Lucretius on the fear of death
Part of the Philosophy Papers series Lucretius views death as nothing and that the fear of death is unreasonable. To defend this position, he gives the symmetry argument where he likens the non-existence of a being before birth as similar to their non-existence post-mortem. He then uses this argument to explain why the fear of death is irrational. After explaining Lucretius’s arguments, I will explain why I disagree with them. My first objection will be on the claim of symmetry between pre-birth and post-mortem non-existence. My second objection will be on the claim that death is nothing to us and should not concern us. I will then explain the significance of these ideas for the conception of the human.
Lucretius argues that the fear of death is unreasonable by likening non-existence before birth to non-existence after death. This has been understood in two ways, as the similarity between these times and the similarities in the attitude of these times. James Warren (2001) explains that Lucretius’ symmetry argument looks explicitly at the symmetry of the time before birth and the time after death rather than our attitude to those times. Others have defended that Lucretius was talking about current attitudes towards these times (Rosenbaum, 1989). However, I believe Lucretius uses a different argument to discuss attitudes to death rather than his symmetry argument and would thus agree with Warren’s interpretation. Therefore, we can formulate Lucretius’s argument as If our non-existence before our birth had no significance to us, and the time before birth is similar to the time after our death; then our non-existence after our death will hold no significance to us. Lucretius builds upon this argument by saying that lamenting death only detracts from being able to live life. If someone lived a good life, then the distress of death would only cause discontent. If someone lived a harsh life, then the fear of death would only add to their burdens (Lucretius Carus and Bailey, 1910). These arguments explain why Lucretius exclaims that “Death, then, is naught to us, nor does it concern us…” (Lucretius Carus and Bailey, 1910).
While I agree that we should not despair over our eventual deaths, I disagree with Lucretius that our non-existence before birth is like our non-existence post-mortem. There is an asymmetry between this idea of our non-existence before birth and our non-existence after death. Before birth, there is no concept of our identity; we are pure potentiality. The contingency of our birth is outside of our control, and we have no say whatsoever about the time or place of our birth. However, we have some say over the contingency of our death. Plus, even after our death, we do not cease to exist but merely take on new forms of existence. Our body exists as a corpse, memories live on in those who were close to us, and our children live on with the existential changes we have made in their lives. The only part of us that ceases to exist is our consciousness, but a person is more than just their consciousness. In this sense, we have passed from potency to an actualizer of potencies. Even after death, the chains of actualisation continue from our being. Therefore, the time after our death cannot be seen as being like the time before our birth. While we may not be there to witness the effects of our being, in some ways, we still live on.
I also disagree that death is nothing to us. Todd May (2009) explains how human beings are characterised by their ability to project into the future and see the trajectory of their actions. Death is then the ultimate trajectory that creates a vulnerability to all other goals in life. If death did not create this vulnerability, then we may lose motivation to pursue and complete these other goals. There is also something about death that changes our very being. Heidegger (2008) details how a part that belongs to one’s Dasein is the Being-towards-death. He describes how even if someone tries to evade or ignore death that it only reinforces that one is grasping with the certainty of their own death. No one else can take the place of our own death. This forces death into a central part of our lives as an inevitable end. Freud (2018) even goes so far as to say that we have an unconscious death drive. Despite Lucretius’s attempt to say that death does not concern us, anxiety around death is always with man no matter how they try to evade it. I believe that death is central to our existence and, thus, very significant.
These ideas are crucial to the concept of the human. Since man is the only animal to be self-aware about the inevitability of one’s own death, this makes man able to conceive of purpose. Purpose is what gives man the ability to make decisions towards particular ends. As death is the final end, purpose necessarily needs to centralise around the idea of death. Lucretius is right that despairing about death is unreasonable. However, death is central to what makes us human and can’t be seen as just being nothing.
Freud, S., 2018. The Ego and the Id. Newburyport: Dover Publications, pp.33-42.
Heidegger, M., 2008. Being and time. New York: Harper Perennial/Modern Thought, pp.290-311.
Lucretius Carus, T. and Bailey, C., 1910. Lucretius on the nature of things. 1st ed. London: Oxford University Press, pp.120-142.
May, T., 2009. Death. Stocksfield: Acumen, p.7.
Meier, L., 2018. What Matters in the Mirror of Time: Why Lucretius’ Symmetry Argument Fails. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 97(4), pp.651-660.
Nussbaum, M., 1989. Mortal Immortals: Lucretius on Death and the Voice of Nature. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 50(2), pp.303-351.
Rosenbaum, S., 1989. The Symmetry Argument: Lucretius Against the Fear of Death. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 50(2), pp.353-373.
Warren, J., 2001. Lucretius, Symmetry arguments, and fearing death. Phronesis, 46(4), pp.466-491.