Peace and Safety to the Epicureans of today, no matter where you might be – Happy Twentieth!
For this month I am thinking again about those people who talk about how it might sometimes be “better never to have been born.”
Epicurus spoke on this point directly when he wrote:
And he who counsels the young man to live well, but the old man to make a good end, is foolish, not merely because of the desirability of life, but also because it is the same training which teaches to live well and to die well. Yet much worse still is the man who says it is good not to be born but ‘once born make haste to pass the gates of death.’
Here Epicurus saying that the advice to an old man to “make a good end” is foolish. Much worse than foolish then, is the advice to think that it is “good not to be born.”
It’s clear that the reason this is foolish is the desirability of life, and the lack of need for there to be any confusion, because the rule that should be followed by the young, by the old, and by everyone in between is not at all different or confusing, but exactly the same: “follow pleasure.”
Epicurus explained it this way:
And for this cause we call pleasure the beginning and end of the blessed life. For we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good. And since pleasure is the first good and natural to us, for this very reason we do not choose every pleasure, but sometimes we pass over many pleasures, when greater discomfort accrues to us as the result of them: and similarly we think many pains better than pleasures, since a greater pleasure comes to us when we have endured pains for a long time. Every pleasure then because of its natural kinship to us is good, yet not every pleasure is to be chosen: even as every pain also is an evil, yet not all are always of a nature to be avoided. Yet by a scale of comparison and by the consideration of advantages and disadvantages we must form our judgment on all these matters. For the good on certain occasions we treat as bad, and conversely the bad as good.
So I think it is very interesting to take the question “would it ever be better never to have been born” very seriously. When answering the question given the Epicurean view of the universe, the answer should be clear. For an eternity before birth the individual consciousness has never existed – for an eternity afterward it will never exist. Whatever pleasure is possible to the individual occurs during its lifetime, no matter how short or long. There is no divine or absolute standard that says “you must live X years, or months, or days, or hours” in order for your life to be “worthwhile.”
No doubt we could construct a hypothetical in which a terrible unfortunate was born with such intense pain, and with such a brief lifespan, that we might be tempted to say that the being would be “better never to have been born.” But in the Epicurean framework I suspect that even such a hypothetical would be very suspect. And by what standard would we be authorized to make such a decision for another being anyway?
It seems clear from experience of what we do observe that every living organism at birth wishes to maintain its life. And if even those organisms in the most unfortunate of circumstances value their lives so much as to do all in their power to preserve it, should not we who find ourselves in much better circumstances value our time and our pleasure just as highly?
For we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good.
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.”