A Review Of Epicurus’ ‘Deadly’ Existential Mistake

What seems to make sense at first,
might be exactly that —
what only seems to make sense at first.

— Shilashanti

In the third section of the ‘Letter to Menoeceus’ by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (c. 341-271), he wrote, [Part 1] ‘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.’ [Summary 1] What he suggests is that death is existentially insignificant when it occurs. This is based on his bold assumption that all pleasures and pains arise from physical feelings, which will fully cease upon death.

[Review 1] We know this is not true as there are many verified cases of those resurrected, who were already medically pronounced dead, who nevertheless felt how their bodies were handled, giving rise to feelings of likes and dislikes accordingly. This happens because the consciousness does not dissolve to become nothing upon death. For the not so well spiritually practised, it usually habitually lingers on within the body for some time due to lifelong attachment, continuing to feel through it. According to the Buddha’s teachings, just as our consciousness was already present before this life, it continues after it. Thus, become accustomed instead, to the truth that death is as very much something significant to us, just as life is, especially since our final state of mind will connect to the nature of our next life.

He next wrote, [Part 2] ‘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.’ [Summary 2] What he suggests is that since death is insignificant, we should enjoy this limited life, not because this lengthens life, but because doing so eradicates instinctive wanting to live forever.

[Review 2] Of course, we naturally wish to enjoy life. However, the joys that most yearn for tend to only be worldly, physical and fleeting. According to the Buddha’s teachings, with spiritual cultivation, we can realise lasting True Happiness, that transcends the rounds of birth and death. It is this state of liberation, that spans on eternally, thus offering immeasurable life. If we are penny wise and pound foolish, by imagining that indulgence in unsubstantial mundane highs is all that is worthy, we would be wasting this precious life by splurging our limited time, missing the true immortality with unceasing bliss that we can aspire towards.

He next wrote, [Part 3] ‘For there is nothing terrible in life for the man, who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living.’ [Summary 3] What he suggests is that if one ‘knows’ that there is nothing truly unbearable about being dead, there will be nothing truly unbearable when alive, since one will eventually die, thus ending what was hard to bear.

[Review 3] Readers might take this line to ‘suggest’ that when life seems hard to bear, there is always the option of suicide to end life and thus pain. However, as explained above, according to the Buddha’s teachings, life of the mind does not end with death of the body. The anguish that ‘spurred’ self-destruction does not disappear or transform upon suicide. Again, pain will be felt through the body, and upon realisation that the consciousness still exists, anguish is likely to increase, with additional regret, confusion and fear. Unfortunate deaths thus tend to lead to even less fortunate rebirths. One might as well be brave to live on, to solve the problems in this life, than to karmically worsen them in the next life with suicide.

He next wrote, [Part 4] ‘So that the man speaks but idly, who says that he fears death, not because it will be painful when it comes, but because it is painful in anticipation. For that which gives no trouble when it comes, is but an empty pain in anticipation.’ [Summary 4] What he suggests is that death only brings about suffering due to imagining about it now, not that it will be painful when it arrives later.

[Review 4] Dying and death can be painless, and even blissful, but only for the spiritually well cultivated. Not accounted for is how to handle the state between being healthy and dead – the state of dying, which might be long-drawn, filled with pain and suffering. As mentioned, suicide is not a wise option then. According to the Buddha’s teachings, there should be sincere mindfulness of Buddha, so as to expedite smooth and peaceful departure, to reach the best destination of rebirth possible, Pure Land, through which there will be the swiftest non-retrogressible progress towards Buddhahood, which is to actualise our greatest possible potential for one and all.

He next wrote, [Part 5] ‘So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.’ [Summary 5] What he suggests overall, is that even death, what imagined to be the most terrible ‘thing’, is not terrible at all, for when we are alive, death does not exist yet, and when death has come, we no longer exist. Thus, he ‘concludes’ that death is a non-issue for both the living and dead.

[Review 5] However, as explained above, according to the Buddha’s teachings, the consciousness exists throughout life, death and after. And again, even if death is the ‘end’ of all experiences, there is the problem of the dying state, just before death, which is kind of between being truly living and truly dead, which can be torturous for those unprepared, and without a spiritual path to transcend it. Another danger with this one aspect of Epicurean thinking, that with death annihilates all of one’s existence is its potential of leading adherents to hedonistic and immoral living, since there is no ‘need’ to have regard for karmic consequences in the life after. His last line in this section is an ‘excellent’ example of how the seemingly ‘smart’ and ‘logical’ might not align with reality upon closer scrutiny.

What only seems to make sense at first,
might be exactly that —
what does not make sense later.

— Shilashanti

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