Suicide: A Sin, a Disease, a Vampire or All Combined - II
By Mohammad Ashraf Chaudhry
Pittsburg, CA

Did the church ban suicide in as unequivocal terms as did Islam? A. Alvarez writes that the Church had difficulty in rationalizing the ban on suicide since “neither the Old nor the New Testament directly prohibits it”.
There are four suicides recorded in the Old Testament - Samson, Saul, Abimelech and Achitophel -, and none of them earns adverse comments. “In the New Testament, the suicide of even the greatest criminal, Judas Iscariot, is recorded as perfunctorily… it is not added to his crimes, but is described as a measure of his repentance”.
The Church legislated against it in the sixth century. “Thou shalt not kill”. St. Augustine arguments were sharpened by the suicide mania which somehow became very fashionable with the early Christians. “Since life itself is the gift of God, to reject it is to reject Him and to frustrate His Will; to kill His image is to kill Him-which means a one-way ticket to eternal damnation”. This belief re-echoed in Islamic civilization later.
GLAMORISATION OF SUICIDES: Suicidal acts would never have gained glory and dignity had they not been glamorized out of proportions. A Roman holiday involved the slaughter of, literally, thousands in gladiatorial shows. After the Spartacus uprising, the crucified bodies of six thousand slaves lined the road from Rome to Capua like lampposts. In Christian Europe, executions replaced the Roman circuses.
An execution was like a fun fair. In Paris, the Morgue was a tourist attraction where the corpses were displayed like the waxworks at Madame Tussaud’s. After wars, the battlefield looked like a butcher’s shop. The paradise of the Vikings was Valhalla, “The Hall of those who died by violence”. Next to death in the battlefield, was death by suicide.
According to one tradition, suicide was promoted as a religious principle. “There is another world, and they who kill themselves to accompany their friends thither, will live with them there”. In some African tribes warriors and slaves would kill themselves to death when their king died, in order to live with him in paradise. In Hindu suttee a wife burned herself to death on the funeral pyre of her husband with similar expectations.
Tribes as far apart as the Iglulik Eskimos and the people of Marquesas Islands believed that a violent death was a passport to paradise. Ancient Scythians regarded it as the greatest honor to take their own lives when they became too old, thereby saving the younger members of the tribe both the trouble and the guilt of killing them. Suicide gradually became a matter of general pleasure than of principle: one sacrificed a few days or years on this earth in order to feast with the gods eternally in the next. Some extremists in Islam who are in the business of suicidal attacks on the civilians also follow this kind of twisted doctrine.
Some die because they begin to think that life is not worth living. Suicides of this kind, according to Alvarez, are thought to be an index of high civilization. He cites the examples of Tasmanian aborigines who died out not just because they were hunted like kangaroos for an afternoon’s sport, but also because a world in which this could happen was intolerable to them; so they committed suicide as a race by refusing to breed. Similarly, hundreds of Jews put themselves to death at Masada rather than submit to the Roman legions.
More extreme still, the history of the Spanish conquest of the New World is one of deliberate genocide in which the native inhabitants themselves cooperated. The treatment at the hands of the Spaniards was so cruel that the Indians killed themselves by the thousands rather than endure it. A whole cargo of slaves contrived to strangle themselves in the hold of a Spanish galleon where it was impossible to do so, but they did it by squatting or kneeling. Out of the two million original inhabitants of Haiti, fewer than one hundred and fifty survived as a result of the suicides and slaughter.
The Romans turned the ancient world’s toleration of suicide into a high fashion. Socrates makes such death infinitely desirable. He himself drank the cup of hemlock gleefully. Plato suggests that if life itself becomes immoderate, then suicide becomes a rational, justifiable act. To him, painful disease or intolerable constraints were sufficient reasons to depart. Stoics after a hundred years of Plato, made suicide the most reasonable and desirable of all ways out. Epicureans also joined them because they too treated life as indifferently as they treated life. Zeno the founder of this cult hanged himself due to sheer irritation of his wrenched finger. John Donne’s list of notable suicides of the classical world runs into three pages.
As stated earlier, with the Romans, a soldier was considered a state property, and thus, his suicide was tantamount to desertion. According to Frazer, ‘at one time people would offer themselves for execution to amuse the public for five minae, about 50 pounds, the money to be paid to their heirs. The market was so competitive that the candidates would offer to be beaten to death rather than beheaded, since that was slower, more painful and so more spectacular”, writes Alvarez. Suicide had never been thoroughly condemned. It always found a soft corner though many a ‘buts’, and ‘ifs’.
Even Dante puts the suicides reluctantly in the grimmest cantos of the Inferno, saying, “What the church condemns, no poetry can exonerate”. John Donne always regretted, but he did write a defense of suicides; Morselli, a 19th Century sociologist underpins the general attitude, “A corpse is a corpse… all that matters is the dignity of the act, a stylishness in dying.” Francis Bacon does not distinguish morally between death by suicide and death from natural causes. Such treatment to this sickness kept the fad alive in the past, as it is being sustained now under different names, some political, some religious, some cultural, and some social and economic. (To be continued)



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.