Epicureans on Squandering Life

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Epicureans famously held that we should not fear death. Epicurus argued that because we simply do not exist once we are dead, there is no subject to suffer pains. And since pain is the only truly bad thing, there is nothing bad for us to fear in being dead. In this way, they saw philosophical argument as part of the therapy for overcoming fear. Lucretius followed Epicurus’ argument with the observation that the time before we were born is relevantly similar to the time after we die – both are periods in which we are not. He reasoned that, as we do not feel dread with respect to the time before our birth, there is no reason to dread the time after our death. These two arguments, which may be called the no subject of harm argument and the symmetry argument, have attracted a good deal of scholarly attention, and for good reason. (We have even weighed in on the symmetry argument, elsewhere.) But there is a third Epicurean about death and our coordinate attitudes about life, and it has been generally neglected. We’ll call it the squandering argument.

The squandering argument is an exercise of dialectical reasoning, in that it is not a stand-alone argument to be presented out of the blue to a person. The more commonly discussed no subject of harm and symmetry arguments are of that form. Instead, dialectical arguments arise in the midst of a series of back-and-forth exchanges between interlocutors. They are developmental pieces of reasoning that are presented in the thick of an exchange between particular discussants, and so their form (and even their conclusions) can be difficult to discern, especially once the dust settles on a dispute. But, ironically, dialectical arguments hold great promise as devices for philosophical therapy.

Lucretius poses the squandering argument near the close of Book III of his De Rerum Natura. It comes just after he has assured us that the torments of the afterlife do not exist. We will not have to roll a stone up a hill, and watch it roll back down, only to have to roll it back up again – as Sisyphus must. Nor will we be only inches away from food and drink that we crave, but when we reach out to it, it recedes or becomes fouled – as Tantalus must endure. However, Lucretius observes, we make our own lives similar torments. For starters, we fear things we shouldn’t (death and the gods, in particular), and we thereby needlessly and endlessly agitate ourselves. There is, it turns out, no limit to the upset we can cause ourselves worrying about ghosts, gods, the afterlife, and other superstitious nonsense. But we also make our lives miserable in desiring things that never satisfy us. Professional success and money are easy targets for Epicurean critique – they are objects for which our desires are never sated. Erotic love is another – to suffer from that desire yields pain disproportionate to the pleasures. Don’t believe the love songs. Seen from Epicurus’s perspective, they reek of simpering rationalization, and were the singers to have a moment of honesty, they would recognize that the promise of loving someone forever is both a lie and a horror. Addiction to politics, news, outrage, and the breaking story is a bottomless desire, too. We fear Sisyphus’s fate with the rock in the afterlife, but is that not the fate we make for ourselves with 24-hour news cycles in our information feeds? Or consider the tortures of diet and exercise regimens – being constantly hungry and sore for the sake of a body that will look as one wishes only for a moment. Tantalus’s afterlife is a punishment for what he did in life, but it seems that too many choose that anguished fate for their lives.

The irony of course is that we fear death because it would deprive us of life, which we take to be a good thing. But look at what we do with our lives. Lucretius here gets in his reader’s face:

You, even while you still have life, are as good as dead. You squander the greater part of your time in sleep, you snore when awake . . . you are buffeted with countless cares on every side and drift aimlessly in utter bewilderment of mind. (DRN 3.1050)

All the pointless rushing about and empty busy-ness. All the groundless desires we take on that we can never truly sate. All the time we simply waste. The best way to tell how much (and whether at all) someone really values something is not in how they talk about how much they love or value it, but in what they do with it. Lucretius’ point is that we fail that test with life. Like people who claim they value some possession, but who never care for it, carelessly misplace it or misuse it, we claim we love life and would hate to lose it, but we squander it. If the justification for our fear of death derives from our love of life, then our actions in life have betrayed us.

Lucretius encourages us to take heart, though. There is still time. To enjoy a simple pleasure like a glass of water and a crispy piece of toast. To appreciate the company of a friend. To savor the warmth of the sun or the cool of the evening. To be pleased with what you can do for a neighbor or a family member. These are the natural goods, those that sate us and refresh us. Only if our lives are filled with these would we have any reason to hold our lives are good enough to think that death deprives us of something worth worrying about losing. Otherwise, as Lucretius observes, we are little more than wraiths play-acting at life, but actually living out our most dreaded afterlives.

As we noted, the squandering argument is a dialectical argument – it is a response to a reply to an earlier argument. In essence, even if one concedes that there is no subject of harm in death, that death is like the time before you were born, one still isn’t, and so one is missing out, is deprived of something. Were one alive, one would have something good. Neither of those earlier Epicurean arguments really address this thought, and so they leave that objection on the table. And it is an objection that seems to defeat the argument that death is not a bad thing – being deprived of something one values is most certainly a bad. Epicurus and Lucretius go out of their way to directly address this concern by noting that if one doesn’t exist, one is not exactly deprived of anything. One is deprived of something only if one exists, so death isn’t like staying home because one’s not invited to the party. One just isn’t, full stop.

But that seems to miss the spirit of the objection about deprivation – it’s just that there is less life than there would otherwise be, given the fact of death. That indeed seems a bad. But this is where what we’ve called the squandering argument does its work, because it attacks the grounds that the critic of Epicurean philosophy stands on. The critics of Epicureanism (at least by Epicurean lights) have made themselves miserable.

The squandering argument takes the form of a tu quoque, proposing that one’s dialectical opponent hasn’t been totally honest about their commitments. They have a conflict of values, that they are hypocrites of sorts. In essence, the squandering argument runs:

You say you fear death because it deprives you of the life you value, but look at what you do with that life!

Does this show that life is or is not valuable? No. Does it vindicate the no subject of harm or symmetry arguments? No. Does it show that death really is nothing to us? No. So what does it show? Not much, really. It suggests only that objections to the Epicurean arguments about death often come from an unreflective place, that people need the broader view not only of what death is, but what a good life is. That if we really valued our lives, we wouldn’t sabotage our living them. And this is why we think that though the squandering argument proves less than the other arguments (since it doesn’t seem to prove anything), as a piece of dialectic, it is a powerful philosophically therapeutic tool for the Epicureans, because the arguments about death now become occasions for discussions of lives worth living.