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Socratic Suicide*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 February 2012

James Warren
Magdalene College, Cambridge
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When is it rational to commit suicide? More specifically, when is it rational for a Platonist to commit suicide, and more worryingly, is it ever not rational for a Platonist to commit suicide? If the Phaedo wants us to learn that the soul is immortal, and that philosophy is a preparation for a state better than incarnation, then why does it begin with a discussion defending the prohibition of suicide? In the course of that discussion, Socrates offers (but does not necessarily endorse) two arguments for the prohibition of self-killing, at least in most circumstances, which have exerted a long and powerful influence over subsequent discussion of the topic, particularly in theist contexts. In the context of the Phaedo itself, however, this introductory conversation plays a crucial role in setting the agenda for the remainder of the dialogue and offering an initial discussion of the major concerns of the argument as a whole. In particular, the discussion of the nature of suicide is intimately bound up with Socrates' conception of true philosophy as a ‘preparation for death’, the relationship between soul and body, and the immortality of the soul. My intention is to provide a reading of that passage (61e-69e) which asks whether the Phaedo can offer a philosophically satisfying distinction between suicide and philosophy and how it relates to other ancient philosophical attitudes to self-killing. I argue that Socrates does not think that being dead is always preferable to being alive, and that the religious views expressed in the passage are consistent with his general stance on the benevolence of the gods.

Research Article
Copyright © The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies 2001

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