Stoic Q&A: how is non-existence ever preferable?

R. writes: I've been reading some Stoic philosophers recently, and I came upon this quote by Seneca:

“Death is a release from and an end of all pains: beyond it our sufferings cannot extend: it restores us to the peaceful rest in which we lay before we were born. If anyone pities the dead, he ought also to pity those who have not been born. Death is neither a good nor a bad thing, for that alone which is something can be a good or a bad thing: but that which is nothing, and reduces all things to nothing, does not hand us over to either fortune, because good and bad require some material to work upon. Fortune cannot take ahold of that which Nature has let go, nor can a man be unhappy if he is nothing.” (Consolation to Marcia, 19)

In that quote, he says “good and bad require some material to work upon.” In short, I agree with that; yet I know that the Stoics also thought that suicide could be permissible in certain situations, and this raises an odd question about comparisons for me. So to use an example to motivate my question, let’s say there’s someone who’s at the end of their life. The doctors say that this person could live for another year on life support, but the quality of their life will be poor. It doesn’t seem to be irrational for that person to say that they do not want to live that last year of their life.

So this person may choose to say “I do not want to live this final year of my life.” When they say that though, it seems like they’re making an odd comparison. They’re saying that this one bad year of their life is worse than non-existence. But that sounds odd because, going off the part that I quoted earlier, “good and bad require some material to work upon.” My question then is: how could non-existence be “preferable” in this case? That seems to be assigning “good” in this case to something that’s immaterial. It’s saying that non-existence is “better” than a “poor quality of life.” It seems easy to compare the good of “being given $5” and the bad of “being robbed $5.” But it’s less clear how someone could compare a bad year of their life to “something that is neither good or bad.”

Good question, and I can see where your puzzlement comes from. Let’s work our way through it. Life, for the Stoics, is an indifferent, meaning that it is neither good nor bad in itself, because the simple fact of being alive does not make one virtuous or unvirtuous. What we do with our life makes it either a preferred or a dispreferred indifferent. Preferred if we live it virtuously, dispreferred if we don’t -- or can’t (this is important).

Death also, of course, is an indifferent, and it may be preferred or dispreferred depending on the same considerations as above: preferred if one is living virtuously, dispreferred in the opposite case.

The quote from the Consolation to Marcia that you mention refers to the perennial state of non-existence that follows the act of dying (whether by one’s choice or not), as it is clear from Seneca’s comparison of it to the eternity before we were born. Non-existence, following Seneca’s reasoning, is neutral, neither good nor bad. But a neutral thing can still be better than one that is objectively bad, and still worse than one that is objectively good. The latter two cases make life respectively a dispreferred or preferred indifferent, using the neutrality of the state of death as a baseline.

So there is no contradiction in what Seneca is saying here. Let’s apply it to your hypothetical scenario. Death, for the person at the end of his life -- like for everyone else -- is neither bad nor good in itself, for the simple reason that he will not experience it. As Seneca says, “good and bad require some material to work upon.” But being on life support will make it impossible for the individual in question to do anything virtuous, and indeed he will be a burden to others, and possibly -- depending on his degree of awareness -- suffer the humiliation of his condition, which is certainly not conducive to human flourishing. Under those circumstances, therefore, it is perfectly rational, according to Stoic principles, to think of life as a dispreferred indifferent, and to choose to end it.

As you probably know, the Stoics approved of what Epictetus famously called “the open door” option (i.e., suicide) under a very strict range of circumstances: if one were too frail to exercise virtue and be helpful to others (as Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, apparently was at the end of his life), for political reasons (Cato the Younger, who committed suicide in order not to become a pawn in Julius Caesar’s hands), or to avoid additional suffering to one’s loved ones as well as set an example for others (as Seneca himself did, in response to Nero’s command).

One side comment about your example of $5 being given or stolen from you. Actually, for the Stoics acquiring or losing money is an indifferent, neither good nor bad, regardless of how “the universe” makes it happen (a lottery, a thief, and so forth). As Epictetus puts it:

“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason.” (Discourses I, 1.5)

And right reason, for Seneca, simply is virtue.

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at epictetus64 at yahoo dot com. However, consider that I have a significant backlog, and I may not get to your question for some time, or at all.]

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