Don’t Worry – Be Happy : The Epicurean View of Death

Originally published in the Florida Student Philosophy Blog

 [1]

Eccl 8:15 – Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun. (KJV)[2]

If we consider the Epicurean philosophy emphasizing its position on death, the existence of God, and the resulting conclusions that follow regarding an afterlife, it seems that a more attractive philosophy than Epicureanism would be difficult to devise, for it holds that a man should arrange his life so that it yields the greatest amount of pleasure with the least amount of pain[3] and worry.  This is accomplished by seeking to be satisfied with the simpler things that come to one in life.  Simple food, clothing, shelter, and the like are good things that are “easy to get.”[4]  Richer fare and fancy goods, while not to be eschewed should they come one’s way, result in exposure to too much stress and strife in their pursuit, and therefore such pursuits should be abandoned.  The gaining of power and high office should likewise be abandoned as being equally stressful. Instead the joys of personal friendship can be relied upon for one’s security.[5]  The writer has lived this kind of life I have lived the last thirty years, and recommends it highly.

Epicurus believed that everything in the physical world consists of either atoms or void and that all matter has always existed and will continue to exist. [6]  The gods are also part of the physical realm and occupy some distant part of the universe where they remain blissfully unconcerned about what is happening on Earth. Our mind, our consciousness is also firmly part of the physical world and therefore ceases to exist upon our death. “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.”[7]

It is here that I must part company with Epicurus for it seems to me that there is a duality between body and soul and that there must be a life after death.  When I look out from my eyes I sense that I am looking out of my body in very much the same manner that I look out of my car window or the window of my house.  I perceive that my body is separate from my mind.  My body has betrayed me in a hundred ways while my mind remains young and intact.  I cannot be that thing I see in mirror.  It is far too old and ugly now while inside I remain young, and passionate.

If I live in a house it is likely there will be evidence that I am living there.  Perhaps an observer will notice that the lights are on, or that there is garbage[8] put out to the curb regularly.  The lawn is mown and the place is generally in good repair.  However, when I permanently vacate the house it naturally begins to deteriorate.  The paint wears and cracks, the roof leaks and eventually falls in, the grass and shrubbery grows high, and eventually if it is in a remote location, there will be no evidence that a dwelling existed there at all.  It seems that this analogy is applicable to the human body.  When the soul has left it, it begins to deteriorate.

When a person loses the use of their sight or their hearing they are able to describe the loss to others. Epicureanism makes the assumption that the body is the only mechanism through which the mind can see and experience existence. It is conceivable that the mind is limited by the body as much as it is enabled and that after death it will undergo a metamorphosis, freed as it is from the constraints of natural physics and time, to perceive in a different manner.

Life is full of every conceivable emotion, pleasant and unpleasant.  One comes up as a child and around the age of twenty begins to gain some understanding of what opportunities life may hold.  According to most accounts, thirty years pass almost instantly and one is in the position of looking back wondering where the time and opportunities went.  For most of the next twenty years we find life somewhat less amusing.  It is obvious that there will always be individuals who will not choose to live as Epicurus recommends, but instead strive for glory and power.  For those who do strive so, it would seem that in the face of eternal oblivion it would be far more attractive to live one’s seventy years as Genghis Khan rather than say, as Al Gore.  Epicurus’ position in this matter is that one should not do anything to anyone that would cause one to worry about reprisal[9], but with the existence of justice in doubt as outlined below and the wrath of God an impossibility, it is almost irresistible to give way to the views of Thrasymachus knowing that one only need be thoroughly unjust to in order to succeed.  There is tremendous pleasure to be found in the emotional thrill following robbery, rape, murder, and general mayhem as well as the accumulation of power and treasure. Other lives may be dispatched with impunity as having little worth.  After all, it is only a matter of seventy years and they are snuffed out forever, and in seventy more few will mourn or even remember their passing. For that matter, who can successfully argue against the thrill and personal accomplishment of wiping out the entire earth forever?  Consider the photograph taken in the late seventies by the Voyager I spacecraft at a distance of four billion miles from the Earth.  It appears as a speck of dust illuminated by a sunbeam, alone in the void of space.  Given the views of the Epicureans, it seems difficult to refute the argument that it should it not be wiped out in the same manner as a fertilized egg is scraped from the dark void of a womb and casually wiped on a napkin.  It does not appear to me that Earth should have any more or any less value than that.

Epicurus can make no objection to this statement; he is gone and exists no more.  Those on the Earth can make no serious objection to it either.  After all, what is seventy years of life compared to the billions of years that the universe has existed and will exist?  They would all have been dead and unfeeling soon enough.  Finally, thinking as Epicureans we know that God does not care, and probably will not even notice that Earth is gone.  I

need not fear Him or anyone else for that matter, for we are all soon gone into sweet oblivion.

Some people fear death because they worry about a coming judgment meted out because of the way that they have lived their lives.  But this concept may also be expressed as a desire for justice. Those who admire the concept of justice have a desire to see justice done.  It is obvious that individuals are often treated unjustly. It may be argued that millions have passed through life and into the grave without having received recompense for some injustice perpetrated upon them. If there is no place where perfect justice may at last be received because such a place does not exist, it can be argued that justice does not exist.  This in fact is the claim made by the thirty-third principal doctrine of Epicurus, “Absolute justice does not exist.”  The concept of an afterlife provides an incentive to learn as much as possible in this life to prepare for that eternity.  If virtues such as justice cannot be conceived as perfectly attainable, and if we gain no eternal benefit from intellectual development, the value of the study of philosophy as touted by Epicurus must necessarily be held to have a lesser value.

For those who say, “Give us concrete proof of the non physical world that you speak of and this God that takes an interest in the affairs of man,” I would say the following:

  • A God who is concerned with the affairs of men should be accessible to those who seek Him.  Of what use is a God who is not?
  • I maintain that I know God personally and I have communed with Him on occasion.  I can bring any number of witnesses, who will give the same testimony as I, that they have felt the presence of God in an undeniable way along side the soul with their body, further suggesting that there is a duality of body and spirit.
  • God does not do whatever I tell Him, nor does He provide whatever I ask, a statement which is also true of any of my other friends.
  • It is reasonable to assume that God may decide who He will associate with and who He will not associate with.
  • It is also reasonable to assume that He would be more likely to associate with someone who sought Him out, rather than visa-versa given His supposedly exalted station.

I am an exceptionally good cook.  To come to my house and eat at my table, you have to have met me, you must have secured an invitation in some way, and you have to acknowledge by your polite manner and good behavior my authority as the ruler of my home.  You must wipe your feet before entering, pay due respect to my goodwife, and in general conduct yourself properly.  Then you will find me a most genial and generous host.  Those who ask for proof that God exists should only be satisfied by meeting God themselves.  Given the above example, it seems reasonable that in order to meet God, you would have to approach Him in the proper manner.

Since the beginning of time each person who has ever walked upon the Earth has had to adopt essentially one of three attitudes:

  • There is no God and therefore I will do whatever seems good to me.
  • There is a God and therefore I will do whatever it seems that God desires or commands.
  • There is a God whom I am unable to please. I will seek His mercy.

By positing an inaccessible God that has no interest in the affairs of man, the Epicureans must be included in category one.  For all intents and purposes there is no God for them, because God makes no demands, nor takes interest in what takes place upon the earth.  Therefore they are left with no alternative but to do what ever seems good to them.

Socrates must have known that he was not a just man if only because he had been unable to successfully define the term.  Philosophers make much of such introspection and self analysis. I suggest that no one can engage in this type of exercise without becoming acutely aware of his or her own failings.  Many great men have journalized their quest for virtue – men like Dr. Franklin and Dr. Johnson while documenting the fact that they have come away wanting.  It seems to me that any person who studies and seeks after virtue will become acutely aware of their own shortcomings and inability to attain the highest levels of truth and virtue. Such virtue must be that which would be pleasing to a perfect and Holy God.

Therefore, to those who demand proof of the existence of such a God, I suggest that they engage in an empirical philosophical experiment.  I suggest that for a time they honestly look into their own hearts and consider what type of person they are and the type of life that they have lived.  For a further time, they should also consider the vastness and complexity of the universe as we know it and compare it to themselves and to their present position in time and history.  Both these suggestions should meet with no objection as they are worthy pursuits for anyone who wrestles with metaphysical and philosophical issues.

For those who have seriously prepared themselves in this manner only one thing remains.  Is it foolishness to set your foot upon the water one time in your life to see if will hold your weight?  I think not, if you happen to have a change of clothes and know how to swim.  After all, who knows what may happen?  So let those who have carefully considered the state of their own virtue and their place in the universe humble themselves and earnestly seek the face of the Living God for a time.  If He does not answer they can they hold their heads proudly and say with a surety, “There is no God to be found, I have looked for Him and did not find Him; I have called for Him and He did not answer.”  Why He should answer one person and not another is beyond my ability to explain, but for those who seek proof positive I have no other solution to offer.  Nevertheless, it has been my experience that a great many people are unwilling to even consider taking this third step because of the overwhelming changes in worldview and lifestyle which might be necessitated, irrespective of the result of such an experiment.

If we believe as Epicurus did, it seems logical that we should live in such as manner as reflects that belief.  However, it seems to me that it is not reasonable for a man to live modestly or simply when he has nothing to lose and nothing to look forward to.  Rather than learning to adopt a realistic approach to one’s desires, it seems that one would take any risk and employ any strategy to get the most that life had to offer before it came to its inevitable end.  This is precisely the position taken by other hedonists.

Alternatively, consider the position of the person who believes in the duality of body and spirit and the metaphysical world.  As an example consider the Christians, who claim to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit of the Living God, and therefore maintain that there is eternity to contemplate after this life, and an accounting to be given of the manner in which it was lived.  The Apostle Paul exhorts us to “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have…”[10], and “to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”[11] The argument may be made that those who, like Pope Benedict XVI, consider themselves pilgrims upon the earth are far more likely to adopt a life of quiet contemplation and humble simplicity.[12]


[1] Bobby McFerrin, Blue Note Records

http://www.radioblogclub.com/open/124732/don_t_worry__be_happy/Bobby%20McFerrin%20-%20Don%27t%20worry%20be%20happy. Surely a modern Epicurean if ever I saw one.

[2] Thought by some to have been written by Solomon the Great King as early as 935B.C.  Offered purely as a quaint, coincidental bit of opening trivia with no inferred philosophical or, for that matter, even historical value.

[3] “The Principal Doctrines of Epicurus”, Number 3

[4] “The four-part cure.” (Philodemus, Herculaneum Papyrus 1005, 4.9-14)

[5] “The Principal Doctrines of Epicurus”, Number 28

[6] Letter to Herodotus

[7] Letter to Menoeceus

[8] Recognizable by the tell-tale clink of brandy bottles.

[9] “The Principal Doctrines of Epicurus”, Number 35

[10] Hebrews 13:5 (NIV)

[11] 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (NIV)

[12] Laura Smith-Spark and Richard Allen Greene, “’i’m Just a Pilgrim,’ Benedict Xvi Says in Public Farewell,” CNN, March 1, 2013, accessed July 30, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/28/world/europe/vatican-pope-resignation.

About Louis William Rose

“I stand for Liberty. What I do for Liberty I do not do for profit or fame. I seek no office other than the office of parliamentarian, and no reward other than for myself and my fellow men and women to live in a free country.” Louis William Rose is a member of the National Association of Parliamentarians, he lectures on the subject of parliamentary procedure and political process. He serves as parliamentarian for various organizations. A political philosopher, poet, singer, and writer, his articles have been published on-line and in pro-liberty papers in Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, and Montana. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of North Florida, graduating summa cum laude in 2004. Mr. Rose is an outspoken supporter of the basic rights of man, especially freedom of speech, association, religion, individual rights to personal defense and property, and of republican, constitutional forms of government. Mr. Rose is an outspoken supporter of the basic rights of man, especially freedom of speech, association, religion, individual rights to personal defense and property, and of republican, constitutional forms of government. He is married to the lovely Jamy Sue Rose, an award winning nature photographer and a Florida Master Naturalist and guide. He has two sons, Edward, a local businessman, and Alexander, a successful real estate professional here in Jacksonville.
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