Spinoza and the Virtuously Suicidal Octopus by James Meggitt


Dear Spinoza,

I was fortunate enough to have read sections of your recent publication, the Ethics, on my recent travels. Your geometric postulations on essence, substance, conatus, the passions, and identity were enlightening. No doubt my existence is more virtuous for having read them.

I am writing to you specifically with some questions on the notion of suicide. I initially took objection to your claim that suicide can never be virtuous after observing the sad life of the Graneledone boreopacifica, a deep water octopus who sacrifices her own life for the survival of her young. But after careful further reading, I believe I have come to understand your arguments more clearly.

In Ethics (Pr3p6) you relate the perseverance of one’s being to virtue. From this you further posit that all things are finite extensions of God and that no things contain within themselves the cause for their self-destruction. This proposition is the foundation of your moral philosophy. You make this clear in (Pr4p20), ‘the more every man endeavours and is able to seek his own advantage… the more he is endowed with virtue’. To strive to exist is to be virtuous. In (Pr3p4) you state that only external causes can destroy things. The definition of a thing must affirm its existence and contain its causes. There can be nothing in the definition of a thing that can destroy it. By asserting that to exist is to persevere in self-preservation, and that this is synonymous with virtue, it follows that suicide can never be virtuous. Only by external factors can a person choose to end their own destruction. Or to put it into your words, ‘nobody, unless he[sic] is overcome by external causes contrary to his own nature… neglects to persevere in their own being’, (Pr4p20).

You and Hobbes agree that people shun evil and accept what aids them in self-perseverance; and also that death is evil and contrary to being or existence. But in my travels I have witnessed the remarkable life cycle of a deep water octopus off the coast of a place I call California. The octopus lays its eggs on a bed of coral and then nests over them for up to four years. No movement or eating was observed during this period. She continued to care for and feed her young up until her death in month fifty-three. A severe discolouring of the skin and eyes was observed suggesting malnutrition and starvation. In my adventures this is the closest I have heard of a case that presents virtue in suicide. She starved herself to death to ensure optimal survival for her young. Would you say that the octopuses’ essence did not contain its self-destruction?

I observed there was ample food for the octopus to eat in the area but no observation of her eating it was noted. Nor could I say that external factors were solely the cause for the self-destruction as no external factors can be seen as directly and solely contributing to her death. According to you we cannot say that a mother octopuses’ essence can contain her self-destruction. Yet it was from this very self-destruction that these octopuses are born and granted the highest opportunity for life. As Aaron Garrett points out, your definitions are genetic in nature in that an accurate definition of a thing must contain its cause. The definition of a deep water octopus could contain its self-destruction. It’s not improbable, and therefore must be accounted for. But to find external causes for the mother’s self-destruction we could say the necessity to rear young seems to be at least a partial cause. If the necessity to rear young contains within it the necessity to destroy oneself must we say that rearing young is by extension non-virtuous? Or perhaps that suicide can be virtuous?

To this you might respond by saying that the essence of a thing is separate from its total state of things. That the octopuses’ conatus did not contain its own self destruction but that its total state, that being the state of things when essence interacts with external causes, does contain it. So while our octopus did give up its life for the greater good of rearing her young, this total state was not the essence of her. She, like Seneca, was faced with the choice of whether to preserve her own life at the loss of others, or sacrifice for the greater good.

On the point of essence being unable to contain within itself the power to destroy itself, I agree with you. On the manner of virtue I don’t quite agree metaphysically. While the striving to persevere in our existence is our conatus, our striving is not virtuous. To call the act of existing virtuous is to anthropomorphise the importance of existing. You will get no debate from me on a moralistic ground here though and I have no postulations about what virtue might be if it is not a striving to be. But I believe that suicide can be virtuous, even when external causes infect and deter our conatus. Our self-destruction is inherent in our essence, in some part, as no sole external cause can claim responsibility for the destruction. The self-destructive part of our essence is the virtuous part. When we choose death over torture, or dishonour, we are acting virtuously, honourably and in line with our conatus.

Your trusted advisor


Works Cited

Della Rocca, Michael. Spinoza / Michael Della Rocca.  London New York Abingdon, UK: London New York : Routledge, 2008.

Garrett, Aaron. Meaning in Spinoza’s Method / Aaron V. Garrett.  Cambridge, U.K. New York: Cambridge, U.K. New York : Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Spinoza, Benedictus de, Samuel Shirley, and Michael L. Morgan. Complete Works / Spinoza with Translations by Samuel Shirley Edited, with Introduction and Notes by Michael L. Morgan.  Indianapolis, IN: Indianapolis, IN : Hackett Pub., 2002.

Stoffell, Brian. “Hobbes on Self-Preservation and Suicide.” Hobbes Studies 4, no. 1 (1991): 26-33.

Yong, Ed. “Octopus Cares for Her Eggs for 53 Months, Then Dies.” In Not Exactly Rocket Science. Online: National Geographic, 2014.




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