Epicurus came out with a wonderful one-liner that went like this:
“Death means nothing to us, because that which has been broken down into atoms has no sensation and that which has no sensation is no concern of ours.”
You have to remember that Epicurus lived before Christ, and his talk of atoms was two millennia before scientific discovery. In any case, his logic is pretty well infallible. While we are alive we should be concerned with living. Thoughts of death are futile since we can never know anything about death. This assumes that we have dismissed all ideas of some kind of life after death, for which there seems to be absolutely no evidence. I’m not dismissing near death experiences or other insights people may have had, but for most of us there is no evidence whatsoever of life after death. And so the problem we have to deal with is that of living the most pleasant life possible. Many great thinkers came to the conclusion that pleasure is simply the absence of pain, and Epicurus concurred with this. Here are a few quotes:
“The quantitive limit of pleasure is the elimination of all feelings of pain.” Epicurus
“The prudent man pursues freedom from pain, not pleasure.” Aristotle
“Happiness is nothing but a dream, and pain real.” Voltaire
“The fool runs after the pleasures of life and sees himself cheated; the sage avoids pain.” Schopenhauer
I could go on, but hopefully you get the message. The quote from Voltaire is particularly apt. Try and recall all the times you have imagined pleasures – the dream vacation, winning over a very attractive sexual partner, the promise of delicious food in an expensive restaurant, and the night out that would deliver untold pleasures. What tends to happen is that the dream vacation involves flight delays, cockroach infested hotels, sickness and so on. That exciting sexual partner turns into the beast from hell, and the great night out is hollow and painful. Pleasure is nearly always imaginary, and even when we do experience pleasure it tends to leave a bitter after-taste. Pain however is real. If you have toothache their can be no peace until a visit to the dentist corrects the situation.
I mention all this because once we can accept that death is nothing to us we can get on with the business of living, and the purpose of life is the avoidance of pain. Spinoza states it very clearly in his Ethics:
“A free man thinks of death least of all things; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.”
It may seem that what is being said here is trite, but it is the height of wisdom. The alternative of course is suicide, but people only commit suicide when the pain of existence is greater than the will to life. So avoidance of pain is a very good way to stay alive.
As a functioning organism we may be nothing after death, but during life we are definitely something. The skills required to live the best life are explained in great detail by Epictetus, Epicurus, Seneca, Spinoza, and even more recent writers such as Camus. Yes, death will make us nothing, but then again death means nothing to us.