The subject of death and dying is one that philosophers have talked and wrote about for many years. It’s impossible for anyone to know what truly happens after death, and many people have different and unique opinions regarding what happens after death, whether it be more of a religious or scientific view. Death is an unknown and interesting topic, that’s why all of these unique opinions make for a good debate. Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher who was a student of Socrates has many works and Western influence on death and dying.
Western views on the soul living after death is developed from Plato’s ancient beliefs. Plato philosophized that the human soul is immortal, and that we shouldn’t fear death. Epicurus, another ancient Greek philosopher argued that death is the end of the body and soul, and therefore should not be feared. These two philosophers have contrasting views on what happens after death, but both have similar views on how death shouldn’t be feared. I find both Plato’s and Epicurus’s each make an equally persuasive case.
The Phaedo is a dialogue depicting the death of Socrates, who was imprisoned for corrupting the minds of the youth, and for his differing views about the gods. The dialogue is narrated by Phaedo, who is one of Socrates’s students. The main topic is Socrates’s discussion with a couple friends, Cebes and Simmias about his thoughts on immortality and the afterlife on his last day before he was to drink poison as an execution. While visiting Socrates in prison, Cebes and Simmias feared for the death of a close friend and voiced their concern.
Socrates tried to convince his friends about the souls immortality, and provided them with main arguments about why the soul is immortal, and why they shouldn’t fear death. “And is this anything but the separation of psukhe and body? And being dead is the attainment of this separation; when the psukhe exists in itself, and is parted from the body and the body is parted from the psukhe—that is death? ”(Phaedo). Socrates explained how Cebes and Simmias shouldn’t fear death, because death is only the separation of the body and soul.
Socrates’s point is that a philosopher should be more focused on the soul than the body, and people shouldn’t be worried about pleasures and material things, only to an extent. For example, eating and drinking are necessary to survive, and we need clothes to wear, but we shouldn’t be buying and consuming these things in excess. Socrates explains that a true philosopher should welcome death and not fear it, but suicide isn’t the right way to do so. Also, he believes that ending your own life is not right, because everyone is in possession of god, and fleeing from your master makes you foolish and unwise.
Socrates explains to Simmias, “And then the foolishness of the body will be cleared away and we shall be pure and hold converse with other pure psukhai, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere; and this is surely the light of truth”(Phaedo). My thoughts are that Socrates believes our souls are the most important things about ourselves, and death is a positive result which releases us from “the chains” of the body. Overall, the views of Plato as articulated by Socrates are that one should welcome rather than fear death. He believes the soul moves on in the afterlife, and if you were a good person then only good will come to you.
If you were bad, then you do not have good things waiting for you after death. “For I have good hope that there is yet something remaining for the dead, and, as has been said of old, some far better thing for the good than for the evil. ” (Phaedo). In contrast to the beliefs of Plato and Socrates, Epicurus believes that death is the complete annihilation of a person, and there is no afterlife or reincarnation of the soul. He believes in a more scientific view of death in that the body is composed of invisible atoms that are constantly moving around and when death occurs, the body is dissolved into the elements and nature.
This differs from Plato’s and Socrates thoughts that the soul lives on and belief in an afterlife. Epicurus explains “Therefore a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable” (Letter to Menoeceus). He believes death is nothing to us and that we should not fear our inevitable death. “Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect” (Letter to Menoeceus). Epicurus is explaining that if one doesn’t fear to live than they shouldn’t fear death, and constantly fearing death will only cause pain.
I believe one of his main points is that by ridding yourself of fear and pain, then you will be fulfilled. Therefore, it will allow you to live a happy life. Epicurus describes a pleasant life as one where we abstain from unnecessary desires and being content with a simple life, and abstaining from the pursuit of materialistic objects and desires. “Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we always come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing. (Letter to Menoeceus).
Epicurus introduces two claims people believe in as to why people’s lives are unhappy or painful. First, is the belief in punishment from the gods for bad behaviors and actions. Epicurus writes “hence it is that the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favorable to their own good qualities and take pleasure in men like themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind”(Letter to Menoeceus).
He is explaining how people should still believe in God, but how you the gods aren’t humans and don’t rule every aspect of human life or always concern themselves with human affairs. Second, is that we should be fearful of death. “Only when we are in pain do we feel the need to seek pleasure, a need which inevitably only produces greater pain” Epicurus believes these two claims to be false, and explains how they will only bring more fear and anxiety to the individual.
Lucretius, a Roman poet and philosopher who was born sometime is the 90’s BCE is well known for his poem titled De rerum natura , specifically the poem Folly of the Fear of Death. He writes about Epicureanism, and helps to support Epicurus’s claims about death and dying. Lucretius is also passionate about how people shouldn’t fear death, and believes that fear of death is the greatest obstacle to piece of mind. “Therefore death to us is nothing, nor concerns us in the least, Since nature of mind is mortal evermore” (Folly the Fear of Death).
Lucretius believes the mind to be greater than the soul, and death to end the mind and soul. One of Lucretius’s arguments is that in order for something to harm you, then you must exist at the same time to be harmed, thus when you are dead there is nothing, therefore you can’t be harmed. Simon Critchley, a modern philosopher says, “The fear of death enslaves us, leads us toward temporary oblivion or longing for immortality” (Critchley). Critchley’s main point is how the fear of death encapsulates us, and deprives us of our freedom.
It makes us long for an endless life, and fear the possibilities of it ever ending. This quote ties in both Socrates and Epicurus’s arguments, because it shows the similarity of both their beliefs. Although Socrates has a more religious view, and Epicurus a more scientific view, they both have an underlying message, how we should live life to the fullest by not fearing our imminent death. Overall, I believe the views of Socrates and Epicurus on death an dying to be equally persuasive.
On one side, Plato portrays a good argument for the immortality of the soul, and how our souls want to be free from our bodies; and Epicurus believes in the idea that death is final, and there is nothing following death. He also takes a more scientific view, and doesn’t believe in reincarnation or the afterlife. Both philosophers have very convincing arguments and great opinions. I don’t have my own opinion of what happens after death, so I find them equally persuasive. Death and dying is such an intriguing topic, because people can speculate, but no one has an upper hand in understanding death. It will always remain an unknown.