Is Epicurus right that a wise person does not fear death?

(Hi. This is an essay I wrote for a competition. Hope you enjoy.)

Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

—Dylan Thomas

It would be prudent to first clarify what the word ‘wise’ is before setting out answering the question: Wisdom is not intelligence—the ability to solve mathematical problems or understand abstract notions; nor is it knowledge—the storage of facts and theories. Wisdom, as discussed in this essay, is a clarity in one’s understanding of life and death. The wise person, it follows, is the one with the most reasonable attitude towards life and death.

To answer the question, I will examine first Epicurus’ and Plato’s arguments for a positive answer to the question at stake in the essay, which I would argue, fails. Then, I will examine Dostoevsky, Seneca, Heidegger, and Nietzsche’s arguments, each of them sharing with each other the trait that they argue for a realm of life that ‘death’ has ‘no dominion’ over, and therefore, is not feared by the wise.

Epicurus’ argument goes as follows: we fear death only because we believe it is bad in some way, however, death cannot be bad for anyone since “when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist…”. Death, to the lived human being, is nothing, become they will never cross paths. Therefore, “Death…is nothing to us…”, and the wise person would not fear death.

Plato (or Socrates), in the Phaedo, provides another argument: If the duality between the transient and material body, and the immaterial and immortal soul is true, as Plato believes it to be, it follows that the wise ones would not fear death, since the soul shall not perish along with the dead of the body. The wise, instead, would even look forward to it, as it untethers them from their body—with its tedious biological processes—into the realm of pure thought, the only realm that matters to the wise.

There is, however, a successful objection to both Socrates and Epicurus, presented in Hamlet’s famous Soliloquy. Hamlet says:

To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;

The flaw in both Epicurus’ and Socrates’ arguments is that they are both assuming what the experience of death is like—in Epicurus’ case, nothingness; in Socrates’ case, bliss in pure thought—and this move is unjustified, because the “dreams” that “may come”, could be one that “gives us pause”. This, although does not fully discredit Epicurus and Socrates’ argument, shows that it is much less robust than it claims to be.

Not all is lost, however, for one can find a different kind of argument that dispels with the fear of death but does not presuppose any post-death experience. For these, we can look to Dostoevsky, Seneca, Heidegger, and Nietzsche.

 In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky gave an irrationalist argument for the groundlessness of the fear of death—that in genuine love, immortality would be self-evidently felt.To try to explain this account in the form of an argument, would be that by subordinating our self-interests to another entity through love, we would be able to feel in our lives something much more enduring than that fleeting moment of the consciousness of the self—which ends with death—between two ‘eternities of darkness’. Therefore, the wise person, whose wisdom consists in his love and understanding, should not fear death, for Death has no ‘dominion’ over love.

Dostoevsky’s argument is much more difficult to refute, mainly because it relies on an experience of intense love. It may be said, however, that it is much too reliant on emotion, rather than reason, which, the wise person, in its relentless questioning, would not accept.

Seneca, however, provided an argument that relied not on emotion, but rationality. To Seneca, as with the Stoics before him, fear, just like all other emotions, rises out of confusion. Firstly, only things that are invariably bad should be feared. Since death is not always negative to the person who suffers it—to a slave who has lost all of his freedom, for example—death is not negative and therefore the fear of death is completely irrational. Secondly, the emotion of fear, even responding to an unequivocally bad, is still counterproductive and irrational, for, to the stoics, all emotions rise out of irrationality. Third—and Seneca argues passionately on this point—only the person who is not afraid of death can be considered truly free, for the choice to die when the circumstance warrants it is no less a freedom than any other action. Seneca says: “just as I shall select my ship when I am about to go on a voyage… so I shall choose my death when I am about to depart from life.”, and this is no different for the wise person, being the paragon of virtuous understanding and the freest person. Thus, for the rational, wise person, death shall have no ‘dominion’.

Seneca’s argument, in some sense, refutes Dostoevsky’s one, in so far as it is predicated on a refutation of the validity of emotion. But it refutes Dostoevsky’s argument in such a way that the refutation, though refutes his argument, supports his conclusion. In this, the case for a positive answer to the question that we are currently investigating is strengthened. The combination between Seneca and Dostoevsky’s arguments is similar to Bertrand Russel’s famous argument against Naïve realism. (Russel’s argument being that since Physics presupposes Naïve realism, and Physics shows that Naïve realism is wrong, Naïve realism, whether Physics is right or wrong, is wrong.)

Building upon the previous conclusion, there are two different kinds of arguments from Heidegger and Nietzsche that I wish to discuss, which would strengthen the case that a wise person does not fear death.

Heidegger agrees with Seneca that fear rises out of confusion. He distinguishes between the mode of fear and the mode of anxiety. Fear arises out of inauthenticity, of Dasein not realizing its own potentialities-of-Being, whereas anxiety is characteristic of the authentic mode of Being (and the authentic mode of Being, for Heidegger, is something analogous, though not completely the same as being wise). In authenticity there is nothing to fear—there is even no Dasein to be anxious, for only “anxiety is anxious”. In fact, in his analysis of Dasein’s temporality, Heidegger asserts that it is death that provides Dasein’s everyday activities with meaning, just as for Aristotle it is the telos that gives every object its purpose. In this sense, death is something to be affirmed.

In Heidegger, the question is not so much answered, but dissolved. His is less of an argument but a description of a phenomenon that, once he directs one to see it with him, would dispel away with any question. For the wise person, who here could perhaps be defined as the anticipatorily resolute (his jargon for the conditions of authenticity) Dasein that lives in authenticity, would never experience fear. Death has no ‘dominion’ over the authentic, wise person.

Nietzsche argues in a similar fashion as Heidegger, although Nietzsche, instead of pointing one to a phenomenon, defines the wise person, amongst many other attributes, to be that who would not fear death. His concept of amor fati (love of fate)—the ideal for the truly great and wise man (the Übermensch/Superman/Overman)—requires one to love every moment, no matter good or bad, of one’s life, including death. The wise person affirms death as he affirms everything else that comes at him as an inescapable part of fate. Whatever ‘dominion’ death shall have; it will not dominate the noble, Aristocratic (in the typically Nietzschean fashion) love of fate that the wise person possesses in virtue of his wisdom.

I agree with Epicurus in his statement, that a wise person does not fear death, although I do not agree with his argument—for it overlooks an aspect of death: its murky uncertainty. For the same reason, Socrates’ argument does not convince me. However, the pair of arguments of Dostoevsky and Seneca, which contradicts each other and at the same time proving the same thing, has great validity. So do Heidegger and Nietzsche’s position, since both of their arguments cannot be refuted logically, but only believed or not believed: Heidegger pointing one to the mode of Being of the wise person in which the fear of death dissolute, and Nietzsche defining the wise person in such a way that it cannot fear death. These are my grounds for agreeing with Epicurus’s conclusion, in that there are spheres of life (love, in rationality, in authenticity, or in amor fati), which the wise person lives in that Death has no dominion over, and therefore would not be feared by the wise person.

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