Epicurus and the attitude to death

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Epicurus and the attitude to death
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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' https://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.



As Freud tried to argue, death is not a distant end, but a process which is part of our being.

An earthly power, twin to Eros. 

And then there are the Paris manuscripts of Marx aged around 25

Death seems to be a harsh victory of the species over the particular individual and to contradict the species' unity, but the particular individual is only a particular generic being and as such mortal.

Have you read 'Life Against

Have you read 'Life Against Death' Baboon?

The reason I ask is becasue I think it provides the basically correct framework for this question, i.e it sees history itself as the process by which humanity attempts to 'overcome' death/the fear of death.

That is becasue mankind is fundamentally the 'conscious' animal it is also the 'neurotic' animal, i.e. the animal which 'knows' death and is aware of its own mortality. This means that a large part of the psychological driving force of mankind's collective project of History is the attempt to overcome this fear/awareness in various ways. I would argue that while the 'materialism' of Epicurus is in some ways a better answer to this problem than the 'religious' answer in itself it does not really offer a solution.

The problem is one of the instinctual conflict in the 'heart of humanity'; the 'Ego'/'I' on a fundamental level is the childs attempt to overcome death; to create a permanent 'me' who is, at the level of fantasy not a 'mere' part of reality but somehow goes beyond it and is 'immortal'. Therefore it certainly makes sense that in societies where the division/alienation of individuals from eachother, themselves and nature is less developed the fear of death is less pronounced. Also as repression (a correlate to the Ego in many ways) increases the 'unlived' lives increses and therefore the fear of death also increses. The point is that it is fundamentally a question of consciousness.

I am not very knowledgable of Epicurian philosophy but does he have an idea of 'enlightenment'/higher states of consciousness? I ask becasue i think this is the key question with regards to the human problem of death. 

This is why I don't think 'eat and be merry' (even in its most exhaulted sense) is a solution to the problem; overcoming the fear/unconscious instintcual psychological conflict conflict of human nature can only be fully achieved in a society which is consciously dedicated to this goal, both in terms of social organisation/overcoming of the 'fight for survival' but probably more importantly in terms of cultivating these higher forms of consciousness.


"Eat, drink and be merry, for

"Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die" is a conflation of two phrases from the Bible, Isiah 22:13 and Ecclesiates 8:15 and it's not a concept that fits in with Epicurean philosophy.

Though this particular part of the work is greatly fragmented, it's interesting that in the Appendix on Plutarch, Marx suddenly talks about the "naked, empirical ego, the love of self, the oldest love". I'll have a look at your suggestion but I think that I generally agree with the weight you give to the ego and the subconscious activities of the mind. I do agree with you on the idea that the less alienation and atomization there is in society, the less the fear of death. I think that primitive society, what we call "primitive communism" provides some examples of this as well as raising some questions about the individuals in this society, where possibly individuality could be expressed more freely? There are certainly artistic expressions which point in this direction.

It was against the grip of determinism and deference to the Gods and authority that Epicurus, as Marx showed, demonstrated the need not to fear death because its other side was free will and consciousness.

Just saw that I didn't give a

Just saw that I didn't give a reference to 'Life Against Death' (the psychoanalytical approach to History) by Norman O.Brown.

Have you read/heard of it before? 

But I need to read more about Epicrus to really respond properly; apart from Marx's dissertation can you recomend anything in particular?

Yes I've heard of it JC and

Yes I've heard of it JC and meant to read it. I have an added impetus now but am presently busy getting t'allotment together after the Monsoon season. Though I am relieved by the easing of tensions in events in the East/West relationship, now that Arsenal have beaten CSKA Moscow.

There are plenty of articles on him and his philosphy but Marx's dissertation really cracks the nut of Epicurus. I can't think of anything better and even present-day scholars of Epicurus are well-impressed with the analyses of Marx. The Roman poet Lucretius really generalised his thoughts in his epic poem 'On Nature' ('De rerum natura') and the Wiki write-up on this major work is quite good for an outline. The work of epicurus, his thoughts, are a defence of a materialist understanding of the world, ideas which have never gone down well in higher echelons of class society. He must have been one of the first and Marx recognised this and built on it.

It seems to be the case incidentally, that a great deal of our knowledge of the works of the Greeks today is down to their preservation and translation by Islam. But that's not the case with Lucretius.



In the article 'The question of the relations between nature and culture on the book by Patrick Tort, Sexe, race and culture' it says: "This sustained and one-sided determinism (of the Utopian socialists and generally) belongs to mechanical materialism. Whereas modern materialism adds an active determination, as Epicurus well understood with his theory of 'cinamen' (the unpredictability or 'swerve' of the atoms).... Marx recognised the considerable contribution of Epicurus which went beyond the reductionist atomism of Lucretius and Democratus and which introduced freedom into matter." This is a very good article overall though lacking in any mention of the laying out in some detail the essence of Tort's analysis by Alfred Russell Wallace on the reverse effect on natural selection some time earlier. That's an omission, albeit a serious one.  And this mention of Lucretius as reductionist and supporting the Democratean view of a clockwork Universe does him a great disservice. Marx was clear about the worth of Lucretius, which is clear in his dissertation. A lot of what we know of Epicurus comes from Lucretius and his contribution to the workers' movement, including to Darwinism and to the understanding of the organisation of humanity, puts him side by side with Epicurus.


A bit more clarification I think:

In a nutshell, Epicurean philosophy overturned determinism and the rule of authority by posing free-will, chance and possibility which came from his analysis of the atomic world. But this was only part of the question and while welcoming and including it, Marx went beyond it. It may seem paradoxical that Marx welcomed the possibilities of Epicurus while rejecting them but there's no contradiction here. Epicurus' ideas of endless possibilities weren't specific enough for Marx; there's a danger in this idea of leaving the door open to "anything goes", "anything can happen". Although, following Epicurus, Lucretius showed that there was more to the former than this, nevertheless this weakness of diffuseness remains. Max Raphael tackled this question of an abstract, endless "freedom", by saying that it wasn't limited to "arbitrary choices within a whole range of possibilities but it's a specific force that asserts itself against specific resistances and gives necessary form to specific realities". The fact that here, in "The Demands of Art", Raphael is talking about the dialectal brushwork of Cezanne in his painting of the Mont St. Victoire, matters not a bit. It shows the fundamental grounding of Raphael in marxism and the fact that a specific description of a painting can have a universal application to very profound questions; Raphael agrees with Marx on the weakness of endless possibilities.

Sub-atomic physics shows us that, within a multi-universal world of endless possibilities, pretty much anything can happen. But again this is only part of the story. We've heard that, from this science, it's possible that a cow could jump over the Moon or a monkey could type the complete works of Shakespeare. It's a possibility yes, but cows don't jump over the Moon, monkeys don't write the complete works of Shakespeare. There are directions and the possibilities become refined. The possibilities of the quantum world, waves of sub-atomic energies among them, give rise to the nucleus and nuclei and these attract their own attendant possibilities that can exist and change at many levels. There are more possibilities but they are now going in a certain unpredetermined direction "giving necessary form to specific realities".

cows and spoons

Do you mean to tell me that the dish didn't run away with the spoon either?

i always thought that the

i always thought that the odds were against that particular relationship working out.