Today turned out to be the day that Prince William (a name selected by the Humane Society) had to be relieved from the misery of a losing battle with feline leukemia. To the left is a photo of Prince William as he deserves to be remembered. It is very difficult to ask a veterinarian to end the life of a pet, but it is core Epicurean doctrine that we must take responsibility not only for our own lives but for our own deaths, and we often have to assist those for whom we are responsible in the same decisions. It is natural in the normal course of life for us to gain experience with the deaths of others before we must confront our own deaths. For those who read this blog who do not have pets, I think I can now say that the experience of leaving them is almost as valuable as the experience of living with them.
We do not often see much commentary on this subject even in Epicurean circles, but it was a key issue for Epicurus, and today’s events provide a good time for review. First, the major points from the Principal Doctrines:
PD2: “Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us.” This is the heart of the matter. Far from being a cavalier dismissal of the significance of death, Epicurus is telling us here that all of our values must be experienced in life, for after life ends, we have no further experiences. This doctrine also is critically important for reminding us that the threat of eternal punishment for disobeying the religionists has no teeth, but the more fundamental point is that we must live our lives to the fullest.
PD19. “Unlimited time and limited time afford an equal amount of pleasure, if we measure the limits of that pleasure by reason.” Once we accept that death is a reality and the final end of our consciousness, we must not fall into despair. We must realize that our nature as humans is that our lives are pre-programmed by Nature to be of limited duration, and if we measure pleasure according to Nature’s standard, we can obtain all the pleasure that Nature provides as possible within a single lifespan. This to live longer than a human lifespan would afford us no greater pleasure.
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.” No one said that understanding life was easy, and Nature requires us to exert our minds to control the desires of the body. The body ages according to Nature, but has no understanding of the process; it is up to as as students of Nature – as Epicureans – to learn from Nature that the desire to live longer than a normal human lifespan is of no relevance to us.
There are many more selections from the texts that are relevant to this topic, but I’ll close with several selections where Seneca referred to Epicurus’ wisdom on the topic:
(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. “Epicurus,” you reply, “uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?” Any truth, I maintain, is my own property. And I shall continue to heap quotations from Epicurus upon you, so that all persons who swear by the words of another, and put a value upon the speaker and not upon the thing spoken, may understand that the best ideas are common property.
(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.
(Seneca’s Letters – Book I – Letter XXX)
Indeed, he [apparently Aufidius Bassus] often said, in accord with the counsels of Epicurus: “I hope, first of all, that there is no pain at the moment when a man breathes his last; but if there is, one will find an element of comfort in its very shortness. For no great pain lasts long. And at all events, a man will find relief at the very time when soul and body are being torn asunder, even though the process be accompanied by excruciating pain, in the thought that after this pain is over he can feel no more pain. I am sure, however, that an old man’s soul is on his very lips, and that only a little force is necessary to disengage it from the body. A fire which has seized upon a substance that sustains it needs water to quench it, or, sometimes, the destruction of the building itself; but the fire which lacks sustaining fuel dies away of its own accord.”