Philosophy And Suicide Essay, Research Paper
Suicide has always been common throughout history, reaching back as far as the beginning of civilization. Reasons for taking one’s life could range from preserving personal honor, physical decline, and love for a dead spouse, to spiritual reasons like the search for truth, becoming closer to virtue, or the belief their death could advance a cause. The religious and philosophical outlook of the period in which a person lived helped to shape their view and society’s view on suicide. This outlook also determined the motives or reasons a person might take their own life. To see how a certain era could persuade such views and motives, I will look at the Hellenic and Hellenistic Ages, the Roman Empire, the Old and New Testament, and the early Christian era for the connection between people’s religion or philosophical beliefs and suicide. The first period used as evidence of the way certain time periods shaped beliefs of suicide is the Hellenic Age. To start with, the Hellenic Age began around 800 BC and was marked by growing economic wealth and the start of an efficient writing system. This writing system led to the rise of authors and intellectuals, one of the most well known being Homer during this period. His epics helped to shape the religious beliefs of the Greek people in the early Hellenic Age. At first people relied on the mythological deities of epics like Homer’s to explain worldly events. As time wore on, intellectuals such as Thales, Anaximander, and Pythagoras began applying reason to Greek religion and to the understanding of natural phenomenon and human events. This new found theory led to the replacing of Homer’s mythology with reason, and people started to question why certain events occurred in the world. One of the human events these intellectuals tried to explain with reasoning was suicide. Pythagoras and his followers, the Pythagoreans, were against the act of suicide. They believed as a punishment for sins in an earlier life, the soul was entrapped in the body. Therefore suicide seemed to them similar to a prisoner escaping from jail and not serving their sentence for a crime. Suicide was unacceptable to Pythagoras and his followers who thought a person has to pay for sins committed in an earlier life (Wiesner pg. 96). This view on suicide was just one of the Hellenic Age. If a person was not a Pythagorean, their view on suicide could be somewhat different. An example of this contrast in beliefs is Socrates and his followers. For these people, their goal in life as philosophers was to attain truth, knowledge, and wisdom. To attain these things mentioned, the soul must be apart from the body, which hinders reasoning by deceiving a person through such things as sight and sound. As long as the soul is in the body it is contaminated by evil and cannot reach truth. Therefore suicide to Socrates and those who shared his beliefs meant a short cut to finally find pure knowledge without having to wait for nature to take its course. In Plato’s book The Phaedo Socrates says, “And in this way, freeing ourselves from the foolishness of the body and being pure, we shall, I think, be with the pure and shall know ourselves all that is pure-and that is, perhaps, the truth” (Wiesner pg. 83). Socrates’ view was not accepted by most people and led to his execution after being found guilty by the courts. The quote above was stated right before he was to be injected with poison, which clearly shows he welcomed death. The next period to note as influential in shaping beliefs was the Hellenistic Age. The Hellenistic Age began after Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, therefore stretching his reign to India. The vast land that Alexander’s empire reached caused Greeks to be in contact with eastern ideas that helped reshape their thoughts yet again. This new philosophy showed a conquest for individual intellectual peace, instead of the peace of the city-state that was taught in the Hellenic Age. One of the philosophies that came out of the Hellenistic Age was Stoicism led by the philosopher Zeno, who himself committed suicide after breaking a bone in a minor accident which to him was a sign of physical decline. Stoicism carried the belief that all people were of one city and one race having one life and order. The order was received through divine reason, or Logos, which people could choose to reject. The virtuous person, although, would strive to achieve happiness by living in harmony with the Logos. Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, writes in his book Discourses about suicide. He believes that suicide is acceptable as a Stoic when one cannot live in accord with reason and the Logos. Even though Stoics believed one should accept life’s trials as part of the overall plan of the universe, if a person could not live with the plans of the Logos there was really no sense in living (Wiesner pg. 69). Another philosophy during the Hellenistic Age that shaped people’s beliefs was led by Epicurus and known as Epicureanism. He taught that people should withdraw from public affairs and social responsibilities. People should abandon the pursuit of worldly success and seek spiritual tranquility instead. Epicurus also believed that the world consisted of matter made up of atoms that were released after death. Therefore to him and his followers suicide meant nothing because after death the body has no feeling (Wiesner pg. 84). Epicureanism was more of a philosophy carried out in the present life instead of an afterlife, which explains why death meant nothing to them. The last philosophy of the Hellenistic Age and the one that promoted suicide the most during this period was the group named Cynics. They rejected social conventions and urged followers to give up their possessions to live lives of self-sufficiency, much like the belief of Epicureans. The Cynics were prepared to commit suicide if anything blocked their quest for the virtuous life. The following statement made by Diogenes best sums up the Cynic belief. “The conduct of life requires either reason or the noose” (Wiesner pg. 69).
The Hellenistic philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureans were accepted by most of the people in the Roman Empire in its early days. Greek deities were replacing the traditional Roman gods and suicide was just as common as in other ages. One example was Portia, the wife of Brutus, Caesar’s assassin, who took her own life after her husband killed himself after being defeated by Caesar’s heir Octavian (Wiesner pg. 67). Yet as the Roman Empire began to weaken, people started to look elsewhere for their religious answers. One religion that gained popularity was Christianity, which promised an afterlife which most people found appealing. The Old Testament of the Bible lies as the foundation of the Christian belief and changed the way people thought about a lot of things, one being suicide. There are many examples of people committing suicide in the Old Testament, but the scripture is vague as to whether it condemns or supports this act of self-destruction. Abimelech, Samson, Saul, Ahithophel, and Zimri are some classic examples of suicide in the Old Testament. Abimelech , while attacking Thebez, gets struck in the head by a stone thrown by a woman. Instead of losing honor by being killed by a woman, he orders his armor-bearer to stab him. The death of Samson seems to be one of martyrdom and is praised by the scripture. Samson kills himself along with the Philistines as a way of avenging God’s honor because the Philistines were worshippers of idols. Saul’s death is similar to that of Abimelech’s because he too asks his armor-bearer to stab him before his enemies can kill him themselves. Instead of being made a mockery of, he ends up killing himself since his armor-bearer refuses to do so. The last two suicides I want to mention are ones out of humiliation. Ahithophel commits suicide after he is humiliated when Absalom will not take his advice, which was highly esteemed by most people of his time. The death of Zimri, who was a great military general, results from embarrassment caused by losing his own city in battle and it being overtaken. This last example is the only one where the Bible states that suicide is a sin ” and died, because of the sins which he committed, doing evil in the sight of the Lord, walking in the way of Jerobo’am, and for his sin which he committed, making Israel into sin” (Wiesner pg. 86-88). For this reason most Christians have long been confused as to the Bible’s take on suicide. In the death of Samson suicide is praised while in the last example of Zimri, suicide is seen as a sin. The New Testament, which also is central to Christian belief, has similar accounts of suicide. Judas commits the most famous act of suicide after he has betrayed Jesus by delivering him to Pilate for execution. Another example is the mass suicide at Masada that was one considered noble by the people who committed it because they thought they were dying to save their dignity. Instead of letting the Romans capture them they rebelled by committing suicide so they would not become Roman slaves (Wiesner pgs. 88-91). Since the Bible was seen as contradicting on the subject of suicide, many people had mixed beliefs. In the early Christian Era, St. Augustine wrote a book titled City of God that explained the Christian belief of suicide. St. Augustine was one of the greatest early church fathers and had a lot of influence on the thoughts of Christian believers. In his book, Augustine makes it clear that suicide is wrong and calls it homicide against oneself and no different from killing another person. He used Judas’s suicide as an example, and writes, “When Judas killed himself, he killed an accursed man, and he ended his life guilty not only of Christ’s death but also of his own, because, though he was killed to atone for his crime, the killing itself was another crime of his” (Wiesner pg. 91). As evidence of this statement Augustine uses the commandment “Thou shall not kill.” He interprets this commandment from God to mean any man including yourself. He also mentions in his book that suicide should in no means be a way of achieving greatness like early philosophers had thought. St. Augustine writes, “A mind may be called greater that can endure instead of fleeing from a distressful life” (Wiesner pg. 93). The only exception he points out for a Christian committing suicide is if the death is ordered by the Lord himself, which was the case with Samson in the Old Testament. “When God gives a command and makes it clear without ambiguity that he gives it, who can summon obedience to judgment” (Wiesner pg. 94)? Through the examples listed from different periods throughout history, one can conclude that a person’s beliefs on suicide heavily depended on the age or era in which they lived. If St. Augustine had lived in the Hellenic Age before Christianity was formed, his opinions would no doubt be different. Also people in the Hellenic Age had no idea of Jesus or the Bible, and drew only from the philosophies they did have. The motives behind suicide and whether it is acceptable also rely on a person’s religion, spiritual thoughts, and the society in which they live. Therefore it is hard to decide the rights or wrongs of suicide unless there are shared beliefs by all people, which history shows is impossible.