Suicide in Antiquity: A Study of the Attitudes towards Suicide from the 5th Century BCE to the 5th Century CE
The act of suicide has rarely been viewed by society as a wholly good thing. There are always certain groups who refuse to allow others that last bit of control over their own destiny, just as there are always those who insist that it is a perfectly natural act. It is simply the overall attitude that has changed over the centuries. In Classical Greece we have a society defined by it differences. Each city-state had different ideas on how to govern, how to live life, and how to end it. They did tend to share some things in common, however, including their religion and their philosophy. Beginning in roughly the 5th century BCE, one finds the Pythagoreans , followed in the 4th century by the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans. Of these four schools, only one viewed suicide as anything but a favorable act. The other three all supported the idea that suicide is perfectly acceptable, if not expected, in a variety of situations. Moving forward in time to the Roman world, we find that the act of suicide became even more accepted, even commonplace, especially around the time of Christ, when the Roman Republic was becoming the Roman Empire. Throughout much of the Mediterranean world, the Roman attitude, favorable towards suicide, was prevalent. Even in the older societies of the region, such as the Hebrews of Israel, suicide was not frowned upon in any way. Judging by the texts of the Torah, suicide was no cause for condemnation. Those who committed suicide in the Torah are praised just as highly as those who died by more "acceptable" means. It is only with the onset of Christianity as a dominant force in the Mediterranean basin that we begin to see a move away from total acceptance of suicide. Even then, however, the condemnation of suicide did not appear in a strong manner until two and three hundred years after Christ's death! Admittedly, most of the evidence that seems to support suicide is technically speaking of martyrdom, but many of the writings of the early church fathers also contain passages which expand the approval of martyrdom into the realm of general suicide. How and why did this change occur? By examining evidence from the whole range of this period from the 5th century BCE to the 5th century CE, we have seen that the arguments used for centuries by those in favor of suicide were inexorably reversed. Though certainly not the first to speak out against suicide, Augustine was the first to make solid reference to an actual commandment from God, whereas everyone before him had simply guessed at or made up what the deity would have thought. By using the 6th commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," Augustine made good a final attack on suicide, sealing the door on its acceptance for centuries to come. It may be hoped that this study has helped elucidate the problem of suicide as it was seen in antiquity. At no time was there a single united voice saying "yea" or "nay," but rather a great many voices shouting a definitive "maybe, sort of, it depends." Plato's Phaedo has generally been cited as the greatest argument in favor of suicide from the period, yet even it contains a strong argument to the contrary. After all, the main portion of Socrates' discussion about suicide is focused on the philosophy of the Pythagoreans, the one group in his time that denied the right of a man to take his own life. By learning about what people two thousand years ago thought about suicide we can begin to expand our own modem discussion of this ultimate act. Suicide is much in the news of late, between Dr. Kevorkian and his physician-assisted suicides for terminally ill patients and the right-to-life argument over patient rights when on life support. By examining what our ancestors, those who founded our Western civilizations, thought, we can hopefully move beyond the largely emotion-and religion-based arguments presently in circulation, and begin to discuss this subject in a rational way, just as the Cynics and the Stoics insisted things should be done. However, no matter whom one consults or which writings one might refer to, the answer to suicide can never come from an outside source. It may help to read what those who came before us thought about suicide, but the only place in which an answer to the question of suicide can be found is in one's own heart and mind.
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