Immortality and the Fear of Death

By Jack Sherefkin
February 4, 2016
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

“You know, it’s really very peculiar. To be mortal is the most basic human experience and yet man has never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly. Man doesn’t know how to be mortal.” —Milan Kundera, Immortality

We fear death. We don’t want to die. We hate our mortality and don’t want to be made aware of it. We repress all thought of death and live as if we have unlimited time.

For Saint Augustine, fear of death makes a happy life impossible. True happiness requires immortality. “The true life is one that is both everlasting and happy,” and “since all men want to be happy, they want also to be immortal if they know what they want; for otherwise they could not be happy.” 1

Absent a religious belief in immortality, denial is the most common way of treating the fear of death. In the words of Pascal, “To be happy he would have to make himself immortal; but, not being able to do so, it has occurred to him to prevent himself from thinking of death.” 2 And that is what diversions and distractions provide. “Diversion…This is all that men have been able to discover to make themselves happy. And those…who think men unreasonable for spending a whole day in chasing a hare…scarce know our nature. The hare in itself would not screen us from the sight of death and calamities; but the chase, which turns away our attention from these, does screen us.” 3

Arguments against the Fear of Death

Painting of person sitting staring at skull

Domenico Fetti (1589-1623) Melancholy

But there are other ways of combating the fear of death. All the ancient schools of thought, Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics, thought the fear of death irrational and employed arguments to combat it. For them, philosophy was primarily therapeutic, a treatment for suffering. “Philosophy heals human diseases, diseases produced by false beliefs. Its arguments are to the soul as the doctor’s remedies are to the body.” 4

But what effect can reason and argument have against our emotions, especially such a powerful emotion as the fear of death? It is a mistake to think that all our emotions are simply blind urges unaffected by what we think or believe. Take anger. People get angry for a reason. I am mad because I believe I have been wronged in some way. If I discover I was mistaken my anger will disappear. Similarly, the Hellenistic philosophers thought the fear of death rests on false beliefs that rational argument could take away.

For Epicurus, eliminating the fear of death,  central to living a happy life, can be achieved through a  correct understanding of death. Epicurus’ main argument against this fear is the “no subject of harm” argument. If death is bad it has to be bad for somebody. But death cannot be bad for the living, since they are alive, nor for the dead, since they don’t exist. "[W]hen we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist." Since death affects neither the dead nor the living, there is no need to fear it. “Death, therefore…is nothing to us…” 5 (It must be kept in mind that Epicurus is talking about death, not dying. Dying can be experienced, death cannot.)

But like many, the poet Philip Larkin found Epicurus’ argument unconvincing:

“And specious stuff that says No rational being

Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing

That this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,

No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,

Nothing to love or link with,

The anaesthetic from which none come round.” 6

A more powerful argument used by the Epicureans against the fear of death is the “symmetry” argument. This was probably first used by Lucretius, a Roman disciple of Epicurus. Lucretius argued since we do not feel horror at our past non-existence, the time before we were born, it is irrational to feel horror at our future non-existence, the time after our death, since they are the same. Or as Seneca expressed it: “Would you not think him an utter fool who wept because he was not alive a thousand years ago? And is he not just as much a fool who weeps because he will not be alive a thousand years from now? It is all the same; you will not be and you were not. Neither of these periods of time belongs to you.” 7

Some version of the symmetry argument has been put forth by Cicero, Plutarch, Seneca, Schopenhauer and Hume. Hume cited Lucretius’ argument to Boswell, Dr. Johnson’s biographer, when he interviewed Hume on his death bed. “I asked him if the thought of Annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought than he had not been as Lucretius observes.” 8

A World without Death

If our deepest wish was granted and we became immortal would it be a blessing or a curse? We fear death but life without it might be even more terrible. Would immortality leave us longing to be mortal again? Mortality might be so entwined with life that if we ceased to be mortal we would cease to be human.

What would a world without death look like? Since we have no experience of immortality we can only imagine it. To begin with, if there were births but no deaths, the world would quickly become unlivable. People would need to stop having children and the world would become a stale, static place.

What would we do with an extended or even immortal life? We could have several careers, have multiple spouses, and develop more interests, in short, more of everything. But more time is not the same as endless time. Is there any activity that we can imagine doing, not for a long time, but forever? Would we lose all interest in life if we lived forever? “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” 9

With unlimited time there would be no urgency to do anything. The idea of wasting time becomes nonsensical if we have time without end. That our time is limited, that our days are numbered, is the ultimate incentive to act. It is the old story of a person given six months to live suddenly trying to cram a life time of living in what time he has left. Death creates urgency.

Jorge Luis Borges imagined immortality in his short story, “The Immortal,” about a Roman army officer in quest of a river whose waters grants immortality. He finds the river and the City of the Immortals on its far bank. On the opposite side lie the inhabitants naked and shriveled in shallow pits in the sand, subsisting on snake meat, oblivious to everything, doing nothing, wanting nothing.

He drinks from the river becomes immortal. Centuries pass. Finally, in the tenth century the immortals decide to disperse to search for a river whose waters will restore their mortality. Borges offers “an ironical mirror image of the story of the Fall in which mankind was exiled from his happy immortal state to one of pain and death. The immortals embark on a quest for the river of death which will liberate them from the onus of immortality and which will again invest their lives with meaning by rendering them finite.” 10 Borges concludes that “Death…makes men precious…every act they execute may be their last…Everything among the mortals has the value of the irretrievable and the perilous.” 11

In his famous essay, The Makropulos Case, Bernard Williams argues that it is good that we are not immortal because life without death would be meaningless. Given infinite time tedium would make life unbearable. (Of course, many people believe a life that ends in death is meaningless, that without the promise of immortality in an afterlife, life would be absurd.)

When Williams writes that mortality is good, he is not saying that death is not to be feared. It “could be true…that death gave…meaning to life and that death was…something to be feared.” 12 It is good that we die, for instance, when it ends great suffering, and it is good that we don’t live too long, but death is bad when it comes too soon, cutting off the full potential of a life.

The Value of Mortality

For the bioethicist, Leon Kass, there are important virtues that arise from our mortality. “Could life be serious or meaningful without the limits of mortality? Is not the limit on our time the ground of our taking life seriously and living it passionately?”13 What if what is most important to us is inseparable from our mortality and finitude? If we were immortal how could we be brave or noble or any of the virtues that require risk and the threat of death? The Homeric gods, eternally youthful and beautiful, live shallow, frivolous lives.

Odysseus on his voyage home is held captive by the beautiful and ageless Calypso. He rejects the goddess’ offer of eternal life if he stays with her, wanting only to return to his mortal wife, Penelope. As Martha Nussbaum remarks, “he chooses the life of a human being, and a marriage to a woman who will…age and die… He chooses…not only risk and difficulty, but the certainty of death…” 14

Accepting Our Mortality

Epicurus argued that “a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to it an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality.”15 I would argue that we can lose or weaken our longing for immortality not by eliminating the fear of death, if that is even possible, but rather by realizing that immortality would result in profound boredom and meaninglessness. We would still hate and fear death but it would make us more accepting of our mortal condition and less likely to condemn this life or seek to flee from it.

For the psalmist learning to accept our mortality is the path to wisdom. “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”16 Or in the words of Montaigne, “All the wisdom and argument in the world eventually come down to one conclusion which is to teach us not to be afraid of dying.”17

  1. Arendt, Hannah, Love and Saint Augustine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, 10- 11.
  2. Pascal, Blaise, and T. S. Eliot. Pascal's Pensées. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1958, 169.
  3. Ibid., 139.
  4. Nussbaum, Martha, The therapy of desire : theory and practice in Hellenistic ethics, Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, c1994, 14.
  5. Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus.” In The Epicurus Reader: selected writings and testimonia translated and edited, with notes, by Brad Inwood and L.P. Gerson; introduction by D.S. Hutchinson. Indianapolis : Hackett, c1994, 125.
  6. Larkin, Philip, and Anthony Thwaite. “Aubade.” In Philip Larkin: Collected Poems. London: Faber, 1988, 208.
  7. Seneca (trans. R.M. Gummere). “On Taking One’s Own Life.” In Epistulae Morales II (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), p. 175.
  8. Boswell, James, and John Wain. The Journals of James Boswell, 1762-1795. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991, 249.
  9. Ertz, Susan. Anger in the Sky. New York, London, Harper & brothers [c1943].
  10. Stewart, Jon. “Borges on Immortality.” In Philosophy and Literature, Volume 17, Number 2, October 1993, 299.
  11. Borges, Jorge Luis, James East Irby, André Maurois, and Donald A. Yates. Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp, 1962, 155.
  12. Williams, Bernard. “The Makropulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality.” In The Metaphysics of death/ edited, with an introduction, by John Martin Fischer. 73.
  13. Kass, Leon. Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs. New York: Free Press, 1985, 309.
  14. Nussbaum, Martha Craven. “Transcending Humanity.” Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, 365.
  15. Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus from Epicurus, The Extant Remains, translated by Cyril Bailey (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1926). 124b 1-3.
  16. Ps. 90:12 ESV (English Standard Version).
  17. Montaigne, Michel de, and M. A. Screech. “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die.” In The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. London: Allen Lane, 1991, 89.