Socrates vs Epictetus: on suicide

Socrates begins an argument against suicide, reminding his friend that it “is held not to be right.” On what grounds?

Massimo Pigliucci
Nov 20, 2020 · 8 min read
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[Socrates and Epictetus, Wiki Commons; essay #248 in my Patreon/Medium series]

“Why, said Socrates. Is not Evenus a philosopher?
I think that he is, said Simmias.
Then he, or any man who has the spirit of philosophy, will be willing to die, though he will not take his own life, for that is held not to be right.”

This exchange between Socrates and his friend Simmias is found near the beginning of the Phaedo, one of four Platonic dialogues having to do with the last days of Socrates (the other three are Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito). The Phaedo is mostly a long discussion of the nature of the soul and the afterlife, and ends with a poignant scene in which Socrates drinks the hemlock and peacefully lies down, awaiting death.

“I suppose that you wonder why, as most things which are evil may be accidentally good, this is to be the only exception (for may not death, too, be better than life in some cases?), and why, when a man is better dead, he is not permitted to be his own benefactor, but must wait for the hand of another. … I admit the appearance of inconsistency, replied Socrates; but there may not be any real inconsistency after all in this. There is a doctrine uttered in secret that man is a prisoner who has no right to open the door of his prison and run away; this is a great mystery which I do not quite understand. Yet I too believe that the gods are our guardians, and that we are a possession of theirs.”

Socrates here admits that he may be charged by his companion with inconsistency — a fairly bad sin for a philosopher. It is conceivable, he allows, that a person may be better off dead, depending on the circumstances. And yet, Socrates argues that even under those conditions it is not permissible for us to take our own lives. Why? The argument isn’t promising at all, as it relies on the highly dubious notion that we are a “property” of the gods, an approach to the issue that will later be articulated also by Christians. If we are, indeed, the gods’ possessions, then this follows:

“And if one of your own possessions, an ox or an ass, for example, took the liberty of putting himself out of the way when you had given no intimation of your wish that he should die, would you not be angry with him, and would you not punish him if you could?”

So much for the dignity of human beings! In this analogy, we are reduced to oxen and asses, property of the gods, who can then do what they please with us. Setting aside that I don’t personally believe in the existence of any gods, this concept — with which I grew up within the Catholic Church — always struck me as extremely demeaning. Just as it is demeaning for a human being to worship anyone, including gods. I understand that, especially in Christianity, a more palatable analogy is often deployed that treats us as the sons of God the Father. But even so, I see no reason to worship a father, and even less of a reason to consider myself his property. Regardless, at this point in the dialogue Simmias remarks that another of Socrates’ friends present that day had just made a good point:

“And in this case, added Simmias, his objection does appear to me to have some force. For what can be the meaning of a truly wise man wanting to fly away and lightly leave a master who is better than himself? And I rather imagine that Cebes is referring to you; he thinks that you are too ready to leave us, and too ready to leave the gods who, as you acknowledge, are our good rulers.”

In other words, okay, we are the property of the gods, so we shouldn’t leave life until the gods decide that it is time. So why is Socrates, effectively, committing suicide by refusing to escape from prison, as his friends have urged him to do, particularly as it would be easy to arrange to bribe the guards, which was done all the time, and given that there would be plenty of other cities happy to host the renowned philosopher?

“I am quite ready to acknowledge, Simmias and Cebes, that I ought to be grieved at death, if I were not persuaded that I am going to other gods who are wise and good (of this I am as certain as I can be of anything of the sort), and to men departed (though I am not so certain of this) who are better than those whom I leave behind; and therefore I do not grieve as I might have done, for I have good hope that there is yet something remaining for the dead, and as has been said of old, some far better thing for the good than for the evil.”

Ultimately, Socrates gambles that there will be an afterlife awaiting for him, where certainly (he says) there will be gods, and so he will be in good company. Possibly, he adds, he will also find many other good people who died before him, and he will be able to carry on conversations with the likes of Homer.

“Don’t believe your situation is genuinely bad — no one can make you do that. Is there smoke in the house? If it’s not suffocating, I will stay indoors; if it proves too much, I’ll leave. Always remember — the door is open.” (Discourses I, 25.17–18)

And again:

“‘My God, what if I’m sent to Gyara?’ Well, if that’s tolerable for you, you will go; if not, you have the choice of another destination, the place even the person who sent you to Gyara is headed, whether they like it or not.” (Discourses II, 6.22)

Gyara was a small barren island in the Aegean Sea, where political troublemakers were sent into the exile. The “open door” is a metaphor for suicide, and Epictetus is telling his students that it is up to them to evaluate the situation they find themselves in. If “the room is too smoky” then they have the option to leave. And indeed, a good part of what it means to be free, for a Stoic, is precisely that we always have this option, as Seneca reminds us in what amounts to a direct rebuttal to Socrates:

“You can find men who have gone so far as to profess wisdom and yet maintain that one should not offer violence to one’s own life, and hold it accursed for a man to be the means of his own destruction; we should wait, say they, for the end decreed by nature. But one who says this does not see that he is shutting off the path to freedom. The best thing which eternal law ever ordained was that it allowed to us one entrance into life, but many exits.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXX.14)

One entrance and many exists indeed. Moreover, the flip side of the open door policy is that if we decide to stay then we have arrived at the assessment that the room is not too smoky. We can take it. We can keep living and fighting on. In fact, Epictetus sets a high bar on the open door, as in this episode:

“The following is another way in which the minds of those are affected who hear these precepts amiss. For example, a friend of mine for no reason at all made up his mind to starve himself to death. I learned about it when he was already in the third day of his fasting, and went and asked what had happened. — I have decided, he answered. — Very well, but still what was it that induced you to make up your mind? For if your judgement was good, see, we are at your side and ready to help you to make your exit from this life; but if your judgement was irrational, change it. — I must abide by my decisions. — Why, man, what are you about? You mean not all your decisions, but only the right ones.” (Discourses II.15)

Two important things need be noted here. First, Epictetus’ offer of assistance to his friend, who he initially assumes has arrived at the decision to commit suicide by sound reasoning. This is direct support for the notion that we today refer to as assisted suicide. Second, he actually questions his friend’s decision, and clearly states that one has to abide not just by any decision, made on whatever pretext, but only by right ones. Our faculty of judgment has to be well honed before we can reasonably take this sort of step.

“I shall not abandon old age, if old age preserves me intact for myself, and intact as regards the better part of myself; but if old age begins to shatter my mind, and to pull its various faculties to pieces, if it leaves me, not life, but only the breath of life, I shall rush out of a house that is crumbling and tottering.” (Letters to Lucilius, LVIII35)

I couldn’t agree more.

Socrates Café

Socrates Café is all about making ours, on local and global…

Massimo Pigliucci

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Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://massimopigliucci.com/essays/

Socrates Café

Socrates Café is all about making ours, on local and global scales, an inclusive, thoughtful and participatory society where regular exchanges of ideas and ideals among diverse people take place.

Massimo Pigliucci

Written by

Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://massimopigliucci.com/essays/

Socrates Café

Socrates Café is all about making ours, on local and global scales, an inclusive, thoughtful and participatory society where regular exchanges of ideas and ideals among diverse people take place.

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