Suicide is often treated as taboo in many ideologies, so it is surprising to find that Stoics had nothing against suicide. According to their philosophy, the only things of importance when it comes to death is that you are not afraid of death and that you have lived a good life. They are not concerned with how a person dies.
When it comes to death, we tend to fear the pain that often comes with death and we fear the unknown – the uncertainty of what comes after death. To alleviate some of this fear, Stoics believed in the idea of memento mori, which means “remember you must die”. It is a meditation that asks the question “what if I die tomorrow? Will I be satisfied with my life?” This is an important exercise that teaches us to face our fear of death and to not waste the life we currently have.
“It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live.”Marcus Aurelius
We never know when we will die, so we should live each day as if it were our last. Accomplish something everyday that you are proud of, so that way when your time finally comes, you will have lived a satisfying final day and you will have no regrets of a life not lived.
It is this mindset that allows Stoics to face death with acceptance, even if their deaths are painful and slow (as many of them were). Suicide is not taboo in Stoicism so long as your life has been well-lived. However, if you have barely begun to live, a Stoic would urge you to keep living.
The Matter of Unfinished Business
The main issue around death relates to unfinished business and leaving loved ones behind. Stoics believe we all have a life purpose and we should focus on fulfilling it. But what happens if death claims us before we have fulfilled this purpose?
Well, it is simpler than you think. Our purpose isn’t about having a million dollars, or getting our dream job, or seeing the entire world. Ask yourself: Have you lived a good life? Have you made anyone else’s life better by simply existing? Have you left a positive impact on the world? If the answer is yes, then you have accomplished your task.
The best way to live a good life is being kind and open to others. Make sure your loved ones are aware of your feelings, so there is no need for last-minute amendments or regret for things unsaid. We don’t have unfinished business because we haven’t had the time to finish a book or rise the ranks of our career; we are left with unfinished business when we have not been focusing on our purpose. If you live every day without helping others, or making others feel better, or contributing in some way to humankind, then you are straying from your purpose.
This is why, in the Stoic perspective, there is no shame in suicide if you have lived an honorable life, because your death will be honorable by nature due to the person you have been.
Seneca’s Letter 77
In Letter 77 of Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucius, he discusses the topic of taking one’s own life. In this letter, he draws a parallel between life and a journey:
“An expedition will be incomplete if one stops half-way, or anywhere on this side of one’s destination; but life is not incomplete if it is honorable. At whatever point you leave off living, provided you leave off nobly, your life is a whole.”Seneca
It may sound inconsistent with other goals of Stoicism, but if a person has accomplished life’s purpose then they are free to leave the stage, as Seneca suggests. The aim here is not the destination, but the journey. In other words, it does not matter how you die, but how you live.
One of the other reasons Stoics accepted suicide so readily is because of the historical context. In ancient Greece and Rome, death by suicide was a legitmate verdict someone could receive for their crimes. Seneca and Socrates were both condemned to death by suicide for their perceived crimes, while Cato (another Stoic follower) chose suicide as his final victory of Julius Caesar.
It is very important to note that a Stoic would never encourage suicide, but they also would not look down upon those who choose to leave life on their own terms, after they have lived a long and fulfilled life.