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


Seneca, as well as other classical writers, almost always treated certain kinds of suicide with sympathy.  These included the suicide of honor, the suicide of love, and the suicide of old age, categories which often overlapped.  The suicide of honor was an all-embracing category.  Political and patriotic suicides were among its subdivisions, as were suicides to avoid defeat, capture, or humiliation by the enemy, and suicide to end guilt or shame. 


A major form of political suicide in the ancient world, especially in Athens and later in Rome under the early emperors, was that required by the state as the equivalent of, or an alternative to, legal execution.  In Athens the death sentence was often carried out by forcing the prisoner to drink hemlock, as in the well-known case of Socrates, which Seneca cites enthusiastically on numerous occasions.  According to Seneca, Socrates, who has lived a life consistently grounded in the highest moral principles, is equally an icon of dying well.  In Plato’s dialogue The Phaedo Plato’s mentor, Socrates, surrounded by his followers, discourses calmly and eloquently on death and the immortality of the soul while he awaits the arrival of the state-mandated poison. 


Another one of those public figures who are lauded by Seneca for their courage, integrity, and honorable death is Marcus Regulus, a significant example of the patriotic suicide.  Regulus, one of the commanders of Roman troops in the First Punic War against the Carthaginians, was eventually captured and then sent back to Rome to negotiate a peace treaty, at the same time being made to take an oath to return to the Carthaginians.  Regulus advised the Romans that it would be in their interests to continue the war, and then, having done his patriotic duty, he felt obligated to keep his promise to return to the Carthaginians, where he knew certain death—in his case, death by torture—awaited him.


Perhaps the most famous of all the classical suicides of honor, and the one whom Seneca praises almost more than any other, is Marcus Cato the Younger (sometimes referred to as Cato Uticensis—Cato of Utica).  Known for his probity (some would say his severity) and his unwillingness to compromise with principles, Cato supported Pompey against Julius Caesar in Rome’s early civil war.  When Pompey was defeated and later murdered, Cato preferred to take his own life rather than live, as he thought, without freedom (i.e., under Julius Caesar).


Seneca tells the frequently-heard story that on Cato’s last night he took to bed with him a copy of The Phaedo and a sharp sword—“the first, that he might have the will to die, and the second, that he might have the means.”  He dealt himself a serious, but not deadly, wound, which his physicians were able to bind up, but in spite of his weakness from loss of blood, he ripped apart the dressings and ultimately bled to death.  Seneca’s response to Cato’s life and death speaks for itself:  in his essay On Constancy (De Constantia), for example, he refers to Cato as “a truer exemplar of the wise man than ... Ulysses and Hercules” and in On Tranquillity of Mind (De Tranquilitate Anime) he eulogizes Cato as “the living image of all the virtues.”


If Socrates, Regulus and Cato, all of whom lived well, represent the ability to die well and bravely at the appropriate time, Maecenas is presented by Seneca as a coward.  A counselor to the Emperor Augustus as well as a patron and close friend of the poets Virgil and Horace, Maecenas was a sickly man, obsessed with the fear of death, “a curse,” in Seneca’s words, “which lays a curse upon everything else.”  Seneca records the fragment of a poem by Maecenas, “that most debased of prayers, in which Maecenas not refuse to suffer weakness, deformity, and as a climax the pain of crucifixion—provided only that he may prolong the breath of life amid these sufferings: ‘Fashion me with a palsied hand, / Weak afoot, and a cripple; / Build upon me a crook-backed hump; / Shake my teeth till they rattle; / All is well, if my life remains, [sic] / Save, oh, save it, I pray you, / Though I sit on the piercing cross!’”


Seneca is livid:  “Is it worth while [sic] to weigh down upon one’s own wound and hang impaled upon a gibbet, that one may but postpone something which is the balm of troubles, the end of punishment?” In contrast to the actions of the honorable suicides who appear in his work, including the notable triumvirate of philosopher, military commander, and statesman, Maecenas seems to be a pathetic example of manhood. “What does he mean by such womanish and indecent verse?” Seneca asks, with incredulity.  “What does he mean by begging so vilely for life?”


As a foil to Maecenas, Seneca’s friend Tullius Marcellinus is presented in a very favorable light.  Suffering from a debilitating disease by which he became “old prematurely,” Marcellinus finally heeded the advice of an unamed Stoic friend (perhaps Seneca himself?) to “die honorably.”  After comforting his sorowful slaves and dispensing small gifts to each of them, he fasted for three days, then lay in a tub and had hot water continuously poured over him until he gradually and quietly passed away.


For many Roman writers suicide to avoid pain—not one-time or short-lived pain, but long-term, intolerable pain that prevented people from functioning normally—was not merely acceptable but, as in the case of Marcellinus, treated as a virtual first cousin to the suicide of honor.  In Seneca’s words, “I shall not lay violent hands on myself just because I am in pain, for death under such circumstances is defeat.  But if I find out that the pain must always be endured I shall depart, not because of the pain but because it will be a hindrance to me as regards all my reasons for living.”


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