Suffering and Epicurus

Epicurus was a hedonist, a materialist and a consequentialist who strongly believed that in order to attain the good life one must live a pleasant existence free of worry and pain. Through reflection of the concepts in Epicurus’s Letter to Menoeceus this paper will discuss Epicurus’s argument of why ‘death means nothing to us’ (Epicurus 1998a, p. 49). In other words, the concept that one should not fear death, which he held to be a state of fear bringing only pain to one’s life. In addition, the notion of applying these concepts for ethical purposes on how one should live their life will be explained.

In conclusion, this paper will provide a compelling argument of the reasons why Epicurus’s ideas on being fearless of death did indeed contribute to the alleviation of pain and helped with the pursuit of happiness or ataraxia (peace of mind). Epicurus was a materialist who believed ‘human beings are purely material creatures’ (Epicurus 1998a, p. 47), that the human body is complexly composed of atoms and when people die their bodies disintegrate along with their minds. Therefore, Epicurus believed it to be impossible for human beings to experience death.

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For Epicurus this makes the fear of death completely unnecessary, for ‘what is no trouble when it arrives is an idle worry in anticipation’ (de Botton 2000, p. 59). Epicurus thought that if one were to fear their death, they would only provoke unwanted worry and pain in their life. Furthermore, if one were to live a life with worry and pain, one could not live a pleasurable and happy life, making it impossible to live virtuously. Epicurus described the alleviation of pain to be a pleasure in itself. In order to live the good life, one must eliminate all pain and live a life with maximum pleasure.

Unlike other hedonist philosophers, Epicurus evaluated pleasures by their duration rather than their intensity, making psychological pleasures much more desirable to physical pleasures. Epicurus, as a consequentialist thought that in order to achieve the good life, one had to logically assess future consequences of human actions through rational reflection and evaluation. If one were to rationally reflect on death they would soon ‘realise that there was nothing but oblivion after death’ (de Botton 2000, p. 59).

The Leading Doctrines of Epicurean philosophy state that ‘it is impossible to live the pleasant life without also living sensibly, nobly and justly, and conversely it is impossible to live sensibly, nobly and justly without living pleasantly’ (Epicurus, 1998b, p. 53). Therefore, the good Epicurean believes in order to live virtuously, one must adhere to a pleasurable life. For Epicureans it is impossible to live virtuously and unpleasantly or vice-versa. In addition, Epicurus describes pleasure as our ‘primary native good’ (Epicurus 1998a, p. 1), implying that all human actions are driven by pleasures and by the avoidance of pains. Another imperative concept to Epicurean philosophy is Epicurus’ idea of the three fundamental aspects in attaining pleasure, those of friendship, freedom and an analysed life (freedom of thought). The most relevant aspect here is Epicurus’s idea on the analysed life. Epicurus views human beings as mortal beings having the knowledge and wisdom to rationally reflect and evaluate on both human actions and future consequences, ‘there are few better remedies for anxiety than thought’ (de Botton 2000, p. 8). Epicurus also believes that the mind has the potential to overwhelm people with fear. The rational mind, however, helps one to overcome anxiety, curing fear. Through rational reflection and evaluation, happiness and, therefore, the good life can be attained. The fear of death indeed brings an element of worry and anxiety to one’s life at some stage. Those who oppose this notion are perhaps either untruthful or in denial. Fearing death may not be a daily occurrence, however, at some stage throughout life, for different reasons, people fear death and it’s consequences.

Psychological pains such as fear have a capacity to persist for lengthy periods, making the intensities of physical pains inferior. Therefore, the alleviation of psychological pain has the ability to enhance the mental wellbeing of one’s life. Epicurean critics argue that his concept of death may appear to be abrupt, inhumane or selfish, however, I believe that his concept is rather logical, rational and somewhat soothing. The simplicity of this concept, along with its application to living does not only defuse anxiety and worry but also brings tranquillity to one’s state of mind.

Epicurus believed that what happens in nature is out of our control, such as natural disasters, some illnesses and ageing. Therefore, accepting death as a natural consequence of life and one ‘which has no sensation’ (Epicurus 1998b, p. 53) makes sense because it allows acceptance and peace of mind, which in turn enable one to live a more pleasurable life. Claims that Epicurus was inhumane seems unjustified when his concept of death was designed to alleviate pain from one’s life, and claims that Epicurus was selfish seem unfounded when his concept of a pleasurable life centred ‘the possession of friendship’ (de Botton 2000, p. 7) as both a necessary and natural desire. The philosophy of Epicurus focuses on the consideration of what constitutes the good life and the means of achieving this tranquil state of being. Epicurus examines the way in which the fear of death limits the capacity of people to attain happiness. His concept of death demonstrates that it means nothing and empowers people to live a life free of worry and pain. In addition, the undeniable connection between life and death has been discussed and it has been shown as a cause of great concern to human beings.

Through reflection and evaluation of extracts from Epicurus, this paper has concluded with the conviction that psychic equilibrium can be achieved through the alleviation of psychological pains. REFERENCES de Botton, A 2000, The consolations of philosophy, Pantheon Books, New York. Epicurus, ‘Letter to Menoeceus’, in D Cooper (ed. ) 1998a, Ethics: the classic readings, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford. Epicurus, ‘Leading doctrines’, in D Cooper (ed. ) 1998b, Ethics: the classic readings, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.