of the sea-routes on which depended its maritime trade. It occupied various places including the western part of Sicily, and there was repeated conflict for the control of Sicilian territory.

At the end of Book XIII of his Library, the historian Diodorus Siculus describes the situation at the end of a war between Carthage and Dionysius I of Syracuse which lasted from 397 to 392 and yielded mixed results (13.114). Under the terms of a peace settlement, Carthage was allowed possession of parts of Sicily. Moreover, a number of Sicilian cities (Selinus, Acragas, Himera, Gela, Camerina) had to pay tribute to Carthage; their inhabitants could dwell in their cities but the cities had to be unfortified: οἰκεῖν μὲν ἐν ἀτειχίστοις ταῖς πόλεσι.

To deny walls to a people was to place them at a grave disadvantage. Carthage itself was protected by immense walls. But at this time the Carthaginian forces were being weakened by a foe against which no walls could defend them: according to Diodorus, plague (ἡ νόσος) had killed more than half their soldiers, and after they sailed back to Libya the pestilence (ὁ λοιμός) continued to strike down Carthaginians and their allies in great numbers.

Vatican Saying 31 makes the point: when it comes to death we live in ‘a city without walls’ (πόλιν ἀτείχιστον).

Thoughts for the Day, August 23: ‘Against other things it is possible to make ourselves secure, but when it comes to death we human beings all inhabit a city without walls’ (Vatican Sayings 31).

Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus of Sicily) was born in the Sicel city of Agyrium (Greek Ἀγύριον, Agyrion). The Siceli (who lived in the eastern part of Sicily, and after whom the island is named) are referred to in the treaty, along with the inhabitants of Leontini and Messene, as allowed to live under their own laws (αὐτονόμους).

Social and psychological stability

Principal Doctrine 40 concludes the series of Principal Doctrines in an apparently disconcerting way. It starts off hopefully but finishes on an unexpected note.

The saying addresses three matters: the need for a secure and stable environment in which individuals are free to develop and flourish; the aim of personal happiness, helped by successful relationships; and the possibility of a fully satisfying life without the need for final regrets.

At the last moment the saying strikes what may at first seem an unfeeling note. Why should one not lapse into immense grief and pity at the loss of a friend? The answer no doubt lies in the ability of individuals to lead a life so constructive and fulfilling that death itself cannot take away from the sense of completeness.

As the Principal Doctrines make clear, this is the kind of life that Epicurean philosophy, in an open and straightforward way, promises to those who are willing to live according to the ‘goal of nature’. The challenge is to understand the principles and to apply them in all circumstances. In this process the realization will dawn that the final note can be one not of sadness but of success.

Thoughts for the Day, August 2: ‘Those who have the ability to arrange things so as to be confident, especially with regard to those who live round about, can then with the greatest assurance live very pleasantly with one another, and having enjoyed meaningful experiences to the fullest they do not mourn over the death of one who dies before they do, as if there were need to feel pity’ (Principal Doctrines 40).

A life that is finite but full and complete

Epicurus sought to calm people’s fears about the gods and death by explaining that, given the construction of the universe, such fears are unnecessary. The strength and persistence of these fears are very evident in repeated and continuing attempts to develop theologies which offer the individual a happy afterlife.

If death itself were an anomaly, an unnecessary intrusion, like an illness or disease that needed eradicating, what would be the appropriate medicine or antidote? According to an old Christian formulation, preserved under the name of Ignatius bishop of Antioch, the bread of the Lord’s Supper is the ‘medicine of immortality’ (φάρμακον ἀθανασίας) and the ‘antidote for not dying but living’ (ἀντίδοτος τοῦ μὴ ἀποθανεῖν ἀλλὰ ζῆν).

This claim purports to answer the centuries-old fear that there is no effective medicine or antidote to enable us to overcome death. A conventional view was expressed by the sixth-century BC poet Ibycus, who lived first in Sicily and then on the island of Samos, where Epicurus spent his early years two centuries later: οὐκ ἔστιν ἀποφθιμένας ζωᾶς ἔτι φάρμακον εὑρεῖν, ‘It is not possible to find a cure once life has passed away.’

The conventional view, while accepting the finality of death, allowed for the possibility, encouraged by poetic visions of an underworld, that there may be a shadowy existence afterwards. Epicurus preferred science to poetry, and focused attention on the need to find a cure for unhappiness in this present life. The ‘four-part cure’ (τετραφάρμακος) of Epicureanism responds to the fact that a great deal of misery stems from misconceptions that give rise to four main fears: that we have reason to be afraid of the gods and what they may do to us, of death and what may come after, of not having enough to fulfil our needs, and of the prospect of suffering terrible things.

These fears are answered by considering the questions in the context of an overall view of the universe as constructed of matter and void. Fearful gods are ruled out, and death is no more than disintegration. Recognizing our relationship to nature quells fears about enjoying benefits and enduring difficulties. Nature both supplies needs and sets limits. As we are part of nature, our goal is to live pleasantly in relation to nature, knowing that necessary needs are abundantly supplied and pleasure is possible in spite of pain.

As Principal Doctrine 20 points out, while our bodies may want more and more (we can be inclined to eat too much, for example), our minds can keep excessive desires under control. This means that we can live successfully on the resources which nature provides, and that we can do so with a great sense of happiness, supremely content when body and mind reach the limits of natural pleasure. The mind does not need to reject the ideal of pleasure in reconciling itself to limits; pleasure up to the limit is fully possible and fully satisfying.

Contentment with limits (for example, when we have eaten enough) means that we can enjoy many pleasures to the full without living for eternity. Even with only barley cake and water to satisfy hunger and thirst, we can be as happy as Zeus as we reach the limit of removing a need. An infinity of time could not improve on the sense of satisfaction which nature makes possible in supplying human needs (Principal Doctrine 19).

Death itself (‘when circumstances bring about an exit from life’ – that is, when life is not cut short unnaturally) cannot take away from a life well lived.

Thoughts for the Day, July 14: ‘The body takes the limits of pleasure to be infinite – and infinite time could provide it. The mind takes account of the end and limit of bodily existence, dispels fears about eternity, and provides for a full and complete life, so that we no longer have a need for an infinite amount of time. But the mind does not shun pleasure nor on decease (when circumstances bring about an exit from life) does it go as if leaving a well-lived life unfinished’ (Principal Doctrines 20).

Ignatius: Epistle to the Ephesians 20.2. Ibycus: fr. 113 (Edmonds (Loeb), no. 28).