Democritus and Lucretius on Death and Dying

C. C. W. Taylor

in Pleasure, Mind, and Soul

Published in print January 2008 | ISBN: 9780199226399
Published online May 2008 | e-ISBN: 9780191710209 | DOI:
 Democritus and Lucretius on Death and Dying

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This chapter compares the treatments of death and dying by Democritus and Lucretius. Both held the soul to be a physical structure of atoms, and death to consist in the loss of soul-atoms from the total body-soul structure. But while Democritus saw the soul as an undifferentiated structure extended throughout the body, Lucretius (following Epicurus) identified within the soul (anima) spread throughout the body a centre of consciousness (animus) located in the chest. For Democritus, death was a gradual process consisting in the loss of soul-atoms from the body as a whole, while for the Epicureans, including Lucretius, it consisted in the dispersal of the atoms of the animus, which was instantaneous. This difference allowed Democritus to recognize the possibility that residual consciousness might persist in peripheral regions of the body after the loss of most soul-atoms, whereas for Lucretius consciousness, which required the co-ordinating activity of the central animus, was impossible after the dissolution of the latter. Hence Lucretius denied the possibility of post-mortem sensation, and the restoration to life of the ostensibly dead, both of which Democritus recognized. Lucretius' theory can be seen as the precursor of modern accounts of brain-death, but in its insistence that the dissolution of the animus was instantaneous and irreversible, it was committed to denying the possibility of recovery after total cessation of the functioning of the vital centre, something which modern medicine has shown actually to occur in special circumstances.

Keywords: soul; body; atoms; consciousness; anima; animus; post-mortem phenomena; brain-death

Chapter.  4822 words. 

Subjects: Ancient Philosophy

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