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Monday, October 5, 2009

Reading the famous 2300-year-old quadrilemma of Epicurus ...

... "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?", convinced me that he was not your average philosopher and so I read on.

Having attended a number of funerals this year, as one does when one gets to my age, I was drawn to what Epicurus had to say about death and the fear of death:

"Don't worry about death." While you are alive, you don't have to deal with being dead, but when you are dead you don't have to deal with it either, because you aren't there to deal with it. "Death is nothing to us," as Epicurus puts it, for "when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist." Death is always irrelevant to us, even though it causes considerable anxiety to many people for much of their lives. Worrying about death casts a general pall over the experience of living, either because people expect to exist after their deaths and are humbled and terrified into ingratiating themselves with the gods, who might well punish them for their misdeeds, or else because they are saddened and terrified by the prospect of not existing after their deaths. But there are no gods which threaten us, and, even if there were, we would not be there to be punished. Our souls are flimsy things which are dissipated when we die, and even if the stuff of which they were made were to survive intact, that would be nothing to us, because what matters to us is the continuity of our experience, which is severed by the parting of body and soul. It is not sensible to be afraid of ceasing to exist, since you already know what it is like not to exist; consider any time before your birth - was it disagreeable not to exist? And if there is nothing bad about not existing, then there is nothing bad for your friend when he ceases to exist, nor is there anything bad for you about being fated to cease to exist. It is a confusion to be worried by your mortality, and it is an ingratitude to resent the limitations of life, like some greedy dinner guest who expects an indefinite number of courses and refuses to leave the table.

I was so attracted to Epicurus's reasoning that I searched ebay for his writings as it would make absorbing reading in the quiet hours of my forthcoming Bali-trip. Not surprisingly, the local ebay has neither a copy of "The Essential Epicurus" nor "The Epicurus Reader" whereas there are several dozen on offer overseas. I suppose unless it's printed on the back of a cornflakes packet, it just won't become general reading in this country!