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Epicurus and the Politics of Fearing Death *

EMILY A. AUSTIN

Department of Philosophy
Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, NC 27109, USA
austinea@wfu.edu
Abstract

Epicurus often serves as the standard-bearer for the view that we can and should use
our rational capacities to eliminate our fear of death. Although Epicurus clearly
thought that many varieties of the fear of death arise from errors in reasoning, I
argue that he believed that the fear of violent death is ineliminable and sometimes
even advantageous. Humans have a natural and necessary desire for physical security,
and the prospect that this desire might be frustrated causes fear. Thus, the best way
to manage (though not eliminate) ones fear of a violent death is to establish favorable political circumstances rather than employ arguments against false beliefs.
Keywords: Epicurus, death, security, fear, friendship

I
The general consensus is that Epicurus believed the fear of death to be
wholly irrational and eliminable. I intend to argue otherwise. An important background commitment of the standard interpretation is that Epicurus was an intellectualist (or cognitivist) about emotions. For the intellectualist, a fear simply is a belief or a set of beliefs. Thus, a person who
irrationally fears death suffers from false beliefs, and eliminating her fear is
a process of altering those beliefs in response to sound arguments. A ra-

Translations are my own, unless otherwise noted. Epicurus Greek is notoriously difficult (cf. Cicero, DF 1: 1415), so I note important differences between my translations and those of others, especially Inwood and Gerson (1988), Hicks (1931), and
Long and Sedley (1987). For the Greek text, I consulted Hicks, Long and Sedley,
Marcovich (1999) and Usener (1887). For Cicero, I used Reynolds (1998) and for
Lucretius, Rouse and Smith (1975).

apeiron, vol. 45, pp. 109129


Walter de Gruyter 2012

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Emily A. Austin

tional agent recognizes the strength of the arguments and adjusts her beliefs accordingly, after which her fear dissipates. The change might not be
immediate, of course, since fully endorsing arguments often requires rigorous examination, and one might need to assess a battery of arguments.
Nevertheless, one can eliminate ones fear of death by engaging in rational
discourse and rehearsing arguments.
In this paper, I argue that the standard interpretation overlooks substantive evidence that Epicurus thought that at least one variety of the fear
of death arises from ineliminable desires that are beyond the reach of rational persuasion. Such desires, call them brute, are an essential part of
what it is to be a human animal, and the prospect of their frustration causes
fear. I focus in particular on the ineliminable desire for physical security
against death at the hands of others, and I argue that for Epicurus, managing this fear requires establishing favorable political circumstances. Insofar
as the desire is currently satisfied, and one has some confidence that it will
be satisfied in the future, one can then manage ones fear. Without such
circumstances, ones opportunities to live a pleasant, anxiety-free life rapidly
diminish. Note that I argue for two independent claims. First, I contend
that for Epicurus, at least one fear of death arises from political circumstances rather than from an error in reasoning. Second, I argue that this fear
can only be managed well, since it cannot be eliminated.
Supporters of the standard interpretation tend to focus on Epicurus
central argument that death cannot be harmful, since harm is pain, pain
requires perception, and death is the absence of perception (Key Doctrines 2,
Letter to Menoeceus 1245). With the additional premise that it is irrational
to fear something that is not harmful, Epicurus concludes that it is irrational
to fear death while one is alive. This argument can be challenged. Thomas
Nagel (1979), for example, has argued that one can be harmed without
being aware of the harms.1 Aristotle seems to have made this point before
Epicurus time (EN I 10, 1100a1821).2 Regardless of whether Epicurus
central argument succeeds or fails, it plainly takes the fear of death to rest on
false beliefs that careful reasoning can correct.
However, another critical response might threaten the standard interpretation. Epicurus main argument shows at most that it is irrational to
fear being dead, but we also fear death for other reasons.3 In response to
this worry, recent defenders of Epicurus, notably James Warren (2004)

1
2
3

For further discussion of postmortem harms, see Pitcher (1984), Rosenbaum (1986,
1989), Feldman (1992), Nussbaum (1996), and Warren (2004).
Many have thought Aristotle confused on the matter, but Scott (2000) argues otherwise.
Williams (1973), Nagel (1979), and Luper-Foy (1987); see esp. McMahon (1976)
and (1988).
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and Voula Tsouna (2006), have shown that Epicureans offer more than
one argument and target more than one kind of fear. Warren discusses
four varieties of the fear of death:
(1)
(2)
(3)
(4)

the
the
the
the

fear
fear
fear
fear

of being dead;
that one will die, that ones life is going to end;
of premature death; and
of the process of dying.4

If even one of these fears were not to rest on a false belief that rational
argument can correct, then the standard interpretation would be false.
Warren entertains this possibility, but he argues that the standard interpretation is correct about how Epicurus treats every fear of death all
four fears depend solely on false beliefs. Although one might think some
fears of death are immune to rational persuasion, or simply part of what
it is to be human, like the feelings of hunger or thirst, Warren responds
that Epicurus, clearly, disagrees.5
I argue that Epicurus does not disagree. Instead, he recognizes a type
of fear of death that is essentially the same as feelings of hunger and thirst.
For Epicurus, the desire for security from violent death at the hands of
others is a natural and necessary desire that cannot be eliminated.6 He
thus recommends ways to ameliorate, rather than extirpate, the fear arising
from a lack of personal security, and I argue that those means are primarily political in nature. His best advice for coping with this variety of fear
of death is a situation, not an argument. With respect to Warrens taxonomy of fears, I argue against the possibility of ridding oneself of ones fear
of some varieties of unexpected or premature death.
The paper proceeds as follows: I begin by establishing that the desire
for security from the threat of others is a natural and necessary desire. As
with the human need for sustenance, Epicurus believes one can achieve
security with relative ease if one arranges both ones desires and circumstances appropriately, although the desire for security is brute and may
4
5
6

Warren, 4; Tsouna, 801.


Warren, 15.
Despite Epicurus preoccupation with security against the threat of violence, Warren
discusses only three of the six Key Doctrines concerning security (D 6, 7, 13, 14, 27,
and 40), and these the discusses only in footnotes. Epicurus focus on security has
featured prominently in secondary literature on other Epicurean matters. Evans
(2004, 41617) argues that the desire for individual security may provide sufficient
grounds for self-interested, yet self-sacrificing Epicurean friendship. Meanwhile, Armstrong (1997) argues that Epicurus conception of justice arises from the individuals
pursuit of safety. In part, my argument links these concerns about friendship and
justice with the fear of death.
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cause anxiety if left unfulfilled. Next, I discuss the strategies that, according
to Epicurus, are more likely to satisfy the desire for security, as opposed to
those that are counterproductive to gaining security. Epicurus believes, so I
argue, that ameliorating the fear of violent death inextricably involves living in a safe and healthy community. Only when the persistent threat of
violence is removed can an individual truly live a pleasant life, enjoying,
among other things, genuine friendship and trust.
Finally, I address two objections. First, someone might contend that
the brute fear of dying at the hands of others should be characterized as a
fear of pain, not a fear of death. If so, the standard position that Epicureans can fully rid themselves of the fear of death would be salvageable.
Second, my position might compromise an ancient conception of the sage
as unflappable, or happy on the rack. Even if security is best achieved in
a particular political arrangement, the sage should be able to live in a dangerous city and remain happy while dying violently. An objector might
contend that if my interpretation suggests this is not the case, then I have
rendered the Epicurean a coward, and philosophical charity should militate against my thesis.

II
Epicurus, I argue, classifies the desire for security among the natural, necessary desires. As such, it resembles the brute and undifferentiated desire
for food and drink. When such a desire remains unsatisfied, pain results,
and this pain cannot be reasoned away (D 30). My textual case proceeds in three stages. First, I shall show that the desire for security is a
natural one, with some initial attention to what makes a desire natural.
Second, I consider in what manner Epicurus distinguishes natural and necessary desires from natural and unnecessary ones. Third, in light of this
standard, I argue that the desire for security is not only natural, but also
necessary.
Epicureans are dyed in the wool hedonists.7 They argue that pleasure
is the only intrinsic good, and the good life is the life of pleasure. However, although every pleasure is in some sense good, Epicurus argues that

For a much more detailed discussion of the calculus of Epicurean hedonism, see
Purinton (1993). Another point of interest is the debate between Cooper (1998)
and Woolf (2004) about whether Epicurus is a psychological or a normative hedonist. According to Woolf, Epicurus believes that every desire is simply a desire for
pleasure. Cooper, however, is of the opinion that Epicurus hedonism is prescriptive,
that is, one should desire pleasure, but there are times when one does not.
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the best life is one in which one pursues all and only the pleasures that
contribute to achieving and maintaining ataraxia, a long-term, stable state
in which one lacks anxiety, regret, or other troubling forms of mental pain
(Ep Men 131). Not every pleasure, then, is choiceworthy (, Ep Men
129). As a rule of thumb, an object of desire should be avoided when the
pleasure experienced from obtaining it is consistently less than the pain
accompanying or following its acquisition (Ep Men 125; DF 1: 36). A
pain is to be suffered if it results in more pleasure than one could otherwise achieve. Successfully achieving ataraxia, then, requires that one avoid
some sort of pleasures in most or, quite possibly, in every instance.
With this in mind, Epicurus divides desire into three categories: the
natural and necessary, the natural but unnecessary, and the unnatural and
unnecessary (D 29, 30; Ep Men 12728).8 The objects of unnatural and
unnecessary desires should be sought rarely, if at all. One should restrict
oneself to natural desires, and ataraxia can be fully attained even if one
finds herself able to successfully fulfill only natural and necessary desires.
Even if the objects of unnecessary desires are available, they present their
own problems, as they are often difficult to obtain and prove unstable.
Obtaining pleasure from unnecessary sources is often perfectly acceptable,
but requiring or expecting pleasures of this sort is not.
The Key Doctrines make it abundantly clear that security is a natural
good ( , D 6; , D 7).
The role of security and protection from threat in the pleasurable (i.e.,
good) life is introduced in D 6 and weaves its way throughout the text,
featuring prominently in D 7, 13, 14 and 39, making its final appearance
in D 40, the last of the Key Doctrines.
In D 6, Epicurus claims that any successful strategy that brings security from other people is a natural good.9
For the sake of being secure from other people, anything from which one could get
this was good according to nature.10

8
9

10

In Ep Men 127, and . In D 29,


.
Epicurus uses a number of security-related terms and phrases. Most commonly, he
employs (cp. Aristotles Rhetoric 1. 5: 1360b15, 29), though he also uses
forms of the verb (sometimes as a verbal noun) plus a preposition ( or
). Both are to be sought (D 6, 7). In addition, security is often
secured or procured, and Epicurus verb of choice is , generally with a prefix
of or .
The idea that anything that brings security is naturally good is relatively (though not
essentially) important for my later argument. Inwood and Gersons translation differs
significantly. They translate all of the received text:
[ ]
, .
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If anything from which one obtains security is considered a natural good,


then it would make sense that security itself is also a natural good.This
suspicion is confirmed in the next doctrine. In D 7, Epicurus claims that
security against others is a natural good, and he notes a few popular methods for seeking security, including the pursuit of fame and power.
Some people wanted to become honored and admired, thinking to create security
from other people in this way. If the life of such people is secure, they have attained
the good of nature; if, on the other hand, it is not secure, they do not have that
for the sake of which they originally sought in accordance with what is appropriate
by nature.11

Both the means to security and security itself, then, are linked to what is
good according to nature. D 7 on its own, though, leaves it unclear
whether Epicurus believes that both of the conditionals can be satisfied. In
other words, Epicurus could believe that the first conditional, that fame
and power bring one security, is a live option. In this case, some powerful
people might very well be secure. However, it may also be the case that
the antecedent of the first conditional is never satisfied, since the antecedent of the second conditional is always satisfied. Epicurus could believe
that everyone who seeks security by way of power could fail to attain that
for which they aim the natural good of being secure. Thus, rule, power,
and prestige would never be natural goods.
In D 14, Epicurus appears to walk a middle ground. In principle, some
security from violence can be found in power and money; however, the
greatest security is found in a collective retreat from the citys politics.12

11

12

Usener excludes the bracketed text, since he takes it is a marginal gloss meant to serve
as an antecedent for . Hicks, Macovich, and I follow Usener, but Inwood and
Gerson do not, which results in a very different doctrine. Their translation:
The natural good of public office and kingship is for the sake getting confidence
from (other) men, (at least) from those from whom one is able to provide this.
In short, needs an antecedent. Inwood and Gerson take the antecedent to be
, reading as masculine. I read as neuter with an indefinite,
understood antecedent, equivalent to a present general protasis. Mitsis (1988: 83,
89), Strodach (1963, 197), and OConner (1993, 70) share my translation, if not
necessarily for the same reason. D 6 is not even included in Long and Sedley, perhaps because the text is so vexed.
,
, ,
,
.
The standard translation of in D 7 and
in D 14 is security against other men, which strongly suggests that
people pursue power in order to protect themselves from the violence of their fellow
humans. Roskam (2007: 3341) supports a competing translation: security coming
from others. Someone who agrees with Roskam might think that Epicurus is not
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Although security against other people comes into being to some extent through
the power to repel attacks and material wealth, security comes to be in its purest
form through quietude and retreat from the many.13

Evidence outside of the Key Doctrines also suggests that psychological security is highly unlikely to be compatible with wealth and honor (VS 67, 81).
The final two doctrines tie these themes together. According to D
39, the best way to gain security is by way of friendship within a stable
political community that is protected against external threat and free of
internal dissension.
The one who best contrived against a lack of confidence about external threats
made those he was able kin, while those he was unable, he did not make aliens.
Those with whom he was not able to do even this, he avoided and banished so far
as it was advantageous to do so.14

Finally, in D 40, Epicurus concludes the doctrines with the idea that
friendship within a stable political community enables an individual to
acquire the appropriate attitudes toward death, as manifested in a tendency not to pity those who die.
Those who had the power to provide themselves the most security from their
neighbors also lived with each other most sweetly, and having the most certain
assurance, and receiving from one another the fullest fellowship, they did not lament the death of one who died before them as if it called for pity.15

13
14

15

particularly concerned about violence, which would tell against my claim that Epicurus recognized an ineliminable fear of violent death. I need not weigh in on the
translation matter, however, to block this latter move, for even if security indeed
comes from others, it is nevertheless security against something. Such is clear from
the first clause of D 14, in which an individual pursues security through/against
other men in order to repel attacks ( ; trans. Inwood and Gerson, accepted by Roskam). These attacks might not come from humans, but from
animals (cf. DRN 5.1120, cp. Pl. Prot. 322ac). Even so, protection against animal
violence would still be protection from violent death. More likely, though, the attacks
at issue come from humans; otherwise, one must wonder why kingship and material
wealth are useful for repelling animal attacks and why retreating to a small community on the outskirts of town would be more conducive to such protection. Animals
shy away from cities.
,
.
,
, , .
,
,
. Long and Sedleys translation of the first clause of 40 suggests that those who
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The people who have the greatest security, then, live most pleasantly on
account of that security; they enjoy the truest friendships and do not
grieve the death of their friends. Presumably, should an individual in this
setting die prematurely, it would not be due to the violence or infighting
of her fellows, but due to causes beyond those that can be prevented by
humans. Those unable to gain security run the risk of death at the hands
of their neighbors; thus, they are unable to gain friendship and are more
likely to grieve untimely, often violent deaths. For Epicurus, then, a person
who rightly seeks security should join a community in which she is free
from internal threat and protected against external threat.
Indeed, we have seen that security is a natural good, but is it necessary? There are, again, two kinds of natural desire, namely, the necessary
and the unnecessary. If the desire for security from the threat of violence
is among the natural, but unnecessary desires, then one can attain ataraxia
without fulfilling that desire, and expecting security or zealously pursuing
security can in fact undermine ones ability to attain ataraxia. One could
gladly welcome security if it came along, but one need not make great
efforts to arrange ones life in order to achieve physical protection (Ep
Men 131).
Epicurus offers almost no basis for distinguishing the two types of unnecessary desires (natural and unnatural) since he does not give a solid
account of how to recognize what is and what is not natural to humans.16
He does, however, offer a few criteria for distinguishing the two types of
natural desires. In D 30, he claims that natural and necessary desires are
1) easy to attain and 2) cause pain when they remain ungratified.17 In the
Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus offers three reasons a desire might be necessary.

16

17

withdraw from the city dispel all fear of their neighbors (their emphasis). However,
the text suggests that those who withdraw have the most () security. This does
not entail, however, that they have complete security or that such security is sufficient
to get rid of all fear. Nevertheless, it certainly gets rid of most fear.
Unfortunately, perhaps the handiest discussion of this distinction comes from an
anonymous scholiast of D 29. The scholiast notes that desires for sufficient sustenance are natural and necessary, desires for excess or special sustenance are natural
and unnecessary, and those for crowns and honors are unnatural and unnecessary.
Note that if the scholiast is correct, then the honors that might lead to security in
D 6 and 7 become good by nature, which would make honors no longer unnatural
and unnecessary. Annas (1993: 188200) offers a useful contemporary discussion of
what might count as natural. She argues that natural and necessary desires are generic, while natural and unnecessary desires are specific. Her classification shares much
in common with that of the scholiasts.
, , ,
.
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Some are necessary for happiness, some for the freedom of disturbance of the body,
and some for life itself. An unwavering gaze at these things is able to refer every
choice and aversion toward securing health of the body and freedom from disturbance of the mind, since this is the final end of living blessedly (Ep Men 1278).18

There are a few reasons that security is considered a necessary desire. Consider, for instance, Epicurus somewhat puzzling claim that security is a
sufficiently important natural good that any successful means for attaining
it is rendered naturally good instrumentally (KD 6). Epicurus would
clearly not license gross immorality for the sake of gaining security, since
he thinks truly immoral agents can never attain psychological security and
would always fear detection (VS 7, DF I: 50). However, he does seem to
think that if political power and fame successfully led to security, then
they would be naturally good. It would be strange to endorse so heartily
any means for achieving an unnecessary desire. For instance, if political
power failed to bring security, but did allow for the possession of a wellstocked cellar of wine, then one might think Epicurus would not consider
political power to be instrumentally good by nature. Thus, we have a modest bit of evidence that security is a necessary desire.
However, some may question my translation of D 6.19 If one opts to
translate the suspected marginal gloss, then Epicurus merely encourages
one to obtain security against whomever one can, rather than from anything that promises success.
We can set D 6 aside, though, and still have good reason to count
security as natural and necessary in light of Epicurus discussion of necessary desires in the Letter to Menoeceus (1278). He claims that some objects of necessary desires are necessary for staying alive, some for the body
to be rid of uneasiness, and some for a person to be happy. Taken together, the doctrines concerning security suggest that it qualifies as a necessary desire in all three of these respects. One can draw a straightforward
connection between security and staying alive. Likewise, the desire for
security is closely bound up with bodily comfort, since security protects
one from physical abuse, among other indignities. More importantly, Epicurus seems to believe that security is necessary if a person is to be fully
happy, since D 14, 27, and 40 suggest that security from external threat
is crucially tied to ones ability to live a pleasant life, which is none other
than to obtain the final human good. If the final human good requires gaining security, and the final human good is achieving tranquility, then the

18

19

,
, .
,
.
See note 10.
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desire for security is bound tight to the pursuit of ataraxia. As such, the
preservation of the body, the tranquility of the mind, and the attainment of
the final good depend upon ones ability to gain security. Protection against
violent death is on par with securing a stable food source.
In D 30, though, Epicurus offers two criteria for necessary desires.
They not only cause pain when ungratified, but they are also readily available (D 15, 30; Ep Men 130). There is sufficient reason to conclude that
the lack of security causes anxiety, but is security readily available?

III
For Epicurus, securing food and drink is not terribly difficult. One might,
however, struggle to satisfy ones desire for a steady supply of fine wine or
a nightly dinner of fishcakes (Ep Men 132).20 Assume that fishcakes are
expensive and in short supply; for someone with an intense desire for fishcakes, the likelihood of having no future fishcakes could lead to mental
distress, and her strong desire might tempt her to act unjustly in order to
eat whatever she wants. At the very least, it might lead her to envy those
with the means to acquire what she herself desires. Meanwhile, those who
are content to dine on water and bread rarely find themselves without
such desire (Ep Men 130). Dietary evidence suggests that water and bread
alone is not an optimal health program, but it is often an easy one to
maintain. Those who shape their desires to account for the instability of
fortune, then, rarely find their natural and necessary desires thwarted. If
security is the object of a necessary desire, it should be in similarly steady
supply for someone who uses the correct strategy and tailors her desires
appropriately.
As with food, some means for gaining security are more readily at
hand and cause less anxiety. Although D 7 and D 14 leave open the
possibility that Epicurus might believe power and other material goods
have the potential to bring one sufficient security, other Epicurean texts
suggest they do not. To the extent that security is obtained through
power, it is difficult to attain and maintain, and often causes more insecurity than it ameliorates. Even those who are naturally quick, powerful,
and outrageously lucky are always somewhat insecure.
Consider, for instance, Lucretius discussion of the plight of the
power-seeking in a passage that mirrors D 7 almost exactly. In contrast
to those who seek to fulfill only necessary desires, others want to be famous and powerful, so that their fortune might remain on a stable foun20

For an account of the luxuries of the well-heeled Greek, see Davidsons Courtesans
and Fishcakes (1999).
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dation and that, being wealthy, they might be able to pass a peaceful life.
But all in vain (DRN 5: 112023, my emphasis).21 In De Finibus, Torquatus says of those who pursue the objects of unnecessary desires on account of their fear of death:
Moreover, they do not remember past good things, and they do not enjoy present
good things; they only wait for future good things, and since those things are not
able to be certain, they are consumed both by anguish and fear. And they are especially tormented when they understand too late that they have been eager for
money or for power or for wealth or for glory in vain. For they do not achieve any
of their desires, for which, inflamed by the hope of acquiring them, they have undertaken many great hardships (DF 1: 60).22

Lucretius offers a detailed account of why these strategies are destined to


fail.23 The heart of the problem is that all such strategies pursue security
by means of goods that are competitive. The process begins with the supposition that various external goods bring security against the threat of
others, that is, the more money at ones disposal for buying off opponents
and soldiers, the more protection one has against opponents (DRN 3: 59
75). However, everyone has similar aims. Some of the goods are scarce,
and others depend by their very nature on the victory of a single person
or a small band of allies. While those lucky enough to be born naturally
strong and clever stand a better chance of success, they might lack opportunities to use their skills, and fortune might give the advantage to the
weaker opponent. Worse, competition is not always fair, and it may be
necessary to harm others to obtain what one needs for protection. In serious competitions, it may prove necessary to kill in order to either successfully acquire goods or protect oneself against the violent acquisition of
ones existing goods by someone else. One must be ready to kill or prepare
oneself to die at the hands of those who are not quite squeamish. Thus, to
be fully confident that one has escaped detection, even if one were somehow to avoid harming others (or if one has already harmed others), simply
having external goods makes one a target for the injustice of other compe21

22

23

At claros homines voluerunt se atque potentes.


ut fundamento stabili fortunna maneret
et placidam possent opulenti degree vitamnequiquam
Praeterea bona praeterita non meminerunt, praesentibus non fruuntur, futura modo
expectant, quae quia certa esse non possunt, conficiuntur et angore et metu maximeque
cruciantur, quae quia certa esse non possunt, conficiuntur et angore et metu maximeque
cruciantur, cum sero sentiunt frustra se aut pecuniae studuisse aut imperiis aut opibus
aut gloriae. nullas enim consequuntur voluptates, quarum potiendi spe inflammati multos labores magnosque susceperant.
For these ideas in starkest prose, see Hobbes Leviathan XIII. Alternately, most of
Thucydides.
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Emily A. Austin

titors (cp. DRN 5: 11201134). Even if one manages to escape detection,


Epicureans believe that those who commit injustice nevertheless increase
their anxiety, since they would constantly be wracked by fear of eventual
detection and reprisal from those they disadvantage (D 35; VS 7; DRN
5: 11511160; DF 1: 5051). By far, the worst result is that jockeying for
power compromises ones ability to make friends, since trust is impossible,
often even among allies. The competition for and acquisition of competitive goods, then, does not ameliorate anxiety. Instead, it undermines pleasure, increases anxiety, and leaves one very unsafe against the violence of
others.
The members of an ideal Epicurean community like the Garden avoid
this anxiety and insecurity because they do not compete for goods.24 Confidence that ones neighbors will do one no harm is most certain within a
social community characterized by a lack of competition for the objects of
necessary desires and a general agreement about which pleasures should
not be pursued (D 14). Goods that are necessary for all are sufficiently
available to all, and those for which people in other communities compete
are less desired (if they are desired at all). Given that the community has
found a more efficient and stable way to make itself secure, the motivation
for pursuing power and money is, therefore, diminished.
However, most people do not happen to chance upon a Garden. The
paucity of safe refuges, then, explains the standard Epicurean advice to
abstain from political involvement in non-ideal circumstances, unless failure to be involved is a greater threat to ones safety than participation (cf.
fr. 133 Us.). Staying quiet in an insecure city is often the best available
albeit greatly inferior security. In short, the closer ones political situation approximates the Garden, the better ones chances of obtaining physical and mental security. For Epicurus, one can only pursue the most prudent course in dealing with natural human frailty. We are insecure
24

There is some debate about how an Epicurean community would be just. Given that
Epicurus thinks that justice is exhausted by a prudential agreement backed by sanctions, it is unclear why perfectly just sages would need either a formal agreement to
be just (they simply would be just) or sanctions against violations of laws (they
would never even want to violate laws). Armstrong (1997: 326n5) argues that the
sages share a tacit social agreement, but they have no need for positive laws or sanctions. According to Mitsis (1988), the sages have just souls rather than externally just
agreements. I am more sympathetic with OKeefe (2001), who argues that justice
among sages concerns the instrumental organization of physical goods for the sake of
the material security of the community. Thus, while a community of perfect Epicureans would never need justice to protect themselves from one another, justice might
decree how many animals should be killed or raised for the continued security of the
community against external threat or starvation. In some sense, this question might
turn on a practical impossibility a community of perfect sages. One might expect
that there will always be some Epicureans in training.
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creatures, and although the Garden is ones best bet, Epicurus offers strategies for increasing ones security and ameliorating fear of violence wherever
one finds oneself.

IV
Someone might grant that security is crucially important to the Epicureans
and that a political arrangement such as that found in the Garden is the
best way to gain security, yet deny that the Epicurean quest for security is
motivated by fear of death or that the sage is dependent upon favorable
political circumstances to rid herself of fear. So argues Warren, who, again,
thinks that Epicurus believes all fear of death is irrational and eliminable
in light of sound philosophical arguments. Warren entertains a common
objection to those who seek to eradicate the fear of death, namely that the
fear of death may be prudentially and evolutionarily beneficial. If the fear
of death were sometimes advantageous, then there would be good reason
not to eliminate it, even if it were possible to do so. If the fear of death
kept an agent, for instance, from walking off cliffs and unnecessarily risking her life and safety, then it would be a mistake to rid herself of a fear
that keeps her alive. Thus, Epicurus could, at best, be justified in encouraging us to eradicate some of the many varieties of the fear of death. Perhaps being dead should be nothing to us, but dying violently matters.
This, in essence, is what I argue that Epicurus believes.
Although Warren acknowledges that Epicurus needs to provide some
mechanism by which his followers can avoid pursuing death or becoming
ambivalent about when or how their death shall occur, he thinks the mechanism need not be a fear of death. Instead, the fear of pain fully explains
such behavior. Epicureans do not walk off cliffs, but it is not because they
fear death, it is because they avoid pain:
It remains open, therefore, for the Epicureans to claim that a good Epicurean will
fear pain but not death, and that this fear of pain will suffice to ensure that the
Epicurean can function in day-to-day situations without needlessly endangering
himself.25

Warrens account explains why Epicureans fear and avoid painful deaths
they hurt. The Epicurean can say, Its the pain I fear, not that it is ends
of necessity in death. In other words, she can drive a wedge between intense pain and the death in which it terminates. Despite a slight odor of
sophism, one might accept the wedge.

25

Warren, 12.
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However, note that if Warren is right, the Epicurean seems to lack a


clear reason to avoid a painless death. Why should she skip town when
she hears that the local tyrant has a penchant for killing aspiring Epicureans painlessly in their sleep? If painless deaths are not bad, then why
should she carefully label and store the fast-acting, tasty poison, rather
than leave it in the open and accessible to young children? One must
wonder what protects the Epicurean from happily courting a painless
death. If she does not bother to protect herself against such deaths, then
the objection that the fear of death is good if it helps us avoid deaths
worth avoiding reasserts itself.
Warrens Epicurean might respond in one of two ways. She might
simply contest the intuition that painless deaths are bad, conceding in effect that she has no reason to escape the surreptitious tyrant or take precautions against poisoning a child. On the other hand, if she thinks such
deaths are worth avoiding, then she must offer some reason to protect
herself against them without appealing to pain.
Occupying an argumentative space in which one lacks reason to avoid
easily and ethically avoidable deaths should, I think, be a last resort. An
Epicurean, then, should first search out something other than pain to explain her decision to seek her own safety and ensure the safety of others.
For instance, she might avoid the tyrant because death at the hands of the
tyrant is unpredictable and uncertain. She might claim that mental anxiety
arising from uncertainty justifies her escape rather than the prospect of
physical pain. The standard interpretation clearly prohibits this response,
however, since anxiety about uncertain death is a species of the fear of
death, and the standard interpretation insists that all fears of death are
irrational and eliminable. Fear about when ones death will occur is outright a fear of death.
A second, more promising response shifts the locus of the harm of a
painless death. An Epicurean might not avoid the death for her own sake,
but for the sake of the community in which she lives. Her painless death
might trouble or disadvantage her peers or dependents. One might imagine a parent who claims that she does not fear death, although she avoids
even painless deaths because she does not want her children to suffer the
fate of orphans.26 Even if one lacks dependents, a painless death leaves one

26

Philodemus seems to have had this worry in mind in On Death. He writes: Now
leaving behind parents or children or a wife or certain others of those close to us, if
they be in dire straits on account of our death or will even lack necessities, has of
course a most natural sting, and this alone, or more than anything else, sitrs up emissions of tears in the sensible man (25.225.10; trans. Henry [2009]). Though the
passage is extremely fragmentary, the idea seems to be that the sensible man assuages
his worry by securing valuable friends who can ensure the safety of his children.
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less person to pitch in when it is time to harvest the communitys summer


crops.
The idea that homicides and accidental deaths caused by others are
wrong because they harm the community has some textual evidence to
commend it. For the Epicureans, shared agreement about what is instrumental to a communitys advantage exhaustively determines the content of
justice (KD 33, 368), and it is generally not advantageous for a communitys citizens to die, whether by homicide or negligence. In his On Abstinence, Porphyry offers Hermarchus account of the Epicurean arguments
concerning whether we have duties of justice to animals that prohibit our
needlessly killing and eating them (1. 712). He reasonably thinks we
should discover the nature of justice itself before determining whether it
applies to animals; thus, he recounts the origins of mutual obligation
among human members of the Epicurean community. Such a community
comprises people congregating for the purposes of security against the
threat of death, although they likewise killed aggressive animals in self-defense.
Setting the matter of animals aside, the germane feature of justice in
Hermarchus account of the Epicurean community concerns the need to
establish laws that punish citizens who kill fellow citizens, whether intentionally or accidentally. According to the Epicurean law-givers, a community has a vested interest in discouraging all deaths at the hands of others,
and allowing accidental deaths pass unpunished could embolden a murderer savvy enough to fake an accident. At the very least, punishment is
necessary to encourage precautionary measures in dangerous situations.
Deaths caused by others, then, are clearly bad for the community, which
makes it acceptable to prohibit and punish them by law.
Note, however, that this shared political concern also collapses into a
fear of death. If deaths are collectively condemned as harmful, even if they
only harm those who remain alive, then it makes sense that they are collectively feared. On an individual level, I can fear causing a death because
that death harms others for whom I care. Likewise, I can fear being murdered or negligently killed, since murder unsettles my community. In both
instances, I fear a particular sort of death and my role in it. Thus,
although I need not worry myself about deaths I cannot conscientiously
prevent, I rightly fear and avoid deaths that are roughly within my power
to control, even if I fear them primarily for the sake of others.
Remember that Warrens Epicurean can drive a possibly non-sophistic
wedge between fearing pain and fearing the death that accompanies or
follows it out of necessity. That option is not available here, however,
since the death is the source of the harm. When I avoid a speeding bus,
my efforts might have nothing to do with avoiding death; knowing it will
hurt to be hit by a careening bus, I step out of the way. However, when I
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forts have everything to do with avoiding death. A well-legislated community inhabited by ethical citizens would be sparse on negligent or intentional homicides, so a citizen would have little reason to worry. Outside
an optimal community, however, a person will suffer from anxiety in protecting herself and her relations from painless or negligent deaths; this
person could become unsettled when such deaths happen to others.
If available justifications for avoiding painless or instantaneous deaths
collapse into some variety of the fear of death, then an advocate of the
standard interpretation must retreat to the position that these deaths simply
are not bad for either the person or the community. On one front, at least,
the evidence from Porphyry would foreclose this option. The lawmakers
think the community should punish violent and negligent deaths, at least for
the sake of the psychological and physical security of the community.
However, one might think that community anxiety of this sort can
only arise because most people are not sages. One might have the nagging
thought that the Epicurean sage should not feel any fear or worry, even if
she finds herself in an exceptionally precarious position. This objection
gets its teeth from the oft-repeated claim, found especially in Ciceros
characteristic ridicule of Epicurus, that the Epicurean sage is happy on the
rack (Tusc. II 7: 1719; DL X 118). The sage is suitably equipped for a
tortured death, perhaps on behalf of her friends (VS 567), perhaps as the
target of some bloodthirsty tyrant. If the sage can be happy on the rack,
and the rack is the most gruesomely violent death, then why would the
sage have reason to fear a garden-variety violent death?
This is a challenging objection, which points to a fundamental tension
within Epicureanism. If Epicureanism aims to insulate its adherents from
anxiety and fortune, why should the Epicurean especially the Epicurean
sage need to isolate herself from violence in the suburbs? On one hand,
if Epicureanism requires moving away from the citys dangers to free oneself from fear, then it might seem ill-equipped for courageously facing
standard human existence. If, on the other hand, Epicureanism prepares
one to die violently, why should Epicureans need to escape the dangers of
the city at all?
Tension aside, I need an account of how the sages happy death on
the rack affects my thesis. I certainly do not deny that the Epicurean sage
can manage the pain of death or cope with death when it is unavoidable.
That the sage is happy on the rack, though, is not necessarily at odds with
her having done everything within the scope of her prudential principles
(i.e., not betraying a friend) to avoid ending up in physical agony. The
claim that the sage best endures death at the hands of others when it
occurs is not at odds with her fearing it before it happens. For example, I
might do everything to avoid losing my house in the mortgage crisis; I
may fear losing my house. This does not, however, entail that I cannot
endure my homelessness should it occur.
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But, wait! If one fears that something might happen, when the occurrence of that thing will not to be bad, then is it not patently irrational to
continue fearing it? A core premise in the Epicurean argument against the
fear of being dead contends that one cannot rationally fear what will not
be bad (Ep Men 125). This is a larger problem than one might think.
Remember that for Warren, the reason the Epicurean avoids stepping in
front of buses is that she fears pain. If the sage, unlike the rest of us, is
mightily equipped to handle excruciating pain with happiness, then explaining her aversion to the rack could be a somewhat difficult task. The
happy sage would fall into the trap of the reckless Epicurean, so she even
more than the non-sages must have reason to avoid deaths other than
the likelihood that they will hurt or be beyond endurance. If her pain is
always conquered by happiness, she might as well walk in front of the bus.
The reason she fears and avoids death, I suggest, again appeals to the
pleasures of a secure community of friends. First, the sages ability to be
happy on the rack might itself depend upon a long history of enjoying
security in a safe, noncompetitive community. Sufficient evidence shows
that the sage can be happy on the rack, but it is less clear how she manages
to remain happy on the rack. Commentators draw on evidence from Epicurus account of the way his own painful death was enjoyable. Epicurus,
it seems, distracted himself from the pain by recalling the wealth of pleasant experiences he had shared with his close friends. These happy memories overpowered the extreme physical pain of his illness. Diogenes provides a passage from Epicurus Letter to Idomeneus:27
On this blissful day, which is also the last of my life, I write this to you. My
continual sufferings from strangury and dysentery are so great that nothing could
augment them; but over and against them all I set gladness of mind at the remembrance of our past conversations.28

Reflecting on memories of pleasant companionship helped Epicurus die


happily despite excruciating physical pain. However, if building an arsenal
of memories of the kind that give one pleasure when facing death requires
retreating from the city to the company of like-minded individuals, and
D 14 and D 40 suggests that it does, then the best way to deal with a
violent and painful death is to spend a good bit of time conscientiously
avoiding it. The sages happiness on the rack would turn upon a history of
favorable political conditions.

27

28

Cicero has this letter addressed to Hermarchus. Perhaps there were even two letters.
Cicero, though, perhaps manifesting a bit of his customary lack of charity for Epicurus, has Epicurus distract himself from his pain by reflecting on his own discoveries
(rationum inventorumque nostrorum).
DL X 22, Us. 138, trans., Inwood and Gerson.
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Second, if I am right that fearing easily avoidable, even painless deaths


is necessary for the safety and well-being of the community, then the sage
has as much reason, if not more, to avoid death for the sake of her friends.
Since, in some ways at least, the community depends on her more than on
other citizens, she tends to avoid and fear the rack, even if she can easily
manage and enjoy such a death when it is unavoidable. Remember that
the chief Epicurean text we have about the sages experience on the rack
suggests that she willingly dies an excruciating death on behalf of her
friends (VS 567). Nevertheless, she can think that a death that harms
her friends, and that she can ethically prevent, is bad.
As a final note, I have so far addressed the objections to my position
on my opponents terms, justifying the fear of death caused by others on
purely rational grounds. In the early sections of the paper, though, I argued that the desire for security is natural and necessary, and therefore
beyond the reach of rational persuasion. For the Epicurean, the desire to
survive is a brute component of being a human animal, such that we come
equipped with an all-things-considered preference for not starving to death
or feeling insecure. It is no contradiction for individuals to house these
desires and fears while also having the ability to cope with starvation nobly
or endure a painful death while defending their friends or children. Enjoying life and preferring more of it does not in any way require greediness
for life, and the Epicureans seem to primarily abjure greediness (Ep Men
126).
Thus, even if the sage mysteriously experiences no pain while dying,
she has reason to think a painless and easily avoidable death is bad, since
she is happy and prefers to continue living a pleasant life with her friends.
Otherwise she cannot avoid the deaths worth avoiding, and such refusal
seems at odds with the Epicurean endorsement of the life of pleasure,
especially the life characterized by the pleasures of friendship. She can consistently fear and avoid these deaths simply on the basis of her brute desire
to maintain her pleasant life, even if her rational capacities help her cope
when her desire is eventually frustrated by circumstances beyond her control.
There remains one key objection: it seems that my interpretation
threatens the possibility of ataraxia. Fear, like grief, is a negative emotion,
so an argument that claims we are all motivated to act in light of an ineliminable (though generally controllable) fear might appear to undercut
the Epicurean quest for an anxiety-free life. If my thesis requires that Epicurus jettison a fundamental psychological principle that guides his eudaemonist ethics, interpretive consistency is very much against me.
One live option is to retreat to the idea that Epicureanism is a perfectionist ethics, according to which even the best of us can only approximate
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mon feature of ancient ethical theories, and those who are perfect are often judged divine rather than human.29 Another alternative is to reconceive ataraxia in light of evidence that even sages experience characteristically negative emotions. Some texts, for instance, indicate that the sage
grieves the deaths of her friends and shares their suffering. On this front,
Epicureans seek to differentiate themselves from the Stoics, whose resistance to grief seemed positively inhumane (VS 66, DL X, 120; Plutarch, A
Pleasant Life, 1101ab: Us. 120). If the sage achieves and maintains ataraxia, yet grieves at the same time, then ataraxia might withstand some other
natural, negative human emotions.

V
I have argued that Epicurus does not believe all forms of the fear of death
are irrational and eliminable. At least one fear the fear of violent death
caused by others is brute and must be managed politically. If I am right,
Epicurus beliefs would seem much more reasonable to many people who
recognize that we have a vested interest in controlling the fear of death,
but who are skeptical about our ability to eliminate it. Epicurus would no
longer believe that a person can study a set of arguments, believe them,
chant them regularly to herself or with friends, and thereby rid herself of
the many varieties of the fear of death. Others, however, might think my
thesis renders Epicurus beliefs about the fear of death much less exciting.
If one is primarily interested in Epicurus views on death because his extremism makes him a useful foil, then he might no longer be the biggest
target. Likewise, if one looks to Epicurus to eliminate all varieties of ones
own fear of death, then one might need to seek extra assistance.
My view might have one final, unsavory result (to some readers, at
least). If one cannot offer a full account of Epicurus views about death
without examining his vested interest in security, it might turn out that
Epicurus recommends we become a variety of the suburbanites, albeit
poor and unassuming suburbanites. In other words, Epicureanisms vexing
tension between a quest for security through risk aversion and a way of
life designed to make one immune to fortune remains. Some people move
to the suburbs because they are afraid of the city, and Epicurus would be
one of them.
In sum, I argue that Epicurus believes there is a fear of death that does
not disappear, which we can control with due care and with close atten29

Assorted claims that the sage can be immortal like the gods raises some puzzles for,
among other things, Epicurean atomism. After all, the soul atoms of humans disperse
at death, while the gods are the same eternally. See Warren (2000).
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tion to the social environs. Though my thesis might render Epicurus less
of a radical with regards the fear of death than heretofore believed, and
though it may even make him seem a bit less than perfectly brave, I maintain that it is a good way to make sense of the text. Conceding that some
particular fear of death is not fully eliminable could leave Epicureanism, in
Warrens words, fatally wounded.30 I prefer to think it escapes largely unscathed.31

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30
31

Warren, 7.
I am grateful to Eric Brown, Matt Cashen, Emily Crookston, Brad Inwood, Ralph
Kennedy, Bob Lamberton, Mariska Leunissen, Kirk Sanders, Clerk Shaw, Brian Warren, and an anonymous reader from Apeiron for their invaluable assistance. I would
also like to thank the philosophy departments at Boston University, Colgate University, University of Memphis, Wake Forest University, and Washington University in
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