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“Immortal Longings:  Suicide of Honor in Seneca, Shakespeare and Mishima”


Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BC--65 AD) was one of the most important literary figures of ancient Rome:  moralist, Stoic philosopher, and dramatist, as well as tutor to the young Nero and later his unofficial court adviser, he amassed a vast fortune.  William Shakespeare (1564--1616) was the greatest playwright and poet of Elizabethan England, as well as a successful businessman and property owner.  Yukio Mishima, pseudonym for Kimitake Hiraoka (1925--1970), was a brilliant post-WWII Japanese novelist, short-story writer, poet, dramatist and essayist, who also directed and starred in movies and had his own army.  At first glance these three men, widely separated chronologically and geographically, would seem to have little in common except their stature as writers and their prosperity, but a close look at their writings reveals that the three are united by an interest in suicide, especially the suicide of honor, attempted or successfully completed in order to die with dignity or to reclaim a sense of lost honor.


I shall focus on Seneca’s moral writings, an early poem of Shakespeare’s and two of his Roman plays, and a short story of Mishima’s that is probably his best-known work and artistically his most impressive performance.  For two of these three writers, as we shall see, suicide of honor was not merely a literary or philosophic interest but also the means by which their lives were formally terminated. 


A Becoming Exit


It is a common misconception that classical antiquity approved of and defended all forms of suicide.  More accurately, Greek and Roman civilization is characterized by what French suicidologist Albert Bayet has called the “morale nuancée,” the nuanced or complex morality, which neither wholly condemns nor wholly condones suicide, but judges each case on its own merits and shows a high degree of sympathy and tolerance.  The morale nuancée, associated with liberty, individualism, and education, was primarily a phenomenon of the intelligentsia and the aristocracy—not the entire aristocracy but the cultivated and cultured segment of it.  Hence the suicides recorded in the literature of Rome (and of Greece as well) are for the most part aristocratic, and the great period of Roman suicides was from the end of the Republic to the early part of the Empire—Rome’s most enlightened days.


Certainly these generalizations apply to Seneca and other Stoic philosophers, who do not advocate suicide on a mass scale.  On the contrary, the principles that the Stoics teach are for a small, elite group—the wise, or those who try to become wise, through the study of philosophy.  The Stoics have aristocrats’ contempt for the majority, whom they consider hopelessly entangled in irrational passions and appetites.  Their pronouncements on suicide, as on everything else, are not meant for the unenlightened. Stoics allow suicide only when it is in accord with the dictates of reason; suicide must be calmly and reasonably thought out.  Stoicism does not recognize the demands of the passions, so self-destruction motivated by anger, grief, or jealousy is entirely unacceptable. 


In his long essay On Anger (De Ira), Seneca condemns the suicide of the mythological warrior Ajax, who in a state of madness kills a flock of sheep under the delusion that he is avenging himself on fellow Greeks who have insulted him.  In the psychology of the ancients, almost by definition, madness, almost by definition, madness results from the excesses of passion—thus Seneca’s comment on Ajax’s subsequent suicide: “It was frenzy that drove Ajax to his death, and anger drove him into frenzy.”

With even greater explicitness the Stoic philosophers condemn taking one’s life for no valid reason. Epictetus, a freed slave who became a well-known Stoic teacher, notes in his Discourses that a friend of his made an arbitrary and irrational decision to fast until he should die.  The philosopher’s attempts to dissuade him had no effect, and finally Epictetus offered his most cogent argument:  so useless a suicide is equivalent to murder.  Seneca, too, in his Moral Epistles (Epistulae Morales) warns against hatred of life or “lust for dying.”  He is contemptuous of those who feel compelled to take their lives for what he considers the most “trifling” of reasons: “One hangs himself before the door of his mistress; another hurls himself from the house-top that he may no longer be compelled to bear the taunts of a bad-tempered master; a third, to be saved from arrest after running away, drives a sword into his vitals.”  Seneca, in other words, opposes “a hasty retreat from life,” in favor of “a becoming exit.”


What Seneca means by “a becoming exit” is related to his general principles on living a good life.  “For mere living,” he asserts, “is not a good[,] but living well.” The wise man is concerned with the “quality, and not the quantity, of his life.  As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free,” in order to die well.  “And dying well means escape from the danger of living ill.”





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