Oxford Uehiro Centre Prize in Practical Ethics: ‘Rational Departure’: What Does Stoicism Reveal About Contemporary Attitudes Towards Suicide?

Written by Ed Lamb, St. Anne’s College
This brings us onto the second difference, which is an epistemic one. Many of our objections to suicide revolve around the fact that the agent cannot know that their life will not improve. Even if they are genuinely suffering deeply and, at that moment, would escape the pain if they ceased to be alive, taking one’s life is absolutely final. Tragically, those who take their life often fail to realise that there are people who care for them and want to help them derive meaning from life. Equally, in cases like my grandad’s, what seems like an incurable medical condition can sometimes be alleviated. Given that we cannot tell what will happen if we do not take our life, suicide is too great a risk to take. This is especially so since it always has a detrimental impact on those close the deceased. This epistemic problem was much less of an obstacle for the Stoics because of their unique metaphysical claims. They held that nature was constructed by a divine rational agent, and so the perfection of reason meant that the Stoic sage could know for certain when suicide was right. Our ethical prescriptions, of course, cannot rest on such claims.
Many famous figures did in fact take their own life in accordance with this doctrine. We find its origin in Socrates’ death, which, although ordered by the Athenian state, is often considered a suicide given that the philosopher seemed to antagonise the jury in his defence on purpose and also refused to escape jail when given the chance.[4] Socrates himself did not approve of suicide unless one had some kind of divine sign that this was the right course of action. The Stoics saw themselves as acting within this Socratic framework: each individual’s reason was a part of the divine pneuma, and so by rational calculation someone could know when it was right to take their life. Indeed, the Hellenistic founders of the Stoa, Zeno and his successor Cleanthes, are both alleged to have committed suicide, and many notable Romans in the late Republic and early Empire did the same. Cato the Younger did so in order to avoid submitting to Caesar as tyrant, and the Neronian writers Seneca and Petronius also took their own lives. In all the literary depictions of these suicides, what consistently stands out is how the agent is calm and rational, discussing with friends their fatal decision. So, how do we justify holding such a radically different attitude to suicide from the Stoics? A contrast between the two reveals three important reasons.
About two years ago, my grandad began to notice that he couldn’t feel his feet while driving. Alarmed at this sudden lack of sensation, he went to the doctor’s and was eventually diagnosed with a nervous condition called Cauda Equina Syndrome. It means that the bundle of nerves at the bottom of the spine which resemble a horse’s tail (hence cauda equina) are damaged. The loss of feeling in one’s feet gradually rises into the legs until there is complete numbness in the lower-half of the body.

  1. What’s Reasonable About Suicide?

The first is circumstantial. Over two-thousand years ago, one could imagine how much more frequently people were forced to confront their own mortality. Given the prospect of terminal illness, disability, or being defeated in battle, we can see why the Stoics saw suicide as the right option in certain circumstances – it was only way to preserve complete virtue, their ultimate good. By contrast, the wealth of medical expertise today, as well as the obvious point that one is less likely to be forced by some tyrannical figure to do something they don’t want to (as Cato was), make considering suicide far less reasonable.
Having been a farmer and carpenter all his life, my grandad was unable to do any of the normal activities with which he would fill his day. Not only was he physically incapacitated, but he also felt lost in a rapidly developing world, stuck at home during the pandemic and surrounded by technology which he had (and still has) no idea how to interact with. Stripped of his identity, the unfortunate reality was that most days he experienced more depression than joy. On one occasion when I visited him, he told me in a remarkably calm manner that he often thought it would be better if he could just ‘turn off the tap’. He didn’t sound irrational or in despair; the way he said it was simply matter-of-fact. He felt like he’d led a good life, seen his children marry and grandchildren grow up, and had more or less had his fill.
[6] Benatar, D. (2006). Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. OUP.
[4] Plato, Apology and Phaedo

  1. Stoicism and Suicide

To be sure, the Stoics did not prescribe what they called a eulogos exagôgê (rational departure) for everyone.[1] First, one had to be a sage (for which the Stoics set a very high bar) to know infallibly that suicide was the right option. In addition, there were only very restricted circumstances within which it would be right to take one’s life. One of these was when there were so many ‘dispreferred indifferents’ in one’s life, such as extreme poverty or disease, that it became ‘in accordance with nature’ to commit suicide. Suicide was also permissible if it allowed someone to avoid doing shameful things, or was living a life contrary to one’s identity. Regarding the latter case, Epictetus even stated that a philosopher should consider suicide if their beard was cut – so important was this feature to their persona.[2] Many Stoics like Seneca also considered social obligations to family, friends, and the wider community as a reason not to commit suicide.[3]
[1] SVF 3. 757-768
This essay received an honourable mention in the undergraduate category.

  1. Contemporary Justifications

Although the Stoics’ account appears strange to us, many of the conditions under which they believed that suicide was right are comparable to those stipulated in arguments which justify euthanasia – assisted suicide. For example: the presence of an incurable illness or disability, a rational decision made by the agent, and a lack of social ties. There is a strong argument that an individual has the right to a lethal injection provided that they are reliably informed by a medical professional that their condition is terminal, that they have made a reasoned decision themselves, and that they lack social ties to others for whom their death would bring intolerable pain. In this way, the ‘rational departure’ which the Stoics detailed is not as far from our own views as we might think.
Fortunately for my grandad, a risky but successful spinal surgery has recently alleviated many of the symptoms. Although he still requires assistance at walking and isn’t the same person as before, he has noticeably more optimism about life. And yet I can’t help but dwell on the strange experience of being told by a family member that they would prefer not to be alive.

  1. What Can We Take From The Stoic Position?

Finally, these first two justifications are compounded by the fact that, unlike the Stoics, we ascribe an unparalleled value to life itself. The perception of suicide as a tragedy that we should endeavour to prevent arises not only from the pain experienced by loved ones but also from the unique value which many believe life holds. Whether one is religious or not, something seems wrong about including life in some kind of rational equation which can tell us whether or not we should consider suicide. In the same way that virtuous activity was unqualifiedly good for the Stoics, on a completely different level of value from everything else,[5] so do many of us feel this way about life. Consider an anti-natalist like David Benatar, who argues that we can perform a rational calculation about pleasure and pain to conclude that we shouldn’t bring people into the world.[6] In this respect, his rational approach to life and death is comparable to that employed by the Stoics. And yet, he is unwilling to commit to the position that everyone already born should commit suicide. To me, this seems to arise from the correct notion that life is not comparable to other goods.
[2] Epiectetus, Discourses 1.2.25-37 It is remarkable that such a contrasting view of suicide was held two-thousand years ago in Imperial Rome. Although we should be wary of suggesting that the Stoic doctrine on suicide was unanimously accepted, Stoicism was extremely influential in Roman society at the time. At the heart of the Stoics’ beliefs about suicide was their conception of the good as virtue alone. Virtuous behaviour, through perfected reason, was the only consistent object of pursuit for the true Stoic. Such objects as health, wealth, and food, though deemed to be ‘of plus value’ and therefore worth obtaining omnibus paribus, were inconsequential to one’s eudaimonia. In other words, the Stoics thought that there were situations in which not pursuing these ‘preferred indifferents’ was right. And since even one’s life was placed in this category, suicide was deemed the appropriate action in certain circumstances.
The Stoics’ approach to suicide appears to differ remarkably from our own. By contrasting these two views, I will explore why a difference in circumstances, epistemic claims, and value ascribed to life itself provides justification for our believing that suicide is wrong where the Stoics did not. I take suicide as the act of taking one’s own life both with intent and by using only one’s own capacities. After considering how the Stoic account of suicide brings into relief the reasons which lie behind our own view, I will outline two valuable insights which arise from the comparison: first, that the conditions many hold as required for euthanasia to be permissible are actually very similar to those the Stoics’ required for suicide; second, that the Stoics’ open and rational confrontation of mortality reveals how our own reticence towards it is tragically inadequate.
[5] Cicero, De Finibus III.45
What is more illuminating, however, is how the contrast between the Stoics’ approach to suicide and our own brings into relief the negative impact of our reluctance to confront it. Even if we hold that suicide (separate from euthanasia) is not permissible given the three justifications above, as I believe we should, this does not mean that it is a topic which we should avoid. This problem is wrapped up more generally in the stigmatisation of mental health and creates conditions in which those suffering have nowhere to turn. Despite the efforts of charities to open the conversation, most suicides are completely unexpected to friends and family. We do not need to hold, as the Stoics did, that there are many circumstances under which suicide is appropriate in order to realise that advocating for open and reasonable discussion about suicide and mental health would save many lives. It is precisely because we think that suicide is never right and such a tragedy that it demands open and reflective discussion. The Stoics’ approach to suicide reveals how we could better guide human action by confronting and discussing it openly.
[3] Reydams-Schills, G. J. (2005) The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility and Affection. Chicago: 45-52.
The first thing that struck me was that a discussion of this sort felt like a taboo – something which ought not to be said. Although he expressed his thoughts euphemistically, it is clear that my grandfather meant suicide. He had come to terms with his feelings internally, but was hesitant at expressing them directly to me. Despite its prevalence among young people, suicide is a word to be shuddered at in most cultures. The other strange aspect of the interaction was how calmly and rationally he had thought about whether or not he was better off dead. We normally associate suicide with a sudden and uncontrollable last resort, not the subject of rational discussion. Even though, since his surgery, my grandfather still has plenty to live for, I still feel that there was something reasonable in what he was saying at the time.