Extremely weird question, I know, But were any philosophers in the middle ages and before tackle topics such as depression and suicide? I mean we see them tackle happiness and living happily, but were there any philosophers in the middle ages and before who tackled depression or suicide? I mean from my point of view (someone who didn't study philosophy) I can see philosophers working more on happiness and living, I see philosophy in those ages ignoring such an important social issue.

My question:

Did any philosophers in the middle ages and before tackle depression or suicide?


2 Answers 2


Maimonides (1138-1204), wrote "he who destroys himself destroys the world."

1543 is really the latest the Middle Ages can be said to have ended, so The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton is too late at 1621.

The Stoics specifically discuss suicide, in a similar way to Buddhism. Because these philosophies can be misinterpreted as justifying suicide

Confucius discussed suicide also.

  • Thanks for the answer, could you explain what they said about suicide and depression? I mean you did answer the question but if you could give more information, it would be appreciated.
    – captindfru
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 17:28
  • 1
    You seem to have a particular axe to grind, which you are going to have to grind yourself. Nearly all the historical explicit mentions were to speak against it, except for the odd advocacy of tragic acceptance (Heroditus), or the embrace of sacrifice in service of others (Confucius). The Japanese attitude to suicide might be called more cultural than philosophical, but there are crossovers en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sen_no_Rikyū Hume's essay On Suicide is striking for breaking with layering up guilt for suicide. Mental health in premodern philosophy is a big topic..
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 21:29

First off, I'm not sure whether by "tackle" you mean write about or you mean solve in some sense. Solve would be difficult unless one pre-decides the solution.

Second, we need to split the question between depression and suicide.

Historically, no one considered "depression" because the term did not exist (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_depression ). Another article is rather anachronistic in treating "melancholy" as the same thing. In philosophy, basically no one would do that. If we re-understand the question as "feeling down", then my sense is that most philosophers throughout history would have considered it a disease rather than a topic for philosophy. The situation is of course different today (depression is not considered a sickness in the same way and philosophers do look at concepts like that).

Suicide on the other hand is something that many philosophers have treated. Here, again, there's a bit of a term problem (see SEP). But if suicide is choosing to take one's own life with a full understanding of what it means for the purpose of ending that life, then the vast majority of historical philosophers are against it.

Building from the SEP:

  • Wrong for Plato - either because it destroys the body that guards the soul (Phaedo 61b-62c) or shameful (Laws IX) but with exceptions for (a) mental illness, (b) court order, (c) extreme duress, or (d) shame at evil
  • Wrong for Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics 1138a5–14) even though it is a possible free choice because it wrongs the community (remember Aristotle believes the social whole is prior to the individual).
  • The Stoic views on suicide are a bit more complex. While there's the open door passage, there's also a belief in akrasia and living the fate you have been given. (in this regard, it seems closer to a rejection of per ipse suicide but an acceptance of something like Plato's extreme duress exception)
  • Wrong for Augustine (Augustine, book I, chapter 20) as an extension of "thou shalt not kill"
  • Wrong Aquinas (similar basis - problem of self-love
  • Allowable for Hume (“Of suicide” (1783)) as a rational act.
  • Wrong for Kant (MM 6:423)
  • Wrong for Mill ("On Liberty") (at least according to wikipedia)

There may be some backwards causation there as the Christian philosophers may have preferred and thus promulgated views amenable to their own

Moving away from the Western canon, the Analects example is probably not "suicide" since it is saying there are things more important than our lives worth dying for (which is similar to the exception that Plato suggests) and lacks the goal of trying to die.

I'm sure further references can be added or the currents ones improved...

  • "To tackle a subject" means to take the subject on as a topic by whatever medium is being discussed. I agree that the phrase seems maybe too colloquial or familiar in this context, but the sentence just means "Did any philosophers in the middle ages and before talk about depression or suicide?". It's a very common usage of the word "tackle", again even if it is somewhat awkward here.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 23:57
  • At least in my English tackle also tends include resolving the issue or problem, which is why I don't take it to be a common or sensible usage here. "He tackled the storage problem" doesn't merely mean "he looked at the storage problem." Ergo, wasting space on it in the answer... but the point being merely to catalogue how different philosophers have dealt with suicide.
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 0:00
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    Aren't you a little harsh? "Depression" had a colloquial meaning before it had a clinical one, not far from "melancholy", the OP simply opposes it to happiness. Isn't much of what Roman Stoics or Boethius, say, advised philosophical coping with "feeling down" in the face of tough luck? That choosing the time of your death is the ultimate exercise of one's autonomy is also a theme with Stoics. "Remember that the door is open. Don’t be more cowardly than children... when the game is no longer fun for them", Epictetus, Discourses I.24.20.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 0:20
  • Don't agree on the back-reading of depression. It's not at all clear to me that melancholy as described historically is recognizably what we call depression. Both are not merely psychological conditions but also social phenomenon.
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 0:25
  • I agree with you that in general, but not always, it does mean to resolve the problem at hand, but you said "First off, I'm not sure what 'tackle' means here," and taking that literally, I am i disbelieve that you genuinely don't know what the word was supposed to mean because I think it's very obvious what the OP meant by the word here. Like, even if they did mean to be asking if any pre enlightenment philosophers did "solve" the problem of depression and suicide, that's still a coherent question even if upon reflection it seems naive.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 12:03

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