Posted on April 12th, 2012 | Filed under Academic, Challenges, Community, Featured, Philosophy, Social Issues, Topic of the Week
Tagged with @State of Formation, Christianity, community, ethics, Humanism, Suicide
Writing about the emotionally sensitive topic of suicide within the context of religion left me somewhat perplexed and uncertain as to where I personally stand concerning the controversial act itself.
Before doing such extensive reading on the subject of suicide, I believed passionately that taking one’s own life is always destructive and negative, that it is, in fact, a selfish decision. Now, having reflected upon suicide in a more formal and open-minded way, I find myself holding conflicting opinions on the topic, having realized that it is not a black and white issue. It is, in reality, a very difficult topic to approach, too complex for anyone to glibly assert a definitive position meant to be accepted as a generalized truth.
The subject deals with and revolves around an actual human life. Thus, it can never be simple or straightforward to attempt to sort out one’s opinions or emotions regarding suicide. And yet, when reflecting upon the topic, most people merely assume that life is positive and should be preserved as long as possible, failing to address the facts concerning the type and quality of the life that the person in question is actually living.
There are many masterful voices echoing throughout the corridors of time concerning suicide, the validity and content of which has almost always been highly debated. Each voice has cresendoed increasingly with impeccable, yet diverse polemic. The act of suicide, for the ancient philosophers, consisted of a many faceted phenomenon. The inception of voluntary death and suicide in literature and philosophy arises first in Homer, wherein it was considered venerable. Camus asserted, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”
In recent months and days, however, there have been many instances of suicide occurring by different persons for different reasons that have caused me to think more closely about this controversial act. For instance, a Tibetan monk caught himself on fire to protest the Chinese rule. In Greece, an elderly man killed himself because of the devastating financial crises the country faced. A student at Rutgers University took his own life after his roommate inappropriately taped a sexual encounter he had with another male student. How are we to think about these events? Are they tragic acts of desperation that we should try to mitigate or are they expressions of virtue and beauty that should be emulated?
Historically the dominant voice in favor of voluntary death belonged to Plato, who’s work Phaedo became a foundation upon which all philosophical schools built their ideology concerning the topic. It was not until the time of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, that the honorable act of voluntary death began to seriously diminish in ideological power and materialize as antithetical to normalcy. Augustine’s ecclesiastical power struggles with the Donatists over doctrinal authority and his apologetically loaded polemic against the Pagans reoriented the ancient perception of suicide from an honorable act of self-expression and total freedom to a negative association with self-murder and increased liability to the ramifications of sin. This reality has served as the impetus for the contemporary approach to thinking about suicide.
The penumbra of personalized experience almost overshadows the fundamental issue of suicide. Is it acceptable to want to die? Is it permissible to leave this world for any reason whatsoever? Who actually has the right to tell a person that she has to continue living a life that she does not wish to live? We, as religious dilettantes, often miss a deceased person so greatly that we view her choice to commit suicide in an intensely personal manner. We conclude that we are to blame for her decision, that we could have done more to intervene and to assist. Our love for her, or perhaps for humanity in general, runs so incredibly deep that we cannot cope with the dramatic loss. The truth is that our perception of her life is often utterly different from her own point of view. For all that we know, she may have been carrying a private burden so heavy that no one could have helped her bear it. Death may have been, in her eyes, the only escape and the ultimate blessing in a world filled with pain. Sophocles poetically articulates this notion,
"It is a shameful thing to want to live forever
When a man’s life gives him no relief from trouble.
What joy is there in a long file of days,
Edging you forward toward the goal of death,
Then back a little? I wouldn’t give much for a man
Who warms himself with the comfort of vain hopes.
Let a man live nobly, or die nobly."
Furthermore, the decision to value life, regardless of the quality, over everything else is based largely upon the thoughts of one man, namely Augustine, whose opinion was cultivated in the attempt to win an argument and to secure his power within the majority religious institution. Can we as intellectuals disregard the wealth of knowledge and abundant powerful opinions of the many great thinkers who saw value and honor in voluntary death and instead assent blindly to one man’s ideology, namely Seneca, Homer, and Plato as well as Tertullian and many other religious and philosophical schools of thought? I should hope not. I hope that we can honestly weigh the value of all of their opinions and try to apply their collective logic to life today.
A person could, for instance, live her life for nothing more than reading and writing books. This very act would thus be the essence of her existence. What kind of life would she have were she forced to exist without being able to do that which she had lived to do? Would she really be living her life or would she merely be going through the motions of eating and breathing?
Through my research on suicide, I have come to believe that happiness can only be defined on an individual basis according to what each person deems valuable and worthwhile within the context of the greater good of society. Therefore, is it not possible that life is over at the moment when a rational person decides that it is or even when circumstances decide so? Is a life without happiness worth living? Furthermore, I now believe that life should be about personalized freedom. No one should have to endure living a life characterized by the dreaded inability to choose what is best for them.
Could I, as a rational human being who strives to see the good in all situations, advocate for suicide as an acceptable act in all circumstances as did some of the voices in antiquity? I am not entirely sure that I could promote such an idea wholesale. I do believe, however, that a person would honestly have to discern each and every case of suicide individually before coming to any sort of conclusion about the choice made by the deceased. As a fellow human being, not only would I earnestly try to understand why a specific individual had wanted to take his own life, but I would also feel compelled to challenge each person affected by the decision in order to be better equipped to offer an opinion on the tragic circumstances.
However, I still see the problem with the practicality of a philosophical idealism manifesting itself into a tangible reality. The difficulty is that a belief about the potential virtue of suicide is abstract whereas the act of suicide is devastatingly real. For one to believe hypothetically that it may be completely appropriate to take his own life is different from a person’s actual choice to permanently blot out his own existence.
One can change his opinion over and over again, but a person, once dead, cannot return to life. So how does one know if it is permissible to commit suicide or even to advocate it as an acceptable alternative to life? Can suicide still, at times, be justified after one has differentiated between positive reasons for ending life, such as virtue, piety, and physical aliments and negative reasons, such as mental illness and irrationality? I am not completely certain as to the answer I would give to such an inquiry.
My brief research has led me to the tentative conclusion that there are certain circumstances wherein it is appropriate to commit suicide. In fact, I am tempted to believe, as did the ancients, that there are certain situations in which, a person who radiates a virtue and piety that would only be compromised by a prolonged life, would be better served by premature death. Still, I hope that I am never faced with the dilemma of trying to convince someone not to commit suicide, especially if I feel that he or she has justifiable reasons for wanting to do so.
My thoughts on suicide have also led me to contemplate humanity’s responses and reactions to death itself. What is wrong with death? Why is humanity so afraid of it? The Orthodox faith supposedly teaches that those who have been put on the path to G-d’s salvation can look forward, after death, to encountering the eternal joy and bliss that is found only in the presence or theosis with G-d. Yet, I am willing to argue that most Christians do not, in fact, believe in the afterlife. Most believers are so afraid of death that they will do anything in their attempts to postpone or prevent it. If these individuals had a solid faith in G-d’s provision even after death, there would be no hesitation about leaving this life in order to begin the next. As the Apostle Paul says in,
2 Corinthians 5:1-10, "We know, for instance, that if our earthly dwelling were taken down, like a tent, we have a permanent house in Heaven, made, not by man, but by G-d. In this present frame we sigh with deep longing for the heavenly house, for we do not want to face utter nakedness when death destroys our present dwelling - these bodies of ours. So long as we are clothed in this temporary dwelling we have a painful longing, not because we want just to get rid of these 'clothes' but because we want to know the full cover of the permanent house that will be ours. We want our transitory life to be absorbed into the life that is eternal. Now the power that has planned this experience for us is G-d, and he has given us his Spirit as a guarantee of its truth. This makes us confident, whatever happens. We realize that being 'at home' (... alive) in the body means that to some extent we are 'away' from the Lord, for we have to live by trusting him without seeing him. We are so sure of this that we would really rather be 'away' from the body (in death) and be 'at home' with the Lord."
Perhaps it is partly this phobia concerning death that has led to the wholesale condemnation of suicide. It seems natural that individuals with a pronounced fear of death would regard with suspicion anyone who had embraced it prematurely.
I have found my reading about suicide to be extremely valuable, in part because it helped to shed light upon some of my aforementioned questions about life, happiness, and death. However, I am most grateful for the insights I have gained concerning how best to interact with those who have been profoundly impacted by a loved one’s suicide or those who feel so strongly about this issue.
I can, however, assert that historically the act has been considered virtuous and we should factor this into our conversations about suicide. I hear the echoes of the voices of antiquity loudly and clearly. Virtue, to them, was a most valuable and irreplaceable gem that had to be valued more than anything else known to humanity. The examples left to us in Greek and Roman literature illustrate this principle masterfully. Their decisions to commit suicide were based solely upon sound reason and pious prayer, not upon depression, economic instability, or mental illness.
Virtue, I fear, is an element of society that we have misplaced and then replaced with a number of insufficient substitutes. I respect the belief of the ancients that maintaining a virtue or confession was more important than life. We are, in the twenty-first century, sometimes so egotistical; we believe that we ourselves are individually all that matters, without considering the possibility that there exists something greater than us, such as principles, virtues, or even the greater good of humanity and society.
Image taken from Wikimedia Commons, a "media file repository making available public domain and freely-licensed educational media content." The image is of Lucretia's Rape and her Suicide by Sextus Tarquinius.
The link to this image can be found at: