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.

The Original Virgin Suicides

When looking at discussions of suicide in the ancient world I have been struck by how different attitudes were then when compared to our own. I guess I always knew this, but had not really thought too deeply upon it. I am reluctant to post some of them, because I think that out of context they could be read harmfully as a support for if not glorification of suicide. At the same time, however, I think it probably does more harm than good not to take a hard look at ancient attitudes.

Here’s an anecdote that is chilling and a bit upsetting. Warning: it contains misogyny as well as reference to suicide clusters. In general, this reminded me of the suicide clusters in Silicon Valley discussed widely a few years ago. But–and I think this is more important–it also points to groups of suicide as an attempt to wrest agency in response to desperation, a lack of agency, and marginalization.

Aulus Gellius, Varia Historia 15.10

“In his first of the books On the Soul, Plutarch included the following tale when he was commenting on maladies which afflict human minds. He said that there were maiden girls of Milesian families who at a certain time suddenly and without almost any clear reason made a plan to die and that many killed themselves by hanging.

When this became more common in following days and there was no treatment to be found for the spirits of those who were dedicated to dying, The Milesians decreed that all maidens who would die by hanging their bodies would be taken out to burial completely naked except for the rope by which they were hanged. After this was decreed, the maidens did not seek suicide only because they were frightened by the thought of so shameful a funeral.”

Plutarchus in librorum quos περὶ ψυχῆς inscripsit primo cum de morbis dissereret in animos hominum incidentibus, virgines dixit Milesii nominis, fere quot tum in ea civitate erant, repente sine ulla evidenti causa voluntatem cepisse obeundae mortis ac deinde plurimas vitam suspendio amississe. id cum accideret in dies crebrius neque animis earum mori perseverantium medicina adhiberi quiret, decrevisse Milesios ut virgines, quae corporibus suspensis demortuae forent, ut hae omnes nudae cum eodem laqueo quo essent praevinctae efferrentur. post id decretum virgines voluntariam mortem non petisse pudore solo deterritas tam inhonesti funeris.

Suicides of public figures cause disbelief because of our cultural misconceptions about depression and about the importance of material wealth and fame to our well-being. While some clusters of suicide can be understood as a reflex of the “threshold problem”, we fail to see the whole picture if we do not also see that human well-being is connected to a sense of agency and belonging. Galen, in writing about depression, notes that melancholy can make us desire that which we fear.

Galen, De Locis Affectis 8.190-191

“But there are ten thousand other fantasies. The melancholic differ from one another, but even though they all exhibit fear, despair, blaming of life and hatred for people, they do not all want to die. For some, fear of death is the principle source of their depression. Some will seem paradoxical to you because they fear death and desire death at the same time.”

ἄλλα τε μυρία τοιαῦτα φαντασιοῦνται. διαφέρονται δὲ ἀλλήλων οἱ μελαγχολικοὶ, τὸ μὲν φοβεῖσθαι καὶ δυσθυμεῖν καὶ μέμφεσθαι τῇ ζωῇ καὶ μισεῖν τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἅπαντες ἔχοντες, ἀποθανεῖν δ’ ἐπιθυμοῦντες οὐ πάντες, ἀλλ’ ἔστιν ἐνίοις αὐτῶν αὐτὸ δὴ τοῦτο κεφάλαιον τῆς μελαγχολίας, τὸ περὶ τοῦ θανάτου δέος· ἔνιοι δὲ ἀλλόκοτοί σοι δόξουσιν, ἅμα τε καὶ δεδιέναι τὸν θάνατον καὶ θανατᾷν.

In thinking about the impact of agency and belonging on our sense of well-being and relationship to death, I have been significantly influence by this book:

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. London: Allen Lane, 2015.

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.

“A Contest of Steel Itself”: Untranslatable Euripides

For a few lines in the second choral ode from Euripides’ Helen, the fine Bryn Mawr Commentary (J. W. Ambrose and A. D. Wooley 1992) almost give up: “Virtually untranslatable.

BrynMawr

Here is the full passage where Helen sings (348-359)

Ελ. σὲ γὰρ ἐκάλεσα, σὲ δὲ κατόμοσα
τὸν ὑδρόεντι δόνακι χλωρὸν
Εὐρώταν, θανόντος
εἰ βάξις ἔτυμος ἀνδρὸς
†ἅδε μοι τί τάδ’ ἀσύνετα†,
φόνιον αἰώρημα
διὰ δέρας ὀρέξομαι,
ἢ ξιφοκτόνον διωγμὸν
αἱμορρύτου σφαγᾶς
αὐτοσίδαρον ἔσω πελάσω διὰ σαρκὸς ἅμιλλαν,
θῦμα τριζύγοις θεαῖσι
τῶι τε σήραγγας ῎Ι-
δας ἐνίζοντι Πριαμί-
δαι ποτ’ ἀμφὶ βουστάθμους.

“I call on you, I swear on you,
Eurotas, green with watery reed,
If the report of my husband dying
Is true—and how could I misunderstand these things?—
Then, I will stretch around my neck
A murderous noose.
Or, I will bring home
The sword-death mission
Of blood-flowing slaughter.
A contest of steel itself through my flesh,
A sacrifice to the three-yoked goddesses
And to Priam’s son sitting in the Idaian cave
Near the cow-folds.”

William Allan in his Cambridge commentary (2008) is a bit more circumspect:

Allan.jpg

Earlier, (in disputed lines, deleted for sense and propriety more than anything else) Helen compares forms of suicide (298-302). This passage seems to correspond well to the contemplation and expansion of slaughter above.

“It is best to die? How could I not die well?
Hanging high in the air is improper,
It is thought unmannerly even by slaves.
Stabbing has something noble and fine about it.
It is a short time to gain freedom from life”

[θανεῖν κράτιστον· πῶς θάνοιμ’ ἂν οὖν καλῶς;
ἀσχήμονες μὲν ἀγχόναι μετάρσιοι,
κἀν τοῖσι δούλοις δυσπρεπὲς νομίζεται·
σφαγαὶ δ’ ἔχουσιν εὐγενές τι καὶ καλόν,
σμικρὸν δ’ ὁ καιρὸς †ἄρτ’† ἀπαλλάξαι βίου.]

Image result for Ancient Greek Helen sculpture

Sophocles Ajax 125-126

 

 

“For I see that we who live are nothing more than ghosts and empty darkness”

 

ὁρῶ γὰρ ἡμᾶς οὐδὲν ὄντας ἄλλο πλὴν

εἴδωλ᾽ ὅσοιπερ ζῶμεν ἢ κούφην σκιάν.

 

Ajax the son of Telamon was not a happy man.

Ajax took his own life in the face of disappointment and dishonor. Some blame Odysseus.

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