Live Well, Die Well: Does Neil Gorsuch Understand Epicurus?

“The same exercise (i.e. the study of philosophy) at once teaches to live well and to die well.”

Epicurus, Epistle to Menoeceus


The Seventh Annual Symposium of Epicurean Philosophy recently took place in Athens, Greece (full report is here). This year’s symposium featured discussions on Lucretius and on the history, present and future, of the Epicurean tradition. But the presentation that really caught my eye was one by Takis Panagiotopoulos on the good life (euzoia) and the good death (euthanasia). Panagiotopoulos discussed some philosophical points and used Epicurus’s own blissful manner of death—how he mindfully prepared for his end surrounded by loving friends—as a moral example to follow.

The issue of euthanasia has been discussed of late with the US Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch, whose confirmation hearings begin today. Gorsuch, as you may already know, published a book in 2009 called The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, arguing against the right to choose a good death, even in cases of terminal disease.

If Gorsuch is confirmed, the vital steps some states have taken to secure the right to a good death, in cases of terminal disease when a severely painful death is expected, will be reversed. Wherever we stand on this controversial issue, it is crucial that humanists learn to consider, think through, and discuss these issues intelligently and compassionately, remembering that we may have to make these difficult choices one day, and that once again the state—influenced by religious views that may or may not be coherent—may soon attempt to invade another one of the most private decisions that concern individuals and families.

Epicurean teachings on how death should not be feared are laid out in the Epistle to Menoeceus. But it is perhaps the scroll by Philodemus of Gadara, titled “On Death” (English translation here), where we get the most complete, coherent teachings that are relevant to the issue of euthanasia. The scroll is one of the works from the Herculaneum library that survived the Mount Vesuvius eruption in the year 79 CE—an Epicurean Nag Hammadi—and it’s based on the notes taken during discussions about death that took place between the Epicurean scholarchs and their disciples during the first 200 years of the school’s history.

The scroll contains a long list of well-reasoned, therapeutic arguments against the fear of death in its various forms, and other ethical guidance concerning death. For instance, while arguing that a lavish burial won’t fix a life lived wretchedly, the scroll praises wealthy lawmakers who had recently decided to take money set aside for funerary arrangements and to spend it instead on the poor who are living. It later denounces the irrational fear of dying without a funeral or lamenting one’s manner of death:

31.5 Among lawgivers, too, those who made dispositions naturally and well can be seen actually to have prevented excessive expenditure at funerals on the grounds that the living were being deprived of services: many give orders to do away with their property precisely because they begrudge this.

32.20 Who is there who, on considering the matter with a clear head, will suppose that it makes the slightest difference, never mind a great one, whether it is above ground or below ground that one is unconscious?

More than once in the scroll, Philodemus recognizes that if the only thing we have left is misery and pain, death is naturally desirable. There’s no question where the Epicureans stand with regards to the right to a good death in the case of terminal disease, or in the case of one who lies in agony in the battlefield waiting to die. Any compassionate mortal can understand that life, to a sentient being, should be pleasant. If no opportunity for pleasure remains, and instead a being’s only expectation is to spend the rest of his or her days in intolerable pain and agony, death is naturally desirable. Some people refer to this bitter choice to alleviate one’s pain as “death with dignity.” Modern discussions about euthanasia make us so uncomfortable and we are naturally so reluctant to accept it as an option—perhaps as a result of the fact that the good-death conversation has not matured enough in our culture—that we show more compassion for our pet companions in this regard than we do to other human beings.

The only question that remains for those who believe in the right to a good death is: Who gets to decide when the pain is unbearable enough to warrant euthanasia? The moral question on the rights of loved ones in the cases where the dying person is unable to decide are worth considering. But the state, as an impersonal and neutral party, certainly should not be the one to either make the choice or to deny it to patients. If the state denies the right to die with dignity to an individual whose only expectation is to die within a short time and in great pain, then the state has declared itself the master of the individual, has denied that person’s autonomy, and has declared a living human body its property.

Fear of death is not unnatural, and so we should not judge others for their apprehensions. Death is final, and it can be terrifying. But if death is already terrifying for many people, why make it worse by taking away the little control they may have over their manner of death in the cases of terminal illness?

While we uphold the right to a good death, we also concede that the irreversible decision of taking one’s own life is not to be taken lightly. Epicurean sources admonish against suicide in most cases, and in fact—as Panagiotopoulos noted in his symposium presentation—Diodorus is the only Epicurean in antiquity who is known to have committed suicide. Our sources are clear that to choose death is only natural in the cases of final physical agony. The only antidote to suicidal tendencies in any other case is to live well: this is why living well and dying well are the same thing. The poet Lucretius argued that one should live a life so filled with pleasures that, when death comes, one feels as satisfied as one who has enjoyed a banquet.

As Philodemus of Gadara put it: “Therefore, live well and die well!”

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