Once again this past week I had the unfortunate experience of losing to death a valued member of my family. Times like this are the ultimate test of the value of a philosophy — a philosophy that does not address the most emotional issues of life and death is little more than a parlor game.
Epicurus had much to say about death, starting with Principle Doctrine Two and his famous line “death is nothing to us.” But what did his philosophy offer on how to deal with the situation when our loved ones precede us in death? As always, we note the profound disadvantage of having so few texts left to us. Among those that survive, however, there are several on point, and from the rest much more can be deduced. I will leave the deducing to Frances Wright and quote an extensive selection from Chapter 10 of her “A Few Days In Athens” below.
But first, recall that this topic is raised even in the Principle Doctrines, where we are told that the loss of a loved one does not call for pity, at least not if we have lived according to true philosophy:
PD40. Those who possess the power to defend themselves against threats by their neighbors, being thus in possession of the surest guarantee of security, live the most pleasant life with one another; and their enjoyment of the fullest intimacy is such that if one of them dies prematurely, the others do not lament his death as though it called for pity.
Why should we not lament the death of an Epicurean friend? The answer is found in PD19 and PD20, and applies both to ourselves and to others – unlimited time is not necessary for us to experience a full life:
PD19. Unlimited time and limited time afford an equal amount of pleasure, if we measure the limits of that pleasure by reason.
PD20. The flesh receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, intellectually grasping what the end and limit of the flesh is, and banishing the terrors of the future, procures a complete and perfect life, and we have no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless the mind does not shun pleasure, and even when circumstances make death imminent, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.
Those who have lived according to Epicurean principles can look forward to saying the following whenever they face death:
VS47. I have anticipated you, Fortune, and entrenched myself against all your secret attacks. And we will not give ourselves up as captives to you or to any other circumstance; but when it is time for us to go, spitting contempt on life and on those who here vainly cling to it, we will leave life crying aloud in a glorious triumph-song that we have lived well.
VS48. While we are on the road, we must try to make what is before us better than what is past; when we come to the road’s end, we feel a smooth contentment.
We who are left behind when a friend dies can also say:
“VS55. We should find solace for misfortune in the happy memory of what has been and in the knowledge that what has been cannot be undone.
But for a much more eloquent statement of the ramification of these truths, let’s refer to Frances Wright’s A Few Days In Athens. The following is from Chapter 10, and comes in the middle of a discourse by Epicurus on core parts of his ethical theory. The selection can be listened to at the embedded video below. If the video starts for at Chapter 9, skip to 26:59, or click here for a direct link to the part quoted below.
Here is Epicurus as Frances Wright believed he would speak:
But there is yet a pain, which the wisest and the best of men cannot escape; that all of us, my sons, have felt, or have to feel. Do not your hearts whisper it? Do you not tell me, that in death there is yet a sting? That ere he aim at us, he may level the beloved of our soul? The father, whose tender care hath reared our infant minds — the brother, whom the same breast hath nourished, and the same roof sheltered, with whom, side by side, we have grown like two plants by a river, sucking life from the same fountain and strength from the same sun — the child whose gay prattle delights our ears, or whose opening understanding fixes our hopes —the friend of our choice, with whom we have exchanged hearts, and shared all our pains and pleasures, whose eye hath reflected the tear of sympathy, whose hand hath smoothed the couch of sickness.
Ah! my sons, here indeed is a pain — a pain that cuts into the soul. There are masters that will tell you otherwise; who will tell you that it is unworthy of a man to mourn even here. But such, my sons, speak not the truth of experience or philosophy, but the subtleties of sophistry and pride. He who feels not the loss, hath never felt the possession. He who knows not the grief, hath never known the joy. See the price of a friend in the duties we render him, and the sacrifices we make to him, and which, in making, we count not sacrifices, but pleasures. We sorrow for his sorrow; we supply his wants, or, if we cannot, we share them. We follow him to exile. We close ourselves in his prison; we soothe him in sickness; we strengthen him in death: nay, if it be possible, we throw down our life for his. Oh! What a treasure is that for which we do so much! And is it forbidden to us to mourn its loss? If it be, the power is not with us to obey. Should we, then, to avoid the evil, forego the good? Shall we shut love from our hearts, that we may not feel the pain of his departure? No; happiness forbids it. Experience forbids it.
Let him who hath laid on the pyre the dearest of his soul, who hath washed the urn with the bitterest tears of grief — let him say if his heart hath ever formed the wish that it had never shrined within it him whom he now deplores. Let him say if the pleasures of the sweet communion of his former days doth not still live in his remembrance. If he love not to recall the image of the departed, the tones of his voice, the words of his discourse, the deeds of his kindness, the amiable virtues of his life. If, while he weeps the loss of his friend, he smiles not to think that he once possessed him. He who knows not friendship, knows not the purest pleasure of earth. Yet if fate deprive us of it, though we grieve, we do not sink; Philosophy is still at hand, and she upholds us with fortitude.
And think, my sons, perhaps in the very evil we dread, there is a good; perhaps the very uncertainty of the tenure gives it value in our eyes; perhaps all our pleasures take their zest from the known possibility of their interruption. What were the glories of the sun, if we knew not the gloom of darkness? What the refreshing breezes of morning and evening, if we felt not the fervors of noon? Should we value the lovely-flower, if it bloomed eternally; or the luscious fruit, if it hung always on the bough? Are not the smiles of the heavens more beautiful in contrast with their frowns, and the delights of the seasons more grateful from their vicissitudes? Let us then be slow to blame nature, for perhaps in her apparent errors there is hidden a wisdom. Let us not quarrel with fate, for perhaps in our evils lie the seeds of our good. Were our body never subject to sickness, we might be insensible to the joy of health. Were our life eternal, our tranquillity might sink into inaction. Were our friendship not threatened with interruption, it might want much of its tenderness.
This, then, my sons, is our duty, for this is our interest and our happiness; to seek our pleasures from the hands of the virtues, and for the pain which may befall us, to submit to it with patience, or bear up against it with fortitude. To walk, in short, through life innocently and tranquilly; and to look on death as its gentle termination, which it becomes us to meet with ready minds, neither regretting the past, nor anxious for the future.”
Today’s post is in honor of my departed friend who eleven years ago appeared on my doorstep and selected me to be his caretaker. He transformed this dog-lover into a dog-lover who also appreciates cats, and he eventually inspired my “Catius’ Cat poems. This photo shows him modeling a prototype “tripod of truth.”