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The Right to One’s Own Life in East & West

Peter Paul Rubens, "The Death of Seneca," c. 1615, Museo del Prado, Madrid [1]

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Death of Seneca,” c. 1615, Museo del Prado, Madrid

3,577 words

Translation anonymous, ed. Greg Johnson

In these short notes I shall not attempt to deal with the question of the right to life in general, but with the right to one’s own life, which corresponds to the ancient formula of jus vitae necisque; it is the right to accept human existence or to put an end to it voluntarily. I intend to compare certain characteristic points of view which have been formulated in this connection in the East and in the West. However, the problem will not be considered from a social point of view, but rather from an interior spiritual one, whence it appears in the shape of a problem of responsibility only to our own selves. For this reason I shall not deal with theories, such as that of the Japanese known as “harakiri,” or suicide for reason of honor or loyalty, neither with similar doctrines which we find also in the West.

In the West perhaps the severest and most virile form in which the right to dispose freely of one’s own earthly existence is asserted, we find in the theory of Stoicism, and more particularly in the Stoicism of Seneca. This doctrine of suicide, typical on account of the peculiar ethos with which it is justified, may serve for us as a starting point. Seneca and the Roman Stoics conceived earthly existence in the form of a struggle and a test. According to Seneca the real man stands above the gods themselves, because, whereas the gods, owing to their very nature, do not know adversity and disaster, man is instead subject to them, but has the power of triumphing over them. Unhappy is he who has never encountered disaster and suffering, Seneca wrote, for he has had no occasion to put his own powers to the test and to know them. To man something more than exemption from ills has been granted: the power of triumphing over them within himself. And those beings who have been most subject to trials should be regarded as the worthiest, if we bear in mind that in war the commanders entrust the most exposed positions to the strongest and best qualified men, whereas the less brave, the weaker and the less trustworthy are employed in the less difficult, but also less glorious positions of the rear.

In a general way, this is also the order of ideas brought forward when suicide is condemned and stigmatized as a form of cowardice and desertion. Seneca instead comes to the opposite conclusions, and actually attributes the justification of suicide to God himself (De Provid., VI, 7–9). He makes God say that he has granted to the true man and the wise man a power beyond all contingencies; that he had so disposed things that no one may be restrained when once he no longer wishes; the way of departure is open to him: latet exitus. “Whenever you do not wish to fight, retreat is ever possible. Nothing easier is granted to you than to die.” The expression used, “si pugnare non vultis, licet fugere,” with reference to voluntary death which the wise man is free to give to himself, may leave us perplexed. But the actual context with the ethics of Stoicism as a whole explains what is meant.

There can be no doubt that where death is sought because a certain situation appears to us unbearable, the act from the point of view of virile ethics cannot be regarded as permissible. In those very cases in which, according to a humanitarian point of view, we might be inclined to admit the right to commit suicide, these ethics cannot excuse it. Still less is it permissible when a man is driven to take his own life by motives of affection or passion, because this would imply a passive situation and one of impotence with regard to one’s own spirit, thereby deserving condemnation. Strictly speaking, from the point of view of Stoicism, suicide, even for motives of honor or of others of the kind, i.e., with reference to social conditions, is not admitted.

The Stoic must distinguish between “that which depends on myself” and “that which does not depend on myself,” and must follow the maxim that “that which does not depend on myself” does not pledge one’s responsibility, must not have access to the mind of the wise man, must not constitute the measure of one’s own value or dignity. As we know, this principle of detachment is in harmony with all that which India has regarded as truly spiritual. When we consider all this, Seneca’s maxim can only indicate the importance to be attributed to the inner liberty of a higher being. It is not a question of retreating because we do not feel strong enough to face certain circumstances or trials. It is rather a case of the sovereign right, which we should always reserve for ourselves, of accepting or not accepting these trials, and also of placing a limit to them when we no longer see any meaning in them, or after having sufficiently proved to ourselves our own capacity for overcoming them. Impassibility thus remains the presupposition of that maxim, and the right of “exit” is justified only as one of the factors which may assure us that the vicissitudes in which we are involved have our consent, that in them we are truly active, that we are not merely making a virtue of necessity. This point of view is intelligible and unexceptionable.

Things would, however, present another aspect if we were to give the heteronornous framework, proper to theistic and religious conceptions, to the agonistic and virile conception of life. Cicero attributes to Pythagoras the following saying: “To quit the post which has been entrusted to us in life is not permissible without the orders of the Chief, i.e., of God.” That is the same view as that of Catholic moral theology which actually reaches the point of condemning these who seek unnecessary martyrdom as guilty of sin.

Nevertheless this appeal to an almost military form of fealty comes up against certain objections, because it presupposes an earlier, free, and conscious undertaking towards a Chief. But from the point of view of Western religion we cannot speak of this, because that religion denies that the soul exists before being associated with the body in this life. In the “post” mentioned above we suddenly find ourselves because before being there we had no existence at all; we were thus there without having willed it, without having accepted it. We cannot then speak of responsibility, nor of “military duty,” nor of a debt for a life received, but not asked for. Hence the precept of not committing suicide has no inner logic; there is only an appeal to faith, a mere acceptance of the will of God.

In Seneca’s conception the horizon is broader and freer; there remains the idea of finding ourselves at a fighting post, there remains the general command of holding fast, but the person is conceived as being free, and it is the person who has the last word. Thus it is on the basis of considerations of a different and interior nature that he must decide as to his own responsibility and his actual right to his own life.

Up to this point we have dealt with Western points of view. Let us now see how matters stand in a doctrine, such as that of the Hindus and particularly in that of the Buddhists, in which the implications of Western theism are absent, i.e., the relations between a created being and a creator, and in which man is left to himself and has only to consider the natural consequences of his acts. We believe that only on such a horizon the East has a specific and interesting conception; from every other point of view the same problems of Western religion present themselves also in the East.

According to the above-mentioned Oriental conception the same prohibition against suicide of the more usual type is first of all confirmed. Wherever we reach the point of renouncing life, in the name of life itself, that is to say on account of one or other form of the will to live and to enjoy which is contrasted or rendered deceptive, suicide is condemned, and also the point of view of the Far East is not different. In such cases the act of committing suicide is not judged as a form of liberation, but on the contrary as an extreme, albeit negative, form of attachment to life, of dependence on life. No transfiguration after death can be expected by one who resorts to such violence on himself; in other conditions of being the law of an existence devoid of light, of peace, and of stability will once more reassert itself on him. The problem will in no wise be solved by that act. Buddhism comes to the point of regarding even the tendency towards extinction, towards nirvana, as a deviation, when it appears as associated with a desire, with a yearning. It is a Taoist saying that man attempts to free himself from death, but does not try to free himself from life.

At the same time, however, Buddhism, like Stoicism, admits suicide. But in whom? Once again, in a superior human being, in whom the characteristics of the Stoic wise man are to be found further strengthened: in him who has realized such an absolute detachment as to have gone virtually beyond living and nonliving. Thus it is said that Mara, the demon of this world, but also of the world of Brahma, sought in vain for the soul of the ascetic Channo who had “seized the weapon.” Here, however, other difficulties arise. In the first place, if we have attained detachment, what can make us take the initiative for a voluntary death? Of the actual instances quoted in the Oriental lore of which we are speaking, the meaning does not seem to be very different from what it is in Stoicism. In certain circumstances there is no reason to feel oneself involved beyond a particular point. We may “emerge,” almost as if we had had enough of a particular game, or as may happen when we wave off a fly, after having allowed it to crawl over our nose for a certain time. But up to what point can we be sure of ourselves in such cases? He who has attained that spiritual perfection which renders the act permissible, can hardly fail to find, in a certain measure, a super-personal significance in his existence on earth, realizing at the same time that this existence, taken as a whole, is but an episode, a transition, “a voyage during the hours of the night,” as the Oriental philosophers tell us. Oriental metaphysics in fact admit a multiplicity of states of being, of which that of mankind is but a particular and contingent one. Once this is admitted, is not a feeling of impatience, of intolerance, even of boredom, evidence of a human residue, of weakness, of something not yet solved or placated by the sense of eternity, or at least of the great non-earthly and non-temporal distances? And when things are thus, should we not be held, in the face of our own selves, not to act, not to “seize the weapon.”

We should, moreover, also bear in mind another order of considerations. When I speak of “my life,” adding that I am free to dispose of what is “mine” at my own good pleasure, I am acting without adequate reflection. In the texts of Pali Buddhism the relativity of this inconsidered talk about what is mine is effectively presented to us. It is said in those texts that just as a sovereign has the power of having whom he wishes executed, outlawed, or pardoned in his own kingdom, similarly if I could say that this body, this life, is really “mine” and “myself,” the eventual wish that it should be so or not be so, should be carried into effect. But that is not the case. Moreover, strictly speaking, if life were our own in the absolute sense, it should be possible to bring our earthly existence to an end without a violent act on our own body, through a purely spiritual act. But this, once more, proves impossible for almost the whole of mankind — only certain special forms of yoga, of a Tantric intonation, admit the exceptional possibility of the so-called iccha-mrityu, of the death at will. This is tantamount to admitting something like an inner bond, a kind of will bound to a life which I cannot regard as extraneous to myself, but which at the same time I cannot identify with my own true will. We cannot fail to take this situation into account. It corresponds to the problem of our own being taken as a certain definite being. And any solution akin to that of the knot cut by the sword of Alexander the Great, is not a true solution. The fact of being, united to the impossibility of not being, gives us the foreboding of some enigmatic undertaking, almost as though we were involved and responsible in some obscure manner.

In this order of ideas, however, we cannot go too far when, following the views either of materialism, or of Western religion, we consider the principle of life and of consciousness in physical birth. If we accept this, it is difficult finally to avoid a conception such as that of the Geworfenheit of certain Western existentialist philosophers: the being who finds himself “cast” into time (in the East one would say in samsara), in a “situation” which involves and binds him to a responsibility, yet on the basis of an impenetrable, radical irrationalism. This obscurity is certainly not solved by bringing in religious faith; indeed generally speaking, the merit of faith is said to consist actually of the fact of accepting without wishing to understand. In the present instance it is a case of accepting a position which, hypothetically, has no connections of any kind, manifest or concealed, with that which may be imputed to my own will. Among Western existentialists, such as Heidegger or Sartre, this faith is atheistic and disconsolate. They do not even believe that the significance which it is not given to us today as men to see in our own life, in another state may be grasped, according to the resigned hope of the believing Christian.

If we refer to the East we come upon a different situation. Oriental traditions as a rule have admitted our own pre-existence to earthly life, assuming a relation of cause and effect, and sometimes even of a choice, between the real force existing before physical birth, and individual existence (we know, however, that this doctrine was professed also in the ancient West, for instance by Plato and Plotinus). In this case earthly existence, although it cannot be attributed to the mere external will of the Ego, represents a development associated with a deeper will, but ever forming part of my own being integrally considered. If therefore life here below is not an accident, it cannot be considered as a thing to be arbitrarily accepted or rejected, nor as a bare existential fact before which there is only the choose of resignation “that of one who believes or of one who is a fatalist” or of a continuous test of resistance. Moreover, with the idea that earthly existence is something in which, before we find ourselves in the human state, we have, so to speak, “compromised” ourselves and are to a certain extent involved, either, if we wish, as in an adventure, or as in a mission, a test or election, assuming “en bloc” and beforehand even the tragic, problematic, or squalid aspects which the human condition in general may present. With this idea we may give a fairly satisfactory account of what we have just stated concerning the problem as to what may be regarded only conditionally and partially as “mine” and which nevertheless pledges myself.

Traditional Oriental doctrines open similar horizons. As we have already stated, that superiority, or even simply that detachment from life, which alone might authorize us to cast it aside if we wished to do so, can hardly be dissociated from the sentiment of such horizons. We may confer on suicide the significance of an extreme instance which establishes our own sovereignty; this is indeed the point most strikingly brought out by the Western Stoic theory. Nevertheless, in few cases does a resort to it present a positive and intelligible character. Every one of us knows that sooner or later the end will come, wherefore the wisest attitude in the face of every contingency should be that of discovering the inner significance which it has in a wider complex, a complex which, at bottom, according to the above-mentioned point of view, is centered in ourselves and is associated with a kind of prenatal and transcendental will of our own.

We may find an isolated instance in one who seeks death indirectly, along a line in which death and the achievement of the extreme significance of our own life coincide, thereby realizing the plurality of the meanings comprised in the Greek word telos which signifies the aim as well as the achievement or perfection, and the end. In Western classical antiquity a similar possibility was grasped and justified even on a non-spiritual and hedonistic plane; in a certain period, the Roman Senate justified and even facilitated the decision of him who, feeling that he had attained the apex of a perfect life, had no wish to descend, to subject himself to decay, wherefore he put an end to his own life happily and willingly. Independently of this, within the order of ideas considered by us, comparing Western and Eastern views, we may in a general way set against the solution (or non-solution) associated with an act of violence against our own physical life, that associated with an (“interrogating fate” through the many aspects of a heroic, intense or even merely hazardous existence. Again in Seneca we find a strange dictum, which may have some connection with this point: “The wise man casts himself of his own free will into the open abyss.” While we do not remember his exact words, the great Tibetan ascetic Milarepa used a similar expression. There are many ways for a detached spirit to submit to a “destiny” a more peremptory and insistent inquiry as to the extent to which some deep impersonal reason still exists for the survival on this earth of his existence as a man. And when this questioning leads us to situations where the border between life and death is also the limit of significance and fullness of living — thus in a manner different from that which may occur in a state of exaltation and of mere rapture — then indeed we shall have surely attained the best state of mind for realizing all the conditions hitherto considered.

From the consideration of this last point we see that from the problem dealt with by us, with reference both to the West and the East, in the field of doctrine, practical conclusions may be drawn, especially with regard to the period which the West is now going through. In another article published in this periodical we pointed out that it is not by mere accident that a philosophy, in itself fairly mediocre and muddy, such as existentialism, should have recently achieved so much success in Europe. The fact is that it has echoed states of mind which the circumstances of recent times, and, we may even say, also those now in course of preparation, have widely disseminated. The significance of the above mentioned Geworfenheit of Heidegger—that of a being cast into time—and of situations (of “positions,” as the existentialists say) whence we may not withdraw ourselves, in which for the individual “there is no excuse” (Sartre), while there is in them a basic irrationality — adding to this, in the external world, the growing insecurity of existence, life “being led towards extreme temperatures” or towards regions where anonymity in the negative, collectivist sense, appears to menace human existence with the total destruction of all significance and justification: all this is indeed part of the present-day Western world, and it is possible that it may also form part of that of the future Eastern world. In the face of this state of things, existentialism corresponds to the situation of one who finds himself with his back to the wall, without any possibility of escape, at the particularly unstable point of an inner final resistance, beyond which there is naught but a complete breakdown.

Thus the problem last dealt with may present a certain actual interest for a particular type of Western man of today and for the Oriental man of tomorrow, who, having lived through what Nietzsche had already defined “European nihilism,” and who, after having realized the problematical character of the value of life, does not feel himself able to face the path of pure detachment, but having integrated his own spiritual horizon with the views set forth above, attempts, in spite of everything, to find a solution of the human problem along the path of action.

Source: East and West, Vol. 6, No. 1 (April 1955): 41-45