Lucretius on Death

In Book Three (lines 38-86) of Lucretius’s Epicurean ode, On the Nature of Things, our author discusses death. The point of this section is to explain the fear of death and its affects to his audience. According to Lucretius, death and the afterlife are feared by all. He states that the soul is not immortal due to the fact that if it were we would remember our previous lives, therefore mortality is inevitable (3.63-64). Wanting to prove that there is no life after death, Lucretius wants to encourage the thought that we need not fear death. The dread and anxiety of death makes people confused (3.40). Restlessness and discontent regarding the topic of ceasing existence can only be overcome once one has pondered the nature of things. I believe that perhaps what our author is trying to delve into is that individuals should not worry about aspects of life that they cannot control.

People turn to religion when things get scary (3.54). This can be taken as both positive and negative considering that Lucretius was an atheist (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus). The role of a higher being or entity entirely separate from oneself can be an enlightening comfort to have in your mind. However, I feel as though if one relies on this too heavily, one will not know how to interpret notions, such as this fear of death for themselves. Relying too heavily on something such as religion or even emotions (like this fear of death) one cannot see can have serious consequences. Greed, desire, and basic human error along with want for material things are fueled by the fear of death (3.70-80). So if all of these heinous crimes and desires are fueled by the fear of dying, what then does life and death mean to us? Is our perception of life and death, existence and non-existence all in our minds? Is there a social construct regarding these beliefs that we carry out and hold to be self-evident?

From this passage, an inquiring reader might learn many concepts regarding how fear ought to be viewed. For example, that fear of death is common, that fear fuels many things, to question the facets of reality, or perhaps not to fear death. Then again perhaps Lucretius does not know more than us on this matter; he is simply taking what he knows to be true and analyzing it to fit the mold of his argument. For example, our author states that, “[men] perish to acquire a statue or good name.” (3.70). This can be true to fit his argument that death brings greed. However, not all individuals die to be remembered or to achieve measurable establishments in their honor.

A reader of this material may discern what life and death means to them and how they want to view the fear of death. Lucretius writes that one can learn what a person is truly like in times of danger and doubt (3.56). “For then at last real voices are extracted from the bottom of the heart and the mask is ripped off: reality remains.” (3.57-58). From this one can take away a meaning of veracity. Just as humanity unites when there is a greater, more immanent threat, one can see the true nature of an individual in times of peril. Fear is a strong emotion. In death there is no longing for sentient pleasures, why then is it feared? If one does not feel or want for anything at all, this must be a good thing Lucretius argues (3.82). I can see how some would see this as a negative thing; they fear the unknown where one does not feel or have sensation, but, agreeing with Lucretius’s position, in regards to not feeling anything, one’s being would not even be aware of this phenomenon.

The information in this passage about the fear of death may prove useful to the reader and anyone he or she informs. Although perhaps not entirely true, I do believe that there is a correlation between material possessions and death. People want what other people have, so if you have more of something such as money, beauty, or happiness, then other people are going to want to take it from you, possibly by putting you at a greater risk of death (3.73). The more wealth someone has, the more others want him or her gone so they may have a chance at their money, beauty, or happiness. The logic here is that with someone who has more, better, and greater than you out of the way, the larger chance you have at ecstasy. “And often through fear of death such a great hatred of life…” (3.79) If one lets oneself be overcome with their fear of death and what happens after life, one will not be able to live to the fullest. The distraction that fear posses is daunting because it becomes a threat to the simple existence. If one is stuck worrying about something they cannot fully control, they are stuck in a positive feedback loop that fuels itself and cannot be stopped, thus unable to just live. Happiness and enjoyment are ideals of life not nurtured by fear and incessant concerns of the mind we cannot regulate. Perhaps what Lucretius is hinting at is that the carefree life is the best way to live: a life not involving fear.

Transitively wealth brings death. I take this to mean that one should not be greedy and just live with the minimal amount of material possessions as possible. The saying that “money can’t buy me love” is true in this aspect. Wealth will assist one in obtaining material possessions, but according to Lucretius, those bring death. The message to take away then is surround yourself with those that you love and not material possessions that cannot simulate the same affects upon oneself. “This is why people, attacked by false fears, desiring to escape far away and to withdraw themselves far away…double their riches, piling up slaughter on slaughter.” (3.68-71). The fear of death makes people withdraw into themselves and their material processions, leaving them with few connections and a less sentient mind. Therefore, fear disconnects individuals from the world around them. Blinded, people cannot see what is truly important in life anymore; they simply want to ensure a long and secure life with wealth. If the reader does not get anything else out of this passage, at least they can take away some sort of curiosity on the matter.

Only briefly touching on the subject of the fear of death in this brief section, Lucretius leaves the reader with more to be desired; he leaves the reader with questions. Is this fear of death bad? We, as humans, are aware that we are going to die someday. Is this ruining our chances at true happiness? What would life be like if we did not know we would someday die? Lucretius says that the soul is not immortal. Where does the soul go after death? Does it die with the physical body? Do we even have souls? Is death similar to the phase before we are born, complete nothingness? This makes humans do unthinkable things. “…And in short to abandon responsible conduct.” Lucretius is saying that death blinds us (3.84). Is fear that powerful of an influence? How powerful is fear? Is fear more powerful than love? Or perhaps the two are completely different and should not be weighed on the same scale. All of the matter discussed by Lucretius is relevant to the mind. Outside of the mind’s walls, fear does not exist. This is an interesting concept relating to post and trans humanism. The evolution of the human to adapt may someday possibly create a cybernetic organism that, like in Phillip K. Dick’s short story “Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep”, needs to have its brain stimulated by a machine simply to perform everyday emotional functions. That may be a bit of a stretch to conceptualize; however, if someday humans are able to eliminate emotion, in this instance fear, then what becomes of Lucretius’s arguments on death and the morality of the soul? Every species on this planet has its time here, usually about ten million years. Eventually our time will come to an end. And with the rate that humanity is using up non-renewable resources, that time will come sooner than we were possibly allotted. In order to survive as a species, not as individuals who know that we will each die off independently, we need to acclimatize and modify our habits to be sustainable. If we destroy our planet before it has a chance to destroy us, or let our rein run its course, we will not have time to even consider fearing death. Perhaps Lucretius thought deeper on this and wanted to convince individuals to not fear death for more apocalyptic reasons? If I were to take a stance with our author, that would be my argument: not that we should not fear death because it is cumbersome to worry, but because we won’t have the time to worry if we no longer have an atmosphere to keep out the un-oxygenated universe. But then again, this all just exists in our minds.

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