Lucretius and the Fears of Death

Dissertation, Cornell University (1997)
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Abstract
The Epicureans argued that death was nothing to us and that we should not fear death, and this thesis takes up these arguments as they appear in our fullest extant source, the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius. After an initial look at the general Epicurean theory of emotions, the thesis narrows in on the fears of death. Lucretius starts from a popular dichotomy concerning death: death is either the utter destruction of the person who dies, or the person survives in some form. Each belief has its own fear. On the one side, people fear complete annihilation, and on the other side, people fear the possibility of an eternal afterlife of suffering and punishment. In response to these fears, Lucretius argues for two key claims: first, that there is no post-mortem survival and, second, that non-survival is not harmful. Lucretius defends the first claim by arguing that death destroys the compound of soul and body which makes up a person. Since the person does not survive death, there is no possibility of an afterlife of never-ending torture. To support his second claim, Lucretius argues that there can be no harm without someone to suffer the harm. Since death is the utter destruction of the person who dies, that person is not left for death to harm. Thus, non-survival is no harm to the person who dies. It is unreasonable to fear what will not happen or what will not be bad. Thus, Lucretius shows that two central fears of death--the fear of Hades and the fear of annihilation--are unreasonable. People should not fear Hades, since there is no such afterlife of eternal torture. Nor should they fear non-survival, since annihilation is not the harm it appears to be. Because Hades is not real and annihilation is not bad, death is nothing to us in either case.
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