Socrates in his cell, drinking hemlock. Cato at Utica, disembowelling himself not once but twice. And Seneca, with cuts in his arms and legs, waiting for the blood to trickle out of his shrivelled old veins. There is a reason these deaths have resonated with writers and thinkers throughout history: why, for example, Joseph Addison would write a drama in praise of Cato; why this drama would be admired by George Washington and imitated by Eustace Budgell; and why the latter's 1737 suicide note would read: 'What Cato did, and Addison approv'd,/Cannot be wrong.' These deaths were meant to resonate. While the immediate reality of the final moments is beyond our grasp, the ancient texts that record them found them memorable: they were taken to be the last exploit, the final stamp, of a life well lived. For their contemporaries, these accounts simultaneously underlined the courage of the one dying, recommended to posterity the worth of his existence and demonstrated his qualification, in the act of dying, to comment on the moral or political condition of the res publica. These characters have stood at times as models of dedication to philosophical or political ideals, at times as examples of pre-Christian misguidedness about the meaning of death, though even Dante, so quick to condemn his fellow Florentines, saved the suicide Cato from his Inferno and made of him a judge of men.
LRB 15 November 2007 | PDF Download