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.

Aeneas and Turnus, by Luca Giordano.

The emperor Augustus commissioned Virgil to write the Aeneid, which came to be regarded as the foundational myth or national epic of Rome, and Virgil’s finest work. The poem tells the story of Aeneas, the son of Venus by the Trojan prince Anchises, as he flees burning Troy and struggles to fulfill his destiny, which, as oft foretold, is to reach Italy and sire the line of the Romans, who will come to rule all the known world.

After escaping the clutch of Dido, Aeneas finally arrives in Italy, to be betrothed to Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus—who had, however, been promised to Turnus, King of the Rutilians. War breaks out, culminating in a duel between Aeneas and Turnus. Aeneas has Turnus on his knees, pleading for his life, but then sees that he is wearing the belt of his fallen friend and kills him in a furious rage.

Although Aeneas eventually surrenders to his fate and fulfills his destiny, he is constantly overwhelmed and waylaid by his emotions, even to the very end when he slays Turnus. This very Stoic conflict is the source of some of the most resonant lines in the Aeneid, such as this one: “Fear is the proof of a degenerate mind” [Degeneres animos timor arguit].

It is worth remembering that the Aeneid was written for the benefit of Augustus, who was, if not quite a Stoic, then at least a friend of Stoicism. Before he became emperor, Augustus was tutored and mentored by the Stoic philosopher Athenodorus Cananites. Now in his dotage, Athenodorus begged to be dismissed from the emperor’s service. As he was taking leave of Augustus, he reminded him, “Whenever you get angry, Caesar, do not say or do anything before repeating to yourself the twenty-four letters of the alphabet.” At this, Augustus seized him by the hand, and said, “I still have need of your presence here.”

Seneca on Anger

How, using Stoic principles, might Aeneas have controlled his anger? And how might we? The expert here is Stoic philosopher Seneca, who wrote a substantial work on anger, apparently, after his brother Novatus asked him, “How anger may be soothed.”

Anger, says Seneca, is a bad habit that people tend to pick up from their parents. When a child who was raised at Plato’s house was returned to his parents and saw his father shouting, he said, “I never saw this at Plato’s house.” More generally, anger is transmissible: if we are around angry people, it is hard not to lose our temper, however, temperate we may normally be. For this reason alone, we ought to prefer the company of mild, level-headed people. Even wild animals become gentle in the company of the calm.

We should also resist our egocentric tendency to believe the worst about others. Often, the people at whom we are most liable to get angry are those who are in fact trying to help us. Although, of course, not as much as we would like. In their minds, they are only trying to do what they think is best for them, and we, by our anger, are trying to interfere with that—which is why they tend to return our anger. If what they are doing is not in their best interests, then we should calmly explain that to them, rather than losing our temper and, with it, their ear.

As for the things that anger us, they are often mere slights or annoyances that do not do us any real harm. Luxury debilitates the mind and undermines our sense of perspective so that people who are accustomed to luxurious living are more prone to anger over trivial things. Even if someone kills our father or our daughter, anger is not required to honour their memory, seek out justice, and, more generally, do the right thing. Many people think that anger is a show of virtue or a spur to virtue; at most, it can substitute for virtue in those who lack it.

Anger and grief only add to our existing pain, and often do more harm than the things out of which they were born. It is out of anger that Alexander the Great killed the friend who had saved his life—that great conqueror of kings, himself brought low by anger. And it is also out of anger that Medea slaughtered her own children. According to Seneca, anger is a short-lived madness, and differs from the other vices in this, that “whereas other vices impel the mind, anger overthrows it.” The angry person, he continues, is “like a collapsing building that’s reduced to rubble even as it crushes what it falls upon.”

Human beings are born to provide and receive assistance. Anger, which on the contrary seeks to arrogate and annihilate, is so inimical to our nature that some angry people have benefited from looking in a mirror. Those who are unwilling to check their anger and work with others for the common good are like wasps in a beehive, gorging on the honey of others without making any of their own.

For all these reasons, the Stoic should never get angry: she might feel the beginnings of anger, but then reject this passionate impression that threatens to overthrow her reason and tranquillity and the dignity that follows in their train. To regain perspective when angry, to reclaim our sanity, we might ask ourselves: “Am I expecting too much of the world?” Or, “How is getting angry going to help me?” Or again, “Who will remember this in a day or in a year, or in a hundred?” But the surest cure for anger is delay because it gives us a much better chance of rejecting our passionate impression.

“Whenever you get angry, Caesar, do not say or do anything before repeating to yourself the twenty-four letters of the alphabet.”

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories

Hercules the Archer, by Antoine Bourdelle (1909).

The Stoic response to fear and anxiety turns around two core Stoic principles: the “dichotomy of control” and the “principle of assent.”

The Dichotomy of Control

If we are not to suffer from fear, hope, envy, and other negative emotions (or “passions”), we must learn to distinguish between those things that are within our control and those that are not.

Anything external to us is not within our control, or, at least, not entirely within our control. The only thing that is entirely within our control is our own mind. 

When it comes to things over which we do not have complete control, we play our part, we do our best, but we do not fret over the outcome—which, if we have done our best, is no reflection on us. Like the Stoic archer, we do everything we can to shoot accurately. Even so, as soon as it leaves us, the arrow, and with it the success of our action, is no longer within our control, but subject to outside forces such as a sudden change in wind speed or direction. 

Thus, we seek to be loveable, not to be loved, because the one is within our control whereas the other is not. Or, we seek to write well, not become a bestselling author, because the one is within our control whereas the other is not.

Life, says Epictetus, is like a ball game: if we start caring about the ball more than the game, it is no longer a game but a brawl and no fun at all. The important thing is not to hog the ball, or even win, but to play and enjoy the best game we can—which is a surer kind of winning, and likely also to lead to the other kind.

The Principle of Assent

Closely related to the dichotomy of control is the principle of assent. 

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, taught that knowledge could be secured through a process called katalepsis (Greek, “grasping”), which he illustrated through four successive hand gestures.

  • First, he held out an open palm to represent an impression (essentially a sense impression or idea of the mind). 
  • Second, he opposed his fingertips into a claw to represent reason assenting, by free will, to the impression.
  • Third, he flexed his fingers into a firm grasp to represent comprehension or katalepsis.
  • And last, he slapped and squeezed the fist with his other hand to represent knowledge.

The ability to assent to, or reject, impressions is, in the final analysis, the only thing that is fully within our control. 

Our highest concern should be to reject any impression that fails the test of objectivity, notably by being more aware of our value judgments and postponing our response to passionate impressions. For instance, we might be “impressed” by the purple of the imperial robe until we remind ourselves that it is no more than a piece of cloth that has been dyed purple in the foul-smelling excreta of sea snails. Or we might burn uncontrollably for the frame of a man or woman until we remind ourselves, as Marcus Aurelius did, that the sex we crave amounts to no more than “the friction of a membrane and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus.”

The proper use of impressions corresponds to “cognitive distancing” in modern cognitive behavioral therapy. It is, says Epictetus, “the basis of God’s own well-being,” and the thing that most distinguishes us from children and animals. Little children are constantly overwhelmed by their impressions, which is why they go from outburst to outburst.

Because they are almost totally lacking in perspective, the smallest thing seems to them like a tragedy. “Their nanny leaves and they cry, but give them cake, and they’ve forgotten about their nanny.” 

What we grown-ups need is not cake or constant consolation, or anti-depressants, but accurate impressions, unless we are to remain all our lives like oversized children.

The Stoic Response to Fear and Anxiety

Putting two and two together, if we are anxious or fearful, it is deep down because we wish to control things that are not in our control or not fully in our control. In other words, it is because we wish for things to turn out in a certain way, instead of understanding or accepting that they will turn out however they turn out.

In that much, fear is the obverse of hope: it is because we hope that we fear. In the Discourses, Epictetus is recorded as saying, “When I see a man anxious, I say, What does this man want? If he did not want something which is not in his power, how could he be anxious?”

Given that the future is not in our gift, both hope and fear are redundant. More than redundant, they are counterproductive in that we would do better to concentrate on the things that are actually within our control so as to increase the probabilities of a favourable outcome. If, for example, we have to give a talk, it’s hard enough to prepare and deliver a good talk without also worrying about how it will be received—which is, of course, not in our control.

By worrying, we are only making our life more difficult than it needs to be and also run the risk of getting stage fright and sabotaging our performance. But if we are calm and well prepared, the overwhelming likelihood is that our talk will be generously received.

In the words of Seneca, “More things frighten us than really affect us, and we are more often afflicted in thought than in fact.”

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.