“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.