Warning: this essay is about suicide. If you are depressed or suffering from a mental condition that leads you to entertain suicidal thoughts, this article is not for you. Instead, call the suicide prevention hotline at 800–273–8255, or visit their web site.
The Stoics are famous — or infamous, depending on who you ask — for their treatment of suicide, which was at variance with those of both Socrates (the direct inspiration for Stoic philosophy) and the Epicureans. Epictetus writes about his “open door policy,” suggesting that the possibility of suicide is what makes us truly free: if the room is too smoky, as he puts it, then we have the option of opening the door and getting out. However, if we decide to stay it means that we can take it, and we should keep up the fight.
In his 70th letter to his friend Lucilius the first century Roman Stoic Seneca also takes up the topic, writing:
“For mere living is not a good, but living well. Accordingly, the wise person will live as long as they ought, not as long as they can.” (Letter LXX.4)
Seneca in particular insists on the distinction between quality and quantity of life. While a longer life is preferable, other things being equal, what makes our existence meaningful is what we do with whatever time Fate has allotted to us. And since we don’t know what that allotment actually is, it makes sense not to worry about the number of years and concentrate all our efforts on the quality of what we do. The bit about not wanting to live as long as one can is particularly germane to the American obsession with aggressive end-of-life medical “treatment” that ends up prolonging suffering by a few weeks or months while likely bankrupting the family. It is one of the most obscene things I have encountered in American culture since moving here over 30 years ago.
“It is not a question of dying earlier or later, but of dying well or ill. And dying well means escape from the danger of living ill.” (LXX.6)
Seneca here is referring both to physical illness (he suffered from respiratory conditions all his life) and illness of the soul, so to speak. In terms of physical illness, the Stoics would have most certainly supported what we refer to as assisted suicide. Regarding illness of the soul, elsewhere Seneca says that some people would have been better off had they died earlier, and brings up as an example Pompey “the Great,” a one time friend and then enemy of Julius Caesar. He ended his life defeated in battle and betrayed by those he considered friends. One may debate the specific example, but the underlying concept, that it is preferable to die before you screw things up, is worth considering.
“Just as I shall select my ship when I am about to go on a voyage or my house when I propose to take a residence, so I shall choose my death when I am about to depart from life.” (LXX.11)
One of the things that make Seneca a pleasure to read is his frequent use of analogies, similes, and metaphors to make what he is saying more immediate to our mind because he is able to engage not just our language centers but our imagination. The bottom line here is that it is a question of human dignity to be able to choose one’s exit, just as it is a matter of personal freedom to be able to choose one’s residence or means of transportation in accordance with one’s liking.
“You can find people 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 someone to be the means of their own destruction; we should wait, say they, for the end decreed by nature. But one who says this does not see that they are 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.” (LXX.14)
This is an oblique retort to Epicurus, who famously disapproved of suicide, and infamously went around blatantly calling himself a sage. Although the Stoics maintained that we should “live according to nature,” they steered very clear of the logical fallacy known as an appeal to nature: just because something is natural it doesn’t follow that it is good. Nature has endowed us with reason, and reason allows us to make choices that go beyond those granted to other animals. What is “natural” for a human being is to exercise that ability, not to slavishly abide by whatever comes our way.
The letter concludes with Seneca revisiting the issue of ending one’s life when one is faced with unbearable physical illness (or with the injustice of fellow human beings):
“Must I await the cruelty either of disease or of man, when I can depart through the midst of torture, and shake off my troubles? This is the one reason why we cannot complain of life; it keeps no one against his will.” (LXX.15)
I love the notion that life doesn’t keep us against our will, which brings us back to Epictetus’ idea that the option of walking through the open door is the ultimate root of our freedom. No matter how dire our circumstances, because of disease or human cruelty, we have the choice to stay or leave. It is up to us, and to no one else.