Philodemus and Lucretius on Death

The Halloween season is upon us, and I thought I’d share a selection of Epicurean literature with teachings concerning death, which are much more varied than most people realize. All are commentaries on the second Principal Doctrine, which says:

Death is nothing to us; for what has disintegrated lacks awareness, and what lacks awareness is nothing to us.

True to Epicurean ethics–which are based on the faculties of pleasure and pain–, PD 2 associates death with non-sentience or non-awareness, and it therefore also characterizes life to us as sentience. The only time that matters to us is the time between birth and death, and we focus on the quality of our sentience during that time.

In the year 79 of Common Era, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, including the Villa of the Papyri which contained a library of Epicurean works. The Herculaneum villa is considered “the Epicurean Nag Hammadi” because of its buried literary treasures, many of which have been deciphered. Of all the scrolls that survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the one On Death is by far the most brilliant (scholars like Voula Tsouna share my admiration). It is derived from notes that were taken by Philodemus of Gadara while he was studying under the Scholarch of the Garden of Athens at the time, Zeno of Sidon (which makes him the recipient of 200 years of direct lineage going back to the founders, Epicurus and Metrodorus). The scroll catalogues all the ethical repercussions of Principal Doctrine 2, and clearly and beautifully expounds the many ways in which a life-affirming philosophy of pleasure saves us from the terrors of conventional religiosity. I’ve written a summary and commentary on the scroll here, and there’s also an English scholarly translation (with the Greek original) titled Philodemus: On Death. One of my favorite quotes from the scroll:

A lavish burial does not fix a life lived wretchedly.

Death mosaic from Herculaneum
Death mosaic from Herculaneum

At around the same time that Philodemus was active, Titus Lucretius, in his epic poem The Nature of Things (original Latin version here), appropriately elaborates on the doctrine concerning the materiality / physicality of the soul (psyche). These ideas are related. If we understand the nature of sentience, and if we understand the nature of the mortal soul with all its faculties as an emergent property of the body–one that is born and dies with our mortal body, and is completely natural–it’s easier to understand the Epicurean teachings concerning how “Death is nothing to us” (PD 2).

Towards the end of Liber Tertivs (the Third Book of six), Lucretius personifies Nature (DRN 3:931-977) delivering a sermon against fear of death, counseling man to leave this life at the time of death as one who is satisfied after enjoying all the delicacies of a banquet. Mother Nature then explains that death is necessary because we are all made of recycled particles, and material is needed to construct and preserve the bodies of the future generations. This passage is followed by the symmetry argument (which compares the time after death to the time before birth).

“Mortal, what hast thou of such grave concern
That thou indulgest in too sickly plaints?
Why this bemoaning and beweeping death?
For if thy life aforetime and behind
To thee was grateful, and not all thy good
Was heaped as in sieve to flow away
And perish unavailingly, why not,
Even like a banqueter, depart the halls,
Laden with life? why not with mind content
Take now, thou fool, thy unafflicted rest?
But if whatever thou enjoyed hath been
Lavished and lost, and life is now offence,
Why seekest more to add- which in its turn
Will perish foully and fall out in vain?
O why not rather make an end of life,
Of labour? For all I may devise or find
To pleasure thee is nothing: all things are
The same forever. Though not yet thy body
Wrinkles with years, nor yet the frame exhausts
Outworn, still things abide the same, even if
Thou goest on to conquer all of time
With length of days, yea, if thou never diest”-

“Off with thy tears, and choke thy whines, buffoon!
Thou wrinklest- after thou hast had the sum
Of the guerdons of life; yet, since thou cravest ever
What’s not at hand, contemning present good,
That life has slipped away, unperfected
And unavailing unto thee. And now,
Or ere thou guessed it, death beside thy head
Stands- and before thou canst be going home
Sated and laden with the goodly feast.
But now yield all that’s alien to thine age,-
Up, with good grace! make room for sons: thou must.”
Justly, I fancy, would she reason thus,
Justly inveigh and gird: since ever the old
Outcrowded by the new gives way, and ever
The one thing from the others is repaired.

So one thing from another rises ever;
And in fee-simple life is given to none,
But unto all mere usufruct.
Look back:
Nothing to us was all fore-passed eld
Of time the eternal, ere we had a birth.
And Nature holds this like a mirror up
Of time-to-be when we are dead and gone.
And what is there so horrible appears?
Now what is there so sad about it all?
Is it not serener far than any sleep?

The Copley translation is clearer and more beautiful, rendering the core portion of this passage as: “You wanted what isn’t, scorned what is; hence life slipped through your fingers shapeless and unlovely“. The poem continues with arguments on how mortals create hell on Earth by falling for degrading superstitions concerning death, and arguing against fear of the afterlife. Earlier still, verses 31-93 of Liber Tertivs also tackle fear of death, and so the Third Book is worth reading in its entirety.

At Society of Epicurus, earlier this year we unfortunately had the sudden death of one of our members. Jesús was a young Venezuelan professor of political sciences who participated in our “Twentieth” zoom meetings every month. In a blog in his memory, I discussed how, thanks to a random act of kindness by a student of our friend who was also mourning him, the Epicurean burial tradition reemerged in the West after more than 1,500 years: the pupil inscribed the inscription “Non fvi, Fvi, Non svm, non cvro” in the fresh cement after our friend was buried. These are the words that used to be inscribed in the tombs of Roman Epicureans 2,000 years ago during the days of Lucretius and Philodemus. They mean: “I was not. I was. I am not. I care not”. This, too, is consistent with Principal Doctrine 2.

In sharing these literary and cultural buried treasures, my intention is to convey that there is in the Epicurean tradition, and at the very roots of Western civilization, a vibrant precedent for dealing with death (both privately and as a community) in a manner that is dignified and wise, yet does not at all give credit to degrading superstitions. We have naturalist burial traditions by which we may honor both the memory of our friends and loved ones, as well as their sincerely held beliefs. And we even have writings from which we may draw liturgy. While it’s fair to re-invent these traditions from scratch, there’s also something powerful and empowering about recovering these buried treasures, and standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.


Learn More:

Translation of Herculaneum Scroll: Philodemus: On Death

Educational Video: Death is Nothing to Us: The Epicureans on Death


Previous Essays in the Epicureanism Tradition at SNS:

An Epicurean Approach to Secularizing Rites of Passage

On Natural Holiness