Epicurus, Death and the Everyday.
Epicurus states that death should mean “nothing to us” and this phrase has caused much debate over the years. When one examines the man himself and his ideologies, however, it soon becomes clear that he intends for us to see death as inconsequential to the way we live our lives and to the way we face adversity. But is it possible to apply Epicurean beliefs to today’s lifestyle and more importantly, would we want to?
The basic tenet of the philosophy of Epicurus in relation to death is thus: Death is an event that cannot be experienced with the senses; therefore it should not be feared because we will not be conscious of the occurrence (Pawlowski, n.d., p. 9). At the core of all Epicurean philosophies is that a good life comes from the attainment of sober, moderate and subdued happiness. While attempting to obtain the good life, it is expected that one will be focusing on friendship, self-sufficiency and living in the ‘now’. The concept is to attain pleasure by avoiding pain (Cooper, Arrington, & Rachels, 1998, pp. 47-58). However, it is also valued to live solely in the present and to not aim towards a future as a future will either come or it will not. If it does then you shall live it following the ideals of the Epicurean belief structure. If it does not, then you will not be capable of feeling anything. Pawlowski (n.d., p.9) summed up this ideal succinctly when he wrote: “If one’s desire to remove pain and fear is satisfied, one does not desire anything more, including the prolongation of life.”
It is important to note that Epicurus lived in a self-sufficient commune called ‘The Garden’ (Sinnerbrink, n.d.). According to writings, he maintained a ‘magnetic charm’ which accounts for his large following that were able to learn his words by rote (Marshall, 2007, pp. 537-538). From all accounts, the philosopher lived a life of simple tastes and moderate desires. However, his ideology was both sparse and limited with many of his core beliefs merely borrowed concepts from previous philosophers (Marshall, 2007, p. 543). His doctrine utilised atomism, perfectly reproduced from the philosopher Democritus and he relied heavily on his self-taught dogmas with little regard to the subject of logic. He was unable to provide a theory of definition, division, ratiocination, refutation or explication and this left him open to denunciation. When one considers the meaning of the term ‘Epicurean’ in today’s society (indulgence in all that is pleasurable), it is obvious his philosophy has failed to retain its root beliefs.
When examining Epicurus, it is not difficult to draw parallels to other cult leaders like Charles Manson, Joseph Di Mambro, David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite (Turco, 2006). In each situation, clusters of people lived in a commune together, following the ideology of one charismatic leader in a worshipful manner. Despite flaws in the dogma proselytised by the cult, there were many willing to make enormous changes to their own lifestyles to fulfil the requirements of the sect. This cult-like behaviour echoed by Epicurus makes it particularly difficult to add credibility to his philosophy and to apply his teachings to our everyday lives.
To live our lives today following Epicurean philosophy would require a dramatic shift to our current lifestyle paradigm. There would be no employment, no superannuation and no long service loyalty programs. Life would still be living on farms and gardens, without any form of technology. The world would still be enormous, with little understanding of other cultures or ideals. A life with such a narrow minded viewpoint would be very difficult to adopt. But it is not only the ‘living in the now’ that would be problematic. Removing all religious and cultural icons would dramatically alter our landscape with both positive and negative results. Furthermore, following Epicurean ideals, we would still be not answering the basic philosophical questions of “Why am I here, where am I going and Where did I come from?” This lack of resolution would cause even more difficulties for people than they are currently experiencing because we have filled those voids with consumerism, religion and other doctrines. It is also apparent that to live to the dogma outlined by Epicurus would mean that nobody could fulfil their potential because to do so would mean taking risks, something that is the antithesis of pain avoidance. This lifestyle would also mean that no-one would live beyond their means which would change society’s economic structure and radically revise our reliance on currency.
In summary, Epicurus provides us with a doctrine that is unfeasible in today’s society and one that is littered with unanswerable questions. He does not provide a sound base for a lifestyle choice, nor does he give a sound structure on which to support our future. While his legacy may continue to live on for philosophers, it should be a constant reminder that life is very nuanced and complex; Epicurus and his philosophy is not suited to a 21st century world.