Victor Nuovo: Lucretius: The wisdom of Epicurus
“Nils, igitur, mors ad nos!” “Nothing, therefore, is death to us!” With this triumphant shout, Lucretius epitomized the wisdom of Epicurus.
Epicurus was more modest and soft spoken than his poet-evangelist. He preferred the calm, restrained voice of rational discourse. Yet these were his very words. “Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for all good and evil reside in sensation, and death is the privation of all sensation.” “So long as we live, death is not; when death occurs, we are not.” “Life has no terrors for anyone who truly understands that there are no terrors in not living.”
The reasoning is unimpeachable. We ought not to fear something that cannot harm us; death cannot harm us; therefore we ought not to fear death. When we die, we cease to exist; our bodies decompose, and there is no longer any self that sees, hears, smells, tastes, feels, remembers or thinks.
Hamlet would have taken comfort in this.
“To die, to sleep, no more; and by a sleep, to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks our flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished, to die, to sleep.”
Hamlet longed for oblivion, but was overcome by the dread of something after death.
“To sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, makes us pause; there’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life.”
It is indeed a terrifying thought, to die, to sleep, only to dream, for dreaming is not a rational state of mind; nor are we at liberty to fashion our dreams; in dreaming we become victims of ourselves, trapped in a nightmarish world, a realm of fantasy beyond our control, or so it would seem. What if, after death, we were to enter an eternity of dreaming from which there would be no waking? Surely that would be something to fear, to dread, an eternity of madness; this is reason to put off dying as long as possible.
Hamlet was not an Epicurean naturalist; or perhaps he was; perhaps we should interpret his soliloquy as a fear of madness, which need not be an irrational fear if it relates to a mortal life, a fear of succumbing to madness, or, having lost the capacity of waking consciousness, being kept alive in a drug-induced or comatose state, where the brain is able only to dream. From such a state, death would come as a relief. But these are troubling thoughts, from which the wisdom of Epicurus is intended free us.
“Life has no terrors for anyone who truly understands that there are no terrors in not living.” We need not fear death, for after death there is nothing. All that is left to fear is oblivion, but the fear of oblivion is irrational; it is not unlike being sad over not having lived in a former age, or becoming anxious because, as things go, one might never have been at all.
A beloved child of mine used to ask, when he was very young, “If you and Mommy had not met, whose child would I be?” Philosophers would classify this question and these moods as “existential”; existentialism is a school of thought that dwells on the irrational or, at least, the non-rational. I would not deny the value of such enquiries; they fertilize the imagination and are useful in restoring mental health. But, like everything else, they require a foundation in nature.
Such was the method that Epicurus practiced, and it is eminently restorative. He counted on experience and reason to be our guides in life, and a clear head, governed by common sense and practical wisdom. We learn from the study of nature that we are mortal beings, and that our whole existence, physical, mental, spiritual, is a function of an organized material system that begins in conception and ends in death. Only when we acknowledge this natural fact can life become enjoyable to us, for only then do we recognize what there is to be enjoyed: this very mortal life, and no more. “We are born once and cannot be born twice, but for all time must be no more.”
To begin with, we observe that we are creatures of desire, that the objects of our desires give us pleasure, and that when we secure them, we are happy. But we have many desires, so we need to identify them and examine their utility; or, we might review the various things that give us pleasure and the sorts of pleasure they give; or we might start with happiness; what is it? This is where I shall start. True happiness, according to Epicurus, is a state of tranquility, a state of mind free of illusions, of modest expectations, and quiet enjoyments, a state of mind that does not look beyond our natural life.
This leaves us with much to worry about and much to fear: diseases of body and mind, accidents, and social ills too numerous to mention, all of which can cause overwhelming pain and deprive us of happiness. In the light of these ills, the conduct of life is an enterprise of managed care. Our lives can never be entirely free of pain, danger, or disappointment, and therefore, so it seems, never perfectly happy, but by careful management, and prudent choices, we can be happy for the most part, or all things considered.
Excess is to be avoided, because ecstasy always has a downside, a well of mental and physical pain. Vain ambition, the pursuit of riches, luxurious living, conspicuous consumption, malice, envy, vengefulness, but also timidity, unwarranted deference, denial. A modest, measured, controlled life is what we should aim to live, and always with our eyes wide open, and a clear head.
But above all, Epicurus insists, we cannot be happy until we recognize how much we are needful of others. Out of this recognition there arises the most wonderful and joy-giving benefit: friendliness, which when it is mutual, grows into friendship, a society, small or large, of individuals who live a common life, enjoy intimacy, each caring for the other and desiring the good of one’s friends as much as one desires one’s own.
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