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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Best 5 Books to Read
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.
Learn everything you need to know about Friedrich Nietzsche in just six days. This introductory course distills Nietzsche’s best and most misunderstood ideas, from God is dead to the Übermensch.
★★★★★ (9 reviews)Learn More about Course
★★★★★ GreatGreat course experience, content was clear and simple to read. Loved the way the course was delivered and the writing was informative, interesting, and easy to understand. My favorite chapter was the final one on the will to power, I thought it brought everything together very nicely. Thanks for creating such an accessible course on Nietzsche!
VERIFIED BUYERJulien S. on 22 March 2022
★★★★★ Please make moreIt was really good. Honestly, there are things I thought I knew but turns out I had completely misunderstood from the books and the course helped me to figure out what I was missing. The content was very easy to understand and didactic, covering everything I was hoping for, and the difficulty of material was very well balanced. Please make more!
VERIFIED BUYERJoaquim N. on 16 March 2022
★★★★★ ExcellentExcellent. Well written and an enjoyable read on my iPhone. I found the content very interesting. It’s been over 30 years since I took a course on Nietzsche - great to revisit the material at a later life stage and new perspective. My favorite chapter was the one on perspectivism.
VERIFIED BUYERDavid U. on 11 March 2022
★★★★★ Brilliant primersBrilliant primers on all the major topics of philosophy. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect but the content provides a ton of value, it's all brilliantly written and delivered and covers so much. Highly recommend if you're at all interested in philosophy.
VERIFIED BUYERRebecca L. on 7 August 2022
★★★★★ Thoroughly enjoyedGreat! All content was very well written and easily digestible. Thoroughly enjoyed throughout. Free will was my favorite chapter, due to my personal interest in the subject, but all chapters were both interesting and easy to comprehend.
VERIFIED BUYERNiall C on 24 July 2022
★★★★★ Very goodVery good. After completing the course I am now planning to start a serious study of philosophy. My favorite chapter was Chapter 2: considering we perceive a 'photo' of reality, rather than reality itself, was a real breakthrough.
VERIFIED BUYERLuca G. on 19 June 2022
Each break takes only a few minutes to read, and is crafted to expand your mind and spark your philosophical curiosity.
3 MIN BREAK