“Death and Flowers” 1894 etching by Maria Yakunchikova. @myimaginarybrooklyn on Instagram

Death and Repetition in Epicurean Philosophy

In his letter to Menoeceus (Epicurus Reader, text 4, sections 10.121–135) Epicurus summarizes his own philosophy for living well. As a hedonist, Epicurus supports a far simpler concept of happiness that has pleasure for its goal. In his words, “pleasure is the starting-point and goal of living blessedly” (128). Without happiness, we strive to fulfill its conditions so that we may feel “self-sufficiency” (130). The value he places on self-sufficiency reflects an ancient conception of happiness by the Greeks. In this regard, Epicurus appears to have much in common with Aristotle who identifies happiness as the state of Eudaimonia. For them both, happiness is something sought for its own sake. Living well, Epicurus writes, requires that “one must practise the things which produce happiness” (10.122). In passages like this, Epicurus has a considerably lower bar for what counts as happiness. To him, it is enough to avoid pain. Epicurus departs from the strictly Aristotelian conception with his own doctrine of hedonism.

The goal of pleasant life is not unmitigated enjoyment, but “the lack of pain in the body and disturbance in the soul” (131). And if pleasure is the absence of pain, happiness is the freedom from distress. In a strict sense, happiness is the displacement of distress. Happiness is the elimination of the mind’s distress. In the same manner, pleasure is the cessation of pain. Ataraxia is the word for this negative mode of existence ascribed to both happiness and pleasure. Each exists as the terminal of something else. Ataraxia is this disposition which has no content of its own to be sensed, but instead exists in the terminal of what preceded it, and in anticipation for what follows. Calculated sobriety is the closest Epicurus comes to a form without content. Happiness as the negation of distress is very different from the positive Eudaimonia in Aristotle. The difference reflects a fundamental disagreement between the schools of Greek philosophy over what constitutes the good life.

Epicurus’s hedonistic doctrine does not conform to the unconditional consumption and excess we usually ascribe to hedonism. Instead, the noble effort to “produce the pleasant life” always involves what he calls the “sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice” (132). Every choice marks a preceding and prevailing evaluation of pleasure and pain in their unique arrangement. Searching out the reasons for choices is part of the Stoic attitude of calculated sobriety. So our reasons for choosing ought to reflect the same Stoic prudence. Even though he considers philosophy the health of the soul, prudence is the “greatest good” (132) for the soul and the body since it produces “ways of life” to make us “completely healthy” (131). Epicurus raises the natural value of prudence above the value of philosophy.

Practical Philosophy and Death

The letter to Menoeceus is a short document in which Epicurus summarizes his philosophy as a doctrine for living well according to Kuriai Doxai or the principles of health for the soul. Originally conceived as a medicinal supplement for somatic health, tetrapharmakos (τετραφάρμακος) is a fourfold schema consisting of four prescriptions intended to guide the soul. If Epicurean doctrine is successful, then it is a strategy for living well by overcoming the four fundamental fears. There is the fear of the gods, the fear of suffering, the fear of failure and the fear of death. According to Epicurus’ letter, the barriers to human happiness are divine judgement, bodily suffering, social failure and organic death.

Epicurus understands philosophy practically as a therapeutic remedy for healing the soul. For this, he prescribes a four-part remedy. Do not worry about death because it is nothing to us. Do not fear the gods because they cannot affect this world and could not care less of it. In social life, what is good is easy to obtain. And what is bad is easy to endure. Even the worst possibilities for the body are endurable because they too pass as easily as the moment becomes the next. This is the essence of Epicurus’ doctrinal stoicism. The Stoic is content with life’s mortality, and longs not for immortality. For the Stoic, there is nothing fearful left in life once we grasp that “there is nothing fearful in the absence of life” (125).

Since the four great fears of the gods, suffering, failure and death are universal, so too are the prescriptions against them. We will examine in closer detail the letter’s argument against the fear of death. Epicurus provides two arguments to support his conclusion that “death is nothing to us.” His first argument is that “death is the privation of sense-experience” (124). To him, death is neither good nor bad since it causes no sensation in us. In the form of two premises and a conclusion, the argument reads as follows:

  1. All good and bad consists in sense-experience.
  2. Death is the privation of sense-experience.
  3. Therefore, death is nothing to us, neither something bad nor good.

The first argument is the stronger of the two because its premises are sound and they guarantee the validity of the conclusion. Even if I reject the second premise, perhaps by positing the experience of a religious afterlife, I still would not have disproven the conclusion. Epicurus may respond to my objection by saying even if sense extends beyond death into an afterlife, death itself is still not something bad. Because if death is for an instant in experience even at the end of experience, then he may still reply that the duration of an instance always approaches its limit of zero. The duration of a moment is infinitesimally short, so death is easy to endure rather than something to fear. So even if we did compel Epicurus to agree that death is something to us, he would certainly not agree that it is anything bad to us.

The first argument is spatial in that death cannot be local to the senses, and therefore cannot pass into experience. The second argument is temporal since it considers life and death both as events, each with its own segments of before, during and after.Both arguments correspond to the spatial and temporal aspects of death in space and time. Epicurus reasons from the perspective of time to exclude death from possible experience.

Epicurus’ second argument that death is nothing to us is because “when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist.” (125). In the form of two premises and a conclusion, the second argument reads as follows:

  1. When we exist, death is not yet present.
  2. When death is present, then we do not exist.
  3. Therefore, death is never relevant so long as we exist.

In his second argument, a human life is a timeline extending to completion rather than a space of experience constituted by sense. According to this argument, death is deferred by the indefinite “not yet” of life in the first premise. If life is the “not yet” to death, then death is the “and then” to life. That is to say, death can only be “present” when life is not, when we are not. In this way, death arrives too late to its own genesis, and always misses the final moment of experience in life’s conclusion. The second argument is the weaker of the two since Epicurus strains too far to make death not only ambiguous but totally irrelevant. Although these two are closely related, ambiguity and irrelevance here entail very different conclusions. The latter is far harder to prove, and in my opinion, Epicurus fails to do so.

The second premise of his argument on death’s presence could be contested by anyone prepared to argue that we do in fact experience death in others and never the death of ourselves. This objection partially grants the conclusion that we never experience our own death. This way, it is possible to exist in the presence of death as long as it is not one’s own.

Epicurus’s argument is also weakened by his second premise because it equivocates between living and existing. We could object that the two are not identical. And it is not inconceivable that death is a mode of existing, perfectly distinct from a mode of living which it is not. If we grant Epicurus his first premise that death and life are mutually exclusive, we could still charge that this is not the case for death and existence. The latter is what Epicurus commits himself to proving in his second conclusion.

For the sake of formal clarity, my own reconstruction of the second argument’s conclusion unfortunately leaves out the specific words chosen by Epicurus in his text. There, he concludes that death “is relevant neither to the living nor to the dead, since it does not affect the former, and the latter do not exist” (125). It is perhap this conclusion which most clearly exposes the over extension of the argument into what it cannot prove. It could be true that “the living” are unaffected. But it is unclear how “the dead” for Epicurus “do not exist.” To the contrary, the dead continue to exist, only they are transformed into a dead existence. We could say a living body passes into a corpse without ceasing to exist. So too we ought to say the person, who is not identical with their body, continues to exist in the form appropriate to death. That is to say, the dead exist tangibly in the real sensations of others evoked by memories. Although these sensations are not those of the dead, they are no less real for being evoked in the minds of the living. Although we never experience death personally, death is a worldly phenomenon, and not strictly a personal one.

In his conclusion, Epicurus conflates our narrowly personal experience with experience as such. Because if we never experience death, then it could never cause us any harm or justified fear. To the contrary, death is worldly, and not personal. Hence it is not impossible to feel the effects of death since both it and living beings exist side by side in the same world. What remains frightful is the form of being in death where we are transformed to exist for others. In life we exist for ourselves, and in death this agency of consciousness for itself comes to its natural end. In this we adopt the form of an inanimate thing which exists for others. We pass in death from self to flesh. A living body changes into a dead one for which the word corpse is reserved and never confused with any living body who is animated. The loss of animation and agency is the ultimate loss of freedom from infinite conscious possibility downgraded into an object of what is practico-inert. In my view, this is the strongest case in which Epicurus might recognize death as unambiguously bad for us.

Remembering and Repeating: Does Death Know it is Nothing to Us?

Although the fourfold doctrine contains statements on death and experience that are radically counter-intuitive, it is nevertheless suggested that each becomes truer the more one remembers and repeats them in a philosophical practice. Epicurus has the advantage of composing his doctrine as a system of commandment. What is commanded is authentic, practiced belief. In this manner, the doctrine is a performance of authentic belief which I do not mean to equate with superstition. Elements of the doctrine can be perfectly valid in their limited respect as “performative utterances” or a special category of statements which produce their own truth-effect. The “I do” in a marriage ceremony is one of these statements which produces its own truth. So too are “guilty” and “innocent” performative in the proper setting of a courtroom. Epicurean philosophy produces itself as much as it is articulated and lived authentically. The meanings of its statements are not immediately obvious because each acquires its truth only through philosophical practice, reading or repeating. Despite their special status as statements, their truth-effects remain uncontestable. This charitable view of belief is expressed by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek retelling a joke in which the physicist Niels Bohr who, despite his own scientific atheism, participates in an otherwise superstitious practice of keeping a horseshoe above the frame of his door.

“[S]eeing a horseshoe on his door, the surprised visitor said that he doesn’t believe in the superstition that it brings luck, to which Bohr snapped back: “I also do not believe in it; I have it there because I was told that it works even if one does not believe in it!” (Žižek’s Jokes, MIT Press 2014, p. 68)

This is the ideal position of philosophy as doctrine: it works even if you don’t believe in it. Epicurean philosophy culminates in the compulsion to repeat the truths of its doctrine. “Do and practise what I constantly told you to do, believing these to be the elements of living well” (123). It is significant that the doctrine suggests constant reinforcement. Reinforcement is practically invisible to us as readers since it may as well exist as reading or the pleasure of philosophy.

The reason Epicurus begins his conclusion with “Get used to believing that death is nothing to us” (Ibid.) is because he already anticipates the great degree of “getting used to it” required by such a statement which goes against our intuition. In his anticipation, he includes the statement’s repetition in its truth value. Repetition and reinforcement target the reader’s unconscious as if to convince it through repetition. The deciding factor is what Žižek calls the knowledge of the big Other, or the knowledge of the unconscious. To exemplify his point, Žižek again uses a joke:

“a man who believes himself to be a kernel of grain is taken to a mental institution where the doctors do their best to convince him that he is not a kernel of grain but a man; however, when he is cured (convinced that he is not a kernel of grain but a man) and allowed to leave the hospital, he immediately comes back, trembling and very scared — there is a chicken outside the door, and he is afraid it will eat him. “My dear fellow,” says his doctor, “you know very well that you are not a kernel of grain but a man.” “Of course I know,” replies the patient, “but does the chicken?”” (Ibid., p. 67)

If Epicurus intends his philosophy to be therapeutic, then he must reckon with what Žižek calls “the true stake of psychoanalytic treatment.” As Žižek writes, “it is not enough to convince the patient about the unconscious truth of his symptoms; the unconscious itself must be brought to assume this truth.” (2014, p. 67). The strongest barrier to treatment is the patient’s own disbelief in the process of analysis. And even when the patient is fully convinced by what Freud originally called “the transference,” there is still no guarantee that the patient’s received knowledge will bring the full therapeutic weight of truth to bear on the unconscious.

The strongest possible objection is to repeat the words of the patient who replies, “Of course I know, but does the chicken know?” In this manner, any scrupulous student of philosophy could ask of Epicurean doctrine, “Of course I know death is nothing to me, but does death know?” By this, I mean to undermine the efficacy of what Epicurus prescribes as “a correct knowledge of the fact that death is nothing to us” (124) since it is precisely “correct knowledge of the fact” which is necessary yet insufficient. For directed change, it is not enough that one believe authentically in the revealed knowledge. It is necessary for new habits to form and crystallize around the knowledge. This is why Epicurus suggests in his letter to gather with friends to practice and repeat the truths of doctrine. The doctrine is repeated not because it is true, but it is true because it is repeated. Reinforcement is not so much for the student as it is for the chicken, the stand-in for the unconscious or the world. Epicurus himself attributes this form of self-knowledge to the gods who take no interest in our material world. We ought not fear the gods because they are self-sufficient in virtue of divine perfection. To Epicurus, the gods could not cause something even if they so desired. If we still fear the gods, it is because we believe they do not know Epicurus. And if we fear death, it is because we believe there is no corresponding knowledge on the other side of death to guarantee its nothingness to us.

Works Cited

“Letter to Menoeceus” in Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testemonia. Hackett Publishing Inc. 1994.

Slavoj Žižek, Žižek’s Jokes. MIT Press. 2014.

Post-Structuralist Social Theory // Interpellated as he/him