Why death is nothing to fear, according to Roman philosopher Lucretius.… {lgt41: source Philosophy Break}

According to the Roman philosopher Lucretius, our fear of death is buried deep, and not always conscious. As he puts it almost 2,000 years ago in his epic poem, On the Nature of Things, its presence “tinges everything we do with death’s blackness, leaving no pleasure clean and pure…”

But is this fear really well-founded? Lucretius thinks not. If our conscious minds depend on our bodies, then as soon as our bodies cease to be alive, our minds will also cease to exist.

This leads Lucretius to thus conclude that “death is nothing to us” — because it literally will be nothing to us: there is nothing to experience in death, because the experiencer no longer exists.⁣

“Consider the time before we were born,” Lucretius writes: “we felt no distress when the Carthaginians were attacking Rome on every side; and the whole world was shaken by the frightening tumult of that war… and in the same way in the future, when we shall no longer exist… nothing whatever will be able to happen to us, or produce any sensation — not even if the the earth should collapse in to the sea, or the sea explode in the sky…”

The act of dying, then — and being dead — is nothing to reasonably worry about, because, just like before we were born, Lucretius argues, in death there is no part of our consciousness that exists to experience it.

But what if the act of dying is not really what drives our anxiety? What if it’s more worrying about the life we’ll miss out on, the loved ones we’ll leave, everything we didn’t manage to do?

For Lucretius, this is one and the same worry. Our lust for life and our fear of death are the same thought, merely framed differently. By fretting about not having enough time with our loved ones, by not completing what we want to complete in life — we are really fretting about death. And, as Lucretius puts it, “it is this evil and excessive desire for life that makes us tremble with doubts and forebodings.”

So, what’s the solution? We must remember death is nothing to us, and realize that our unfocused craving for life in fact damages the only life we get: it removes us from appreciating what we already have. Rather than forego present pleasures by worrying about future inevitabilities, we should accept our mortality and live simply in the face of it. We should acknowledge that our time here is limited, but remind ourselves that it’s okay — because we’ll spend the time well, thankful for the present, without trying to control a future that ultimately we cannot escape, a future we won’t even experience.

Besides, by prolonging life we subtract nothing from the time when we shall be dead.

As Lucretius frankly puts it: “No matter how many generations you live through, the same eternal death is still waiting, and someone who ends life as the sun goes down today will have just as long a period of non-existence as one who died many months and years before.”

Mortality is part of our nature, Lucretius insists. We wouldn’t expect a flower to live forever — and in fact its beauty in full-bloom, we might argue, is only magnified by its artful impermanence.