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Philosophy and Literature 29.1 (2005) 114-129
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"The Feel of Not to Feel It":
Lucretius' Remedy for Death Anxiety
In De Rerum Natura, Lucretius offers an ostensibly Epicurean remedy for the anxiety that frequently assails human beings as they contemplate mortality. Lucretius claims to take Epicurus as his model yet there are elements in his representation of the Epicurean project that appear inconsistent with the rationalistic and scientific approach originally outlined by Epicurus. Like Epicurus, Lucretius envisions the philosophical truths he limns to be eminently practical. To adopt them as one's own is to accomplish what Pierre Hadot describes as a "transformation of the personality," a state in which anxiety yields to an abiding tranquility.1 However, unlike Epicurus, Lucretius offers his instruction in a way that significantly obscures just what it would mean to apply and practice the doctrine. In what follows I consider what shape a distinctively Lucretian "transformation" might take. In a series of unacknowledged departures from Epicurus' original counsel, I argue, Lucretius articulates a program for remedying anxiety that better honors the complexity of human experience and promises a transformation that preserves the somatic and affective dimensions of these experiences.
Much of Lucretius' poem consists in establishing the familiar materialist framework through which Epicurus asserts his termination thesis of death. The human being, according to Epicurean doctrine, is, like all things in our experience, but a temporary configuration of atoms. Because these atoms are constantly in motion, no configuration can endure indefinitely, but must eventually break down, its atoms dispersed into the larger world. The comfort afforded by this doctrine rests in the assurance it provides that death is, for the individual, final. [End Page 114] "Death matters not one jot," Lucretius insists, because its coming signals the end of the subject.2 What we will not, and cannot, experience, we cannot rightly fear.
The capacity of this doctrine to alleviate anxiety realizes its fullest expression when we apprehend that our own rational powers are the instruments of our liberation. For through rational investigation of the natural world, we provide ourselves a lens of objective understanding through which to contextualize our personal experiences of the world and thereby distance ourselves from them. When we understand death as a physical process to which all things are subject, we cease to find in our own ends a personal affront that uniquely stings. What we see instead is a coolly impersonal natural world whose operations are available to understanding. Death becomes reduced as it loses its personal significance and understanding, as the instrument by which death is so reduced, becomes elevated and exalted. From this enlarged perspective, death is no longer unknown and unfamiliar, and we may regard it with the neutrality its status as an indifferent physical process merits.
Epicurus describes the adoption of this perspective as an awakening to "immortal blessings" that enables the human being to "live like a god among men."3 We become divine insofar as we relinquish mortal concerns and contemplate the nature of the universe, our rational powers akin to a fortress, enclosing and protecting the soul. While the human being is physically vulnerable, a "city without walls," within the fortress of reason, she is able to regard the vicissitudes of life and contemplate death with a detached serenity vouchsafed by her ability to consistently place them in the enlarged perspective of physics.4 The pleasure afforded by this position is described in some detail by Lucretius:
Pleasant it is, when on the great sea the winds trouble the waters, to gaze from shore upon another's great tribulation: not because any man's troubles are a delectable joy, but because to perceive what ills you are free from yourself is pleasant. Pleasant is it also to behold great encounters of warfare arrayed over the plains, with no part of yours in the peril. But nothing is more delightful than to possess lofty sanctuaries serene, well fortified by the teachings of the wise, whence you may look down upon others and behold...