Epicurus is at his core a materialist, in the sense that physical sensation defines our lives, according to his philosophy. Fear of death is widely prescribed as humankind’s most prevalent fear and Epicurus in his “Letter to Menoeceus” sets out to debunk it. This essay will investigate the fundamental Epicurean argument pertaining to humanity’s attitude toward death and examine its ethical purpose in relation to how we should live our lives.
Epicurus wishes to free humanity from an all pervasive mental pain caused by “anxiety about the meaning of death”. It is the fact that humanity experiences life through the senses which allows Epicurus to formulate his proposition that death is the cessation of sensation and therefore should hold no fear for us. To exist is to sense, to experience life with our five senses, conversely to be dead is not to exist and be entirely without sensation. Expounding upon this premise, Epicurus tells us that this certainty provides an immediate pleasure by removing our unnatural and unnecessary desire for immortality. This knowledge can bring us into the moment of living and out of the painfully worrying state of pre-empting our inevitable death.
Epicurus wants us all to, habitually remind ourselves, that the state of death is nothing to be feared, so that we can truly live in the simple pleasure of being alive, and live in the moment more. The conversion to this belief in the Epicurean conception of death is no small matter and Epicurus repeatedly stresses that practice is required in his “fundamentals of the good life”. The ethical purpose of this freedom from the fear of death is to replace anxiety in individuals with happiness. Epicureanism is viewed today as a ‘consequentialist’ philosophy, meaning that the resultant pleasure generated defines its moral good. A consequence of happier, less worried, people inhabiting the world may result in less evil being committed. Pleasure will beget pleasure whereas unhappiness can often provoke acts of retribution, and/or mindless rage. Epicurus lays the groundwork for an acceptance of life’s sensory experiences free from an unnatural worry about something unknowable. His belief in Democritus’ ‘atomism’ and his study of natural science has led him to this belief in the meaninglessness of death; it is the cornerstone of his whole approach to pleasure being the primary human value.
Is the achievement of personal pleasure enough, however, in our lives? What about our loved ones, our partners and children? Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics includes a conception of happiness, Eudaimonia, which has the individual cultivating moral virtues, arête. How we act towards others and whether it is morally appropriate to the situation, or relationship, is essential according to this philosophy; is Epicureanism lacking this perspective? Epicurus answers this important question in his “Letter to Menoeceus” when he stresses that it is “good judgement” which is the most important aspect of his philosophy. The Epicurean life cannot be lived without an adherence to sensibility, nobility and justice:
“Can you think of anyone more moral than the person who has devout beliefs about the gods, who is consistently without fears about death, and who has pondered man’s natural end?”
Epicurus continually returns to this theme of facing one’s mortality and I contend that he sees it as a mark of humanity’s courage and maturity. By not shying away from the fact of death and by not being enslaved by the fear of it, we can act virtuously toward one another. This is important to Epicurus because he values friendship so highly and sees it providing “personal security” during our lives. This then leads me to ask whether this ‘personal security’ could be better translated as ‘emotional security’ in today’s parlance? Epicurus is addressing the importance of loved ones and our relationship to them, after all, through his esteemed endorsement of friendship.
Friends and loved ones are highly valued by Epicurus but are not to be confused with the core responsibility underpinning one’s life – the self. This is why his philosophy focuses on our mortality, desires, pleasures and pains; Epicurus does not put the cart before the horse by shifting the focus to the other. Epicurus’s philosophy of the simple good of pleasure is criticised by those who propose that our lives are inextricably linked to others and that this must be primarily reflected in any manual for living. Stoicism puts the ‘life of virtue’ at the very heart of its philosophical approach to life and suggests we show indifference toward both pleasure and pain. Stoicism developed by Zeno of Citium in the third century BC and popularised in Rome by Seneca, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, very much emphasised duty to others. This aspect of the Stoic philosophy was embraced by the early Christian culture and can be seen in the writings of Saint Paul and Augustine. My argument with this Christian standpoint has always been that if everyone is focused on the other’s happiness, and not their own, then no one is at home to truly receive whatever Christian charity comes their way, and then this concept becomes ridiculous.
Another, apparent, failure of the Epicurean philosophy, when comparing it to the tenets of both Aristotelian and Stoic philosophies is its encouragement for individuals to cloister away from the hubs of power and influence within their communities. For Aristotle happiness is found in being one’s best and he saw politics as the epitome of the good life; and for the Stoic it is their duty to perform so. Epicurus prescribed a quieter life with a small group of friends, thus avoiding the competitive struggle of the political life where often much evil is committed through ambition and corruption. Epicurus diagnosed this evil as the result of greed and the misuse of power, all things classified by Epicurus as unnatural and unnecessary to happiness.
This essay has explained the Epicurean position on the material reality of life and that death is meaningless to each one of us once we are dead. The pleasure that acceptance of this scientific fact can engender within us can free us from unnecessary fear and unhappiness. As John Lennon, perhaps an Epicurean, said so eloquently when he sang, “Imagine there’s no heaven…no hell below us…Imagine all the people living for today”, this knowledge promotes a responsibility for living virtuously in the here and now. Criticisms of Epicureanism in relation to our actions towards others have been addressed in light of comparisons to other contemporaneous philosophies and their later offshoots. I conclude in agreement with Epicurus’s pronouncement that our own death “means nothing to us” and that we should courageously get on with the act of living well.
Cooper, David. E, (ed), Ethics: The Classic Readings, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
Lennon, John, “Imagine”, London, Apple Records, 1971, http://www.metrolyrics.com/imagine-lyrics-john-lennon.html
Plant, Ian, Myth In The Ancient World, Sydney, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Sinnerbrink, Robert. Lecture on Epicurean Ethics, Macquarie University, PHI110, Week 2.
Sinnerbrink, Robert. Lecture on Stoic Ethics, Macquarie University, PHI110, Week 3.
Sinnerbrink, Robert. Lecture on Aristotle’s Ethics, Macquarie University, PHI110, Week 4.
Spencer, Joseph, “Free from All Men: Stoic Influence in the Writing of Saint Paul”, Provo UT, Brigham Young University, 2006. P.24-41. philosophy.stanford.edu/apps/stanfordphilosophy/files/wysiwyg_images/Spencer.pdf
 Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus” in Cooper, David. E, (ed), Ethics: The Classic Readings, (Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1998), p. 54.
 Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus”, p. 49.
 David Cooper, (ed) Ethics: The Classic Readings, (Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1998) p. 47.
 Robert Sinnerbrink, Lecture on Epicurean Ethics, Macquarie University, Week 2.
 Robert Sinnerbrink, Lecture on Aristotle’s Ethics, Macquarie University, PHI110, Week 4.
 Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus”, p .52.
 Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus”, p. 52.
 Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus”, p. 56.
 Robert Sinnerbrink, Lecture on Stoic Ethics, Macquarie University, PHI110, Week 3.
 Joseph Spencer, “Free from All Men: Stoic Influence in the Writing of Saint Paul”, (Provo UT, Brigham Young University, 2006.), p.20-31.
 John Lennon, “Imagine”, (London, Apple Records, 1971),http://www.metrolyrics.com/imagine-lyrics-john-lennon.html
 Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus”, p .50.