Eudaimonia, Euthanasia

Eudaimonia, Euthanasia

Eudaimonia according to the dictionary is a contented state of being happy, healthy and prosperous.  Euthanasia means a good death, a painless death, a death of no suffering; in modern usage a loaded term describing anything from the way that  veterinarians “put animals to sleep” at the end of their lives to physician assisted suicide, or aid in dying, as practiced in Oregon and Switzerland and the Netherlands, among a few other places.  Let’s examine each of these terms in more depth and see how they might actually be related to each other.

The daimon in Greek thought is a good guardian spirit.  Socrates reportedly had a daimonion, an impersonal spiritual something, an inner voice.  The eudaimon, as viewed by Aristotle and later Greek thinkers, is a person who is being successful, having what is desirable, flourishing.  Just what sort of life is successful, desirable, and flourishing?   A life of virtue, a life of wealth, a life of honor, a life of pleasure?  For the nonce, we will simply call it a good life.

Euthanasia probably originated in ancient Athens as a voluntary death.  A person suffering from a terminal illness would apply to to the local authorities who would judge the merits of the request.  If granted, the applicant would be provided with the poison, often hemlock, in order to end life swiftly and painlessly. As punishment for undermining the morals of  the youth of Athens, Socrates was forced by the authorities to make the decision between being banished from his beloved Athens or drinking the hemlock; his decision would more accurately be described as an involuntary death. Over the millennia, Jewish and Christian authorities viewed euthanasia as a sin, whatever the circumstances and wishes of the person.  Euthanasia was not considered a legitimate choice.   But times and thinking and the law are changing, slowly and in the face of great resistance, to be sure.

In four examples of lives lived in the spirit of eudaimonia and euthanasia, I will be applying the terms in their broadest sense:  Good life, good death.

Ikkyu (1394 – 1481) was a highly creative and unconventional Zen monk.  He lived in and around Kyoto.  His mother was reported to be a courtesan of the emperor Go-Komatsu; she was forced to leave the court when Ikkyu was 5 years old.  She placed him in a Zen monastery for his protection and education.  He showed particular aptitude for writing poetry in Chinese — the precursor to the haiku poetry of Basho, Buson and Issa in later times — and practicing calligraphy, the way in which he expressed his poetry.  Ikkyu progressed very quickly in his studies and his practice of zazen, Zen meditation.  In his 20s, he attained satori by hearing a crow caw while meditating in a boat in Lake Biwa.  On more than one occasion, he refused the inka, or certification of satori, from his master. Instead of accepting an institutional position, he wandered the countryside for many years, beloved by the common folk and attracting a circle of the most creative types of Japanese society. Along with encouraging the development of Noh theater, he initiated the creation of the Japanese tea ceremony as a way to ground Zen values for the lay society.  He always enjoyed female company, viewing sexual relations as a viable way of deepening satori. (He also enjoyed drinking saki.)  During the last 10 years of his life, he experienced a committed  love relationship with Mori, a 25 year old blind singer.  In his later years, in the wake of the terrible destruction of the civil wars in Japan, he reluctantly accepted the charge of the emperor to rebuild the temples of Daitiko-Ji and become the abbot  At the end of life, it is customary for a Zen master to commission  a death portrait; Ikkyu’s death portrait is the first to include a woman, Mori, as well as himself.  The story goes that at the end of his life, after he had written his own death poem — another Zen tradition — he had his followers place him in the zazen mediation position to face death.  His temple flourishes to this day in Daitiko-Ji, Kyoto; in his lineage no inkas are granted but the Zen monks take wives. The Ikkyu Restaurant near his temple continues to serve fine beer and saki along with temple food as it did in his time.  His calligraphy is prized and collected by the titans of Japanese corporate society.  His poetry, especially a good translation of his death poetry, is well worth reading.  His unconventional red thread Zen way has stood the test of time.  Eudaimonia, euthanasia.

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) was another iconoclast.  The founder of psychoanalysis, he was esteemed also as an excellent writer of the German language, winning the Goethe prize in 1930.  He gave us the ego, the id and the superego; the Oedipal complex; transference and countertransference; the mechanisms of defense of the ego; the narcissism of small differences, penis envy and many more memorable expressions.   He created a method for treating neurosis as well as means of conducting clinical research about the psyche.  With Jung as its first president, he founded the International Psychoanalytic Association.  No question about it, he realized his genius. He was an exemplar of the eudaimon.  He flourished in life.  After he contracted cancer of the jaw, the last seventeen years of his life were among his most productive, writing, for example,  Civilization and its Discontents and Moses and Monotheism.  Eventually, Freud could see no point in continuing his awful and longstanding suffering from his disease and the rather primitive and horrendous treatments for it.  By pre-arranged agreement and in response to Freud’s explicit request and his daughter Anna Freud’s concurrence, Max Schur, Freud’s trusted personal physician and a psychoanalyst in his own right, euthanized Freud with a couple of injections of morphine.  (Active euthanasia of this sort is legal only in the Netherlands.)  More than good enough life, good enough death.

Frau Aniela Jaffé (1903- 1991) is best known for co-creating the book Memories, Dreams, Reflections with Jung. (Jung referred to it as “Jaffé’s project”.) It is probably the best known book of the Jungian genre.  She was born to a prosperous and assimilated Jewish family in Frankfurt, Germany.  She was studying medicine at the University of Hamburg when Hitler came to power in 1933.  Because she was Jewish, she was unable to gain admittance to her final oral examinations.  Because she was married to a world class physicist, Dreyfus,  she was able to gain entry into Switzerland with him as a result of his assuming a professional position in Geneva.  Eventually, she found her way to Zurich, where she entered into analysis with Jung.  Her analysis lasted for six years.  She became Jung’s trusted secretary in the last years of his life and an analyst in her own right.  She was my analyst during my training in Zurich.   She wrote  Myth of Meaning, Word and Image, and Death Dreams and Ghosts.  Near the end of her life, she lost both her eye sight and her mobility.  She handled these losses with characteristic grace and grit.  She loved to have university students come to read to her; in return, she would share remembrances of her memorable life with them.  On her death bed, she inquired about her good friend and colleague Liliane Frey-Rohn who was on her own death bed in the same hospital. Upon hearing that Liliane had died peacefully, Frau Jaffé slipped into a coma and died peacefully herself.  Good life, very related death.  The death of somebody with a highly developed feeling function, the most highly developed I have ever encountered.

One of my patients in Gyn Oncology at the University of Pennsylvania provided me with a real education about growing spiritually and emotionally at the end of life.  She was diagnosed with Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer, an almost certain death sentence.  At the time, she was married to a Ph.D. organic chemist who referred to himself as “a string man”.  They had a deep and loving relationship.  Ten years before her life-shattering diagnosis, she had ended her alcoholism and found the higher spirituality of the Quaker religion and community to replace the lower spirits of alcohol. The last ten years of her life had been very productive and fulfilling ones for her.  Along with her marriage, she devoted herself to her career and the Quaker community.  Early in our psychological work together, it became clear from her dreams that there was a big piece of unfinished work involving her mother.  Or, more accurately, her mother’s remains.  Her mother had died, had been cremated, and had instructed her daughter, my patient, to spread the ashes at a favorite spot off the coast of California.  The daughter, who had not completed her work of grieving the death of her mother, had put the container of ashes on a shelf in the closet.  After we completed her work of mourning her mother’s death completely, she was able to bring the ashes out of the closet and fly them to California, honoring her mother’s final wishes and completing her psychological work in the process.  I continued to work with her and her husband until she died a peaceful and contented death.  Good enough life, psychologically whole and fulfilled death.

There are many ways of living a good life and many ways of experiencing a good death.  The two can go hand in hand.

Dr. Seth Isaiah Rubin, Ph.D.