Facing Death: Epicurus and His Critics

Facing Death: Epicurus and His Critics

Facing Death: Epicurus and His Critics

Facing Death: Epicurus and His Critics


The ancient philosophical school of Epicureanism tried to argue that death is "nothing to us." Were they right? James Warren examines the arguments they offered and evaluates their success, setting them against modern philosophical accounts of how death can be a harm. He also asks whether a life free from all fear of death is an attractive option and what the consequences would be of a full acceptance of the Epicureans' views.


You know, it's really very peculiar. To be mortal is the most basic human experience and yet man has never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly. Man doesn't know how to be mortal.

Milan Kundera, Immortality

To be immortal is commonplace; except for man, all creatures are immortal for they are ignorant of death; what is divine, terrible, incomprehensible, is to know that one is mortal.

J. L. Borges, 'The immortal'

It is possible that people have always been interested, if not concerned, by the question of the nature and significance of death. Mortality, after all, is something which all humans share and is something which has important consequences for how we live and how we think about our lives. In addition to this general interest, there is a long tradition of philosophical interest in the question of death. One long and influential tradition of thought looks to answer these questions by showing that, despite appearances to the contrary, humans are in fact not mortal. We, or at least some part or parts of us, are immortal. There is, in other words, 'life after death'. My interest here is in the treatment of the question of the significance of death by an alternative tradition of thought which is convinced that there is no such life after death. Death, for this line of thought, is the end. It is the annihilation of the person. Whatever survives death is merely a corpse. If that is in fact the case, then how should we think of death and of our own mortality? Should we be concerned, even alarmed, at this prospect of our coming to a final and total end? There has recently been a great deal of interest in the philosophical question of whether death is something to be feared from philosophers who share the assumption that there is

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