In Lucretius’ epic poem, De Rerum Natura (or, On the Nature of Things), he reasons that “death is nothing to us, nothing/ that matters at all, since mind we know is mortal” (3.830-831). He argues that since we are not conscious before life, we won’t be conscious in death, either, and therefore, don’t have anything to worry about. This reasoning that the pre-vital period is equal to the post-mortem period is known as the Symmetry Argument.
Frederik Kaufman, who disputes Lucretius’ Symmetry Argument in his 1996 article, “Death and Deprivation”, argues that pre-vital and post-mortem periods aren’t symmetrical, since a person’s identity depends on the time of their birth, but not the time of their death. He cites Thomas Nagel’s article, “Death”, saying that a person would not be the same person if he or she were born earlier. Reasoning that a person born in a different time wouldn’t be the same person, Kaufman argues that death, which does not affect a person’s identity, deprives, while the pre-vital period does not deprive, since it precedes consciousness. In this way, the simple human awareness of mortality has the potential to cause stress and anxiety, while before life, the lack of consciousness makes it impossible to have anxiety. Through the idea of deprivation, Kaufman argues against Lucretius’ idea that “death is nothing to us” (3.830). Instead, he suggests that death is everything to us.
Kaufman’s discussion about deprivation is an economic argument. According to the OED, to “deprive” means, “to divest, strip, bereave, dispossess” (“deprive”). This shows that the concept of deprivation is rooted in debt and the idea of something owed, and it also connotes something taken away unjustly. This idea of death as deprivation is therefore completely different from Lucretius’ perception of death as a natural result that should not be feared. Unlike Kaufman and Nagel, Lucretius doesn’t discuss death through economic terms, but through philosophical terms. While Lucretius views death as a continuous, natural part of life, Kaufman and Nagel view it as a rupture in life. This binary reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “Angel of History,” which he based on a painting by Paul Klee. In Benjamin’s ninth thesis in the “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, he writes:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
The Angel of History, according to Benjamin, “sees one single catastrophe” where others see a continuation of events. This mirrors the way Kaufman and Nagel see death as a rupture of life, a defining deprivation. Lucretius’ Symmetry Argument that “death is nothing to us” (3.830) could be considered the progressive storm blowing from Paradise, completely countering the popular idea of death as rupture.
And so, the symmetry argument propels the Angel of History to the future, but his eyes are still turned downwards to the idea of death as catastrophe and rupture. In this way, the historical concept of death is defined both by the concepts of continuity and rupture, symmetry and deprivation.