Suicide and the law: Stoics versus Christians

In the UK today, the Commission on Assisted Dying published the results of its year-long inquiry today, recommending that English law be changed so that it is legal to assist the suicide of anyone over 18 suffering from a terminal illness with a prognosis of less than a year.

Prime minister David Cameron has said he has no intention of changing the law, which at present treats any assistance as murder or manslaughter. He’s set out his stall as a Christian prime minister, so doesn’t want to wade into such a contentious moral issue. But nonetheless, the Commission’s recommendation is another blow in the centuries-old tussle between the Stoics and the Christians over the right to take your own life.

Socrates is sometimes taken as a champion of suicide, because he drank the cup of hemlock after being sentenced to death for impiety: indeed, one of the leading campaign groups for the right to die in the US was called the Hemlock Society. In fact, in the Phaedo, which describes Socrates’ last moments, Socrates argues that suicide is a crime against God, because our lives belong to God, not to us, therefore we’re harming something that doesn’t belong to us – a position that would later be adopted by St Augustine. Socrates doesn’t think he’s killed himself, rather he’s obeyed the execution order of the Athenian court (and also the order of his daemon, who tells him not to flee Athens).

As the Centre’s director, Thomas Dixon, has argued on this blog, it was really Socrates’ descendants, the Stoics, who insisted on humans’ moral right to end their own lives. For the Stoics, suicide is (or can be) an expression of our autonomy and dignity as rational humans. It is the ultimate lifestyle choice. Seneca wrote: “Just as I choose a ship to sail in or a house to live in, so I choose a death for my passage through life.” We may have little control in our lives, but we always retain the final option of taking our own lives, if the circumstances of our life become too unpleasant – though naturally, as Stoics, we would take our lives with unflappable efficiency rather than stormy passion.

And yet the Stoics were also theists – their ethics are based on the idea that we should calmly accept whatever circumstances God sends us. So how could they justify suicide? They seem to get round this paradox by arguing it’s acceptable to kill oneself if God sends you a sign or a summons that it’s time to shuffle off. Thus Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school, killed himself after he tripped and broke his toe in his old age. He took this as a sign from God summoning him to end his life, and killed himself by either holding his breath or starving himself, according to different reports. His successor, Cleanthes, likewise killed himself in advanced old age by starving himself. Stoics seemed to think it was acceptable to kill yourself if you were either very old, or are facing the prospect of torture, imprisonment or execution by a tyrant. In that instance, suicide is an expression of autonomy – you are denying the tyrant the ability to imprison you or take your life by ending it yourself, on your own terms.

Thus Cato the Younger, after losing a key battle in the Roman Civil War, killed himself rather than be taken prisoner by Augustus Caesar. Likewise Seneca kills himself when accused of treachery by the emperor Nero (as shown in the painting by Rubens above). Both Cato and Seneca try to stage-manage their deaths, to be the ‘authors of the script of their dying’, as the thinker Charles Leadbetter puts it. They both follow the script laid down by Plato in the Phaedo – Cato actually spends his last hours reading the Phaedo (obviously skipping over the passage condemning suicide) – and both their suicides became famous scenes, often portrayed in paintings like that of Rubens above, as instances of pagan virtue and courage.

Yet it’s worth noting that, in both instances, death eluded their ability to stage-manage it. Cato failed to kill himself outright, and spent his last moments in agony. Seneca slit his wrists, but the blood flowed too slowly to kill him. So he slit veins and arteries in his legs, but that didn’t work either. So he took a poison, but again it took too long to take effect. So finally his servants carried him into a steaming hot bath. There, he dripped water onto his servants, saying he annointed them. I find that pathetic, in the old meaning of the word: Seneca desperately trying to maintain his dignity while his carefully stage-managed death keeps on going wrong. The steam from the bath finally suffocated him, apparently.

The Stoic defence of suicide was accepted by Roman law, and suicide remained legal under Christian law until the 4th century BC, when St Augustine returned to the Platonic position that our lives are not ours for the taking. By the 12th century, Christian theologians, while celebrating many aspects of Stoicism and revering the likes of Seneca as quasi-saints, were careful to argue that the Stoics got the issue of suicide very wrong. In fact, the word ‘suicide’ comes from the neologism suicidium, from a 12th century Christian tract written against Seneca. During the Renaissance, when Seneca and Stoicism enjoyed a big revival, thinkers again pondered whether the Stoics or the Christians were right about suicide. The most famous speech in the English language is, in fact, a consideration of just this issue:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them?

By the eighteenth century, as Christianity declined as a cultural force in Europe, and people’s belief in the supernatural began to weaken, philosophers and writers dared to voice their support for people’s right to kill themselves, should life become unbearable. David Hume, for example, attempted in an essay called On Suicide, written in 1755, to ‘restore men to their native liberty by showing that [suicide] may be free from every imputation of guilt, or blame, according to the sentiments of the ancient philosophers’. Hume argues that ‘such is our natural horror of death no man ever threw away life while it was worth keeping’. But Hume did not dare to publish his defence of suicide in his lifetime – his essay was published posthumously in 1783.

Today, the Stoics seem to be winning the argument. The baby-boomer generation, like the Stoics, are increasingly demanding the right to stage-manage their own deaths, to make their deaths the ultimate lifestyle choice.

Suicide finally became legalised in the UK in 1961, while assisted suicide was effectively decriminalised in 2010 by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). Since then, there have been around 40 instances of assisted suicide in England and Wales which were not prosecuted. But the area is still murky: the DPP says it is OK to assist suicide if the final act is taken by the dying person, but if the assistant gives the final injection, they can be (and are) tried for manslaughter.

It’s one of the most difficult, painful areas to consider and discuss. Perhaps today the debate is moving beyond the Stoic versus Christian argument about ‘whose life is it anyway’, and is particularly focused on how we can protect the vulnerable from being pressured into dying by others.

3 thoughts on “Suicide and the law: Stoics versus Christians

  1. Great article. Roman emperors actively encouraged suicide – both Caligula and Nero gave many Roman nobles no choice other than to commit suicide (Pontius Pilate, for example). Cato (who was actually Julius Caesar’s enemy, not Augustus’s) was held up to be a paragon of virtue before and after his death – many Romans bewailed their own lack of courage in submitting to Caesar rather than commit suicide. In a small way, this led to Caesar’s eventual murder and subsequent suicides of Brutus and Cassius. It is worth noting that almost of Cato’s prominent contemporaries were either murdered of committed suicide, so it’s not as if it was such a drastic action at the time.

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