There are many reasons people fear death. There are many consolations that one can take, other than the popular mainstay of organised religion. I am not going to discuss religion here, but rather the wisdom and ideas of ancient philosophers: Plato, the Stoics and Epicurus. It is interesting to explore differing views on death, to attempt to gain a better understanding for yourself personally.
Plato is perhaps the first true source for the concept of the immortality of the soul. In Phaedo, Plato’s eulogy for his teacher, Socrates, Socrates is on his deathbed after drinking hemlock and posits three arguments for the immortality of the soul. Where better to discuss death than on a deathbed?
Socrates has three arguments here; of Opposites, Recollection and Affinity. In the Argument of Opposites, it is argued that life and death are opposites and that “the living came from the dead, no less then the dead from the living”. So it seems we must exist in death, and there is a perpetual cycle.
In the Recollection Argument Socrates says that learning is just the mere act of recollecting things known before birth, and forgotten. True knowledge is knowledge of the eternal and unchanging Forms (Plato’s Forms could fill an entire article) but are essentially otherworldly ideals, which underlie our observable reality. An example is that we can perceive that two sticks are equal in length, but unequal in width, as we have an innate understanding of the Form of Equality, i.e. we know two things are equal as we have an innate understanding, despite no things actually being equal. This is how we gain our knowledge – recollecting. So, the soul must have existed prior to birth, and exists well beyond the body.
In the Affinity Argument Socrates argues his last point for the immortality of the soul; simple things are not liable to be blown apart, things that don’t change are likely to be incomposite things: Platonic Forms are always in the same state. Imperfect things are always changing, and therefore composite. Composite things are visible as opposed to incomposite things, which are invisible, thus the body is akin to the visible and the soul to the invisible. The soul is akin to the divine because it leads, and the body mortal as it follows, therefore the body dissolves and the soul is indissoluble. Death is the separation of the soul from the body.
As for the Stoics, they had a doctrine of pneuma; the spirit, force, creative fire that infuses humans. It is somewhat similar to Plato, but that the soul must be corporeal, as only physical things can split from physical things. Still, dying does not end one’s existence. Once the soul has separated from the body it still exists temporarily for a period of time. They are reabsorbed into the comic pneauma. There is a transformation and recycling of the body and soul back into the elements of which they were born. As the Stoic ex-slave Epictetus said, to be happy, one must free themselves from all baseless fears, the greatest being death, “The source of all human evils, and of mean-spiritedness and cowardice, is not death, but rather the fear of death” (Epictetus). Suicide and euthanasia are also touched upon. As Epictetus says, “the door is always open”. If suffering is intolerable, one is free to exit life, as death can be a welcomed refuge. Life and death are classed as “indifferents”, neither good nor bad in themselves. This may comfort and strengthen one’s resolve on life. Everything is ordained by nature. “Waiting for death with good grace”, said Marcus Aurelius, as death is natural and inevitable dispersal of atoms, not to be feared.
My personal favourite view of death, from these three brief explorations, comes form Epicurus. Basically, Epicurus believed that death was total annihilation, groups of atoms dispersing at death. He argues death is nothing to be feared, and is not a bad thing. It is not bad for the living, as they are not dead, nor for the dead, as they do not exist. If death causes no pain once dead, then it is foolish to allow fear of it to cause you pain now; “Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains the prospect”. He argues that we do not think that eternal non-existence prior to birth to be a bad things, thus neither should we with regards to death. The fear of death is an empty desire. It does no relate to a genuine need, and can never be satisfied or alleviated; there is no genuine antecedent. Dying is beyond all good and evil, as it is the deprivation of all sentience. Death is not bad for those who have died. Our view of death as despicable is mistaken and founded in illusion.
To further this, the Epicurean view of the soul is that it consists of atoms, and is an incorporeal entity that cannot act or be moved by the body. These atoms are distributed throughout the body, and allow us to have sensations (aistheseis), and pain and pleasure. A body sans soul is unconscious and inert, and as the atoms that make the body are disarranged in death, the soul atoms scatter, and there is no more sensation or sentience.
Naturally, one could argue there are many flaws in these ideas. Plato’s arguments presuppose a dualist view of the self – mind (ideal) and body, and that we never have a true understanding of our world. There is no distinction between being dead and acquiring this dead property. Is it true that incomposite things cannot be destroyed? Is the soul incomposite? Are his Forms true? The Stoics view on death with indifference and lack of consequences raises many moral questions that could lead into callous territory. The Epicurean view does not acknowledge the impacts of death for those close to the deceased and raises questions on exactly what desires are, and how they are satisfied and fulfilled, or not, upon death, and how that impacts negatively on the individual and others. I am not here to go into counter-arguments, just to raise a few points for thought.
What are your views on death, and fears of death? Let me know in the comments.
- Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary Of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.
- Cook, Vincent. “Epicurus – Letter To Menoeceus”. net. N.p., 2016. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.
- O’Keefe, Tim. “Epicurus | Internet Encyclopedia Of Philosophy”. utm.edu. N.p., 2016. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.
- Russell, Bertrand. A History Of Western Philosophy, And Its Connection With Political And Social Circumstances From The Earliest Times To The Present Day. Print.
- Speaks, Jeff. “Platonic Arguments For The Immortality Of The Soul”. nd.edu. N.p., 2006. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.
- Stephens, William. “William O. Stephens, Creighton University – Stoic Philosophy & Death”. org. N.p., 2016. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.