Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

THE ability of doctors to preserve life is not matched by much enthusiasm for ending it, even when it obviously needs ending. Government, too, nannies about on the issue, refusing even the consolation of death by T-bone steak to see us out. Stoics had no problems here, as the Roman millionaire poet, thinker and public figure Seneca makes clear (AD 1-65, adviser to Nero).

In a letter to a friend Seneca writes of a mutual acquaintance, Tullius Marcellinus, `who began to meditate suicide after he had gone down with a disease which was not incurable but at the same time was a protracted and troublesome one'. Various friends are summoned to give advice, the timid suggesting he should do whatever he wanted, the flatterers trying to gratify him - no one, in other words, giving any genuine thought to his condition. A Stoic philosopher then arrives. He points out, first, that living per se is no particularly great thing: even animals and slaves do it. Nor, therefore, is dying. What is a great thing, however, is to die `in a manner which is honourable, enlightened and courageous'.

Marcellinus needs no second bidding. His slaves (naturally enough, in Roman eyes) refuse to help, until the Stoic points out that they are in no danger since their master's death is a voluntary one; besides, it is just as bad for a slave to refuse to do his master's bidding as actually to kill him. …

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