Hegesias, The Death-Persuader

In an earlier post I talked about “threshold” theory and some of the very different beliefs Ancient Greeks and Romans had about suicide. This excerpt from Cicero touches upon some of the philosophical ideas about taking one’s own life while also reflecting in part on the group effect. While Hegesias’ arguments are extreme, they have some affinity with Epicurean doctrines against fearing death. In this formulation, however, the argument that death is preferable because it frees us from evils reaches a bit of an absurd conclusion. Diogenes Laertius provides an over of the Cyrenaic School.

Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 1.83-84

“Therefore, death removes us from evils not from goods, if we are seeking the truth. This, in fact, is argued by Hegesias the Cyrenaic so fully that it is said he was prohibited from speaking on these matters in schools because many people killed themselves after they heard him speak.

There is also an epigram attributed to Callimachus on the topic of Cleombrotus the Ambracian who, he says, even though nothing bad happened to him, he threw himself from the wall into the see after reading a book of Plato. From that book of Hegesias I mentioned—Starving to Death—there is a person who while in the process of leaving life by starvation is called back by his friends to whom he responds by listing the unpleasantries of human life.

I could do the same, although I will not go as far as he who thinks that there is no point for anyone to live at all. I am overlooking all others—is it still meaningful for me to continue on? I live deprived of the comfort and decoration of a family or of a public life and, certainly, if I had died previously, death would have saved me from evils not from good.”

A malis igitur mors abducit, non a bonis, verum si quaerimus. Et quidem hoc a Cyrenaico Hegesia sic copiose disputatur, ut is a rege Ptolemaeo prohibitus esse dicatur illa in scholis dicere, quod multi iis auditis mortem sibi ipsi consciscerent. Callimachi quidem epigramma in Ambraciotam Cleombrotum est, quem ait, cum ei nihil accidisset adversi, e muro se in mare abiecisse lecto Platonis libro. Eius autem, quem dixi, Hegesiae liber est, ᾽Αποκαρτερῶν, in quo a vita quidam per inediam discedens revocatur ab amicis, quibus respondens vitae humanae enumerat incommoda. Possem idem facere, etsi minus quam ille, qui omnino vivere expedire nemini putat. Mitto alios: etiamne nobis expedit? qui et domesticis et forensibus solaciis ornamentisque privati certe, si ante occidissemus, mors nos a malis, non a bonis abstraxisset.

Suda, pi 1471

“Hegesias is called the ‘death-persuader’

Πεισιθάνατος ὁ ῾Ηγησίας ἐλέγετο.

If you or someone you know feel alone, uncertain, depressed or for any reason cannot find enough joy and hope to think life is worth it, please reach out to someone. The suicide prevention hotline has a website, a phone number (1-800-273-8255), and a chat line. And if we can help you find some tether to the continuity of human experience through the Classics or a word, please don’t hesitate to ask.

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