Ancient Greeks: Is death necessary and can death actually harm us?

And there the children of dark Night have their dwellings, Sleep and Death, awful gods. The glowing Sun never looks upon them with his beams, neither as he goes up into heaven, nor as he comes down from heaven. And the former of them roams peacefully over the earth and the sea's broad back and is kindly to men; but the other has a heart of iron, and his spirit within him is pitiless as bronze: whomsoever of men he has once seized he holds fast: and he is hateful even to the deathless gods. Hesiod Theogony

Prothesis of the deceased (laying out of the dead on a couch), Dipylon Painter, c. 750 BC, Louvre.

Deploration of Achilles by his mother Thetis and Nereids Corinthian Hydria, c. 550 BC, Damon Painter, an overview

Sweet Youth no more will tarry,
My friend a while ago;
Now white's the head I carry,
And grey my temples grow,
My teeth - a ragged row.
To taste the joy of living
But little space have I,
And torn with sick misgiving
I can but sob and sigh,
So deep the dead men lie.
So deep their place and dismal,
All means, be sure, they lack
Down in the murk abysmal
To scale the upward track
And win their journey back.

Greek poet 570-485 BC

What happens after our death? Plato provides an answer.

What is Death?

Death (or dying) the event of life's ending, being dead the state in which life has permanently ended. Life the time between two “nonexistence” states.

Transport of a person who died

Now it is the job of Hermes, Thanatos/Hypnos and Charon to bring the soul in the final place.

Hermes (Psychopompos) in the Middle with the twin brothers Thanatos and Hypnos (Death and Sleep) moving Sarpedon the son of Zeus to Hades the world of the dead. Calyx-krater, ca. 515 BC; Archaic; red-figure, Metropolitan Museum of Art Signed by Euxitheos, as potter; Signed by Euphronios, as painter, Greek, Attic ( Etruscan Sculpture )

Charon receives the obolus (gr. obolos) price from a dead. Right: Hermes psychopompos. Charon is not mentioned by Homer, probably unknown, the obolus was introduced later.

A mother who died left her young boy.

Eight women and a child who lost his mother, Exekias

Is Death necessary?

Hades the god of dead with the advice of Zeus visited Sisyphus king of Corinth to punish him for various reasons. Sisyphus asked Hades why Hermes, whose job was to take shades to Hades, had not come for him. Hades trying to find an answer was unaware that chains were being placed around him, until it was too late. Hades had been captured by Sisyphus. While Hades was held prisoner, no one could die. The sick and old suffered, and the people could not sacrifice animals to eat meat. The world was in chaos, and the gods threatened to make life so miserable for Sisyphus, that he would wish he were dead.

Sisyphus let Hades go, and life and death went on as usual. Hermes soon came to escort Sisyphus to Hades, but the clever king had a plan. He had instructed his queen not to place a coin in his mouth and not to give him a proper burial. He ordered her to cast his unburied body into the middle of the public square. The coin was used to pay the travel over the river Styx served as a crossroads where the world of the living met the world of the dead. Hades was shocked to discover that the queen of Corinth had not fulfilled her wifely duties regarding her dead husband, and Sisyphus convinced Hades to let him go back and teach his disrespectful wife some manners.

Is Death so terrible?

Look back at time … before our birth. In this way Nature holds before our eyes the mirror of our future after death. Is this so grim, so gloomy?

To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?

Are there proofs for the existence of an eternal soul by out-of-body experiences like flying through a tunnel with a light on the other side? Experiments by Blackmore show that we can produce such experiences pharmacologically in healthy people. But even if life after death is only a dream and a hope why should we be afraid of death if we are not afraid by our nonexistence before birth? Due to the asymmetry because we exist now? The problem requires to define what Life is. Like the ship of Theseus our body changes continuously. Dead cells are replaced by new ones. We include new events in our memory , some memories and character traits that defines us may survive while others are lost. If a large fraction of these memories is lost then we in principle die and are still alive. Such cases for examples are accidents where persons loose the memory of their past identity. What defines the identity in this continuous change? Is the death a sudden change or a process? Assume that there is a life after death but we cannot remember anything about our life or any event here on earth.

Let us, then, say that this is the gift of Memory, the mother of the Muses, and that whenever we wish to remember anything we see or hear or think of in our own minds, we hold this wax under the perceptions and thoughts and imprint them upon it, just as we make impressions from seal rings; and whatever is imprinted we remember and know as long as its image lasts, but whatever is rubbed out or cannot be imprinted we forget and do not know Plato Cratylus, Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman

Even Pythagoras knew this. He considered to be an encarnation of Aithalides, a son of the God Hermes, who when Hermes asked him what he wants, except eternal life that he could not give to him, decided an eternal memory to remember after death all his previous lifes.

Hermes transporting a dead woman on a angel driven chariot

Can death actually harm us?

Death …, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.
(341-270) in his Letter to Menoeceus

Some theorists have maintained that the event of death occurs on the nonexistence side of the boundary between our existence and nonexistence. For example according to Feinberg (1984, p. 172): “Death is defined as the first moment of the subject's nonexistence, so it is not something that ever coexists with the dying person for the time required for it to have a directly harmful effect on him”.

The idea that we die only after we are nonexistent is absurd, as we have a transition from a state of life to a state of death, and it is absurd to say that the transition takes place only after we are gone. It is also absurd to say the transition is completed while we are still alive. Hence defining death as the first moment of our nonexistence, as Feinberg does, is no better than defining it as the last moment of our existence.

But is it reasonable to say that we are alive at least part of the time during which we undergo the transition from life to death? Yes, since death takes time, and we are fully alive when the transition of death begins, partially alive as it progresses, and not at all alive when it ends. We exist while it is under way, and are affected by it in a straightforward way: it makes us less and less alive, until finally we cease to be.

However, conceivably a death might be instantaneous, in the following way: we simply move from being wholly alive to being wholly dead, and no time passes between the two. Can that kind of transition affect us? Actually, it is hard to say, since this picture is puzzling in certain ways. For example, if we suppose that no time passes in between our existing and our not existing, it seems to follow that everything that happens occurs either while we exist or while we do not exist (or during a period of time combining the two). We are never in between, never in any condition in between (whether existence, nonexistence, or some mysterious state that is neither), and no events happen in between. So if death is an event, when does it occur? If death is both an event and a transition across the boundary between being wholly alive and wholly dead, don't we have to imagine it overlapping with the sequences of events on both sides of this boundary? But suppose that, in spite of such puzzles, we can make it clear that the causal effects of an instantaneous death occur entirely on the far side of the boundary between existence and nonexistence. Then according to the causal account of responsibility, instant death does not causally affect us when it occurs or at any time thereafter.

Epicurus shows that no mortem event other than death can affect us, and that if death can affect us, it can do so only precisely at the time it occurs. But missing is a convincing argument against the possibility that death and some of its effects overlap in time; and hence cannot prove that mortem events are harmless.

What would immortals think about their endless life?

Is it a bad thing to die?


· Blackmore, S., 1993. Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

· Feldman, F., 1991. “Some Puzzles About the Evil of Death,” The Philosophical Review 100, no. 205-27; reprinted in Fischer 1993, 307-326.

· Fischer, J.M., ed., 1993. The Metaphysics of Death. Stanford University Press.

· Lucretius, 1951. On the Nature of the Universe. Latham, reg. trans., Penguin Classics.

· Parfit, D., 1984. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

· Perry, J., ed., 1975. Personal Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

· Pitcher, G., 1984. “The Misfortunes of the Dead,” in American Philosophical Quarterly 21, no. 2, 217-225; reprinted in Fischer 1993, 119-134.

· Silverstein, H., 1980. “The Evil of Death,” Journal of Philosophy 77, no. 7, 401-424; reprinted in Fischer 1993, 95-116.

· Unamuno, M., 1913. Kerrigan, A., Trans., The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.


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On this truly happy day of my life, as I am at the point of death, I write this to you ... Epicurus, Letter to Idomeneus

Often I played so nice with other children of my age,
from Earth born I am again Earth.
I am Aristocles of Piraeus, the son of Menon.

.. as Sappho said, ‘Death is an evil thing; the gods have so judged it, or they would die’. Aristotle, Rhetoric, ii. 23

I am not afraid of being dead, I just do not want to die.
Epicharmus of Cos

Death is a debt which all of us must pay.
Sophocles, Electra

Call no man happy before his death.

The death of a good man is nothing to be sad about, since it puts him beyond the power of fortune and secures his happiness for eternity.” Plutarch, Pelopidas

Blessed is he who has seen these things
before he goes beneath the earth;
for he understands the end of mortal life,
and the beginning (of a new life) given of God."
Pindar Fragment 102

"Amen, amen, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat
falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone;
but if it dies, it bears much fruit."
Jesus in John 12:24

The greatest certainty in life is death. The greatest uncertainty is the time.
Carl Sandberg

Death, Burial and the Afterlife in Ancient Greece from Metropolitan Museum


Psychostasia Image. Sometimes the gods are weighing the souls of two persons in a duel to determine who will survive, Athenian red-figure vase, ca. 460 BC. Paris. Musée du Louvre G399

Joachim Patinir (or Patenier) (Flemish, 1480-1524) Charon Crossing the Styx


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