Honorable deaths?

quodsi uiri sui faciem ignorat, deo profecto denupsit et deum nobis
praegnatione ista gerit.  certe si diuini puelli (quod absit) haec
mater audierit statim me laqueo nexili suspendam.
If Psyche doesn’t know what her husband looks like, I’d bet she married
a god and, as far as I’m concerned, is pregnant with a god.   If she’s called
the mother of a divine son (God forbid!) I guarantee I’m going to hang
myself right away with a plaited noose.

Apuleius Metamorphoses 5.16.4

The exposure of government corruption or the accounts of people who see themselves as jammed up in intractable circumstances are on occasion accompanied by reports of the suicides both of those individuals at their wit’s end and of the political elites incarcerated or awaiting trial.

The notion  — with which I disagree in strongest terms — that taking one’s life is an honorable means of extrication from dishonorable circumstances has origins in suicide among the mighty of ancient Rome.  I do not know if this observation illuminates the practice of moderns, but it is certainly true that in antiquity suicide among the powerful (and not so powerful) was more often deemed respectable and praiseworthy than not.

The modern view of taking one’s life seems to be that its etiology and possible prevention are the concerns of psychiatrists and other mental-health professionals.  And certainly most of us feel a sense of futility, compassion or even pity for the individual who is pushed to such extreme measures – even somebody we do not know personally.  Most of us rightly (in my view) deplore suicide as an act driven by unbearable guilt or serious emotional or mental problems, and we would do all in our power to prevent a person from such a desperate act.

The point of view of the ancient Romans on this matter was, however, rather different.  As a general tendency, they were inclined to see suicide as an act based on overtly rational calculation and worthy of praise, perhaps even high praise.  There are even a few epitaphs that list this path to death as part of the traditional laudatio (formal praise) typical of such inscriptions, and the ancient historians are replete with approbatory accounts of the noble suicide – the stylized narratives in Tacitus and the eagerly lurid expositions in Lucan’s Pharsalia are particularly noteworthy.  Those of high station (e.g., senatorials, military commanders) who did not commit suicide when cultural pressures in a sense required them to do so could be subject to vituperation for comportment more disgraceful that that of many a slave who had the nobility to die at his or her own hand.

Even early Christianity took the commending pagan view of suicide until some point in the fourth century A.D. – by which time an alarming number of aspirants had apparently tried to use suicide as a quick route to sainthood.  And the vast periphrastic vocabulary of Latin for suicide is largely neutral or positive – the word “suicide” (‘self-killing’) itself came into being as a learned neologism only in the 17th century.

What the rifle or handgun is to the modern male suicide, the sword or dagger was to the ancient Roman;  and what pills are to the modern female suicide, hanging was to Roman women – although weapons were also common with women.  Poison was relatively unusual for both sexes, as were such measures as jumping from buildings or cliffs, burning, or voluntary starvation.

By far the most common reason (where given) for suicide was what Romans subsumed under the word pudor, “a sense of public embarrassment, shame.”  Since ancient Roman society was, like that of the Greeks, essentially a “shame” rather than a “guilt” culture (like our own), a perceived disgrace of self in the eyes of external others (shame) understandably figured more prominently as motivation for suicide than an internalized sense of failure or misdoing before the uncompromising court of one’s own merciless judgment (guilt).

It is perhaps significant that outside the literary love elegy, suicides in ancient Rome did not generally display the passive aggression one may find in actual or threatened modern suicides (e.g., the media-covered hunger strike or self-immolation to promote a cause).  The coerced party in antiquity would probably have felt little if any of the guilt for all concerned that is being tapped in the modern suicide.

We do of course know of other reasons for suicide besides the predominant one of shame:  self-sacrifice because an oracle has made it a precondition for the success of one’s side in battle; avoidance of torture or enslavement by a besieging army about to storm the walls;  a “suggestion” from the emperor;  obdurate emotional (e.g., jealousy, like Psyche’s sister above) or physical (e.g., disease) pain;  a simple weariness with life (taedium vitae).  All these grounds the ancient Roman would no doubt have deemed reasonable and even commendable.

My very private and personal sense, finally, is that a Kevorkian or the modern Hemlock Society are – on my understanding of both — at least in some respects closer to if certainly not identical with the ancient Roman attitudes toward suicide than mainstream popular, medical and religious thinking in today’s America.

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One Response to Honorable deaths?

  1. heather says:

    difficult subject.

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