I’m posting a bit later than I had planned. The family and I went out of town over the weekend to show our support to my youngest son as he competed at a major chess tournament. It was a nice diversion for us, though he did not do as well as we had hoped (our delusions of grandeur were crushed after the 1st round!), but back to the subject on hand.
- Death can do nothing to us (ὁ θανατος οὐδεν πρὸς ἡμᾶς), for a dissolved thing cannot sense anything, and anything which cannot sense also cannot do anything to us.
But what about before death? Is not most of our anxiety about death experienced when we start to think about what we might lose at death, or when death is near and we are about to step over the edge of life with our last breath?
A Greco-Roman Epicurean by the name of Philodemus (ca. 110-40 B.C.), whose works were carbonized and preserved following the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79 at an ancient library in Herculaneum, Italy, devoted an entire treatise (of which we only have Book 4) on how to die well and without fear of what might happen afterwards.
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* Excerpts taken from this edition by W. Benjamin Henry
So much of the Epicurean program for soul-therapy (a term popularized by Nussbaum’s study on ancient philosophy entitled The Therapy of Desire) for mastering fear and other emotions (like anger or lust) involves cutting off the false or empty opinions (δοξῶν) we attach to a natural impulse (τὴν φυσικὴν ὁρμήν; 16.4-8).*
Philodemus gives us several examples. The cure for fearing that my sudden death will leave behind my wife and children in dire straits is to recognize the false opinion that their livelihood depends on my continued existence and to provide for them a competent patron or guardian who will care for them if I were to die suddenly (25.2-36).
Or, a beginning student of philosophy who dies before she can reach perfection need not be pained by the wrong idea that all her time studying philosophy was wasted but take comfort that her efforts towards perfection could leave behind an inspiring example for others (17.32-18.14).
Philodemus goes on to give many more examples, but they all have a common theme: a person removes the fear of death by dissociating from it the wrong beliefs or ideas which fuel our deepest anxieties. This therapeutic program was, for the philosopher, the best way to die well and die with courage.
Now as a historian, I pass no judgment on Epicurean teachings. Philodemus (and fellow Greco-Roman Epicurean philosophers like Lucretius and Diogenes of Oenoanda) provided a rational way of dealing with the pathos associate with death. Certainly there is truth to the proposition that human beings often attach to natural reactions all sorts of unreasonable, far-fetched, and even complicated “what if” scenarios that only function to fuel our stress.
However, existentially and personally, I cannot help but feel the Epicurean program for soul-therapy is still poor medicine. Am I really OK if my life is cut short and ceases to exist before I could finish my studies? You mean I dragged my poor wife and kids through the vicissitudes of a Ph.D. program and died suddenly before I could graduate with my degree?! (I actually had a near-death experience on the Pasadena highway on the way to the Fuller Theological Seminary campus to turn in my finished dissertation!… but that’s a different story for another day).
What if I did not plan for my sudden death? What happens to my wife and kids after I’m gone? Philodemus’ advice only seems to work if you take the time to plan out and anticipate your death. It feels like an ancient form of buying life insurance. Yes, you’ll be dead but at least your family will be taken care of. Hmmm… is this enough?
Next post: Paul. Let’s see what the apostle to the Thessalonians and Corinthians has to say on the subject of death and its sting.