CONTENT WARNING – This article discusses information about suicide that may be upsetting to some people.
I’ve wanted to kill myself many times, most nights I ritually imagine shooting a bullet into my head straight through to my pillow, scattering feathers brain and blood. It’s irrational obviously, but each time I can’t shake a feeling of guilt or contrition.
For many people, talking about suicide makes them uncomfortable, it is a discussion that often gets swept under the rug in lieu of increasing discourse on mental illness and depression. But in reality, suicide and depression deserve individual discussion, just because one can lead to the other does not mean it is adequately responded to in one conversation. General discussion of suicide ideation, or conversations about a friend, coworker, or family member that may have killed them self, are often brief and shallow; they are typically reactionary responses that attempt to alleviate any discomfort and tension, and end the conversation as quickly as possible.
Some may feel indignant at this suggestion, but I would ask you to think about how you refer to suicide. Nobody ‘commits’ suicide, no one has committed suicide since around 1935 when it was deemed illegal in Australia. People commit rape, murders and robberies, yet the common vernacular surrounding suicide almost always precedes with “commit”. Oxford, Cambridge, Macmillan and most other dictionaries all define ‘commit’ with a mention of either moral or legal wrongdoing. While it may sound ridiculous at first, ‘suicided’ is actually correct and acceptable, so why do we not say it, and how did we get to this point? To attempt to understand the current social stigma still prevalent, it helps to explore the history of cultures and philosophy surrounding suicide.
We start our story, as does much historical analysis, in Ancient Greece. Many Ancient Greek thinkers and philosophers condemned suicide, but through various lenses. Pythagoras approached the issue mathematically, thinking there was only a finite number of souls, and a sudden departure of one would imbalance the world. Aristotle was more practical, suggesting that it robbed the community of the services of one of its members. Plato, more emotional, believed it was disgraceful as it was releasing our souls from our bodies, which the gods had placed in us as a punishment and a birthright. He believed it as almost a ‘cosmic jailbreak’. But it should be mentioned, he did have exceptions – when one’s mind is morally corrupt; when it is judicially ordered; when it is compelled by extreme and unavoidable personal misfortune; and when it results from shame from grossly unjust actions, which arguably leaves a fair amount of flexibility. However to add to this, one of the other great ancient philosophers Socrates, killed himself all but in name. In his prestigious court case, Socrates held honourably to his controversial values and refused to reduce himself to sophistry. Even with his incredible ability to argue and the very real possibility of exile should he concede, instead he facilitated his own death by retaining his own honour system, and was killed by the Roman state. In another region, Spartans unsurprisingly, had militaristic exceptions to suicide; as it was seen the noblest death to die in battle, even when, and especially if, the odds of survival were so low it suggested practical suicide.
On the other hand, the Stoics, one of the larger philosophical groups in the time, held that whenever the means to living a naturally flourishing life are not available, suicide may be justified, if not more honourable. Cicero claimed that suicide was appropriate if your situation in life was against ‘nature’ (disease, protracted misery, severe pain), and Seneca went even further to claim “mere living is not a good, but living well”, propounding quality of life being important, not the quantity. In a similar vein across the globe, Confucianism held that certain values were worse than death, and found suicide can be morally permissible. The Confucian emphasis on loyalty, self-sacrifice, and honour tended to encourage ‘altruistic suicide’, especially in order to have one’s “ren” accomplished – a good feeling experienced by a virtuous human when being altruistic.
Later, we find ourselves in Ancient Rome, where suicide was never a general offence in law, but instead was approached pragmatically. Valerius Maximus, for example, in Massalia (present-day Marseilles), claimed that if one wanted to kill oneself, they had to apply to the Senate, and if their reasons were judged sound they were given the deadly, poisonous plant hemlock free of charge. However, it was strictly forbidden for soldiers, slaves, and those accused of capital crimes; presumably because it was uneconomic and impractical for these people to die. Romans also approved of “patriotic suicide”. One such example is of ‘Cato the Younger’ who killed himself after his defeat at the Battle of Thapsus. There are further examples of these especially in regards to avoiding capture, torture, or enslavement: Brutus and Cassius killed themselves after their defeat in Phillipi, and a Jewish insurgency committed mass suicide in Masada rather than face brutal enslavement by the Romans.
Moving further through history, society in the Middle Ages began to show greater castigation of suicide, no doubt brought about by the increased religious hegemony of Christianity. In the 5th century, St Augustine offered the Church’s first official condemnation of suicide, claiming the fifth commandment naturally extended to suicide. This rationale in essence was, if “Thou shalt not kill” does not have the addition of “thy neighbour”, like the eighth, ninth, and tenth commandments, then this explicitly “prevented” suicide as well. Thomas Aquinas later defended this prohibition on similar grounds, but added that if there is a prohibition against killing human beings and suicide is killing a human being, then ipso facto suicide is wrong. He also argued it went against natural self-love, it injured the community, and it violated our duty to god. One might question the base of these truths, as the lord and saviour ‘died for our sins’ in a form of facilitated suicide, and God incarnate could certainly repel Roman persecution, yet nonetheless Jesus faced his death with honour and acceptance, but I digress.
These doctrines led to widespread horror. The church initially excommunicated people who had attempted suicide, and buried those outside consecrated graveyards. Other accounts found that the body was desecrated, their life discredited, and sometimes their possessions or family possessions seized. However this corrupted into downright madness as Louis XIV issued that the dead person’s body would be drawn through the streets, face down, and then hung or thrown on a garbage heap in public as a warning to would be ‘suicidal renegades’. The echoes of these ideas still ring true today, as Father Don LaCuesta lambasted a young boy who had committed suicide during the boys own funeral service, exasperating the family, desecrating his name and propounding an already deep grief.
Other religions had relatively similar attitudes. In Judaism, suicide in all forms is strictly forbidden by Jewish law and practice, including assisted suicide; however, the threshold for what is considered suicide is very high, as one must be of sound mind. Islam similarly condemns suicide in all forms; however, some militant groups and a very small minority of clerics, believe “martyrdom operations” or suicide bombings fulfil jihad, even when the Quran does not mention suicide as an act of Jihad. However, the majority of the Islamic faith does not agree on this point. In Hinduism suicide is considered spiritually unacceptable, and is tantamount to violating the code of ahimsa (non-violence) and can sometimes be considered as sinful as murder. Even with Buddhism’s doctrine of suffering being inherent to existence (sukkah), originating either through karma or the natural processes of life and death, it advocates the Noble Eightfold Path and does not advocate suicide.
The Renaissance period largely affirmed the Churches beliefs, except for notable writers and philosophers Thomas More, Michel de Montaigne and John Donne, who spread the seed of dissent that would eventually follow. Thomas More recommended voluntary suicide for those suffering from painful and incurable diseases, while Montaigne used quotes and anecdotes of Roman writers praising suicide. Donne also propagated a defense of suicide by using Biblical figures, such as Jesus, Samson and Saul, and further mentions of martyrdom, killings, and war, all contained in the holy texts, aimed at highlighting the hypocrisy of the prohibition.
The real change in trajectory after this period of religious dominance, came with The Enlightenment. David Hume famously desecrated the Churches arguments against suicide, posthumously due to the dangerous power of the Church in Ireland. He aimed to “restore men to their native liberty” and end a period of enhanced misery and fear based on “superstition”, arguing against a duty to god, a duty to others, and a duty to ourselves in typical Hume style. In his longest section, he rebukes a ‘duty to god’ based on the clear ambivalence of the ‘divine order’, as it is often contravened for the sake of our own happiness, so why does this not extend to suicide? In rebuking a ‘Duty to others’, he argues the “frivolous advantage” to society garnered by the minuscule social benefit from each individual that would never be equal to the expense of significant harm and suffering for a suicidal person. He went even further and suggested that in most extreme situations, suicidal people are actually a burden to others, not the opposite. He continues that this ‘duty to oneself’ is inherently contradictory; why would prolonging disease, sickness, old age and misery be considered a higher duty to oneself in comparison to ending and alleviating pain? As to the suicide being acted capriciously, he claims our natural fear of death ensures that careful deliberation is required to have the courage and clarity of mind to suicide.
In the same period, Immanuel Kant provided one of the few secular arguments against suicide at the time. He claimed that firstly, humans should never be treated as a “means to an end”, and must always be considered an “end in himself”, thus we should not commit someone to slavery, or manipulate another human. Consequently, he claimed that suicide was a means to an end, and that in suiciding, or even attempting to, we “discard our own humanity.” This led to the awful idea that attempted suicide makes one a “thing [or] a beast”, as “man can only dispose of things, beasts are things in a sense” and by treating your value as that of a beast, you “make a thing of [yourself].” He also believed that it was acceptable to treat those who have attempted suicide, as beasts or things accordingly. In a less extreme manner, he also put forward the interesting idea that suicide can not be a moral act, as it precludes your ability to perform moral acts in the future.
Liberalism, one of the largest philosophical movements in history, was not absolute in its view of suicide. Thomas Szasz claimed that freedom is self-ownership, and that ownership over one’s own life and body and the right to end that life must be the most basic of all freedoms. Jean Améry romantically argued that suicide represented the ultimate freedom of humanity, saying “we only arrive at ourselves in a freely chosen death” and lamenting “ridiculous everyday life and its alienation”. Améry killed himself in 1978 at 65 years old, questioning the dangers of romanticising or glorifying suicide, or showing his resolve and choice to end his life on his own terms. In disagreement, and in a similar manner to Kant, John Stuart Mill argued that liberty is the power of an individual to make choices, and actions that deprive one from making further choices should be prevented. Just as one would not sell themselves into slavery, they must also not kill themselves.
Many of these ideas were groundbreaking, much like other Enlightenment thinking that changed the world order permanently and stamped its influence in history. But to me, the most touching quote is by Voltaire in his book Candide. He manages to capture the perfect mix of cruel reality, and passion for life; the perfect mix of pathos and happiness, the slippery yet perfect contradiction that comes to the root of suicide discourse:
“I have wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but somehow I am still in love with life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our more stupid melancholy propensities, for is there anything more stupid than to be eager to go on carrying a burden which one would gladly throw away, to loathe one’s very being and yet to hold it fast, to fondle the snake that devours us until it has eaten our hearts away?”
As the world entered the destructive twentieth century, wars destroyed discourse and disillusioned generations. Ideologies were pushed to extremes, and horror become the norm. In regards to suicide, Nazi’s systematically slaughtered people with mental disabilities including depression, Hitler killed himself on the shore of inevitable defeat, and the Japanese conducted many Kamikaze bombings which were considered an honourable way to die for their country and their people. In Japanese culture, much like the Romans, Spartans and Chinese, suicide to retain honour, commonly known as sepulke, was a practiced and accepted behavior. Mostly done by Samurais and not necessarily accepted for common folk, this tradition represented another culture with vastly different attitudes to the dominant Judeo-Christian model.
However, being in a period with such death and loss left the world in mourning and intense grief, and this understandingly destroyed any sentiment of allowing loved ones and neighbours to end their lives. Many poets and writers painted the desolation, notably as the ‘lost generation’, and perhaps presented a world that had lost colour, eternally grey, dizzying and despondent. Furthermore, on a Utilitarian level, the world was in a phase of repair and convalescence, both in psyche and infrastructure; it could not sanction any more lives lost, regardless of philosophy or reason. Nihilism and existentialism also purported bleak, meaningless, and sometimes crushing outlooks of reality, and with no real meaning, morality or reason, much of the world found itself in intellectual and psychological oblivion.
Albert Camus was one of the few intellectuals to discuss suicide in the period. He dedicated a whole book to what he coined the “only serious question” of philosophy. Using the parable of Sisyphus, who rolled a boulder up a hill every day only to watch it fall down, he described our “absurd” existence in this manner, and furthering this tension was our natural inclination to understand or find meaning, in an otherwise incomprehensible, meaningless existence. Yet contrary to the pessimism dominated in the period, Camus famously wrote “one must imagine Sisyphus happy”, as he has understood and accepted his place in life, and while there is no inherent meaning, it does not prevent us from rejoicing in our existence in the very face of that absurdity. Sartre, both longtime friend and intellectual compatriot of Camus, furthered this by saying that in a meaningless world we are ultimately free to create our own meaning, and that the true dread was that we are “condemned to be free”.
In the same period, much of Coastal Africa was evangelised by large Churches, Judaism found a tumultuous existence in Israel, and Islam rapidly gained popularity following the Iranian revolution and subsequent wars in the Middle east, spreading religious attitudes further around the globe. Furthermore the aggressive dichotomy of Cold War politics prevented conditions for new thought and ideas to flourish, but also crushed and disrupted many newly forming nations. More recently, economic disasters like the global financial crisis, Asian financial crisis, and crumbling of faith in the world order, both with the neoliberal economic order, but also with social leftist systems, has pushed many nations to a reactionary populist conservatism, a return to non-secular states, and a reemergence of autocratic leaders; all with potentially disastrous results for euthanasia, attitudes towards suicide, and attitudes towards those who have killed themself.
So where do we find ourselves now? Assisted suicide or Euthanasia is increasingly becoming accepted in many nations, yet 84% of our world still remain religious and many of those are deeply opposed to suicide. There is greater conversation and science behind mental health and treatment, yet suicide rates are increasing rapidly throughout the world. We are more connected than ever before with technology, yet underlying loneliness and isolation are rampant. In today’s society, suicide still holds negative connotations, the language behind it is crippling, and the discussion facile. But I must ask, for those who don’t have religious qualms about suicide, and for those without sound philosophical pretenses, what is the unconscious reasoning for our stigma towards suicide?
The crushing truth, I believe, is that we can see the reality of our existence, whether we consciously accept it or not, and we are so afraid of its alluring dysphoria that deep down we ultimately don’t think we can trust each other not to end our lives and leave us. While it may be a fear out of compassion and love, it does not mean that it is right.
We must walk a tightrope, but the stakes of this tightrope are not falling into a pit of water or a net; the stakes are the lives of those around us, the lives of our children, the lives of everyone. On the one hand, we cannot aggrandise, glorify or romanticise suicide, as the inevitable will occur when something is culturally ‘poetic’, especially for impressionable youths. But then on the far opposite we cannot condemn, vilify, and denounce suicide, as not only does this incite intense feelings of guilt, shame and confusion for depressed people, but for an illness that by its very nature leads people to desire the dark, the extreme, to attain pain; we cannot associate suicide with such vehement negativity, as our perceived altruism only leads further people to the edge.
I don’t pretend to know how to address such a sensitive, complicated and widespread issue as suicide. But to me, the first steps are to increase our discourse and honest discussion, talking deeply and honestly about suicide, and reclaiming the negativity of ‘committing’ suicide. A TED Talk presented by Mark Henick is a good place to hear an honest, brutal and beautiful discussion. The next step is to find greater nuance in our attitudes towards suicide; to accept and understand the situations where it may be appropriate, such as euthanasia, severe illness, a mature life without relationships that has been endemic of misery for years. But equally, to accept when it is not: young people, the mentally unwell, those that have not attempted medical treatment or counselling, and so on. But the hardest part, is even when these people do kill themselves, to not blame them, to not blame ourselves or others, but instead to merely find acceptance. Further, through this acceptance, while a death is always upsetting and deserving of profound grief, perhaps we should find a gentle solace, that they may have found some peace in their troubled life, and at least found strength to choose a pathway or their own ending. We don’t have to understand why, but merely accept. Even if we don’t agree with that choice, and it destroys us inside, it does not invalidate their decision, and it only causes more pain.