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Stoic philosophy and voluntary death

Kelley Cunningham
02:39 PM ET (US)
This weeks readings strike me with their similarit to the Japanese ideas of death that we have been reading about in the Nobility of Failure and Chrsy.and the Sword. The ultimate dignity is in choosing how one faces death and dying to escape pain or dishonor. I am currently reading the piece about suicide so that will have to be discussed in class.
Karen JohannsPerson was signed in when posted
10:43 AM ET (US)
What an interesting set of readings! To some degree they reminded me of Buddhist philosophy, the detachment from suffering, etc. Certainly the Stoics argue for as much control over one's life and death as possible. The Enchiridion reads like a virtual handbook of how to run one's life. I did find some important differences between Seneca and Epictetus in their outlooks on death and suicide. Seneca seems to argue that as soon as life becomes too much of a burden, if dishonor or shame can't be avoided, or if physical pain or illness incapacitates you, then it's time to reach for the sword (or in one case, the toilet brush). Epictetus, on the other hand, doesn't caution against suicide, but killing oneself isn't a reflex one should cultivate as soon as life becomes unbearable. Epictetus uses the death of Socrates to make his point: Socrates awaited his fate in prison, when certainly suicide or escape was an option for him. Instead, he upheld his contract with Athens and allowed himself to be executed. Epictetus remarks,"such a man is not to be preserved by a base action, but is preserved by dying, instead of running away." One doesn't run towards death, but accepts it with equanimity. In this way the philosopher is victorious in life. As Epictetus said, "If I can throw off a paltry body, am I any longer afraid of a tyrant?"
Mandy Cass
09:13 AM ET (US)
Something that hit me while I was reading the selections on Stoicism is how everything seemed to be "designed" to allow people to live (and die) gracefully and with dignity. It seems to me that this is the cause for which the stoics would die, and it is very different from the rational of other philosophies we have read. The question posed to us regarded the difference between the Stoic cause and a Homerian cause. If the ability to leave life gracefully is the cause for the stoics, then it is obviously very different than for the Greeks. Where in Greece killing yourself just to avoid suffering would have likely been seen as cowardly and shameful to your family, by Epictetus' definition, that is the acceptable time for one to do so.

Another interesting point comes in the first line of Epictetus' "On Courage", the aspect of will necessary for death to be noble. This has followed through all the examples we've looked at so far, and even in this vastly different ideology, it is still paramount. I would even venture to say that he puts more direct emphasis on this point than have any of the other readings. This is, of course, integrally connected to the idea of dying gracefully.

The point I found most fascinating about the stoic philosophy, and something which falls in the heart of it is their unwillingness to put the label "evil" on anything and the way in which they approach the point of bad things happening to good people and seemingly good things happening to bad people. Seneca of course address this at length, as does Epictetus. The strong emphasis on this point makes me want to know more about what was going on in the world at this time that was driving people to ask these kinds of questions (and which I assume would also be responsible for the popularity of stoicism). What conditions were the people being subjected to which would have them desperate for answers as to why they, if they truly were living a good life, were not being rewarded. The stoic answer to this question must have been especially appealing, as not only was it compatible with the new benevolent view of God, but it also gave its subscribers reason to accept their sufferings graciously. The inclusion of suicide as an option allows the stoics to maintain, above all, grace and dignity under pressure.
Evie Thibault
01:11 AM ET (US)
Q: Do you think a Stoic would actively die for a cause the way Antigone did?

I think a Stoic would die for a cause, but I'm not sure how closely they would follow Antigone's example. Embedded in this question is the assumption that Antigone's death was "active" and that there is an opposite kind of death, but still self-inflicted, that can be called "passive." If someone dies by their own hand, or their death is caused knowingly by their actions, I don't think it can be called passive. Antigone was sentenced to death, or the equivalent, because she held to her beliefs about burying the dead. Epictetus stresses the importance of personal belief and conviction, asking "If you wish to be a man of modesty and fidelity, who shall prevent you? If you wish not to be restrained or compelled, who shall compel you to desires contrary to your principles; to aversions contrary to your opinion?"(Discourses, in packet, p. 83) This conviction that no one can take away your principles, and the reason behind them, is quite similar to that which motivated Antigone. She performed an action in accordance with her reason and brought about her own death.

One of the things the stoics seem a bit muddled about, and may be one of those paradoxes our fearless leader referred to, is when and if it is acceptable to die by your own hand. In Antigone's case, she spared herself a slow death; Epictetus sanctions killing yourself "if suffering be beyond endurance" (ibid, 81). In other places in the texts, the Stoics urge people not to leap to self-inflicted death as the answer to all suffering, but to just take that step when it is reasonable to do so. If living in freedom is living reasonably, and freedom means living like you want to, it is reasonable to either commit suicide or provoke another to kill you when you are prevented from living as you want to. This is the reason why Cato, who killed himself as a political statement of Caesar's illegitimacy (as the story goes), can be used as a Stoic hero.

The comparison between the Stoics and Antigone is complicated by the different times, societies, and codes of honor they lived in and with. As Hannah pointed out, the Stoics have a calm tone and message that is very different from Antigone. Despite these many differences, a Stoic could actively die for a cause the way Antigone did and be justified by the texts we are examining.
Hannah Fisher
09:26 PM ET (US)
I have to begin this posting with a comment on the style of the readings for this week. The stoics are so calm! Reading them puts me into a lull and convinces me that everything they say is correct. That said, I'm afraid I'll have to do some more thinking as to the flaws in their arguments. I wonder if their contemporarries were also influenced by the fatherly, soothing tone. I was most interested in their determination to make death something natural and something that shouldn't be feared. This is a part of their strategy for living. Epictetus says when describing someone going to see someone in power and not being admitted, "If, with all this, it be your duty to go, bear what happens, and never say to yourself, 'it was not worth so much.' For this is vulgar, and like a man bewildered by externals." It's as if you can't even remark on death. You can't say, "Goodbye cruel world, I'm going to meet my maker" because that would be an acknowledgement of an external. The act itself is natural, even if it is suicide, which I think most modern people would say isn't natural, but the mentioning of it isn't. I may just be misinterpreting it all. We are supposed to meet our death with as much indifference as we live our lives. That reminds me of what we talked about last time, "practice" can make the poor person accustomed to hunger and the gladiator to the fear of death. So, if we practice at cutting ourselves off from the "things" (and emotions) of life, we can make ourselves miss nothing, neither our cups, as Epictetus likes to mention, nor our families or even our lives. This reminds me also of a quote from Spartacus (tee hee I just can't resist) "When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of living, when a slave dies he loses the pain." The stoics would tell us that we should cut ourselves off from both the pain and the pleasure so that everything just sort of flows evenly.
laura sutherland
10:21 PM ET (US)
"The thing that matters is not what you bear but how you bear it" Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, pg.30
"Disaster is virtues opportunity" Ibid, pg.37

I found this weeks readings to be particularly interesting because they help explain the actions of martyrs in many ways. I can understand the importance of honor, both personal and familial, in Rome and Greece and even Japan but I am beginning to give greater importance to the act itself and the method and character with which the martyr plays it out. Seneca writes at length about the disasters of life and how even good men can have bad experiences, but he centers his argument on the method in which each person responds to these negative situations. When someone good or bad is confronted with something negative, he seems to think that the honor comes from the bravery and accceptance of the negative act. Even more so, one cant just accept the negative act but instead not care about it, not give it weight adn in that way they will be free for life. I think this correlates to our earlier discussions about who qualifies as a martyr- it is not enough to be involved in a supposed martyr act, to be a true martyr you must give away your fear and concern over it, and willingly succomb to death for the belief (or whatever). This makes me understand the descriptions of people who die for a cause but to the observers are calm and peaceful and have no fear.
  I am also intrigued by the nature connection in stoicism and Seneca's philosophy. It reminds me of the Nobility of Death article about the sad prince who was overtaken by the natural negative events of life- the cherry blossoms falling in the wind equated to Seneca "Have you really only just discovered that you stand in the shadow of were born to them" pg 67 in packet
Carolina CamargoPerson was signed in when posted
09:30 PM ET (US)

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