Epicurus On Why Death Does Not Concern Us

Epicurus On Why Death Should Not Concern Us

This article discusses ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus on why “death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.”

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  November 2021

2-MIN BREAK  

Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus advocated an atomic, naturalistic view of the universe. He rejected the existence of an immaterial soul, or of anything non-physical, and said that the gods have no influence on our lives. As such, he believed being dead is not to be feared, for none of us will ever experience it.

As he puts it in a famous aphorism (from Diogenes Laertius’s celebrated survey of ancient Greek thinkers, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, compiled in the third century CE, and also featured in Epicurus’s Principal Doctrines):

Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.

From this doctrine arose the epitaph: Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care) — which is inscribed on the gravestones of Epicurus’s followers and seen on many ancient gravestones of the Roman Empire.

Epicurus
A marble bust of the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus (341 - 270 BCE).

No consciousness means no time

To fully grasp Epicurus’s point, consider what happens when we’re unconscious. We do not experience unconsciousness — in dreamless sleep, for instance, we wake in the morning, and our most recent memory is the last thing we did at night. Though hours may have passed, we did not experience their passing: we just jumped to the next conscious episode.

So, though on the naturalistic view death is often characterized as an eternal abyss, a black silence, a terrifying nothingness, this characterization is misleading, for it suggests we’ll experience this eternal blackness. But death means the experiencing subject no longer exists. There will be no consciousness there to experience silence, darkness, or the passing of time.

The reason we struggle to imagine what this state is like is because there is nothing it is like to be in it. Consciousness is all we’ve ever known, and all we ever can know.

We learn objectively that the universe existed before we were born, and that it will continue after our deaths, but from our subjective perspectives all that’s ever existed is our consciousness. The non-existence of consciousness thus feels like an outrageous impossibility.

Why Does Anything Exist?

★★★★★

Learn thousands of years of philosophy in just five days with our celebrated introductory course.

Learn More

We struggle to comprehend our lives as a finite block of time because we live only inside the block. We characterize anything outside the block as eternal blackness or oblivion, because that’s a tempting conception of ‘nothingness’.

But, by contemplating unconsciousness and dreamless sleep, we can recognize that nothingness isn’t like that. As the Roman philosopher Lucretius also advises in his beautiful reflection on mortality, just like before we were born, in death we won’t experience anything that happens — no pleasure, no pain, no anxiety, no fear — for the conscious self simply isn’t there.

If after death our consciousness was to be magically resurrected millions of years in the future, we’d have no sense of the time that had passed. Our last conscious experience would have seemed but a moment ago. So, Epicurus advises, don’t worry about being dead: it won’t even last a millisecond.

Further reading

What do you think of this analysis? Do you think Epicurus is right in declaring death is nothing to fear? Or is the prospect of non-consciousness, of being deprived of experience and time, rightly feared?

If you’re looking to delve deeper into the teachings of Epicurus, we’ve created a reading list of the best works of and about Epicureanism. Hit the banner below to access it now.

epicureanism
READING LIST

Epicureanism

The Best 5 Books to Read

Philosophy Break

COMING SOON


COURSE & COMMUNITY

Philosophies for Living: the Ultimate Guide to Enriching Your Personal Philosophy

Find meaning, purpose, and become a better you by exploring 7 of the world’s most influential philosophies for living — including Stoicism, Buddhism, and Existentialism. Register your interest now:

Stay notified on when the course is ready and secure a launch discount.

★★★★★ (50+ reviews for our courses)

NEW!


6-DAY COURSE

NEW!

6-DAY COURSE

Your Myth-Busting Guide to Nietzsche & His 5 Greatest Ideas

Introduction to Nietzsche

Learn everything you need to know about Nietzsche in just six 30-minute daily chapters. This course distills his best and most misunderstood ideas, from God is dead to the Übermensch.

★★★★★ (12 reviews)

Learn More about Course
Introduction to Nietzsche

Latest Course Reviews:

★★★★★  Amazing

This course is amazing! You can agree or not with Nietzsche’s views, but the professionalism, the methodology, the clarity, and deepness of the investigation is really comprehensive. I totally advise philosophy fans to do this course.

VERIFIED BUYER

  Elsa V. on 6 December 2022

★★★★★  Very informative

Very good and informative. Written with easy and comprehensible language. Enjoyed throughout - every line of the course was a delight. Keep doing what you're doing!

VERIFIED BUYER

  Milad A. on 24 November 2022

★★★★★  Excellent

The course was interesting and challenging and exceeded my expectations. The content was excellent, stimulating, and well written. A lot of depth was shared on each topic. There is much to learn from this great thinker. Thank you for the opportunities.

VERIFIED BUYER

  Robert J. on 19 July 2022

See All Course Reviews

Life's Big Questions

Latest Course Reviews:

★★★★★  Endlessly fascinating

Awesome, endlessly fascinating course experience. The content was very interesting and easy to understand, and made me want to dive deeper into the topics. My favorite chapter was chapter 5: 'How should we approach life?'. It was so fascinating that after reading it I was reflecting for like 2 hours!

VERIFIED BUYER

  Alex K. on 18 December 2022

★★★★★  Very good starting point

Easy to understand, entertaining and thought-provoking and has given me some new approaches that I’ll continue to think about. The first and last chapters were my favorites. I find the question 'why is there anything at all?' is a mind blower. And the last chapter (especially about absurdity) relates to that. Thanks!

VERIFIED BUYER

  Mario H. on 26 November 2022

★★★★★  Wonderful introduction

Wonderful, clear, concise, and very informative. This is a great introductory course, exactly what I was looking for in general and enough depth to inspire further investigations. I also really enjoy the reading lists at the end of the chapters and have taken up a few suggestions. Thanks!

VERIFIED BUYER

  Matt J. on 16 September 2022

See All Course Reviews

Take Another Break

Each break takes only a few minutes to read, and is crafted to expand your mind and spark your philosophical curiosity.

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, Rembrandt
Fear of Black Consciousness, by Lewis Gordon
Aristotle On Why Leisure Defines Us More than Work
Life is Hard, by Kieran Setiya

View All Breaks

START LEARNING

Discover exactly what philosophy is and how it can improve your life with just 1 email per day for 3 days

Philosophy Basics

What is philosophy? Why is it important? How can it improve your life? Discover the answers to all these questions and more with our free, 3-lesson introductory email course:

1 email per day for 3 days. Join 50,000+ thinkers. No spam. Unsubscribe any time.

Philosophy Basics