Live well, die well: does Neil Gorsuch understand Epicurus?

Author:Crespo, Hiram
Position:Up Front - Essay

"The same exercise (i.e. the study of philosophy) at once teaches to live well and to die well"--Epicurus, Epistle to Menoeceus

The Seventh Annual Symposium of Epicurean Philosophy recently took place in Athens, Greece. This years symposium featured discussions on Lucretius and on the history, present and future, of the Epicurean tradition. But the presentation that really caught my eye was one by Takis Panagiotopoulos on the good life (euzoia) and the good death (euthanasia). Panagiotopoulos discussed some philosophical points and used Epicurus's own blissful manner of death--how he mindfully prepared for his end surrounded by loving friends--as a moral example to follow.

The issue of euthanasia has been discussed of late with the US Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch, whose confirmation as of this writing looks certain (less certain is the state of the legislative filibuster). Gorsuch published a book in 2009 called The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, arguing against the right to choose a good death, even in cases of terminal disease.

With Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, the vital steps some states have taken to secure the right to a good death, in cases of terminal disease when a severely painful death is expected, will be reversed. Wherever we stand on this controversial issue, it is crucial that humanists learn to consider, think through, and discuss these issues intelligently and compassionately, remembering that we may have to make these difficult choices one day, and that once again the state--influenced by religious views that may or may not be coherent--may soon attempt to invade another one of the most private decisions that concern individuals and families.

Epicurean teachings on how death should not be feared are laid out in the Epistle to Menoeceus. But it is perhaps the scroll by Philodemus of Gadara, titled "On Death," where we get the most complete, coherent teachings that are relevant to the issue of euthanasia. The scroll is one of the works from the Herculaneum library that survived the Mount Vesuvius eruption in the year 79 CE--an Epicurean Nag Hammadi--and it's based on the notes taken during discussions about death that took place between the Epicurean scholarchs (heads of schools) and their disciples during the first 200 years of the school's history.

The scroll contains a long list of well-reasoned, therapeutic arguments against the fear of death in its various forms, and other ethical guidance...

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