Talking about the end

How Epicurus and Christopher Hitchens faced death

Jonathan Meddings


Photo by imtmphoto licenced through Shutterstock.

It is often said the only certainty in life is death; yet contemplating mortality is something many spend most of their lives avoiding. As confronting as it is to think about, I want to talk about death. But I’m going to begin by talking about life — and in doing so describe my theory of what people need in order to be satisfied with their lives — because I don’t think you can really understand death, and how we think about death, until you understand how we think about life. I’ll also briefly contrast the views of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, with those of the late Christopher Hitchens, in relation to living and dying well.

In the 1980s psychologists popularised something called self-determination theory. It’s a motivational theory that says all people need to be satisfied in life is three things: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. I think this is about half right. I’ve adapted the theory and created what I call self-requisite theory, for which I consider the three things people really need to be satisfied are: competence, control and connectedness. This may sound like all I’ve done is break out the thesaurus, but there are subtle differences.

I think self-determination theory has it right with competence. We all want to be good at what we do and derive a sense of purpose from it. But I think self-determination theory has it slightly wrong with autonomy and relatedness.

The problem with autonomy is that we don’t really want to be fully independent and control everything ourselves. The truth is we’re happy to relinquish control to others when we think they are more competent than we are, which is why whenever you board a plane you’re happy the pilot is the one flying it. We only want to control things ourselves when we are competent enough to do so. Mostly we just want to know everything is being controlled. Order is what we want.

The problem with relatedness is it refers only how we relate to others, and ignores how we relate to ourselves, and the environment we live in. That’s why I think connectedness is a better term. We all at some point know what it feels like to feel lonely, to not know who we are anymore, and to feel out of place. People don’t just want to feel connected to others…