If a man in a suit were to calmly enter the room, aim a gun at your head, and say “It happens now or it happens later; it’s your choice.” I suspect you, like most people, would opt for “it happens later”. If he were to appear at random times in your life and produce a different weapon each time, once a sword, once a syringe, once a garrote, I suspect each time you would opt for “later”. Barring some kind of great and incurable suffering or some significant mental illness, I can’t imagine a healthy human opting for death to come for them now rather than later. Even in cases with benign weapons, in secluded areas, or in favourable circumstances, being confronted with the possibility of death is a haunting and unsettling experience. High-minded, ivory-tower types of philosophers will frequently speak of the benign nature of death and the ways in which it, for various reasons, can’t be a harm to the individual who dies, but I suspect it is a rare defender of these ideas who would shrug at the man in the suit and say “I don’t mind, actually, so I suppose it’s your choice.” The writing of Epicurus still holds some sway in arguments about the evil or harm which is not present in the moment of death, but modern audiences, who are frequently historically and spiritually illiterate, have deeply misappropriated the point Epicurus originally sought to make. I intend to argue that philosophers who have defended this position in the past do so on near-universally absurd principles which assumes the truth of principles which have spiritual implications in the source material, and that this becomes a contradictory claim when the philosopher is a materialist/atheist (such as Thomas Nagel). Epicurus, though frequently thought to be in this camp because of the implications of his theories, was not a materialist or an atheist, and believed in what a modern audience might call reincarnation, which alters his argument in a critical way.
Epicurus, in his Letter to Monoeceus, writes about a complex spirituality which the ancient Athenians followed. His use of terms such as “virtue”, “pleasure”, and even “gods” do not correspond to the modern definitions of these words. Epicurus makes a careful reference to this in his letter, when he says “Not the person who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious.” (Epicurus 1). This is a reference to the division between the ancestor cults of the Patricians and the devotional religion (in the modern sense of the word) followed by the plebs. This division would become most clear later, in Roman spirituality which would appropriate much from the Athenians.
The “multitudes” saw the gods as personal forces which listen to their prayers and who they could sway with sacrifices to appeal to their power. This concept continues today, though sacrifice has become a much more abstract principle. The Patrician ancestor cults considered the gods to be impersonal forces which animated a life composed of three parts: Body, Mind, and Double. When Epicurus refers to the cessation of life as a cessation of “self” he is referring to the destruction of the Mind, which is “an illusory thing, even while that person [is] alive” (Evola, 48). The Double (what we might now call a soul) of a Patrician does not dissolve into the stock from whence it came, to be reincarnated (as it would in a pleb), but is retained as a virile force which animates one’s descendants, so long as they keep the rites of the family cult. In this sense, Epicurus believes in both a form of immortality and a form of reincarnation. Death as “privation of all awareness” (Epicurus 1) is not an annihilation of the person, but a process by which the Double is freed from the merely spatial and temporal bonds of the Body and the personal twitching of pain and appetite which the mind, as a partly biological construct, must contend with. The stocks from which Doubles come are eternal, inexhaustible, and mystical forces beyond human ken (Evola 48).
With this in mind, Epicurus’ maxim “when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not”(Epicurus 1) becomes problematic, because “we” refers to a construct which is an illusory product of biology. This presents a serious problem to materialist philosophers who use Epicurus’ arguments, particularly in the case of “symmetry” arguments of deprivation, where the void after death is the reflection of the void before conception, and since the void before was not a harm, the void after can’t be either. These cases are materialist(which I consider to be the colloquial sense of the word “secular”) in the sense that they reject any spiritual concept of survival after death, and equate the “self” to the Body and Mind alone, both of which will eventually cease to function and be destroyed. This is a radical premise which has not existed in any popular form until very recently in human history, and only seems moderate today because of the hyper-progressive attitude of recent Western cultures. The biological determinism (whether a soft or hard) which seems to rule philosophers now is specifically rejected by Epicurus when he rejects naturalists: “It were better, indeed, to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed.”
This is a problem for materialist philosophy if we consider the evil of death to be merely a deprivation of goods which one would acquire if they had otherwise lived (Nagel 74). This view is a spiritual successor to Epicurus’ in the sense that it considers sensory experience to be the valuable or desirable component in human life. Epicurus considered “virtue” to be what tempered an otherwise simple hedonistic view of valuable experience. The virtues are aspects of the stocks from which the double comes, and the temperament of the individual was believed to be a vector sum of the stock forces working at the time of the individual’s birth. They ultimately oppose the elemental stocks of chthonic dieties which, surrendered to and valued above the Olympian stocks, lead to what J.S. Mill’s “doctrine of swine” defence of a hedonic foundation to utilitarianism referred to (Mill 2). Nagel does not draw such distinctions in his essentially hedonist conception of value, and even goes so far as to specify of the “goods” which life confers: “An account of these goods need not occupy us here, except to observe that some of them, like perception, desire, activity, and thought, are so general as to be constitutive of human life” (Nagel 74). Presumably, goods which are “constitutive of human life” are the same ones which are base enough to to be brought to bear in Mill’s “doctrine of swine” objection. In Mill’s own words (emphasis added):
“pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things … are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain. To suppose that life has … no higher end than pleasure- no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit– they designate as utterly mean and grovelling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine” (Mill, 1-2)
Mill, here defending utilitarianism, also considers pleasure to be the ultimate source of value, with lesser values being derived from it. But Mill’s concept of the value of pleasure is much closer to Epicurus’ than it is to Nagel’s, and he continues to say “the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable. If this supposition were true … the rule of life which is good enough for the one would be good enough for the other.” (Mill 2).
However, this is exactly what Nagel proposes when he ignores any spiritual dimension to the question of death (Nagel 74). His reduction of human life to a merely biological (and only contingently mental) process is precisely a reduction to the sorts of pleasure of which swine are also capable, because it ignores any dimension which would give the Epicurean “virtues” objective value (especially because virtues are the only things which Epicurus believes to redeem the value of pleasure from the “doctrine of swine”). Mill has already called this having “no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit”(Mill 2) which reduces Nagel’s vague and implicitly pluralist objects of pleasure to the realm of a “doctrine of swine”.
Importantly, all that this shows is that Nagel’s materialist account of the experiences which make life valuable is contradictory. It draws on the non-materialist assumptions of his predecessors who have also defended pleasure as the ultimate value, but denies the spiritual foundations which were meant to give weight to arguments which extend from there: namely that death is not a positive evil, but is rather the privation of pleasures which life offers the agent. This was not an issue for Mill or for Epicurus precisely because they had concepts of a continuing existence after a bodily death.Mill even explicitly writes in Utilitarianism that any moral structure which is built on such hedonic premises must necessarily rely heavily on Christian and Stoic ethics, where Stoicism is invoked precisely because of the way it brought a more robust spirituality to Epicurean philosophy, elevating the pursuit of the virtues to a value that made pleasure immaterial (Mill 3). Mill believes something similar, albeit filtered through a Christian lens. And Nagel, believing in nothing after death, believes that “nothing” is nothing to fear. But this makes for a very poor secular argument, as it is only applicable to his anti-religion, and thus isn’t secular at all (unless, as I have noted, we use the colloquial definition: secular as “materialist”). If Nagel’s argument requires you to have the same prejudices and beliefs as he does, then it’s not a very persuasive one at all.
Epicurus. Letter to Menoeneceus. Trans. Robert Drew Hicks. N.p.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, n.d. Internet Classics Archive. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Web.
Evola, Julius. Revolt Against the Modern World. Trans. Guido Stucco. N.p.: Inner Traditions International, 1995. Print.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. N.p.: n.p., 1861. Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism.com. Web.
Nagel, Thomas. “Death.” Noûs 4.1 (1970): 73-80. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web.