Photo by Mohamed Nohassi
During the Second World War, my mother’s sister was a liaison officer in the resistance movement. She performed very important clandestine work. As she said herself, she wasn’t afraid of death, only torture. She had little resistance to pain, and was afraid she would betray someone or give away vital information. By some means, she came into possession of a potassium cyanide capsule. She took the poison when the Gestapo surrounded her home, having earlier set fire to one of the rooms, thus probably destroying some vital documents.—Anonymous letter to a Polish blog.
This is one of thousands of similar stories from those bleak times. A poison capsule was a guarantee of a final escape that neither the Gestapo nor the SS could prevent: an escape from torture, humiliation and a death deprived of dignity. It was no accident that the Third Reich scorned those who voluntarily gave up their own life. They even denounced the use of the word Freitod (“free death”), one of four German synonyms for the act we call suicide. The other three terms are Selbsttötung (“killing oneself”), the scientific Suizid and Selbstmord (“self-murder”). The Nazis preferred the latter. There was a loophole in the otherwise hermetically sealed totalitarian system—and the word Freitod showed its location. For the representatives of absolute power, there is nothing worse than the knowledge that their power has limitations, and, for the slave, nothing is more invigorating than the possibility of breaking free. In those days, a capsule of potassium cyanide gave many people a real sense of freedom.
Stigmatizing and Punishing Suicide
Antipathy towards suicide as a choice and as a manifestation of ultimate freedom was not unique to the totalitarianism of the Third Reich. It may seem absurd to attempt to punish somebody who is already dead but such punishments have been widespread throughout history. In ancient Rome, the punishment for suicide was the confiscation of all property. From the fifth century onwards, successive Church synods not only condemned but forbade suicide, imposing canonical penalties, such as depriving suicides of the right to a funeral mass or burial in consecrated ground or posthumously excommunicating them.
In England, the law punished suicides from as early as the mid-thirteenth century. As in Rome, the perpetrator’s property was confiscated and he himself was treated as a common criminal. Punishment for suicide was not abolished until 1961.
In France, from the fifteenth century onwards, suicides were treated in the same way as murderers. In 1670, Louis XIV ordered the bodies of suicides to be dragged around the city and then strung up or flung onto the rubbish tip. Their property was also confiscated.
In Austria, those who committed suicide had their bodies strung up, burned at the stake or broken on the wheel. They were also denied church funerals and their property was confiscated and their memories defamed. The Josephine Code of 1787 proposed that those who attempted suicide should be sent to prison until they expressed remorse and changed their behaviour.
There are many reasons why the bodies of those who took their own lives were so often mistreated: including tradition, an irrational fear of those who do not hesitate to choose death, a fear of their return as ghosts and a fear of divine anger. However, one reason that is rarely cited is the economic implications of suicide.
In taking his own life, the slave robs his master of his rights and property. By disposing of his life, he behaves like a free man. In the past, there was a widespread conviction that only the Maker could decide whether someone lived or died and that going against his will was blasphemy—and that the Maker’s close representatives, those next in power in the metaphysical hierarchy, could retain a small part of that holy power for themselves. The life of a slave or feudal serf had as much value as the work done by him, so the decision to end that life was an attack on property rights. By allowing the body of a suicide to be defiled and his property disposed of, the law was designed to discourage the act.
With the exceptions of Plato and Aristotle, most historical sources do not explicitly cite economics as the reason for draconian suicide laws. Similarly, few contemporary commentators justify the idealisation of an optimistic approach to life and an aversion to depression and other negative emotions, or the fashion for healthy lifestyles as trends designed to serve an economic system in which the value of an individual is measured by her productivity. Instead we find historical and theological arguments against suicide, together with current research of dubious quality, which forms the basis of a new theology. But if we want to understand suicide—which Albert Camus described as the one truly serious philosophical problem—we cannot consider it in isolation from economic reality.
Final Freedom for the Privileged
If the aversion to suicide was purely the result of respect for life, the aristocrats of ancient Rome would not have reserved the right to make such decisions about their own lives, while refusing that right to everyone else—even to the seriously ill. If the value of life had been paramount in ancient Rome, the senate would not have been able to grant people permission to part with it, nor would many people have availed themselves of that permission. Similarly, the option of honourable suicide, reserved for the nobility, would not have survived in Japan, where all other forms of taking one’s own life were severely punished. Finally, we would not describe the suicides of officers and aristocrats in our own cultural circles as honourable, nor would there be twice or three times as many suicides among that group as among civilians (a figure that is even higher among members of elite units). For more on this, see here, here and here.
Today’s ambivalence towards suicide, then, is part of the historical legacy of our culture. Sometimes, we regard suicide as an honourable solution to the inextricable situation in which a high-ranking representative of our society finds himself, but, more often, we are afraid of and despise suicide, especially when we suspect that it is the result of weakness or despair. The same representatives of the upper class who had previously stigmatised people who committed suicide didn’t hesitate to bite the poison capsule when it was the only way for them to retain their dignity and attain their freedom. Many high-ranking dignitaries of the Third Reich chose that path. Hermann Goering committed suicide solely because his demand to be shot was refused and because he considered death on the gallows dishonourable. The Nazi dignitaries chose Freitod in vast numbers, even though, shortly beforehand, they had strictly forbidden it to their subjects.
St Augustine’s Trap
Today, when medical advances have made it possible for human life to be extended long into its twilight—with all the suffering and loss of dignity that implies—many secretly dream of Freitod. But our attitudes have been shaped by centuries of treating suicides with contempt and desecrating their bodies, of subordination to those who decide what we can do with our own lives, and aversion to those who resolve to decide for themselves—and this has led to widespread disapproval and even outrage. Any suggestion of assisting those who wish to escape an inhumane situation is met with hysteria. However, there is no evidence that the early Christians had any problem with voluntary death. Indeed, many of them willingly ended their lives in the hopes of freeing themselves from this vale of tears and finding the heavenly happiness for which they longed.
The Donatists, for example, who were later considered heretics, committed mass suicide in order to free themselves from the curse of sin as soon as possible. They would even ask random travellers to deliver the fatal blow, sometimes threatening to kill them if they refused. Women committed suicide to avoid rape and the sin of impurity, and the first Church fathers praised such practices and considered suicide a martyr’s death. Early Christianity was a religion of death and early Christian society was more egalitarian with regard to suicide than any society before it.
The first person to try to stem this mass enthusiasm for death, which he feared would lead Christianity towards annihilation, was Saint Augustine. In his Meditations, he initially struggles with the paradox that one solution to man’s vulnerability to sin would be to die immediately after receiving the baptismal sacrament, in a state of sanctified mercy. But Augustine later came to understand the fifth commandment—thou shalt not kill—as also an injunction against killing oneself. That marked the beginning of the Christian aversion to and contempt for suicide, attitudes that were confirmed at the synod of Arles in 452. Successive synods in Braga, more than a hundred years later, then forbade suicide on pain of various penalties, of which excommunication was the severest.
More than one and a half thousand years later, the arguments of Saint Augustine are still constantly repeated—arguments which he formed under specific cultural and political conditions and which serve specific needs.
My aim here is not to campaign for a more liberal approach to euthanasia. I simple hope that some of my readers will realize that what they may have learned about suicide from their parents, religious instructors and parish priests may be wrong. Those attitudes were inherited from people who lived at times before the existence of the modern medical equipment and pharmaceuticals that can keep people alive for much longer than ever before. Their biggest problem was to keep Christians from killing themselves in pursuit of the promised eternal salvation.