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Democritus and Lucretius on death and dying

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Chapter Summary

This chapter compares the views of death and of the process of dying attributed to Democritus by various ancient sources with those found in Lucretius. Democritus conceives the soul as a simple psycho-physical structure, a web of spherical and highly mobile atoms permeating the entire structure of the body. Since death is the cessation of psychic functioning, consequent on the loss of a number of soul-atoms sufficient to sustain that functioning, this view of the soul naturally leads to a view of the distinction between life and death as a continuum, rather than as a sharp cut-off. Lucretius’ explanation is that the anima-atoms in the limbs are dispersed, while those in the rest of the body remain active. Modern science has therefore largely abandoned the idea of a moment of death, which is central to the Epicurean picture, underlying its confidence that ‘death is nothing to us’.

Keywords: anima-atom; Democritus; Lucretius



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