"I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care"



From Wikipedia's page on Epicurus:

He also believed (contra Aristotle) that death was not to be feared. When a man dies, he does not feel the pain of death because he no longer is and he therefore feels nothing. Therefore, as Epicurus famously said, "death is nothing to us." When we exist death is not, and when death exists we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the belief that in death there is awareness.

From this doctrine arose the Epicurean epitaph: Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care) – which is inscribed on the gravestones of his followers and seen on many ancient gravestones of the Roman Empire. This quote is often used today at humanist funerals.

Is there a term that encompasses the belief that there is no awareness in death and that it is not to be feared? Is such a belief peculiar to Epicureanism? If not, which are the other philosophies or religions that share it?


Posted 2012-12-07T17:17:27.073

Reputation: 686



Such a belief is not peculiar to Epicurus. Here are some similar points of view:

With that said, it's difficult to see who was or wasn't (exactly) a monist or dualist (in the Cartesian sense) in ancient philosophy. Thales and Empedocles are particularly tricky. They are both Physicalists (this is a very loose categorization), but Empedocles mentions the transmigration of souls.

Aristotle is also difficult to place. He writes (in De Anima):

. . . the soul does not exist without a body and yet is not itself a kind of body. For it is not a body, but something which belongs to a body, and for this reason exists in a body, and in a body of such-and-such a kind (414a20ff).

So there's a soul which is a property of the body, but we're not sure how this relates to the nature of the particular thing or whether or not humans as well as dogs have a soul. The soul is matter and it seems to die with the body (just how it happens in Epicurus). I think Epicurus' argument is pretty airtight. If you believe that there is no existence after death, fearing what happens during the state of death is irrational.

Even stranger is the fact that Socrates actually embraced death (as death would bring one's soul closer to the forms). So we can actually have a position where the soul is immortal and death is actually welcomed.

David Titarenco

Posted 2012-12-07T17:17:27.073

Reputation: 1 416

Good summary, except Epicureas' argument assumes that the only reason to fear death is that you will be aware of what happens. I might say goodbye to a loved one who is going overseas and who I will never see again, and yet still worry about doing all that I can to make sure they are well! From an evolutionary perspective, the value of fearing death is to keep you alive for long enough to have an adequate number of children; animals with a life-cycle where they produce a large number of offspring and then die do not typically seem to struggle against the final death (even if eaten). – Rex Kerr – 2012-12-08T16:07:47.037

I hesitate to open this can of worms, but @RexKerr - do you see no value in the sense of loss at a loved grandparent's death? I don't think Epicurus ever meant to say we should not mourn, which is what you appear to be implying- or at least, that such a value is irrational. If it's irrational, then such a death should never be feared, as it fits the bill of evolutionary necessity. I'd offer yhat the inevitable sense of loss is of itself still to be feared, even though that makes no bones about Epicurus's statement for the subject. – Ryder – 2012-12-08T23:45:46.050

@RyderDain - That doesn't follow from what I said at all. You may wish to have additional interactions with your grandparent and be sorry when they are gone. That is perfectly adequate to justify mourning, and inasmuch as it is sensible to fear sadness and lack of future opportunities and interactions, one can fear their passing. And the loved one may (rationally) fear for your well-being after they're gone, and therefore fear dying on your behalf. – Rex Kerr – 2012-12-09T00:12:35.023

1@RexKerr - No, you're right. I think I was conflating David's answer with your comment and getting hung up on your statement vis à vis evolutionary necessity. Let it be a warning to anyone- don't try to write responses when you've a couple liters of beer in you. – Ryder – 2012-12-09T13:51:07.707

1Thank you. It's been fascinating reading up on all this. Isn't Socrates' POV—soul goes to a better place—the same as most religions? – coleopterist – 2012-12-14T17:57:54.480

In a sort of naive way, yeah. But Socrates also believed in the transmigration of souls, and (from what I've understood) a finite amount of souls - which would prevent population growth. Also, his argument was that what we learned, we mostly learned during a state of death (see the Phaedo). It's a strange but interesting position. – David Titarenco – 2012-12-14T20:58:19.737