Epicurus on Fear

Epicurus

In my previous post on Epicurus we touched on his idea of happiness. We briefly discussed ataraxia, the state of being tranquil and free of worry. In today’s post, we’ll see what Epicurus thought was our biggest source of worry, and how best to achieve conscious control over it.

Most of human anxiety, said Epicurus, is caused by fear, chiefly of three things:

a) Death
b) Pain
c) God

Fear of Death

In one of his most famous quotes, he is believed to have said: Death is meaningless to the living because they are living, and meaningless to the dead because they are dead.

Epicurus’s fundamental assumption with death is that it occurs when our senses have stopped functioning. So just as we have no sentience during the vast stretch of time before our births, we will similarly not have any sentience following our deaths. This feeling of ‘no consciousness’ ought not to puzzle us, he says, for every night we go to bed and lose our senses to the world of dreams and sleep. Death will be just like that, except that it will be unending.

In his letter to Menoeceus, he expounds a little further on the matter (highlights mine):

Accustom yourself to believing that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply the capacity for sensation, and death is the privation of all sentience; therefore a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life a limitless time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly understood 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. Whatever 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.

Fear of Pain

In our history, there has always been an implicit assumption that physical pain is greater than that of mental pain. Physical abuse is a more serious offence than emotional abuse. Indeed, often the latter goes unpunished. Much of capital punishment involves physical pain and torture.

Epicurus is perhaps one of the first ancient philosophers who trained his eye towards what he called ‘trouble in the soul’. He suggests that mental pain is often more severe than physical pain, and that even when one’s body is free of discomfort, the mind is forever racing ahead and back in time, mulling over things, worrying, fidgeting. He says: The flesh endures the storms of the present alone, the mind those of the past and future as well as the present.

On this subject he reiterates the importance of distinguishing between pleasurable pains and painful pleasures: some pains that give us lasting pleasure, and some pleasures that degrade our characters and lead to pain. This act of discernment, he says, comes from wisdom.

It is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. Of all this the beginning and the greatest good is wisdom. Therefore wisdom is a more precious thing even than philosophy ; from it spring all the other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot live pleasantly without living wisely, honorably, and justly; nor live wisely, honorably, and justly without living pleasantly. For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them.

Today, we’re just beginning to wake up to how debilitating the torments of the soul can be. Mental illnesses and well-being have been embraced by modern medical science. Depression and anxiety are as common in our society as are cancer and malaria. But in a world dominated by attainment of physical pleasures, does the common layperson have the wisdom to achieve mental well-being?

Fear of God

We’d expect someone of Epicurus’s way of thinking to be an atheist. But he was not so. In fact, he is known to have written fondly about the Gods and their ways of life. He only protested against the notion that the Gods interfered with the ways of men. In another of his famous quotes, he says:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

Does that mean he’s a naturalist, then, suggesting that human beings were in firm control of their lives? Not quite. He reminds us that events happen typically due to three reasons: out of necessity (or natural order), out of chance, and as a direct result of our own actions. To discount the role of any one of the three is to commit folly. He writes to Menoeceus thus, referring to himself in the third person:

Some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance is inconstant; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach. It were better, indeed, to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath that yoke of destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed. The one holds out some faint hope that we may escape if we honor the gods, while the necessity of the naturalists is deaf to all entreaties. Nor does he hold chance to be a god, as the world in general does, for in the acts of a god there is no disorder; nor to be a cause, though an uncertain one, for he believes that no good or evil is dispensed by chance to men so as to make life blessed, though it supplies the starting-point of great good and great evil. He believes that the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool. It is better, in short, that what is well judged in action should not owe its successful issue to the aid of chance.

Conclusion

Fear is instinctive. We cannot choose whether or not we break into a sweat when faced by a robber wielding a dagger in a dark alley, or a tiger in the wild. But we can conquer the fears that plague us every day that translate into worry: fear of the future, fear of death, of destiny, of divine punishment. We can conquer these by training ourselves to be wise, says Epicurus, and thus we can achieve the state of ataraxia. In his own words:

Exercise yourself in these and related precepts day and night, both by yourself and with one who is like-minded; then never, either in waking or in dream, will you be disturbed, but will live as a god among men. For man loses all semblance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings.

Image Courtesy: MACB Art

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