Epicurus (341-270 BC), whom Epicurean philosophy named after him, based his opinion on the institution of pleasure as the humans’ primary real good. In his viewpoint, a good life is one that in which pleasure -to be particular, pleasures with the subtraction of pains- is maximised. To do so, we have to minimise our pains, either bodily or mentally. However, knowing that death is one of the most mentally painful concerns for humans, Epicurus argued that we should not be fearful of death as it means nothing to us (De Botton 2000, 56-60).
Epicurus provided his claim on why we have not to fear death using a simple categorical argument with a few premises; some expressed explicitly, and some are implicit. Firstly, death is the most terrible of evils for a human being; secondly, good and bad are matters of our sensation merely; and thirdly, death is an end to our sensation. It concludes from the second and the third premise that there will be no good and evil after death as there is no sensation. Putting the first premise and the latter conclusion, Epicurus claims that there is no reason to fear death as we will feel neither good nor evil by our senses post-death so death will not be sensed. In other words, death is the ultimate end to consciousness, so there is nothing to be afraid of not living, and there is no reason not to ignore death altogether while living (Epicurus 1998, 47-52).
From an ethical perspective, accepting that the death is nothing to us has two main subsequent in our life. First, it makes our mortal life agreeable, and second, this belief gives us the power of living at present. These two, force us to respect and exploits the value of the current moment for the attainment of happiness - the ultimate constituent of a good life in Epicurean philosophy. Therefore, one should solely live in the present with no aim toward future. Consequently, all worries in our mind that may have arisen because of thinking about future will diminish if not vanished.
However, I think that Epicurus’s viewpoint on humans’ life and death is oversimplified and reductionistic. He has a subtle presumption that he took given when he claimed that “death means nothing to us”: there is no after-death life, by no means. This premise is consistent with his metaphysical viewpoint (i.e. Materialism) and also is by believing that reality is nothing more than and beyond of indivisible elements (atoms), which he borrowed from Democritus thoughts. However, if someone, based on any reason or argument or by any faith or dogma or even by any sorts of probabilistic considerations (at least in any kinds of Pascal’s Wager-like arguments), assumes that one will not return to void once dead, then it is reasonable to be worry about death. Not only about probable physical and mental pains that precede death but more because of thinking about what will happen post-death. Also, Epicurus’s claim apparently ignores that, either we believe in after-death life, or no, death will be an experiment for us that we will encounter it in our life. Epicurus reduced the experience of mortality to a romantic one moment that before that is life and after that is nothing. However, death, by itself, is a series of real experiences for humans, and not only its mere occurrence but its quality and the way it happens are crucial for us.
So the question of such a person will not be just ‘to be or not to be’. However, about how one will live after death and about what should one do now in life to enjoy this moment but not at the expense of future (here, with a non-zero probability of the existence of after-death life). This question is not applicable to this situation as it can arise for a person who is not a believer in after-death life as he/she also thinks to find out how to a trade-off between ‘now’ and ‘future’. It looks to me as a serious challenge between innate human desires for eternity life which brings its thoughts, pains and uncertainty in one hand, and on the contrary having a materialist philosophy, assuming that there will be no mind after death as it will perish every other thing in the world likewise. Such a belief (in no life after death) still can have its concerns about death. Because once we experience pleasures in life (e.g. food and friends) at every moment, we will eagerly desire to reproduce those feelings and pleasurable experiences, again and again, even in their poorest quality. However, we know that it is not possible practically in our life to be always capable of exploiting pleasures and happiness. As so, we try hard to make our life happier by planning, and this means ‘thinking about future in which we will experience happiness’.
To conclude, Epicurus’s argument in defending that death has no impact on our present moment looks consistent with his other philosophical fundamentals (e.g. atomism, and no life after death). However, it cannot answer neither humans concerns of not living happy enough before their death arrives, not their fear of not living long enough before they cultivate their planning for more comfortable life. Also, Epicurus viewpoint for a person even with the weakest believe in after death life will show no attraction.
De Botton, Alain. 2000. The Consolations of Philosophy: London: Hamish Hamilton.
Epicurus. 1998. Epicurus, 'Letter to Menoeceus' and 'Leading Doctrines' Epicurus. Edited by David E. Cooper. Oxford: Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.