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Epicurus on Death and Contentment

I'm Sam. I have a serious interest in practical philosophy and related topics. Mostly Epicureanism, stoicism, skepticism, rationalism.

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The Epicurean philosophy is all about reducing pain and anxiety. One of the largest anxieties that Epicurus tried to alleviate is fear of death. He believed that death would not bring pain or suffering and so did not need to cause fear. Eliminating this anxiety was a key part of living peacefully and happily within the Epicurean lifestyle.

Epicurus on the Soul

Epicurus believed that the entire world was built of indivisible particles, atoms, and space, which he called void. This includes the soul. Epicurus believed that soul atoms were distributed throughout the body, with some concentrated around the heart. The atoms of the body and mind together create the sensations of pain, pleasure, happiness, and unhappiness. When the body dies, the atoms of the soul also die. This means that all sensations, positive and negative, also end. Within Epicureanism, there is not a separate soul that continues living without the body after death.

“Death Is Nothing to Us”

During Epicurus’s life, it was important to him to help his followers let go of the fear of death. One of his most famous quotes about death comes from a letter he wrote to a friend Menoeceus. He wrote,

“Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror; for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are no terrors for them in ceasing to live.”

With the dispersal of atoms upon death, it will no longer be possible to be aware of anything, including pain or suffering. Death would mean the end of sensation and meaning. Death, therefore, loses its importance.

The Absence of an Afterlife

In contrast to many other Greek philosophers, Epicurus did not believe in an afterlife. Many Greeks were devoted to the pantheon of gods. Much like many modern religions, Greek theology taught people to believe that their actions would be judged by immortal beings. These judgments would determine whether their afterlife included happiness or suffering.

Greeks in particular feared suffering in the underworld of Hades. The absence of an afterlife, within Epicurean philosophy, meant that no one needed to fear suffering after death. It also meant that no one needed to worry about pleasing vengeful gods. It also eliminated the afterlife as an object of desire. Instead, Epicureans should focus on enjoying their mortal lives.

Eliminating the Fear of Death

Epicurus believed that fear of what would happen after death created pain and anxiety in the present. If people could accept that death would not bring any pain or suffering, they would no longer need to be afraid of death in their lifetime. This absence of fear helped to create a peaceful, untroubled mindset, called ataraxia within Greek philosophy. With this calm state of mind, Epicureans could enjoy the present and find happiness.

Ataraxia and Aponia

Within Epicureanism, the highest good is pleasure. Pleasure is not always a presence, however; sometimes it’s an absence: the absence of pain, the absence of desire, the absence of turmoil. These absences can create the foundation of a long-lasting, happy state of being. Ataraxia and aponia are two key ancient Greek terms that convey these important absences. They are important to many kinds of ancient philosophy and are particularly essential for understanding Epicureanism.

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Ataraxia Definition

In Ancient Greek, ataraxia translates to “untroubled.” Within philosophy, it refers to a calm, peaceful state of mind. It’s a kind of inner peace that enables a person to remain calm in the face of stress. The concept of ataraxia was first developed by Pyrrho, a Greek philosopher who lived from about 365-270 BC. Pyrrho joined Alexander the Great through wars in Persia and India, where he was exposed to Hinduism and Buddhism. Inspired by these religions, he brought a central belief in the importance of inner peace back to Greece. Here, he developed his philosophy of Pyrrhonism, with ataraxia at its center. Ataraxia would also go on to be central to Stoicism. Unlike in Pyrrhonism, where ataraxia itself is the ultimate goal, for Stoics, ataraxia is a tool to live a virtuous life.

Ataraxia in Epicureanism

For Epicurus and his followers, few things are more important than the absence of pain and disturbance. The goal of Epicureanism is not to maximize pleasures, but to find a balance and eliminate all negative feelings. Eliminating hunger, for example, is important, but eating to excess is bad and even creates negative feelings of bloating. Ataraxia is the ideal state of being free from mental disturbance. This state is particularly important because it helps people to avoid unproductive desires, such as the desires for wealth or fame. Ataraxia is both a state to work towards and a tool to help maintain an Epicurean mindset.

Aponia Definition

Aponia is an Ancient Greek term meaning “absence of pain.” It is the physical counterpart to ataraxia; whereas ataraxia refers to mental stress and disturbances, aponia refers to physical pain and tension. Much like ataraxia, aponia can help to create a sense of tranquility and security.

Aponia in Epicureanism

Within Epicureanism, there are multiple kinds of pleasures: kinetic – pleasures attained through action – and katastematic – pleasures attained from the absence of pain. The state of aponia is the epitome of katastematic pleasure. Epicurus believed that complete lack of pain was the absolute highest pleasure; efforts to achieve more pleasure would only lead to unhealthy desire and pain. Once a person has eliminated all bodily needs and pain, they have achieved aponia, an ideal form of pleasure and happiness.

Ataraxia and Aponia

Attaining both ataraxia and aponia is the ideal state for an Epicurean. It is key that these states do not mean maximizing positive pleasures, but eliminating negative feelings. For Epicurus, it was possible to experience either ataraxia or aponia without the other. While sick on his deathbed, for example, Epicurus took comfort in his happy mental state despite being in physical pain. However, perfect happiness would encompass both ataraxia and aponia, and the two mental states help to enforce each other. Knowing these two terms helps us to understand Epicureanism, and especially to see it as a moderate philosophy that tries to build a balanced lifestyle. For Epicurus and his followers, happiness is not a perfect positive, but the absence of negatives.

Further Reading

© 2020 Sam Shepards