I've read restatements of Epicurus' famous argument which attempt to prove that the fear of death is irrational (I don't know if Epicurus himself ever used a word like this. From what I've read, he only hints at it).

To me, it's absurd on the face of it to call an emotion like fear itself irrational (or rational). So what theory of emotions do we need to accept, that this move is even possible to us?

Let's assume the usual definition of rationality (epistemic + instrumental). We could argue, of course, that speaking of irrational emotions (something we commonly do) is just a manner of speech. What we really mean by it, is, that irrational beliefs about reality led to such an emotion or irrational decisions are caused by this emotion.

In this case, we can call the fear of flying irrational: it often results from irrational beliefs about the dangers of flying and often causes irrational decisions (if we assume desires/goals typical for a human being).

But in the case of the fear of death, this does not help. If Epicurus thought that irrational beliefs about reality are involved in the case of death, he certainly would see them in people who believe in an afterlife (and then the argument does not work anyway). Also, aside from special cases, decisions don't seem to be possible in the context of death. And what desires/goals on which basis we could judge the rationality of such decisions would we be talking about about anyway?

If I'm correct, it seems we have to adopt a quite idiosyncratic theory about rationality and emotions, so that Epicurus' argument can at least proceed. What could that be? And are such theories commonly held among contemporary philosophers? One would assume they are, since Epicurus' argument is still held in high regard.

  • See Epicurus' Psychology and Ethics for comments. Mar 25, 2017 at 21:32
  • Hi. Can you provide a link to Epicurus's argument? Mar 28, 2017 at 22:31
  • You could consider the belief in an afterlife, and the things people do pursuing a position in the afterlife to be irrational beliefs created by the fear of death. (If 'irrational' is too harsh, they are at least non-rational exceptions that we feel obligated to allow.) So your analogy with flying then works.
    – user9166
    Jul 26, 2017 at 16:05
  • Or you could consider the belief that there is no afterlife irrational. It is always irrational to believe what you know you don't know.
    – user20253
    Oct 26, 2017 at 9:38

2 Answers 2


For Epicurus, the problem with the fear of death is the same as with any other sort of fear for him. It is firstly an obstacle to knowledge. One has to remember that he grounds his Ethics with a Physics. He's interested in things as they are as that helps us live the good life. To obtain knowledge one has to look for adequate causes of phenomena, not fear phenomena. And the knowledge isn't just for mental consolation purposes but to know how to deal with it.

If one doesn't know how to swim, we see water and immediately sense fear, because that water presents a danger to us. Adequate knowledge allows us however to understand our relations with water and with practice we can come to work with it, to learn to swim. Fear is contrasted to learning, to curiosity. It's recoiling, as opposed to a careful "working-with".

The second problem of fear (in general) is that it is the single greatest cause of man's misery (under the guise of anxiety). This constant fretting over future "what-ifs". So if one has as the central purpose of one's philosophy, showing man how to attain ataraxia (true equanimous happiness), one must attack fearful dispositions head-on.

Death is not a special category in this framework, but a central component, treated in the same way as one treated the fear of Gods. Fear of death comes from 1) our relationship with our infinite capacity for desire, and 2) improper understanding (superstitious understanding) of the natural phenomena of death. It is, for him, only through working with natural understanding of ourselves and of life that we learn to pare down desire, make it come into alignment with knowledge of the universe and eliminate the fear of death. Without that one doesn't experience true life-pleasure or true happiness.


Fear is, in essence, irrational, because it requires the senses to form an opinion and come to a conclusion about the currently non-existent future. Fear only sets in when our perceived level of safety or comfort is threatened.

If a man comes into my house with a gun, I assume what will happen is that he is going to steal my things and possibly shoot me or family (or cats). I don't want him to steal my things or harm my family, so in an effort to predict future events due to fear of the outcome, I pull out my glock and go 'John Wick' on him.

The outcome at this point is irrelevant, but the fact that I took action based upon my perceived level of safety is irrational. Obviously, it was rational to me, and will continue to be my plan of attack should the situation ever arise. I have chosen to pick something that seems to be the best option, but without all the facts I can't truly make an educated rational decision. That's how fear works. It operates in the future always. 1 second, 1 minute, or 1 year, I never know what's going to happen. Fear is irrational, but necessary to self preservation.

  • yeah, but best option is already a value-judgment. I don't see how this can be made compatible with the usual definition of rationality.
    – viuser
    Mar 27, 2017 at 0:47
  • I mean the following: What if actions caused by emotions just reflect a change of desires? How can we really prove that such actions are irrational, compelling an agent to act contrary to his own desires?
    – viuser
    Mar 27, 2017 at 1:19

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