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Justifications Of Suicide

Condemnation of suicide, though widespread, has been far from universal. In all kinds of society, including preliterate kinds in Africa and America, communities with a suicide taboo can sometimes be found alongside others without. At least in more advanced cultures, two kinds of milieu have bred acceptance of suicide. One is military. In 1897 Émile Durkheim's classic, Suicide, recorded abnormally high rates among military officers. Durkheim ascribed this to the military ethos, on grounds that soldiers are familiar with weapons and death and set a high premium on honor. The same factors have operated throughout history. Greek and Roman warrior-heroes like Ajax or Brutus—not to mention their opposite numbers among Germanic opponents of Rome—were remembered honorably as falling on their swords after defeat. Off the battlefield, in a political climate similarly based on honor, members of the same class might kill themselves to vindicate their honor, as Lucretia and Cato did, winning post-humous glory as martyrs, respectively to chastity and republicanism. In the most intensely militarized cultures, suicide can become an institution, as with the hara-kiri ("belly-cutting") ritualized by samurai in twelfth-century Japan, and the kamikaze of their twentieth-century successors, who piloted torpedoes and bombs. A more complex case is that of warriors fighting for Semitic monotheisms, which frown on suicide. That Jewish warrior-suicide Razias would set a dilemma for Christian commentators, while Muhammad's condemnation of suicide came to sit uneasily with the martial ethos of early Islam, which could at its most extreme produce an offshoot like the Shurat ("sellers of their lives for God"), who plunged into battle against patently overwhelming odds.

Suicide of Lucretia (c. late 16th-mid 17th century) by Guido Reni. Lucretia, a Roman noblewoman who was raped by Sextus, son of the tyrant Tarquin the Proud, sought to restore her honor by committing suicide. © ARALDO DE LUCA /CORBIS

The second tolerant milieu has been philosophy. The classical Greek kind of philosophy, still thriving, tends to resist taboos unjustified by reason; and reason alone cannot easily justify the taboo on suicide, as Hamlet found. It may indeed resent it, since, lacking unquestionable evidence of sensation beyond death, reason suggests that an unhappy life with no prospects is best ended. This train of thought was formally inaugurated by the Cynic Diogenes in the fourth century B.C.E. and survived under the capacious blanket of Roman Stoicism, whose philosophers argued that, just as we may quit a banquet if it becomes tedious, so, under the same condition, we may—indeed must, to be rational—quit the banquet of life; what we do is in any case up to us and no cause for disgrace or punishment. Among lasting effects of this view was the systematic erasure from classical Roman law of any stigma on suicide as such. Around the fourth century C.E. came a change of mood, of which Augustine's arguments were less a cause than a symptom. The philosophical current only began reemerging in the Renaissance, and more fully in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, when it targeted, in particular, ancient rituals that aimed to disgrace a suicide's memory, usually to the prejudice of his family. After a series of skirmishes—including a pan-European scandal at the romanticization of suicide in Goethe's novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The sufferings of young Werther)—philosophical tolerance completed its conquest of European law during the twentieth century.

Quite a different philosophical tradition has meanwhile recommended suicide of a very strictly defined type. The same ancient Sanskrit texts that condemned suicide done through passion have allowed those ascetics who have overcome passion to sever its last roots by parting from their bodies, by the least passionate method available (say, by drowning in a sacred river or by starvation). Traces of this view have been present in Mediterranean history, and condemnation of suicide by the Semitic religions may owe some of its force to a defensive reaction, against the doctrine of what one early Koran commentator calls the "Indian fools."

While suicides form a minute proportion of the population (0.03 percent per annum is a fairly high figure), a study of their circumstances, as Durkheim and his successors have demonstrated, throws otherwise inaccessible light on the lives of everyone else. In the same way, while suicide commands only a small proportion of moral and legal theory, it raises inexhaustible questions, both of the casuistical kind about suicide as such and also, through those, about life itself.


Bohannan, Paul, ed. African Homicide and Suicide. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960.

Durkheim, Émile. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson. 1952. Reprint, New York: Free Press, 1989.

Halbwachs, Maurice. The Causes of Suicide. Translated by Harold Goldblatt. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.

McManners, John. Death and the Enlightenment: Changing Attitudes to Death among Christians and Unbelievers in Eighteenth-Century France. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Murray, Alexander. Suicide in the Middle Ages. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, 2000.

Stack, Steven. "Suicide: A Decade Review of the Sociological Literature." Deviant Behaviour 4 (1982): 41–66.

Thakur, Upendra. A History of Suicide in India. Delhi: Munshi Ram Manoharlal, 1963.

Alexander Murray

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Stomium to SwiftsSuicide - Taboo, Rationale, Justifications Of Suicide, Bibliography