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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Of Suicide: Spinoza vs. the Stoics

For all their surface similarities, Spinoza and the Stoics come down on starkly opposed sides when it comes to at least one ethical issue, namely the rightness or wrongness of suicide. While the Stoics were not “for” suicide, in that they recognized that all things being equal it would be better not to be driven to it, nonetheless, they recognized some circumstances under which suicide is not only permissible, but honourable and praiseworthy. Such a view would be anathema to Spinoza.

What is herein said of the Stoic attitude towards suicide ought to be qualified by the observation that it is at least to some extent coloured by Stoicism’s situation in the context of historical events. Later Stoicism found its greatest flowering in Roman times, becoming its unofficial state philosophy until it was superseded by Christianity. Its stress on the doctrine that no man is unfree unless he chooses to be was a great consolation for many Roman elites after the fall of the Republic. They could maintain their sense of dignity even when left with no space for political action. The Roman Stoic model of this doctrine was the Younger Cato (“the Stoic”, 95-46 BC) who committed suicide after Caesar’s victory over the Republican cause at Thapsus. His death was gruesome. He chose to fall on his sword rather than beg his life from Caesar. However, he was discovered by his friends and bandaged. When he got the opportunity, he tore off his bandages and reopened his wounds with his bare hands. Cato’s suicide inspired many Stoic panegyrics. Valerius Maximus wrote: “Utica [where Cato died] is a monument to your illustrious end, Cato, where from your bravest of wounds more glory flowed than blood. Falling resolutely on your sword, you gave a great testimony to mankind how much more desirable to men of worth should be dignity without life than life without dignity” (Memorable Deeds and Sayings 3.2).

Normally for the Stoics suicide was a sign of weakness. Even so, Epictetus for example often reminded listeners that it was always an option, the thought here being that always having this way out would make life’s difficulties that much more bearable. His oft-repeated euphemism in the Discourses is that “the door lies open.” Though not to be encouraged, when done by the wise man under appropriate circumstances suicide could become the best thing to do. As Cicero has Cato remark in De Finibus 3.17:

"When a man’s circumstances contain a preponderance of things in accordance with nature, it is appropriate for him to remain alive; when he possesses or sees in prospect a majority of the contrary things, it is appropriate for him to depart from life …. For the Stoic view is that happiness, which means life in harmony with nature, is a matter of seizing the right moment. So that Wisdom her very self upon occasion bids the Wise Man to leave her."

Presumably the wise man has already achieved happiness, so that it is no failure for him to put an end to things. However, Cato says in the same passage that it is better for the foolish man to remain living; he will have something to learn from adversity. The wise man will end his life if circumstances make it no longer feasible for him to live up to his moral purpose with dignity. Thus, when Cato was besieged and his cause was lost, it was no longer possible for him to live with dignity as a free man, because he would have to beg his life from Caesar. This is given more force when we understand that at the time Caesar was not the hero he has become to later generations. Cato and his senatorial contemporaries were of the opinion (and rightly) that Caesar was a very morally disreputable character, not the kind of person before whom a wise man would relish abasing himself.

Given the gruesome manner of his death, and the determination it must have required, it is difficult to characterize Cato’s suicide as an example of passive weakness. His Roman admirers took it as an act of supreme strength and resolution. Seneca (who himself committed suicide in 66AD) puts these words in Cato’s mouth:

"'although,' said he, 'all the world has fallen under one man’s sway, although Caesar’s legions guard the land, his fleets the sea, and Caesar’s troops beset the city gates, yet Cato has a way of escape; with one single hand he will open a wide path to freedom. This sword, unstained and blameless even in civil war, shall at last do good and noble service: the freedom which it could not give to his country it shall give to Cato!'" (De Providentia 2.10)

It was an act of high moral purpose.

Now contrast this with Spinoza’s firm disapproval of suicide. He explicitly refers to the Stoic Seneca in this passage:

"Therefore nobody, unless he is overcome by external causes contrary to his own nature neglects to seek his own advantage, that is, to preserve his own being. Nobody, I repeat, refuses food or kills himself from the necessity of his own nature, but from the constraint of external causes. This can take place in many ways. A man kills himself when he is compelled by another who twists the hand in which he happens to hold a sword and makes him turn the blade against his heart; or when, in obedience to a tyrant’s command, he, like Seneca, is compelled to open his veins, that is, he chooses a lesser evil to avoid a greater. Or it may come about when unobservable external causes condition a man’s imagination and affect his body in such a way that the latter assumes a different nature contrary to the previously existing one …. But that a man … should endeavor to cease to exist or to be changed into another form, is as impossible as that something should come from nothing, as anyone can see with a little thought." (Ethics, Schol. Pr. 20, Pt. IV)

All suicides are cases of weakness of some kind. Either one’s conatus (i.e. that metaphysical striving for continued existence infused in all objects) is overcome from without, by so changing and deranging his mind that he is effectively no longer himself, or else his suicide is really a case of prudence or self-interest, the path of least resistance. In this latter instance, if he were truly active he would choose life, pushing back against the forces that would drive him under. The truly active person will choose to live in those circumstances where life’s adversities make life the more courageous choice.

For Spinoza, the idea of somebody actively choosing to end his life is monstrous, because it would require the sort of “spontaneous” or self-caused annihilation that conatus simply does not allow for. It would be a metaphysical absurdity. Insofar as suicide occurs, it must have a cause external to the person’s own conatus. There can, then, never be such a thing as a noble suicide; it is always the result of weakness. Cato presumably either should have found some other way to resist Caesar, or else he should have manfully resigned himself to his defeat and chosen what for him was the path of greater resistance: to beg Caesar for his life. To put it in Nietzschean terms, his response should have been amor fati (“love of fate”). If he were truly free and active he would have lived: “A free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation of life not of death” (Pr. 67, Pt. IV). Where the Stoics saw Cato’s suicide as a last act of defiance, Spinoza sees simply the final weak throes of a man’s utter defeat, like a drowning man’s last watery intake of breath.

Suicide is one example where, despite a number of striking similarities in philosophical outlook between Spinoza and the Stoics, stark differences emerge on the question of how to live a life, as well as what attitude to have towards it.

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