I got involved briefly in a Facebook debate the other day over whether Jane Austen’s novels have any redeeming value—I think they do. Someone with an opposite opinion quoted the following from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and so narrow . . . Suicide is more respectable.” Strange to say, suicide has been on my mind a lot during this just-ending academic year—and there it is again.
I mentioned toward the end of last Friday’s post that in one of her written assignments this semester, one of my students observed that “suicide is an avoidable form of death.” Applied to Ralph Waldo’s judgment concerning Jane Austin’s novels, avoiding suicide for Emerson simply requires avoiding Jane’s novels. My student’s reflection was focused on Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno, where those who commit suicide are eternally condemned to existence as twisted, leafless trees, continuing to feel spiritual, physical and emotional pain, but literally rooted in one place for eternity. Dante takes delight in his imaginative assignment of punishments that fit the crime—in this case, those who deliberately rejected their mortal bodies don’t get them back. But they also do not escape the torment that caused them to choose suicide during their earthly existences.
After Dante absentmindedly snaps a twig off one of the trees, it begins oozing blood and screaming in pain. This is Pier Della Vigne, who was once Frederick II of Sicily’ chief adviser. Fourteenth-century politics were no less nasty than today—rivals filled with envy spread false rumors of Pier’s treachery, and Frederick clapped him in chains. Pier, distraught and depressed, hung himself. “My mind, moved by scornful satisfaction, / believing death would free me from all scorn, / made me unjust to me, who was all just.”
“What a pussy!” one of my hockey playing students said in response to my asking whether Pier’s suicide was justified or not. Apparently it is not manly to off oneself rather than try to live with the loss of everything one considers important while waiting for execution. “Does everyone agree?” Everyone did, but not for the same reasons. “Suicide is a mortal sin,” some claimed, channeling what they had learned in CCD. “Life is precious and killing yourself is throwing God’s greatest gift back in his face.” “Killing yourself is selfish and is a cop-out. How does he know that things won’t turn around?” the incurably hopeful asked. Pier had lost hope; overwhelmed with the injustice of his predicament and seeing no prospects for a better future, he chose to end his life. And for that choice he gets buried halfway down the circles of Hell, exactly where my students agreed that he belonged.
“Who remembers Boethius from the end of last semester?” I asked. All but one or two of the eighteen hands went up, reminding me of how much I love teaching in the program. How many second-semester freshmen have read Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy? Upon request, one of the students reminded her colleagues of the predicament in which Boethius found himself seven centuries before Pier Della Vigne and Dante. Boethius was the primary adviser of Theodoric, one of the first barbarian emperors of the Western Roman Empire. Slandered and falsely accused of treason, Theodoric threw Boethius into a prison cell where he awaited certain execution. Just like Pier Della Vigne.
So what did Boethius do? He didn’t kill himself; instead, he invented an imaginary friend—Philosophy in the guise of a very hot woman—and wrote one of the great works of Neo-Platonic philosophy. Written as a conversation between Boethius and Lady Philosophy, Consolation of Philosophy is a classic text that struggles with perennial philosophical themes: free will, the problem of evil, the inscrutability of God, and more. Boethius stands as an alternative to Pier Della Vigne’s choice, demonstrating that suicide is, after all, an avoidable form of death. And oh yeah, Boethius was executed.Questions like “When is a life not worth living?’ or “What things are worth dying for?” cannot be dismissed easily. I reminded my students of Socrates, whom they had also studied in some detail the previous semester. In Plato’s Crito, Socrates finds himself in prison in the middle of the night, awaiting execution the next morning as the culmination of having been found guilty of a number of serious charges by a jury of his Athenian peers. His friend and follower Crito visits with the apparently great news that money has been collected, the jailer has been bribed, and Socrates is free to escape with Crito.
And he won’t leave. Crito can’t believe it and offers several reasons in succession why Socrates should escape—your family needs you, you can continue being a philosopher pain in the ass somewhere other than Athens, if you die people will think your friends were too cheap to bribe the jailer, Socrates’ conviction was a miscarriage of justice—everything but the kitchen sink. Crito’s arguments are convincing—Socrates has taught him well—except to Socrates who responds that “there is a difference between living and living well.” Some things are more important than just staying alive—identifying the ways in which one chooses not to live is one of those things. Choosing the manner and circumstances of one’s demise sometimes trumps staying alive. As someone near and dear to me used to say, sometimes “life is overrated.”
So in a way, Socrates commit suicide by choosing to die in the face of available life. “Yeah, but that’s not suicide. He didn’t kill himself,” my hockey player said, knowing better than to accuse Socrates of being a pussy. “No,” said the guy next to him, “he just refused to escape from jail and avoid being executed when he had the chance. What’s the difference?” Most of the students agreed with the hockey player—if you didn’t actively take your own life, it ain’t suicide. Passively allowing someone else to do it when you could have stayed alive doesn’t count.
My students had learned over a number of months with me that when philosophers get in trouble, they draw a distinction, precisely what they were doing here. When faced with a choice to die rather than live that was made on principle rather than out of depression or despair, they preserved their a priori rejection of suicide as ever morally justifiable by concluding that “this must not be suicide.” “Fine,” I thought, in a Burger King moment. “Have it your way.” I capped the conversation by briefly telling them the story of Cato the Younger from Plutarch’s Lives (a text we had not read but perhaps would have if this course were four years in length). Cato was a Roman senator and one of the great defenders, both in word and deed, of the late Roman Republic.
When civil war erupted after Julius Caesar illegally returned to Rome with his victorious legions, Cato fought as a general on the losing side. Immediately after his victory, Caesar dispatched a messenger to Cato offering clemency and promising an important post in Caesar’s proposed governmental structure, paying at least lip service to Cato’s well-earned reputation for incorruptible honesty and virtue. In response, Cato fell on his sword after saying “I could no longer be Cato under those conditions.” Just as Socrates, Cato imagined a life as an orbiting body around Caesar’s center of gravity and decided that death was preferable. Upon hearing of Cato’s suicide, Caesar commented “Cato, I grudge you your death, as you would have grudged me the preservation of your life.”
In a moment of either weakness or reality Immanuel Kant, who argued vociferously and consistently that suicide is never morally justifiable, once admitted that perhaps Cato was the only morally justified suicide in human history. But one exception to the rule raises the likelihood of many more. I asked my students to spend the last fifteen minutes of seminar writing in their seminar notebooks on “Was Cato’s suicide justified?” At least half of them, despite having learned from various authorities throughout their young lives that no suicides are morally justifiable, concluded that this one, at least, was. Mission accomplished—a few more small cracks in the wall of absolute certainty have been opened up. That’s why they pay me the big bucks—or should, at least!