57 - Nothing to Fear: Epicureans on Death and the Gods

Peter considers Epicurus’ attempt to dispel the fear of death and the gods, and along the way looks at the topics of soul, atheism, and philosophy as therapy.

Press 'play' to hear the podcast: 

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

Further Reading: 

• D. Konstan, “Epicurus on the Gods,” and D. Sedley, “Epicurus’ Theological Innatism,” both in J. Fish and K. Sanders (eds), Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition (Cambridge: 2009).

• J. Mansfeld, “Aspects of Epicurean Theology,” Mnemosyne 46 (1993), 172-210.

• D. Obbink, “The Atheism of Epicurus,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 30 (1989), 187-223.

• C.P. Segal, Epicurus on Death and Anxiety (Princeton: 1990).

• S. Rosenbaum, “How to Be Dead and not Care: a Defense of Epicurus,” American Philosophical Quarterly 23 (1986), 217-25.

• V. Tsouna, “Rationality and the Fear of Death in Epicurean Philosophy,” Rhizai 3 (2006), 79-117.

• J. Warren, Facing Death. Epicurus and his Critics (Oxford: 2004).

Ollie Killingback's picture

Fear of death

I am enjoying, and learning from, these podcasts so much! But I was surprised to hear you argue from your particular fear, even if it is shared by Woody Allen, to the general and say that everyone fears death. I work a lot with people of no religion who are facing death and am often surprised by their positive attitude. Quite a few would say it is nothing to be afraid of, and relying on your pun, I agree.

Peter Adamson's picture

Fear of death

That's actually a good point - and you're right, I suppose many people do manage to face death with calmness, not even requiring courage (because there is nothing to fear after all). Epicurus would certainly think that is the right attitude. So what do you think makes the difference? Apart from believing that one will not really die, since as you say many religious people would have that reason for not fearing death. I assume the people you have in mind are not all Epicureans.

Incidentally I think I would still find it plausible to say that all people instinctively fear death "at first," as it were, even if they manage to overcome that fear or lay it aside.


swallerstein's picture

fear of death

I'm 66 and as I get older, I fear death less and less.

Most people my age whom I talk with also do not fear death much.

What we fear is mental senility and the loss of physical strength.

I'm an atheist.

I've done what I've done in life, had children, love affairs, "adventures", spoken my mind, and while I do not welcome death, it does not scare me as it did when I was younger.

Peter Adamson's picture

Fear and death

Thanks, I find that very reassuring! Perhaps as we get older and wiser we naturally start to achieve the kind of perspective the Stoics and Epicureans want us to take on life (and its end)?

There's some interesting stuff on the psychological advantages of being older in Republic book 1, by the way, where Cephalus says how glad he is to be free of the desires he had as a younger man.

swallerstein's picture

death and aging


You've been so generous in recommending books to us, let me recommend a book on getting old, On Aging, by Jean Améry.

It's not widely read, perhaps because it is not upbeat. It seems the most realistic book I've read on the subject, but that may be because I and Amery share some character traits or ways of seeing the world.

There is a social process of aging, as well as the biological one. We lose friends and loved ones. Epicurus points out how important friends are to a good life and while one can make younger friends, it's not the same. Those of our generation have shared our experiences and codes. While one can learn new codes, I will never look at, say, cognitive science (a new code for me) with the same enthusiasm and innocence that an 18 year old will and that I looked at existentialism and psychoanalysis when I was 18.

Amery talks a lot about how we become socially obsolete. What we learn at age 18 often becomes part of our identity, of our sense of self and once we've invested 50 years in that sense of self, in realizing that identity, doing it a second time would be, as Marx points out in another context, a farce rather than a tragedy.

That process of social obsolesence weakens our hold on life too and makes the acceptance of death easier.

Peter Adamson's picture


Sorry, I just mistakenly deleted Ollie's response to this in trying to delete the second copy of this post -- anyway I agree, thanks very much for the recommendation! I suspect that aging in antiquity was perhaps a less alienating process than it is now. The cliche is that in previous periods of history (and in some cultures today) the aged are more valued and respected; its being a cliche doesn't mean it isn't true.

Peter Adamson's picture

Ollie's response

Thanks to my web genius Julien Ollie's comment has been rescued, here it is again:

"Thank you for that, swallerstein. I sometimes read Epicurus at bedtime, just in case! But while I hope to go on learning about ageing from experience for a few years yet, I have none the less ordered the book."
Ollie Killingback
swallerstein's picture

Jean Amery

That's great, Peter.


I was skimming through Amery's book this afternoon just to make sure that I had not recommended something stupid and the book hurts, in the sense that reading Machiavelli about politics hurts if you've ever had any illusions about a better world coming into being through politics (not denying that some governments are better than others).

The truth hurts at times.

Amery's approach is phenomenological, very French, but not French in what for me is the worst sense (Derrida or Deleuze), but French in the best sense for me (Sartre, a bit of Proust, etc.)

Anonymous's picture

The Fear of Death

I am making a presumption here but if you are working with people who are facing death then their own mental wellbeing requires they come to terms with their fate at some point. I imagine it is very common in children when first realising the inevitability of their own mortality to be quite afraid or upset. It’s worth considering also that these ideas are ancient and have no doubt become widespread into human thought over the years. However it is very interesting that people can be so calm in the face of oblivion.

Ollie Killingback's picture

The fear of death

Julian Barnes has written a book "Nothing to be Frightened Of" in which he explains that it is exactly that death is oblivion that troubles him. All I can say is that I am with Epicurus and Lucretius: it doesn't trouble me, I can't understand Barnes' position at all, and I would be far more troubled if I believed in the possibility of everlasting torment, or indeed the sort of everlasting trivia that some Spiritualists seem to look forward to. The people I meet tend to be regretful that the end has come, for all sorts of very understandable reasons, but not afraid.

Joan Sutton's picture


Thank you so much for your talk on the great Epicurus. I enjoyed it very much. Also, you have a beautiful voice which increased the pleasure of listening.

Peter Adamson's picture


Thanks very much! I guess enjoyment is the ideal reaction to a talk on Epicurus, he being a hedonist.

Michael Gebauer's picture


Hi Peter,
listening to your Epicurean podcasts + Warren interview once again (not for the last time, I'm sure) and thinking about your next book, I thought that it might be a good idea there to insert some regular little footnotes about your sources: where exactly is this or that particular Epicurean (or Stoic) saying or portion of doctrine to be found in print. (E.g.: in Epicurus himself, or rather exclusively there and there in Lucretius?, or elsewhere in, say, Cicero?) -- After all, Hellenistic philosophy is especially "unübersichtliches Terrain", perhaps not only for us non-specialists. -- I'm already looking forward to your next book (though I'm aware that there are a couple of 'Summae' ahead once you'll get into the scholastics -- really intimidating portions of work for you), Cheers,

P.S. I'll be really curious about the fate of Epicurean and materialist docrines in the Middle Ages; hard to believe that their threat disappeared entirely until Gassendi showed up.

Peter Adamson's picture


Yes, as in the first volume I have added citations throughout the book version (for Hellenistic it is mostly just references to Long and Sedley though). In fact I think it really is the case that Epicureanism fell out of view in the medieval period, in both the Islamic and Christian realms. If you think about why we know anything about Epicureanism, it is bascially through Cicero and Lucretius; some Cicero was known but not, I think, the relevant works and not Lucretius either. And of course some things like Philodemus have also been discovered only later. So they were invisible to the medievals, as far as I know. (Less so the Stoics though their infuence is heavily mediated through Augustine, Boethius and others.)