Perspectives of the Afterlife
Socrates, Epicures, and Cicero all viewed death and the afterlife from very different perspectives. This is possibly because of the different eras in which they lived, and their personal pursuits and beliefs. These perspectives, however are not always contradictory, but often mirror each other’s views.
Socrates was of the Hellenic Age. An age in which the Greeks confidently believed that their way of life was superior to all. It was a time of pride in the poleis. Athenians participated in civic functions and rites. Public worship was incorporated into civic festivals as attitudes towards the deities changed (Text 54). Socrates launched a new era in philosophy, teaching that “Virtue is Knowledge.” Sadly, the Athenians of this era perceived, Socrates, as a threat to their way of life. His focus on human problems and his desire to empower individuals to make there own choices led to accusations of impiety and the corruption of the Athenian youth. He was sentenced to death (Text 64).
The Hellenistic Age in which Epicurus lived was more racially mixed and ethically varied than Hellenic Greece (Text 79). However, the sense of belonging that characterized the Hellenic poleis was replaced by a feeling of isolation, loneliness, and even helplessness. The polis was replaced with large Hellenistic Kingdoms, rule by men who elected themselves deities (Text85). Epicurus was the founder of Epicureanism; the belief that pleasure is the highest good. He believed that only atoms and the void existed and that the gods played no active role in human affairs (Text 87). He accused the people of Rome of creating gods in there own image. He taught that a deity is an, “imperishable and blessed being,” and that the pursuit of a pleasant life meant the elimination of false ideas about the gods Text 89).
Cicero was from the Roman civilization, around the Pre-Christian era. The Roman Republic had been formed; this was a republic based on a system of representatives and a separation of powers, unlike Athens direct democracy (Text 106-7). Cicero was a Roman statesman, Roman write, orator, and philosopher. He was a major figure in the last years of the republic, having been the first man who’s family was not Roman aristocracy, to have been elected into consul. He had a very distinguished political career, however, he is best known as Rome’s greatest orator and a man of letters. His writings were so great that the time he lived is often called the Age of Cicero (Text 112). He was considered an authority on the order of Plato and Aristotle. He coined the term, humanitas or humanity, meaning devotion to books, language and art (Readings 98).
In the Dream of Scipio, Cicero gives insight to his views on death and the afterlife. He writes of a heaven in which, “every man who has preserved or helped his country, or makes it’s greatness even greater, is reserved a special placewhere he may enjoy an eternal life of happiness.” His god is one that is pleased by societies that are united by law and right. He writes that in death the soul escapes from the body and from what is considered life, but is actually death. So, there is no real fear in death. He says that fame and glory should not be a great concern while on earth for it is insignificant to the concerns of the soul’s discipline and the security of ones country, which lead to heaven (Readings 100-1).
In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus states his belief that death is nothing to fear or agonize over. He believed in the scientific atomism that denied divine intervention in human affairs, therefore, believing death was merely the atoms that make up the soul separating form the atoms that form the body and uniting with other particles to create a new form. He states that, “every good and every evil lies in sensation; but death is the privation of sensation.” He holds no belief in punishment of reward after death, heaven or hell (Hades). He says that man dreads death, “not because it will be painful when it arrives but because it pains him now as a future certainty; for that which makes no trouble for us, when it arrives is a meaningless pain when we await it.” Death is final in its extinction of consciousness (Readings 95)
Socrates also believed that there was no fear in death but he also believed like Cicero, that the soul was trapped in the body and death released it. In the Phaedo, a narrative of what took place before Socrates’ death, Socrates is shown reasoning with his friend Simmias that philosophers are practicing dying all the time and that to practice dying and then object to death would be foolish (Readings 81). According to Socrates, a true philosopher is not concerned with the body, but with the soul, and when a man that does not care about pleasures which he has by means of the body, then he is getting very close to death. He says that, “death is, that the body separates from the soul, and remains by itself apart form the soul, and the soul, separated from the body, exists by itself apart from the body.” He believes that the body gets in the way of learning, distorting the truth. Therefore, the soul reasons best when it is completely by itself, with no senses to disturb it. “A sort of direct pathseems to take us to the conclusion that so long as we have the body with us in our enquiry, and our soul is mixed up with so great an evil, we shall never attain sufficiently what we desire, and that, we say, it the truth (Readings 82). ” Philosophy is no more than the freeing and separation of the soul from the body and this is the same as death so there is nothing to fear.
While Socrates, Epicurus, and Cicero all had different beliefs of death and the afterlife, they all seemed to share two main common bonds. The first is that death should not be feared. The second is that the soul is separate from the body whether it is immortal or not. The reason that they share these theories could be that they each shared a common bond themselves, philosophy, although Cicero was not considered a true philosopher. It is also possible that their beliefs reflected the society of the times and how society treated them directly, because of their personal pursuits in life.