Suicide in History and the Question of Dignity

As an undergraduate, I once attended a lecture by a visiting classicist who made the interesting remark that he considered classical antiquity to be the first modern age and the period from roughly 1700 to present as the second modern age. Over the course of my own studies of the Middle Ages, I have come to find his suggestion more and more plausible. On too many issues modernity and antiquity agree, while the Middle Ages differ with both. One wonders how modernists would feel to be told that they are even more backward than the Middle Ages on matters of religion, reason, homosexuality, abortion, birth control, and suicide.

The last of these concerns us here as the push for normalizing suicide, euphemistically called “death with dignity,” continues to gain traction in the modern world. In classical antiquity, suicide as a dignified death was accepted as a given. Often it was seen as the only dignified or honorable response to personal failure or tragedy. Hence Nero committed suicide (though he needed help) when the proximity of his overthrow became clear. Socrates committed suicide rather than flee or accept a lesser sentence when he was found guilty. Suicide for no reason at all was typically looked down on but, in general, suicide was seen as a noble and dignified response when the occasion called for it.

The Middle Ages rejected this. That backward writer Dante placed suicides in the 6th circle of his Inferno, a sin more serious than heresy and violence against others, bordering (literally) on blasphemy, but less serious than the sins of deception (since they involved greater malice). Suicide rates were far lower in the Middle Ages than today (1) (antiquity being difficult to measure). The reasons for this probably vary and are many, but several possibilities stand out.

First, suicide typically implies a negative view of the word. In pagan Antiquity most world-views tended to be fairly pessimistic. To Plato, the material world was a lesser shadow of the better, truer world of forms, and the body the mere prison of the soul. Philosophies like Epicureanism or Skepticism rested on the view that life was painful; at best, one could get by either by minimizing discomfort or taking no strong position on anything.Suicide itself rests on a strong hatred of the world. In the end, it is the refusal to see anything in the world worth living for, a refusal to love anything in the world enough to live for its sake. In a pessimistic world-view like pagan antiquity this was possible; in the Middle Ages, much less so.

Second, suicide differed in the pagan and medieval world because of how those societies dealt with suffering. In the ancient world the best to hope for was to get by minimizing pain, but nothing more. In the Middle Ages, the world was a meaningful place, the product of a divine mindand more, a place where that divine mind had actually shared in human suffering.Hence the explanation of one Franciscan preacher that this was why images of Christ were placed in Churches: that as people saw how their Captain and Lord had suffered for them, they would not hesitate to suffer for him as well. In the ancient world, no one would have thought of Zeus as having loved mankind enough to suffer for them.

Finally, the medieval world was convinced of the intrinsic moral worth of the human individual, made in the image and likeness of God. To say that his worth was intrinsic was to say that a man’s moral worth was not dependent on accidentals like his station in life, wealth, political success or failure. Hence, if he failed, he need not kill himself to maintain his dignity, nor would this be expected of him. His dignity was his not by his own merits, but by gift of his nature. Maybe this was why Dante put suicides as bordering on blasphemy– it was the ultimate denial of the goodness of the world, the command to love self and neighbor, and the rejection of the intrinsic dignity and value of human life.

In a pagan world, whether ancient or modern, when dignity depends on a human action, when a person must invent their own meaning in an objectively meaningless life, and especially when one has no basis for finding meaning in the midst of suffering, then suicide begins to look like a realistic option. And so suicide is increasingly looked at today not only as a realistic option, but even one to celebrate. It could scarce be otherwise to a modern world that cannot find meaning in the world or in suffering and that rejects the intrinsic dignity of every human being. In this sense, at least, the modern world is even more backward than the medieval.

(1) For a more strictly scholarly look on suicide in the Middle Ages, Alexander Murray has written extensively on the subject. For a brief article by him see, http://psychiatry.queensu.ca/assets/synergyfall12.pdf

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