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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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1. The Discovery of Death. It is a matter of debate
whether animals have an awareness of mortality, but
it is certain that man alone among all living creatures
knows that he has to die. Yet even Homo sapiens ac-
quired this knowledge relatively late in the long history
of the species. It is reasonable to assume, as Voltaire
did in his Dictionnaire philosophique (article, “Tout va
bien”), that man has learned about death “through
experience.” More recently some philosophers, notably
Max Scheler, asserted that man possesses an intuitive
awareness of his mortality, and Paul Landsberg sug-
gested that it is not through experience in the usual
meaning of the term but by way of a particular “expe-
rience of death” that one realizes one's own finitude.
There is undoubtedly some truth in this view but as
numerous anthropological studies have shown, primi-
tive man is totally unaware of the inevitability as well
as the possible finality of death. For him it is neither
a natural event nor a radical change: death occurs only
as a result of violence or of a disease brought on by
magic, and those who do die merely enter into another
mode of living in which the need for food, drink, and
clothing does not cease.

Therefore it is misleading to speak of the primitive's
belief in immortality, because his view of death is
rooted not in a denial of death but in the ignorance
of its nature. And the term “immortality” would have
to signify deathlessness as well as survival after death,
whereby survival would be that of the whole man and
not merely of a hypothetical incorporeal entity. It was
only after it had become apparent that death was not
a mere temporary lapse and that the change was irre-
versible and extreme that the notion could occur that
what survives is something other than the whole man.
Even then the “survivor” was not conceived of as
something immaterial, but as a replica of the body,
a “ghost” or “shadow,” and only much later did it
become the completely disembodied “soul.”

The primitive's misconception of death is due pri-
marily to his inability to draw the proper conclusions
from his observations, but it is also strongly favored
by the difficulty of visualizing the end of one's exist-
ence. This psychological peculiarity is not charac-
teristic of the primitive alone. As Freud, and Schopen-
hauer before him, have pointed out, “deep down” even
contemporary man does not “really” believe in his own
death. And Martin Heidegger shrewdly observed that
the proposition, “all men are mortal” usually involves
the tacit reservation “but not I.”

Neither the time nor the historical sequence of the
two elements in the discovery of death—its inevita-
bility as well as its possible finality—can be determined
with any degree of accuracy. On the one hand, the
realization of the inevitability of death may conceiv-
ably have preceded the suspicion of its finality. On the
other hand, the finality of death is in no way predicated
on its inevitability. But if we judge by the testimony
of the first written record of man's discovery of death,
the Gilgamesh Epic (ca. 2500 B.C.), the realization of
the inevitability of death as well as its possible finality
would seem to have occurred simultaneously. If this
is so, it is pointless to ask which of the two produced
the greater shock. But again on the basis of the
Gilgamesh legend, there can be no doubt about its
severity. As a result we find in Gilgamesh most of the
themes of the meditation on death as we know them
today. But while King Gilgamesh strongly suspects that
death may well be total extinction, the predominant
view of death of his contemporaries, obviously still
rooted in primitive ideas, was that the dead somehow
continue to exist. But one cannot help but be impressed
by the somber and frightening nature of the afterlife
as it appears in the Babylonian and Greek mythologies.
Typical is Achilles' complaint in the Odyssey that it
is better to be a slave on earth than a king in the realm
of phantoms. Such an image of a miserable existence
as a mere “shadow” ought to throw considerable doubt
on the usual interpretation of the belief in immortality
as a mere “wish fulfillment,” at least as far as the
earliest manifestations of this belief are concerned. This
kind of survival must have appeared, at least to some,


as worse than complete extinction. For most peo-
ple, however, the prospect of total annihilation was
as frightening and repulsive as that of a miserable
afterlife. Seen against this background, the earliest
philosophical speculations about the soul's ultimate
blissful immortality must have appeared as welcome

We shall deal with these, and subsequent, doctrines
of immortality in the second part of this article and
consider the various attempts to come to terms with
mortality without taking refuge in comforting visions
of post-mortem existence.

2. Epicurus. These attempts were mainly concerned
with gaining mastery over the fear of death. It is
important, however, to realize that the first such at-
tempts made by Democritus, and in particular by
Epicurus, have been undertaken at a time when the
predominant view of death was that of dismal survival
in a bleak Underworld. Consequently Epicurus' liber-
ating message consisted primarily in the denial of the
reality of Hades. Later thinkers, however, had a differ-
ent, and clearly a more difficult, task of trying to
reconcile man with death meaning total extinction.
According to Epicurus the fear of death is one of the
two major afflictions of mankind, the other being the
fear of the gods. Man fears death because he errone-
ously believes that he will experience pain and suffer
after he has died. But, says Epicurus, death is depriva-
tion of sensation. As to the soul it too does not survive
death because, as Democritus has taught, like all things,
it too consists of atoms (albeit particularly fine ones)
which will disperse at death. Consequently “Death, the
most terrifying of all ills, is nothing to us, since as long
as we exist, death is not with us, and when death comes,
then we do not exist” (Fragment XLVII, in Whitney
J. Oates, The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers [1940],
p. 42).

This argument is frequently invoked even today in
spite of the fact that it can be effective only against
the fear of what comes after death—what may be done
to the dead body, as well as what is supposed to happen
to one's “shadow” in Hades. (The fear of mutilation
and desecration of the corpse and the fear of being
deprived of a proper burial were widespread in an-
tiquity and sometimes appear to have been stronger
than the fear of death itself.) But what is mostly feared
today is precisely that which has been so lightly dis-
missed by Epicurus, namely, that one shall not exist

Another obvious shortcoming of the Epicurean
argument is that it might alleviate the fear of death
“at the thought of death,” but not in its actual pres-
ence. The inadequacy of the argument in this respect,
as well as with regard to the fear of annihilation, has
been noted even by some of Epicurus' contemporaries.
In one of the Platonic apocrypha, the Axiochus, the
dying ruler rejects it as “superficial twaddle which can
impress only little boys.” Perhaps this was the reason
for which Lucretius, while exalting Epicurus as the
great liberator from the “dread of Acheron,” intro-
duced the additional argument of a pessimistic evalua-
tion of life: “And quitting life you quit thy living pain.
... For all the dismal tales, that poets tell, are verified
on earth and not in Hell” (De rerum natura, trans. John
Dryden, Book III, 978-79).

3. Methods of Mastering the Fear of Death. The
pessimistic evaluation of life can be considered as the
oldest “remedy” against the fear of death. That “the
best thing is not to be born, and the second best is
to escape life as soon as possible” has been, since
Theognis of Megara (sixth century B.C.), a recurrent
theme of Greek poetry and drama. Pessimism is an
important element also in Emperor Marcus Aurelius'
approach to mastering the fear of death. But for most
people the pessimistic stance carries no real conviction.
Thus, another Roman Stoic, the slave Epictetus, relies
more on self-discipline and the sense of decorum when
it comes to death. His answer is that we have to take
modestly the place assigned to us by God or Nature
at the banquet of life and when the end approaches
to leave it quietly and gracefully. This is also the view
of Seneca. But he realized, however, that such an
attitude is rather the result of the conquest of the fear
of death than its condition. He was, therefore, more
specific in suggesting as a remedy the constant thinking
of death.

However, this second method of conquering the fear
of death, even if it is done in the framework of hope
of a future life, is scarcely realistic. And without that
hope it is a “remedy” which may be worse than the
affliction. The shortcomings of this method gradually
became clear to Montaigne. In the chapter of his
Essays significantly entitled “That to philosophize is
to learn to die,” he reports that being bothered by
attacks of dread of dying, he at first tried to follow
Seneca's advice. As time passed, he came to the con-
clusion that the only proper remedy against the fear
of death is not “philosophy, which orders us to have
death constantly before our eyes,” but the attitude of
the unsophisticated peasant whom “nature teaches not
to think of death except when he actually dies....
If this be stupidity, let's all learn from it” (Essays [1595
ed.], Book III, Ch. 12). But how can not thinking of
death be effective in the “presence” of death? What
about the problem of “easy” dying? Here Montaigne
is somewhat vague. He praises Nature which arranged
things so that dying is in reality not too hard. And
he says that “if we have known how to live properly


and calmly, we will know how to die in the same

However, Nature's cooperation is not necessarily
realized in every case, although it was in Montaigne's:
he did not have a chance to put the above statement
to a test, having died suddenly of a stroke. His expecta-
tion of a peaceful death as an outgrowth of a “proper
life” does not really convey Montaigne's radically new
attitude toward life which determines his eventual
attitude toward death. It is quite different from the
Stoic position and even more so from that of Christi-
anity; it is the expression of the Renaissance spirit with
its appreciation of the exciting and wonderful world
surrounding man of which he feels himself to be a part.
Life is not seen any longer as something to be endured
but something to be enjoyed and which can be shaped
and changed for the better by man's own effort. In
short, the memento vivere replaces the Christian me-
mento mori.
(It is plausible to assume that this radical
reversal was, at least in part, an anticlimax to the
pathologically heightened consciousness of mortality
characteristic of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries,
which grew out of the disaster of the “Black Death.”)
What a “proper and calm” life was for Montaigne,
a useful and productive life was for Leonardo da Vinci.
“As a day well spent bestows pleasant sleep, so a life
well used bestows pleasant death.”

This has become the most often suggested secular
answer to the problem of coming to terms with the
fact of death. A variant of it, which puts even a greater
emphasis on achievement, has been given expression
by the German poet Hölderlin: “Should my verse grow
perfect/ Most welcome then, O stillness of shades
below... (“To the Fates”). It is obvious, however,
that such a condition for overcoming the reluctance
to die is well beyond the reach of the majority of
mortals. Moreover, even the consciousness of having
led a “full” life, and achieved great things may not
be enough to make death welcome. What usually
makes death acceptable is its coming as a well deserved
surcease from a life of continuous hardship and partic-
ularly from the indignity and suffering of old age.
However, it is hardly necessary to point out that the
problem posed by premature death still remains in all
its poignancy.

The weakness of the method of allaying fear of death
by not thinking of it is that under certain circumstances
it is easier said than done. Robert Burton realized it
when he wrote in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)
that “if our present weakness is such that death
frightens us, we cannot moderate our passion in this
behalf. We must divert them by all means, by doing
something else, thinking of another subject. Study is
above all the best means to divert one's thoughts” (Part
a, sec. 3, mem. 5 [1907 ed.]). Spinoza too was well
aware of this. But, according to him, not any kind of
study but only philosophical reflection which leads to
what he calls “a higher kind of knowledge” can be
truly effective. Therefore, his famous proposition
LXVII (in the fourth part of Ethics), “A free man thinks
of nothing less than death, and his wisdom is a medita-
tion not of death but of life,” is not advice to avoid
thinking of death as a means of overcoming fear of
it. To interpret this proposition as meaning that only
fools waste their time on meditating about death is
to misunderstand it completely. Spinoza's “free” man
is the wise man, and the latter is defined as “one who
lives under the guidance of reason and is not led by
fear.” But as Spinoza points out at the end of his
magnum opus, the attainment of wisdom is one of the
most difficult things in the world. Thus the above
proposition is not an admonition not to think of death
because no reasonable man does such a foolish thing,
but a promise of a reward for the effort of becoming
wise. It asserts that when one finally attains wisdom
(that is, becomes “free”) he will be able not to think
of death, but of life. And it is obvious that only after
having thought of death a great deal did Spinoza him-
self become able not to think of it any longer because
he had learned not to fear it.

Although the method of allaying the fear of death
by not thinking about it is a defective one, particularly
since one usually thinks of it for some good reason (be
it real danger of death to a loved one, or to oneself),
the proffering of such advice is understandable if we
consider man's uncanny ability to ignore his mortality.
There is also the previously mentioned phenomenon
that, in Freud's words, “in the unconscious no one
really believes in one's own death.” Were it not for
these psychological defense mechanisms, who knows
what havoc the knowledge of death would create in
man's psyche.

Finally, a fourth method of mastering the fear of
death is that of “minimizing” death. We have noted
already that Epicurus' argument against the fear of
death was, to a large extent, based on such an ap-
proach. But it was Socrates who must be considered
as its initiator when, in Plato's Apology, he presses the
analogy between death and sleep. “For fear of death
is indeed the pretense of wisdom... being the pre-
tense of knowing the unknown.... We may well hope
that death is good, since it is either dreamless sleep
or migration of the soul from this world to another
...” (Apology 39D).

A telling criticism of the sleep analogy is Keats'
complaint that “Mortality weighs on me like unwilling
sleep” (“Endymion,” 1818), and John Dryden's insist-
ence that death is a very special kind of “sleep”: “to
sleep, and never wake again.” These are valid reasons
why the other alternative suggested by Socrates has


been so popular. From the point of view of the
conquest of the fear of death, the belief in immortality
is nothing but another way of “minimizing” death.

While the method of not thinking of death could
be effective only in instances of the fear of death “at
the thought of it,” that of thinking of it constantly (and
thus becoming “familiar” with it) could probably be
of help also in the “presence” of death. The two other
methods, that of minimizing death, and that of mini-
mizing the value of life may be helpful in both in-
stances and unlike the first two are not mutually exclu-
sive, but can and have been combined for greater
efficacy. None of the four, however, is effective in the
case of pathological fear of death. As the fifteenth-
century Scottish poet, William Dunbar, stated in his
“Lament for the Makaris” (stanza 10),

... Art magicians, and astrologis,
Rhetoris, logicians and theologis,
Thame helpis no conclusions slee;—
Timor mortis conturbat me
(“Fear of death shatters me”).

Before we consider what, if anything, contemporary
psychology and psychotherapy have to contribute to
this issue, we have to say a few words about death
as the motive as well as the theme of philosophy.

4. Philosophers and Death. Schopenhauer main-
tained that death is the muse of philosophy and that
“all religious and philosophical systems are principally
directed toward comforting us concerning death, and
are thus primarily antidotes to the terrifying certainty
of death” (The World as Will and Idea, III, Ch. 16).
This is an obvious oversimplification and over-
statement. The origin of religion involves many other
factors than just the dimension of human anxiety with
regard to death, and this is true even more of philoso-
phy where “wonder” (Plato) and intellectual curiosity
were motives of equal if not greater importance.

Still almost from the very first, death was a major
topic of philosophical reflection. Of the 126 known
fragments of Heraclitus, no less than sixteen deal with
death. And while it is a mistake to impute to Plato
the proposition that philosophy is a meditation on
death or to suspect him of an inordinate fear of it,
there can be no doubt whatsoever that it held a promi-
nent place in his thought. What Plato did say was
that “the true philosopher is ever pursuing death and
dying” (Phaedo 64A). This statement can be understood
correctly only in the context of Plato's notion that
the soul is a prisoner in the body, that the body is an
obstacle to the acquisition of knowledge, that the
philosopher is a seeker after truth, and that the attain-
ment of true knowledge is possible only when the soul
is liberated from the chains of the body, which is what
death means to Plato. Thus, in the pursuit of true
knowledge, the philosopher strives in this life to ap-
proach the condition in which his soul will be after
death. In philosophizing, he is, as it were, rehearsing

Death was also an important theme among the
Stoics, Montaigne, Bruno, Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza,
Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Feuerbach,
Nietzsche, and many others of lesser stature.

In any case, not until very recent times did philoso-
phers—with the notable exception of “existentialists”—
deliberately shun the problems arising from the fact
of mortality. This is the more surprising since the
prominent place which the topic of death occupies in
contemporary literature (Malraux, Camus, Heming-
way, Faulkner, Beckett, Ionesco to mention but the
most oustanding examples) seems to reflect the pro-
found uneasiness concerning man's ultimate fate.

One of the reasons for the reluctance of most contem-
porary philosophers to deal with death is their disen-
chantment with metaphysical speculation which
seemed to yield nothing but contradictory opinions.
Moreover, the “glamor” of science, due to its spec-
tacular advances and the visibility of its practical ap-
plications, awakened the ambition to make philosophy
an “exact” science in its own right. Both of these
tendencies led to a considerable restriction of the scope
of philosophy. “Professional” philosophers today are
neither disposed nor expected (at least by their peers)
to concern themselves with “ultimate questions.” But
if the so-called analytical philosophers, who predomi-
nate in the English-speaking countries, exclude death
as a legitimate topic of philosophy because of a narrow
view of the task of philosophy, some of those who still
cling to a broader and more traditional view of the
philosophical enterprise disregard death because indi-
vidual man and his death appear to them to be of little

Typical is the remark of the German philosopher
Nicolai Hartmann that only “self-tormenting meta-
physicians” waste their time on meditating on death
and speculating about immortality. And most pragma-
tists are, in addition, haunted by the fear that concern
with “otherworldly” things will interfere with the task
of improving the conditions of existence here and now.
It may be argued, however, that a better life includes
also a satisfactory coming to terms with death. In any
case, for better or for worse, a great many contem-
porary philosophers have abandoned the field almost
entirely to psychologists and sociologists.

5. Contemporary Psychology and Death. System-
atic studies of man's attitudes toward death and dying
have begun only around the turn of this century. They
have elicited information with regard to different age
groups, sex, occupation, marital status, education, and
physical as well as mental health and sickness. Most


of the results are, however, conflicting, and no uni-
versally accepted theory of the genesis of the fear of
death has emerged. But it has become amply clear that
the term “fear of death” is a catch-all label which hides
heretofore unsuspected complexities. Not only do the
emotions described as death-fear range from simple
reluctance or aversion to think of death to outright
terror, but these emotions refer to a variety of “ob-
jects.” There is fear of what comes after death (fear
of the effects of death), and fear of the process of dying
(fear of the pain and anguish of dying). As to the
therapy of the (pathological) dread of death and dying,
(that is, when no valid medical reasons to expect im-
pending death exist), it appears that the two most
effective approaches so far are that of psychoanalysis,
which considers “anxiety” over death as but a special
case of a general anxiety state which has become
“fixated” on this particular subject, and hypnotic sug-
gestion therapy, for which Russian psychiatrists claim
outstanding successes. In the case of apprehension and
fear in people actually dying, recent experiments with
LSD have shown promising results. One should be
careful, however, not to confuse the cure of the
pathological fear of death or the chemically induced
relief of the anxiety of the dying with a “solution” of
all the problems which the fact of death continues to
present to the inquiring mind.

This does not mean that there is, or must be, such
a “global” solution. However, it is important to re-
member that until very recently it was generally as-
sumed that the answer to the problems of death was
known, universally accepted, and it is still considered
valid by many. This answer was “immortality.”