Some people fear flying; some fear buttons; and many, many people fear their own death. We might try to argue a friend out of their fear of flying or their fear of buttons by showing them that the fear is irrational. We might point out to the koumpounophobic that buttons cannot harm them; and we might produce flight safety statistics to demonstrate to the aviophobic that, while flying can certainly harm them, it’s much less likely to do so than plenty of other activities that they don’t fear. Can we argue ourselves out of our fear of death by showing that this fear is also irrational? The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE) thought that you could. For Epicurus, the key ingredients in a good life are ataraxia – a peaceful, tranquil state of being in which you have no fears – and aponia – the absence of pain. And he held that our fear of death is the source of all of our other fears. Rid yourself of that, he thought, and you rid yourself of all the others as well, delivering you into the desired state of ataraxia.
How did he hope to argue a person out of their fear of death? Clearly he couldn’t hope to argue as we do when we’re trying to expunge the fear of flying; he couldn’t say that, while your death will harm you, it isn’t very likely to happen! Instead, he argued, as we do when we seek to eradicate the fear of buttons, that your death simply won’t harm you. Combining that with his assumption that it is only rational to fear something that will harm you, he concluded that our fear of our own death is irrational.
But surely my death is the greatest harm that can befall me? What could possibly be worse? Epicurus disagrees. Something can harm you, he claims, only if it leads you to suffer or feel pain or stress or have some other negative experience – put another way, something that causes you no suffering or pain cannot harm you. So, according to Epicurus, you can be harmed by a coconut falling on your head, since that causes you suffering; but you can’t be harmed by a coconut falling on a rock, since that doesn’t. What about your own death? Well, as long as there’s no afterlife (and Epicurus assumes that there isn’t) your own death can’t cause you any suffering. After all, after your death, you won’t exist at all. And you have to exist in order to suffer. Of course, Epicurus doesn’t deny that the process of dying can cause you suffering – in tragically many cases, that process is characterized by severe pain and anguish. But that’s not your death; that’s the period leading up to it. As Hamlet initially sees so clearly, death itself is the end to all experience, both positive and negative: “and by a sleep to say we end / The heartache and a thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to”. (Later, of course, he entertains the possibility of an afterlife and the experience of death becomes less certain for him.) This, then, is Epicurus’ argument; and, by giving it, he hopes to persuade us that our “death is nothing to us”. Our own death is, therefore, an inappropriate object of our fear.
I’ll wager this argument hasn’t moved you – if you feared your death before, I doubt you are rid of that fear now. But that doesn’t mean the argument is a bad one. It could just be that your fear of death is not susceptible to rational argument – when I used to fear flying, that fear was entirely invulnerable to reason or persuasion (as my travel companions at the time will readily attest). Nonetheless, I think Epicurus’ argument is indeed bad. The form of the argument is good – the conclusion follows from the premises. Rather, it is the premises that are the culprits.
Recall the first premise: It is rational to fear something only if it might harm you. While initially plausible, I think this is wrong. I fear the effects of climate change on human life, animal life, and the environment in 100 years’ time, when I will be dead; I fear my nieces and nephew getting caught up in a global war that starts long after my death. But these events will not harm me (though, of course, thinking about them might cause me great distress). Rather, they will harm those I love; they will harm people and things to which I assign a great deal of value, such as people and the environment. And it is rational to fear such things. Will my death do this too? For many people, it isn’t arrogant to think that it will. I’ve seen the torment and anguish that bereavement has brought to my loved ones when others who are close to them die. It seems perfectly appropriate to fear my own death when I know that it will have that same effect. As the philosopher Anne Jaap Jacobsen explains, many people with terminal illnesses explain their fear of death in this way; they fear the calamity that their death will visit on their families and loved ones. And surely this is part of what we all fear about our own death. But is this the whole of it? Those with few social connections fear their death; and those whose death would be mourned but would not create a calamity in the lives of others, they too fear their death. So it seems there must be something more.
Let’s now recall the second premise of Epicurus’ argument: something can harm you only if it causes you suffering or pain or anguish or other negative experiences. This too is wrong, I think. Suppose you live in a beautiful natural landscape – the rugged hillsides of the Scottish Hebrides, perhaps. You value that beauty greatly. I arrive with a digger and build a fairly ugly house half a mile down the hill; it removes the isolation of your home, and lessens the beauty of the place where you live. Surely, in this case, I harm you. Yet I cause you no suffering. After my arrival, you will enjoy living where you do rather less than you did before; but you could not claim to suffer from this intrusion. As it goes with this, so it goes with death, perhaps? Just as I might harm you by depriving you of the beauty in which you once lived, so might your own death harm you by depriving you of the good things that you would have enjoyed if you had not died. Perhaps this is what we fear when we fear death – we fear the deprivation of life. Perhaps, but is fear really the appropriate response to something that merely deprives me of something good without inflicting upon me something bad? Were you to fear the arrival of my digger, we might say that you reacted too strongly. It is appropriate to be disappointed or saddened, perhaps, but the halting terror that some people report when they contemplate their own death doesn’t seem to fit well if the only harm that death can do is take away life’s good things without inflicting anything bad.
So Epicurus’ argument is not entirely successful: I might rationally fear my own death because of its likely effects on my loved ones; and I might be disappointed or saddened that I will die because my death will deprive me of the good things that I would enjoy were I to continue to live. But while this might justify certain responses to the fact of our own mortality, it does not seem to support the sort of response that people often report – the halting existential terror felt in the pit of the stomach; the feeling that moves Ivan Illyich to scream incessantly for much of the last three days of his life. This sort of response, it seems, comes from somewhere else – in the sequel to this post, we explore one promising suggestion as to where.