Baboon, like others, has been having technical problems posting and so he asked me to start this thread with this contribution on Epicurus and the attitude to death, following up his article 'On Marx and Epicurus' http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201802/14902/marx-and-epicurus. We are working on the technical problems....
Everything couldn't be covered in the above text of course but there is a significant omission and one that is important, fundamental even, for Epicurus' philosophy and extremely important for the understanding and later development of the thoughts, analyses and polemics of Marx (and marxism) on the subject; it is the question of death and mortality. According to Epicurus death means "nothing to us" so what does he mean by this? In order to answer this I propose to look briefly at the understanding of the question by the Greek philosopher, an example of the profound use that Marx made of it and, by way of a swerve through Bordiga, the relationship of this question to that of death in prehistoric society.
The Epicurean emphasis on freedom went hand in hand with the question of death and mortality, i.e., you couldn't have one without the other. Marx wrote (volume V of the Collected Works): "For the Epicureans, the principle of the concept of nature is the 'mors immortalis' (immortal death), as Lucretius says". Materialist ethics had its starting point in overcoming the fear of death, a fear promoted by established religion and superstition, hence the denunciation by Epicurus of both. In his "Principal Doctrines" Epicurus wrote: "Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved is without sensation; and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us". Death, if anything, has more effect, more sensations on the living. What was important was what comes from the existence of humanity and not some external eternal force. Epicurean ethics were also based on the pursuit of pleasure and freedom from pain and fear. Epicurus was criticised by some Greeks (and more lately) for his hedonism but this shows a crude understanding of his ethics which rejected egotism and ostentation and was for a simple life surrounded by friends and abjuring wealth except the social wealth that the friendship of both males and females provided (according to scholars of the subject the Greek-Roman concept of "friendship" has more profound social and political weight than today). Epicurean philosophy was contemplative and interpretive and the task we know is to change the world. But the "atomism" of Epicurus provides some of the essentials for this task: the overcoming of fear, free will and consciousness. In some important areas the ideas of the Greek Enlightenment, like those of Epicurus and those detailed by Lucretius, dwarf those of 18th century Europe.
Marx saw the essence of Epicurean philosophy lying in the idea of the mortality of humans and the universe: "It can be said that in the Epicurean philosophy it is death that is immortal. The atom, the void, accident, arbitrariness and composition are themselves death". The emphasis on materialism and immortal death along with the transitory nature of life, the world, everything, was for Epicurus the context for the development of human consciousness and freedom.
Marx used this argument against the idealism of Proudhon and the latter's position that couldn't avoid the permanence of the wage-labour relationship. The question was to break with the law of value against Proudhon's attempted generalisation of it and his view of the eternal, unchanging nature of the fundamentals of the capitalist economy. The recognition by Marx, from the 'mors immortalis" of Lucretius and the fundamentals of Epicurus, of practical materialism and the historical, contingent and transitory nature of things allowed him to counter the arguments of Proudhon from the standpoint of material production and the struggle of a particular class that represented the future of humanity.
The works of Epicurus weren't a passing fancy to a young Marx but important elements of the development of his materialism and he continued to refer to Epicurus throughout his life. In a letter written by Engels the day after the demise of Marx (March 14, 1883), he stated that Marx had lately been in the habit of referring to passages of Epicurus about death.
Which brings us to the ideas of Amadeo Bordiga on death which is included in the article in International Review no. 158: "... Damen, Bordiga and the passion for communism". After a quote from Marx from the 1844 Manuscripts on the return of man to a higher level after having his "useful sides.... imprisoned in the zone of alienation", the article goes on to say:
"A more concrete example of this: in a short article about the inhabitants of the island of Janitzio in Mexico (' in Janitzio they're not afraid of death') written in 1961, and included in Camatte's collection, Bordiga develops the idea that 'in natural and primitive communism' the individual, still linked to his fellow human beings in a real community, does not experience the same fear of death that emerged with the social atomisation engendered by private property and class society; and that this provides us with an indication that in the communism of the future, where the individual's destiny will be linked to that of the species, the fear of personal death and 'any cult of the living and the dead' will be overcome. Bordiga thereby confirms his continuity with that central strand of marxist tradition which affirms that in a certain sense 'the members of primitive societies were closer to the human essence' (Marx) - that the communism of the distant past can also be understood as a pre-figuration of the communism of the future".
The fear of death, which haunts us all in the atomised, alienated and fractured class society of capitalism, can ultimately be overcome by the class struggle and a return to the past at a higher level.