Philosophers and Suicide

16Oct07

Since we are looking at philosophical responses to suicide, it might be interesting to note that a number of well-known philosophers have taken their own lives. Here is a brief list…

  • 435 B.C.E. According to legend, Empedocles leapt to his death into the crater of Etna.
  • 399 B.C.E. Socrates, condemned to death for corrupting the young, drank hemlock amongst his friends. The events are described in Plato’s dialogue known as ‘Phaedo’. In the ‘Crito’, Socrates is offered a chance to escape but refuses.
  • 338 B.C.E. According to legend, Isocrates starved himself to death.
  • 52 B.C.E. Lucretius is alleged to have killed himself after being driven mad by taking a love potion.
  • 65 Seneca was forced to commit suicide after falling out with Emperor Nero.
  • 1903 Otto Weininger committed suicide at the age of 23.
  • 1940 Walter Benjamin committed suicide with poison at the Spanish-French border, after attempting to flee from the Nazis.
  • 1943 Simone Weil starved herself to death.
  • 1954 Alan Turing is believed to have committed suicide by eating a poisoned apple.
  • 1978 Kurt Gödel starved himself to death by refusing to eat for fear of being poisoned.
  • 1979 Evald Ilyenkov committed suicide.
  • 1983 Arthur Koestler committed joint suicide with his third wife, Cynthia, by taking an overdose of drugs. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease and lukemia.
  • 1994 Sarah Kofman, French philosopher, committed suicide on Nietzsche’s birthday.
  • 1994 Guy Debord, suffering from diseases brought about by excessive alcohol consumption, shot himself in his cottage in Champot.
  • 1994 David Stove committed suicide after a painful struggle with disease.
  • 1995 Gilles Deleuze committed suicide by jumping out of his fourth-story apartment window.
  • Interestingly, these cases seem to be concentrated around the ancients and 20th century philosophers.  Obviously, the ancients did not stigmatise suicide in the same way as the Christian tradition; in fact, it was often seen as somthing supremely noble or rational.  Many of the modern suicides of philosophers are associated with the effects of world war or mental illness.



    8 Responses to “Philosophers and Suicide”

    1. 1 gukseon

      “The only serious philosophical question is whether or not to commit suicide.”
      (Albert Camus)

    2. 2 oinos_kai_alathea

      I would argue that Socrates did not comit suicide. He was condemned to death by drinking hemlock for corrupting the youth of Athens. He was offered the chance to escape from prison in Crito, but refused as it would break his principal of obediance to the law. His death was execution – one that he chose not to escape, but not because he actually wanted to die. In the same sense that to sacrifice oneself for others is arguably not suicide as the primary intention is not one’s own death but benefit for others, his allowing himself to be executed was not suicide as his intention was not his death but obediance to his philosophical principals.

    3. In the Crito, Socrates places adherence to the laws of Athens and the city’s demand for justice, as it were, above his own personal needs. He expressed this as a kind of duty to the institutions and procedures of law, which he argues must be upheld even if in practice they propogate injustice. Thus, Socrates acts out of love for Athens and respect for Athenian law. However, the fact that he could have escaped and chose not to suggests a degree of volition in his actions, though he seems to insist that he has no real choice as he is bound by duty.

      This is how Socrates imagines the voice of the laws:

      Socrates. “Listen, then, Socrates, to us who have brought you up. Think not of life and children first, and of justice afterwards, but of justice first, that you may be justified before the princes of the world below. For neither will you nor any that belong to you be happier or holier or juster in this life, or happier in another, if you do as Crito bids. Now you depart in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil; a victim, not of the laws, but of men. But if you go forth, returning evil for evil, and injury for injury, breaking the covenants and agreements which you have made with us, and wronging those whom you ought least to wrong, that is to say, yourself, your friends, your country, and us, we shall be angry with you while you live, and our brethren, the laws in the world below, will receive you as an enemy; for they will know that you have done your best to destroy us. Listen, then, to us and not to Crito.” This is the voice which I seem to hear murmuring in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic; that voice, I say, is humming in my ears, and prevents me from hearing any other. And I know that anything more which you will say will be in vain. Yet speak, if you have anything to say.

      Crito. I have nothing to say, Socrates.

      Socrates. Then let me follow the intimations of the will of God.

    4. 4 Jazmin

      You are who you want to be, are we not? if left alone, just beings of our time? To have destined careers in life would ultimately mean that each and everything one of us born had to play out, an unspoken or unknown destiny, is that really the work of a god.

      Why are we be bound to a calling in life? Who said this, why are we saying it? Who called and why did I not hear it? Who or even why should I listen? To voices unknown and ideas unheard of?

    5. 5 ace

      Those who truly call to us to follow a path in life are ourselves. Many people find great discomfort when they feel they have no choice over the path they follow, such as someone who comes from a long line of military service in their family. If they choose to break out and follow a different line they may feel they are betraying those closest to them. If they follow in the footsteps of those that came before them they may feel trapped and unhappy that what they are doing doesn’t give them the freedom to choose their own destiny.

      For those of us lucky enough to be given choice other problems may get in the way. Maybe there are too many options, too many conflicting desires to choose just one true course. Maybe we would like to follow a certain goal, but feel doubt that we can achieve the lofty dreams we have set up for ourselves, or have no idea how to get there, making giving up seem like a tempting option.

      In the end I feel the best way forward is not to try and force a specific path, but instead to travel down the path we all travel as we live our lives and grow in experience. As we travel down the path of life different opportunities will present themselves, and if we have the courage and desire to follow those opportunities we may find ourselves somewhere we had never even expected!

    6. 6 ace

      Another famous writer, who I also consider a philosopher, who committed suicide was Hunter S. Thompson. He is most famous for his 1972 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which describes how the early energy and feeling of optimism presented by the Hippy movement in the late sixties had collapsed into itself by 1970. The good will and liberated spirit had lead to, what could be called inevitable, decadence and decline in motivation once the hippies realised that the ideals they stood for were unfocused and in many cases unsustainable. Combine this with active resistance from the hedgemony of American life at the time, and the large numbers who had no real conviction in the first place, and failure seemed to be destined from the start.

      However, much of what happened during the late sixties reemerged in one form or another down the line, such as a liberalisation of racial, sexual and other values, and so many of the events and writings of the time are now seen in a different light. These people tend to embody and exemplify many of the values we share today, highlighting the important influence these people did actually create.

      Hunter S. Thompson killed himself in 2005 with a gunshot to the head while his family was in the house. Though it is impossible to truly state the motives for this action at the age of 67, it has been stated by his family that the act was not out of desperation, but as a solution to the painful medical treatment he was undertaking. His suicide note reads as follows:

      “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt”

      It is also of interest that he is recorded to have stated that if he felt he could not commit suicide he would feel trapped. This sounds like a suicide committed from a position of reason, perhaps more than many i’ve read about.

    7. Well written article.


    1. 1 God & Atheism « god particles

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