When Is the Right Time to Die?

Stoic views on suicide.

The Suicide of Seneca, by Manuel Dominguez Sánchez (1871).

From the outset, I should clearly state that, while the Stoics may have recognized the potential glory of death before subjugation, they argued strongly against suicide on the grounds of despair or dissatisfaction with life. So, when it comes to suicide, what exactly did the Stoics believe, and how did those beliefs shape our knowledge of these men today?

On a recent trip to Tenerife, a local reminded me that it was in Tenerife that Admiral Lord Nelson lost his arm, before exclaiming, “Poor Nelson!” “Well, not so poor” I quipped: “If he hadn’t lost his arm, we wouldn’t know who he was.”

It was by killing themselves that the likes of Cato and Socrates gave birth to their legends. When Cato is depicted in art, it is always in the act of stabbing himself. Had Socrates simply fled Athens, as he could have done, we today would be living in different minds. In the words of Seneca, “It was the hemlock that made Socrates great. Wrest from Cato his sword, his guarantor of liberty, and you take away the greater part of his glory.”

After his defeat to Caesar in 46 BCE, the Republican general Metellus Scipio attempted to flee to Iberia to raise another army, but his ship, driven by a contrary wind, fell into enemy hands. Rather than surrender, Metellus impaled himself upon his sword. As he bled to death, he reassured his men that, “All is well with the general” [Imperator se bene habet]. Relating this story, Seneca concludes, “It was a great thing to conquer Carthage; a greater thing to conquer death.”

For the Stoic, death is not merely an event, or a tragic accident, but a challenge, an opportunity, and the proof and consecration of a lifetime of philosophy.

Seneca compared our life to a storage jar. The sediment sinks to the bottom of the jar, so that the purest parts are poured out first, until all that remains are the turbid dregs. Most of us let the better parts of our life be siphoned off for others and keep only the bitter residue for ourself. The more rancid the residue becomes, the more we value and cling to it. 

What matters, the Stoics argue, is not how long we live, but how well. And often, living well consists in not living long. Better to die than to live badly, or against our nature. A caged bird may be safe from predators, and a caged lion may never go hungry, but what bird or lion would choose such a life? Some indeed would rather starve to death.

But even in the strongest cage, or the darkest dungeon, the door is always open. “Life” says Seneca, “does not hold anyone by force… If it suits you, live; if not you are allowed to return from where you came from.”

The Stoics argued that we should not fuss over the timing or method of our death. Better to go a little too soon that risk leaving it until we are no longer able to act. As for the method, Seneca tells the story of a young Spartan who was taken as a slave. The first time he was ordered to fetch the chamber pot, he dashed his head against the wall and burst his skull. Seneca concludes, “With freedom so near at hand, how is anyone a slave? … Life itself is slavery when one lacks the courage to die.”

Musonius too was open to the idea of a rational or philosophical suicide, but with some important utilitarian caveats. Being social animals, we should not end our life if our continued living would be helpful to many—unless, that is, our dying would be helpful to more. 

According to Seneca, Epicurus warned against killing ourself simply out of disgust or despair at life, since disgust at life has more to do with us than with life itself, and despair at life is, at the bottom, born out of the fear of death: “What could be more absurd than to seek death when it is fear of death that has made your life unquiet?”

In short, we should not flee from life in an excess of passion, like most people who commit suicide, but dispassionately depart from it when the time is right. That the law (in most jurisdictions) does not yet allow it shows that Stoicism is a philosophy of the future as well as of the past.

Suicide can be metaphorical too. The perspective brought by imagining that we have already died can, like a near-death experience, free us from our anxieties and attachments and lend us a new lease of life. “Think of yourself as dead,” wrote Marcus Aurelius to himself, “You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”

Socrates and Plato did not openly advocate for suicide because they realized that such a call would be misconstrued. But in On the Soul, Socrates says that, since philosophy is the study of the separation and release of the soul from the body, the philosopher aims at death, and can be said to be almost dead.

Paradoxically, perhaps, it is those who are most intimate with death who are also most intimate with life.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.

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