Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Death is Nothing to Us: Drawing on Epicurus and Parmenides

Death is Nothing to Us:  Drawing on Epicurus and Parmenides

Thomas Leddy

San Jose State University


The Epicurean theory of death is that it is nothing to us.  In this paper I adapt and expand on this view of death.  Upon death, one achieves nonexistence.  And yet, one could argue, paradoxically, that no one actually dies since just as you cannot get something from nothing you cannot get nothing from something.  "death is nothing to us" has a double meaning:  first that it involves becoming nothing (or rather, ceasing to become), and second, it is of no concern to us.  Yet the death of a close friend IS something to us, since we grieve his or her loss.  But even here, we cannot get nothing from something.  The dead one does not become nothing.  The dead one is no more.  And yet the dead one continues, and not just in memory.  The dead have being but no longer a being that is a becoming.  In sum, the Epicurean approach to death combined with the insight of Parmenides offers consolation within the context of atheism. 

 “Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling, and that which has no feeling is nothing to us.”  Epicurus.  Principle Doctrines  

Death is nothing to us, for while we exist it is not our concern, and when it comes, we are not.  We cannot experience death.  Yet, to say “I am dead” or “I will be dead” implies that there is an I that is or will be dead.  But when I am dead I no longer exist.  So, there is, then, no “I” who is dead.  It is not that when I die I become nothing.  It is that, after I die, I am not.   After death there is no being to have feeling.  If there is no feeling, no experience, then there is nothing for me to feel.  And so there is nothing for me to fear. Death is nothing to me in that an Epicurean does not care about death.  Death is not a big issue.  There is nothing to worry about after death.  To be sure, projects I was working on will never be finished by me, plans I had never actualized, after I am dead.  Yet since death is inevitable, this too cannot be avoided, and what cannot be avoided is nothing to us.

How can I care if I am dead if there is no “I” when I am dead? There is no “I” to be dead. 

Further, you cannot get nothing from something.  As Parmenides argues, What is is, and cannot not be. But Parmenides also argued that change is not possible, which goes too far since obviously false. 

The interesting thing about death is that it seems that it violates fundamental principle.  It seems that in death a thing has become nothing.  We have to realize that this is an illusion.  You cannot get nothing from something.  Death is nothing to us does not mean that in death one becomes nothing.  In death, one ceases to become.

But how can you combine Parmenides and Epicurus?  This would seem to combine idealism and materialism. 

Further, I fear death even though Parmenides and Epicurus have shown this is irrational.  Why is this?  Evolution has designed me do so.  If you die you do not maximize your genetic heritage either as a parent or as a nurturing elder.  When you die you cease to contribute.  And so nature makes us fear death. Yet reason tells us there is no reason to fear death.  

Epicurus writes, “The body receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, grasping in thought what the end and limit of the body is, and banishing the terrors of futurity, procures a complete and perfect life, and has no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless it does not shun pleasure, and even in the hour of death, when ushered out of existence by circumstances, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.”  Epicurus.  Principle Doctrines

The first sentence here is difficult to understand.  How can anything received as unlimited have any limits?  What is the body providing?  The point begins to make sense when we get to idea that once we have accepted the Epicurean truth, one we accept that we do not need unlimited time, then we can have a complete and perfect life.  The idea of perfection is difficult here.  

If death is nothing to us, we can banish the terrors of beyond death.  If death is nothing then there is no afterlife, no heaven and no hell.   We no longer need unlimited time to live a good life.  Heaven is not needed by an Epicurean.  Even in the hour of death “the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.”   Death is nothing to us since we can have pleasure in life, and pleasure is even available in the last hour, although this is obviously the most difficult of pleasures.  We do say, however, It is not over till it is over. Pleasure can come in the form of a sense of completion, of fulfilment of promise. 

The death of others, however, is not nothing.  The death of my friend causes me great suffering.  So how can I say that death is nothing to me?  Here, Parmenides can help.  My friend cannot become nothing.  He did not become nothing.  He simply ceased to exist.  He ceased to be something that becomes.  Moreover, he has completed something.  His life has become an organic whole.  It now has a beginning, middle and end. 

My suffering is that he is no longer here.  But he is not elsewhere.  He is not gone in the sense of being elsewhere.  He is still here in my mind and my mind.  I read his letters and I cry.  He is present to me in his letters.

Nature compels me to mourn.  So I must mourn.  And yet you cannot get nothing from something.  My friend did not cease to exist. I mourn him because he is still there. He froze in time.  He can no longer do anything.  It is as though he had left the room.  He just won’t come back.  And yet if, per impossible, he did come back we could resume our conversation. And I can imagine that conversation.  When I read dead people it is as as if I were in conversation with them. My friend does not simply exist in my memories.  He exists in my entire world, except as dead.  People believe in religious solutions to this problem because it seems so hard to accept death.  The alternative would be to accept that nothing came from something:  that my friend became nothing.  Yet there is no other case where nothing comes from something. 

Epicurus further writes “It would be impossible to banish fear on matters of the highest importance, if a person did not know the nature of the whole universe, but lived in dread of what the legends tell us. Hence without the study of nature there was no enjoyment of unmixed pleasures.”  “There would be no advantage in providing security against our fellow humans, so long as we were alarmed by occurrences over our heads or beneath the earth or in general by whatever happens in the boundless universe.”

And in a the Letter to Menoeceus:

Take the habit of thinking that death is nothing for us. For all good and evil lie in sensation: but death is deprivation of any sensitivity. Therefore, knowledge of the truth that death is nothing to us, enables us to enjoy this mortal life, not by adding the prospect of infinite duration, but by taking away the desire of the immortality. For there is nothing left to fear in life, who really understood that out of life there is nothing terrible. So pronounced empty words when it is argued that death is feared, not because it is painful being made, but because of the wait is painful. It would indeed be a futile and pointless fear than would be produced by the expectation of something that does not cause any trouble with his presence.

And that of all the evils that gives us more horror, death is nothing to us, since we exist as ourselves, death is not, and when death exists, we are not. So death is neither the living nor the dead, since it has nothing to do with the former and the latter are not.

But the multitude sometimes flees death as the worst of evils, sometimes called as the term of the ills of life. The wise, however, does not ignore life and did not afraid of no longer living, for life he is not dependent, and it does not consider that there the lesser evil not to live “

Death is nothing to us because Epicurean truth “takes away the desire of immortality.”  We don’t need immortality because of completeness.  This factor needs to be considered.  Taking away the desire of immortality allows us to enjoy this mortal life.  That death is nothing to us intensifies our pleasure in life. 

So when we exist “as ourselves” death is not.  Death has “nothing to do with” the living. 

But what if there is a soul that exists after we die?  On this view our body dies, but the soul continues to live.  I do not believe this.  There is no sound evidence that there are souls that survive death.  There is no soul independent of the body.  Death is nothing to us.

There are some contemporary arguments against Epicurus, as we can see in the SEP article on death.  Here is one:  “we are harmed by what makes our lives as wholes worse than they otherwise would be, and benefitted by what makes our lives as wholes better than they otherwise would be” and death makes our lives worse, and therefore our own death is a harm to us….  According to comparativism, when a death is bad for us despite not making us accrue intrinsic evils such as pain, it is bad for us because it precludes our coming to have various intrinsic goods which we would have had if we had not died. We might say that death is bad for us because of the goods it deprives us of, and not, or at least not always, because of any intrinsic evils for which it is responsible….”

The last point in the Principle Doctrines is “40.  Those who were best able to provide themselves with the means of security against their neighbors, being thus in possession of the surest guarantee, passed the most agreeable life in each other's society; and their enjoyment of the fullest intimacy was such that, if one of them died before his time, the survivors did not mourn his death as if it called for sympathy.”  


“Accustom thyself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of all sentience ; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an illimitable time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. [125] For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly apprehended that there are no terrors for him in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatsoever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.133 But in the world, at one time men shun death as the greatest of all evils, and at another time choose it as a respite from the evils in life. [126] The wise man does not deprecate life nor does he fear the cessation of life. The thought of life is no offence to him, nor is the cessation of life regarded as an evil. And even as men choose of food not merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely that which is longest. And he who admonishes the young to live well and the old to make a good end speaks foolishly, not merely because of the desirableness of life, but because the same exercise at once teaches to live well and to die well. Much worse is he who says that it were good not to be born, but when once one is born to pass with all speed through the gates of Hades.134 [127] For if he truly believes this, why does he not depart from life ? It were easy for him to do so, if once he were firmly convinced. If he speaks only in mockery, his words are foolishness, for those who hear believe him not.”

Note “when we are, death has not come.”  One reason why death is nothing to us is that it is no concern to us now.  We exist.  We are not dead.  When death comes, we no longer are.

But it is thought that “Death is a harm to the person who dies because it deprives him of certain goods- the goods he would have enjoyed if he had not died.”  (Li  2002  44)  Who is being deprived of goods?  When you are dead you are no longer a person.  You cannot be deprived of goods if you are dead.  There seems to be a trick of language in here.  What sense can be made of “deprived of goods he would have enjoyed if he had not died”?  It is true that I have interest in certain things happening and not happening after I die. 



Fischer, John Martin  ed.  The Metaphysics of Death.  Stanford University Press, 1993.  

Konstan, David, "Epicurus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Li, Jack. Can Death Be a Harm to the Person Who Dies? Dordrecht ;: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002.

Luper, Steven, "Death", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Rosenbaum, Stephen E. “How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus.” American Philosophical Quarterly 23, no. 2 (1986): 217–25.

Tim, "Death is nothing to us – Epicurus, February 1, 2022, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, February 1, 2022,

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