Well before you get to Letter 77 in Seneca’s masterpiece, you need to develop an understanding about his views on suicide. The short version is: he notes it as an option that illuminates the freedom you have, though never advocates or argues for it as an actual choice. It seems likely that in some circumstances – like over love — Seneca shares Aristotle’s view that it is cowardice.1
We explore Seneca’s ideas on suicide for two reasons. Firstly, because like Jean-Paul Sartre, Seneca mentions it enough in connection with his philosophy of freedom to warrant reflection. Secondly, as we take in just what humanity did to our habitat and ourselves in the 20th century, and our intensification of that behavior in the 21st, we ought to consider whether the human race is trying to kill itself, and if that is permissible?
It is a fact the Stoics had five categories in which suicide was allowed. Of course, even in their own time those views were anathema to non-Stoics.2 Their attitude to suicide is continuous with their understanding of a human life. That concept is one of the more salient reasons why becoming “a Stoic” in the 21st century is not a good idea if you want to establish for yourself, an art of living that is actually good.
Stoics attitude to suicide
The ancient Greek Stoics used the term rational end to life to refer to their allowable reasons for suicide. These were 1) sacrificing yourself to save your nation or kin, and 2) to avoid doing shameful behaviors demanded by a tyrant. It was also an option for an advanced Stoic to avoid being unable to take virtuous action because of 3) senility or insanity, and 4) incurable disease. These two reasons correlate with the type of conditions commonly invoked in today’s debates on euthanasia. Lastly 5) extreme poverty.3 Although it appears Seneca differed somewhat by not allowing suicide as a way to avoid pain.4 Seneca’s view was that “He who dies merely because of pain is weak and lazy; he who lives merely for pain is a fool.”5
Seneca is very clear that it is not for a Stoic adept to impose a burden on others by killing themselves. Whether you live or die may be an indifferent to a Stoic. Stoics ought to be able to take the loss of their loved ones without losing their root to virtue.6 However, in Seneca’s view that is not what Stoics do to their loved ones. “The person who does not think enough of his wife or his friends to prolong his life – who insists on dying – is thoroughly self-indulgent.”7 There’s no equivocation there, self-indulgence is no-ones idea of virtue. This may be surprising to the many people who think Seneca was obsessed with suicide and ambivalent about it. It is clear to me that he does not really place great store in it, other than as a rhetorical flourish that is intended to illuminates a foundation for an idea of freedom.
Seneca’s Stoic Freedom
One of the most graphic scenes of Seneca’s Letters is in no 77 when a teenager killing himself rather than going into slavery. Ostensibly Seneca says this is to be admired. I’m not so sure that is what Seneca actually means or intends the reader to take from the example. Rather he seems to be illustrating that suicide, while always an option because there is no demand to keep living in intolerable situations, is only something the immature would do. Only those with the idealistic and rigid patterns of youthful, undeveloped intellect would take up such an option when in the grip of an emotional crisis.
I have read a lot of Seneca, not least because he suffered from ill health all his life. And I do mean suffer, so it is unsurprising that he took a good, hard look at suicide over the course of his life. I flag this because, if you grew up in a Christian tradition and he becomes part of your spiritual path, his views can take some getting use to.
Seneca did abide by the rule of his school that suicide was an acceptable course of action only for the wise person. Such an action was considered to be a rational way of ending life. A case he approved of was Cato the Younger. He thought of Cato as a person who had made considerable progress in the Stoic art of living. And Cato was a martyr for the Republican cause in ancient Rome. It has been argued Seneca’s use of Cato was an attempt to transform the politician into a Stoic sage.8
Suicide as an idea of Freedom
In the pivotal 12th Letter, Seneca starts his conclusion with a quote attributed to Epicurus. It is the first mention of the idea that there is no compulsion to live [See also Ep 58.33]. The idea that freedom is available with no great difficulty by ceasing to live. It is no accident that the quote is followed by the line “what business have you with anothers property.”9 This implies your life is your own property to do with as you wish, within the confines of nature and virtue. As he wrote in the letter that opens the collection “Nature has put us in possession of this one thing.”10 Recall, he urged us in that very first letter to use time to assert our freedom. The meaning of these statements has far reaching implications for someone who thinks they want to be a Stoic in the 2020’s.
Foremost of these implications is that time and life are conflated for the Stoic, and they are both instrumental possessions. To Seneca there is no intrinsic value in being alive, and time is something you do things with. The Stoics placed intrinsic value in rationality because that was the nature of their concept of the divine. This means life to an ancient Stoic was static. The length of a life made no difference to whether or not it was a good life to the Stoics of yore. Seneca illustrated this idea with the claim there is no need to fret about death because before we were born we had already been dead for a very long time.
We do not have such a two dimensional view of life in the twenty-first century. Just as we do not accept extreme poverty as a reason for suicide now because there are support structures unimaginable to the ancients, neither do with think the value of a life is divorced from its length. To us, life itself has intrinsic value, and that intrinsic value is the foundation of our human rights. Today’s rights would have been as unimaginable to Seneca as the size of the universe we live in after the Hubble telescope.
Our human rights provide a procedural freedom that is different to that sought by Seneca and the other ancient Stoics. They wanted freedom from the passions so they could be more closely aligned with the divine, i.e. the rational. In particular they wanted freedom to remain rational regardless of the slings and arrows of fate or fortune. So if illness, poverty or senility encroached on their capacity for rational action towards virtue, it was in a sense, another form of freedom to escape that loss of connection with the divine through suicide.
It is important to note that for Seneca it was not ok to complain about fate when it dealt an intolerable hand. There is no requirement to live. But that is not an injunction to kill yourself in the face of the tyrannies of man or disease. Rather, the idea of suicide as an option was for Seneca the only mental step possible at times to recognize his freedom, his agency, in times of extreme circumstances.
Seneca’s idea of death
By acknowledging there is a choice, Seneca argued you enter a mental space that enabled the practice of virtue. There with full agency you could select the preferred indifferent of living. After all you’ve been dead a very long time – perhaps 13 billion years – and the prospects for the future are in no doubt.
In many ways our view of life is more social than Seneca’s. Even though he took checking out too early rather than sticking around for your friends and family to be self-indulgent, he still took a person to be an atom in their milieu. Yes they can serve others, but there is no sense that the reasons we feel pain and suffer when we lose people is because they are actually part of us.
There is also the change in death as part of the human situation since Seneca’s time. Although death has always been a constant experience in the human situation, in Seneca’s time it was to be feared more than in present times. A high born man living in ancient Rome may well have lived into his sixties or seventies. However, half of all children were dead by ten years of age, and many women died during pregnancy or childbirth. Not so high born men were lucky to have lived beyond their thirties. The sheer volume of deaths in his society made fear of death a significant problem, and many people may never have been free of profound grief in that time. This gave death a markedly different presence in the psyche of Seneca and the Stoics, than those of us living in the vastly wealthy English speaking nations of the 2020’s..
If you are considering “becoming a Stoic” you would do well to read Seneca’s Consolation to Marcia. If after reading it, you think that is the way you want to think about the people who mean the most to you, well then, lean on in – though still exercising caution. For the rest of us, maybe not so much. More like, lets pick out what is useful from their systematic framework, and bring in into the twenty-first century so we can live with an art of living that is actually good for someone living in the human situation of today.
Seneca’s chronic illness
We select life because only life has the benefits of living. Under the duress of chronic disease these benefits may not seem worth the pain and suffering. Yet we choose them anyway because, given the shortness of life, for sure we will not have to endure what we endure for long.
Many people suffering from chronic pain and immobility also have someone who would be devastated by their death. Seneca, after a particularly gruesome period of suffering, claimed to have only hung on to life because of what his death would do to his father.
Suffering from chronic illness will always feed into reasons for dying. I think that is inevitable, especially if we are not as well along our spiritual path as we need to be. Getting knocked off our path can happen to the most advanced among us, as Seneca has been generous enough to share. So keeping our reasons for living close at hand can be a precious tool for us and those who love us.
Always seek professional assistance
You would be a very strange bird indeed if you grew up in an English speaking culture and didn’t attribute to life an intrinsic value as great if not greater than the value the Stoics attributed to virtue and rationality. So if you think the reasons for dying are starting to appeal strongly to you, please see your doctor.
Mental and emotional crisis’s are not well serviced by hospital emergency departments in the way they respond to broken limbs and cardiac arrests. So it is prudent to have a plan for yourself if such a situation was to arise. That is something well worth investing in before you need it in a clinical way.
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1 Wray D. 2015. Seneca’s Shame in Bartsch & Schiesaro Eds Cambridge Companion to Seneca p209.
2 Ibid. p 280
3 R. Sorabji. 2010. Emotion and peace of mind. p172
4 Ibid. p173.
5 Seneca. 2015. Letters on Ethics, Graver & Long (trans) 58.36 p172.
6 Gloyn E. 2014 My Family Tree goes back to the Romans. In Wildburger & Colish (Eds) Seneca Philosophus p 234-235.
7 Seneca. 2015. Letters on Ethics, Graver & Long (trans) 104.3 p 412.
viii Degl’Innocenti Pierini 2014 Freedom in Seneca. In Wildburger & Colish (Eds) Seneca Philosophus p174
9 Seneca. 2015. Letters on Ethics, Graver & Long (trans) 12.11 p50 – 51.
10 Ibid. 1.3 p25