Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Jost - Warren's 'Facing Death: Epicurus and his Critics'

"This book is what Epicureans and their critics, both hostile and sympathetic, have been waiting for. It is rare, indeed, to find a work that shows both a solid grasp of ancient texts, their proper philological interpretation and appreciation, and is at the same time clearly cognizant of the contemporary philosophical debates on the issues originally raised by our Greek sources. This is such a book and its publication will prove to be a milestone. Serious[1] metaphysicians today are most likely to be physicalists and, even if we are not all physicalists now, the ancient atomists from Democritus through Lucretius, and especially Epicurus, were the closest in spirit to our modern metaphysics. How many, however, take on the Epicurean challenge in light of their physicalist convictions? That is, how many address forthrightly the old claim that "Death is nothing to us; for what is dispersed does not perceive, and what does not perceive is nothing to us" (Warren's translation of the famous second of the "Principal Doctrines", hereafter abbreviated following the usual convention as K[uriai] D[oxai] 2). Ted Honderich speaks for many a skeptic when he replies: "Epicurus tells us not to worry about death, because it itself isn't experienced -- where you are, your death isn't, and where it is you aren't. Only impressionable logicians are consoled" (quoted on p. 110, fn. 3). It is hard to say how many are now, or ever were, consoled by the doctrine or even how impressionable you have to be to follow the basic logic, but Warren has done a signal service in disambiguating several key claims made in the Epicurean tradition.

There are, he thinks, four main fears about death and its discontents that need to be addressed: (1) fear of being dead, (2) fear (or distress) that one will die and disappear, (3) fear of dying prematurely, and (4) fear of the process of dying. In chapters 1-4 he addresses each concern, exploring both the ancient and modern controversies about the (un)reasonableness of each fear, and then addresses in chapter 5 the positive case to be made for leading an Epicurean life, concluding with a chapter that summarizes the argument of the whole and ends on an upbeat note: "Although it is never too late to begin, Epicurean philosophy is not a 'quick fix'. Axiochus [an eponymous character in a pseudo-Platonic dialogue who has heard fashionable, even eloquent arguments of the sort Epicureans offer but remains unconvinced nevertheless] should have studied longer and harder before now. Had he done so, perhaps these arguments would have got through to his soul, lodged there, and been integrated fully into his other beliefs, transforming his view of a good life and his view of death" (221). "Better late than never" goes the common saying; if Warren is right in this book, it's not too late to finally appreciate this seemingly bleak worldview. If not, it is going to take some good counter-argument to the contrary. And argument or, rather arguments, is what it's all about. The Hellenistic philosophers offered numerous arguments both for their own schools' positions and against those of others and Warren surveys many of their original versions as well as later reformulations. He is aware, as Aristotle was, that arguments alone will not make people decent (NE X.1179b5 ff.) or (in this case) calm their fears but, insofar as they do have a role to play in "cognitive therapy," Epicurean arguments will have some considerable force and should not be entirely dismissed (p. 219)." - NDPR.

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