Eluana, or Man’s Ultimate Freedom. Ending One’s Life. 2

Lucretia stabs herself after rape. Joos van Cleve, Flemish artist, 1485 - 1540. Click for credits

Rape and death of Roman Lucretia

To her husband’s question, “Is all well?,” Lucretia replied:

“Far from it; for what can be well with a woman when she has lost her honour?
The print of a strange man is in your bed. Yet my body only has been violated;
my heart is guiltless, as death shall be my witness.” …

Taking a knife which she had concealed beneath her dress, she plunged it into her heart,
and sinking forward upon the wound, died as she fell.

(Livy Book I. 57-60)

Ψ

A discussion about the acceptable reasons for ending one’s life (see our previous post) can profit from the opinion of our forefathers, the Ancients, and from that of the Renaissance men, who channelled ancient thought into modernity.

This post is not a paean to suicide. I am sure Eluana Englaro and Terry Schiavo loved life: was theirs an acceptable life though?

Most of the quotes are taken from the French Renaissance writer Montaigne (II:3), whose Gutenberg English text is available in the translation of Charles Cotton (1630 – 1687). See also the original French text.

Note to readers

To many, old writings are a terrible bore.
They are wrong in my view.
Ancient writings, actual time machines connecting the past to the present, are mind expanding and one of the pleasures of life.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

“The wise man lives as long as he should, not as long as he can” said Seneca, who nobly committed suicide when accused of an attempt on emperor Nero’s life. And Cicero said that while “life depended upon the will of others, death depended upon our own.”

Greco-Roman writers like Plutarch expressed great appreciation for anyone who showed this kind of ultimate dignity.

Tacitus admires Boiocalus, a German chief, “who said to the Romans that he and his tribe might lack enough land to live upon, but land sufficient to die upon could never be wanting.”

Plutarch tells us of this Spartan boy “sold as a slave and by his master commanded to some abject employment, who said: ‘You shall see whom you have bought; it would be a shame for me to serve, when freedom is at reach,’ and having so said, threw himself from the top of the house.”

Ancient thought didn’t always condone suicide. Plato didn’t accept it and the Roman poet Virgil (Aeneid, IV, 434-437) destined those who committed suicide to a region of the afterlife where they were overwhelmed by sadness (tenent maesti loca).

But the prevalent Roman ideal was that of the stoic sage who counted on reason and self-control and who was not afraid of pain or misfortune (see our post ‘On solitude‘). Should life become unbearable, or should one face great dishonour, the Romans of both sexes were not hesitant to commit suicide.

Death was considered an act of ultimate freedom and this was deeply ingrained in the Roman tradition. “Nature has ordained only one entrance to life – said Cicero – but a hundred thousand exits.”

Death was less important than the way of death, which had to be decent, full of dignity, rational (and sometimes theatrical,) while to the Christian mind, self-killing being a sin, suicide is often a desperate, irrational action fruit of depression.

Among famous examples of suicide are Lucretia, Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony (and Cleopatra,) Cato the younger (see picture below), Seneca, Lucan, Petronius Arbiter etc. plus a good number of emperors, Nero, Maximian, Otho, Quintillus etc.

Common people as well considered dignity more important than life in many cases.

Cato of Utica reading the Phedo before comitting suicide. Jean-Baptiste Romand & François Rude (1832). Photo by M. Romero SchmidkteRoman stoicism deeply influenced the West despite the victory of Christianity. “For much of modern Western history, Stoic ideas of moral virtue have been second to none in influence” (Ecole Initiative, Early Church On-Line Encyclopedia.)

We see examples of noble death in Shakespeare, who, like all his contemporaries from Renaissance, felt the influence of ancient thought. The imagination of the Victorian British was captured by Cato’s death (see image on the right), «clawing out his own entrails to avoid Caesar’s despotism — as a courageous and noble death.”

Montaigne, imbued with Roman stoicism, refers how “Alexander laying siege to a city in India, those within, finding themselves very hardly set, put on a vigorous resolution to deprive him of the pleasure of his victory, and accordingly burned themselves together with their city, despite his humanity.” He seems to praise that the Indians preferred a death with honour rather than a life without it.

Montaigne adds a moving example:

“Nothing can be added to the beauty of the death of the wife of Fulvius, a good friend of Augustus. Augustus having discovered that his friend had vented an important secret he had entrusted him withal, one morning that he came to make his court, received him very coldly and looked frowningly upon him. Fulvius returned home full of despair, where he sorrowfully told his wife that, having fallen into this misfortune, he was resolved to kill himself.
To whom she frankly replied, ‘Tis right, seeing that having so often experienced the indiscipline of my tongue, you could not take warning: but let me kill myself first,’ and without more ado she ran herself through the body with a sword.”

Montaigne, quoting Pliny the elder, observes that the mythical Hyperboreans, “when weary and satiated with living, had the custom, at a very old age, after having made good cheer, to precipitate themselves into the sea from the top of a certain rock, assigned for that service” (see our series on the Hyperboreans.)

“Unbearable pain and the fear of a worse death seem to me the most excusable incitements for suicide” is Montaigne’s conclusion.

He was a sincere Christian. But he found inspiration and solace in the teachings of antiquity.

The Trumpet Sound, à la Française

An Insightful Blog From the Renaissance

Michel de Montaigne writes in his Essays, a real thoughtful blog from Renaissance (one could say):

“I can see that these writings of mine are no more than the ravings of a man who has never done more than taste the outer crust of knowledge (…) and who has retained only an ill-formed generic notion of it: a little about everything and nothing about anything, in the French style.”

He then provides us with some information on his background:

“(…) I do also know how the sciences in general claim to serve us in our lives. But what I have definitely not done is to delve deeply into them (…) I have fashioned no sustained intercourse with any solid book except Plutarch and Seneca (…). My game-bag is made of history, rather, or poetry, which I love, being particularly inclined towards it;”

And here follows a vivid depiction of poetry effectiveness:

“For (as Cleanthes said) just as the voice of the trumpet rings out clearer and stronger for being forced through a narrow tube so too a saying leaps forth much more vigorously when compressed into the rhythms of poetry, striking me then with a livelier shock.”

(I am using the Penguin Classics edition, 2003, I:26, with its outstanding translation by M. A. Screech)

Good old Montaigne, writing openly and honestly about everything regarding life and man, from small trivia and anecdotes to truly deep meditations. His words are simple yet profound and personal. I love to browse randomly into his pages where one can read thousands of insightful passages, like the ones above that hit me yesterday.

Dear old Montaigne, a true magister for meditation (and consolation). A man of the street of the French Renaissance (well, I am exaggerating, he was cultured, well-off and retired to his castle lol). A French country intellectual in some way (he was not a Paris man) and his essays so damn close to a Renaissance blog which was continuously rewritten and constantly in progress. He in fact always gets back to his writings: why a blog, from the Renaissance or from today, should be thrown down instinctively? (I know many readers will not agree; I also am wavering between these two approaches).

He makes use 1) of French as the general medium and neutral language (French is sometimes a bit neutral, I’ll admit), 2) of the Guascon dialect for the most colourful passages, and finally 3) of Latin (mainly quotes) for the most noble themes.

Of course what also attracts us is his good choice of the ancient, classical Western philosophers, he being in fact such a gold mine of information about the Stoic, Skeptic and Epicurean thoughts, the ones we have some preference for (among the rest).

But he is not only that. Since he is a little about everything and nothing about anything: à la française.

On Health and Serenity of Soul

So-called Seneca. Ancient Roman bronze now at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Italy. Self-made by Massimo Finizio.
A so-called Seneca. Ancient Roman bronze kept at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Click to enlarge and for credits

In Living to our Fullest Potential we wrote about Dario Bernazza‘s list of the 30 major issues we must necessarily solve in the best possible way in order to diminish life sufferings and live a fruitful life. After no. 1 in his list (Defining a purpose in life) we will here consider no. 2 and no. 3, namely:

2. Keeping ourselves in good health
3. Serenity of soul

Good health

According to Bernazza (I am summarizing freely) health is more precious than wealth or power. It is a prerequisite for a fruitful and happy life. “It is the condition without which the edifice of happiness cannot be built or, if it is already in place, its falling apart cannot be avoided”. Better to be an unknown man who is in good health, than being a successful man who is sick. Good health is a way of delaying old age and fighting back death.

We should abstain ourselves from intemperance and dissolute living, because the pleasure of wellbeing is by far greater than that of revels of any kind that will later make us sick and will endanger our health. Bernazza condones a few exceptions – as, it is my thought, our civilization always did: from Roman Saturnalia to modern Carnivals.

So here we can quote, since Bernazza doesn’t, the Roman poet Horace who teaches to “mingle a little folly with your wisdom: a little nonsense now and then is pleasant.”

Misce stultitiam consiliis brevem:
Dulce est desipere in loco.

(Horace: 4 Odes, xii. 28.)

(Don’t know who translated Horace’s verses into English. Now and then makes good rhythm and is fine to me as a concept, but a better translation of in loco should be “at a proper time”.)

As a conclusion, a minimum advice from Bernazza on how to keep our good health: a walk at a good pace of 2-3 km every day in a park or green area.

Serenity of soul

Attaining serenity of soul is an effective weapon against life liabilities, namely all the sufferings that life inflicts upon us without mercy. But how can we attain it?

We first have to better understand life sufferings.

Physical sufferings can be diminished by taking care of our health, as we said before – argues Country Philosopher (this is how we like to call Dario Bernazza.)
As for psychical sufferings, some originate from the consequences of our bad choices, others from events we do not have control over, like the death of someone we love or people’s wicked actions.

As regards both types of suffering, to learn how to control nervous over excitability can be of great benefit, argues CP, and especially over excitability negative side, which is anger (the positive side of overexcitability being joy.) The less we get angry – and generally overemotional, in a negative sense -, the less we suffer. The more we get angry – and overemotional -, the more we suffer.

Well, is it possible to always avoid anger and nervous overexcitement?

Only the strictest stoics and the strictest oriental religious gurus deem it possible – argues CP. But that would mean to have the psyche of a corpse, which is not possible, unless we really are a corpse. What we can do is limiting our nervous overexcitement to such an extent that real negative overexcitement is not possible any more. “This means reaching a status of psychic calmness more or less unalterable, thence a substantial serenity of soul.”

It is an immense, invaluable benefit, it is clear – argues CP – because in this way we can highly diminish psychic sufferings which are the sufferings that mostly plague our life.

But how can we possibly attain this?

Exercise creates a habit

“Socrates – argues Bernazza – teaches us how: through exercise, since exercise creates a habit, any habit. And how long must this exercise last? Until the day we really get into the habit of not getting angry and overemotional any more. It is a long exercise and not an easy one and it cannot but last a few years.”

But, even if we fail and get now and then overemotional let us remember to never give up, this being highly important, since perseverance will certainly allow us to attain our positive result – there is no doubt about it, there is really no doubt (I told you CP keeps repeating this phrase.)

Note. As regards anger, Bernazza follows the tradition of the Greek and Roman philosophers who generally were in favour of self control and were hostile to anger. To Seneca and Galen uncontrolled anger was similar to madness. Anger to Seneca was useless, even in war. He praised the disciplined Roman armies who were capable of beating the Germans who were instead famous for their fury.

Ψ

PS
Following is a list of our writings on Dario Bernazza:

Country Philosopher
Ethical Confusion & Ancient Teachings
Assets and Liabilities in Life
Living to Our Fullest Potential
Health and Serenity of Soul
From Friendship to Asking Mamma when Looking for “Mr Right

And here a post on anger (a bit on the ‘wild soliloquy’ side, I’ll admit):
Force & Anger. Ghosts in the Mind

Country Philosopher

Diogene by Raffaello. School of Athens. Fair use

‘Country Philosopher’ has been mentioned often in this blog so it is time I introduce him to readers.

His name is Dario Bernazza and what amazed me the day I read one of his books is the fact that he makes use of reason in the way the Ancients did, as if later thought almost didn’t exist.

Free from doubt, he has total faith in the absolute power of rationality and his philosophical manner is natural and naïve. He applies his ancient-like method to both big issues – the existence of God or how we can reach happiness – (see Vivere alla massima espressione) – and everyday problems, in an effort to provide answers to our contemporary void by making use of techniques similar to those utilized by Epicurean and Stoic thinkers 2000 years ago (see his image below, the best I could find to date.)

Dario Bernazza

Therefore, with all due respect to professional philosophers like Fernando Savater (who will probably be invited to our Symposium,) Bernazza will be here as well though with caution, having a few flaws in my opinion, last but not least the tendency to manipulate or influence readers a bit.

Still fighting in the Jungle

The Jap Soldier in the Jungle

Bizarre example of philosophical genuineness – and cultural isolation as well, which kind of preserved him – Country Philosopher is the Japanese soldier who keeps on fighting in the jungle since ages, having no other weapon than his argumentation and being almost unaware of the fact that the times of Socrates, Plato or Zeno of Citium are no more.

CP is a survivor of the classical world.

That all this could happen is both romantic & tragic. And perhaps in no place other than this – the countryside around Rome, (Priverno, Latina), or in the Mezzogiorno – a person like him could spring.

Living Fossils of Antiquity

How many are the Italian country intellectuals? Sparse over the territory they publish their works with their own money by using small local publishing houses and having no great number of readers (the Web didn’t exist at the time of CP.)

This phenomenon is not exclusively Italian.

Here though 1) historical layers are extremely rich and 2) an important part of the classical world originated in this country, which allows us to legitimately speak of living fossils of Antiquity.

In some way, in the Central and especially South regions of Italia, many of us are like fossils, with all the inadequacies towards modernity that this may imply (corrupt patronage systems, amoral familism, clientelism etc.). We retain good qualities as well, which are not dried up yet, I do hope.

The better part of our tradition should be revalued. In the present crisis of the West, due to a great uncertainty regarding our fundamental values, these cultural fragments of the classical world – such as philosophy replacing religion to provide full meanings in life etc. – should be re-examined and updated.

We need to achieve – at a high culture level – what has already been done with peasants’ cultures at a folklore level – for example in Latium and Campania, where, recently rediscovered and re-performed ancient folk dances and tunes, reveal fascinating residues of the rites of Dionysus, among the rest.

See this Tammurriata dance from the South of Italy, of possible Greek descent.

A type of research which is actually on the way. The Festival of philosophy in Modena for example (see picture below) has been a great success with 120 thousand presences during only 3 days last year and a seventh successful 3-days edition which ended this last September 16 2007. This formula, thanks to contributions of the European Community, has been exported to both France and the Czech Republic.

Il Festival della Filosofia di Modena

As a conclusion, the great philosophers of all times can certainly guide us towards a more meaningful life, beyond any doubt. Nonetheless, these living fossils surviving in niches of a forgotten sea – of lesser value and possibly deteriorated, like prehistoric sequences of DNA – represent survivals of a past that keeps on talking to us.

They keep the fascination of our knotty olive wood, of our scented myrtle, or of the bright yellow of our ginestras.

And they mean something to us which, in spite of all, we cannot but be proud of.

Ψ

More on Dario Bernazza:

Ethical Confusion & Ancient Teachings
Assets and Liabilities in Life
Living to Our Fullest Potential
Health and Serenity of Soul.

Italian version