Monday, June 21, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 77 - On Taking One's Own Life

On Taking One's Own Life


This post deals with and discusses suicide.

If you are in a good spot mentally speaking, then feel free read this post with all the candidness that philosophy has to offer.

But if you have suicidal thoughts or are considering suicide, please ask for professional help.  Below are phone numbers for immediate help, if you are based in the United States of America.

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860 (for the transgender community)

TrevorLifeline: 1-866-488-7386 (for LGBTQ youth)

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1

If you are not based in the USA, please search on the internet for sources of help in your country, before reading this post.


To be a bit clearer, Seneca's 77th letter really deals with euthanasia rather than suicide in general.

The object of the letter is Tullius Marcellinus, but before he begins discussing him, Seneca observes the hustle and bustle of people in the excitement of the ship which has just docked.  

While everybody was bustling about and hurrying to the water-front, I felt great pleasure in my laziness, because, although I was soon to receive letters from my friends, I was in no hurry to know how my affairs were progressing abroad, or what news the letters were bringing; for some time now I have had no losses, nor gains either. Even if I were not an old man, I could not have helped feeling pleasure at this; but as it is, my pleasure was far greater. For, however small my possessions might be, I should still have left over more travelling-money than journey to travel, especially since this journey upon which we have set out is one which need not be followed to the end.

Seneca is pleased with himself because he has not been caught up in the excitement of the incoming ship and pivots this reflection into the fact that he thinks, metaphorically, he still has ample time left in his journey of life.  He makes the point very much clearer when he states that the length or end of the journey matters not so much as the manner in which you leave it.

An expedition will be incomplete if one stops half-way, or anywhere on this side of one's destination; but life is not incomplete if it is honourable. At whatever point you leave off living, provided you leave off nobly, your life is a whole.

In other words, a man of 20 years can live just as nobly as a man of 90 years.  The length does not matter so much.  What does matter is the fashion of leaving.  Therefore, a boy of 20 years old, who jumps on a grenade is much more honorable than the couch potato who dies of a heart attack at age 50.  Equally honorable is the man who labors for 40 years teaching ungrateful middle school students, in order to provide for his family, and dies on the day he retires, while it would be dishonorable of a man of 20 years who drinks to excess and dies in a drug overdose.

The object of the letter is one

Tullius Marcellinus ... [who] fell ill of a disease which was by no means hopeless; but it was protracted and troublesome, and it demanded much attention; hence he began to think about dying.

He called his friends together to give him advice.  One of his friends was a Stoic.

[the] Stoic friend, a rare man, and, ... a man of courage and vigour, admonished him best of all. ... [He said]: "Do not torment yourself, my dear Marcellinus, as if the question which you are weighing were a matter of importance. It is not an important matter to live; all your slaves live, and so do all animals; but it is important to die honourably, sensibly, bravely. Reflect how long you have been doing the same thing: food, sleep, lust, – this is one's daily round. The desire to die may be felt, not only by the sensible man or the brave or unhappy man, but even by the man who is merely surfeited."

Marcellinus' slaves were reluctant to help him in his death.  So the Stoic friend advised him

to distribute gifts to those who had attended him throughout his whole life, when that life was finished, just as, when a banquet is finished, the remaining portion is divided among the attendants who stand about the table. ... so he distributed little sums among his sorrowing slaves, and comforted them besides.

He fasted, then made a steam tent, as it were, and sat in a hot bath and had hot water poured over him until he passed out and then passed away.

Death becomes us all.  If you are someone who desperately wishes to cling so tightly to life, recall Seneca's words:

Would you not think him an utter fool who wept because he was not alive a thousand years ago? And is he not just as much of a fool who weeps because he will not be alive a thousand years from now? It is all the same; you will not be, and you were not. Neither of these periods of time belongs to you.

You are a blip in an unfathomable ocean of time and space.  Do not cling to something so insignificant.

Do not pray for something that is impossible, namely to escape death.

Give over thinking that your prayers can bend Divine decrees from their predestined end.  These decrees are unalterable and fixed; they are governed by a mighty and everlasting compulsion.

Returning to the concept of an honorable death, Seneca recounts the story of the Spartan boy who was taken captive.

The story of the Spartan lad has been preserved: taken captive while still a stripling, he kept crying in his Doric dialect, "I will not be a slave!" and he made good his word; for the very first time he was ordered to perform a menial and degrading service, – and the command was to fetch a chamber-pot, – he dashed out his brains against the wall.

Do not forget that we are all free from the bonds of life.  Do not fear death.

Unhappy fellow, you are a slave to men, you are a slave to your business, you are a slave to life. For life, if courage to die be lacking, is slavery.

And while you live, ponder deeply on what is up to you - on what your purpose is.  Do not let your purpose be so lowly as an animal.  Do not be a robot who works all day, to earn money, to spend it on things and food, to process said food, to deposit it in a hole, to be flushed and then to repeat the whole process again.  You are not a food processor.  You are a rational being.  Find meaning; live purposely; carpe diem.

It makes no difference whether a hundred or a thousand measures pass through your bladder; you are nothing but a wine-strainer.  You are a connoisseur in the flavour of the oyster and of the mullet; your luxury has not left you anything untasted for the years that are to come; and yet these are the things from which you are torn away unwillingly.

And if you are the type of person who is duty bound and must keep on living to fulfill your duties, recall that dying is a duty too and that to live excellently (your duty) also means choosing to die excellently (also your duty).

"I wish to live, for I am engaged in many honourable pursuits. I am loth to leave life's duties, which I am fulfilling with loyalty and zeal." Surely you are aware that dying is also one of life's duties?

His letter ends,

It is with life as it is with a play, – it matters not how long the action is spun out, but how good the acting is. It makes no difference at what point you stop. Stop whenever you choose; only see to it that the closing period is well turned.

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