Epictetus on suicide: the open door policy

Epictetus“And what does it matter to you by what way you descend to Hades? All roads are equal. But, if you want to hear the truth, the one that a tyrant sends you along is shorter. No tyrant ever took six months to cut someone’s throat, but a fatal fever often lasts a year.”

So says Epictetus in Discourses II.6.17-19, while discussing the kind of death that one does not choose, but is imposed by external events. (The reference to Hades is a concession to then popular culture of the time, since the Stoics did not believe in an afterlife.) Because death is a (dispreferred) “indifferent,” Epictetus is arguing that it doesn’t matter, really, deeply, how one dies. What makes us fearful of the event is the (inaccurate) judgment that it is a bad thing that one’s consciousness cease existing.

But what of situations where we end our lives ourselves, because we have decided that it is preferable to do so rather than to continue living at all costs? That is the main topic of a subtle essay by W.O. Stephens entitled “Epictetus on Fearing Death: Bugbear and Open Door Policy,” published in Ancient Philosophy in 2014, and which you can download here.

Famously, Epictetus refers to the possibility of suicide by the metaphor of an “open door,” the idea being that if life truly becomes pointless (more on this in a moment) then one has the option to live. More importantly, it is precisely this ever present option that makes it possible for us to live a virtuous life, free of fear. Here is the Master himself:

“Remember that the door is open. Don’t be more cowardly than children, but just as they say, when the game is no longer fun for them, ‘I won’t play any more,’ you too, when things seem that way to you, say, ‘I won’t play any more,’ and leave, but if you remain, don’t complain.” (Discourses I.24.20)

“Has someone made smoke in the house? If it is moderate, I’ll stay. If too much, I exit. For you must always remember and hold fast to this, that the door is open.” (Discourses I.25.18)

In the first example Epictetus, like Socrates before him, tells us that death is a bugbear, something that scares children (and, apparently, Aristotle), but not adult human beings. But notice also the last bit, “if you remain, don’t complain,” meaning that it is our choice to stay and play the game, however unfair it may seem, and however difficult it may be to bear. If so, then we need to play in full force, so to speak, trying to change things and generally act virtuously, but not whining that things don’t go our way, like children would do. Life is what it is, bear and forbear (Discourses, IV.8).

The second quote repeats the same concept, but clarifies that it is consoling to “remember and hold fast” to the possibility of walking through the open door. It is because of that always present option that we can endure life’s adversity.

Stephens clarifies: “Knowledge that death is an indifferent, a Halloween bugbear mask, frees us to pursue the virtuous life fearlessly. Neither the choice to live on and endure tough tests, nor the choice to exit to the refuge of death, precludes our making it cheerfully. … For [Epictetus] the way to die well is to live well, that is, nobly, virtuously, benefiting others, and with gratitude for having lived (IV.10.11-17). … Dying according to nature is simply a special case of living according to nature.”

But, the critic will say, isn’t this a bit too facile? Doesn’t it open the way to unmotivated suicide, to quitting ahead of time just because it’s the easy thing to do? Here is Stephens’ response:

“The Stoic’s rationale for suicide in these conditions is not the foolish judgment that stubborn pangs of hunger or the painful symptoms of one’s disease are evils to be escaped from immediately at any cost, but the wise judgment that the conditions for the possibility of exercising one’s agency in the performance of one’s social roles, responsibilities, and activities expressive of the kind of person one is (one’s prosopon) are irretrievably slipping away. … Epictetus cites the example of his friend who got it into his head to starve himself to death ‘for no reason at all’ (II.15.4-12). Epictetus characterizes a suicide in these circumstances as ‘removing from life our friend and companion, our fellow-citizen in both the greater city and the lesser’ (II.15.10). Removing himself from life in these circumstances destroys his social roles as a friend, companion, fellow-citizen of the local community, and fellow-citizen of the cosmic city. This destruction would be shameful, because no higher role, like that of embracing the life of a Cynic, for example, is preserved or achieved by it. As such, this case of self-killing is condemned as murder of an innocent person (II.15.11).”

This, seems to me, is a profoundly nuanced way of considering suicide. If done in a thoughtless manner, or for childish reasons (like, shall we say, the “romantics” who killed themselves because they couldn’t be without the “love” of another person), then one is indeed murdering an innocent, namely, oneself.

To understand, instead, when suicide is permissible from a Stoic point of view let us return for a moment to that crucial word, prosopon, one of the many very useful and subtle Stoic terms that so enrich this particular philosophy.

Epictetus tells two stories to explain what it means to properly regard one’s prosopon: that of the athlete who committed suicide after losing his genitals in an accident, and that of Epictetus himself, who was (hypothetically) threatened with death by someone if he didn’t cut his beard off.

We would regard the athlete’s decision as rash and unjustified, but Epictetus is not endorsing it as universally good — few things are universally applicable for virtue ethicists, since the world is far too complicated for a one-size-fits-all approach (like those advocated by modern utilitarians and deontologists). But evidently the athlete in question considered his genitals to be an integral part of his prosopon, and so was justified, by his own light, in committing suicide once the loss of genitals irremediably compromised who he was. Note that we are not talking simply of a man who loses his virility, though of course that is part of it, and we need to assess that aspect from the point of view of Greco-Roman culture, not our own. The loss is greater, because it was believed that eunuchs could not perform well in the games due to side effects linked to their loss of genitals. So Epictetus’ athlete doesn’t just face a threat to his virility qua man, but, more importantly, qua athlete: it is his whole view of who he is and why he does what he does that is imperiled.

The second example may seem even more debatable, silly even. Epictetus is imagining someone who threatens him with death if he doesn’t cut off his beard, and responds: “If I am a philosopher, I will not shave it off.” When the other guy replies, “But I will cut off your neck,” Epictetus calmly responds, “If that will do you any good, do it.” (II.2.29)

As Stephens keenly observes, it isn’t that Epictetus thinks that his beard is what makes him a philosopher, but rather that he does not want his will to be controlled by someone else, especially if that person is bent on robbing him — however metaphorically — of an important part of his prosopon, in this case being a philosopher, a profession that was outwardly distinguished by the sporting of a beard.

But how, exactly, is one to determine when is the time to leave the smoking room and take the open door? At times Epictetus simply says that the right time is when Zeus calls us, which has been interpreted as an example of his overly dependence on providence. Stephens puts that notion to rest quite convincingly, in my mind:

“The view that Zeus calls for the Stoic’s death, independently of the person’s own decision, sits poorly with Epictetus’ consistent emphasis on autonomous judgments that harmonize with one’s own prosopon. Epictetus was too savvy an epistemologist to think that a human being, whether a philosopher, an athlete, or one of his pupils, could make reliable guesses about what would count as a signal to depart willed by Zeus, independent of one’s own sober assessment of the livability of one’s own circumstances.”

Another important issue to consider with regard to Epictetus’ (and the Stoics’ more generally) view of suicide is whether the choice is made in anything like the expectation of a continuation of life after death, particularly since they talk about death as a separation of body and “soul”:

“Epictetus explicitly says that he is not eternal, but a human being, and a part of the whole, as an hour is part of a day, and like the hour he must come and pass away (II.5.13). Might Epictetus mean that it is only his body that passes away? No. He is explicit that a human being is a mortal creature (II.9.1-2; III.1.25-26; IV.1.104). We ought to enjoy the festival of life for its finite duration until it is over (IV.1.105-110). Death is inevitable (I.27.7) and cannot be avoided indefinitely (I.27.9).”

I love the image of life as a festival, to be enjoyed, but also from which one eventually has to take leave, either when the party comes to a natural end, or when the circumstances are such that the occasion is no longer worth one’s time and effort.

The rest of Stephens’ paper is well worth a read, but his overall conclusions are that Epictetus endorses the following points (transcribed verbatim from the paper):

(a) the cosmic perspective on death is essential for understanding why death is an indifferent;

(b) a person can be justified in deciding not to take steps that increase the likelihood he will survive;

(c) a person can be justified in deciding to exit life;

(d) the justification of such life or death decisions is autonomous;

(e) the identity of a human being is a union of a particular body with a particular soul, neither of which survives death;

(f) knowledge that we mortals can opt for death is comforting;

(g) understanding assertions (a)-(f) frees us to pursue the virtuous life fearlessly;

(h) the false belief that death is bad grounds the fear of death, which, as the epitome of all human evils, cripples our ability to live according to virtue.

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Categories: Epictetus

19 replies

  1. The more I understand of the Stoic view of death and suicide, the more I value life, my own and that of others. This is a great comfort to me and I thank you Massimo for playing your part in enlightening me.

    Minor typo? “…the athlete’s decision as rush and unjustified…” >> “rash”

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  2. thanks 3d, also for the correction!

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  3. I will comment with one of my constants, Stoicism as you propose its revival needs to establish itself as a religion. There is a likely unorganized conspiracy going on in much of the US. The Roman Catholic hierarchy is taking control of both women’s health and end of life decisions via buying hospitals, buying association with other hospitals, and increasingly owning medical clinics and imposing RC religious values on all doctor’s opinions. Affected are contraceptions, abortions, medically required abortions to preserve the life of the woman, tubal ligations after giving birth, drugs needed for end of life in those states in which it is legal. The list goes on.

    I find Stoic values consistent with my Christian faith. In order to preserve those values in the US we need to assert in the face of this egregious imposition of Roman Catholic values on all of us. It will be done by rigorously asserting the values you and I share as religious, in terms of US constitutional law.

    And as I have mentioned earlier extremist Christian fundamentalists are taking over the chaplaincies of the US military services. Armed forces people deserve to have their (religious) rights defended. We need Stoics, Unitarians, Buddhist chaplains to rigorously assert those rights.

    Sorry this looks a little like a screed, but rights of those who share Stoic values are seriously threatened.

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  4. Robin – The New Stoa, through their College of Stoic Philosophers, offers a theological training that leads to becoming an “Ordained Stoic Philosopher,” which then, according to their website, has the OSP “ordained and licensed to perform weddings, to officiate at funerals, and to be chaplains in hospitals and prisons.”

    So, you might find that fits the bill for what you’re suggesting. . .

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  5. Robin, Greg,

    I get the point, for sure, but I’d rather not develop Stoicism into a religion. I think the world has more than enough religions already. That said, I think it is important that Stoicism is a big enough tent to accommodate both religious and secular sensitivities, a vehicle to focus on improving one’s character and the human condition, regardless of one’s metaphysical preferences.

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  6. Oh, I’m not advocating developing Stoicism into a religion. . . . Just pointing out that it’s being done by those who are interested in doing that.

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  7. Careful dismissing the deontologists out of hand, there may be tools in their toolkits that shine just the light you need on this question.

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  8. “…when the games is no longer fun for them…” Fun? Not that Stoic.
    I can:t see this in any other way than to make Stoicism acceptable to the notion that our bodies ‘ are our property which we can dispose of at our discretion’.
    In Stoicism our bodies are clearly not our own but on loan from God or Nature.
    In the economic system no one is irreplaceable but in the life world no one is replaceable.

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  9. For some reason my computer neither wants to accept key strokes nor push the ‘like’ button on many occasions, anyway I like previous comment Greg and Massino.

    Robert Bellah wrote Religion in Human Evolution (going up to the axial age, about 500 BC (or BCE)). He has much to say as to what in human nature is religious, I think we ignore it at our risk of not understanding humans. It is not a view of religion that conservatives or fundamentalists would like. Yet it would explain why Socrates (I read this in a recent biography) spent a lot of time involved with ‘religious’ oriented activities, also I suspect Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism and religion necessarily interact, that interaction covers a lot of territory.

    Massino is right that ethics is not exclusively a religious activity, many early religious activities had very little or nothing to do with ethics, nor was ethics a concern. Yet the concerns of importance to many on this site are in fact somewhat or entirely included in what the Declaration and constitution would consider religion.

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  10. Wouldn’t an athlete eventually lose the ability to compete simply by aging? Would he be justified in killing himself because he became too old to be an athlete? Seems a bad example.

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  11. Daniel,

    well, as a virtue ethicist I don’t have a lot of sympathy for deontology. But I’m curious, which tools are you referring to?

    Jeff,

    very interesting point. I would guess Epictetus would say that aging is a natural process that occurs over time, giving the athlete time to alter his prosōpon. We all go through different “personae” in life.

    jbonnicerenoreg,

    Epictetus is using the word “fun” with reference to children, not Stoics. He is making an analogy, not an equivalence.

    Robin,

    as I said, I’m sympathetic to the idea that Stoicism is a sufficiently large tent to include both religious and non religious sensitivities. However, I resist that a religious aspect is “necessarily” a component of Stoicism. See my essay here, for instance: https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/gods-or-atoms-marcus-aurelius-says-it-doesnt-matter-i-agree/

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  12. Reblogged this on Primate's Progress and commented:
    Let me commend the “How to be a stioc” series to all of my friends who choose to ponder what it is to live well. One excerpt will give the flavour: “I love the image of life as a festival, to be enjoyed, but also from which one eventually has to take leave, either when the party comes to a natural end, or when the circumstances are such that the occasion is no longer worth one’s time and effort.”

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  13. Reblogged with comment: Let me commend the “How to be a stioc” series to all of my friends who choose to ponder what it is to live well. One excerpt will give the flavour: “I love the image of life as a festival, to be enjoyed, but also from which one eventually has to take leave, either when the party comes to a natural end, or when the circumstances are such that the occasion is no longer worth one’s time and effort.”

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  14. Massimo,
    I suspect one prism we could look at it through is efficiency.
    When I was a younger man I had a sense that ethics, and virtue, mattered; but Stoicism or Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics (or the Bible for that matter) were on one hand tantalizing, and on the other fell short, because I didn’t understand virtue for virtue’s sake. But – looking at Kant, Natural Law and utilitarianism, and the reasons those hold water in ways Divine Command doesn’t, kept me on the road.
    Virtue ethics might have kept me on the road, but the others were more efficient. Once on the road long enough deontology loses efficiency. It isn’t enough to know dignity and conscience matter … one has to cultivate the mind or the soul, and there Virtue Ethics take over as being both richer and more efficient.

    But I give that example because we can see it another way. On a very advanced level of philosopher-to-philosopher: Kant pulled off a very tricky thing – he developed a post-Thomist Aristotelian philosophy by dropping the Final Cause, and what a world of difference it made. The Final Cause is still there, but with Kant the only decider of what it is is the automaton – so we get autonomy and dignity from Kant’s ethics where Aquinas emphasized purpose and conscience.

    Which takes us to a very, very interesting moral intersection that keeps coming up in our politics over and over again: Dignity versus Conscience.

    Deontology has a lot to say about this and can go a long way to help us understand what’s happening socio-politically or anthropologically. Virtue Ethics might too, but with considerably less efficiency than I just did in two paragraphs.

    But let’s take it to suicide/euthanasia – and here I only have in mind passive euthanasia where through a decision not to use feeding, a feeding tube, an IV, a respirator or ACLS that a person freely elects to permit death to occur naturally.

    Deontology lets us examine this problem with an efficiency that doesn’t seem present in Virtue Ethics (or: you can show me how I am mistaken).

    1) If we agree that suicide / euthanasia may sometimes be permitted (and other times even be rightly demanded), but we also agree that the matter is so grave that only can permit it for people making a decision of sound mind …

    2) Then we must determine criteria of sound mind …

    3) We attempt this, variously from one jurisdiction to the next, with rules like: a person’s GP must sign off, sometimes a second medical opinion is required; two or three witnesses are required; and of course the individual’s own certification is required, but …

    4) Are we still sure? Can we be sure this person is of sound mind?

    5) No – it is impossible to be sure.

    6) Then should we forbid suicide / euthanasia since we cannot be certain of sound mind?

    7) To answer: consider the opposite.
    Even the most ardent Right-to-Life, anti-euthanasia activist agrees – it would be a tortuous and horrifying world where, for every one of us, at end of life the one thing we could count on is: a feeding tube, a respirator, an IV and continuous Advanced Cardiac Life Support where we electrify and chemicalize our bodies back into animation until we just cease to be.
    That is too horrible a world to contemplate – for everyone.

    8) Since that world is so much worse than the occasional failure, where we allow a person not of sound mind to slip through the cracks, we understand that under utilitarian, Kantian and even Natural Law conditions … it is OK, it is licit, to make an allowance for passive euthanasia, in fact it is WILDLY PREFERABLE, even if that means the occasional person not of sound mind falling through the cracks.

    We err on the side of the “type 2 error”, or we “err on the side of conservatism”.

    This use of deontological ethics is simply more efficient at arriving at a conclusion that is acceptable and reasonable to nearly everyone.
    Virtue Ethics may – or may not – arrive at the same conclusion, but as best as I can see, it is a comparatively messy, nuanced process whose messiness may result inadvertently in wrong conclusions on an individual level, too often, i.e.: the person who should opt for passive euthanasia, may not ; the person who should not opt for passive or active, in confusion: may.

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  15. And with apologies I need to give this addendum to the previous long comment:

    1) My apologies for “very, very” and “over and over” … in my defense it’s a web comment, otherwise I’d of edited

    2) In the steps that I walked through to evaluate passive euthanasia I drew on these three tools from the deontological toolkit:

    A) The Doctrine of Double Effect (Thomas Aquinas / Natural Law)
    B) The primacy of human dignity and autonomy (Kant)
    C) The greatest utility for the most people (utilitarianism)

    With these tools, the ethicist counseling someone on a matter of grave ethical significance is able to counsel a person using terms and principle nearly everyone understands and can ascents to, where in a short period of time they would be able to understand what is at stake and make a decision that they will likely be at peace with.
    I suspect would be more challenging to arrive at the same place, with the same efficiency, using Virtue Ethics alone.

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  16. Daniel,

    “Virtue ethics might have kept me on the road, but the others were more efficient. Once on the road long enough deontology loses efficiency. It isn’t enough to know dignity and conscience matter … one has to cultivate the mind or the soul, and there Virtue Ethics take over as being both richer and more efficient”

    Right. I get your point, but of course the ancients had no trouble “keeping to the road” by way of virtue ethics, so while deontological training wheels, so to speak, may be helpful, they don’t seem to be necessary.

    “Kant pulled off a very tricky thing – he developed a post-Thomist Aristotelian philosophy by dropping the Final Cause, and what a world of difference it made”

    For sure. But here my usual refrain is that I prefer virtue ethics mostly on the grounds of the ancients’ different, and much more encompassing, concept of “ethics,” as the study of how to live one’s life, not just of deciding moral (in the narrow sense) right and wrong.

    “Dignity versus Conscience. Deontology has a lot to say about this and can go a long way to help us understand what’s happening socio-politically or anthropologically. Virtue Ethics might too, but with considerably less efficiency than I just did in two paragraphs.”

    Again, I understand your point, but I resist too much call for “efficiency.” Ethical development takes time, so efficiency may actually get in the way of it.

    Your example of euthanasia is complex, though I doubt a virtue ethicist would, for all practical reasons, go very differently about it. But when you say:

    “That is too horrible a world to contemplate – for everyone”

    I think you are underestimating the (usually religious fundamentalist) zealotry of die-hard so-called “right-to-life” people.

    “This use of deontological ethics is simply more efficient at arriving at a conclusion that is acceptable and reasonable to nearly everyone”

    Maybe, though ongoing discussions on euthanasia seem to suggest you are being far too optimistic. At any rate, virtue ethics — unlike deontology and utilitarianism — isn’t even supposed to be used as guidance for society-level laws and regulations. It is about personal decisions and character development. So it becomes relevant, for instance, for me if and when I should find myself in the difficult position to tell a doctor to unplug the machines from the body of a loved one.

    “the ethicist counseling someone on a matter of grave ethical significance is able to counsel a person using terms and principle nearly everyone understands and can ascents to”

    Indeed. But I’ve personally used virtue ethics in my occasional practice as a philosophical counselor, and it turned out to be more effective than even I had thought. Then again, that depends on the client and his/her sensibilities, of course.

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  17. Massimo,
    Thanks for your reply.
    I won’t go point by point but I’ll choose three to note.
    You write:
    ” At any rate, virtue ethics — unlike deontology and utilitarianism — isn’t even supposed to be used as guidance for society-level laws and regulations.”

    …on that point – we wholly agree. The only thing I’d say is that often in reading and digesting material from Virtue Ethicists, I’m not always sure – that is: of where they stand with respect to this question.

    It may be similar to Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magesteria” but I tend to view deontological v. virtue ethics in the terms you seem to be saying here: that virtue ethics better inform personal development but deontological ethics better inform social architecture and heuristics.
    But … about 99% of the reason I raised the question we are talking about in the first place is that in the original post I took your meaning to be fairly sweeping in dismissiveness of deontological ethics. It seems to me there is a valid place for both.

    “Right. I get your point, but of course the ancients had no trouble ‘keeping to the road’ by way of virtue ethics, so while deontological training wheels, so to speak, may be helpful, they don’t seem to be necessary.”

    First off: hat-tip to “”deontological training wheels”.

    That said … maybe that’s worth a whole post. There is a lot to be said for “training wheels”. The ancients you mention: are a sample group.
    There are voters, voting in the millions, they are another sample group, and I spend 80% of my free time (maybe I don’t have a life?) wondering about what we can do to mass-distribute the training wheels they never had.
    Ignore the training wheels and eventually the long-term arrives at your door, ready to collect dues. They may never have graduated to a driver’s license, but they can still vote, and still riot.

    “I think you are underestimating the (usually religious fundamentalist) zealotry of die-hard so-called ‘right-to-life’ people.”

    I’d like to suggest an opportunity for a philosopher, an law professor and a statistician to do a study (sounds like the set up for a bad joke but…)

    The null hypothesis is that Supreme Court rulings have no relationship to cohesion with any of 4 deontological approaches to normative ethics: Kantian, Natural Law, utilitarianism and divine command.

    The hypothesis would hold that when the first three draw coherent conclusions, that the court rules with near unanimity, but the degree to which they diverge leads to split decisions. A sub-hypothesis may be that divine command has no predictive value on court rulings – the interesting thing being that if that is true: it reveals a tremendous disconnect between the way we are ruled, versus how many people think we are ruled.

    Anyway … respond if you wish – I don’t want to monopolize the post with long replies. Thanks again.

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  18. Daniel,

    “I tend to view deontological v. virtue ethics in the terms you seem to be saying here: that virtue ethics better inform personal development but deontological ethics better inform social architecture and heuristics”

    Sort of. I agree about that distinction, but I actually don’t think society needs any overarching theory of ethics, deontological or utilitarian — and, in fact, modern societies tend not to use any such theory, unless they are theocracies.

    I see social ethics emerging from individual virtue ethics and evolving through question-specific dialogues. Should we allow abortion? Under what circumstances? What about euthanasia? And so forth.

    “Ignore the training wheels and eventually the long-term arrives at your door, ready to collect dues. They may never have graduated to a driver’s license, but they can still vote, and still riot”

    Completely agree, but perhaps it won’t surprise you that I think we should implement virtue ethics in schools (very early on: elementary level) to address that problem. I do plan to write more about this, re-examining the ancient concept of Paideia.

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  19. “…perhaps it won’t surprise you that I think we should implement virtue ethics in schools (very early on: elementary level) to address that problem. I do plan to write more about this, re-examining the ancient concept of Paideia.”

    Heh … no, not at all surprised.

    I would see what we could do to bring back Latin or Greek, and re-emphasis on physical education, but alas…

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