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. (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus)
Death is one of the major issues in human life, to put it mildly. Because we are blessed and cursed with self-awareness, we know we are mortal, so one of our problems is how to deal with the prospect of our own demise. A lot of religious and philosophical thinking as well as, lately, scientific research, has gone into this. Seneca famously wrote that the point of philosophy is to learn how to die, since death is the ultimate test of who we are. And things don’t seem to have changed much in that department over the past two thousand years.
Recently, Richard Pettigrew, a philosopher at the University of Bristol, has written two intriguing essays for the Oxford University Press blog on whether death harms us. Which seems the sort of paradoxical question that only philosophers can possibly be interested in. And yet, Pettigrew’s take is worth considering in some detail.
He begins with Epicurus, naturally. According to that Ancient Greek philosopher, the best thing we can do in life is to reach ataraxia, a tranquil state of mind. In order to get there, we need to get rid of two things: pain (physical, emotional) and fear. And a major source of fear, for Epicurus, is the thought to dying.
So how does one get rid of the fear of death? The same way we help people get rid of fears of things that cannot actually hurt them, like buttons. (Yes, there is such a thing as fear of buttons.)
The crucial step, then, is to realize that death cannot actually harm you. If there is no afterlife (a possibility that Epicurus discounted), then you are simply not there to experience your death, and experience is needed for actually feeling anything and therefore being harmed by it, according to Epicurus. Yes, you can experience pain during the process of dying, but that’s not the same as death, and — unlike death — it is temporary.
Pettigrew, however, doesn’t buy a formally reconstructed version of Epicurus’ argument. He agrees that the form of the argument is good (it is valid, as logicians would say), but he thinks his major premises don’t work (making the argument unsound, formally speaking).
In order to show this, Pettigrew provides counter-examples: for instance, we can fear the long lasting damaging effects of climate change on our children and grand-children, something that will occur long after we are dead. Or we can fear the emotional distress that our demise will bring to people who love us.
These counter-examples aim at undermining the first premise of the Epicurean argument, that it is rational to fear only things that can harm you.
I don’t find Pettigrew’s counter-examples very convincing. I do not fear the long-term effects of climate change, though I am certainly worried about them, and concerned about the effects they may have on my daughter’s quality of life. I think to call these instances of fear is to engage in ambiguity of language.
Pettigrew then goes after the second major premise of the Epicurean approach, which deals with the definition of harm. Something can harm you, according to Epicurus, only if it can cause suffering, pain, anguish, and the like.
Pettigrew doesn’t buy this either. His first counter-example is of someone building a ugly structure right in front of your house, thus affecting your view. This, he says, surely harms you, yet there is no suffering involved. But, he continues, this is analogous to what happens when you die: death deprives you of valuable moments and experiences and emotions you might have otherwise have had. This is harm, but not suffering.
Again, however, I’m not convinced. This second attack on Epicurus also seems to be predicated on ambiguities of language. To begin with, the owner of the house with a now obstructed view may actually suffer — not just financially, but emotionally — from the new situation. Moreover, while losing a magnificent view is an unqualified harm, it is not at all clear that if you live longer than a certain time you will enjoy positive emotions and experiences. Your life may turn miserable because of old age, illness, loss of loved ones, etc.. In those cases, then, an early death even has the possibility of becoming a net positive.
By the end of his first post, however, even Pettigrew agrees that the sort of counter-examples he brings against Epicurus — even if they work — are insufficient to explain the sort of “halting existential terror felt in the pit of the stomach” that so many people feel when contemplating their own death. In his follow up post he considers one possible source for such existential terror: “I fear death, you might think, because the fact that I will die robs the things I do in my life of their meaning or their value or their worth.”
Pettigrew than goes on to argue that if you hold to such a view you are mistaken, because it relies on a strange concept of meaning, the idea that something has meaning only if it contributes to a larger project. If that project — whatever it is — gets interrupted by our death, then it follows, on this view, that the whole of our life was pointless.
But it is easy enough to come up with all sorts of things we do and find meaningful even though they are not parts of any larger project. I am writing this during a weekend spent with friends on Fire Island, near New York. I am enjoying the beautiful weather, the fine wine and food, and especially my friends’ company. I know perfectly well that this will all end on Sunday night, but that knowledge doesn’t make the weekend meaningless. Indeed, if anything, it makes it even more meaningful, precisely because it is limited in time.
(There is a large philosophical literature arguing that it is death that makes life meaningful, which means that not only we should not fear death, but we should embrace it as the very reason why it is important that we do what we do while we are alive.)
There are plenty of more weighty examples than my weekend on Fire Island, but the general idea is the same: “much of what gives value to our lives is not any activity, such as thinking through a philosophical issue or connecting my life to that of my friend, but a way of being. … Much of what we do in life – spending time with friends or family, taking in the beauty of the natural world, writing, reading, campaigning, or eating seafood – we value for its own sake.”
So, concludes Pettigrew, the thought of dying, and the consequential fact that we will no longer be able to enjoy all those things, may be cause for sadness, but not for existential terror.
I completely agree with Pettigrew on this, but also think that there is a more basic, and actually obvious, source for said existential terror: being afraid of death has clear evolutionary advantages, as it probably kept a good number of our ancestors alive in the first place (at the least, alive long enough to find mates and generate offspring, which is all that matter evolutionarily). Of course, now that humans have developed a better understanding of how the world works, including a more balanced take on death itself, there is no longer a need for the evolved sense of terror. We can deal with death, including our own, a bit more calmly and rationally.
But here is where Epicurus comes back to bite us: if we want to overcome irrational fears we have to reflect on it and gradually convince ourselves that they are, indeed, irrational, moving toward altering our emotions accordingly. This is the premise of cognitive behavioral therapy, and it works (on koumpounophobia, too!). And the best reason for not being terrorized by the prospect of our own death is still the Epicurean one: that we will not be there when it happens. Once we understand this, we can grant Pettigrew’s point that thinking about our death justifies sadness, but not fear. But Epicurus never argued that we shouldn’t be sad about the prospect of someday leaving this world. Only that we should not be afraid of it.