Every day we are subjected to countless demands. Jobs, friendship, family, being a good partner, looking for ways to matter among the noise and buzz of social media and technology. In a fast-paced world with so many distractions and responsibilities, it’s no wonder our mental health is impacted and disorders like depression and anxiety are the price we pay for short term gratification.
No wonder suicide has become one of the biggest killers of young people and men. Suicide is one of the most loaded words in the English language and may bring to mind all kinds of discomforting images. But it’s real. It’s raw. It’s been a part of our culture for thousands of years and its meaning has changed with the times.
The Stoics had a lot to say about suicide and in this article, I’m exploring the Stoic response and reflecting on my own experiences with the thought process of taking one’s own life.
What did the Stoics have to say about suicide?
Stoicism and suicide make for interesting bed fellows, particularly with the philosophy having a strong focus on the inevitability of death and remembering that each day should be lived with an emphasis on being a good human being. That’s why it’s important to recognise that the ancient Stoic response to suicide was seen as something that doesn’t necessarily reflect our modern interpretation of it.
According to Donald Robertson, “the ancient Stoics may have had different views about suicide but they generally appear to have thought that taking one’s own life constituted a vice if done by someone acting on a passion, such as clinical depression, but that for the wise man it could be appropriate under certain circumstances.
To understand the Stoic view you need to consider the differences in culture between ancient Greece and Rome compared to our own society. Euthanasia was very common in the ancient world as palliative care was extremely primitive. If you were elderly and suffering from a painful and debilitating illness you would quite often starve yourself or end your own life in other ways. Also, it was common, in war, etc., for people to take their own lives in preference to being captured and enslaved or being used to ransom or exploit their own family or countrymen.”
Ancient Stoic examples of suicide
So, in certain situations suicide would be considered an acceptable act i.e. as a defiant act in the face of tyranny as Cato the Younger famously did after being defeated by Julius Caesar. As recounted by Ryan Holiday in Lives Of The Stoics, Cato stabbed himself with his own sword.
“He awoke sometime in the morning after dozing. Alone and ready, he thrust his sword into his breast. It was not quite a mortal blow but Roman steel had pierced Rome’s Iron Man. Still, he could not go quietly into that good night. Writhing, Cato fell, awakening his weeping and mourning friends as he raged against the dying of the light. A doctor rushed in and attempted to sew the wound shut while Cato drifted in and out of consciousness.
In his final moments, Cato came to and with the fierce and almost inhuman determination he had first exhibited as a young boy, he died at forty-nine years old, pulling his own wound open so that life could escape him more quickly.
He had lost the final battle – With Caesar, with the trends of his time, with mortality itself, but not before as Plutarch would conclude, he nevertheless gave Fortune a hard contest.”
The death of Seneca is another famous Stoic suicide, brought about by the whims of the Emperor Nero. Holiday also describes his death with similar flair and drama:
“For Seneca, death did not come as easily as he would have hoped. His meager diet seemed to have slowed his blood flow. So next, he willingly drank a poison he had kept for precisely this moment, but not before pouring a small libation to the gods. Could he have thought in that moment back to something Attalus had said so long ago? That ‘evil herself drinks the largest portion of her own poison?’
It was proving true for Seneca, and it would prove true for Nero soon enough as well. The man that had written so much on death was finding, with irony, that death did not come so willingly. Did this frustrate him? Or did he have one eye on history, knowing fate was prolonging the scene he had long meditated on? When the poison did not work, Seneca was moved to a steam bath where the heat and dense air finally finished him off.”
According to Skye C. Cleary, Epictetus also saw suicide as ethically acceptable under extreme circumstances. “He uses a famous analogy, with a house on fire, full of smoke: ‘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 much, I’ll leave. Always remember the door is open.”
In other words, you have a choice whether to live or not. The door to death will always be there. But if you choose to stay, then you accept the responsibility that life has demanded of you and choose to live as best you can.
Living after suicide
The examples described above ring with an air of tragic nobility. These powerful men of influence and political acumen gave their lives in the service of something greater. Suicide as we know it in the modern day rarely has these motivations attached.
Not thinking you’re good enough. Feeling at the end of your tether. Thinking your family and friends would be better off without you. Making a ‘sacrifice’ to unburden them of your company. These are the thoughts that many people struggle with in the throes of depression and anguish.
They are thoughts I’ve experienced in my life. At 14 years old, I tried to kill myself in the bathroom of my high school. I wrapped a tie around my neck and attached it to a window, hanging at a weird angle. I felt like I’d had enough. That I’d been bullied relentlessly at my previous school, that my childhood friend had abandoned me. Betrayed me.
And even after moving schools, those feelings followed me. Hung over me like a black cloud for months until the only way I thought I could get rid of them was to end it all. I thought about all of this while I was hanging and some small part rebelled against the idea. This is fucking stupid. Why are you letting yourself be put through this? Why are you doing this to yourself?
Luckily, those thoughts won out in the end and I untied the knot. I found someone I trusted and went through the experience of explaining the ‘incident’ to teachers. But I’ll never forget the look on my mum’s face when she found out. When she stared at the red lines burned into my throat from the tie and how she took it all into herself.
From there, I rarely spoke about the story. I shared it with a couple of close friends, got it off my chest. But I didn’t deal with it. Not really. I forced it to the back of my mind and continued on with life, summing it up as a cry for help.
A few years went by and at university I sat in my dorm room after a night of drinking. I was 19 and holding a kitchen knife in my hands, replaying the events of my 14-year-old self. Should I have ended it then? Why are these thoughts still here? If I took this knife to my wrists and throat would anyone give a damn?
I didn’t use the knife and I haven’t had thoughts that extreme since.
Looking back at these experiences, I can see I was practicing unhealthy stoicism. Not talking about how I was feeling, suffering in silence, mistaking endurance for strength.
Having found Stoicism in my late twenties I can reflect on these events with a clearer head and see that I was so damn angry at the world. Marcus Aurelius said “the soul becomes dyed with the colour of your thoughts.” Well, my thoughts were black and grey, the colours of despair, self-pity and hopelessness.
I only saw my experiences through one lens. The friend who ‘betrayed’ me had been bullied himself and perhaps his only way to cope was to join the majority. The bullies may have had their own problems and there was only one way they knew how to get through the day. I forgave them a long time ago.
Stoicism has helped me to become more reflective and understand that being close to death isn’t about the moment. It’s about what comes after.
So, here I am writing about suicide and urging men who’ve experienced similar thoughts to talk to someone about how you’re feeling. For women to open up too. Young, old, rich or poor. You aren’t alone and there will always be someone out there who will be ready to talk.