Peace and Safety to the Epicureans among us, no matter where you might be!
As we in the northern hemisphere approach both the end of another year and the shortest day within that year, we should take the opportunity to remind ourselves that all things — including human life — come to an end. Many people take this aspect of Epicureanism as evidence that it is a grim and gloomy system, when nothing could be further from the truth. As is stated clearly in the ancient sources, we should think about death for the same reason we think about all other aspects of nature — because it informs us as to how we should live!
If death never came to humans, if we lived forever, then life would not be the precious commodity that it is. We would soon find ourselves jaded as to the merits of life, just as Lucretius observed that most men become jaded at the sight of the stars, and thereafter fail to look up at them.
To observe that we are mortal, and that we have a fixed limit of time within which to live our lives, is nothing more than to honor the cycle that Nature has ordained for us all. The urgency of living today, and not putting off til tomorrow what is within our power to accomplish now, is rarely as clear to us as when we observe the constant visit of death in the world around us.
Think how many people, under the influence of false religion, spend their lives thinking that they are just “practicing” or being tested to determine where “god” will send them for eternity. Suicide bombers roam the modern world, convinced that taking their own lives will guarantee them happiness in some future life. How foolish! A preacher recently told me “You’ll spend eternity somewhere, it’s up to you which place you’ll go.” How wrong in EVERY respect!
As Epicurus observed, there is no necessity for us to live in pain, for the means of escaping pain permanently is always ready at hand. But as the first several of the Principal Doctrines confirm, life affords the possibility of great enjoyment in almost all circumstances. When we compare even a life with some pain to the eternity that will come afterward without life, the choice to live on when possible is almost always simple. And even in those circumstances where the choice is not simple due to painful circumstances which cannot be avoided or undone, the knowledge that we have the means of escape when we conclude that escape is necessary is of tremendous comfort.
Here are several of the most helpful passages on this subject:
(Seneca’s Letters – Book I – Letter XXIV)
Epicurus upbraids those who crave, as much as those who shrink from, death: It is absurd,” he says, “to run towards death because you are tired of life, when it is your manner of life that has made you run towards death.” And in another passage: “What is so absurd as to seek death, when it is through fear of death that you have robbed your life of peace?” And you may add a third statement, of the same stamp: “Men are so thoughtless, nay, so mad, that some, through fear of death, force themselves to die.”
(Seneca’s Letters – Book I – Letter XII)
But now I ought to close my letter. “What?” you say; “shall it come to me without any little offering? “Be not afraid; it brings something – nay, more than something, a great deal. For what is more noble than the following saying of which I make this letter the bearer: “It is wrong to live under constraint; but no man is constrained to live under constraint.” Of course not. On all sides lie many short and simple paths to freedom; and let us thank God that no man can be kept in life. We may spurn the very constraints that hold us.
(Seneca’s Letters – Book I – Letter XXII)
I was just putting the seal upon this letter; but it must be broken again, in order that it may go to you with its customary contribution, bearing with it some noble word. And lo, here is one that occurs to my mind; I do not know whether its truth or its nobility of utterance is the greater. “Spoken by whom?” you ask. By Epicurus; for I am still appropriating other men’s belongings. The words are: “Everyone goes out of life just as if he had but lately entered it.” Take anyone off his guard, young, old, or middle-aged; you will find that all are equally afraid of death, and equally ignorant of life. No one has anything finished, because we have kept putting off into the future all our undertakings. No thought in the quotation given above pleases me more than that it taunts old men with being infants. “No one,” he says, “leaves this world in a different manner from one who has just been born.” That is not true; for we are worse when we die than when we were born; but it is our fault, and not that of Nature. Nature should scold us, saying: “What does this mean? I brought you into the world without desires or fears, free from superstition, treachery and the other curses. Go forth as you were when you entered!” A man has caught the message of wisdom, if he can die as free from care as he was at birth; but as it is we are all aflutter at the approach of the dreaded end. Our courage fails us, our cheeks blanch; our tears fall, though they are unavailing. But what is baser than to fret at the very threshold of peace? The reason, however is, that we are stripped of all our goods, we have jettisoned our cargo of life and are in distress; for no part of it has been packed in the hold; it has all been heaved overboard and has drifted away. Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man’s power to live long.
(Seneca’s Letters – Book I – Letter XXVI)
Wait for me but a moment, and I will pay you from my own account. Meanwhile, Epicurus will oblige me with these words: “Think on death,” or rather, if you prefer the phrase, on “migration to heaven.” The meaning is clear – that it is a wonderful thing to learn thoroughly how to die. You may deem it superfluous to learn a text that can be used only once; but that is just the reason why we ought to think on a thing. When we can never prove whether we really know a thing, we must always be learning it. “Think on death.” In saying this, he bids us think on freedom. He who has learned to die has unlearned slavery; he is above any external power, or, at any rate, he is beyond it. What terrors have prisons and bonds and bars for him? His way out is clear. There is only one chain which binds us to life, and that is the love of life. The chain may not be cast off, but it may be rubbed away, so that, when necessity shall demand, nothing may retard or hinder us from being ready to do at once that which at some time we are bound to do.
As Seneca recorded: Sic fac omnia tamquam spectet Epicurus! So do all things as though watching were Epicurus!
And as Philodemus wrote: “I will be faithful to Epicurus, according to whom it has been my choice to live.“