The philosophy of suicide

The most recent edition of ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone discussed the philosophy of suicide, looking at how our concepts of self-killing have changed throughout history and whether there is any such thing as a rational reason for ending our own lives.

The philosopher Albert Camus famously stated that “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide”, something that surely struck Socrates as he killed himself by drinking hemlock.

Suicide in its many forms has inspired everything from condemnation to romanticisation, most focusing on the morality of taking one’s own life and whether it can be justified as a reasonable option.

The programme touches on many of these issues and I was also interested to see a link from the page to an entry on suicide from the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Link to Philosopher’s Zone on suicide with audio and transcript.
Link to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on suicide.


  1. Andy
    Posted May 18, 2008 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    I thought Socrates was coerced into the hemlock consumption? Check out Plato’s version of Socrates’ apology. There’s an interesting meditation on death towards the end.

  2. Zoroaster
    Posted May 18, 2008 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Yes I wish people would stop perpetuating this myth that Socrates committed suicide. He was sentenced to death and forced to drink hemlock. The fact that he was the one who put the cup to his own lips doesn’t make it suicide. The whole process took place under the direction and supervision of a representative of the state.

  3. Posted May 18, 2008 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Actually, the programme discusses exactly this issue. While Socrates was sentenced to death, he chose to kill himself, so was this suicide?
    From what I understand though (and I’m by no means familiar with classical sources) Socrates was given the choice of death or exile and chose death. Furthermore, Plato apparently notes that Socrates could have escaped even after his sentence, but he chose to stay.
    So it doesn’t seem like his death was entirely inevitable.

  4. Zoroaster
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    He wasn’t really given a choice of death or exile. He was sentenced to death, but had an opportunity to run. His friend Crito encouraged him to leave but Socrates objected on philosophical grounds. Really his teachings made it impossible for him to escape his punishment without becoming a massive hypocrite. But he didn’t take the poison because he desired to die. Plato’s account makes it fairly clear that Socrates would have preferred to live. But he did it to maintain philosophical consistency, and because he wasn’t really afraid of death. His principles prevented him from fleeing his punishment. That’s dying for your beliefs, not suicide.
    This is my understanding from having taken several classes on the history of philosophy, and I believe its the perspective of most authorities on the issue. As far as I’m aware, its only those who wish to make Socrates into poster-boy for conscientious suicide who choose to interpret his death as voluntary.

  5. Mark(p.s.)
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    A woman with facial deformity killed herself recently. Named Chantal Sébire.

  6. Posted May 21, 2008 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    I´m confortable with the standard version and wisdom recieved and Socrates choose to stay and drink hemlock for respect to the laws and the community that made him who was.

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