Should we be fearing death?

Epicurus, National Roman Museum, photo by the author

Epicurus, National Roman Museum, photo by the author

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.

145 thoughts on “Should we be fearing death?

  1. Seth Leon

    The lust example is an interesting one.

    It seems to me that lust includes two components. One is the physical attraction, and the other is the desire to act on the attraction. Concerning the example of lust for friends wife – I disagree that is preferable to eliminate both ones sense of physical attraction and ones desire to act on the attraction as opposed to simply eliminating the desire to act on the attraction.

    It seems to me that a person who experiences feelings, yet can run those feelings through a filter that acknowledges the feeling as valid, but also can appropriately act or not act on the feeling is a more fully developed person than one who has to sublimate feelings so as not to act on them.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. synred

    Whole discussions sounds like High School Catharism when they replaced the nuns with laymen and separated the sexes…


  3. Massimo Post author


    I don’t see why you say that the negativity of some emotions is not proven empirically. I’m sure there are systematic studies out there (indeed, I’d be curious), but there is also a load of unsystematic evidence, from my personal experience and that of people I know, from biographies and autobiographies, from testimony by writers, from history, etc..

    As for the idea that any emotion can be destructive, hardly. I’d like to see the destruction brought about by a highly developed sense of justice, for instance. Or by too much concern for one fellow humans.

    Yes, yes, even something as good as water can cause people to drown, but I really don’t think that’s the topic at hand. It seems hard to argue that certain emotions have largely, if not exclusively, positive outcomes, while others are largely, if not exclusively, deleterious, and that’s all I need.


    I noticed that you completely ignored my suggestion to discuss in-depth the example of lusting for one’s neighbor’s wife. Why?

    But okay, let’s examine your arguments:

    1. “Powerful emotions, like anger, infatuation, desire, though they have destructive potential, are also the sources of some of our most important creative expressions”

    Is it my turn to ask for evidence of this claim? No, that would be unfair. But can you point out a great novel written out of anger? I suppose infatuation may have generated some good poetry, but you seem more than a bit cavalier about the destructive part. More importantly, there is neither reason nor evidence to suggest that great creativity doesn’t come out of people who are not experiencing destructive emotions. If there is, I’d like to know about it.

    2. “Allowing oneself to have such emotions is a necessary condition for the exercise of virtues and the experiencing of a whole range of goods.”

    That strikes me as an unsubstantiated statement. Why would that be, exactly? There is a large tradition, not only Stoic, but Aristotelian and Socratic (and even Christian and Buddhist) that directly contradicts it.

    Bonus: “personal reasons, most of which centered around the preference for the company of more natural — in the sense of lacking affect — people. While not an argument per se, it certainly is a consideration that is hardly unique to me.”

    Hardly unique to you is correct, but I still don’t see why this counts even remotely as an argument or reason. You seem to think of people who are trying to control their worst impulses as indulging in affectation. Why? Would you pass that sort of judgment on people who are trying to improve themselves in other respects, like someone who is paying attention to reading better literature, or listening to better music?

    And if we are going natural, do you really want to hang around with people who have no restraints on their impulses? Who get angry, violent, lustful, and so forth, at whim? Again, why?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo: We seem not to be communicating well with each other, here. I barely recognize what I’ve said in your characterization of my comments. And you’ve said that you also think I am misrepresenting your positions.

    Maybe best just to leave it. Readers should be more than able to get our respective positions at this point.


  5. Massimo Post author

    As you like, Dan, but I quoted you verbatim precisely not to mischaracterize your positions, so I’m not sure how I managed to do it nonetheless.

    And I still find it telling that you won’t engage on the example of lust for a neighbor’s wife, which seems to me a very clear cut example of the difference between our positions.

    But as you say, others should have a good enough idea of where we stand on this.


  6. Daniel Kaufman

    You find it “telling.” Why not just say that you think I’m dodging you?

    That’s partly what I mean by “affect.”

    You may have quoted me, but it’s the interpretation afterwards that I find mis-characterizing.

    I’m happy to discuss the “lust” issue with you, for which I would give precisely the same account I’ve already given. I suggested dropping it, because it seemed like the discussion was getting tense, and we are in your house.


  7. Massimo Post author


    You know very well that I welcome, shall we say, spirited discussion in this house. Or is that also too much affect?

    Yes, you are dodging the question of lust for a neighor’s wife because it is utterly indefensible.

    As for mischaracterizing, I’ve just re-read my comments. I honestly don’t see it. Especially the comment on your second point, where I was simply asking a question. How can a simple direct question be a mischaracterization of someone’s position?


  8. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo: Per Walter Kaufmann’s critique of Rawls, “justice” in an abstract doesn’t exist, and one person’s high sense of justice in real life could be another’s “vengeance” or more. And, “justice” can also become a self-destructive obsession of a Javert. Peter Singer might suggest the destructiveness of too much love for fellow humans if it doesn’t include animals, etc.

    And in general? After all, most the schools of classical philosophy stress all things in moderation.


  9. Massimo Post author


    I meant justice as in the virtue, not the abstract concept. So Singer and Rawls don’t apply.

    Yes, the majority of Hellenistic schools stressed moderation, except for the Cynics and the Stoics. But I think the latter had better points, something about which I’m more than happy to concede disagreement.

    Just remember, though, that nobody is arguing that emotions should be suppressed altogether, Spock-style. The idea is simply that if an emotion, like anger, or inappropriate lust, has largely (even if not always) destructive/negative outcomes, then it is reasonable to curb it, redeploying one’s emotional energy, so to speak, toward better channels. I would think this to be uncontroversial, and I’m still awaiting for a good defense of either anger or lust.


  10. Seth Leon

    Massimo – I am wondering what your thoughts are my position regarding lust for a friends wife.

    You say – ” my position is that at the minimum one should not act on such feelings, but that a better person would work to gradually reduce or eliminate them altogether (via meditation, CBT, or whatever).”

    When you say eliminate altogether, you seem to be referring to both the feelings of attraction and the desire to act on them. There are many women I find quite attractive that are out of bounds to me for one reason or another. I have no trouble recognizing this and eliminating any desire to act on the attraction. I wouldn’t want to eliminate or even reduce the feeling of physical attraction itself. Do you think this is an indefensible position or am I reading you wrong?


  11. Seth Leon

    I have some sympathy for Socratics last comment. My mom can serve as an example on with respect to empathy. I think she is probably the most empathetic person I have known, and she has suffered greatly for it. It is almost as if she really feels the pain and suffering of those less fortunate. I have seen it cause her to become depressed and sometimes the emotion is so strong that there can be no rational discussion regarding an issue. It is her greatest strength but comes with a cost.


  12. Massimo Post author


    You make a distinction about different objects of lust that may be helpful to further this discussion. So, the general Stoic position is that lust for someone you shouldn’t or can’t have sex with is harmful, because it causes you disquiet, and because it puts you in constant danger of actually acting on it, despite your best intentions.

    Think of it as constantly exposing yourself to your favorite dessert, and yet decide that you can’t eat it because it bad for your health and wasteline. Why, then, not work on reducing the craving for that dessert in the first place? Or, if that’s more helpful, think of someone with a alcohol problem: the most effective thing to do is simply not expose yourself to the temptation, and if possible to reduce or eliminate the craving.

    Now, here is where we risk going into Dan’s “too much affect” and “emotions are good” counter-argument. You wouldn’t want to eliminate desire for sex in general, across the board. But can you redirect your lust toward the object of your love, say your spouse or companion instead? I would think so, and I would think it a commendable thing to do. Just like, to continue the above analogy with desserts, I have been able to re-engineer some of my desires toward foods that are less harmful to the environment, ethically more acceptable, and so forth. And I truly do not miss the steaks anymore.

    Your point about your mom as a person with too much empathy is also well taken. This is my general philosophy blog, not the one devoted to Stoicism, so I’m reluctant to continuously put forth that particularly philosophy, but there are what I think are good reasons why I am so interested in it.

    So, Stoics would frown on too much empathy too, precisely because it brings the sort of anguish that you have been describing. The Sage — the ideal practitioner of Stoicism — has a tranquil mind because he is mastered the negative/destructive emotions but has also developed a proper degree of equanimity toward the positive ones. One of the goals was to reach apatheia, which did not mean apathy, but is better translated as equanimity. Strong emotions tend to move us away from equanimity.

    Now Socratic could come back and ask me in what sense is this different from the Aristotelian position that the good is always in the middle. Without entering into too much detail, the Stoics thought that some things are unqualified good, no matter the quantity (chiefly, wisdom — one cannot be too wise), and others are an unqualified bad (anger, for instance). For everything else they did agree with the Aristotelians about the existence of a right degree, though that may not be found always right down the middle. I hope this helps!


  13. dbholmes

    Hi Massimo, regarding fear of death I basically agree with you and Epicurus… is there any distinction between him and Epictetus (or other Stoics) on that subject?

    This actually may extend to all “fears”. Fear is generally an impediment to action, and so largely useless. Sure it can be useful in the moment to avoid something, heighten one’s reflexes, etc. But living with fear, like chronic pain, is not a positive element in one’s life.

    I would agree with Dan it (like most strong emotions) can be used to create great literature, but I would disagree that requires keeping fear alive as something real or strong. Taking it out from time to time for entertainment, or empathy, is one thing. Living with it another.

    I was terrified as a child. A lot. Now I am not, and glad for it. I still love horror stories and movies and things that prick at that sensation, but I would never want to go back to the way I was. It held me back in so many ways.

    Regarding more active/motivating emotions, like anger and lust, there I would side more with Dan. Though I would agree moderation, or proper channeling, of such emotions is pretty useful. Venting (giving in to them for brief periods) is also more useful than immediately trying to squash them or viewing them as inherently “anti-flourishing”.

    Frankly, I don’t see someone being morally “better” for having deadened their feelings for someone’s wife, rather than just controlling their behavior toward her. Nor do I see how that would affect their well-being unless their feelings were so great they found it a constant distraction.

    It would certainly make them more in control of themselves. But would it be worth it? From what I understand Layla was written out of Clapton’s obsessive love for George Harrison’s wife (at the time). Eh, maybe there is such a thing as too much control if we’d have lost that.

    Anger? There’s anger in punk music and metal which is pretty good. Maybe even some sports.


  14. Seth Leon

    On anger as ‘always a destructive emotion”

    I come from a very emotional family and many have jokingly questioned if I was dropped at the doorstep as I am regularly described as ‘stoic’ in the common language usage of the term. I know personally that when something really does anger me however, I become more motivated to effect change. I am expect Mandela experienced quite a bit of anger for all the injustice he endured. He found a very positive way to channel those experiences. Could he have done so with the same degree of motivation without having had such a depth of experience. I don’t know, but I wouldn’t so easily discard the question.

    I think all emotions can be productive or destructive (which is not to say all with equal likelihood). I also think the susceptibility to certain emotions causing damage varies substantially from one person to the next. I for example, am much more vulnerable to excessive worry than excessive anger. I think we can all benefit from cultivating our emotional responses to some degree so that we can act with alignment within a value system. I think this type of cultivation is extremely difficult to put into any set system.


  15. Seth Leon


    One last comment on the control of desire since you mention losing a desire for steak. I would again here on my experience make a distinction.

    As a marathon runner keeping multiple regular disciplines I have experienced a change in many urges. Generally for me, like the lust example these changes primarily take the form of a change on the urge to act. I can limit acting on certain dietary indulgences, but still enjoy them greatly when partaking. Now an addict may not be able to take that approach, but I think the ability to continue to feel, yet act as one desires is the preferable state of achievement.


  16. brodix

    It is all a house of mirrors.

    While I see myself as a fairly moderate person, I see my own preference for it as a reaction to a fairly immoderate world. In situations where things do get a little too routine, I try to find ways to prick the bubble/express alternatives/act up.


  17. Massimo Post author


    There is not much difference between Epicurus and Epictetus on the idea that we shouldn’t fear death, and that such fear is a major impediment to a serene human life.

    They do disagree, however, on the background philosophy. For Epicurus, the goal is to minimize pain and maximize happiness (he was, after all, the forerunner of utilitarians!). For Epictetus life itself is a “preferred indifferent” (meaning something that doesn’t affect one’s moral value), so fearing death, which is a natural process within the cosmos, is irrational and uncalled for. We should, instead “follow nature,” meaning use reason to overcome our problems.


    Interesting you mention Mandela. The Nussbaum article I recommended last Friday says that he was able to be effective in changing things only *after* he got over his anger. And as a bonus to my position, he did that in part by reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

    Anger, incidentally, is listed as one of the chief problems for people by the American Psychological Association, so Stoics aren’t the only ones to see a problem here.

    Indeed, even Aristotle wouldn’t commend anger, as he would say that it is one extreme of a continuum, to be avoided in favor of more constructive sentiments.

    You may be right that all emotions may be constructive or destructive, but you also point out that the likelihood is not equal. I’d say far from it, in fact, with anger firmly put into the destructive side of things.

    I respect your personal experiences, but I’ll add my own: *nothing* good ever came out when I have become angry with someone or at something. Nothing at all.

    “Now an addict may not be able to take that approach, but I think the ability to continue to feel, yet act as one desires is the preferable state of achievement”

    Continuing to feel is a biological imperative, we cannot eliminate feelings even if we wanted to. But we are talking about what our attitude about those feelings should be, and whether we should encourage them or not.


  18. brodix

    As for fear as a purely animal instinct, a basic function for a prey animal that is actually being killed, would be that it overrides their cognitive functions, so that they go into shock. Both losing the sensory input of much of the pain and making the job of the predator somewhat easier.


  19. Alan White

    Thanks so much for your reply Massimo–it was along the lines I suspected, but just wanted to be sure.

    While I have sympathy for the Stoic-style viewpoint–and even endorse it as far as it goes–I don’t think it goes far enough (or maybe too far?) in prescribing *every* relation of rational attitude to emotion. That’s where I think a more pragmatic approach–one linking actions and reasons to produce results that make contextual sense of action–is, well, more workable. Reasonable Germans in 1932 should have been angry with the rise of Hitler–and reasonable Americans should be angry if Trump pulls off this election. There is a place for anger where no other emotion will do. If one wishes to dub it righteous indignation or another euphemism, fine. But I’d just call it justified anger.

    In the same way *any* emotion has particular justified circumstances that may seem to be deviant from an abstract or non-contextual viewpoint. E.g., immediate fear of death seems to be the emotion behind self-defense homicide–something widely recognized as an action that is acceptable, and maybe even more strongly prescriptively right. Maybe there is a Stoic-style account that could avoid claiming immediate fear of death as relevant in justifying it–but if there is, i’d suggest it would be a circular contortion to avoid pretty obvious truth.

    Anyway I haven’t said thanks for a thoughtful post and commentary. So thanks!


  20. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, I am sure that for you, little to no good has come of your anger. Pretty much the same for me. But!!! a guy named Trump would say all sorts of good for him has come from his anger.

    We’re now, in that case, treading near utiltarianism’s ‘greatest good’ are we not? And issues of the Silver Rule vs the Golden Rule, perhaps, too.


  21. Massimo Post author

    Alan, Socratic,

    It’s interesting you mention Hitler and Trump. I would say that it is precisely the destructive effects of anger that brought us those two.

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