There are periods of our lives when we face enormous worries; they might be about our health, our status, our jobs, money…
As we search for a measure of calm, the standard line (which we hear from a part of our own minds and from well-wishers) is to reassure ourselves either that the dreadful fear won’t turn into a reality or that our apprehensions will be manageable enough once we learn to adjust to them. This is clearly the kindest and most sage advice we could take on board on a great many occasions.
But on others, as our ongoing panic attests, something about it won’t quite do. The terror is so large, the impossibility of enduring what might happen so evident to a side of us that our intelligence searches restlessly for something stronger. It’s at this point that we might, in the dark hours, throw out a comment to ourselves that, as soon as we’ve uttered it, sounds monstrous, horrific, utterly alien and also in an abstract way rather soothing: if things were to get really bad, truly bad, more than we would want to bear, it wouldn’t have to go on forever.
It is because we are – even as atheists – the heirs of two thousand years of emphasis on the sanctity of every life, and of a faith in a benevolent God who assures each one of us of His love right now and His peace in eternity, that this middle of the night thought is also likely to sound grotesque, outlawed and embarrassing.
However, some of the point of studying the history of ideas is to recover perspectives which have wholly disappeared from our world view – and to hold them up for understanding and examination. It is in this context that we might survey the arguments of the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome, among them Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Zeno and Cleanthes, who in different ways put forward the view that choosing our own end may at points be a hugely realistic possibility that a self-possessed intelligent person could opt for after a great deal of thought, not invariably a piece of madness or a momentary aberration or mental illness.
For the Stoics, contentment – or as they put it ‘dignitas’ – is founded on a life in which our bodies and minds leave us free of continuous pain, in which outer circumstances do not continually humiliate us and in which we have not made any mistakes or ‘tragic slips’ (the Stoics were keen observers of Greek tragedy) that mean that we are forever ashamed of and appalled by the direction of our lives.
The Stoics also knew that our capacity to ensure a life of ‘dignitas’ is vulnerable to many forces not wholly within our command. We have almost no say over the condition of our bodies, the minds of others can rarely be directed as we would wish, and we have passions, blind spots and areas of foolishness in our characters that escape the filter of our higher faculties. The term that the Stoics gave to capture this vast uncontrollable terrain we face was ‘Fortune’. And, as they insisted, key elements of what we require to lead a decent life lie in the realm of Fortune.
The whole point of Stoic philosophy is to help us reach a point where we are not held hostage by the infinite cruelties of Fortune. The wise person tries to get to a stage where the indignities that Fortune may impose don’t constantly terrify and crush them and where they have a feeling of being able to dodge Fortune’s blows when they need to. This explains the primordial position of death within the Stoic thesis – and why the wise can fairly meditate on their capacity to leave their own lives at a moment of their choosing.
We can listen to Seneca, expressing the idea in a letter to a friend in the 60s AD:
“The wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can… He always reflects concerning the quality, and not the quantity, of his life. As soon as there are numerous events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free. And this privilege is his, not only when the crisis is upon him, but as soon as Fortune seems to be maltreating him; then he looks about carefully and sees whether he ought, or ought not, to end his life on that account. He holds that it makes no difference to him whether his taking-off be natural or self-inflicted, whether it comes later or earlier. He does not regard it with fear, as if it were a great loss; for no man can lose very much when but a driblet remains. It is not a question of dying earlier or later, but of dying well or ill. And dying well means escape from the danger of living ill.“
Seneca was not advocating random or thoughtless exits; he was attempting to give us more courage in the face of anxiety by reminding us that it is always within our remit, when we have genuinely tried everything and rationally had enough, to choose a noble path out of our troubles. He was seeking to strip willed death of its associations with pathology and to render it instead an option that the wise always know is there as a backstop. It doesn’t even need to be a grim spectre; the Stoics emphasised that death could be a moment to celebrate what had gone well in a life, to thank friends and to appreciate the beautiful and good sides of the world. The idea was to see death as a door through which we knew we had the right and the capacity to walk through when it felt necessary.
“You can find men who have gone so far as to profess wisdom and yet maintain that one should not offer violence to one’s own life, and hold it accursed for a man to be the means of his own destruction; we should wait, say they, for the end decreed by nature. But one who says this does not see that he is shutting off the path to freedom. The best thing which eternal law ever ordained was that it allowed to us one entrance into life, but many exits. Must I await the cruelty either of disease or of man, when I can depart through the midst of torture, and shake off my troubles? This is the one reason why we cannot complain of life; it keeps no one against his will. Humanity is well situated, because no man is unhappy except by his own fault. Live, if you so desire; if not, you may return to the place whence you came… If you would pierce your heart, a gaping wound is not necessary – a lancet will open the way to that great freedom, and tranquillity can be purchased at the cost of a pin-prick.“
Some of the reason why these ideas sound so alien is, as has been mentioned, because of our Christian past. And yet many of us continue to hold on to the Christian views of the end of life even while we don’t actually believe in their underlying rationale – and indeed, when we are far closer to the pagans in our pitiless and harsh sense of our exposure to Fortune. That is precisely why we may – in order to cope with the anxieties Fortune causes us – permit ourselves to have access to a stiffer, franker philosophy than our own.
Some of the Stoic philosophers were among the most intelligent, kindly, wise and gentle people who have ever lived. However alien some of their views may sound, we would do well to extend sympathy to why they held them – and what relief they would have found in them on their most challenging days.