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GOD AND THE FEAR OF DEATH:

THE EPICUREAN PURGATION


OF THE GOD OF FEAR

ARCHIMEDES C. ARTICULO, M.Phil.


Dean
College of Arts and Sciences
Cagayan State University
chitocsu@gmail.com

I. Introduction: The Lucretian Philosophy of God and Religion

An initial survey of the various works in Philosophy of Religion gives the


impression that there’s seems to be a meager interest in presenting the Epicurean position
on the great controversy about the reality (i.e. existence versus non-existence) of the
conventional (and controversial) God.1 This limited or apparently lack of attention given
to Epicurean religious philosophy is, I think, very unfortunate because students of
Philosophy of Religion are missing a significant and equally interesting discussion.

For instance, Titus Lucretius Carus’2 remarkable account on the origin of the
belief in God and people’s over dependence on Religion, could have provided students an
impressive and interesting psychological diagnosis of religious beliefs (which I
personally find more convincing than Freud’s God-as-father-image theory). Students
would also find Lucretius’ powerful attack against the popular belief in an actively
interfering God (and the badness of Religion) just as interesting as Nietzsche’s attack on
the Christian God and the conventional morality.3

However, what is lost in failing to consider the Epicurean (or specifically,


Lucretian) account of God and religion is more than the excitement of considering a
refreshing alternative to the well discussed, or rather, to the too much discussed topics
like Aquinas’ Five Ways, Hume’s Problem Of Evil, Pascal’s Wager, etc. What is lost is
more valuable: it is the opportunity to recognize and appreciate much better the role of a
deep and fundamental part of “natural” human life, a closely related to the structure of the
1
By conventional God we mean the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient and all good being; the uncaused
cause and architect of the world and the entire universe; the merciful and the punitive God who never
ceases to participate in the making of Human history.
2
An Epicurean philosopher exhaustively discussed by Martha Naussbaum on her book The Therapy of
Desires. See Naussbaum, Martha, The Therapy of Desires: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics.
1994. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. pp. 140-279.
3
I’m in no way implying here that Lucretius, like Nietzsche, is a hard core atheists – Lucretius, like
Epicurus, believed in gods, but not in the conventional God.

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human sense of value, which the belief in God and the dependence on religion is deeply
rooted: man’s fear of death.

Lucretius strongly argued that man’s fear of death is irrational and hence the
belief in God, which is deeply grounded on such a fear, is also irrational, a false belief or
a disease of the soul that must be extinguished. 4 By therapeutically correcting this
irrational fear viz. by showing why it is irrational and must be abandoned by the person
who has them, it is logical to expect, if the therapy succeeds, that the conventional God
and religion cease to cause too much anxiety on humanity.

It is for this reason that this paper aimed at studying the Epicurean account of the
fear of death as the grounding of religious beliefs. It will present the major theses of the
Epicurean Philosophy of Religion based largely on the philosophical epic of Titus
Lucretius Carus, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe), however I will also
make use of the writings of Epicurus. Epicurean Philosophy of Religion, I believe, is
important in the general study of Philosophy of Religion not only because it provides
another ‘discussable’ perspective in the controversy about the reality of God – it is also
because Epicurus, and most especially Lucretius, recognizes one of those basic truths
about religious beliefs: that they are firmly grounded on human emotions, like fear.
Something that comes much closer to reality, as ordinary humans experience beliefs and
believing, than the logical or intellectual basis of religious beliefs like the ones
expounded by St. Anselm, St. Augustine and St. Aquinas.

Regardless whether or not Lucretius has succeeded in explaining away fear of


death and dying as irrational, or whether the belief in the conventional God is indeed
irrational, I will not bother to decide here with finality (as if there is such thing as finality
in Philosophy) – though I decided to make my own opinion of the issue at the end of my
formal discussion. My main concern in this paper is to study the reasons that led
Lucretius to think that the fear of death is irrational and how he associated the
irrationality of fear of death with the irrationality of religious beliefs. However, to
complete our understanding of the Epicurean Philosophy of Religion, this paper also
includes the Lucretian notion of mortal immortals, i.e. humans becoming gods.

It should be remembered that Philosophy of Religion, as a study, neither argues


for or against any religious assertions or beliefs – but inquires what it means to affirm or
deny the existence of God, or why or what makes people believe or deny God. I have
decided to stay within this framework. Since Epicurean (or specifically Lucretian)
philosophy provides another answer to why people believe in God and a thought
provoking account on why such belief is irrational, it is enough for students of
Philosophy of Religion, like myself, to be contended in understanding and to seriously
consider both the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments. In this way I could
guarantee that my study observes its own objective.

4
Naussbaum, Martha, The Therapy of Desires: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. 1994. New
Jersey: Princeton University Press. pp. 195-196.

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II. The Epicurean Standard of Truth and Rationality

What is peculiar about Lucretius, a Roman poet and the author of the
philosophical epic De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe), a comprehensive
exposition of the Epicurean world-view, is his assertion that man’s over dependence on
the belief in God is deeply rooted on irrational fear of human mortality and man’s
irrational longing for immortality. The idea that the belief in God is irrational is already a
commonplace theme in the philosophical study of religion; however, the idea that the fear
of death (which is undeniably natural) is irrational is blatantly against common sense that
it has already resulted to a lively philosophical debate.5 The task at hand is not to assess
whether or not the assertion is agreeable, but to understand the reasons why Epicureans
thought that such natural emotion is irrational. One way of understanding why the fear
of death is irrational is to understand the Epicurean standard for truth and rationality.

Most thinkers follow Aristotle when they think that fear, most especially the fear
of death, is perfectly rational. For Aristotle, fear is rational when its object is natural or
appropriate. Rational fear has for its object an evil that seems capable of causing great
pain and destruction, one that seems to be impending, and one that the person seems
powerless to prevent. Hence, rational fear must be with the expectation that one will
suffer some destructive affect beyond his power to prevent; it must be peculiarly human
experience with a rich intentional awareness of its object, resting on true beliefs and
judgments of many sorts, both general and concrete.

This shows that depending on the character of the beliefs that are the basis or
grounds, fear, and other human emotions such as anger and grief, may appropriately
assessed as rational or irrational. Fear of a mouse, for instance, is so absurd that,
according to Aristotle, is not simply irrational but pathological. But there are things in
the world that is right for us to fear; there are occasions when one must fear and it is
noble for one to have some fear. Aristotle lists the following examples of appropriate
objects of fear: disgrace, assault or the killing of one’s children or wife, and, above all,
one’s own death.6 From this we can see that there are things in the world which are right
to care about: family, friends, one’s own life and health. These are things which are
sometimes could be damaged by events not under our control.

Hence, the good person, rather than being a fearless person, is one who has
rational fears (fear that is based on true beliefs i.e. natural badness of death) but is not
deferred by them from doing what is required and noble. For instance, we don’t, and we
should not, typically have throughout life an active fear of death, even though we know
we shall die. Because death seems to be far away – and what is looming in the far away
horizon does not naturally bother the human mind. We should not also fear becoming
stupid or unjust, presumably because we can, and we should, think that this is within our
power to prevent. For Aristotle, other field of human inquiries, like psychology, proves
this objective truth about the rationality of fear as a human emotion: that man naturally
5
For a good survey of the debate, see Ibid. pp. 204-212.
6
Ibid., p.94

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demonstrate fear of death and dying but is naturally capable of containing or suspending
such fear from becoming excessive. This implies that like the other Greek thinkers,
Aristotle require the coherence of ethical results with the results of other inquiries (e.g.
Biology, Psychology, Metaphysics, etc.).

The Epicureans does not wholly accept this Aristotelian account of rational fear.
Let us consider first the question of true beliefs as the basis of rationality. For Epicureans
there is no objective truth. Truth is rather conditioned by the primary goal of Ethics:
Eudaimonia (or the flourishing life)7 or Ataraxia (or life free from mental disturbance).
Whether something is objectively true or false, as long as it causes disturbance to the
human soul (mind or psyche), for the Epicureans, it will always be false.

Unlike other Greek thinkers, for instance Aristotle, who require the coherence of
ethical results with the results of other inquiries (e.g. Psychology, etc.), for the
Epicureans, it is the other way around: all other inquiries have ethical constraints, or to
put it simply, other inquiries must cohere to the ends of ethical education. 8 For instance,
in the first book of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius presents an introduction to atomic theory
following closely the idea of Democritus to explain away the fiction of posthumous
existence (i.e. the belief in life beyond the grave). Here, the whole of universe, including
the soul, is explained as consisting of an infinite number of atoms, small, indivisible,
eternal particles, moving in a space infinite in extent, and periodically uniting into
compounds. But in the second book, Lucretius inserted his infamous "atomic swerve" in
an attempt to rescue a sovereign human will from the determinism of Democritus.9 He
postulated the strange notion of uncaused swerves in streams of atoms to explain the
freedom of man – simply because the idea that man is doomed to whatever destiny nature
designed him to have is greatly disturbing.

The Epicurean pragmatism, as exemplified by the aforementioned contradiction


of Lucretius, magnifies a fundamental Epicurean belief that having a firmly defended
view about physical matters, even though how contradictory it is, as long as it affords
man his ataraxia, is important. This explains why unlike the critical and objective
Aristotelians, the Epicureans are not interested to test their theory against observed nature
with an open mind. As Martha Naussbaum notes, it is not all together an accident that all
and only the disturbing views of life and the universe turn out false and irrational for the
Epicureans.10

It is important to stress, again, that the standard upon which the truth and
rationality of all things is tightly tied up to the Epicurean notion of ataraxia: the mind is a
7
For Naussbaum, translating eudaimonia simply as happiness is insufficient to understand its real Greek
meaning. Because it is not simply a state of feeling but a sort of healthy and active life, or complete life.
Please see Naussbaum, p. 15, footnote 5
8
This is in line with the Epicurean idea about the supremacy of Ethics see Naussbaum, p. 124.
9
For many contemporary writers, this represent the chief weakness of Epicurean thought. See for instance
What Lucretius Wrought, an article by Pat Duffy Hutcheon on the evolution of modern humanism
published in Humanist in Canada (Winter 1997/98), p.20-22. But I personally think that it fits perfectly
well, and it should be judged within, the epicurean standard of Truth/False as firmly grounded on the
epicurean goal of ataraxia.
10
Naussbaum, pp. 124-125

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sanctuary that must be protected always from the disturbance and turbulence of the
mortal world. False beliefs, and thus, irrational beliefs, are simply defined as disturbing
beliefs. Only the nurturing words of a godlike Epicurean, not the objective truth we can
find in nature, can fortify the mind against disturbing beliefs.

Pleasant it is, when over the great sea the winds shake the waters, To gaze
down from shore on the trials of others; Not because seeing other people
struggle is sweet to us, But because the fact that we ourselves are free from such
ills strikes us as pleasant. Pleasant it is also to behold great armies battling on
a plain, when we ourselves have no part in their peril. But nothing is sweeter
than to occupy a lofty sanctuary of the mind, Well fortified with the teachings of
the wise, Where we may look down on others as they stumble along, Vainly
searching for the true path of life…11

III. Epicurean Surgery Of The Fear Of Death, Of God And Of Religion

In his Letter to Menoceceus, Epicurus writes, “Empty is that Philosopher’s


argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no
use in a medical art that does not cast out the sickness of bodies, so too there is no use in
Philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul.” This passage suggests that
philosophical arguments should possess a healing property akin to that of medical drugs
in order to be “useful”. This practical requirement is closely linked to the Epicurean
belief about the therapeutic nature of Philosophy: Philosophy heals human diseases,
diseases produced by false beliefs – its arguments are to the soul as the medical art are
to the body. The elimination of the “suffering of the soul”, as I previously discussed, is
directed to the main and practical goal of Epicurean Philosophy: ataraxia (or peace of
mind), or eudaimonia (or the flourishing life).

But how does Epicurean Philosophy eliminates the suffering of the soul and
secures peace of mind or the flourishing life? How does philosophical arguments can
possibly possess therapeutic effects? The answer lies essentially on two things: first, on
how Epicureans perceive emotions and desires, and second, on how they make use of
their arguments and reasoning.

Both Epicurus and Lucretius perceive human emotions and desires not as
“irrational” but intelligent and discriminating elements of the personality. They arise
from, or are caused by, the beliefs or views by the individual who has them. As such,
emotions and desires are very closely linked to beliefs, and are modified by the
modification of beliefs. 12 For instance, if one believes that death is a great loss, he will
respond to the prospect of death and dying with extreme fear. But if such a belief is

11
De Rerum Natura Bk II, 1-10
12
Naussbaum, p.38

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modified into a perception that death is nothing for him, his response to the prospect of
death and dying is no longer that of a disturbing fear.

Taking this view of emotions and desires, Lucretius proceeds in employing his
arguments in a very special way – they occur through a special technique that are more
complicated and indirect, more psychologically engaging than those of the conventional
deductive or dialectical argument. Lucretius, using the power of reason, aims to confront
the diseases of the soul by confronting their main source: false beliefs.13 Through the
proper employment of reason, he tries to paint a non-fearful view of death by explaining
why we should welcome the coming of death as part of our mortality. For Lucretius,
removing false beliefs in the human soul allows us to live the tranquility of the gods. As
Lucretius puts it, "such is the power of reason to overcome inborn vices that nothing
prevents our living a life worthy of gods."14

In Epicurean ethics, physical pain is the great enemy of happiness and is to be


avoided in almost all cases. Mental anguish is even more threatening and potentially
debilitating. Here it follows that strong emotions like the fear of death and fear of God
particularly the religious belief in an after-life of eternal torment – can be particularly
devastating source of anxiety and take a terrible toll on humanity. Instead of overcoming
such fear, man, because of Religion, is always reminded of his impending death as if
death is something we really need to fear. But death, for the Epicureans, should not be
feared – not because it seems to be far away like the Aristotelians are claiming, but
because it is not really at all fearful.

Addressing the widespread fear of death is the very reason why Lucretius sets out
to prove that fear of death is based on a false belief and so determined to crush Religion,
or any institution, that preaches its rationality. Wiping out the disturbance caused by fear
of death and the afterlife is the very reason why Lucretius argued passionately that the
fear of death and most especially the superstitious belief in God and in an after-life of
eternal torment are irrational -

O miserable minds of men! O blind hearts! In what darkness, among how many
perils, You pass your short lives! Do you not see That our nature requires only
this: A body free from pain, and a mind, released from worry and fear, Free to
enjoy feelings of delight? 15

Removing the disturbances caused by fear of death and the after-life is the most
important task of Lucretius. Tweaking this irrational fear from the human soul is to
remove the pillar of the greatest institution whose business is to preach the disturbing
views of human mortality: Religion. By exorcising the power of fear of death over an
individual, one extinguishes Religion and its conventional God. Religion must be
extinguished because for Lucretius, "So powerful is religion at persuading to evil.”16
13
Ibid. pp. 35-36
14
De Rerum Natura Bk III, 321-22.
15
De Rerum Natura, Bk II, 14-19
16
Ibid., Bk I, 101.

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At this point, it is important to stress that dependence on Religion is a
consequence of the fear of death and not fear’s origin. Fear is not the creation of religious
teachings but the basis of the flourishing of Religion. Thus, Lucretius arguments are not
directed at Religion alone and a sufficient cure for the fear is not a mere rejection of
religion. The Lucretian mission is to prove that death is not an evil to be feared – and
immortality is not a good to be desired.

However, as I will discuss in the succeeding sections, Lucretius, by explaining


away the false belief that death is a great evil that must be feared, he is also explaining
away the rationality of Religion and religious teachings about God and the afterlife. The
removal of the fear of death comes with it the genuine possibility of man’s freedom from
Religion.

IV. The Irrationality of Religion

The first humans, as Lucretius describes them, found life sweet. They left the
“sweet light of life” with sadness and looked to that departure with fear. The love of life,
Lucretius claims, is natural in all sentient creatures, and so all creatures go to death with
reluctance. But these first humans do not stop to reflect on their finitude. They do not
wonder about their own fragility, or find agony in the mere knowledge of the mortality of
life. 17 However, when the first humans became civilized and reflective, they became
more vulnerable: they reflected on their finitude and started to go through life in the grip
of a fear of the natural condition of their own existence, straining themselves in hoping
and longing for immortality that is also the source of much of their agony.

Out from fear of death and longing for immortality, humans invented a
‘humanlike’ God (a God that manifest a very humanlike passions such as joy and anger)
and a Religion based on false and absurd ideas – for they, in turn, made humans foolishly
accept the fiction of posthumous survival and the belief on the eternal torment. 18 This
Religion feeds on the irrational fear of man of his mortality and it inevitably led them to
religious subservience. From then on, Lucretius claimed, Religion made the mortal life of
the fool a living hell on earth.19

According to Lucretius, religious belief is bad because it is superstitious and


irrational, built upon false and groundless beliefs about gods and the soul. It is also bad
because it makes people dependent upon priests, rather than their own judgment. And
priests stimulate human fear further, increasing dependence.20 Above all, it is bad because
17
As I understood Naussbaum’s discussion of Lucretius, the first humans are the nomadic, barbaric or
uncivilized humans who strive to exist by using merely their brute strength. Naussbaum, p. 193
18
Naussbaum, p. 200
19
De Rerum Natura Bk. III, 1023
20
Naussbaum, p. 193

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it causes people to harm one another, committing “criminal and impious deeds.” 21
Lucretius provides the case of Agamemmor’s slaughter of his own child to please the
gods. But we can supply more contemporary examples to support this Lucretian
assertion: the holy wars and crusades, the persecution of the so-called heretics,
religiously-inspired sexism, religious discriminations in the workplaces, religiously-
inspired terroristic activities, etc.

People since the dawn of religion has always argued with, lectured, tortured, and
condemned one another over theological disagreements. Lucretius tells us that religion
has made our relation to our death far worse than it was before, filling us with terror of
the afterlife and causing us to become far weaker than we already were, as “a certain
hidden force saps human affairs.”

To cure this malady of the human soul requires the removal of the false beliefs
which cause it: fear of God, fear of the after-life, and fear of death. 22

V. The Irrationality of Fear of the After-Life and Of the Fear of God

Many Greeks attributed practically everything to divine punishments or rewards.


Everything was “prophetic”, every decision full of risk: if the soul is immortal, then any
failure to appease the gods could result in horrible punishment now or after death.23 So
the believer had to be very sure that his or her choice of belief and practice was correct.
But as both Epicurus and Lucretius saw it, the whole set up is silly. The fear of God is
baseless and irrational. Lucretius endeavored to prove this by arguing that first, the soul is
mortal (hence, the falsity of posthumous existence), and second, if God exists, he is an
indifferent God (hence, the falsity of the rewarding and punishing God). Let us discuss
these two Lucretian points in turn.

As it was previously noted in this paper, for the Epicureans, philosophy must be
practical and it must be subordinated to practice. Since fear of God and fear of the
horrors beyond the grave are the two things that impede man from living happily, it was
necessary for Lucretius to have a physics (metaphysics) in which there would be no
further reason for the existence of these fears. Lucretius had recourse to the atomic
mechanical physics of Democritus, in which the atoms that move in infinite space are
associated and dissociated, without the intervention of any cause beyond the motion of
the atoms. The movement is eternal and pertains to the nature of the atoms. To meet the
difficulty which had been raised against Democritus, that if the atoms are moved from
top to bottom they cannot meet one another, Epicurus proposes that, though being
qualitatively equal, they are quantitatively different, some being round and others square,
some lighter, other heavier; however, the atoms have a certain spontaneity which directs
their movement. Lucretius called it clinamen. This spontaneity directs the atoms to
associate themselves with like kind. Within this framework, it is clear that the idea of
21
De Rerum Natura Bk. I, 82-83
22
Soccio, Douglas. Archetypes of Wisdom. 1995. Wadsworth Publishing Co., New York. 2nd edition. p.
225.
23
Ibid, p. 226

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posthumous existence is false. The human soul is mortal; it is formed of atoms that are
separated at death.

No thought, therefore, of death and of the time which will come after it, is
possible. Similarly, we should have no thought of the time before our birth, for then our
soul in its original state was dissolved into atoms. So even assuming that there are indeed
gods, they cannot possibly harm us after we die – because by then, we cease to exist to
suffer their punishment. But is there really gods? If they exist, do they really forgive and
punish? Do they really participate in human affairs?

The Epicurean answers to these questions are very interesting.

First, on God’s existence. According to Epicurus, the gods exist but not in the
same way most people view their existence. He writes,

The gods do indeed exist, since our knowledge of them is a matter of clear and
distinct perception; but they are not like what the masses suppose them to be,
because most people do not maintain a pure conception of the gods.24

Let us consider what does, for the Epicureans, pure conception of the gods mean.
Religion, in our times, traditionally preaches that God lives in a heavenly kingdom where
he is surrounded by his mighty throng of angels. He is usually pictured like having a
humanlike figure (Judaism and the Christian religion claims that He created man in his
own image and likeness) and passions (recall the wrath of God on Sodom and
Gomorrah).

Now, if gods (God) exist, are these accounts true for the Epicureans? First, on the
dwelling place and the physical representation of the gods. Lucretius, in De Rerum
Natura, discussed the world of the gods and their material (take note, material)
composition. He claimed that the universe is infinite – and in the infinity of space, worlds
are formed and dissolved by the same law. Between one world and another there are
empty spaces (i.e. the void). In these peaceful spaces the gods live happily among
themselves.25 Like humans, the gods are also made up of atoms. Unlike man, they are too
physically delicate because they don’t need protection against anything. But like humans,
who are made up of the same atoms, they, too, perish and die.26

Let us turn on the popular account about the alleged passions of the gods. Is the
belief of the wrathful (and merciful) gods (God) true or rational? Epicurus observes that
the qualities attributed to the gods – jealousy, favoritism, inconsistency, susceptibility to
praise and flattery, and so on – are too much like the qualities attributed to human
beings.27 But according to him,

24
Epicurus, Letter to Menoceceus, trans. George D. Stodach, quoted in Hellenistic Philosophy, ed. Herman
Shapiro and Edwin M. Curley. 1965. New York: The Modern Library. p.5
25
Naussbaum, p. 216
26
Lucretius did not make this point clearly in his opus.
27
Soccio, Op Cit. p. 227

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The opinions held by most people about the gods are not true conceptions of
them but fallacious notions, according to which awful penalties are meted out to
the evil and the greatest of blessings to the good. The masses, by assimilating
the gods in every respect to their own moral qualities, accept deities similar to
themselves and regard anything not of this sort alien.28 (Emphasis added)

But the gods are in fact alien to us. If there are gods, surely they are happy. If they
are incapable of being happy they cannot be gods. And if the gods are to be happy, they
cannot depend on human behavior or beliefs, which are unreliable and consistent.
Further, the gods cannot be concerned with rewarding or punishing human beings, since
that would add worry to their own lives and so distract from their peace of mind. And
hence, the gods must be indifferent to human affairs if they are to be happy. If this is so,
then the gods do not interfere in the daily affairs of human beings. Clearly, the fear of
God and fear of eternal torment based on the belief of the punishing and the rewarding
god is therefore unspeakably false.

The blessed and indestructible being of the divine has no concerns of its own, nor does it
make trouble for others. It is not affected by feelings of anger or benevolence, because these are
found where there is lack of strength.29

Viewing God as an indifferent God serves the Epicurean end of ataraxia (peace
of mind) very well. It removes the fear that stems from the belief of an all-powerful
divine being. In deed, it is easier for us to be happy when God is indifferent to us than
when He takes an interest in us. In a world of this kind, where there is no fear of the gods
or of the life beyond the grave, man, governed by mechanical laws, must strive to live as
best he can.

The ideal of the Epicurean sage is to form a model of life corresponding to such a
world, that is, to live a life of a god.

VI. The Irrationality of Fear of Death

After painting an indifferent god (thus removing the fear that comes with the
belief in the conventional God) and a mortal soul (thus removing the fear that comes with
the belief of posthumous existence and eternal torment), Lucretius embarked on the main
goal of the epicurean ethics: to paint a non-fearful view of death. This next task is crucial
if the goal of ataraxia or eudaimonia is to be achieved by epicurean believers.

As we have previously discussed, for Lucretius, Religion is bad because it


provides for the irrational fear of God and fear of the horrors beyond the grave. The mere
eradication of these fears would not suffice to extinguish Religion, since its underlying

28
Epicurus, Letter to Menoceceus, trans. George D. Stodach, quoted in Hellenistic Philosophy, ed. Herman
Shapiro and Edwin M. Curley. 1965. New York: The Modern Library. p.5
29
Epicurus, Leading Doctrine, trans. George Strodach, in Hellenistic Philosophy, 1972. p. 10

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cause, i.e. fear of death, would be left in place.30 As long as the cause or the basis of
Religion is in place, Religion will continue in causing mental anguish for humanity. Fear
of God and fear of the horrors beyond the grave are therefore mere tips of the iceberg, so
to speak. It is important to take note that man fears death not necessarily because of his
fear of the after-life. As Lucretius claims, man fears death because he is predisposed by
his sentient nature to hate death and to die with reluctance. As Lucretius writes,

Whatever has been born must naturally desire to remain in life, as


long as sweet enjoyment holds on to it.31

Man’s fear of his own mortality and the corresponding desire for immortality is a
more disturbing concern for the human mind. Man’s perception of his own vulnerability
before death is one of the primary causes of the invention of worship and religious
subservience. After arguing for the irrationality of fear of God and fear of the after-life,
Lucretius argues for the irrationality of fear of death. Depending on how convincing
Lucretius’ arguments are, this particular task will make or break the entire Lucretian, or
rather Epicurean, project in showing the irrationality of Religion.

It is expected that for many people, fear of death is rational because when death
comes, it does not only frustrates projects and desires that just happens to be there (e.g.
any trivial hoping for the future) – it also intrudes upon the value and beauty of
temporally evolving activities and relations (e.g. husband to wife, parents to children,
friend to friend, citizens to country, teachers to students, etc.).32 Death is one of those
tragic accidents of life that cuts short love and other human valued projects, relationships
and activities in mid-course. But in the De Rerum Natura, Lucretius presents three
arguments aimed at showing the reader the contrary: that fear of death is irrational. 33 For
clarity, we will discuss these arguments in turn: Symmetry Argument, Value Argument,
and Population Argument

The Symmetry Argument claims that the time before we are born is, as all will
agree, a time that is of no concern to us: not in the sense that now, during our lives, we do
not take an interest in the events of history, as we clearly do, but in the sense that then,
we did not suffer either good or ill, even if good or bad things were then happening, since
we were not even in existence. So too the time after our death is, equally, of no concern
to us, in the sense that it is a time during which we can suffer neither good nor ill, no
matter what events are going on, since we will not even exist. 34 There is nothing to fear
in death (for we already ceased to exist to know what happens after death). Fear of death
is therefore irrational.

30
Naussbaum, p. 201
31
De Rerum Natura Bk. V, 177-178
32
For a comprehensive discussion of the arguments supporting the idea that death is rational, see Martha
Naussbaum’s Therapy of Desires, p.p. 204-209
33
Naussbaum, pp. 202 - 204
34
Symmetry argument is treated by Naussbaum as second Lucretian argument, the first being the
Epicurus’ argument. I don’t see any reason to present Epicurus’ argument here since the Lucretian
symmetry argument closely resembles this argument.

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According to Epicurus, those who insist the rationality of fearing death based on
some cherished values point to false values. These values are fear-producing values and
we do not necessarily need to hold on any of them (for instance marital love that derives
its completeness from a temporally extended structures, viz. love that exists as long as the
two partners are living); because if we do they block our enjoyment of mortal happiness,
precisely by convincing us that death is a loss. For Epicureans like Lucretius, healthy
undisturbed life is not a process on the way to some further goal beyond itself, making it
vulnerable to interruption before it might reach such goal. If its there it is there, and
nothing beyond that but that itself, is the end. In short, life and its pleasures must be
understood as life lived in every moment – that is, life that is complete, or self-sufficient,
once we do or act at all in a moment. 35

Within this new scheme, death will be non-fearful for we can see that the true
pleasure of being and living a mortal life does not project forward in time; so the
termination of death is exactly symmetrical to the threshold of birth.

The Value Argument describes life as akin to a banquet, it has a structure in time
that reaches a natural and appropriate termination; its value cannot be prolonged far
beyond that, without spoiling the value that preceeded. Mortals should therefore not
strive to prolong their lives indefinitely, since this will just spoil the pleasure of the life
they have.

Lucretius follows Epicurus in his repeated advice for man to live as mortal beings
within the limits of nature – man’s longing and greed for immortality must be rejected
and man must adhere to a form of life that is truly human and natural. Lucretius points to
his readers the fact that our human mortality is central or necessary if most of cherished
virtues and values are to remain important to humanly existence. Our finitude which
conditions all our awareness of other limits, is a constitutive factor in all valuable things
having for us the value that in fact they have (e.g. I love my wife the way I am loving her
now because I am aware of the uncertainty that I will live another day to show my love to
her, etc.). Love, and other valued activities, gets its point and its value within the
structure of human time as a relation and activity that extend over finite time.

Furthermore, the virtues and values we prize and cherish would not, as such, be
available to a godlike unlimited being.36 Consider the virtue of courage. According to
Lucretius, the gods cannot have the virtue of courage, as we know and honor it, because
it consists in a certain way of acting and reacting in the face of death and the risk of
death. A being who cannot take that risk cannot have that virtue. 37 It also implies, that the
various components of courage, such as friendship, love and love of country that consist
in a willingness to give up one’s life for the other must be absent– in deed, it must be
completely mysterious and obscure to people whose experience does not contain the
sense of mortality. If human mortality were removed, then the virtue of courage and all

35
Naussbaum, p. 213
36
Ibid, p.226
37
Ibid. p.227

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other virtues would become pointless. In short, the closer we come to mortality, the
closer we come to a human sense of the virtues and their importance. The further
mortality is removed, the further they are – and the more we become “strangers” to what
we really are.

Death therefore, must be perceived not as an evil – but a necessary condition if


virtues, like that of courage, will be meaningful. The removal therefore of all finitude in
general, mortality in particular, would not so much enable these values to survive
eternally as bring about the death of value as we know it. This reflection proves that the
fear of death and the longing for immortality are baseless, hence its irrationality.

The Population Argument aims to explain why individual death is necessary to


the interest of the whole population. If there are births but no deaths, this argument
claims, the world will become unlivable. There is need for the old to die eventually, so
that the young may live. Death is a natural process that is inherent to the nature of human
life and it must be accepted without fear. Fear of death therefore is irrational.

According to Lucretius, when we look at the natural world with love and concern
for it as a whole, and consider our own life or death in this perspective, as one life within
the whole, two things happen: first of all, our personal anxieties look small.38 Why should
we spend our lives preoccupied by the thought of our own death, when there is so much
in the universe to consider? Others have died; birth and death are both universal and
necessary; ours is no special case.

Contemplating and caring for the whole, Lucretius hopes to make us ashamed to
be wrapped up in ourselves. Second, when we look at our death in the light of the whole,
we understand that it is necessary for the continued health and life of the whole. This life
to which we stubbornly cling is not only a very large part of the whole, it is actually
required back from you, if the whole is to live well. If people never died, that would bring
all nature to a halt: no room for new birth, no resources for the newly born. Clinging to
life (beyond a reasonable limit) is selfishness and callousness toward other natural
beings. As Lucretius writes,

There is need of matter, so that future generations may grow. They too, having
lived out their lives, will follow you. Generations before this perished just like
you, and will perish again. Thus one thing will never stop arising from another.
Life is nobody’s private property, but is everyone’s to use.39

This argument, aside from removing the fear of death and its inappropriateness,
also diminishes the sense of injustice that frequently accompanies the thought of death.

The three arguments we have discussed in this section clearly suggest that by
revising disturbing views of the nature of death and to attach ourselves to pleasures which
have a self-sufficient structure, man could possibly put himself beyond the accidents of
life and shelter him from the immobilizing power of fear of death. By showing that the
38
Ibid, pp. 222-223
39
De Rerum Natura, Bk IV, 967-971

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fear of death is groundless, Lucretius hopes that man can learn to accept the finitude of
his existence, and strive to enjoy life within the limits of his mortality. These naturalistic
arguments of Lucretius are designed to help man positively reflect and appreciate the
important role of death in the system of things – to make the mortality of his life
enjoyable, not by adding on some infinite time, but by removing his longing for
immortality. Lucretius thinks, that his arguments are powerful enough in breaking the
hold of Religion on man.

Considering his radical conception of God and the human soul, and considering
his positive view of death, for many, Lucretius kept his promise – he indeed offers man
freedom from the disturbances wrought by Religion and superstition.

Or did he?

VII. Conclusion: Humans Becoming Gods?

According to Lucretius, knowing limits delivers an unlimited life. Man, when he


learns to accept the boundaries of nature is enabled to move beyond them and become
“equal to the heaven”: a mortal god, like the epicurean gods, who exist without fear, need
and disturbance. The grasp of the whole, Lucretius claims, takes the knower permanently
and decisively beyond the mortal condition, beyond the values system, therefore the
security of the God.

Thus, freeing oneself from the irrational fear of God, the Afterlife, and death, by
welcoming one’s finitude without fear and reluctance, is to free oneself from mere
mortality and to “live like gods among humans”. According to Lucretius, man, through
the teachings of Epicurus, becomes a mortal immortal:

“Epicurus is the foe of conventional religion; but he is also, in the ecomium, the
foe of nature and nature’s limits. His mind’s excellence is stirred up so that he,
first in history, desired passionately to burst through the narrow confines of the
gates of nature. Therefore the keen force of his mind conquered, and he
advanced far beyond the blazing walls of the universe and traversed the
immense whole with his mind and soul, whence, a conqueror, he brought back
to us the account of what can arise and what cannot, and by what rational
principle each thing has its power bounded, and its deep-set boundary stone.
Therefore religion is abased and trampled underfoot, and he makes us, with his
victory, equal to the heaves.”40

It might be objected that the Lucretian aspiration of mortal immortals is just a


new conception of the divine which still feeds in the same old longing for transcendence
– that is, instead of making us not to fear and hate our mortality, Lucretius simply
changed grounds from religious otherworldly longing to this worldly longing for
40
De Rerum Natura, Bk I, 70-79

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immortality (i.e. creation of worldly beauty and value that expresses the creator’s own
identity, and in which he can, live on in the world after his death, for instance, a book or a
work of art). However, this objection is not in order. Lucretian immortality is not a
historical continuity of the self. It is instead expressed in a single moment of godlike
thought: mortals, like gods, who lives with a calm mind.

Man becomes an immortal by living the tranquility of the gods; he becomes a


godlike being when he understands and lives the limits of his mortality. The limitation of
his mortality opens up inviting him to cross it and become like gods “who look on all
things with a mind at peace.”41 All things, including human sufferings and tragedies.

Freedom from fear of God, the afterlife and death enables man to exist in a
godlike tranquility amidst the chaos of his mortal existence.

It is here that Lucretius really becomes a convincing Epicurean evangelist. His


words may be considered a gospel of liberation from the bondage of superstition and
error, of inner peace attained through the study of philosophy and the enjoyment of
modest pleasures. It seems fair to say therefore that Titus Lucretius Carus, although his
philosophical reputation is based largely (and properly) on his role as one of the principle
sources and prime exponents of Epicureanism, his own ideas, especially his entirely
naturalistic explanation of the irrationality of death, exerts important influence on
Psychology and Western philosophy.

The Lucretian attack on Religion finds a rich justification in our present times.
The list of inhumanity committed by humans among themselves for the sake of religious
convictions is long. By properly magnifying the ills wrought by Religious beliefs on
humanity, Lucretius, knowingly or unknowingly, helps many among us to realize that far
from becoming humane because of our religion, we became inhumane, and we became
more fragmented and spiritually fractured.

However, Lucretius’ emphasis on the need to transform man into godlike beings
who looks on all things with mind at peace or with indifference has implications that are
themselves troubling. To see all things with mind at peace is to look at all things
including human miseries and injustices with calm and quiet. Exploitation and injustice
committed especially against the poor is something that moral agents should not consider
with indifference. It is our moral duty, as members of the humankind, to participate
actively, but properly, to help others in distress. If we pattern our puny lives to that of an
indifferent god, the world would be empty of caring shoulders to lean on. To have fellow-
feelings, serves well the epicurean goal of ataraxia. To be alone is disturbing and to have
a life of an indifferent god is to live a very lonely life – because who could earn a genuine
friendship if one is indifferent to the plight of others in dire needs? To foster a healthy
relationship with other people, sometimes we need to be bothered or to be disturbed in
order to act effectively on their miseries. We need to engage emotionally, as far as we
can, with other people in fulfilling their ends and projects in life.

41
Ibid. Bk V, 1203

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Personally, I find peace in the idea that it is better to be a human dissatisfied but
loved, rather than to be a God satisfied but purged of emotions.

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