You can always kill yourself.

I have a great love for Stoic philosophy, but there is one aspect that bugs me as being completely irrational.

Stoicism extols the supremacy of the mind and reason over emotions. However, contrary to popular belief it is not about being unfeeling or insensible to emotion as Seneca points out in a letter to his friend Lucilius: "There is this difference between ourselves and the other school (the Cynics. richard): our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them; their wise man does not even feel them." (Letter 9)

He continues, "If he loses a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left, taking as much pleasure in his impaired and maimed body as he took when it was sound. While he does not pine for these parts if they are missing, he prefers not to lose them." (Letter 9)

In a later letter he basically wipes away his earlier reasoning and effectively says, "When life becomes too much to bear, you can always kill yourself". So much for the wise man who endures his suffering.

[L]ife has carried some men with the greatest rapidity to the harbour, ... while others it has fretted and harassed. To such a life ... one should not always cling. ... As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free. And this privilege is his, not only when the crisis is upon him, but as soon as Fortune seems to be playing him false... And dying well means escape from the danger of living ill.

That is why I regard the words of the well-known Rhodian as most unmanly. This person was thrown into a cage by his tyrant, and fed there like some wild animal. And when a certain man advised him to end his life by fasting, he replied: "A man may hope for anything while he has life." This may be true; but life is not to be purchased at any price. No matter how great or how well assured certain rewards may be I shall not strive to attain them at the price of a shameful confession of weakness."
(Letter 70)

Later, Marcus Aurelius grapples with this issue and he comes to the conclusion that it is irrational: " I, who never willingly harmed another, have no right to harm myself." (I think there are better quotes, but I can't think of them at the moment).

Comments

ghee said…
I,who never willingly harmed another,have no right to harm myself*..

cant agree more,Richard!

ghee
Richard said…
ghee: good! That makes two of us. Expoential growth, at this rate the whole world will be believing it too ;-)
freckled-one said…
I also agree with Aurelius. Could the other comment about life becoming too rough have been a joke?
Richard said…
freckled-one: no, Seneca was not joking or employing irony. In another letter, he gives examples of people who nobly killed themselves instead of losing face (young son of a nobleman who ran head first into a wall, a soldier who feigned sleep until he could thrust his head between the spokes of the wheel of the cart he was in).

This is the only major inconsistancy I see with Stoicism. Of course, times were different (just like now) when men were men and women were second class citizens and honour was about a bunch of stupid ideas f what it was to be a man.
b said…
Hmm...I really grapple with stoicism. My mother is very stoic and I am often baffled by her perspective. Sorry, but I will never be a stoic and although I can certainly find some merit in stoic thought/behavior, it seems very antithetical with who I am.

With that said, I don't necessarily feel a strong moral opposition to the notion of killing oneself but I'm not sure exactly how I feel about this. Altough I have not willingly harmed another, I think we willingly harm ourselves all the time, in desparation to feel something, maybe to feel out of control, if just briefly. I think we just deny ourselves acknowledgment that we do harm ourselves (and others for that matter, on whatever level that harm may be).
Richard said…
breal: I think Marcus Aurelius is really questioning the whole notion of doing harm to ourselves. And yes, we often do harm to ourselves.

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