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Epicurus and the politics of fearing death.


The general consensus is that Epicurus believed the fear of death to be wholly irrational and eliminable. I intend to argue otherwise. An important background commitment of the standard interpretation is that Epicurus was an 'intellectualist' (or 'cognitivist')about emotions. For the intellectualist, a fear simply is a belief or a set of beliefs. Thus, a person who irrationally fears death suffers from false beliefs, and eliminating her fear is a process of altering those beliefs in response to sound arguments. A rational agent recognizes the strength of the arguments and adjusts her beliefs accordingly, after which her fear dissipates. The change might not be immediate, of course, since fully endorsing arguments often requires rigorous examination, and one might need to assess a battery of arguments. Nevertheless, one can eliminate one's fear of death by engaging in rational discourse and rehearsing arguments.

In this paper, I argue that the standard interpretation overlooks substantive evidence that Epicurus thought that at least one variety of the fear of death arises from ineliminable desires that are beyond the reach of rational persuasion. Such desires, call them 'brute', are an essential part of what it is to be a human animal, and the prospect of their frustration causes fear. I focus in particular on the ineliminable desire for physical security against death at the hands of others, and I argue that for Epicurus, managing this fear requires establishing favorable political circumstances. Insofar as the desire is currently satisfied, and one has some confidence that it will be satisfied in the future, one can then manage one's fear. Without such circumstances, one's opportunities to live a pleasant, anxiety-free life rapidly diminish. Note that I argue for two independent claims. First, I contend that for Epicurus, at least one fear of death arises from political circumstances rather than from an error in reasoning. Second, I argue that this fear can only be managed well, since it cannot be eliminated.

Supporters of the standard interpretation tend to focus on Epicurus' central argument that death cannot be harmful, since harm is pain, pain requires perception, and death is the absence of perception (Key Doctrines 2, Letter to Menoeceus 124-5). With the additional premise that it is irrational to fear something that is not harmful, Epicurus concludes that it is irrational to fear death while one is alive. This argument can be challenged. Thomas Nagel (1979), for example, has argued that one can be harmed without being aware of the harms. (1) Aristotle seems to have made this point before Epicurus' time (EN I10, 1100a18-21). (2) Regardless of whether Epicurus' central argument succeeds or fails, it plainly takes the fear of death to rest on false beliefs that careful reasoning can correct.

However, another critical response might threaten the standard interpretation. Epicurus' main argument shows at most that it is irrational to fear 'being dead', but we also fear death for other reasons. (3) In response to this worry, recent defenders of Epicurus, notably James Warren (2004) and Voula Tsouna (2006), have shown that Epicureans offer more than one argument and target more than one kind of fear. Warren discusses four varieties of the fear of death:

(1) the fear of being dead;

(2) the fear that one will die, that one's life is going to end;

(3) the fear of premature death; and

(4) the fear of the process of dying. (4)

If even one of these fears were not to rest on a false belief that rational argument can correct, then the standard interpretation would be false.

Warren entertains this possibility, but he argues that the standard interpretation is correct about how Epicurus treats every fear of death--all four fears depend solely on false beliefs. Although one might think some fears of death are immune to rational persuasion, or 'simply part of what it is to be human, like the feelings of hunger or thirst', Warren responds that 'Epicurus, clearly, disagrees.' (5)

I argue that Epicurus does not disagree. Instead, he recognizes a type of fear of death that is essentially the same as feelings of hunger and thirst. For Epicurus, the desire for security from violent death at the hands of others is a natural and necessary desire that cannot be eliminated. (6) He thus recommends ways to ameliorate, rather than extirpate, the fear arising from alack of personal security, and I argue that those means are primarily political in nature. His best advice for coping with this variety of fear of death is a situation, not an argument. With respect to Warren's taxonomy of fears, I argue against the possibility of ridding oneself of one's fear of some varieties of unexpected or premature death.

The paper proceeds as follows: I begin by establishing that the desire for security from the threat of others is a natural and necessary desire. As with the human need for sustenance, Epicurus believes one can achieve security with relative ease if one arranges both one's desires and circumstances appropriately, although the desire for security is brute and may cause anxiety if left unfulfilled. Next, I discuss the strategies that, according to Epicurus, are more likely to satisfy the desire for security, as opposed to those that are counterproductive to gaining security. Epicurus believes, so I argue, that ameliorating the fear of violent death inextricably involves living in a safe and healthy community. Only when the persistent threat of violence is removed can an individual truly live a pleasant life, enjoying, among other things, genuine friendship and trust.

Finally, I address two objections. First, someone might contend that the brute fear of dying at the hands of others should be characterized as a fear of pain, not a fear of death. If so, the standard position that Epicureans can fully rid themselves of the fear of death would be salvageable. Second, my position might compromise an ancient conception of the sage as unflappable, or 'happy on the rack'. Even if security is best achieved in a particular political arrangement, the sage should be able to live in a dangerous city and remain happy while dying violently. An objector might contend that if my interpretation suggests this is not the case, then I have rendered the Epicurean a coward, and philosophical charity should militate against my thesis.


Epicurus, I argue, classifies the desire for security among the natural, necessary desires. As such, it resembles the brute and undifferentiated desire for food and drink. When such a desire remains unsatisfied, pain results, and this pain cannot be reasoned away (KD 30). My textual case proceeds in three stages. First, I shall show that the desire for security is a natural one, with some initial attention to what makes a desire natural. Second, I consider in what manner Epicurus distinguishes natural and necessary desires from natural and unnecessary ones. Third, in light of this standard, I argue that the desire for security is not only natural, but also necessary.

Epicureans are dyed in the wool hedonists. (7) They argue that pleasure is the only intrinsic good, and the good life is the life of pleasure. However, although every pleasure is in some sense good, Epicurus argues that the best life is one in which one pursues all and only the pleasures that contribute to achieving and maintaining ataraxia, a long-term, stable state in which one lacks anxiety, regret, or other troubling forms of mental pain (Ep Men 131). Not every pleasure, then, is 'choiceworthy' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Ep Men 129). As a rule of thumb, an object of desire should be avoided when the pleasure experienced from obtaining it is consistently less than the pain accompanying or following its acquisition (Ep Men 125; DF 1: 36). A pain is to be suffered if it results in more pleasure than one could otherwise achieve. Successfully achieving ataraxia, then, requires that one avoid some sort of pleasures in most or, quite possibly, in every instance.

With this in mind, Epicurus divides desire into three categories: the natural and necessary, the natural but unnecessary, and the unnatural and unnecessary (KD 29, 30; Ep Men 127-28). (8) The objects of unnatural and unnecessary desires should be sought rarely, if at all. One should restrict oneself to natural desires, and ataraxia can be fully attained even if one finds herself able to successfully fulfill only natural and necessary desires. Even if the objects of unnecessary desires are available, they present their own problems, as they are often difficult to obtain and prove unstable. Obtaining pleasure from unnecessary sources is often perfectly acceptable, but requiring or expecting pleasures of this sort is not.

The Key Doctrines make it abundantly clear that security is a natural good ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The role of security and protection from threat in the pleasurable (i.e., good) life is introduced in KD 6and weaves its way throughout the text, featuring prominently in KD 7, 13, 14 and 39, making its final appearance in KD 40, the last of the Key Doctrines.

In KD 6, Epicurus claims that any successful strategy that brings security 'from other people' is a natural good. (9)

'For the sake of being secure from other people, anything from which one could get this was good according to nature.' (10)

If 'anything from which' one obtains security is considered a natural good, then it would make sense that security itself is also a natural good. This suspicion is confirmed in the next doctrine. In KD 7, Epicurus claims that security against others is a natural good, and he notes a few popular methods for seeking security, including the pursuit of fame and power.

'Some people wanted to become honored and admired, thinking to create security from other people in this way. If the life of such people is secure, they have attained the good of nature; if, on the other hand, it is not secure, they do not have that for the sake of which they originally sought in accordance with what is appropriate by nature.' (11)

Both the means to security and security itself, then, are linked to what is good 'according to nature'. KD 7onits own, though, leaves it unclear whether Epicurus believes that both of the conditionals can be satisfied. In other words, Epicurus could believe that the first conditional, that fame and power bring one security, is alive option. In this case, some powerful people might very well be secure. However, it may also be the case that the antecedent of the first conditional is never satisfied, since the antecedent of the second conditional is always satisfied. Epicurus could believe that everyone who seeks security by way of power could fail to attain that for which they aim--the natural good of being secure. Thus, rule, power, and prestige would never be natural goods.

In KD 14, Epicurus appears to walk a middle ground. In principle, some security from violence can be found in power and money; however, the greatest security is found in a collective retreat from the city's politics. (12)

'Although security against other people comes into being to some extent through the power to repel attacks and material wealth, security comes to be in its purest form through quietude and retreat from the many.' (13)

Evidence outside of the Key Doctrines also suggests that psychological security is highly unlikely to be compatible with wealth and honor (VS 67, 81).

The final two doctrines tie these themes together. According to KD 39, the best way to gain security is by way of friendship within a stable political community that is protected against external threat and free of internal dissension.

'The one who best contrived against alack of confidence about external threats made those he was able kin, while those he was unable, he did not make aliens. Those with whom he was not able to do even this, he avoided and banished so far as it was advantageous to do so.' (14)

Finally, in KD 40, Epicurus concludes the doctrines with the idea that friendship within a stable political community enables an individual to acquire the appropriate attitudes toward death, as manifested in a tendency not to pity those who die.

'Those who had the power to provide themselves the most security from their neighbors also lived with each other most sweetly, and having the most certain assurance, and receiving from one another the fullest fellowship, they did not lament the death of one who died before them as if it called for pity.' (15)

The people who have the greatest security, then, live most pleasantly on account of that security; they enjoy the truest friendships and do not grieve the death of their friends. Presumably, should an individual in this setting die prematurely, it would not be due to the violence or infighting of her fellows, but due to causes beyond those that can be prevented by humans. Those unable to gain security run the risk of death at the hands of their neighbors; thus, they are unable to gain friendship and are more likely to grieve untimely, often violent deaths. For Epicurus, then, a person who rightly seeks security should join a community in which she is free from internal threat and protected against external threat.

Indeed, we have seen that security is a natural good, but is it necessary? There are, again, two kinds of natural desire, namely, the necessary and the unnecessary. If the desire for security from the threat of violence is among the natural, but unnecessary desires, then one can attain ataraxia without fulfilling that desire, and expecting security or zealously pursuing security can in fact undermine one's ability to attain ataraxia. One could gladly welcome security if it came along, but one need not make great efforts to arrange one's life in order to achieve physical protection (Ep Men 131).

Epicurus offers almost no basis for distinguishing the two types of unnecessary desires (natural and unnatural) since he does not give a solid account of how to recognize what is and what is not natural to humans. (16) He does, however, offer a few criteria for distinguishing the two types of natural desires. In KD 30, he claims that natural and necessary desires are 1) easy to attain and 2) cause pain when they remain ungratified. (17) In the Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus offers three reasons a desire might be necessary.

'Some are necessary for happiness, some for the freedom of disturbance of the body, and some for life itself. An unwavering gaze at these things is able to refer every choice and aversion toward securing health of the body and freedom from disturbance of the mind, since this is the final end of living blessedly (Ep Men 127-8).' (18)

There are a few reasons that security is considered a necessary desire. Consider, for instance, Epicurus' somewhat puzzling claim that security is a sufficiently important natural good that any successful means for attaining it is rendered naturally good instrumentally (KD 6). Epicurus would clearly not license gross immorality for the sake of gaining security, since he thinks truly immoral agents can never attain psychological security and would always fear detection (VS 7, DF I: 50). However, he does seem to think that if political power and fame successfully led to security, then they would be naturally good. It would be strange to endorse so heartily any means for achieving an unnecessary desire. For instance, if political power failed to bring security, but did allow for the possession of a well-stocked cellar of wine, then one might think Epicurus would not consider political power to be instrumentally good by nature. Thus, we have a modest bit of evidence that security is a necessary desire.

However, some may question my translation of KD 6. (19) If one opts to translate the suspected marginal gloss, then Epicurus merely encourages one to obtain security against whomever one can, rather than 'from anything' that promises success.

We can set KD 6aside, though, and still have good reason to count security as natural and necessary in light of Epicurus' discussion of necessary desires in the Letter to Menoeceus (127-8). He claims that some objects of necessary desires are necessary for staying alive, some for the body to be rid of 'uneasiness', and some for a person to be happy. Taken together, the doctrines concerning security suggest that it qualifies as a necessary desire in all three of these respects. One can draw a straightforward connection between security and staying alive. Likewise, the desire for security is closely bound up with bodily comfort, since security protects one from physical abuse, among other indignities. More importantly, Epicurus seems to believe that security is necessary if a person is to be fully happy, since KD 14, 27, and 40 suggest that security from external threat is crucially tied to one's ability to live a pleasant life, which is none other than to obtain the final human good. If the final human good requires gaining security, and the final human good is achieving tranquility, then the desire for security is bound tight to the pursuit of ataraxia. As such, the preservation of the body, the tranquility of the mind, and the attainment of the final good depend upon one's ability to gain security. Protection against violent death is on par with securing a stable food source.

In KD 30, though, Epicurus offers two criteria for necessary desires. They not only cause pain when ungratified, but they are also readily available (KD 15, 30; Ep Men 130). There is sufficient reason to conclude that the lack of security causes anxiety, but is security readily available?


For Epicurus, securing food and drink is not terribly difficult. One might, however, struggle to satisfy one's desire for a steady supply of fine wine or a nightly dinner of fishcakes (Ep Men 132). (20) Assume that fishcakes are expensive and in short supply; for someone with an intense desire for fishcakes, the likelihood of having no future fishcakes could lead to mental distress, and her strong desire might tempt her to act unjustly in order to eat whatever she wants. At the very least, it might lead her to envy those with the means to acquire what she herself desires. Meanwhile, those who are content to dine on water and bread rarely find themselves without such desire (Ep Men 130). Dietary evidence suggests that water and bread alone is not an optimal health program, but it is often an easy one to maintain. Those who shape their desires to account for the instability of fortune, then, rarely find their natural and necessary desires thwarted. If security is the object of a necessary desire, it should be in similarly steady supply for someone who uses the correct strategy and tailors her desires appropriately.

As with food, some means for gaining security are more readily at hand and cause less anxiety. Although KD 7and KD 14 leave open the possibility that Epicurus might believe power and other material goods have the potential to bring one sufficient security, other Epicurean texts suggest they do not. To the extent that security is obtained through power, it is difficult to attain and maintain, and often causes more insecurity than it ameliorates. Even those who are naturally quick, powerful, and outrageously lucky are always somewhat insecure.

Consider, for instance, Lucretius' discussion of the plight of the power-seeking in a passage that mirrors KD 7almost exactly. In contrast to those who seek to fulfill only necessary desires, others want 'to be famous and powerful, so that their fortune might remain on a stable foundation and that, being wealthy, they might be able to pass a peaceful life. But all in vain' (DRN 5: 1120-23, my emphasis). (21) In De Finibus, Torquatus says of those who pursue the objects of unnecessary desires on account of their fear of death:

'Moreover, they do not remember past good things, and they do not enjoy present good things; they only wait for future good things, and since those things are not able to be certain, they are consumed both by anguish and fear. And they are especially tormented when they understand too late that they have been eager for money or for power or for wealth or for glory in vain. For they do not achieve any of their desires, for which, inflamed by the hope of acquiring them, they have undertaken many great hardships' (DF 1: 60). (22)

Lucretius offers a detailed account of why these strategies are destined to fail. (23) The heart of the problem is that all such strategies pursue security by means of goods that are competitive. The process begins with the supposition that various external goods bring security against the threat of others, that is, the more money at one's disposal for buying off opponents and soldiers, the more protection one has against opponents (DRN 3: 59-75). However, everyone has similar aims. Some of the goods are scarce, and others depend by their very nature on the victory of a single person or a small band of allies. While those lucky enough to be born naturally strong and clever stand a better chance of success, they might lack opportunities to use their skills, and fortune might give the advantage to the weaker opponent. Worse, competition is not always fair, and it may be necessary to harm others to obtain what one needs for protection. In serious competitions, it may prove necessary to kill in order to either successfully acquire goods or protect oneself against the violent acquisition of one's existing goods by someone else. One must be ready to kill or prepare oneself to die at the hands of those who are not quite squeamish. Thus, to be fully confident that one has escaped detection, even if one were somehow to avoid harming others (or if one has already harmed others), simply having external goods makes one a target for the injustice of other competitors (cp. DRN 5: 1120-1134). Even if one manages to escape detection, Epicureans believe that those who commit injustice nevertheless increase their anxiety, since they would constantly be wracked by fear of eventual detection and reprisal from those they disadvantage (KD 35; VS 7; DRN 5: 1151-1160; DF 1: 50-51). By far, the worst result is that jockeying for power compromises one's ability to make friends, since trust is impossible, often even among allies. The competition for and acquisition of competitive goods, then, does not ameliorate anxiety. Instead, it undermines pleasure, increases anxiety, and leaves one very unsafe against the violence of others.

The members of an ideal Epicurean community like the Garden avoid this anxiety and insecurity because they do not compete for goods. (24) Confidence that one's neighbors will do one no harm is most certain within a social community characterized by alack of competition for the objects of necessary desires and a general agreement about which pleasures should not be pursued (KD 14). Goods that are necessary for all are sufficiently available to all, and those for which people in other communities compete are less desired (if they are desired at all). Given that the community has found amore efficient and stable way to make itself secure, the motivation for pursuing power and money is, therefore, diminished.

However, most people do not happen to chance upon a Garden. The paucity of safe refuges, then, explains the standard Epicurean advice to abstain from political involvement in non-ideal circumstances, unless failure to be involved is a greater threat to one's safety than participation (cf. fr. 133 Us.). Staying quiet in an insecure city is often the best available albeit greatly inferior--security. In short, the closer one's political situation approximates the Garden, the better one's chances of obtaining physical and mental security. For Epicurus, one can only pursue the most prudent course in dealing with natural human frailty. We are insecure creatures, and although the Garden is one's best bet, Epicurus offers strategies for increasing one's security and ameliorating fear of violence wherever one finds oneself.


Someone might grant that security is crucially important to the Epicureans and that apolitical arrangement such as that found in the Garden is the best way to gain security, yet deny that the Epicurean quest for security is motivated by fear of death or that the sage is dependent upon favorable political circumstances to rid herself of fear. So argues Warren, who, again, thinks that Epicurus believes all fear of death is irrational and eliminable in light of sound philosophical arguments. Warren entertains a common objection to those who seek to eradicate the fear of death, namely that the fear of death may be prudentially and evolutionarily beneficial. If the fear of death were sometimes advantageous, then there would be good reason not to eliminate it, even if it were possible to do so. If the fear of death kept an agent, for instance, from walking off cliffs and unnecessarily risking her life and safety, then it would be a mistake to rid herself of a fear that keeps her alive. Thus, Epicurus could, at best, be justified in encouraging us to eradicate some of the many varieties of the fear of death. Perhaps being dead should be 'nothing to us', but dying violently matters. This, in essence, is what I argue that Epicurus believes.

Although Warren acknowledges that Epicurus needs to provide some mechanism by which his followers can avoid pursuing death or becoming ambivalent about when or how their death shall occur, he thinks the mechanism need not be a fear of death. Instead, the fear of pain fully explains such behavior. Epicureans do not walk off cliffs, but it is not because they fear death, it is because they avoid pain:

'It remains open, therefore, for the Epicureans to claim that a good Epicurean will fear pain but not death, and that this fear of pain will suffice to ensure that the Epicurean can function in day-to-day situations without needlessly endangering himself.' (25)

Warren's account explains why Epicureans fear and avoid painful deaths--they hurt. The Epicurean can say, 'It's the pain I fear, not that it is ends of necessity in death.' In other words, she can drive a wedge between intense pain and the death in which it terminates. Despite as light odor of sophism, one might accept the wedge.

However, note that if Warren is right, the Epicurean seems to lack a clear reason to avoid a painless death. Why should she skip town when she hears that the local tyrant has a penchant for killing aspiring Epicureans painlessly in their sleep? If painless deaths are not bad, then why should she carefully label and store the fast-acting, tasty poison, rather than leave it in the open and accessible to young children? One must wonder what protects the Epicurean from happily courting a painless death. If she does not bother to protect herself against such deaths, then the objection that the fear of death is good if it helps us avoid deaths worth avoiding reasserts itself.

Warren's Epicurean might respond in one of two ways. She might simply contest the intuition that painless deaths are bad, conceding in effect that she has no reason to escape the surreptitious tyrant or take precautions against poisoning a child. On the other hand, if she thinks such deaths are worth avoiding, then she must offer some reason to protect herself against them without appealing to pain.

Occupying an argumentative space in which one lacks reason to avoid easily and ethically avoidable deaths should, I think, be a last resort. An Epicurean, then, should first search out something other than pain to explain her decision to seek her own safety and ensure the safety of others. For instance, she might avoid the tyrant because death at the hands of the tyrant is unpredictable and uncertain. She might claim that mental anxiety arising from uncertainty justifies her escape rather than the prospect of physical pain. The standard interpretation clearly prohibits this response, however, since anxiety about uncertain death is a species of the fear of death, and the standard interpretation insists that all fears of death are irrational and eliminable. Fear about when one's death will occur is outright a fear of death.

A second, more promising response shifts the locus of the harm of a painless death. An Epicurean might not avoid the death for her own sake, but for the sake of the community in which she lives. Her painless death might trouble or disadvantage her peers or dependents. One might imagine a parent who claims that she does not fear death, although she avoids even painless deaths because she does not want her children to suffer the fate of orphans. (26) Even if one lacks dependents, a painless death leaves one less person to pitch in when it is time to harvest the community's summer crops.

The idea that homicides and accidental deaths caused by others are wrong because they harm the community has some textual evidence to commend it. For the Epicureans, shared agreement about what is instrumental to a community's advantage exhaustively determines the content of justice (KD 33, 36-8), and it is generally not advantageous for a community's citizens to die, whether by homicide or negligence. In his On Abstinence, Porphyry offers Hermarchus' account of the Epicurean arguments concerning whether we have duties of justice to animals that prohibit our needlessly killing and eating them (1. 7-12). He reasonably thinks we should discover the nature of justice itself before determining whether it applies to animals; thus, he recounts the origins of mutual obligation among human members of the Epicurean community. Such a community comprises people congregating for the purposes of security against the threat of death, although they likewise killed aggressive animals in self-defense.

Setting the matter of animals aside, the germane feature of justice in Hermarchus' account of the Epicurean community concerns the need to establish laws that punish citizens who kill fellow citizens, whether intentionally or accidentally. According to the Epicurean law-givers, a community has a vested interest in discouraging all deaths at the hands of others, and allowing accidental deaths pass unpunished could embolden a murderer savvy enough to fake an accident. At the very least, punishment is necessary to encourage precautionary measures in dangerous situations. Deaths caused by others, then, are clearly bad for the community, which makes it acceptable to prohibit and punish them by law.

Note, however, that this shared political concern also collapses into a fear of death. If deaths are collectively condemned as harmful, even if they only harm those who remain alive, then it makes sense that they are collectively feared. On an individual level, I can fear causing a death because that death harms others for whom I care. Likewise, I can fear being murdered or negligently killed, since murder unsettles my community. In both instances, I fear a particular sort of death and my role in it. Thus, although I need not worry myself about deaths I cannot conscientiously prevent, I rightly fear and avoid deaths that are roughly within my power to control, even if I fear them primarily for the sake of others.

Remember that Warren's Epicurean can drive a possibly non-sophistic wedge between fearing pain and fearing the death that accompanies or follows it out of necessity. That option is not available here, however, since the death is the source of the harm. When I avoid a speeding bus, my efforts might have nothing to do with avoiding death; knowing it will hurt to be hit by a careening bus, I step out of the way. However, when I avoid causing or suffering a painless death for the sake of others, my efforts have everything to do with avoiding death. A well-legislated community inhabited by ethical citizens would be sparse on negligent or intentional homicides, so a citizen would have little reason to worry. Outside an optimal community, however, a person will suffer from anxiety in protecting herself and her relations from painless or negligent deaths; this person could become unsettled when such deaths happen to others.

If available justifications for avoiding painless or instantaneous deaths collapse into some variety of the fear of death, then an advocate of the standard interpretation must retreat to the position that these deaths simply are not bad for either the person or the community. On one front, at least, the evidence from Porphyry would foreclose this option. The lawmakers think the community should punish violent and negligent deaths, at least for the sake of the psychological and physical security of the community.

However, one might think that community anxiety of this sort can only arise because most people are not sages. One might have the nagging thought that the Epicurean sage should not feel any fear or worry, even if she finds herself in an exceptionally precarious position. This objection gets its teeth from the oft-repeated claim, found especially in Cicero's characteristic ridicule of Epicurus, that the Epicurean sage is 'happy on the rack' (Tusc. II 7: 17-19; DL X 118). The sage is suitably equipped for a tortured death, perhaps on behalf of her friends (VS 56-7), perhaps as the target of some bloodthirsty tyrant. If the sage can be happy on the rack, and the rack is the most gruesomely violent death, then why would the sage have reason to fear a garden-variety violent death?

This is a challenging objection, which points to a fundamental tension within Epicureanism. If Epicureanism aims to insulate its adherents from anxiety and fortune, why should the Epicurean--especially the Epicurean sage--need to isolate herself from violence in the suburbs? On one hand, if Epicureanism requires moving away from the city's dangers to free oneself from fear, then it might seem ill-equipped for courageously facing standard human existence. If, on the other hand, Epicureanism prepares one to die violently, why should Epicureans need to escape the dangers of the city at all?

Tension aside, I need an account of how the sage's happy death on the rack affects my thesis. I certainly do not deny that the Epicurean sage can manage the pain of death or cope with death when it is unavoidable. That the sage is happy on the rack, though, is not necessarily at odds with her having done everything within the scope of her prudential principles (i.e., not betraying a friend) to avoid ending up in physical agony. The claim that the sage best endures death at the hands of others when it occurs is not at odds with her fearing it before it happens. For example, I might do everything to avoid losing my house in the mortgage crisis; I may fear losing my house. This does not, however, entail that I cannot endure my homelessness should it occur.

But, wait! If one fears that something might happen, when the occurrence of that thing will not to be bad, then is it not patently irrational to continue fearing it? A core premise in the Epicurean argument against the fear of 'being dead' contends that one cannot rationally fear what will not be bad (Ep Men 125). This is a larger problem than one might think. Remember that for Warren, the reason the Epicurean avoids stepping in front of buses is that she fears pain. If the sage, unlike the rest of us, is mightily equipped to handle excruciating pain with happiness, then explaining her aversion to the rack could be a somewhat difficult task. The happy sage would fall into the trap of the reckless Epicurean, so she--even more than the non-sages--must have reason to avoid deaths other than the likelihood that they will hurt or be beyond endurance. If her pain is always conquered by happiness, she might as well walk in front of the bus.

The reason she fears and avoids death, I suggest, again appeals to the pleasures of a secure community of friends. First, the sage's ability to be happy on the rack might itself depend upon along history of enjoying security in a safe, noncompetitive community. Sufficient evidence shows that the sage can be happy on the rack, but it is less clear how she manages to remain happy on the rack. Commentators draw on evidence from Epicurus' account of the way his own painful death was enjoyable. Epicurus, it seems, distracted himself from the pain by recalling the wealth of pleasant experiences he had shared with his close friends. These happy memories overpowered the extreme physical pain of his illness. Diogenes provides a passage from Epicurus' Letter to Idomeneus? (27)

'On this blissful day, which is also the last of my life, I write this to you. My continual sufferings from strangury and dysentery are so great that nothing could augment them; but over and against them all I set gladness of mind at the remembrance of our past conversations.' (28)

Reflecting on memories of pleasant companionship helped Epicurus die happily despite excruciating physical pain. However, if building an arsenal of memories of the kind that give one pleasure when facing death requires retreating from the city to the company of like-minded individuals, and KD 14 and KD 40 suggests that it does, then the best way to deal with a violent and painful death is to spend a good bit of time conscientiously avoiding it. The sage's happiness on the rack would turn upon a history of favorable political conditions.

Second, if I am right that fearing easily avoidable, even painless deaths is necessary for the safety and well-being of the community, then the sage has as much reason, if not more, to avoid death for the sake of her friends. Since, in some ways at least, the community depends on her more than on other citizens, she tends to avoid and fear the rack, even if she can easily manage and enjoy such a death when it is unavoidable. Remember that the chief Epicurean text we have about the sage's experience on the rack suggests that she willingly dies an excruciating death on behalf of her friends (VS 56-7). Nevertheless, she can think that a death that harms her friends, and that she can ethically prevent, is bad.

As a final note, I have so far addressed the objections to my position on my opponent's terms, justifying the fear of death caused by others on purely rational grounds. In the early sections of the paper, though, I argued that the desire for security is natural and necessary, and therefore beyond the reach of rational persuasion. For the Epicurean, the desire to survive is a brute component of being a human animal, such that we come equipped with an all-things-considered preference for not starving to death or feeling insecure. It is no contradiction for individuals to house these desires and fears while also having the ability to cope with starvation nobly or endure a painful death while defending their friends or children. Enjoying life and preferring more of it does not in any way require greediness for life, and the Epicureans seem to primarily abjure greediness (Ep Men 126).

Thus, even if the sage mysteriously experiences no pain while dying, she has reason to think a painless and easily avoidable death is bad, since she is happy and prefers to continue living a pleasant life with her friends. Otherwise she cannot avoid the deaths worth avoiding, and such refusal seems at odds with the Epicurean endorsement of the life of pleasure, especially the life characterized by the pleasures of friendship. She can consistently fear and avoid these deaths simply on the basis of her brute desire to maintain her pleasant life, even if her rational capacities help her cope when her desire is eventually frustrated by circumstances beyond her control.

There remains one key objection: it seems that my interpretation threatens the possibility of ataraxia. Fear, like grief, is a negative emotion, so an argument that claims we are all motivated to act in light of an ineliminable (though generally controllable) fear might appear to undercut the Epicurean quest for an anxiety-free life. If my thesis requires that Epicurus jettison a fundamental psychological principle that guides his eudaemonist ethics, interpretive consistency is very much against me.

One live option is to retreat to the idea that Epicureanism is a perfectionist ethics, according to which even the best of us can only approximate ataraxia, if only because there are some psychological and bodily limitations imposed on natural creatures. Perfectionism is not a terribly uncommon feature of ancient ethical theories, and those who are perfect are often judged divine rather than human. (29) Another alternative is to reconceive ataraxia in light of evidence that even sages experience characteristically negative emotions. Some texts, for instance, indicate that the sage grieves the deaths of her friends and shares their suffering. On this front, Epicureans seek to differentiate themselves from the Stoics, whose resistance to grief seemed positively inhumane (VS 66, DL X, 120; Plutarch, A Pleasant Life, 1101ab: Us. 120). If the sage achieves and maintains ataraxia, yet grieves at the same time, then ataraxia might withstand some other natural, negative human emotions.


I have argued that Epicurus does not believe all forms of the fear of death are irrational and eliminable. At least one fear--the fear of violent death caused by others--is brute and must be managed politically. If I am right, Epicurus' beliefs would seem much more reasonable to many people who recognize that we have a vested interest in controlling the fear of death, but who are skeptical about our ability to eliminate it. Epicurus would no longer believe that a person can study a set of arguments, believe them, chant them regularly to herself or with friends, and thereby rid herself of the many varieties of the fear of death. Others, however, might think my thesis renders Epicurus' beliefs about the fear of death much less exciting. If one is primarily interested in Epicurus' views on death because his extremism makes him a useful foil, then he might no longer be the biggest target. Likewise, if one looks to Epicurus to eliminate all varieties of one's own fear of death, then one might need to seek extra assistance.

My view might have one final, unsavory result (to some readers, at least). If one cannot offer a full account of Epicurus' views about death without examining his vested interest in security, it might turn out that Epicurus recommends we become a variety of the suburbanites, albeit poor and unassuming suburbanites. In other words, Epicureanism's vexing tension between a quest for security through risk aversion and away of life designed to make one immune to fortune remains. Some people move to the suburbs because they are afraid of the city, and Epicurus would be one of them.

In sum, I argue that Epicurus believes there is a fear of death that does not disappear, which we can control with due care and with close attention to the social environs. Though my thesis might render Epicurus less of a radical with regards the fear of death than heretofore believed, and though it may even make him seem a bit less than perfectly brave, I maintain that it is a good way to make sense of the text. Conceding that some particular fear of death is not fully eliminable could leave Epicureanism, in Warren's words, fatally wounded'. (30) I prefer to think it escapes largely unscathed. (31)

DOI: 10.1515/apeiron-2011-0003


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* Translations are my own, unless otherwise noted. Epicurus' Greek is notoriously difficult (cf. Cicero, DF 1: 14-15), so I note important differences between my translations and those of others, especially Inwood and Gerson (1988), Hicks (1931), and Long and Sedley (1987). For the Greek text, I consulted Hicks, Long and Sedley, Marcovich (1999) and Usener (1887). For Cicero, I used Reynolds (1998) and for Lucretius, Rouse and Smith (1975).

(1) For further discussion of 'postmortem harms', see Pitcher (1984), Rosenbaum (1986, 1989), Feldman (1992), Nussbaum (1996), and Warren (2004).

(2) Many have thought Aristotle confused on the matter, but Scott (2000) argues otherwise.

(3) Williams (1973), Nagel (1979), and Luper-Foy (1987); see esp. McMahon (1976) and (1988).

(4) Warren, 4; Tsouna, 80-1.

(5) Warren, 15.

(6) Despite Epicurus' preoccupation with security against the threat of violence, Warren discusses only three of the six Key Doctrines concerning security (KD 6, 7, 13, 14, 27, and 40), and these the discusses only in footnotes. Epicurus' focus on security has featured prominently in secondary literature on other Epicurean matters. Evans (2004, 416-17) argues that the desire for individual security may provide sufficient grounds for self-interested, yet self-sacrificing Epicurean friendship. Meanwhile, Armstrong (1997) argues that Epicurus' conception of justice arises from the individual's pursuit of safety. In part, my argument links these concerns about friendship and justice with the fear of death.

(7) For a much more detailed discussion of the 'calculus' of Epicurean hedonism, see Purinton (1993). Another point of interest is the debate between Cooper (1998) and Woolf (2004) about whether Epicurus is a psychological' or a normative hedonist'. According to Woolf, Epicurus believes that every desire is simply a desire for pleasure. Cooper, however, is of the opinion that Epicurus' hedonism is prescriptive, that is, one should desire pleasure, but there are times when one does not.


(9) Epicurus uses a number of security-related terms and phrases. Most commonly, he employs [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (cp. Aristotle's Rhetoric 1. 5: 1360b15, 29), though he also uses forms of the verb [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (sometimes as a verbal noun) plus a preposition ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Both are to be sought [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (KD 6, 7). In addition, security is often 'secured' or 'procured', and Epicurus' verb of choice is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], generally with a prefix of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

(10) The idea that anything that brings security is naturally good is relatively (though not essentially) important for my later argument. Inwood and Gerson's translation differs significantly. They translate all of the received text: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

Usener excludes the bracketed text, since he takes it is a marginal gloss meant to serve as an antecedent for [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Hicks, Macovich, and I follow Usener, but Inwood and Gerson do not, which results in a very different doctrine. Their translation:'

The natural good of public office and kingship is for the sake getting confidence from (other) men, (at least) from those from whom one is able to provide this.' In short, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] needs an antecedent. Inwood and Gerson take the antecedent to be [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], reading [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as masculine. I read [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as neuter with an indefinite, understood antecedent, equivalent to a present general protasis. Mitsis (1988: 83, 89), Strodach (1963, 197), and O'Conner (1993, 70) share my translation, if not necessarily for the same reason. KD 6isnot even included in Long and Sedley, perhaps because the text is so vexed.


(12) The standard translation of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in KD 7and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in KD 14 is 'security against other men', which strongly suggests that people pursue power in order to protect themselves from the violence of their fellow humans. Roskam (2007: 33-41) supports a competing translation: 'security coming from others'. Someone who agrees with Roskam might think that Epicurus is not particularly concerned about violence, which would tell against my claim that Epicurus recognized an ineliminable fear of violent death. I need not weigh in on the translation matter, however, to block this latter move, for even if security indeed 'comes from' others, it is nevertheless security against something. Such is clear from the first clause of KD 14, in which an individual pursues security through/against other men in order to 'repel attacks' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII];trans. Inwood and Gerson, accepted by Roskam). These attacks might not come from humans, but from animals (cf. DRN 5.1120, cp. Pl. Prot. 322a-c). Even so, protection against animal violence would still be protection from violent death. More likely, though, the attacks at issue come from humans; otherwise, one must wonder why kingship and material wealth are useful for repelling animal attacks and why retreating to a small community on the outskirts of town would be more conducive to such protection. Animals shy away from cities.



(15) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Long and Sedley's translation of the first clause of 40 suggests that those who withdraw from the city dispel 'all fear of their neighbors' (their emphasis). However, the text suggests that those who withdraw have the most ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])security. This does not entail, however, that they have complete security or that such security is sufficient to get rid of 'all fear'. Nevertheless, it certainly gets rid of most fear.

(16) Unfortunately, perhaps the handiest discussion of this distinction comes from an anonymous scholiast of KD 29. The scholiast notes that desires for sufficient sustenance are natural and necessary, desires for excess or special sustenance are natural and unnecessary, and those for crowns and honors are unnatural and unnecessary. Note that if the scholiast is correct, then the honors that might lead to security in KD 6and 7become good by nature, which would make honors no longer unnatural and unnecessary. Annas (1993: 188-200) offers a useful contemporary discussion of what might count as natural. She argues that natural and necessary desires are 'generic', while natural and unnecessary desires are 'specific'. Her classification shares much in common with that of the scholiast's.



(19) See note 10.

(20) For an account of the luxuries of the well-heeled Greek, see Davidson's Courtesans and Fishcakes (1999).

(21) At claros homines voluerunt se atque potentes. ut fundamento stabili fortunna maneret et placidam possent opulenti degree vitamnequiquam...

(22) Praeterea bona praeterita non meminerunt, praesentibus non fruuntur, futura modo expectant, quae quia certa esse non possunt, conficiuntur et angore et metu maximeque cruciantur, quae quia certa esse non possunt, conficiuntur et angore et metu maximeque cruciantur, cum sero sentiunt frustra se aut pecuniae studuisse aut imperiis aut opibus aut gloriae. nullas enim consequuntur voluptates, quarum potiendi spe inflammati multos labores magnosque susceperant.

(23) For these ideas in starkest prose, see Hobbes' Leviathan XIII. Alternately, most of Thucydides.

(24) There is some debate about how an Epicurean community would be just. Given that Epicurus thinks that justice is exhausted by a prudential agreement backed by sanctions, it is unclear why perfectly just sages would need either a formal agreement to be just (they simply would be just) or sanctions against violations of laws (they would never even want to violate laws). Armstrong (1997: 326n5) argues that the sages share a tacit social agreement, but they have no need for positive laws or sanctions. According to Mitsis (1988), the sages have just souls rather than externally just agreements. I am more sympathetic with O'Keefe (2001), who argues that justice among sages concerns the instrumental organization of physical goods for the sake of the material security of the community. Thus, while a community of perfect Epicureans would never need justice to protect themselves from one another, justice might decree how many animals should be killed or raised for the continued security of the community against external threat or starvation. In some sense, this question might turn on a practical impossibility--a community of perfect sages. One might expect that there will always be some Epicureans in training.

(25) Warren, 12.

(26) Philodemus seems to have had this worry in mind in On Death. He writes: 'Now leaving behind parents or children or a wife or certain others of those close to us, if they be in dire straits on account of our death or will even lack necessities, has of course a most natural sting, and this alone, or more than anything else, sitrs up emissions of tears in the sensible man' (25.2-25.10; trans. Henry [2009]). Though the passage is extremely fragmentary, the idea seems to be that the 'sensible man' assuages his worry by securing valuable friends who can ensure the safety of his children.

(27) Cicero has this letter addressed to Hermarchus. Perhaps there were even two letters. Cicero, though, perhaps manifesting a bit of his customary lack of charity for Epicurus, has Epicurus distract himself from his pain by reflecting on his own discoveries (rationum inventorumque nostrorum).

(28) DL X 22, Us. 138, trans., Inwood and Gerson.

(29) Assorted claims that the sage can be immortal like the gods raises some puzzles for, among other things, Epicurean atomism. After all, the soul atoms of humans disperse at death, while the gods are the same eternally. See Warren (2000).

(30) Warren, 7.

(31) I am grateful to Eric Brown, Matt Cashen, Emily Crookston, Brad Inwood, Ralph Kennedy, Bob Lamberton, Mariska Leunissen, Kirk Sanders, Clerk Shaw, Brian Warren, and an anonymous reader from Apeiron for their invaluable assistance. I would also like to thank the philosophy departments at Boston University, Colgate University, University of Memphis, Wake Forest University, and Washington University in St. Louis for disagreeing with my thesis in such a generous spirit.


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Date:Jun 1, 2012
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