Epicurus states: “Become accustomed to the belief that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation. And therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to it an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality. For there is nothing terrible in life for the man who has truly comprehended there is nothing terrible in not living.”
What is very interesting about this text is Epicurus’s point blank statement that there is nothing after death. So now that we have that settled, lets move on and set about the task of making the best out the time we spend living.
We have started a new sermon series at our church today called “Live like you are dying”. I think the main point of it is to try to get us to make the most of our life, do the things that you know are important but have not been getting around to. So this sermon series has the exact opposite motivation of what Epicurus is trying to accomplish.
I find the contrast of these two points of view very fascinating. Epicurus come at it from the point of view “well there is nothing after death, so lets stop obsessing about it and get on with the task of enjoying life”. While “Live like you are dying” has the total opposite view: The tragedy of death could happen any time to you, so you need to make things right before that happens.
What happens after death is one of those weird things. You cannot prove or disprove any theory about because we cannot go there and come back, since by definition, a person is dead when they are gone. If they go and come back, were they really dead? It creates a brutal impasse for any further discussion about the meaning and purpose in life. You have to work backwards from what death means and life after death before you can make sense out of our lives.
No wonder Epicurus immediately addresses the issue of death before he dives into his dissertation on ethics and the meaning of life. In my opinion, I feel that he deals with it a bit too quickly. By the time he was writing this in 300 BC, the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) was already being translated. He would also be aware of many other religions at that time which held a concepts of an afterlife. Alexander the Great (356-323) had just conquered the majority of the known world so he would be bringing back to Athens knowledge about the various religions from Indians, Babylonians, Hebrews, and Egyptians.
Epicurus has made a very bold move to start off his arguments with the assumption that there is nothing after death. If a person just follows his line of thinking (without questioning the first assumption of nothing after death), then the other things following that make perfect sense. However, if his first assumption does not make any sense, or if he is making that assumption to quickly without addressing all the other people around him in his known world that think there is something after death, then the rest of the arguments that follow are not even worth considering.