History of suicide

History of suicide

Among the famous who have taken their own lives are Boudicca, Brutus, Mark Antony, Cleopatra VII of Egypt, Judas Iscariot, Hannibal, Nero, Virginia Woolf, Sadeq Hedayat, Sigmund Freud, Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun, Ernest Hemingway, Alan Turing, Sylvia Plath, Marina Tsvetaeva, Yukio Mishima, Hunter S. Thompson, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Cobain, and Vincent van Gogh.

Classical antiquity

In general the pagan world, both Roman and Greek, had a relaxed attitude towards the whole concept of suicide, a practice that was only finally outlawed with the advent of the Christians, who condemned it at the Council of Arles in 452 as the work of the Devil. In the Middle Ages, the church had drawn-out discussions on the edge where the search for martyrdom was suicidal, as in the case of Martyrs of Cordoba. Despite these disputes and occasional official rulings, Catholic doctrine was not entirely settled on the subject of suicide until the later 17th century. For instance, John Donne's "Thoughts on Emergent Occasions" is a long argument in favor of suicide as divinely appointed opportunity.

There is some echo of later Christian hostility in ancient Greek thinkers. Pythagoras, for example, was against the act, though more on mathematical than moral grounds, believing that there was only a finite number of souls for use in the world, and that the sudden and unexpected departure of one upset a delicate balance. Aristotle also condemned suicide, though for quite different, far more practical reasons, in that it robbed the community of the services of one of its members. A reading of "Phaedo" suggests that Plato was also against the practice, inasmuch as he allows Socrates to defend the teachings of the Orphics, who believed that the human body was the property of God, and thus self-harm was a direct offense against divine law. Yet, it's not quite so simple, because after Socrates says than no man has a right to suicide, this is then qualified by the statement "...unless God sends some necessity upon him, as has now been sent upon me."

In Rome suicide was never a general offense in law, though the whole approach to the question was essentially pragmatic. This is illustrated by the example given by Titus Livy of the colony of Massalia (the present day Marseilles), where those who wanted to kill themselves merely applied to the Senate, and if their reasons were judged sound they were then given hemlock free of charge. It was specifically forbidden in three cases: those accused of capital crimes, soldiers and slaves. The reason behind all three was the same - it was "uneconomic" for these people to die. If the accused killed themselves prior to trial and conviction then the state lost the right to seize their property, a loophole that was only closed by Domitian in the first century AD, who decreed that those who died prior to trial were without legal heirs. The suicide of a soldier was treated on the same basis as desertion. If a slave killed her or himself within six months of purchase, the master could claim a full refund from the former owner.

But the Romans fully approved of what might be termed "patriotic suicide"; death, in other words, as an alternative to dishonour. For the Stoics, a philosophical sect which originated in Greece, death was a guarantee of personal freedom, a way out of an intolerable existence. And so it was for Cato the Younger, who killed himself after the Pompeian cause was defeated at the Battle of Thapsus. This was a 'virtuous death', one guided by reason and conscience. His example was later followed by Seneca, though under somewhat more straightened circumstances. A very definite line was drawn by the Romans between the virtuous suicide and suicide for entirely private reasons. They disapproved of Mark Antony not because he killed himself, but that he killed himself for love.


In ancient times, suicide sometimes followed defeat in battle, to avoid capture and possible subsequent torture, mutilation, or enslavement by the enemy. The Caesarean assassins Brutus and Cassius, for example, killed themselves after their defeat at the battle of Philippi. Insurgent Jews died in a mass suicide at Masada in 74 CE rather than face enslavement by the Romans.

During World War II, Japanese units would often fight to the last man rather than surrender. Towards the end of the war, the Japanese navy sent kamikaze pilots to attack Allied ships. These tactics reflect the influence of the samurai warrior culture, where seppuku was often required after a loss of honor. It is also suggested that the Japanese treated Allied POWs harshly because, in Japanese eyes, by surrendering rather than fighting to the last man, these soldiers showed they were not worthy of honorable treatment. In fact, the Japanese unit in Singapore sentenced an Australian bombing unit to death in admiration for their bravery.

In modern times, suicide attacks have been used extensively by Islamist Militants. However, it is important to note that suicide is strictly forbidden by Islamic law, and the Muslim clerics who organize these attacks do not regard them as suicide, but as martyrdom operations. Clerics argue the difference to be that in suicide a person kills himself out of despair, while in a martyrdom operation a person is killed as a pure act. [http://www.opendemocracy.net/madrid11/suicide_210607]

Spies have carried suicide or pins to use when captured, partly to avoid the misery of captivity, but also to avoid being forced to disclose secrets. For the latter reason, spies may even have orders to kill themselves if captured – for example, Gary Powers had a suicide pin, but did not use it when he was captured.

ocial protest

The Kaiowas tribe in the South American rainforest committed a mass suicide to attract attention to their claim that their government was taking away their land. Their efforts successfully attracted massive international and national attention to their cause.

In the 1960s, Buddhist monks, most notably Thích Quảng Đức, in South Vietnam gained Western praise in their protests against President Ngô Đình Diệm by burning themselves to death. Similar events were reported in eastern Europe, such as Jan Palach following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1970 Greek Geology student Kostas Georgakis burned himself to death in Genoa, Italy to protest against the Greek military junta of 1967-1974.

During the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976), numerous publicly-known figures, especially intellectuals and writers, are reported to have committed suicide, typically to escape persecution, typically at the hands of the Red Guards. Some, or perhaps many, of these reported suicides are suspected by many observers to have, in fact, not been voluntary but instead the result of mistreatment. Some reported suicides include famed writer Lao She, among the best-known 20th century Chinese writers, and journalist Fan Changjiang.

ee also

*Philosophical views of suicide
*Religious views of suicide


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