فصل 4

دوره: تاریخچه کوتاهی از فلسفه / درس 4

فصل 4

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chapter 4

The Garden Path

Epicurus

Imagine your funeral. What will it be like? Who’ll be there? What will they say? What you are imagining must be from your own perspective. It’s as if you are still there watching events from a particular place, perhaps from above, or from a seat among the mourners. Now, some people do believe that that is a serious possibility, that after death we can survive outside a physical body as a kind of spirit that might even be able to see what’s going on in this world. But for those of us who believe death is final, there is a real problem. Every time we try and imagine not being there we have to do it by imagining that we are there, watching what is happening when we’re not there.

Whether or not you can imagine your own death, it seems quite natural to be at least a bit afraid of not existing. Who wouldn’t fear their own death? If there’s anything we should be anxious about, it’s surely that. It seems perfectly reasonable to worry about not existing even if that will happen many years from now. It’s instinctive. Very few people alive have never thought deeply about this.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 bc) argued that fear of death was a waste of time and based on bad logic. It was a state of mind to be overcome. If you think clearly about it, death shouldn’t be frightening at all. Once you get your thinking straight you’ll enjoy your time here much more – which for Epicurus was extremely important. The point of philosophy, he believed, was to make your life go better, to help you find happiness. Some people believe that it is morbid to dwell on your own death, but for Epicurus it was a way of making living more intense.

Epicurus was born on the Greek island of Samos in the Aegean. He spent most of his life in Athens where he became something of a cult figure, attracting a group of students who lived with him in a commune. The group included women and slaves – a rare situation in Ancient Athens. This didn’t make him popular, except with his followers who almost worshipped him. He ran this philosophy school in a house with a garden – and so it came to be known as The Garden.

Like many Ancient philosophers (and some modern ones, such as Peter Singer: see Chapter 40), Epicurus believed that philosophy should be practical. It should change how you live. So it was important that those who joined him in The Garden put the philosophy into practice rather than just learnt about it.

For Epicurus the key to life was recognizing that we all seek pleasure. More importantly, we avoid pain whenever we can. That’s what drives us. Eliminating suffering from your life and increasing happiness will make it go better. The best way to live, then, was this: have a very simple lifestyle, be kind to those around you, and surround yourself with friends. That way you’ll be able to satisfy most of your desires. You won’t be left wanting something you can’t get. It’s no good having a desperate urge to own a mansion if you won’t ever have the money to buy one. Don’t spend your whole life working in order to get something that is probably beyond your reach anyway. It’s far better to live in a simple way. If your desires are simple they are easy to satisfy and you will have the time and energy to enjoy the things that matter. That was his recipe for happiness, and it makes a lot of sense.

This teaching was a form of therapy. Epicurus’ aim was to cure his students of mental pain, and to suggest how physical pain could be made bearable by remembering past pleasures. He pointed out that pleasures are enjoyable at the time, but they are also enjoyable when we remember them afterwards, so they can have long-lasting benefits for us. When he was dying and in some discomfort, he wrote to a friend about how he managed to distract himself from his illness by recalling his enjoyment of their past conversations.

This is all quite different from what the word ‘epicurean’ means today. It’s almost the opposite. An ‘epicure’ is someone who loves eating fine foods, someone who indulges in luxury and sensual pleasure. Epicurus had much simpler tastes than that suggests. He taught the need to be moderate – giving in to greedy appetites would just create more and more desires and so in the end produce the mental anguish of unfulfilled craving. That sort of life of wanting more and more should be avoided. He and his followers ate bread and water rather than exotic food. If you start drinking expensive wine, then you’ll very soon end up wanting to drink even more expensive wine, and get caught in the trap of longing for things that you can’t have. Despite this, his enemies claimed that in The Garden commune Epicureans spent most of their time eating, drinking and having sex with each other in a non-stop orgy. That’s how the modern meaning of ‘epicurean’ got going. If Epicurus’ followers really did do this, it was completely at odds with their leader’s teaching. It’s more likely, though, that this was just a malicious rumour.

One thing Epicurus certainly did spend a lot of time doing was writing. He was prolific. Records suggest that he wrote as many as three hundred books on rolls of papyrus, though none of these has survived. What we know about him comes mostly from notes followers wrote. They learnt his books by heart, but they also passed on his teaching in written form. Some of their scrolls survived in fragments, preserved in the volcanic ash that fell on Herculaneum near Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Another important source of information about Epicurus’ teaching is the long poem On the Nature of Things by the Roman philosopher-poet, Lucretius. Composed over two hundred years after Epicurus’ death, this poem summarized the key teachings of his school.

So, to return to the question that Epicurus asked, why shouldn’t you fear death? One reason is that you won’t experience it. Your death won’t be something that happens to you. When it happens you won’t be there. The twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein echoed this view when he wrote in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, ‘Death is not an event in life’. The idea here is that events are things that we experience, but our own death is the removal of the possibility of experience, not something further that we could be conscious of and somehow live through.

When we imagine our own death, Epicurus suggested, most of us make the mistake of thinking there will be something of us left to feel whatever happens to the dead body. But this is a misunderstanding about what we are. We are tied to our particular bodies, our particular flesh and bone. Epicurus’ view was that we consist of atoms (though what he meant by this term was a bit different from what modern scientists mean by it). Once these atoms come apart at death we no longer exist as individuals capable of consciousness. Even if someone could carefully put all the bits back together again later, and breathe life back into this reconstructed body, it wouldn’t be anything to do with me. The new living body wouldn’t be me, despite looking like me. I wouldn’t feel its pains, because once the body ceases to function nothing can bring it back to life. The chain of identity would have been broken.

Another way Epicurus thought he could cure his followers of their fear of death was by pointing out the difference between what we feel about the future and what we feel about the past. We care about one but not the other. Think about the time before your birth. There was all that time that you didn’t exist. Not just the weeks when you were in your mother’s womb when you might have been born early, or even the point before you were conceived but were just a possibility for your parents, but rather the trillions of years before you came along. We don’t usually worry about not existing for all those millennia before our birth. Why should anyone care about all that time that they didn’t exist? But then, if that’s true, why should we care so much about all those aeons of non-existence after death? Our thought is asymmetrical. We’re very biased towards worrying about the time after our death rather than the time before our birth. But Epicurus thought this was a mistake. Once you see this, you should start thinking of the time after your death in the same sort of way that you do the time before it. Then it won’t be a big concern.

Some people get very worried that they might end up being punished in an afterlife. Epicurus dismissed that worry too. The gods aren’t really interested in their creation, he confidently told his followers. They exist apart from us, and don’t get involved with the world. So you should be all right. That’s the cure – the combination of these arguments. If it works, you should feel much more relaxed about your future non-existence now. Epicurus summed up his whole philosophy in his epitaph: ‘I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind’

If you believe that we are simply physical beings, composed of matter, and that there is no serious risk of punishment after death, then Epicurus’ reasoning may well persuade you that your death is nothing to be afraid of. You might still worry about the process of dying as that is often painful and definitely experienced. That’s true even if it is unreasonable to fret about death itself. Remember, though, that Epicurus believed that good memories could ease pain, so he had an answer even for that. But if you think that you are a soul in a body, and that soul can survive bodily death, Epicurus’ cure is unlikely to work for you: you will be able to imagine carrying on existing even after your heart has stopped beating.

The Epicureans weren’t alone in thinking of philosophy as a type of therapy: most Greek and Roman philosophers did. The Stoics, in particular, were renowned for their lessons in how to be psychologically tough in the face of unfortunate events.

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