Hedonism and Suicide

Hugh E.P. Platt, A Last Ramble in the Classics:

“Roman philosophy is generally regarded as a mere reflection of the philosophy of Greece; and certainly I shall not venture to dispute this view. I would only remark that in any speculative subject, except for its own students, the opinions of the pupils who enter the world are often of greater interest than the doctrines of the learned professor who instructed them. To a person studying political economy the teaching of Adam Smith is of greater moment than the conclusions of William Pitt. But in what I may call general history the conclusions of William Pitt are of no less moment than the teaching of his master. So Phaedrus and Diodotus and Philo were undoubtedly more capable philosophers than Cicero; but most of us would rather possess Cicero’s philosophical writings than the writings of all three. However, my object in this note is to call attention to a single matter in which, as I think, a Roman author perceived a logical consequence of a system of morals more clearly than the Greeks. Possibly I ought to except Hegesias the Cyrenaic.

To be complete, any hedonistic system must assign a place, and a very important place, to suicide. Whatever value one sets on different pains and pleasures, there must be many persons in whose existence the pains present and future greatly preponderate. In all these cases suicide is the logical issue of hedonism. Further, a survey of life will lead many hedonists to pessimism. But to pessimism there is one unanswerable reply: ‘malum est in necessitate vivere. Sed in necessitate vivere necessitas nulla est.’ [‘It is bad to live in need. But there is no need to live in need.’] Sen. Ep. 12. Years ago a friend of mine used to maintain that a father owed his son a series of written apologies for bringing him into the world, and that the apology should always take the form of a cheque. But the father, if a hedonist, might retort,’ I have brought you into the world, and given you the opportunity of enjoying yourself there. If you do not like it, you need not stay. ‘Nil melius aeterna lex fecit, quam quod unum introitum nobis ad vitam dedit, exitus multos.‘ [‘The eternal law did nothing better than to give us one entrance into life, but many possible exits.’] ibid. 70.

Now Seneca, though the most unsystematic of writers, is the one philosopher who has perceived this result of a system clearly. The reader of the Epistles will observe that, though Seneca is commonly classed as a stoic, he constantly based what I may call his advocacy of suicide on hedonistic grounds. In this he was more consistent than the Greeks. Every student of philosophy must have been surprised to find that while stoicism upheld necessity and predestination, Epicurus tried to combine with a mechanical theory of atoms the incompatible doctrine of the freedom of the will. No less incongruous does it appear that the stoics rather than the epicureans undertook the defence of the legitimacy of suicide. How can such a course be reconciled with the teaching of the Porch? For the wise man who has attained virtue, or for the rest of mankind who may attain it, to commit suicide is to abandon the summum bonum or to resign the hope of it. Such abandonment or such resignation is absurd on the part of a philosopher, who knows how utterly trivial are the ἀποπροηγμένα which lead to such an act. In one contingency only, as it seems to me, could a stoic reasonably withdraw from life. It was the opinion of Chrysippus that virtue is not indefectible, and that the wise man may lose it through intoxication or insanity; Diog. L. vii. 127. In so melancholy an event the suicide of a stoic may perhaps be pardoned.

I would only add that hedonism implies a further requirement. Though his pains greatly exceed his pleasures, a man may be physically incapable of committing suicide, if, for example, he is paralysed. In such a case in a hedonistic society his friends would provide him with an euthanasia. On this subject, however, Seneca is silent.”

Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, The Suicide of Seneca

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