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Welcome to James' Philosophical Agora - James' Meeting Place On-Line. (Updated September 2017)

This blog is the place where I write in a more personal way on various areas of philosophical interest. Please be careful when I say 'philosophical' because this does not often mean about purely academic or abstract subjects and ideas; but rather like much of the philosophy of Socrates, it means an investigation of some fundamental things that have a very important baring on the way we live our lives as individuals and as communities.

I have a separate blog where I share my enthusiasm for the specific philosophical tradition and ideas of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle Plutarch and others at: Socrates 4 Today However, this blog James' Philosophical Agora expresses mostly personal viewpoints and so I prefer to have two separate blogs.

Please feel free to comment on any of the blog posts, or add some thoughts of your own to the subjects discussed. You can also contact me personally if you would like to discuss any particular items further at: jamesdelphi2000@gmail.com

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Socrates on Suicide

A young friend wrote to me some time ago who seemed to be contemplating suicide. He had somehow justified this action “ethically – morally” to his own way of thinking by the argument that if the body ‘corrupts’ the soul (as per many religious doctrines) – then surely it is better to separate body and soul as soon as possible. He asked me what I thought with this “ethical argument” for suicide. Below is my reply to him which includes some input from Tim Addey of the Prometheus Trust:     “Socrates on Suicide”.

Dear W.V.

…… I will try and answer the points you raise in a  “general” way first - talking about whether "one" should do or not do this or that (free the soul from the body - commit suicide in this case); and then see if we can reach some kind of general (not personal) opinion and agreement on the matter. This general opinion would then by deduction also apply to you if indeed it is suicide you are really talking about in your letter.
I know that in your letter you say that you are not just wanting to conform to any religious doctrine in this matter; but to some extent you do use "religious" words and phrases throughout your letter to explain your ideas, and the ideas you discuss do crop up in many - or indeed most - religious theologies. As we know, some one billion Hindus think that their theology is the correct or best one, some hundreds of millions of Jews think theirs is; the Christian fundamentalists of course think that there is only one way to God - being through the the Christian church - or rather their small branch of it. On this point I must refer you to one of my face book favourite quotes by General Xenophon (a friend and contemporary of Socrates) who said:
'Concerning the gods and whatever I say about anything, no one has any certainty, nor ever will; and if someone should happen to utter the absolute truth,  how would he know it?  Seeming is present in everything.' (Xenophon)'

Now I mention this quote of Xenophon because if my answer below also quotes a little Socrates and Plato - it is in no way to suggest to you that following the Olympic Gods is best or anything like that; it is just that these Greek philosophers did speak about some of the points you raised about the soul in your letter to me last week - and therefore their views are relevant whether we choose to agree or disagree with them. So if – for example - you believe in one male God and Plato refers to "the Gods don't like it if" - then do not reject what Plato suggests just because there is an "s" on the end of the word God. It does not matter for the point of this argument on the morality of suicide. However, it is also interesting to note that Plato did believe in one supra natural creator force above the Gods as it were - and so demonstrates a certain monotheism in his outlook during what was a pagan polytheist era in Greece and many other parts of the known world. (My own view is that "if" there is a creator of the universe - then it is certainly above merely human considerations like one or many, male or female, Jewish or Christian or Hindu, colour etc - and such discussions reflect a true lack of understanding and perspective on these matters...)

So, Socrates tells us in Phaedo that he does not fear death at all - since either the soul does not go on when we die and there is "nothing" after death and nothing to worry about; or; the soul does go on in some way - and for people who "try" at least to live a good and decent life there should also have nothing to fear if the soul does go on after death. So clearly when discussing your letter we are assuming the second consideration – that the soul does go on in some way after the death of our physical bodies.

Now, your letter to me if I am correct asks the essential point that if the body can in some way effect badly a good and pure soul - then is it not better to try and separate soul and body as soon as practically possible - and preferably with great anguish and pain and distress, in order to protect and purify somehow the soul ? Now if this is NOT what you are asking then let me know as soon as possible so we can follow a different line of thought.

Well, let’s mention what some well established thinkers say on this question before I tell you my own personal opinion below ....
     ... The traditional Christian outlook as you know is 110% against what they would view as a  form of suicide – and they (rightly or wrongly) would certainly view the course of action you are proposing as a form of suicide. The Christians would view it "traditionally" as a cardinal sin - and were you a Catholic - they would excommunicate you from God and the Church and refuse to bury you in one of their Christian Catholic cemeteries. The Anglican Church while still sharing this traditional view because of the bible text –  might show a more sympathetic side - but I am not sure whether they would bury you in an Anglican cemetery – I think not. What the Greek Orthodox view would be I am not sure. Knowing the Greeks I would expect they would take a very sympathetic view to something like the suicide of a young person.

Now when I say the bible above - I mean the Old Testament - and this suggests to me that the traditional Jewish view on suicide will be similar. Sorry - I cannot tell you which chapter and verse it’s in - but it is there for sure. You can ask any local clergyman and they will tell you where. So in the Jewish and Christian faiths (which you draw threads and ideas from in your letter to me) - they would advise you very strongly and very clearly against the course of action you are suggesting – even if to you your way of thinking it is not about suicide – but in some way a sensible course of action to protect your soul from defilement by the body.

Let's tell you now what Socrates might say; and then I will conclude by telling you what my own views on the matter are. I am sorry that I have not studied Hinduism or Buddhism - you can ask people experienced here what their traditional view is. However, I do remind you what Xenophon said above; and that implies who knows who is correct on these matters - whether James knows best or not, or The Hindus or Christians or whatever. It is very hard indeed to be certain on these things for obvious reasons. However, we need to be cautious of thinking that say because we like the nice guy down at the local Buddhist cafe and he talks well about his faith - that he is necessarily correct – or correct all the time - rather than say the inarticulate Christian, philosopher, Aborigine or Kalasha - who we might like less on a personal basis - but might be more correct than the person we like.....

Well I wanted to tell you what Socrates says on Suicide and wrote on your behalf to ask a friend of mine, Tim Addey of the Prometheus Trust,  who is a respected writer of books and speaker on all things Socratic and Platonic. He kindly replied to me as follows:

Dear James
Socrates on Suicide
‘In the Phaedo Socrates gives two reasons why one should not commit suicide: the first is what he calls esoteric and is touched on lightly: in the myth of Dionysus, the suggestion is that our mundane body is made from the ashes of the Titans who had eaten Dionysus - and that therefore the body is not ours to do as we wish with, but is merely on loan from the divinity of the mundane world.  In just the same way - the earth itself is not humankind's own to do as it sees fit with, but rather is on loan from nature to us, to be held in trust, so to speak.
The second reason perhaps bears more clearly on anyone considering a course of action that could be taken or viewed to be form of suicide. Socrates says that we are placed in our present embodied condition not by accident but by command of divine justice and for a reason (even if we cannot understand fully that divine reason) – and he uses the image of a prison cell in which one is placed until the authorities release us.  It is unclear whether we are the prisoners who have to serve a sentence, or members of the prison guards each given an allotted duty; but which ever interpretation one takes, we are not free to abandon our position until our proper time is up.

The body, at least according to the Platonic tradition is not poison - in fact, says Proclus in his treatise on Evil, it is really only the soul which can produce or chooses evil, and by no means the body, which by itself does not choose anything, and unless misdirected by the soul, lives a natural and pure life.  The body, of course, being a temporal thing, will eventually decay and meet its death: but this is not evil in any real sense, since death and decay serve a greater end - allowing the beauties of the eternal world to fill the material world with an ever-changing drama in which one thing gives way to another.
The soul is not freed by death alone - at least not in a physical death.  Here is what Porphyry says about this in his “Auxiliaries to the Perception of the Intelligible”:

            "The soul is bound to the body by a conversion to the corporeal passions; and again liberated by becoming impassive to the body (i.e. bodily desires under control - not extinguished.).   That which nature binds, nature also dissolves: and that which the soul binds, the soul likewise dissolves.  Nature, indeed, bound the body to the soul; but the soul binds herself to the body.  Nature, therefore, liberates the body from the soul; but the soul liberates herself from the body.
            Hence there is a twofold death; the one, indeed, universally known, in which the body is liberated from the soul; but the other peculiar to philosophers (and artists etc), in which the soul is liberated from the body.  Nor does the one entirely follow the other."

What can we learn from this?  That if one relies on the natural death to release the soul from body, then this is accomplished, but if to release it from its failures (sins, karma, passions, call them what you will), then this itself will be a further failure, since a soul which has not unfolded its interior qualities by living a good and just life in full, will undoubtedly be attached to body until it is able to do so - if not one particular body, then another.  True penance is the making good of whatever life divinity has seen fit to give us - not the rejection of it.

Personally, (Tim Addey writes), I don't believe the soul-life consists in fighting the body and its desires - rather it should be a calm direction of all things to their proper end in moderation, so that the body becomes the instrument of the soul, and making its contribution to the manifestation of “the Good” which is beyond all duality.  If your young friend is currently in suffering - or plans to suffer physical pains in the future, or has emotional pains from his past - will his physical death heal these pains? or add remorse and regret etc  to the emotional and spiritual pains the soul might well endure after separation with the body. In addition, as to whether such an action is in someway "helping" other people, it is more probable that it will further increase other peoples' pain, if they are close to him.

To use the old saying, it is better to light a candle, than to curse the darkness.

With best wishes, Tim Addey.

Well my young friend, I would like to add one last short Platonic couple of sentences to this equation before my short personal conclusion and opinion below:

            "The re-ascent to "divine likeness" is for the soul through intellect - but just as the metaphysics of Platonism is not dualistic, so neither is its ethics: the pursuit of true Platonic dialectic arrives not a separated out intellectualism, but at unity, for as the main speaker in the Sophist says, "For, O excellent young man, to endeavor to separate every thing from every thing, is both inelegant, and the province of one rude and destitute of philosophy."      


1) As Xenephon says - no-one is completely sure on the nature of the spiritual world, the after-life, the Creator, etc - although some people and religions discuss this and we can read for interest what they have to say - to agree or disagree with - and in some way to help build up our own personal opinions and views on these matters. However, we should be cautious of believing more what someone we like says over someone we do not like (e.g. the nice Buddhist at the cafe).
2) There could be "nothing" after death as Socrates says; but he and I (and many billions of other people) believe there might be “something” and it is because of this that we are having this conversation. If we knew there was nothing at all - then this discussion (your letter and my response) would make no sense at all.
3) Of course I do not believe the bit above about the Titans etc; BUT I do believe that life and good health are truly a divine gift - and that we are given those gifts for a reason - and to make the best possible use of. The possible reasons (i.e. God’s plans or reasons) are beyond our understanding (or certainly my understanding) – and we can only speculate about them. 
4) I do understand that life can present many difficulties and challenges along the way....... and we are forced to ask ourselves on occasions “Lord – Does It Have to be This Hard?” – but it seems to me that as soon as one asks this question – one somehow also knows “immediately” that YES -  it was all "absolutely" necessary and there was no other way for us to be at the place we are right now.
5) So I do believe that we have a responsibility to look after the earthly bodies we have been given so that we can use them to serve the light for as long as possible - and be ready to do stuff for the light (the creator – the one – or whatever) as and when it tells us to do something. We also can use our earthly bodies to benefit our own souls if we choose wisely – not harm them. (….. and as my friend suggests in his letter – there is no guarantee that a soul which has left the body cannot be harmed afterwards – since our souls though perhaps immortal – are not eternal (i.e. do not remain completely the same.)  Hence, every now and again I start going to the gym to get fit again - for both me  "and" the light / the creator who may need me to be able to walk 5 miles fairly quickly when I am 75 years old. J
6) I am no Christian - and do not believe in original sin, burning in hell, eating fish on Friday, or self induced pain and suffering as the way to salvation;  after all – life can be pretty damn challenging all by itself as I indicate above without making life difficult just for the sake of it. (Some primary school kids came in the  library this morning and sang some Christmas carols for the few old folks who had turned up to listen. Original sin....  no way!
In spite of all this; I still feel a "natural" sense of moral/religious wrongness about committing suicide .
7) Not a new point – but just to emphasise the point made in a little yellow book that I made many copies of – The Myth of the Charioteer – that the soul is somehow in 3 parts – and that we (the self) is the pilot of the soul – similar to the Charioteer driving a chariot (the body) pulled by two horses – one good and one bad. As my friend Tim Addey says above – and I agree – it is the soul that chooses and effects what the body does – and not the other way around as you suggest. 

This response is probably not the response you were looking for; but it mentions various other people’s views on the matter and that of some established theological institutions like the Christian Church.

Finally, perhaps we just need to remember that:

The Life of a Charioteer (philosopher, artist etc) is not an easy one…..

Love James.

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