In Epicurean Philosophy Is Suicide (Or voluntary death of any kind) ever warranted?

  • I don't see textual evidence of that position.

    for the time being we can just note our disagreement on that, because at least for me I do see that implication in the texts I cited. It's always difficult to know the subtleties but I see those phrases, and even the tone of "death is nothing to us" as implying an "in your face" attitude toward the view that we should be scared of things associated with death - sort of the aggressive attitude of "trampling religion underfoot" that a lot of commentators seme to think that Lucretius displays. And I am especially firm in thinking that Epicurean Philosophy points toward managing our circumstances of dying as much as managing our living.

    That reminds me that there may be another useful example in the ancient bio of Atticus.

    (And no I will never accept that the Roman Epicureans were not orthodox Epicureans. :-). )

  • He had completed seventy-seven years in such a manner, and into extreme old age had advanced no less in dignity than in influence and fortune - for he obtained many inheritances exclusively by his own goodness - and had enjoyed such good health that he had not needed medicine for thirty years, then he fell ill. At the beginning neither he nor his physicians took it seriously, for they thought it was a gripping of the bowel [i.e. dysentery] for which swift and simple remedies were proposed. When he had suffered for three months in this condition without any pain except for those he experienced from the treatment, the disease burst so violently into his lower intestine that at the end ulcers full of pus burst through his loins.

    And before this befell him, after he felt the pains increase daily and the fever grow, he gave orders for his son-in-law Agrippa to be summoned, and Lucius Cornelius Balbus and Sextus Peducaeus along with him. When he saw they had come, he leaned on one elbow and said: "How much care and attention I have devoted to restoring my health recently I do not need to tell at length, since I have you as witnesses. Since I have, I hope, satisfied you that I have left nothing undone that might serve to cure me, all that is left is that I now look after my own well-being. I did not wish you to be ignorant of my purpose: for I am resolved no longer to nourish the disease. For however much food I have taken in these last days, I have so prolonged my life as to increase the pain without hope of recovery. Thus I beg of you both to approve of my resolution and not to try to shake me by pointless dissuasion"

    catacombs.jpgAfter giving this speech with such resolve in his voice and expression that he seemed not to be quitting life but moving from one house to another, Agrippa in particular embraced him in tears and begged him not to hasten his death over and above nature's compulsion, and, since even then he might survive the crisis, to preserve himself for his own sake and for the sake of those dearest to him, but Atticus quelled his pleas with silent obstinacy. So when he had abstained from food for two days, the fever suddenly abated and the disease began to be more bearable. Nevertheless he carried through his resolution undeviatingly and so died on the fifth day after he made his decision, on the last day of March when Gnaeus Domitius and Gaius Sosius were consuls [March 31st, 22 BCE]. He was carried to his burial on a modest bier as he had himself directed, without any funeral procession, but escorted by all men of substance and by very large crowds of the common people. He was buried by the Appian Way at the fifth milestone, in the tomb of his maternal uncle Quintus Caecilius.

  • Unless Diogenes Laetius made any short comments I am not sure we know anything much about the death of other ancient Epicureans besides Epicurus and Atticus and Cassius Longinus? Anyone recall any other anecdotes?

    For these purposes I suppose we can exclude Julius Caesar as -even if of Epicurean leanings - he did not choose his exit.

  • Textual note: apologies if this has already been mentioned, but my impression is that Lucretius suggests that Democritus was (or would be) justified in suicide (he 'voluntarily went to meet death') because he was suffering the onset of dementia (DRN 3: 1040). My rough read on this is that the best strategy for coping with the end of life is to recollect memories, so dementia undermines the best way of coping with dying.

  • Thanks for that cite! It's hard not to smile when reading the almost snarkiness of lines like "you snore when awake...". :). (I am not sure why I say "almost". - you "drunken wretch!)


    Democritus, warned by ripe old age that the motions of his mind’s 1040 memory were failing, voluntarily went to meet death and offered him his life.88 Epicurus himself died, when the light of his life had accomplished its course—he who outshone the human race in genius and obscured the luster of all as the rising of the ethereal sun extinguishes the stars.89 Will you, then, be hesitant and indignant, when death calls? You, even while you still have life and light, are as good as dead: you squander the greater part of your time in sleep; you snore when awake; you never stop daydreaming; you are burdened with a mind disturbed by groundless fear; and often you cannot discover what is wrong with you, when, like 1050 some drunken wretch, you are buffeted with countless cares on every side and drift along aimlessly in utter bewilderment of mind

  • I see James Warren says ("Facing Death - Epicurus And His Critics):

    Of course, the Epicureans do agree that suicide would be the end of these people's cares, but it is certainly not the preferred course of action. If only these poor souls would instead find out from the Epicureans that death is nothing to fear, then they would be able to manage their lives properly and find true pleasure in it. Suicide, therefore, is generally a sign of having seriously misguided opinions about the world. However, there are clearly occasions and circumstances when an Epicurean too would be justified in ending his own life. While extolling the virtue of courage, Torquatus allows that in the face of certain pains suicide might be acceptable:

    sic robustus animus…ad dolores ita paratus est ut meminerit maximos morte finiri, parvos multa habere intervallarequietis, mediocrium nos esse dominos ut si tolerabiles sint feramus, si minus, animo aequo e vita, cum ea nonplaceat, tamquam e theatro exeamus.

    A strong soul is so readied against pains that it remembers that the greatest are curtailed by death, the small ones are punctuated by long intervals of peace, and we are in control of those of a medium strength so that if they can be endured we endure them and if not we may leave life calmly if it does not please us, just as we may leave the theatre. Cic. Fin. 1.49

    The message here is that someone properly schooled can endure even quite severe pains, but if even this ability is challenged by ongoing and unendurable distress then it is open to us to leave life. Importantly, this is done calmly and rationally (aequo animo);344

  • More from James Warren (same source):

    it is the result of a calculation that the alternative would be a continued life of pain. Provided life has pleasure left in it,we will continue to live. And the Epicurean sage will be sufficiently schooled to continue to find pleasure in life under conditions which others would find unbearable—Epicurus' own example of composure in the face of terminal illness demonstrates this. 345 Seneca reports the suicide of an Epicurean named Diodorus. On this occasion it is not so clear whether or not he is acting in strict accordance with Epicurean teaching.

    Diodorum, Epicureum philosophum, qui intra paucos dies finem vitae suae manu sua imposuit, negant ex decretoEpicuri fecisse, quod sibi gulam praesecuit. alii dementiam videri volunt factum hoc eius, alii temeritatem; illeinterim beatus ac plenus bona conscientia reddidit sibi testimonium vita excedens laudavitque aetatis in portu et adancoram actae quietem et dixit, quod vos inviti audistis, quasi vobis quoque faciendum sit, ‘vixi et quem dederatcursum fortuna peregi’ (=Verg. Aen. 4.653).

    They say that the Epicurean philosopher Diodorus, who just recently ended his own life by his own hand, did not act according to Epicurus' doctrine because he cut his own throat. Some want this deed to be seen as madness, others as rashness. But he, happy and full of good understanding, bore witness to himself as he left life, praised the tranquility of a life spent in port at anchor, 346 and said something which you did not like to hear, as if you too ought to follow its advice: ‘I have lived, and finished the course which fortune dealt me’. Sen. De Vita Beata 19.1

    Again, the accusation of un-Epicurean behaviour seems to be on the basis of Diodorus acting not out of a sound and rational consideration of the situation but out of either madness or temperance. Seneca, however, is keen to emphasize Diodorus' calm at the end, based not only on the appreciation of a tranquil life lived but also on the acceptance that that life had come to the end of its course. What is not clear from this description is just why Diodorus had decided to quit a pleasant life, and this is presumably the reason why some were suspicious of his motives

  • VS74 In a scholarly dispute, he who loses gains more because he has learned something.

    ἐν φιλολόγῳ συζητήσει πλεῖον ἤνυσεν ὁ ἡττηθεὶς καθʼ ὃ προσέμαθεν.

    I'm not saying I "lost" ;) but those references are great! I was unaware of them. I'm still not entirely convinced by the Torquatus text, but I'm willing to entertain the possibility now. And the others are excellent.


  • One thing we have not yet accounted for is the possibility that Eusebius' account of Lucretius' death, as reported later by Jerome, has a grain of historical truth to it. We simply know too little about Lucretius to have any certainty about how he died.

  • If you're trying to apply Epicurus's teachings to better your life, that makes you an Epicurean as opposed to a Christian or Stoic or something else.

    And if we could stop there, we’d be in perfect agreement. But – 😉

    I'd ask what "Epicurean teachings" are you trying to apply to better your life.

    Do you have an “acceptable” list? (Otherwise, why would you ask?) And why should I accept (in toto) whatever list you (or anyone else) might have?

    That whole “TM” thing comes out of engagement with Christians (when I thought of myself as a Christian) who claimed that – because there were certain tenets of theirs that I did not accept – I really could not be a “True Christian™” (the “TM” was not, of course, theirs – but my own snarky reaction). Today, whether I was or wasn’t a “True Christian™” is of no consequence to me – except as a point of sincerity. And that is not a trivial point …

    I generally think of myself as a neo-Epicurean (though I don’t fit any of Cassius’ differentiating points in his chart – so maybe I’m not so “neo”) just because I subscribe to updating the knowledge base that was available to Epicurus (and the Stoics and the Pyrrhonians) in light of advancements in things like logic, epistemology and science.

    So, at bottom, I think that word “sincerity” might hold some gravitas in the matter. I’m sure (sincerely) that when you were a Buddhist you were very honest and sincere about that. You found a different path – does that mean you were never a “True Buddhist™”? 😉 Or that you were not honest and sincere? Of course not.

    EDIT: If at some point I decide that I am not fundamentally Epicurean, for whatever reason, I will be honest enough to simply say so. And, just as honestly, wish all my Epicurean friends well -- and gratitude. I don't envision that, but a lot of things have happened in my life that I never envisioned ...

    "We must try to make the end of the journey better than the beginning, as long as we are journeying; but when we come to the end, we must be happy and content." (Vatican Saying 48)

  • 1 - Don's point about the serene spirit is one I had not previously appreciated so well. I thought I remembered the Atticus illustration, but the Diodorus one was new to me (or it has been so long since I scanned the Warren book I had totally forgotten it).

    2 - I appreciate too where Pacatus is coming from but I am trying to think why I hesitate. I think I hesitate because it's easy to go from one extreme to the other and lose appreciation for the usefulness of words at the same time that we acknowledge their limits. I think Don is right that we do have the ability to grasp that there is a generally identifiable meaning to the words Epicurean or Christian and that we need to identify those meanings (maybe that is akin to what Epicurus was saying about being able to assign an image to a word so we don't go on explaining forever) while at the same time we acknowledge that that image does not come from God or from a realm of forms or from an "essence" that exists independently of the examples. So that is similar to keeping in mind both that (1) suicide is a last resort only for extreme circumstances but also (2) that suicide can be a powerful tool and reassuring to know that it is in our toolbox if or when those circumstances do occur. It's not a matter of taking a middle ground or seeing some kind of compromise but of seeing that both are true at the same time. The atoms and the void do exist at the same time, and for another example at the same time (1) the bodies and qualities of our world do have a "real" existence to us even though (2) they themselves are ultimately composed of atoms and void. We don't fall into despair and nihilism just because both perspectives exist at the same time, nor should we label one perspective or world as "true" and the other as "false."

    Which reminds me of the Oinoanda comment that there is a flux but it is not so fast that we can't comprehend it. All this also causes me to associate Epicurus' views with the "this world vs the 'true world'" imagery that apparently Nietzsche was using if that video posted elsewhere recently is correct. There's no "true world" beyond this one, which is the only one we have. So many issues seem to resolve themselves if we recognize how many ways have been invented to try to use wishful thinking and word games to get around that reality and construct false alternatives.

    In the same way, many of the otherwise obscure sayings of Epicurus make much more sense when seen as targeted at making very close to the same point. Epicurus seems to use "anxiety" and "pleasure vs. pain" terminology while Nietsche and others may use words like "nihilism" vs "will" or "power," but the enemy of despair is pretty much the same, and it's Epicurus' formula for embracing life which really holds the best answer.

  • I confess that any perceived hint of defining a “party line” that I must, no matter what, affirm or adhere to in order to be a “True™” anything triggers a visceral unease in me – based on my own history. It’s probably part of my reactive survival system, that I am unlikely to jettison any time soon (and not sure I should). [And that “TM” isn’t really intended as snark – just a shorthand means of emphasis on the point; and I did not intend any offense by its use.]

    That does not mean that the other person was actually hinting at any such thing at all. Communication is – for humans at least – more of an art than a science. If we could all send and receive with perfect clarity on the first pass, we’d need a lot fewer words. ;)

    (I want to say something more about words, but I’ll start another thread; and if it ends up being duplicative, Cassius can maybe roll it into a better place.)

    "We must try to make the end of the journey better than the beginning, as long as we are journeying; but when we come to the end, we must be happy and content." (Vatican Saying 48)

  • I confess that any perceived hint of defining a “party line” that I must, no matter what, affirm or adhere to in order to be a “True™” anything triggers a visceral unease in me

    Yes this is a very interesting subject on which we once had a zoom discussion alluding to "flags.". Allegiance to a flag or anything like that is troublesome. Yet there are times - if you slare in a war, for example, you are well advised generally to head for the lines of your countries flag rather than an enemy flag. So flags can be and are very useful, as long as their limitations are kept clear.

    This is definitely a hard balance, but it seems to me that if we conclude that "flags are always bad" we are likely to be just as wrong as concluding that flags are always good. We have to always remember the basic situation that there are multiple levels of things going on and we have to be flexible enough to move nimbly between them.

  • Do you have an “acceptable” list? (Otherwise, why would you ask?) And why should I accept (in toto) whatever list you (or anyone else) might have?

    Pacatus : Let me start this response by saying that I certainly did not mean to offend or disrespect or belittle anyone's self-designation as an "Epicurean." Honestly, when I said:

    Quote from @Don

    I'd ask what "Epicurean teachings" are you trying to apply to better your life.

    I sincerely meant to make that rhetorical as in "What Epicurean teachings are you putting into practice that make you feel like you would *want* to call yourself an 'Epicurean'?" I wasn't trying to impose *my* criteria, and if it came off that way, I apologize. *I* may have other practices or doctrines on which I place more emphasis than you.

    BUT, from my perspective, if we all "lay our cards on the table," I would offer that there have to be some common "cards" in each of our hands to make us feel we want to be part of the same community, that would lead us to come together in the same Garden. Otherwise, the word "Epicurean" doesn't apply to anything.

    And I get your...

    I confess that any perceived hint of defining a “party line” that I must, no matter what, affirm or adhere to in order to be a “True™” anything triggers a visceral unease in me

    I've seen examples of "party lines" and "orthodoxy" and in-fighting, etc. So I can understand your "visceral unease". There's also the idea of commitments, participation, etc., if you want to be seen as "serious" (which, honestly, is one reason I've kept my participation to online meetings primarily to the 20th. The idea of regular commitments makes *me* uneasy.) I think it is absolutely *wonderful* that Cassius and Kalosyni have made those opportunities a reality!!! I just can't make myself take on the "responsibility" (in my mind) to show up every time, and so I've decided I'll do my best to make the 20th's in keeping with what I see as part of *my* Epicurean identity :)

    P.S. In some sense, we are *all* neo-Epicureans. We're all doing the best we can with the texts that we have to try to follow (and, in some cases - like quantum physics - update) the 2,000+ year old teachings of Epicurus to make sense of our lives and to provide ourselves with a way to make sense of the world. Like I said previously, there is no apostolic succession from Epicurus to the present like the Popes (although their lineage is arguably tenuous). There is no Epicurean authority imposing dogma or creeds or orthodoxy. By Zeus, even online and internationally, there are several Epicurean groups, and none of them have authority over any other one. My only assertion was that those of us who like to think of ourselves as Epicureans most likely have some shared ideas that join us together.

  • Pacatus I figured you would get a reaction from Don in that exchange! ;)

    I agree with most everything that Don said, including this, but I will comment further:

    P.S. In some sense, we are *all* neo-Epicureans.

    Because we do have a regular flow in and out of the forum it's good to cover this regularly. The main reason for the "Not-Neo" list and associated posting guidelines and other rules is that while there are many places on the internet to discuss philosophy in general, and especially to promote Stoicism, there are not many devoted to Epicurus. The experience I and others had at Facebook is that the sheer numbers and loudness of the Stoics quickly drives out and even "intimidates" people who are honestly interested in Epicurean philosophy from pursuing it. As a result this forum is first and foremost a place where people interested in an environment supportive of Epicurus will have an opportunity to talk in a supportive atmosphere without have to deal with overbearing opponents of the philosophy.

    Don also mentioned the difficulties of agreeing on anything, and he's surely right about that. Luckily no one here is trying to be a guru or go for world domination or anything like that, so as for our rules, all they are geared toward is maintaining a friendly pro-Epicurean environment for discussion. If you are interested in reading the details of a discussion we had several years ago on ideas to set up more of an umbrella organization, you might be interested in this thread. Those discussions did more to illuminate the difficulties more than to come to any agreements, but I am sure that over time the "organizational" question will come up again and again. For now, I've limited myself to the still difficult but more attainable goal of "herding cats" in a discussion forum.

    But you will be comforted to know that I take the subject of this thread to heart. I would like to meet my end like Epicurus surrounded by friends, but I am not sure I will attain that in real life. Unless I meet my end in a totally unexpected accident, I commit to taking steps before I follow Atticus and Cassius L. and Diodorus (many many years from now, hopefully) to be sure that there's a smooth organizational transition into the future for this forum. :)

    PS - Pacatus due to the length of that older thread most people don't take the time to wade through it. If you happen to find it interesting enough to do so, please feel free to comment.

  • Pacatus I figured you would get a reaction from Don in that exchange! ;)

    :D Me too! And I'll check that thread out.

    "We must try to make the end of the journey better than the beginning, as long as we are journeying; but when we come to the end, we must be happy and content." (Vatican Saying 48)

  • Don You and I seem so much alike. I took no personal offense, nor did I think you intended any. My “Do you have a list?” was also intended rhetorically.

    The cold written word often has a hard time communicating such nuances. I suspect that if we were sitting together at a table (over pints of beer or a bottle – or two – of wine) it would be easier, and likely we’d have a lot of laughter to go with the arguments. 😊 And there’s no question that each time we would part friends (nor that we will do so here).

    My only assertion was that those of us who like to think of ourselves as Epicureans most likely have some shared ideas that join us together.

    Understood and wholeheartedly agreed. I will never have the Epicurean scholarship that many on here do, and so I will likely always end up mixing and matching a bit (what I learn from here and reading, with my own personal experience). Truth be told, I’ve always been that kind of thinker … And so often it’s in the course of congenial argument that I am able to discover what I really think! :/ [When my elder son (more a Stoic) and I go at it, both our wives just laugh at us – and we end up laughing too!]

    Be well, and thank you, my friend. 😊

    "We must try to make the end of the journey better than the beginning, as long as we are journeying; but when we come to the end, we must be happy and content." (Vatican Saying 48)

  • Cassius: I want to just note that, in that thread, I found Elayne's understanding of prolepsis as "pattern recognition" (as an innate human function) to really clarify that for me. When I get a chance, I will update my "Epicurean Outline" thingy to reflect that. :thumbup:

    "We must try to make the end of the journey better than the beginning, as long as we are journeying; but when we come to the end, we must be happy and content." (Vatican Saying 48)