The discourse of death and complete obliteration of human existence is of critical value to determining whether life, individually or comprehensively, is meaningful or meaningless. Arguments which acknowledge death to be the equalizer of good and evil further recognize death as annihilation, the complete destruction of our body, soul, and existence as all life becomes nothing.
Many people believe that this to be the reason that our lives are meaningless. This belief has persisted since time immemorial and encountered many attempts of invalidation, among the most renown of which is Epicurus’ response. The Epicurean perspective identifies death as an entity which is not evil and cannot render life to be meaningless. Philosophers like Landau, Nagel and Nussbaum dismiss the Epicurean move through explaining that death is harmful and does rob life of its meaning. I agree with Landau’s perspective that death establishes harm by depriving beings of a continuing life, equalizing failures and achievements, and thereby rendering life pointless and meaningless.The most notable and common ideologies which claim that eventual death and annihilation render life meaningless include the belief that death impedes life from developing into something which presents a valuable entity, death results in nothingness of all that is, and the nothingness established through death strips life of any value.
The foundation of such an ideology is that for life to have meaning, one must pursue and complete a project which will be of significance to themselves and society. These projects must then remain worthy and be remembered for its value for a considerable time period, preferably eternity. Death is a clear impediment on the completion of any project. For example, when death encounters a person at an earlier stage of life, it prevents both the pursuit and conclusion of any project. Furthermore, since death ensures an end of every life, there will eventually be no existing life to value anything that was achieved or not achieved because there will be no trace of memory or value. Death is identified as a trivializer of life because human life does not equate to anything in the realm of nothing (annihilation).Epicurus refutes this belief of death discrediting life by explaining that when we exist, death cannot harm us because we are not obsolete; we do not exist when we are dead and as such, cannot suffer from death; our existence is inconsistent to death.
Death is, therefore, incapable of physically or mentally harming life. Epicurus’ thesis suggests that there is no rationality in fearing what is not bad and the fear of death is, therefore, one that should not exist. Philosopher Thomas Nagel responds to the Epicurean move by demonstrating death as a negative evil; since death ends the goods of life, it is a bad thing. Landau furthers this claim through the assertion that death robs the specific good of life, and therefore devalues the meaning of life. According Landau’s perspective, the Epicurean argument is not valid because it fails to address the equalizing and nullification of all lives as well as the shortening of what is/could be a meaningful life. Death obstructs the progression of projects in life and the good of life by seizing the opportunity for an individual to fully blossom.
Additionally, although we may not be aware of our projects becoming nullified when we die, Landau insists that it is our awareness of that nullity during our life that deems the dread of death to be justified. Philosopher Nussbaum articulates death as an evil for those who have died prior to achieving their aspirations and completing their projects. She illustrates a scenario in which an individual who wholeheartedly invests their time, energy, money, and emotion to prepare for a specific future dies unexpectedly and at an early stage of their life.
It is not groundless for this individual to have feared death, for death rendered their effort to be “vain and empty” (Nussbaum, pg 5). Death is bad for this individual and any other person who establishes a commitment to succeed, but cannot do so because their life is permanently taken away from them. Nussbaum’s other examples follow this pattern of illustrating a life that holds value or can hold value upon the completion of a project, then taking that life away for the purpose of analyzing whether death is bad or good in respect to that example.
In Nussbaum’s examples, the damaging effects of death appear to negate meaningfulness in lives that carried some sort of purpose. Supporters of Epicurus’ ideology would respond to Nussbaum with examples of people who live traditionally meaningless or overly depressing lives.To illustrate the Epicurean view, take the example of teenager who grew up as a slave in a sex trafficking organization and may remain in that position for the remainder of his life. This person has faced mental and physical torture from the beginning of their life and knows nothing but pain; their only reality is to endure pain.
If death were to approach this teen, then it seems implausible to say that death would be a bad thing for them. In this instance, death is not disrupting the continuation of a good thing but rather, ending a bad thing. Although this person will stop suffering when they experience death, they were robbed of the possibility of ever being happy. Death ensured that this teenager only had suffering in their life; that this teenager could not actively pursue or even begin to pursue a project; that this person’s life was indeed meaningless.Epicurean supporters may ask, “What if it was impossible for that teenager to ever be free? Then would death be bad?” To answer this question, it is first important to recognize that it is death that finalizes this fate of the person never being free. There can be an infinite number of scenarios created in which people with the Epicurean view argue with those opposing Epicurus’ view.
Arguing about whether or not death renders our life to be futile does not change that we all die, that we are all nothing more than we ever were something. Death invalidates human life; it invalidates any thought, effort, or commitment created throughout the spectrum of our life. We cannot be significant in the realm of the cosmic universe because the timeframe of our existence is limited by death.