What should a proper response be to existing in a world which contains innumerable amounts of suffering including hardship, loss, and disappointment? Should one commit suicide to escape from significant disturbances to everyday living?
I’ll explore passages in Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic relating to the topic of suicide which can encourage people to find the will to live by working to improve by taking action; enduring suffering; having a sense of gratitude; having hope for the future; reflecting on past accomplishments; accepting elements of chance and inevitability in life; being mindful of thoughts and emotions to have insight motivated toward change; preparing for hardships; being strong and brave; considering the impact suicide can have on others; and finding meaning in life.
Seneca, in his letters, repeats a theme of taking action to get oneself in order – to not significantly postpone or procrastinate ignoring that which can be remedied lest the problem get worse and eventually become overwhelming. Stoic writers, although they acknowledge personal change can be difficult and significant change may not happen in a short period of time, are optimistic about individuals’ capacity – perhaps aided with the help of others – to improve.
It’s important to note that if one has significant thoughts about suicide and/or has attempted suicide that help is available. People can take action by seeking counseling services, calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, seeking information online, talking with others, and working to improve the current situation. In his letter titled ‘On the Futility of Planning Ahead’ Seneca writes
Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s account every day. The greatest flaw in life is that it is always imperfect, and that a certain part of it is postponed.
That life is imperfect – this is something we ought to come to terms with; we do not live in utopias. Seneca compares life life to a journey, that although there will be inevitable mishaps along the way, we can work to re-calibrate ourselves even if straying from a set path. Although there are some elements of life we may not like, we must not forget positive elements we can be grateful for.
Seneca writes about having a sense of gratitude in his letter titled ‘On Consolation to the Bereaved.’ He writes:
many men fail to count up how manifold their gains have been, how great their rejoicings.
In this passage, Seneca addresses someone who lost a friend noting that there have been many good things about the friendship including memories that live on and that one should be grateful for past gains. We can be grateful, too, for positives in the present looking at the whole picture rather than just focusing on some concerns. Perhaps we can look at our own lives as Seneca looks at the situation of a mourner. Although some things have changed and there may be feelings of despair and grief now, we can note the positives from the past and present. Seneca writes:
People set a narrow limit to their enjoyments if they take pleasure only in the present; both the future and the past serve for our delight.
The future indeed can serve for our delight and contain some hope.
Seneca, in his letter ‘On the Futility of Planning Ahead,’ talks about how the future, especially the far future, is uncertain. Perhaps we may think that our lives may be horrible at the moment and that there is no hope for change or reason for optimism, but this cannot be the case – there can be change and hope, a better station of life in coming years, weeks, or even days. Perhaps there are times, too, earlier in our lives, in which we faced significant despair but overcame suffering and had new opportunities and new hope even though we thought our struggle was hopeless and recovery was impossible. Although we might believe there is no hope for change, we should really challenge this line of thought given the uncertainty of the future and past examples of overcoming difficult times. Seneca writes,
For what disturbance can result from the changes and the instability of chance, if you are sure in the face of that which is unsure?
Simply put, we can’t be certain of a bleak future when the future is uncertain and out of our grasps.
One can embrace a sense of radical acceptance and mindfulness to accept that which has happened in the past knowing that, although we can learn from and reflect on the past, we cannot change what has happened. We can also accept emotions we are feeling and thoughts we are experiencing in the present while being aware of them. Without awareness and deliberation we may become simply reactive, impulsive, and not seek to improve ourselves or seek help from others. Rather than simply complaining or lamenting, especially about things we cannot change or have little to no control over, we can accept and work how to better react to events which may be associated with suicidal thoughts.
We shouldn’t deny our emotions or try to be emotionless, but rather analyze our thoughts and emotions working to respond more appropriately and productively to our woes in life instead of catastrophizing and compounding our troubles – we can accept what we are thinking and feeling. Seneca writes in his letter titled ‘On Consolation to the Bereaved’ addressing a mourner:
Tears fall, no matter how we try to check them, and by being shed they ease the soul. What, then, shall we do? Let us allow them to fall, but let us not command them do so; let us according as emotion floods our eyes, but not as mere imitation shall demand. Let us, indeed, add nothing to natural grief, not augment it by following the example of others.
It’s possible to extend our sense of suffering, to add to our despair, but surely this is not a helpful direction to move toward. Question why you might be feeling what you are feeling and work to improve yourself. After all, different people respond differently to different events, so surely it’s not the event or thought itself which causes the feeling, but rather one’s response to the event – it’s in our power, the Stoics would say, to alter our judgments, our impressions, the way we think about things. Seneca writes, “accept in an unruffled spirit that which is inevitable.” This noble and difficult goal is surely one which can help us bear hardships.
This unruffled spirit, bearing suffering and prevailing, is discussed in Seneca’s letter titled ‘On the Fickleness of Fortune’ in which Seneca repeats themes of uncertainty toward the future, anticipating hardships, and thoughts about having a strong resilient character. He writes several inspirational lines, models of a Stoic sage we can work toward emulating.
A bad man makes everything bad – even things which had come with the appearance of what is best, but the upright and honest man corrects the wrongs for fortune, and softens hardship and bitterness because he knows how to endure them; he likewise accepts prosperity with appreciation and moderation, and stands up against trouble with steadiness and courage.
Again we also see themes of gratitude, acceptance, not making our personal problems worse, and careful behavior in this passage.
How might we soften hardship? Surely Seneca’s letter titled ‘On Facing Hardships’ is a good starting point with which to gain perspective. Seneca talks more about inevitability in life and acceptance comparing life to a journey and a battle which includes some struggle we should even embrace in some cases. We can’t have life in a cafe without struggle and shouldn’t prefer it, Seneca thinks, but we can work to mitigate our despair, our worries, and our suffering. We can also display heroism and bravery in overcoming adversity. Here are some passages from Seneca writing to his friend Lucilius:
I shall pay up all my taxes willingly. Now all the things which cause us to groan or recoil are part of the tax of life – things, my dear Lucilius, which you should never hope and never seek to escape.
A long life includes all these troubles, just as a long journey includes dust and mud and rain.
And life, Lucillius, is really a battle. For this reason those who are tossed about at sea, who proceed uphill and downhill over toilsome crags and heights, who go on campaigns that bring the greatest danger, are heroes and front rank fighters; but persons who live in rotten luxury and ease while others toil are mere turtle-doves safe only because men despise them.
So, life will contain hardships, one may say, but how can we cope with those which spring upon us without warning? We can be suddenly devastated. Perhaps sudden unexpected events, those we didn’t prepare for, are linked to thoughts about suicide. Maybe a death of a loved one, a dissolution of a relationship, past trauma, reactions to an event – well, the past has passed and things outside of our control have happened. Perhaps, though, we can better prepare for the future in realizing chance can take its toll for the worst. We can learn lessons from the past and work to rebuild and strengthen ourselves.
Seneca wrote a letter titled ‘A Lesson to be Drawn From the Burning of Lyons’ in which he discusses a sudden fire which devastated an entire peaceful, prosperous, beautiful colony – there was no warning or opportunity to stop the fire whereas in other cases, fires have only damaged parts of valued places and people could have prevented destruction. He writes:
it is the unexpected that puts the heaviest load upon us. Strangeness adds to the weight of calamities, and every mortal feels the greater pain as a result which also brings surprise. Therefore, nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen.
Surely being prepared will help us deal with hardships not if they arrive, but when they arrive. We shouldn’t have extreme anxiety about the future, especially thinking our present despair will last forever and even get worse as I discussed earlier, but rather than accept, anticipate, and better cope. After all, Seneca writes, hardship can emerge at any time – all are afflicted
No time is exempt; in the midst of our very pleasures there spring up causes of suffering. War arises in midst of peace, and that which we depended upon for protection is transformed into a cause of fear; friend becomes enemy; ally becomes foeman. The summer calm is stirred into sudden storms, wilder than the storms of winter.
Life and calm is fragile, Seneca calls to our attention, but we can work to keep ourselves together and have a steadfast mind which will allow us to weather the storms of life. Another quote on this line of thought, this accepting and preparing for an uncertain life and an uncertain future, is found in Seneca’s letter titled ‘On Liberal and Vocational Studies.’ Seneca writes:
I, for my part, do not know what is to be, but I do know what may come to be. I shall have no misgivings in this matter; I await the future in its entirety; and if there is any abatement in its severity, I make the most of it.
So, we accept that life, although it has many positive elements, will also have elements we do not like. We can respond by being brave.
Seneca writes about bravery in his letter titled ‘On the natural fear of death.’ He writes,
How can brave endurance of death by anything else than glorious, and fit to rank among the greatest accomplishments of the human mind
When truth is at stake, we must act more frankly; and when fear is to be combated we must act more bravely.
On Seneca’s view it can even be an act of bravery just to live although of course, we should work toward not just any life, but rather strive for a fulfilled life as Seneca mentions throughout his letters with his focus on the quality of life. We can think, too, about how others would mourn our tragic loss of life should we commit suicide. Seneca writes in his letter titled ‘On the Healing Power of the Mind’ talking about enduring an illness in his younger years:
I have often entertained the impulse of ending my life then and there; but the thought of my kind old father kept me back. For I reflected, not how bravely I had the power to die, but how little power he had to bear bravely the loss of me. And so I commanded myself to live. For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live.
Shall we endure suffering, even if we can accept it as inevitable, something outside of our control, and even if we can better respond to events so we don’t plunge into utter hopeless despair? Is it worth the hassle? I wrote about having gratitude for the positives in life, but what about finding meaning – surely this can be an antidote to despair? Perhaps we can find meaning in helping others, bringing a smile to others’ faces, helping others to find joy in life through evaluating our own skills and talents, asking ourselves what roles we can play in life – how we can manifest virtue and contribute to society.
Seneca writes about helping others in his letter titled ‘On the Usefulness of Basic Principles.’
What a little thing it is not to harm one whom you ought to help! It is indeed worthy of great praise, when man treats man with kindness! […] let our hands be ready for all that needs to be helped, Let this verse be in your heart and on your lips: I am a man; and nothing in a man’s lot do I seem foreign to me. Let us possess things in common; for birth is ours in common. Our relations with one another are like a stone arch, which would collapse if the stones did not mutually support each other, and which is upheld in this very way.
Perhaps you can find motivation for living in recognizing your kinship with others and not only making their lives more tolerable, more fulfilled, but also improving yourself in the process for benefiting others is a type of reward. As Seneca writes in his letter titled ‘On Benefits.’
There is not a man who, when he has benefited his neighbor, has not benefited himself […] the wages of a good deed is to have done it.
Maybe through your chosen profession, volunteering, even talking to friends or family in need – even in difficult personal circumstances – there can be a light in the darkness, reasons to live and to find meaning. Maybe balance in life, not putting all of your time and effort into one thing or one person – depending on that for your happiness, but rather depending on yourself, working toward contentment, and appreciating the help of others – multiple people and things can offer us benefits. Maybe some leisure can help too – we can be entertained, entertain, and even learn in the process through engaging in a hobby, finding something new to do, exercising, playing a musical instrument, reading, and watching television shows or movies…the possibilities are vast.
To recap, we can find the will to live by working to improve ourselves by taking action; enduring suffering; having a sense of gratitude; having hope for the future; reflecting on past accomplishments; accepting elements of chance and inevitability in life; being mindful of thoughts and emotions to have insight motivated toward change; preparing for hardships; being strong and brave; considering the impact suicide can have on others; and finding meaning in life.
Justin Vacula produces content about Stoic Philosophy; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and hosts monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia. He is pursuing a degree in Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program. To find out more about his activities and his podcast, visit his website.
Hi, Mr. Vacula–Thanks for the excellent (and rather inspiring!) synopsis of what I would call “the Senecan take” on Stoic values. As a psychiatrist, I was also pleased you alluded to the “mental health” aspect of suicide. Leaving aside the thorny issue of “rational suicide”–a notion I think some Stoics would probably endorse–it is important to note that suicide is most commonly seen in association with serious psychiatric illnesses, such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. And, as you know, these are treatable conditions, with proper mental health interventions. For those of us fortunate enough to have been spared such disorders–and perhaps even for some people with severe psychological impairment**–Seneca’s brave and bracing maxims are invaluable.
Ronald Pies MD
**As most who follow this website know, Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), developed by Dr. Albert Ellis, does draw on some Stoic concepts in its approach to emotional disturbances, though without invoking the spiritual/metaphysical dimensions of Stoicism.
Thank you, this was a very helpful article and I think it will help me be kind to a friend and perhaps help her see that it is more useful to learn to accept certain problems than to hope they will go away (and then to despair when they don’t or when others come along to replace them).
However, I still foresee for myself a time when I would consider suicide, and that is if faced with dementia. I can appreciate the value for myself and others in learning to accept a physical terminal illness, but it is harder for dementia. We can hope perhaps that the prolongation of our life into the loss of personality and memory will have some useful effect on those who care for us, but it’s easier to see how it might be better for them not to have to suffer it. I guess I still need to work on accepting that one.
As a psychiatrist, I certainly understand the fear that many of us share, re: the development of dementia. And, to be sure, this is not a topic directly “covered” in the Stoic literature, to my knowledge. That said–and speaking now as a clinician who has worked extensively with geriatric patients–many persons living with dementia are still quite capable of enjoying life; and equally, of bringing joy to their families.
I don’t mean to minimize the stress that caring for a loved one with dementia often entails–it is no picnic and caregivers often need a good deal of emotional support themselves. But in my experience, most families would much prefer caring for their loved one with dementia than seeing him or her “gone”, particularly by means of suicide. (Having experienced a beloved uncle commit suicide many years ago, I can testify to how painful and distressing it has been to the family). And while there certainly can be striking alterations of “personality” in some people with dementia, others remain quite themselves, suffering mainly from memory impairment but remaining socially appropriate and capable of enjoying the love and comfort of friends and family.
I hope you don’t have to face this problem, of course. But even dementia does not necessarily spell the end of useful and joyous life! For more on this, please see:
Ronald Pies MD
I am getting the impression that somehow this blog gets lost in psychology.
Stoicism is a philosophy.
The ancient Stoics divided it into three branches: logic, ethics and physics.
When was the last time we had an article about logic or a scientific subject? Even Stoic ethics was mostly about virtue. The articles should inspire us to become more virtuous or clarify the logical foundations of Stoic virtues, not just whining about the hardship of life.
We could discuss how to apply propositional logic in daily life decisions under uncertainty.
We need to rethink the question of Stoic determinism in face of the 20th century findings of quantum mechanics.
We need to ask, if the Stoic concept of unity of the world is tenable considering the cosmic horizon problem.
There are so many philosophical questions to discuss for a modern Stoic. Psychology is only a minor issue among them.
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