A short note on death

Epicurus, in the ‘Letter to Menoeceus’, says:

“So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.”

But is it not a bit wrongheaded, I wonder, to just dismiss death as nothing? How abstracted is this from real life experiences of the dying and those sitting by their bedsides? Epicurus says what a philosopher would say; but this sort of statement seems far removed from the experiences of many, myself included.

When it comes to thinking about death, I’ve always found more wisdom in Buddhist philosophy, as well as that of Levinas, and, to an extent, Heidegger. Not only does death put things in perspective for us (Buddhism, Heidegger), but it connects us with others (Levinas). It is also a mystery, for both the dying and those seated at their bedsides.

Lacan’s question springs to mind: why not ask is there death after life rather than life after death? If death isn’t a positive thing we can know, then isn’t the idea that there is nothing after death as much an assumption as the idea that there is some sort of life after it? Seems to me the honest thing is to face it as a mystery.

I’ll end this little reflection with a quote by Levinas, taken from the “Initial Questions” of his lectures:

“For the reduction of death to this dilemma of being or nothingness is a reverse dogmatism, whatever the feelings of an entire generation suspicious of the positive dogmatism of the immortality of the soul, considered the sweetest “opium of the people (p.8).”


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