“To be, or not to be, that is the question”: Shakespeare’s Hamlet
“While there’s death, there’s hope”
Giuseppe di Lampedusa, ‘The Leopard’
Sri Lanka is in turmoil and to write on anything else may leave one open to the charge of being a Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burns. But though clouded, other concerns and interests do not go away and so I share these perspectives in the hope they may be of some interest at least to a few readers. Albert Camus wrote in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” However, suicide, like death is not a subject much discussed in the public domain. What follows arises from reading ‘History of Suicide’ by Georges Minois: unless otherwise specified, page reference is to the above work. The book is admittedly Eurocentric, the subtitle being ‘Voluntary Death in Western Culture’. And Western culture breaks into two parts, the pre-Christian (pagan) and the Christian. Tolstoy begins his novel, ‘Anna Karenina’ with the philosophical generalisation that while happy families are similar, unhappy families are dissimilar, for different reasons. So too with suicide which ranges from the calmly rational (‘philosophic suicide’) to extreme states of emotion.
I’ve wondered what my moral reaction should be if I came across a person, middle-aged and above, about to commit suicide. No doubt, I would try to engage in conversation with the person, discuss and clarify matters, even remonstrate and expostulate, but should I attempt physically to stop that person? If we have the ‘right to life’, don’t we also have a ‘right to death’? There’s the tale of a philosopher who came across a fellow-thinker about to jump off a high bridge. ”Don’t”, urges the philosopher. “Why not?” challenges the colleague. They sit down on the bridge and discuss the subject. At the end, both jump. I am reminded of Durkheim’s classic ‘Suicide: A Study in Sociology’, 1897, in which he states that the higher the level of education, the greater the tendency to suicide. Psychologists, including Freud, have suggested that even as we have the ‘will to live’, so we have the ‘drive to death’, Thanatos, a wish to return to the peace of not-being. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet says, in certain cases the sleep of death is a “consummation” earnestly to be wished (Act 3, Scene 1). And Macbeth comments of King Duncan (whom he has just murdered): “After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well”. Nothing can touch him now. As I have written elsewhere, long life is seen as a blessing and is wished for others as for oneself, but too long a life is a curse. Handsome Tithonus was loved by the goddess Eos who begged her father Zeus, king of the gods, to grant him eternal life. But Eos forgot to specify youth as well, and so Tithonus wasted away and ended up a cicada, screeching and screeching to be set free from existence. A good life includes a good death, and a good death is a timely death. To misapply words from the 15th Century play, ‘Everyman’, we must “take good heed to the ending”. Recently I came across a very old lady in a wheelchair, seemingly unable to move any part of her body, staring into emptiness, plaintively, almost inaudibly, repeating, as if there were a tape-recorder within her: Ich kann nicht mehr! Ich kann nicht mehr! Ich kann nicht mehr! (“I can’t anymore. I can’t anymore. I can’t anymore”.) No one listened, and it was too late for her to free herself. She was trapped, not in life, but in a relentlessly worsening existence.
All the major religions (in alphabetical order: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam) oppose suicide: Shakespeare’s Hamlet wishes God “had not fixed
His canon against self-slaughter”. After all, the word suicide is made up of ‘sui’ (self) plus the suffix, ‘cide’ (murder). Even self-murder is murder. However, a distinction is made between suicide and martyrdom. A martyr is defined as someone who, fully aware of the consequence, advocates a belief or cause (or refuses to renounce it as demanded by an external party) and dies as a consequence. Martyrdom in a secular, political, cause is frequent and even while religion deplores suicide, martyrdom can be admired and applauded; even be seen as one of the grounds for sainthood. However, the author’s statement on page 26 that “Christianity’s founding event was a suicide” demands discussion.
Often, our definition of a term depends on our concept, and our concept on our mental and emotional affiliation. And so someone who undertakes a suicide attack may be seen and honoured as a martyr. One person’s fanatical terrorist is to another a self-sacrificing, courageous, martyr. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Samson who killed himself in killing many of the enemy is highly admired. Towards the end of the Second World War, Japanese pilots undertook kamikaze (“divine wind”) suicide missions. Their focus was not on themselves and their death but on the death and destruction they would cause the enemy in defence of their country. After Japan’s surrender, a few senior officers carried out “seppuku” or ritual disembowelment. The height of courage was to dispense with what traditional ritual permitted, namely, a coup de grace delivered by an assistant. Such suicide was partly to demonstrate that they themselves were capable of the courage and sacrifice they had asked of their men. Further, that it was better to die in honour than to live in dishonour.
In the past, some cultures ordered an individual to commit suicide. Perhaps, the most famous example is that of Socrates: see ‘The Phaedo’ written by his pupil, Plato. The last words of Socrates were that he owed a debt to Asclepius, the god of health and deliverance: life could become a disease from which he was about to be ‘cured’ by death. Herodotus in his ‘Histories’ records that the mother of Cleobis and Biton, proud and happy at the public acclaim of her two sons, prayed that they may receive the greatest of blessings. Her prayer was answered, and both young men were found dead in the morning. Returning to Socrates, was his death suicide or judicial murder? Shifting the ground somewhat, if a person (or persons) is pressured or persecuted to the extremity, is it suicide or murder disguised? What of the soldier who commits suicide because he knows capture would mean torture and death? Although Lucretia had been raped, her soul was pure and, therefore, she should not have committed suicide: see page 28.
We owe to Thomas More (1478-1535) the word utopia, an imagined perfect place or system. ‘Utopia’ (derived from the Greek and meaning ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’) was published by him in 1516. In Utopia, they look after the sick “so that nothing is left undone which may contribute either to their health or ease. And as for those who are afflicted with incurable disorders, they use all possible means of cherishing them, and of making their lives as comfortable as possible; they visit them often, and take great pains to make their time pass easily. But if any have torturing, lingering pain, without hope of recovery or ease, the priests and magistrates repair to them and exhort them, since they are unable to proceed with the business of life, are become a burden to themselves and all about them, and have in reality outlived themselves, they should no longer cherish a rooted disease, but choose to die since they cannot live but in great misery; being persuaded, if they thus deliver themselves from torture, or allow others to do it, they shall be happy after death. Since they forfeit none of the pleasures, but only the troubles of life by this, they think they not only act reasonably, but consistently with religion; for they follow the advice of their priests, the expounders of God’s will. But no one is compelled to end his life thus; and if they cannot be persuaded to it, the former care and attendance on them is continued.” (Deemed a saint by the Catholic Church, what Sir Thomas writes here must be taken cautiously because he uses devices such as irony, satire and litotes.)
In as much as the Greeks and Romans honoured not one but many gods and goddesses, so there was not just one attitude to suicide. “The Cyrenaic School, the Cynics, the Epicureans and the Stoics all recognized the supreme worth of the individual, whose liberty resided in the ability to choose whether to live or die” (page 43). The ‘good life’ was one that was lived in conformity with reason and human dignity. When this was no longer possible, it was foolish to conserve life (page 44). Marcus Aurelius, Emperor and Stoic philosopher, wrote that being a free tenant of his body, when the chimney begins to smoke he can choose to leave the room. “Imperial Roman law left citizens free to choose their death” (page 53). Told by his doctors that death was imminent, Aurelius thereafter calmly declined food and drink so as to hasten the inevitable. Altering and applying words from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’: He had taught and trained himself to throw away what is most precious to most (life itself) as if it were “a careless trifle” (Act 1, Scene 4).
The Christian attitude was ambivalent, if not contradictory. It scorned the physical and this worldly life; looked longingly for the beatitude of heaven and yet stood against any hastening of that sublime bliss. Indeed as the author shows, in medieval times the body of those who had committed suicide was sentenced to be tortured. The material possessions of such persons were confiscated, leaving his family destitute. (The suicide of those higher up in the social scale, as of members of the clergy, was passed off as an accident.) Minois explains that the church owned extensive tracts of land and slaves to work it. In 452, the Council of Arles condemned all suicide by slaves and servants, whatever the circumstance. “The servant who kills himself robs his master and owner; his suicide is an act of revolt” (pages 29-30). Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) wrote: “Whoever kills another’s slave, sins against that slave’s master” (see page 33).
It has been said that one who is not afraid of death can never be enslaved: self-liberation through self-annihilation. Descartes, to whom we owe the well-known “Cogito ergo sum”, declined to debate suicide on religious or moral grounds: to kill oneself was an error of thought. Minois urges that suicide must be judged situationally and not absolutely: and attempting to understanding does not necessarily mean one condones it. Rest shall we all.