Inspired Murder? Sure. How about Suicide?

For various reasons that I won’t go into here, I find the Nephi-killing-Laban episode to be the most striking story from the Book of Mormon.  If it is read as a retrospective account, it seems that Nephi or some later hand has crafted the story to certify that the killing wasn’t cold-blooded murder but an inspired killing that is beneficial both to Nephi and countless others.  In Nephi’s internal dialogue about whether or not to kill Laban, it is the divine permission/command that tips the balance in favor of killing even though Nephi offers some well considered reasons to the contrary.  Scary stuff.

Lately I have been immersing myself in the issue of Stoic suicide and I have been blazing through various Stoic thinkers who treat of suicide.  Two of the big names in this area are Epictetus (who now has a canonized dictum in the Mormon scriptural corpus thanks to a shout out by President Monson at the last General Conference) and Seneca.  Epictetus was a freed slave who became a famed Stoic teacher some of whose words survive through the efforts of a devoted student (Epictetus was born mid first century, died probably in the 130s).  Seneca was the personal tutor and confidant of Nero many of whose moral writings survive as well as some of his Latin versions of Greek tragedies (Seneca was forced to commit suicide by Nero in 65, a common fate for many elite Roman men in that year).

Seneca is famous for his obsession with suicide.  In his moral essays and epistles he lauds and romanticizes suicide not just as an option for the Stoic philosopher (for Stoicism did allow for suicide as a virtuous exit from life) but he more than once suggests that it is the mark of a true Stoic.  His hero, of course, was the Stoic Cato (the Younger) who disemboweled himself at Utica rather than surrender to Caesar.  But Seneca was not advertising suicide for the masses.  No, he revered the act too much for such vulgarity.  Only those with sound reasoning were justified in killing themselves.  For Seneca reason (ratio) was the deciding factor in the calculus of autothanasia.

Epictetus also preached suicide as a viable retreat from life and he frequently asserted that suicide is “a door that stands open.”  But Epictetus did not romanticize suicide like Seneca (partially because he did not live in the bizarro world of top echelon Neronian Rome).  For Epictetus suicide could rightly be committed upon certain conditions.  One set of circumstances would be if conditions made it impossible for the Stoic to live virtuously (although Epictetus does not make clear what conditions like these would look like).  The other circumstance would be if God/Fate/Providence/Nature/Zeus (varying Stoic names for the all pervading, immanent, pantheistic Stoic deity) permitted suicide, if God gave a sign.  Epictetus’ hero was Socrates and it is to Socrates that he looks for his position on suicide.  Plato offers a  Socrates that espouses the position that suicide is not to be engaged in unless deity gives a sign to do so.   Of course, such a sign did come to Socrates and his suicide needs no retelling.

So in my vastly over simplified discussion there is well-reasoned Stoic suicide proffered by Seneca and there is divinely appointed Stoic suicide taught by Epictetus.  Reason.  Divine inspiration.  Killing.  Based upon the Nephi-killing-Laban narrative as we have it, if Nephi were to consider suicide it seems that he would probably be an Epictetus man and err on the side of divine inspiration after a bit of reasoning.   If conditions were to come down to it, which suits you?  As much as I really like the idea of a divinely inspired, self inflicted exit from life (so much comfort and assurance!), I have to think that I would be a Seneca man and let reason carry the day.

You may also want to ask yourself WDJD (What Did Joseph Do)?

20 Replies to “Inspired Murder? Sure. How about Suicide?”

  1. Autothanasia. I wish that I could claim its coinage but I cannot. However now that I just googled it I realize that it is not really used in any common or even uncommon way. Here auto=self and thanasia=death. Its sexier cousin, euthanasia, gets all the love on the Google.

  2. It is a great word. Of your coinage, oudenos?

    Thanks for this intro to Stoic suicide. I really need to read some Stoic stuff.

    You raise I big question. If asked, ‘Would it be possible [in Mormon belief] for God to inspire suicide, ever?’ I think most of us would automatically say no, with CHI 21.4.14 (sorry, I just can’t get enough of this exciting referencing system).

    And yet God has apparently inspired heterothanasia on occasion … though I guess he would never inspire euthanasia, to aid in which is against God’s commandments, per CHI 21.3.3.

    It’s all about definitions, I imagine, since we “should not feel obligated to extend mortal life by means that are unreasonable,” according to CHI 21.3.8.

    How to distinguish between unplugging equipment and, say, administering an injection … or going to Carthage knowing that death will result, as you suggested?

    About Nephi and Laban, a mission president of mine once cited “better that one [woman] perish …” as theological grounds for sending a possessed sister home early. Good times.

  3. As an interesting comparandum to the old saw about committing suicide to get the telestial kingdom, Epictetus, exerting some black humor, said that his job in life was to get young buck Stoics to not go out and off themselves. Apparently some aspiring Stoics were rather enamored of the Seneca suicide type and Epictetus had to play damage control so that he could keep his enrollment numbers up.

  4. Autothanasia. And now I see that FMH is busting out autokeonomy. [Insert wildly offensive, threadjack inducing autism joke here.]

  5. Peggy Battin, Ending Life (OUP, recent) does a great job of situating Stoic beliefs within modern discussions about the meaning of suicide (she also treats Augustine and Christianity). Highly recommended. I’m slowly trying to wrap up an essay on LDS ideas about physician-assisted suicide (which is how we currently describe “rational” suicide). And I highlight the LDS personal revelation tradition (and divinely sanctioned suicide) as one possible source for a belief in rational suicide–I agree with your raising the question the way you do.

  6. smb,

    I would really to read your paper when you get it ready–I think that the topic is not talked about enough. My own grandfather who was terminally ill took his life and though it initially scandalized me and others, I later came to interpret his actions as a final assertion of autonomy in the face of a body that had betrayed and tortured him. He wasn’t Mormon but his wife and kids are and he lived in a small, predominantly Mormon town in Utah so you can imagine the whispers when the news first broke.

    I am going to add Battin’s book to my comprehensive exam reading list that I am compiling for an exam on Stoic suicide (and other suicides) in Silver Age Latin literature (think Seneca, Petronius, Tacitus, Lucan). Thanks for the tip, smb!

  7. oudenos–Battin has many books on this topic and is a wonderful thinker. I would be glad for your input on a later draft of the paper if you have time. TT has my contact info if you wanted to send me your email for such an interaction. There’s a lot of cultural complexity on these topics that warrants careful consideration.

  8. Last night I ran across an interesting blurb in Bart Ehrman’s The New Testament: Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings called “Was Paul Contemplating Suicide?” (Box 20.6). He refers to a book called A Noble Death in which the authors argue that suicide being outright sinful does not come from the earliest Christians, but from Augustine. Prior to the fifth century, suicide was not seen as sinful by many pagans, Jews or Christians. As for the pagans, Plato (or Socrates), and Sophocles saw certain suicides as self-inflicted “gains” over present problems. Jews might look to the martyrs in the Maccabean literature. Early Christian martyrs were said to give their lives and Jesus “laid down his life.”

    Ehrman points to Philippians 1:21: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Paul goes on to say continuing life in the flesh for him is a choice, some translations say “prefer,” but the word can be translated as “choose.” Some exegetes say Paul is contemplating whether to mount a spirited defense when he is put on trial but Ehrman points out that the trial is not mentioned here, and besides, he would have no control over the sentencing anyway. Paul notes that remaining in the flesh “is more necessary for your sake,” or the people to whom he is writing’s sake. Ehrman leaves it open-ended, of course:

    “Could it be, then, that when Paul debates whether he should choose life or death that he is contemplating the real benefits of taking his own life? And that he rejects that option–not because it was a sin, but because he could still accomplish some good among his followers in Christ?” (p. 315)

  9. BHodges,

    Yes, A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom Among Christians and Jews in Antiquity, is a really important work and Ehrman points up the tack of an argument that has been made by several scholars and one which I think is convincing both on the philosophical/cultural context and the verbal resonance with other instances of suicide in Greek literature.

    Something that I am looking into right now is whether Paul’s metaphor and language of completion of a race is also an echo of contemplation of suicide–so far I have found one really good piece of evidence for this but the search is ongoing.

  10. BH, it’s fairly standard belief and has been for a long while that the suicide prohibition dates to Augustine. images of martyrdom make discussions of suicide complex–see for instance the caricatures of Donatists that come from the Augustine crowd.

  11. I’m not really sure what the narrative about the “suicide prohibition” is dependent on, but Justin Martyr’s 2 Apology, chapter 4, explains why Christians are not permitted to commit suicide. This text dates to the mid-second century.

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