How to not fear your death
Dresser (Sam)
Source: Aeon, 19 August 2020
Paper - Abstract

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  1. This is a “Guide” from Psyche - presumably aimed at those who are troubled at the thought of their own deaths, rather than dispassionately interested in the Philosophy of Death1.
  2. That said, there are no links to counselling services, so it may be a non-standard “Guide”.
  3. It does, however, follow the standard format, ie:-
    1. Need to know
    2. What to do
    3. Key points
    4. Learn more
    5. Links & books
  4. Precis & analysis (broken down into the five-part structure of the paper):-
    1. Need to know
      • We don’t normally think of our future or impending deaths, but circumstances eventually place before us the fact that “(we) are but a fleeting speck of an event in the infinite history of the Universe”. This remark is interesting on two counts:-
        1. Life2 as an event.
        2. Most of our life is lived – mindless of our impending doom – as the life of Ivan Ilych3 until a crisis wakes us up.
      • Thomas Nagel argued that death is the “great deprivation”: there is always more life to be lived that death takes away.
      • So, the fear of death is a fairly rational preoccupation. How can it be overcome? Two options mentioned – but not otherwise considered in this paper – are:-
        1. To plan for a sequel to this life in a new, happier realm: Resurrection4.
        2. Take life as cyclical. Death is a mere interlude. I take this as a reference to Reincarnation5.
      • While these have “something to recommend them”, they are set aside here and the rest of the paper proceeds on the assumption that “you exist, but one day you won’t”.
      • Unfortunately – though this is not really spelt out – this undermines much of the comfort Epicurianism can provide. As Shakespeare - Hamlet Act III, Scene I ('To be, or not to be') puts it:
          But that the dread of something after death,
          The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
          No traveller returns, puzzles the will
          And makes us rather bear those ills we have
          Than fly to others that we know not of?
          Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

      • The idea that we should be grateful for life’s finitude – in providing focus and avoiding eternal tedium – is left until the final section; after the Key Points, in the “Learn More” Section. See the Makropulos Case6, which – for some reason – is not actually referenced.
    2. What to do
      • A Brief introduction7 to Epicurus and his school is given. They are not as generally understood – but they claim that goal of the good life is relief from pain and suffering and hence moderation is recommended. The fear of death interferes with the enjoyment of life, which is why it’s important that the matter is resolved.
      • This can be achieved in the usual three steps:-
        1. If death is the end, then any attempt to imagine ourselves being dead leads to contradiction. Being dead isn’t an experience anyone can have. Rather unhelpfully, I thought, the author adds that “Death isn’t really a thing at all”. Whoever thought it was?
        2. In De Rerum Natura8, Lucretius gives the Symmetry Argument. We were not bothered by the period of our non-existence before our birth, so why be worried by our non-existence after our death? I doubt many people go along with the alleged symmetry, because of the asymmetry of time. Prior to your conception, there was no “you”, and therefor no-one suffered loss by non-existence. But after your birth, there is a “you” who can suffer loss. More might be said.
        3. Examine how much nothingness is to be feared. When dead, you are then not being deprived of anything, because you don’t exist. Of course, we may fear the process of dying. But “being dead” isn’t a problem at the time; yet, we are deprived of the goods we might have expected if our life is unexpectedly cut short. It is a bad thing if we’ve prudently deprived ourselves of X in order to achieve Y later, and then are prevented from enjoying Y by premature death. But explaining who is hurt at the time Y would have been enjoyed is difficult. The author has an odd comment – that someone who died centuries ago isn’t “more dead” than someone who died last week. OK, but what’s the relevance of this fact? I suppose we might say that someone who died prematurely last week would now be enjoying life, while that’s not true of someone who died centuries ago. But, any harms that accrued to someone on account of lost opportunities didn’t accrue to them when they were dead. That said, there are difficult questions as to whether the dead can be harmed (eg. by posthumously blackening their names).
      • The author points out that there’s a distinction between concern about you – or others’ – deaths insofar as they impact on others and insofar as they impact on themselves. It is rational to worry about who will have to pay off your debts after you die, or about the future deaths of those you care about, but not about how things will be for you after you die. I think it is rational for you now to be concerned about what will result from your efforts – your projects – after you die; such concerns affect your peace of mind now, but are something you can attempt to do something about while you are alive. But it’s not rational to imagine yourself – dead – gnashing your teeth as people scrap everything you spent your life building up.
      • The author concludes by asking whether Epicurus is successful at allaying our fears of death, and decides that in general he is not, except when we are in an appropriate mood. He says “the argument isn’t strong enough”, but doesn’t say why. My view, as I mentioned above, is that the argument just assumes that death is the end, and no one can be sure that it is, however rational it might be to assume so. Anyway, he suggests that James Warren argues for the use of Epicurianism as a form of cognitive therapy.
    3. The author’s “key points9” are as follows:-
      • The end of your existence is inevitable. The question is whether or not you should fear it.
      • Epicurus, and many others besides, have argued that there are reasons not to fear death.
      • His argument, essentially, is this: when you are alive, death is nothing. When you are dead, life is nothing.
      • The argument is meant to relieve only some of the fear of death and to give you a new vista from which to enjoy your own fleeting time on Earth. Banishing all fear of death would turn you into something barely human, as fanatics the world over have amply demonstrated.
      • Philosophy can be a useful meditation on what it is to live well. Thinking about one’s own death can focus one’s attention on what it is that makes life so valuable.
    4. Learn more
      • We are referred to "Nagel (Thomas) - Death" (1970) for the “deprivation view” of death being a harm to the one who dies. It is claimed that this gives us a reason to fear death, but I suspect this isn’t the same claim: it might be that death is a harm, but not one that we should fear, but accommodate: maybe by – while not failing to think long-term, also adjust our desires so that whatever we do – however prudentially inspired or dependent on future contingencies for its success – is also fulfilling in the short term. Live for the moment.
      • We are also referred to Ben Bradley’s Well-Being and Death who compares possible worlds to the effect that the one in which (eg.) Frank Ramsey lived longer than his 26 years is better than the actual world. The author points out that this loses sight of the first-person perspective10 and I would add (again) that while the actual world is worse than the one in which Ramsey lives on, for us and for Frank, there is no reason for him to fear his early demise.
      • We now get to the “positive good” of death in giving shape and focus to our lives, and avoiding endless tedium and repetition. As noted previously, he doesn’t reference the Makropulos Case11. But he’s right to say that “the fact of death makes life more brilliant and precious”. “Embodiment” is mentioned in this context, as though it’s the problem with immortality. I can’t see the connection, given how important embodiment is for us as essentially-embodied beings (I would claim). I don’t find the transhumanists12’ hopes of (almost) eternal disembodied existence13 any more appealing (though I’m not sure “living in a computer” is in fact disembodied).
    5. A reading list is supplied:-
  5. Final Comments:
    • The fly in the ointment is that no-one can really know for sure that death is the end.
    • I agree that – if death is the end – imagining “being dead” makes no sense.
    • I’m unimpressed by the symmetry argument – someone who has never existed cannot suffer loss by failing to come into existence, while …
    • Death was a harm to someone who did exist, though not something to be feared.
    • I don’t agree that banishing all fear of death would make us inhuman (like suicide bombers). I wouldn’t count at least some of those who are at least alleged to have gone to their deaths cheerfully (Socrates, Hume, …) as inhuman.
    • I’m not convinced that an unending life would be intolerable, though I agree that the brevity of our lives gives them focus. At least it should, but we still tend to live them as though we are immortal until close to the end.


In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 7: Footnote 8: Footnote 9: Footnote 15: This book is rather expensive for me to buy, and probably too peripheral for me to read, though it looks fascinating. The Amazon book description is as follows:-
  • The ancient philosophical school of Epicureanism tried to argue that death is "nothing to us." Were they right? James Warren provides a comprehensive study and articulation of the interlocking arguments against the fear of death found not only in the writings of Epicurus himself, but also in Lucretius' poem De rerum natura and in Philodemus' work De morte. These arguments are central to the Epicurean project of providing ataraxia (freedom from anxiety) and therefore central to an understanding of Epicureanism as a whole. They also offer significant resources for modern discussions of the value of death - one which stands at the intersection of metaphysics and ethics. If death is the end of the subject, and the subject can not be benefited nor harmed after death, is it reasonable nevertheless to fear the ceasing-to-be? If the Epicureans are not right to claim that the dead can neither be benefited nor harmed, what alternative models might be offered for understanding the harm done by death and do these alternatives suffer from any further difficulties? The discussion involves consideration of both ethical and metaphysical topics since it requires analysis not only of the nature of a good life but also the nature of personal identity and time. A number of modern philosophers have offered criticisms or defences of the Epicureans' views. Warren explores and evaluates these in the light of a systematic and detailed study of the precise form and intention of the Epicureans' original arguments.
  • Warren argues that the Epicureans also were interested in showing that mortality is not to be regretted and that premature death is not to be feared. Their arguments for these conclusions are to be found in their positive conception of the nature of a good and complete life, which divorce the completeness of a life as far as possible from considerations of its duration. Later chapters investigate the nature of a life lived without the fear of death and pose serious problems for the Epicureans being able to allow any concern for the post mortem future and being able to offer a positive reason for prolonging a life which is already complete in their terms.

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