Philosophy In Seconds

43. The Philosophical History of Suicide [QP]


In 2013, 840,000 people committed suicide. Suicide is now officially listed as the 10th leading cause of death worldwide and with a rising number of people each year, it seems only necessary to analyse this phenomenon. Most of us do not condemn suicide, we are acutely sensitive of the circumstances that may drive someone to commit such an act, and we wish to offer these people nothing but sympathy. However, considering that the philosophical climates have changed drastically over the centuries, it seems relevant to chart the various views and their progression over time. Starting off with none other than the Ancient Greeks.

Ancient Greeks: The ‘Big Three’ in Athenian philosophy, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all condemned suicide for various reasons. Socrates believed that man was one of the ‘gods’ possessions’ and thus he has not the right nor should he have the right to take his own life. The irony of course is that Socrates was given a chance to escape halfway through his execution, and justified his drinking of the poison by saying that he had entered in a social contract which he had to respect. Plato was no different. Believing that the state and the gods were closely aligned, he saw suicide as a crime against the state and a crime necessarily against the gods. However, there is one slight difference between him and Socrates; he claims that it may be justified for ‘good reason’ (without actually saying what that would be). Aristotle was no different to Socrates, going so far as to say that to commit suicide is ‘cowardly’.

Ancient China & Bushido: Out of the extant writings of Confucius and Mencius we can derive the opinion that suicide does not always deserve serious condemnation. Well, in all honesty, suicide is only justified when a person has failed to observe the fundamental values of society, since to Confucius this would be worse than death. Confucius placed an emphasis upon self-sacrifice and loyalty, which is why you might actually be obliged to commit suicide if it were to help the group, for instance, falling on a grenade to prevent others from dying. This would be called altruistic suicide, where your own death might serve the community that you are in. In Japan, there was an almost slave-like devotion to the Emperor and any sort of dishonourable act would compel a citizen or soldier to commit hara kiri (ritual suicide) to regain their honour.

Ancient Rome: There exists a huge contrast between Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome and the ways that they viewed suicide. The Romans believed that once one’s honour was gone, there was no reason to live. If one were to commit a dishonourable act, to wash away the debt to society, suicide was an act more noble than public execution. This is supported by the fact that many Roman politicians committed suicide to escape the dishonour of public execution. Thus the outlook on suicide appears to be progressing, but not necessarily as much as we might think.

Medieval Age/Scholasticism: St. Thomas Aquinas was one of the most influential philosophers and the most renowned Catholic theologian. In his grandiose, Summa Theologica, he outlines three reasons why people should not murder and thus we can safely assume that it applies to the murder of oneself. It is 1) contrary to natural law, it 2)harms the common good (communal mentality should not be endangered) and 3) it is a sin against God. The last reason seems to be most compelling. Under no circumstances will God allow suicide and the proof of this is Deuteronomy’s chilling verse: “I will kill and I will make to live.” (29:32). Thus, the opinion on suicide from the Ancient Greeks until the Medieval Age, has not changed significantly.

The Enlightenment: Reigning in values of autonomy and the right to author one’s own life, the Enlightenment Age was extremely radical in terms of its views on suicide. Scottish Philosopher David Hume in his essay “Of Suicide” stated rather beautifully: “I believe no man ever threw away his life while it was worth keeping.” Later on, Arthur Schopenhauer (quite a bit after the Enlightenment) would suggest that no man had a more “unassailable and incontrovertible right” than the use of their own life. What marked the contrast in the Enlightenment Age was of course Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy epitomised in the Categorical Imperative. Particularly relevant is the first rule/maxim of the Categorical Imperative which states that every action should have a feature of “universalizability”, thus if everyone were to commit suicide, the human race would go extinct. It is quite ironic that the deontological framework upon which Kant built his moral philosophy neglects why it is that people might want to commit suicide, especially since it is supposed to value the moral worth of an action on the reasoning behind the motive.

Now: That brings us to today. The 19th Century was somewhat glossed over, but the tide of thought possesses a ‘Schopenhauerian’ feel; meaning that suicide should not be thought of as something cowardly, everyone is entitled to the option. Surely, in the 20th Century we had Albert Camus who considered suicide to be the “truly serious philosophical problem” since the world we live in is fundamentally absurd. Life can be Sisyphean in nature, in other words it can appear to be a task which is ultimately futile, but there certainly exists a certain pride to be derived from enduring this life (with the exception of suffering due to disease). As Camus put it:

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” – Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.