Suicide was a widespread occurrence in antiquity. There were many different forms used and many different reasons for committing suicide. Because taking one’s own life is morally confrontational, there are many different view points on suicide. These view points, although some may consider them modern, took root in ancient times.
History of Suicide
The Oxford English Dictionary places the first occurrence of the word in 1651. However suicide was seen with much disgust, therefore many did not put the word in their dictionaries, let alone vocabulary. They used phrases like “self-murder”, “self-killing”, and “self-slaughter” in place of suicide. They felt these phrases more appropriately portrayed how closely it related to murder.
Because suicide was (and is) so closely related to murder, many (if not all) worry about the welfare of the soul for one who has committed suicide. Most religions believe that murder will send the soul to Hell, from whence there is no return. To consider suicide as murder would place the victim’s soul in Hell. This became a major religious question, and there are many different religious views of suicide.
Eventually, many scientists and doctors considered suicide as a possible illness. The doctors began assuming people only committed suicide when they were mentally ill. There were advantages to claiming it as a medical problem. Instead of condemning the person and looking down on their families, sympathy became the response. “The act was eventually decriminalized: the successful suicide could now be buried and his family was no longer disinherited; the unsuccessful suicide was spared execution”.
However, with these advantages came some disadvantages as well. Al Alvarez in his book The Savage God said, “Despite all the talk of prevention, it may be that the suicide is as rejected by the social scientist as utterly as he was by the most dogmatic Christian” . This referred to the fact that the more people began to recognize suicide as a mental illness, the more they turned away from the idea of it being a morally wrong action or a religious question.
Ancient reasons for committing suicide
Today the reasons for suicide are many, and the ways to achieve it are broad. However, anciently, there was one main reason for killing yourself. It was not common practice to end your life, because once you died, there was no returning. However, some found it to be the only way to redeem them from failure. Elise Garrison said that many ancient suicidal victims, “[were] determined to regain lost honor and restore equilibrium to society”.
Garrison also refers to the works of Emilé Durkheim. She says that Durkheim talks about people being in different types and categories. Determining what category they are in, could decide the reason they would commit suicide. “Durkheim’s categories [are] —egoistic, altruistic, anomic, fatalistic”.
Durkheim explains that egoistic people over think and reflect on everything. They tend to have high knowledge, and don’t integrate into society well. Protestants, for example, may default to an egoistic personality. The altruistic person devalues themselves and treats the opinion of the group very highly. Those who lead a very strict life-style or are a religion that is very strict on obedience (such as Catholicism and Judaism). Self-sacrifice is considered part of altruistic suicide. Anomic suicide can result from someone who does not control or limit their desires. They satisfy every desire, and have no regulation. On the other hand, Fatalistic suicide will usually occur in someone who has high regulation and does not satisfy many of their desires. While these categories apply to suicide today, it is these types of personalities that made people more susceptible to suicide anciently.
In ancient India, two forms of altruistic suicide were practiced. One was Jauhar, a kind of mass suicide by women of a community when their menfolk suffered defeat in battle; the other was Sati, a suicide of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband or after the cremation.
Suicide in Ancient Greece
Because suicide was such a confrontational issue, it was a topic discussed in all of the philosophical schools of the Greco-Roman world. J.M. Rist says, “From the earliest days of the Stoic school the problem of suicide is…a problem of free will”. Each school formed their own opinion on the consequences and moral meanings of suicide. Eventually, however, many Greeks began to consider suicide as a sort of heroic act. A.D. Nock said, “there was a certain fascination about self-chosen death” .
Philosophers in Ancient Greece
One of the many philosophers that developed an opinion on suicide was Socrates. He eventually says of suicide, “a man, who is one of god’s possessions, should not kill himself ‘until god sends some compulsion upon him, as he sends compulsion on us at present’”. Socrates did not agree with suicide. He felt that it condemned the person who committed suicide. It is for this reason he was ordered to death by suicide. He rationalized his eventual suicide because by telling all, that god had sent him a signal, that it was okay to take his own life.
Another famous philosopher of the Greco-Roman world was Plato. We learn from J.M Rist that, “in the Phaedo Plato allows a very small loophole in his condemnation of the frequent Greek practice of suicide…What ought a man to suffer, asks Plato, if he kills that which is most truly his own…that is, if he takes his own life?” Plato believed that the state and the gods were associated, “Hence crimes against the state are crimes against the gods, and vice versa. When a man kills himself without good reason…he is committing a crime”. This allowed for the state the right to punish. However, this did not imply that suicide was completely unacceptable. If anything, Plato believed that suicide was acceptable under some circumstances.
Aristotle too believed that suicide was agreeable in some circumstances. He felt that, “taking one’s own life to avoid poverty or desire or pain is unmanly…or rather cowardly”. Although he believed this, he also felt that it was allowed if the state ordered it. The case of Socrates was a perfect explanation to this statement.
Stoicism encompassed the belief of most of the Greeks when it came to suicide. The Stoics, like Plato and Aristotle, believed that suicide was wrong except under some circumstances. Zeno believed that, “god gives the sign for an individual’s departure”. It is only in this circumstance that suicide is acceptable. When god has given the sign, then and only then, is it ok to end your life. This is the belief because it is after the sign is given that god has allowed life to be ended; this is because the work or duty of that person has been achieved.
The Christian Bible, Old and New Testaments, has five accounts of suicide recorded. The one that is probably most widely known is the story of Judas after his betrayal of Jesus. Augustine said of Judas, “He did not deserve mercy; and that is why no light shone in his heart to make him hurry for pardon from the one he had betrayed, as those who crucified him were to do. In that despair he killed himself”.
Examples in the Old Testament
Other stories include the one of King Saul and his armor bearer. After being fatally injured by some Philistines King Saul asks his armor bearer to kill him, but when his servant refused, he took the sword and fell on it. Then his aid being so distraught at the death of his king; he too took the sword and killed himself (1 Sam. 31:4-5). In this context King Saul is committing suicide because he believes he will die anyway, so he wants to end the pain sooner. His servant on the other hand kills himself out of devotion and respect to his king.
The story of Abimelech’s death is one similar to that of King Saul. He too had been seriously injured, and he to asked his armor bearer to kill him. However, Abimelech was injured by a woman dropping a millstone on his head. He “immediately cried out to his attendant, his armor-bearer, ‘Draw your dagger and finish me off, that they may not say of me, “A woman killed him!”’ So his attendant stabbed him and he died” (Judg. 9:45). He wanted to kill himself instead of having a woman kill him. Abimelech considered suicide more respectable than being killed by a woman.
The fourth account is of a servant of King David’s son Absalom. His name wasAhithophel. He hanged himself because Absalom did not take his advice. The fifth was Zimri. He was treasonous and proclaimed himself king after murdering King Elah. When the army would not follow him, he locked himself in his quarters and set fire to them.
Another account is that of Samson. Samson had been blessed by the lord with great strength but had lost this blessing. He is then imprisoned by the Philistines. Samson was brought before the Philistines to entertain them and leans against the support pillar of the temple they were all in and prayed to God for strength and God answered his prayer. With his new found strength Samson knocks down the pillar causing the temple to fall down on himself and 3,000 Philistines.
Examples in the New Testament
There is only one recorded suicide, that of Judas after he betrays Jesus. He betrays Jesus and then he goes on to hang himself from a tree. St. Augustine said of this incident, “He did not deserve mercy; and that is why no light shone in his heart to make him hurry for pardon from the one he had betrayed, as those who crucified him were to do. In that despair he killed himself”. Some scholars argue about whether or not the crucifixion of Jesus can be considered a case of suicide.
These different accounts of suicide do not have much additional commentary, so it is not clear what teachings come from them. However, because of the lack of details, many assume that in ancient Israel, suicide may have been considered a natural thing, or even considered heroic.
Scholars are constantly involved in debates concerning the doctrine taught in the Bible concerning suicide. Augustine taught that, “there is no legitimate reason for committing suicide, not even to avoid sinning…. When Judas hanged himself, he increased rather than expiated the crime of that accursed betrayal”. The only problem with Augustine’s claim is that it does not specifically say, in the Old Testament or New Testament, the doctrine relating to suicide.
- Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Print.
- Alvarez, Al. The Savage God. New York: Random House, 1972. Print.
- Garrison, Elise P. Attitudes Towards Suicide in Ancient Greece. Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 121, (1991), pp. 1-34 The Johns Hopkins University Press HYPERLINK "http://www.jstor.org/stable/284440" http://www.jstor.org/stable/284440
- L Vijayakumar (2004), Altruistic suicide in India, Archives of Suicide Research, http://www.informaworld.com/index/714860330.pdf
- Rist, J.M. Stoic Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Print
- Nock, A.D. The Spread of Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952. Print.
- Whelan, Caroline F. "Suicide in the Ancient World: A Re-Examination of Matthew 27:3-10" Laval théologique et philosophique vol. 49, iss. 3, 1993, p. 505-522. HYPERLINK "http://www.erudit.org/revue/LTP/1993/v49/n3/400796ar.pdf" http://www.erudit.org/revue/LTP/1993/v49/n3/400796ar.pdf