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On Suicide (The Leap) II



The good man should flee life when his misfortunes become too great;

the bad man, also, when he is too prosperous

Stobaeus



In ancient times, suicide was not thought to be a crime (sui-cide) but was perhaps even awarded with reverence and admiration. In a world when people died at a much younger age due to war, lack of medicine, plagues, and man's surrender to the powers of Nature, man's lot was far more unacceptable as it is today. And in front of the Fates's and Lady Fortune's fickle but quick decisions (and indecisions), man was pushed to the limit, to the end of the tragedy, at the brink of an unfathomable fall.

Yet what man had -- amidist the terror of Moira and their fleeting lives -- was the freedom to end the tragedy once and for all without having to wait for the story to end, by putting the final period on it so as to let the chorus enter earlier than expected. After all, life was just life: the story had to end anyway. So why prolong it, they thought.

As
Pliny says:
Life is not so desirable a thing as to be protracted at any cost. Whoever you are, you are sure to die, even though your life has been full of abomination and crime. The chief of all remedies for a troubled mind is the feeling that among the blessings which Nature gives man, there is none greater than an opportune death; and the best of it is that every one can avail himself of it.

Oedipus too was no stranger to the (un)desirability of life.

Cursed to kill his father Laius and to wed his mother Jocasta, there was only so much that even a mighty king could do in order to vindicate himself from such a tortuous fate. In front of a world that he can no longer understand and bear to once again see ("This is a terrible sight for men to see! I never found a worse!"), Oedipus plucks out his eyes. He takes away the very things that afforded him the splendor of the visible and all that could be seen: his love, his daughter, his kingdom and his self. He killed the light; he decided to remain in the dark until his (redundant) death. This is suicide too. It was already too much to be able to see anymore.

At the end of Oedipus the King, the chorus sang as if to remind us to
Look upon that last day always. Count no mortal happy till
he has passed the final limit of his life secure from pain.

Blind and lost, he walks on to Colonus a stranger. He continues his life a dead man walking but led by the delicate hand of his daughter Antigone. After all of this, he concludes, "All is well."

* * *

During those times, mortals accepted their mortality and were never afraid of death. They even celebrated it much more stared at it. Death was always hovering over their heads; memento mori
(Remember death) was the maxim by which they remembered.

It is said that during feasts and in the middle of grand celebrations, a few people would carry a corpse and pass by the tables of the happy fellows as a reminder.

* * *

Seneca, in his Letters to Lucillus, epitomized the Stoic openness to death. He says that death was far from being a reef that we sail unto in life but that it was a "haven, sometimes to be welcomed, never to be refused." For Seneca, what was as important as living a good life was dying a good death. It was a gift that we could bring onto ourselves when the times of trouble would obfuscate the still tranquility that remains within. Because that exactly is death: it is tranquility from this unbearable (even to the Stoic) world.

In an important passage, Seneca says:
Living is not the good, but living well. The wise man therefore lives as long as he could, not as long as he can.... If he encounters any vexations which disturb his tranquility, he will release himself.... He will consider it of no importance whether he causes his end or merely accepts it, whether late or early. He does not shrink as before some great deprivation, for not much can be lost from a trickle. Dying early or late is of no relevance, dying well or ill is. To die well is to escape the danger of living ill.
By dying well, one continues to live well. No point in continuing something that has reached its limit whether it comes from the hand of Nature or from other men; one can honorably end it and pass unto the land of the dead with head held high. After all, what's in a life anyway but nary a "trickle." Life matters little, as Seneca seems to say.

David Hume, 1700 years later, echoes Seneca's sentiments on the value of a solitary life. In his essay On Suicide, he says
Is it because human life is of such great importance, that it is a presumption for human prudence to dispose of it? But the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster: and were it of ever so great an importance, the order of human nature has actually submitted it to human prudence, and reduced us to a necessity, in every incident, of determining concerning it (Italics mine).
True, one's troubles for the meantime is precisely only for the moment and that a lifetime will be longer and will be brighter than this momentary darkness; as the Rhodian dictum says. "While there is life, there is hope." But the point perhaps of Senece and Hume is that no one cares about how long or how hopeful a life can be or become.
Set against eternity, this or that life will be forgotten and lost. So why put so much value in something that is fleeting and painful when one can decide to do away with it in an honorable fashion?

Did not Socrates himself -- who waited patiently for the cup of hemlock to be given to him -- say that "Philosophy is learning how to die?"


To be continued...

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