Lucretius argues that death is nothing to us and we have nothing to fear of it. He asks why we should fear death when we will be no more. Once the chain of our identity has been snapped through death, even if we could be reassembled, we would not be concerned with our previous existence. If we fear that death is full of evil, the self is not in existence to experience it. Another reason why Lucretius contends that men fear death is that the good things in life will come to an end. However, while we sleep we cannot take part in those things and we do not regret it. Therefore, if sleep were to go on for eternity we would not trouble ourselves for these things. Lucretius also contends that if life has been good and we have not wasted it, we should not demand it goes on like an ungrateful guest. If we have wasted our life or it has been full of evil, why would we demand that it continue? We must make way for others, as the old must make way for the new. Lucretius states we do not regret the time before we were born because we cannot remember it. Existence before life is the mirror image of existence after life. Finally, death is inevitable and therefore it is irrational to fear it.
Thomas Nagel objects to Lucretius’ assertions on the grounds that he has made mistaken assumptions. Nagel argues in contrast to Lucretius that death is an evil simply because it deprives us of life. The assumptions, Nagel states, that Lucretius has made are temporal and based on a subject to be harmed. A person can be identified through their history and their possibilities rather than their state at a particular moment. While that person can be located at a particular place and time, if a terrible misfortune befalls them such as acquiring a major brain injury, for Nagel, it is the loss of this person’s possibilities that is the tragedy. This loss of possibility can be the same objection that can be used towards Lucretius’s assertions about death. The other assumption that Nagel states is made by Lucretius is his description of death being a mirror image of the time before one’s birth. For Nagel, although they may both be times when one does not exist, the time after death is the time of which one has been deprived while the time before one’s birth is not a time which one’s subsequent birth prevents one from living. Also, although death is inevitable, Nagel states that one’s existence does not contemplate this but imagines an open-ended possible future and the inevitability of death should not imply that it would not be good to live longer.
- Lucretius. “Extract” in On the Nature of the Universe , Lucretius; Latham, R. E. , 1951 , 121-129
- Nagal, Thomas. “Death” Nous , 4:1 , 1970 , 73-80