Seneca to Lucilius: 77, on taking one’s own life
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.
A Brave Man Once Requested Me
To Answer Questions That Are Key
‘Is It To Be Or Not To Be’
And I Replied ‘Oh Why Ask Me?’
’Cause Suicide Is Painless
It Brings On Many Changes
And I Can Take Or Leave It If I Please.
…And You Can Do The Same Thing If You Choose.
These are the closing words of the famous theme from M*A*S*H. Of course, suicide is not painless, at least emotionally for either the person making the decision or those who love such person. This may be why the Stoics paid particular attention to the topic of suicide, one on which their position was, for once, markedly different from that of their chief inspiration, Socrates.
In the Phaedo, one of four Platonic dialogues having to do with the last days of Socrates, the Athenian sage mounts an argument against the admissibility of suicide. The argument hinges on the highly dubious premise that we are the property of the gods, and that it is therefore only the gods who can decide when our life is over:
“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?” (Translation by Benjamin Jowett, Dover, 1992, no section numbers given)
Mental note: according to Socrates we are God’s donkeys. Contrast this with the famous “open door” policy articulated by the Stoic Epictetus. While Epictetus professes high regard for Socrates, he nevertheless sharply disagrees with him on the matter of the acceptability of suicide:
“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…