The Concept of Suicide in Moral Philosophy
Suicide is rooted on pride
35 Suicide was never very common among the Greeks. I cannot remember any illustrious Greek hero who died by his own hand, other than Cleomenes.
Aristomenes’ death is as much beyond the period of true history as that of Ajax. The common story of Themistocles’ death was within that period.
However, it bears all the marks of a most romantic fable.
Of all the Greek heroes written by Plutarch, Cleomenes is the only one who died by suicide. The brave Theramines, Socrates, and Phocion suffered in prison.
They submitted patiently to that death from the injustice of their fellow-citizens. The brave Eumenes allowed himself to be delivered by his own mutinous soldiers to his enemy Antigonus. He was starved to death without attempting any violence. The gallant Philopoemen was taken prisoner by the Messenians. He was thrown into a dungeon and was privately poisoned.
Several of the philosophers are said to have committed suicide. But their lives have been so very foolishly written. We have three accounts of the death of Zeno the Stoic.
- Apollonius of Tyre, a Stoic, lived around the time of Augustus Caesar, between 200-300 years after Zeno’s death. He said that Zeno died at 98 years old after falling while going out of his school. He dislocated one of his fingers. He struck the ground with his hand and said: ‘I come, why don’t you call me?’ He immediately went home and hung himself. Apollonius probably thought it would be honourable for Zeno, who talked so much about suicide, to die by suicide.
He starved himself to death after a similar accident. I do not know the author of this second account.
At 72 years old, he died in the natural way. By far, it is the most probable account and is also supported by Persaeus’ authority. He was originally the slave, and afterwards, the friend and disciple of Zeno.
After their death, men of letters are frequently more famous than the greatest princes of their times. During their life, they are generally so insignificant that their adventures are seldom recorded. The men of letters of later ages, frequently fashioned those earlier men according to their own fancy to satisfy the public curiosity.
Diogenes Laertius prefers Apollonius’ story. Lucian and Lactantius also preferred the story of Zeno’s old age and violent death.
36 Suicide was much more prevalent among the proud Romans, than among the lively, ingenious, and accommodating Greeks. Even among the Romans, suicide was not established in the early and ‘virtuous ages’ of the republic.
The story of Regulus’ death was probably a fable. It could never have been invented unless he was dishonoured from patiently submitting to the Carthaginians’ tortures.
In the later ages of the republic, there would be some dishonour in surrender. In the civil wars which preceded the commonwealth’s fall, many of the eminent men of all the contending parties chose to perish by their own hands than to fall to their enemies.
Cato’s death was celebrated by Cicero and was censured by Caesar. It stamped a splendour on suicide which it retained several ages after.
Cicero’s eloquence was superior to Caesar’s. The lovers of liberty for many ages afterwards looked up to Cato as the republican party’s most venerable martyr.
The Cardinal de Retz observes that the head of a party may do what he pleases. The head can do no wrong as long as he retains his friends’ confidence. The Cardinal himself experienced the truth of this maxim several times. Cato seems to have joined an excellent bottle companion to his other virtues. His enemies accused him of drunkenness.
But Seneca says:
37 Under the Emperors, this method of dying was perfectly fashionable for a long time.
Pliny’s epistles mentions several persons who chose to die this way from vanity than from reason, even to a sober and judicious Stoic. Ladies are seldom behind in following the fashion. Even they frequently chose to die this way, most unnecessarily. They accompanied their husbands to the tomb, like the ladies in Bengal. The prevalence of this fashion certainly caused many unnecessary deaths. This is perhaps the highest exertion of human vanity and impertinence. All the havoc which this caused would probably be very great.
38 The principle of suicide sometimes teaches us that suicide is the object of applause and approbation. It seems as a refinement of philosophy. In her sound and healthful state, Nature never prompts us to suicide. Melancholy is a disease of human nature.
There is a kind of melancholy which is accompanied with an irresistible appetite for self-destruction. This disease has frequently been known to drive its wretched victims in circumstances:
- often of the highest external prosperity, and
- sometimes in spite of the deepest and most serious religious sentiments.
The unfortunate persons who perish in this miserable way are the objects of sympathy, not censure. It is absurd and unjust to punish them when they are beyond the reach of all human punishment.
That punishment can fall only on their surviving friends and relations: who are always perfectly innocent, and to whom the loss of their friend in this disgraceful way is a very heavy calamity.
In her sound and healthful state, Nature prompts us to always avoid and defend ourselves against distress even if we perish in that defence. But no natural principle calls on us to escape from that distress by suicide when we have been unable to defend ourselves.
We are driven to suicide only by the consciousness of:
- our own weakness, and
- our own incapacity to support the calamity with proper firmness.
I have not heard of any Native American savage who killed himself after being taken prisoner to avoid being tortured. He places his glory in:
- supporting those torments with manhood, and
- retorting those insults with tenfold contempt and derision.
39 Epictetus was independent and spirited but often harsh, while Antoninus was mild, humane, and benevolent. The two fundamental doctrines of Stoical morality rested on:
- The contempt of life and death. Epictetus may be considered as the great apostle of this doctrine
- The submission to the order of Providence. Antoninus is the apostle of this doctrine
These two doctrines created a complete contentment at every posssible event.
40 In his youth, the emancipated slave of Epaphriditus was subjected to a brutal master. In his older years, he was banished from Rome and Athens by the jealousy of the tyrant Domitian. He was obliged to dwell at Nicopolis. He might expect to be sent to Gyarae or perhaps killed at any time by Domitian. He could only preserve his tranquility by fostering the most sovereign contempt of human life. He never exults so much. Accordingly, his eloquence is never so animated as when he represents the futility and nothingness of all its pleasures and pains.
41 Marcus Aurelius was a good-natured Emperor who had no reason to complain. He delights in:
- expressing his contentment with the ordinary course of things
- pointing out beauties even where vulgar observers cannot see any
He observes that:
- the decrepitude of old age are as suitable to nature as the vigour of youth
- there is a propriety in old age as well as in youth
Death, too, is just as proper end of old age, as youth is the end of childhood, or manhood is the end of youth. The physician orders a man to:
- use the cold bath or
- walk barefooted
Likewise, Nature, the great physician of the universe, orders a man:
- a disease or
- the amputation of a limb or
- the loss of a child
By the prescriptions of ordinary physicians, the patient:
- undergoes many painful operations
- swallows many bitter potions
He gladly submits to these to improve his health. In the same way, the patient hopes that the harshest prescriptions of the great Physician of nature will contribute to his own health and final prosperity and happiness. These are necessary for:
- the universe’s health, prosperity, and happiness
- the advancement of the great plan of Jupiter
If they were not, the universe would never have produced them. Everything, even the smallest of parts of the universe, are exactly fitted to one another. All parts contribute to compose one immense and connected system. So that all, even the most insignificant event, form the necessary parts of that great chain of causes and effects which had no beginning nor end.
Those causes and effects result from the original arrangement of the whole. They are all essentially necessary to the whole’s prosperity, continuance, and preservation. A person wishes to stop the universe’s motion and break that great chain of succession if he:
- does not cordially embrace whatever befalls him,
- is sorry that it has befallen him, and
- wishes that it had not befallen him
Marcus Aurelius says:
42 From these very sublime doctrines, the Stoics attempted to deduce all their paradoxes.
43 The Stoical wise man tried to:
- enter into the views of the great Superintendant of the universe, and
- see things in the same light in which that divine Being saw them.
Mr. Pope says:
Those events were parts of that great chain predestined from all eternity. They were the effects of the same unerring wisdom, and universal and boundless benevolence. In the same way, all those events were perfectly equal to the Stoical wise man.
In the course of those events, a little department had been assigned to him. He had some little management and direction of that department. In this department he tried to: act as properly as he could conduct himself according to those orders prescribed to him
But he took no anxious or passionate concern in the success or disappointment of his own most faithful endeavours. He was perfectly indifferent to that little system or department’s: highest prosperity total destruction
If those events had depended on him, he would have: chosen its highest prosperity rejected its total destruction
But as they did not depend on him, he trusted whatever event which happened to a superior wisdom. He was perfectly satisfied that such event was the very event he himself would have most earnestly and devoutly wished for, had he known all the connections of things. Whatever he did under the influence and direction of those principles was equally perfect. When he stretched out his finger, to give the example which they commonly made use of, he performed an action as meritorious as when he laid down his life for the service of his country. To the great Superintendant of the universe, the greatest and the smallest exertions of his power were equally the effects of the same divine wisdom and benevolence: The formation and dissolution of a world and that of a bubble, were equally easy and admirable. So to the Stoical wise man, what we call ’the great action’ required no more exertion than the little action which was equally easy. It proceeded from exactly the same principles. It was not more meritorious, nor worthy of any higher degree of praise and admiration.
44 As all those who had attained this perfect state were equally happy, so all those who fell short of it in the smallest degree were equally miserable.
He could no more enjoy the security and happiness of the wise man, than he who was farthest from that situation. All of the wise man’s actions were perfect, and equally perfect. So all the actions of the man who had not arrived at this supreme wisdom were faulty. Some Stoics pretended that they were equally faulty.
45 If the first of those two paradoxes appears violent, the second is too absurd. I cannot believe that Zeno or Cleanthes could be the authors of these or of the most part of the other Stoical paradoxes. They were said to be men of the simplest and most sublime eloquence. Yet those paradoxes are generally mere impertinent quibbles.
I attribute the absurdity to Chrysippus who was the disciple and follower of Zeno and Cleanthes. He seems to have been a mere dialectical pedant, without any kind of taste or elegance. He may have been the first to reduce their doctrines into a scholastic or technical system of artificial definitions, divisions, and subdivisions. It is one of the most effective expedients for extinguishing whatever good sense there was in any moral or metaphysical doctrine.
Such a man may very easily be supposed to have understood too literally some animated expressions of his masters in describing:
- the happiness of the man of perfect virtue, and
- the unhappiness of whoever fell short of perfect virtue.