Historical Suicide

Alan H Marks. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

The desire to commit suicide and the psychological and social pressures that help shape the suicidal context have varied over time by place, social position, and belief system. In many cases it may be fairly easy to understand the motivation that prompted the act, but understanding the dynamic processes that lead to self-intentioned death is certainly more challenging.

The suicidal death of an individual or a group of people has such important implications that a case of suicide often raises questions about the very quality of life experienced by someone who chooses to die. Suicide is the ultimate rejection of life. In addition, the act of suicide forces others to examine the meaning of life, including their own. Perhaps this is why Western society has generally condemned suicide. Socrates claimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living”; it may also be suggested that the examined life is not worth living.

The act of suicide creates an awareness of the tension that exists between individual rights and the degree of social control the community can legitimately exert over its members. Suicidal behavior encompasses individual psychotic episodes, rational calculation of the positive and negative aspects of living, and institutional forces that are, under certain conditions, actively promoted.

Attitudes toward suicide, which vary widely, are often associated with social position. Albert Bayet (1922) asserts that the moral judgments pertaining to suicide are of two kinds. The first of these, morale simple, based on religion and superstition, represents the simple primitive thought of the common man. The second is a more sophisticated view that evaluates the social consequences of an act; this morale nuancée is more prevalent among the better educated, or those who are capable of dealing with complex, ambiguous situations. The suicidal act is viewed within a social context, and social judgments are based on reason, an examination of the death, and consequences of the act. As rational thought increases and education improves in a society, heightened awareness and acceptance of suicidal behavior also occurs, even as the influence of religion, superstition, and magical thinking that condemns such behavior decreases (Fedden [1938] 1972:16-17).

Structural considerations regarding suicide influence a society’s acceptance of suicidal behavior. Obligatory suicide is rare in Western societies, but portions of a population may, in times of stress and crisis, be compelled to commit suicide. In non-Western cultures, obligatory suicide appears to be more common. Historically, the Indian custom of suttee and the ritualistic suicides of Japanese soldiers and kamikaze pilots during World War II serve as classic examples. When suicides occur within the context of institutional expectations, the people involved hold the greater good of the community to be more important than the life of the individual, and such suicides are identified as altruistic in nature and reinforcing of communal solidarity. Robin Fedden ([1938] 1972:18-26) describes several examples of institutional suicide; among the more interesting are customs that required widows, servants, and soldiers to sacrifice themselves when their masters died to ensure that they could be of service to those masters in the next life.

Personal reactions to life conditions, as opposed to societal obligations, are more common elements in most suicides. In these cases, suicidal behavior is a rejection of communal solidarity and represents the ultimate extension of individual expression over communal claims on the person. Of course, there exists also a hybrid form of suicidal behavior that incorporates elements of both institutional and personal influences. Examples of such cases are the terrorist suicide bombers of the Middle East, who are influenced by both religious ideology and political considerations.

Historical Overview

Primitive Reactions to Suicide

Magic and elementary forms of religious practices that have been identified in African tribes and among Australian aborigines eventually established a tradition of penalty against suicide that was later to have a direct effect in other parts of the world, especially in Western societies. Primitive societies considered suicide committers to be persons who had been wronged by the community, and they believed, for this reason, that the spirits or ghosts of such persons would seek revenge. Thus the corpses of suicide committers were often desecrated, because it was thought that a disfigured body would be transformed into a disfigured ghost, which could do no harm to the living. Sometimes the remains of suicide committers were disbursed in order to make it difficult for their ghosts to reconstitute themselves, thereby preventing them from exacting vengeance on the community. Occasionally, suicide victims’ bodies would be removed from close proximity to the community to prevent the ghosts from finding their way back to do harm.

Similarly primitive practices later became accepted customs in England, where suicides were branded with what Hoffman and Webb (1981) refer to as “marks of ignominy” (p. 374). It was believed that burying a suicide committer at a crossroads, driving a stake through the body, and placing a stone over the face would keep the spirit of the deceased confined, and just in case it were to arise, the spirit would become confused and not know which road to take to get back to its home (Fedden [1938] 1972:34-38).

Attitudes of the Ancient Greeks

In ancient Greece the act of suicide was generally held in low regard, in large part because of the works of four individuals whose views of suicide stemmed from their positions as priests, historians, and philosophers: Pythagoras (born circa 570 B.C.), Plato, (427-347 B.C.), Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), and Mestrius Plutarch (circa A.D. 45-125). All were opposed to suicide, and all were influenced by the religious beliefs of their times. Louis Dublin (1963) identifies the reasons these Greek thinkers were opposed to suicide:

Pythagoras and Plato regarded the individual as a soldier of God…. Pythagoras, therefore, forbade men “to depart from their guard or station in life without the order of their Commander”—that is of God….Plato also objected to suicide as an unnatural act, since man is his own closest friend and thus has no right to injure himself; moreover, suicide was cowardly and an offense against the State, which thus lost a citizen … Aristotle [agreed]… since men owe their lives to their country, for them to abandon life voluntarily is equivalent to a criminal neglect of their civic duty. Plutarch believed … true courage is shown in the manly endurance of suffering and that suicide, being an act of flight, is an act of cowardice and a deed unworthy of man. (P. 111)

Plato considered man to be God’s property, and, as such, man had no right to do away with something that was not his (his life). Plato thought that anyone who committed suicide would be contradicting God’s will and would lose the chance for a good life after death (Choron 1972:108-10). Plato argued that the state should, with a few exceptions, punish those who commit suicide, saying that “the graves of such as perish thus must, in the first place, be solitary… further they must be buried ignominiously in waste and nameless spots … and the tomb shall be marked by neither headstone nor name” (quoted in Choron 1972:110).

Aristotle supported Plato, describing suicide as a cowardly act that deprives the state of a citizen. For Aristotle, anything not granted by the state was forbidden by it. As the state did not grant people the right to self-destruction, if they committed suicide they were considered to be criminal. Whereas Homer considered suicide to be an alternative when life loses its meaning, Aristotle viewed suicide as an amoral act because it treats the victim unjustly (Choron 1972:110). Some of the arguments traceable to these early thinkers still hold within the contemporary experience, particularly those relating to the individual’s responsibility to God, to community, to family, and to him- or herself.

After Aristotle, a shift in ideology began to emerge. Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) and Zeno (336-265 B.C.), for example, advocated the strengthening of individuals’ ability to adapt to the changes inherent in life in order that they would be able to come to terms with death. Moreover, Epicurus thought that philosophers should take a more active role in influencing behavior. According to Epicurus:

Two great afflictions of man are the fear of the gods and the fear of death, this most terrifying of all ills is nothing to us, since as long as we exist, death is not with us, but when death comes, then we do not exist. Once this is understood, nothing stands in the way of man’s happiness, which consists of peace of mind and the health of the body. (Quoted in Choron 1972:113)

Zeno, founder of the school of philosophy known as Stoicism, believed that virtue is tantamount to the highest good. Basing his philosophy on the premise that one should live in harmony with nature, Zeno believed that the gods inevitably fix nature and the future, the universe is ruled by divine reason, and humanity has the capacity to be reflective and rational. For the “wise man,” or the person committed to reason, suicide is essentially a matter of pragmatics rather than a moral issue; one must be evaluative regarding life’s options. Indeed, Zeno thought that suicide may be reasonable in some instances, and his own life ended in suicide (Rosen 1975:10).

Stoicism marks a significant turning point in Greek cultural perceptions and evaluations of suicide. Stoicism also had a significant influence on the development of Roman thought and behavior, as I note in the following subsection.

Attitudes toward Suicide Among the Ancient Romans

The Stoics recommended suicide as a viable course of action if it is taken as an escape from evil. George Rosen (1975) quotes the Stoic philosopher Diogenes Laertius as follows: “The wise man will for reasonable cause make his own exit from life on his country’s behalf, or for the sake of his friends, or if he suffer intolerable pain, mutilation, or incurable disease” (p. 10). Seneca (4 B.C.-A.D. 65), a leading Stoic philosopher, argued:

The eternal law has decreed nothing better than this that life should have but one entrance and many exits. Why should I endure the agonies of disease and the cruelties of human tyranny, when I can emancipate myself from all my torments? No one is obliged to live….If life pleases you, live. If not, you have a right to return whence you came. (Quoted in Dublin 1963:114)

Contemplating old age, health, and suicide, this same philosopher wrote:

I will not relinquish old age if it leaves my better part intact. But if it begins to shake my mind, if it destroys its faculties one by one, if it leaves me not life but breath, I will depart from this putrid or tottering edifice. I will not escape by death from disease so long as it may be healed, and leaves my mind intact. I will not raise my hand against myself on account of pain, for to do so is to be conquered. But if I know that I must suffer without hope of relief, I will depart, not through fear of the pain itself, but because it prevents all for which I would live. (Quoted in Dublin 1963:114-15)

Motivated by a sense of honor to avoid humiliation, capture, and slavery, the Romans made frequent use of suicide. During the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Vulteius’s army was surrounded. After repulsing numerous attacks, it became clear that escape was impossible. Vulteius encouraged his men to kill themselves rather than suffer the humiliation of being taken prisoner, and more than a thousand men did so.

Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180) believed suicide to be an appropriate action if carried out in a reasonable, rational, nonhistrionic way. Among the Romans, mass suicides, hysterical suicides, and suicides due to imitation and suggestibility were not infrequent occurrences. Rosen (1975) relates the story of the young women of Miletus, who hanged themselves in great numbers. In response, the Milesians passed a law requiring that woman who committed suicide be transported to the burial site naked, with the rope wrapped around her neck. Given the public perception of shame and disgrace associated with such a display, the epidemic stopped.

Anton J. L. Van Hooff (1990) reports on the incidence of suicide among the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Barbarians. Among these data are supposed mythology, unsubstantiated reports, and valid cases of suicide. Referring to these valid cases as “hard reports,” Van Hooff presents figures on individual cases and on single incidents of mass suicide, reporting a total of 960 cases involving 9,639 individuals. Among these 960 cases were 564 events that included 8,256 self-killings verified as actual suicides.

Van Hooff (1990) notes that most of the information available about ancient times, especially among the Romans, probably reflects the perceptual biases of the recorders, who were more interested in the activities of the elite than in accurately reporting the incidence of suicidal behavior, especially among those of lesser social stature. As a result, suicide among the lower classes and women, especially older women, was likely underreported. Indeed, the data indicate that the ratio of males to females in Roman suicides was 24 to 1. An analysis of Greek suicide data, which Van Hooff believes are more accurate than the Roman data, indicates a ratio of fewer than 2 men to every 1 woman. Van Hooff notes that “old women are even less visible than women in general” (pp. 21-22) in these data. Only 5 reports of old women committing suicide were confirmed, compared with 49 confirmed reports on old men (pp. 31-33). The motivations for suicide among the lower classes, slaves, and women, Van Hooff notes, reflect the sense of despair common among minorities and the powerless.

Suicide Methods in Ancient Societies

According to some analysts, the method an individual uses to commit suicide depends on a variety of factors, including the level of technology available and the intentionality to commit suicide. As the data in Table 1 indicate, the Romans and Greeks sometimes committed suicide by starvation. This was considered a noble way to die—to starve oneself required determination and demonstrated perseverance. Suicide by starvation was not considered to be an impulsive act, and suicides of this nature were often celebrated as public events, in that the committers announced their decisions to die. Van Hooff (1990) reports that in ancient Greece and Rome 8% of those who committed suicide used this method. Most of these were older men.

The social significance of suicide in ancient times was also associated with the use of weapons such as knives, swords, daggers, and other cutting instruments. Men were more likely than women to commit suicide by using such instruments. Soldiers sometimes died by falling on their swords, by stabbing themselves, or by cutting their throats or other veins, or they would solicit a servant or friend to carry out the act. On occasion, physicians were called in to assist or to oversee the procedure. Women, on the other hand, most often chose to die by hanging or jumping (Van Hooff 1990:44).

In some cases, individuals who were intent on dying precipitated their deaths by provoking others into attacking them. Prisoners sometimes insulted or refused to cooperate with their captors, and soldiers sometimes purposely maneuvered themselves into hopeless battlefield situations. During periods in which Christians were persecuted, some Christians voluntarily surrendered themselves to the authorities, knowing they would be executed. Van Hooff (1990) reports one interesting account of mass suicide that occurred when Philip V conquered the city of Abydus in 200 B.C.: “The men stabbed their wives and children and after that themselves. Others burned themselves, jumped into wells, or hanged themselves” (p. 63). Such “suicides of siege” were not uncommon.

Suicide by fire, although rare, was almost always a dramatic public event that occurred as a result of circumstances beyond the immediate control of the victim. When an army overran and burned a city, for example, some of the defenders would throw themselves onto the fire rather than face capture.

The Romans held suicide by hanging to be a desperate unmanly act. An assumption of Roman law at the time was that if persons accused of crimes hanged themselves during the proceedings, they were probably guilty of the offenses with which they were charged. Grieving a person who died in this way was therefore considered inappropriate, because the action was thought to be an admission of guilt by one who was considered an enemy of society (Van Hooff 1990:69). Among the Greeks, in contrast, hanging elicited a less negative reaction, and Greek women were more likely than Roman women to hang themselves.

Jumping to one’s death was considered a desperate act of despair, grief, shame, and humiliation. Van Hooff asserts that hanging and jumping represent base actions that disfigure the body, and, for this reason, suicide by jumping was thought to violate notions relating to the individual’s dignity. Consequently, these methods of suicide were understood to be fit only for women, slaves, and those in the lower classes. Aristocrats, especially Roman aristocrats, were much more apt to employ the blade as a method of choice.

Motivations for Suicide

As the data displayed in Table 2 indicate, the ancient Greeks and Romans committed suicide for a number of reasons. According to Van Hooff (1990), each society held its own paradigm of suicide. In ancient Greece and Rome, shame, despair, and grief accounted for the majority of suicides. Additional reasons included exhibitionistic or ostentatious behavior, hatred, being tired of living, madness, a desire to bring a curse upon another person or country, and guilt (Van Hooff 1990:85). Among the leading motivations for suicide was necessity—that is, suicide was the only alternative in dire circumstances. In some cases, necessity took the form of the person’s being ordered to commit suicide by the emperor. Suicides for which the motivation was devotion were those associated with dying for one’s country, whereas those committed out of loyalty were associated with personal relationships, loyalty either to a leader or to a group.

Fedden ([1938] 1972:50-53) describes four major reasons individuals in ancient times employed suicide: (a) to preserve honor, (b) to avoid old age and infirmity, (c) to escape sorrow and bereavement, and (d) to serve ritualistic and sacrificial purposes. Although Fedden offers examples of each type, he asserts that the available data are skewed toward suicide among members of the upper class. He also notes that some of the common reasons given for suicide today were rare in ancient times:

What is particularly interesting is that two types common today—suicide from economic change, and suicide from depression—are extremely rare, too rare in fact to form categories of their own … Poverty, it seems, only becomes an adequate cause for suicide in a highly developed commercial or capitalistic civilization, where all values are apt to be chained to a money basis, and loss or lack of money means loss of respect, prestige, and a hundred other things … A man’s family, functions, and character could usually discount an empty purse [in ancient times]. (Pp. 53-54)

Van Hooff (1990) found that shame and despair accounted for a majority of suicides among the ancients. Shame is a personal emotional state, whereas despair relates to feelings of hopelessness, a state of mind often brought about by military defeats or calamities.

Most of the motivations for suicide found in ancient history continue to be documented in the literature. Considering the vast cultural, social, technological, and economic changes that have taken place during the past 20 centuries, it is perhaps remarkable that many oftencited reasons for suicide remain consistent. This suggests some continuity in the human condition and in the general problem of social structure and culture shaping the lives of people and the definitions and philosophies they construct to deal with living and dying. The reasons for suicide do not vary, but there is variation in the proportion of a population that is motivated toward such behavior as a result of social conditions and personal reasons.

Sanctions against Suicide

The ancient Greeks and Romans evaluated the act of suicide in part based on the reason for the act. Suicide committed for patriotic reasons or for reasons of loyalty and fidelity was to be admired. Suicide to avoid infirmity and old age was tolerated, whereas suicide committed for less noble reasons was condemned as an act of cowardice or insanity.

Sanctions against suicide took many forms. Sometimes the bodies of suicide victims would be disfigured, such as by cutting off the hand that delivered the fatal wound. Other restrictive sanctions existed as well. In Italy, for example, suicide was a crime if committed by slaves, soldiers, or criminals. The property rights of the state and its claim on its citizens were a practical economic consideration, and individuals who attempted suicide but failed to die were imprisoned.

Roman law may have unintentionally encouraged suicide among those who were to be executed by the state. With execution, the state confiscated the estate of the deceased, thus, to avoid pauperizing their families, some condemned persons died at their own hands. Suicide under these conditions also provided committers an opportunity to preserve some measure of dignity, so that their families could retain their social status.

Attitudes among Ancient Jews

Although Jews have been persecuted throughout much of history, suicide rates in this group have never been high. Dublin (1963) attributes the low rate of suicide among the Jews of antiquity to their belief in the sacredness of life, stating, “Suicide for Jews is unthinkable—and it is unthinkable because throughout the Old Testament runs the theme of the sacredness of life” (p. 102). In addition, one of the unintended consequences of persecution is that it promotes social cohesion and social solidarity within the persecuted group. These two factors have served to buffer Jews against suicidal behavior.

During the postbiblical era, however, the incidence of suicidal behavior among Jews increased. This was a time of political ferment, internal conflict, and a conflict with Rome that promoted violence. One of the largest mass suicides ever recorded occurred at Masada in A.D. 73, when Eleazar ben Jair, the leader of the Zealots, who had been under siege by the Romans, sensed that defeat was inevitable and encouraged the 960 men, women, and children remaining at Masada to commit suicide rather than be captured and executed, raped, and sold into slavery.

Josephus, the Jewish historian and warrior of the first century A.D., made no moral judgments about the events at Masada. He simply referred to it as “a miserable necessity.” However, Dublin (1963) claims that Josephus expressed admiration for the sacrifice by members of the Masada garrison and the contempt the residents held for death. During the siege of Jotphata, in which the Romans were defeating Josephus’s forces, his followers urged Josephus to commit suicide, indicating they would follow his example. However, Josephus espoused the traditional Jewish view about suicide:

Oh, my friends, why are you so earnest to kill yourselves? Why do you set your soul and body, which are such dear companions, at such variance? It is a brave thing to die in war, but it should be by the hands of the enemy. It is a foolish thing to do that for ourselves, which we quarrel with them for doing to us. It is a brave thing to die for liberty; but still it should be in battle and by those who would take the liberty from us. He is equally a coward who will not die when he is obliged to die. What are we afraid of when we will not go up and meet the Romans? Is it Death? Why then inflict it on ourselves? Selfmurder is a crime most remote from the common nature of all animals, and an instance of impiety against God our Creator. (Quoted in Dublin 1963:104-5)

Martyrdom among the Early Christians

The early Christians thought that if Jesus died for mankind’s original sin and baptism cleansed the individual’s soul of sin, and if the way to get into heaven was by avoiding sin, then it made sense to commit suicide before one sinned. The longer one lived, the greater the chance that one would commit sins, so killing oneself before one could sin guaranteed entrance into heaven and eternal peace. For these reasons, many early Christians committed suicide or offered themselves up to be martyred.

During periods of religious persecution, many Christians willingly met their fate. George Howe Colt (1991) describes many instances in which early Christians offered themselves up for execution. Volunteering for certain death is suicide, but for the early Christians it was also a road to martyrdom. Although the actual number of persons martyred in this way is not known, estimates range from 10,000 to 100,000 (Colt 1991:156). Because there were so many deaths, and because of the changing status of the Church within the Roman Empire, theologians began to rethink the relationship between suicide and martyrdom, and what had once been acceptable, even encouraged, was later condemned.

Sanctions against Suicide in the Middle Ages

It is possible to identify two distinct sets of sanctions against the taking of one’s own life in Western society; one stemming from the early position of the Church in this matter and one from the sociolegal prohibitions that emerged by the middle of the 14th century in England, an influence that was to have lingering effects on Western societies, including the United States, well into the latter half of the 20th century. In this section, I present an overview of the ecclesiastical canons and the sociolegal common law that defined suicide as self-murder to demonstrate the emerging control of social institutions over the behavior of citizens.

Ecclesiastical Canons Prohibiting Suicide

In 313 A.D., the Edict of Milan established Christianity as a legitimate and recognized religion within the Roman Empire, and by 325, Christianity had evolved to become the official religion of the empire. According to Fedden ([1938] 1972), prior to the third century, the religious standards of the Church were not in opposition to suicide. This position changed during the early Middle Ages, and for the next thousand years the Church’s attitude toward suicide can be described as hostile and condemning.

The Church’s moral interpretation of suicide began with Saint Augustine’s treatise The City of God, which was written from A.D. 413 to 426 After Augustine’s views and position statements were published, the Church moved to install sanctions against suicide. In 451 A.D., the Council of Arles, the first religious body to address this issue, declared suicide to be an act of diabolical possession. According to Minois (1999:29-30), the Council of Arles prohibited suicide for slaves and servants. In A.D. 563, the Council of Braga ordained that no religious rites were to be celebrated at the tomb of one who had taken his or her life and that no mass should be said for the repose of the soul; in addition, the body of a suicide victim was not to be treated with respect, because such a person was considered to have died in mortal sin. In 673, the English Council of Hereford denied burial rites to those who killed themselves. Twenty years later, in 693, the Council of Toledo declared that suicide attempters would be excommunicated (Colt 1991:158). In 1284, the Synod of Nimes denied burial in holy ground to those who committed suicide (Dublin 1963). Thomas Aquinas synthesized the arguments against any tolerance for suicide in his Summa Theologica (as cited in Grollman 1971:24):

  1. Suicide is against the natural inclinations of preservation of life and charity toward self.
  2. Suicide is a trespass against the community.
  3. Suicide is a trespass against God, who gave man life.

By the middle of the 5th century, the Christian Church had established a position in opposition to suicide; by the 13th century, with the work of Thomas Aquinas and others, the Church had developed a sophisticated rationale against suicide and had initiated acts of devaluation toward those who would commit suicide. These actions also were intended to cast shame and guilt on the family members of suicide committers. Such policies of social ostracism and condemnation continued into the 18th century. Confiscation of property, degradation of the corpse, and refusal of burial in consecrated ground were some of the expressions of this religious disapproval (Choron 1972; Rosen 1975; Phillips and Flora 2001).

According to Minois (1999:34), the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) mandated that the faithful must confess their sins at least once a year. Until A.D. 1000, confession of sins, penitence, and pardon were all conducted as separate processes. After the integration of these procedures during the 11th century, officials of the Church reasoned that this method would serve to buffer despair and inhibit suicidal behavior. Moreover, Church leaders believed that because priests had the power of absolution, no sane person would entertain thoughts of committing suicide. Suicide during this period continued to be understood as an act of diabolical possession. As Minois states, “There was no such thing as a sane suicide” (p. 41).

Between A.D. 400 and 1400, suicide was rare. Choron (1972) attributes this rarity to the severe sanctions the Church imposed and to the unified belief that the faithful would be rewarded with heaven. However, among the persecuted, including heretics, Jews, and Muslims, suicide was not rare (Choron 1972:24-25), and Christians considered to be sane who committed suicide received no mercy from the Church or community. Their corpses were often dragged through the streets, hanged, disfigured, and mistreated in numerous other ways as well (Minois 1999:34-39).

Social rank emerged as an important factor in suicide during this same period. According to Minois (1999), “Ordinarily suicide in the Middle Ages concerned the world of laborers (laboratories) above all others. It was peasants and craftsman who died by their own hand, often following a brutal worsening of their conditions” (p. 41). In many communities the property of a suicide committer was confiscated, so when someone died, surviving family members had a vested interest in the determination of the cause of death.

During the 15th century in Europe, a shift in worldviews began to take place, and a reawakening of intellectual curiosity began to take root. With these new perspectives, people’s understanding of the role of human beings in relation to others, to society, and to God underwent changes as well. As Choron (1972:26-28) notes, many thinkers began to discuss the topic of suicide. In Utopia, for example, Sir Thomas More reiterated the historical viewpoint that man had the right to dispatch himself if he considered life unbearable. In a direct, revolutionary repudiation of the Church’s position, John Donne argued in Biothanato that God is merciful enough to forgive the sin of suicide. And in The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1628, Robert Burton argued that God can forgive suicides; he also made a plea for tolerance of those who commit suicide, pointing out that individuals differ in their reactions to life circumstances. Despite such passionate pleas for constraint, civil and criminal views of suicide also underwent a change in orientation during this period.

Sociolegal Sanctions

According to Hoffman and Webb (1981), societies had penalties for suicide in place before the first laws prohibiting suicide were created in the late Middle Ages, during the early part of the 14th century (see also Rosen 1975). By the middle of that century, suicide as a legal form of murder was a part of the common law. As Hoffman and Webb note, as a felony, “the crime of suicide required both majority age and a sound mind. These same elements were part of the legal definition of attempted suicide, which was a misdemeanor” (pp. 372-73). First known as felo-de-se, or “felon of self,” the crime of suicide was thought to involve a breach of trust between a human being and his or her lord. The common law definitions of self-murder were determined by the punishments specified for the act of suicide (Hoffman and Webb 1981:373-77).

From the 13th through the 18th centuries, two types of punishment were administered in cases of suicide. The first type dealt with the body, whereas the second dealt with the property of the committer. Prior to the establishment of the English common laws of suicide during the late Middle Ages, the goods of those who committed suicide were transferred to their local lords. Once suicide was legally declared a felony crime, the issue of forfeiture of the deceased’s property to the state was firmly established. Hoffman and Webb (1981) note that perhaps the most important case in the establishment of suicide law was the 1565 case of Hales v. Petit, in which one Mr. Justice Brown ruled that suicide was criminal as “an offense against nature, and a thing most horrible. Also, against God, because a breach of the commandment; and against the king in that he has lost one of his mystical members” (p. 376).

During the period from 1580 to 1620, civil and religious authorities raised many questions about the crime of suicide. The results of this sociolegal debate included severe condemnation and punishment through the confiscation of property directed toward those confirmed in the courts as having committed suicide. But, as the noted English jurist Sir William Blackstone later observed:

No part of the personnel estate was surrendered before a finding of felo-de-se…was rendered after some type of inquisition. Consequently, forfeiture could be avoided if the inquisition authorities pardoned the offense by not finding felo-de-se and instead finding insanity or some other mitigating circumstance. In cases where no pardon was granted, all property was forfeited. (Quoted in Hoffman and Webb 1981:375)

This firm legal position on suicide may have been intended to capture the attention of commoners and aristocrats alike, but rank had its privileges. Suicides among the clergy and the nobility often were hidden or excused as acts of insanity, which allowed for the normal ceremonies and burials to take place without concern for the violation of sacred custom (Minois 1999:142-44). To demonstrate the extent of this class bias, Minois (1999:142-47) cites as one example the official determination that 6,701 English suicides occurred from 1485 through 1714. As Minois notes, this particular study is unique, given that the social class positions were known for each of the 6,701 suicide committers. Of the cases involving peers and gentlemen brought before the court, 67.2% were judged to have committed suicide, whereas 99% of the servants and apprentices, 94.1% of the laborers, 93.5% of the craftsman, and 86.6% of the yeomen were found guilty of violating the laws prohibiting suicide (Minois 1999:145). The suicide laws aside, the intervention of influential persons often helped to protect the reputations of nobles and clerics who died at their own hands and, in so doing, the status of the families of the deceased, who also avoided forfeiture of property to the crown. Such intervention secured the goodwill of the community toward these influential persons, but it also served to undermine the moral foundation of religious and secular arguments against suicide.

The 19th century is noteworthy in the history of suicide because it began an era of reform in opposition to suicide laws. No longer was suicide deemed simply a moral and legal issue. Some observers have noted that changes in suicide laws appear to correspond to shifts in the political economy. Two important issues can be identified: First, laws requiring the forfeiture of the property of suicide committers were thought to be an effective deterrent to suicide, and second, the transfer of property to the state through such forfeitures represented a source of wealth and power for the state (Hoffman and Webb 1981:377). However, the results of the suicide laws may not have been as beneficial to the state as anticipated.

From the 14th through the 18th centuries in England, despite official sanctions against those believed to be in violation of the suicide laws, “few offenders were arrested, prosecuted, convicted, or punished” (Hoffman and Webb 1981:377). If a coroner’s jury found that a committer was sane at the time of the suicidal act, the deceased could be denied Christian burial and his property could be confiscated, but the evidence reveals that coroners’ juries most often returned verdicts of temporary insanity in such cases. Fedden ([1938] 1972) observes that by the end of the 18th century, a finding that a suicide was other than the act of an insane person was extremely rare, a fact that generated much criticism from the leading legal minds of the period.

Within this context it is again important to note that the suicide laws were directed toward citizens of lesser social stature. Given that the coroners’ juries charged with determining whether a sane person had violated the law by committing suicide were made up of individuals of that same low social status, the public may have unwittingly been positioned to obstruct application of the suicide laws. Whatever the reasons, limited numbers of suicide cases were determined to be the actions of sane individuals. Those who were found to have been insane when they killed themselves received decent Christian burials, and their families avoided forfeiture of property and were able to collect the benefits of any existing life insurance policies.

As indicated above, the severity of the suicide law penalties and public resistance to the enforcement of these laws ultimately led to their abolition. The movement to reform the suicide laws that took place throughout the 19th century was a part of a much greater effort to reform or abolish those common laws considered to be antiquated and inconsistent with the rise of the English capitalist investment-oriented economy. This property-based reform of the laws sought to establish new and greater citizen rights, and this included the rights of those who took their own lives. As a significant part of this reform movement, passage of the Right to Burial Act of 1823 and the Abolition of Forfeiture Act of 1870 was to have great effects on the families of suicide committers by establishing their rights of inheritance (Fedden [1938] 1972; Hoffman and Webb 1981).

The Emerging Role of Social Science

The 19th century is notable for other changes as well, in that observers of human behavior began to apply the scientific method to their studies. Émile Durkheim ([1897] 1951) is acknowledged for his scientific approach to the study of social problems such as suicide, but it was Morselli’s treatise Suicide: An Essay in Comparative Moral Statistics ([1879] 1903) that laid the groundwork for the theoretical and empirical methods that Durkheim used so effectively. Indeed, Durkheim’s emphasis on the social forces that influence behavior provided a level of analysis beyond that of individual motivation or psychological reductionism. According to Durkheim, society deals with behavior such as suicide through mechanisms of social integration and regulation. Identifying four types of social conditions (altruistic, egoistic, anomic, and fatalistic), Durkheim argued that the rate of suicide varies inversely with the degree of social integration and regulation.

In Suicide and the Meaning of Civilization ([1881] 1970), Masaryk also employed the scientific method to understand the role of society and culture in determining the nature of human behavior. His contribution to understanding suicide lies in his emphasis on the nature of religion and a personal search for self-identity in humankind’s attempts to reconcile the old agrarian feudal social order with a newly emerging capitalist-oriented economy and the advent of the industrial era. This emergence of the application of the scientific method to the study of social problems filled an important void by providing the kind of knowledge essential for understanding the effects of social change and even promoting change in societal organizations. Armed with the new concepts, theories, and data being created in the developing social and behavioral sciences, members of the Progressive movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries promoted new ideas that continue to enrich the thinking of ordinary people.

Contemporary Attitudes toward Suicide

The contribution of statistical methods and theory construction and the emerging objectiveness of the social science method established the foundation for a value-neutral understanding of suicidal behavior. In the view of some analysts, increases in education, the decreasing influence of religion, and the psychosocial and psychiatric paradigms used to explain suicidal behavior also have tempered formerly condemnatory attitudes toward suicide.

However, some evidence suggests that centuries of condemnation of suicide have had long-term effects, especially among orthodox Christians and frequent church attendees, who appear to be particularly intolerant of suicide. In a survey conducted in 1973, I found that among respondents who scored high on religious orthodoxy, 25% agreed with the statement “Man has the right to take his own life,” whereas 70% of those who scored low on orthodoxy agreed with this statement (Marks 1973). Among frequent church attendees, 21% agreed with the statement, whereas 56% of those who had not attended church within the previous 30 days agreed. Ginsberg (1971) found that people in Reno, Nevada, thought of suicide as something that happens to people and not as something anyone intends. Among these respondents, suicide was associated with shame but not blame. In a survey conducted in Arkansas in the late 1980s, I found that the majority of those interviewed (69%) did not believe that an individual has the right to commit suicide (Marks 1988-89). The majority of the respondents in that study also associated mental illness and immoral behavior with suicide.

Although findings such as these are useful, these studies are limited in what they reveal and the extent to which the results can be generalized. Recent reports based on national survey data are perhaps more enlightening regarding public attitudes toward suicide. Indeed, the results of some relatively recent polls suggest that Americans are becoming increasingly tolerant of suicide. For example, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and the role of the state in regulating behavior are all topics of discussion and debate. Rational suicide, once a taboo topic, also is being discussed openly. Public opinion polls may be useful for helping social scientists to ascertain trends in people’s attitudes toward suicide and related topics.

Recent national polls pertaining to suicide (and euthanasia) have included questions regarding the role physicians should be allowed to play, if any, in assisted suicide. Polls that employ the word suicide rather than euthanasia generally show a lower level of acceptance of suicide among the U.S. population. By way of example: In the year 2002, Oregon was the only state that had legalized physician-assisted suicide. An ABC News/Beliefnet Poll conducted March 13-17, 2002, with a sample of 1,021 adults described the conditions under which the Oregon physician-assisted suicide law can be used and asked respondents whether or not they favor such laws. In this poll, 46% of the respondents said that they favor legalization of physician-assisted suicide, whereas 48% said they are opposed to such legalization. In a Harris Poll taken December 14-19, 2001, interviewees were asked, “Do you think that the law should allow doctors to comply with the wishes of a dying patient in severe distress who asks to have his or her life ended, or not?” In that case, 65% responded that they believe physician-assisted suicide should be allowed, whereas 29% of the respondents were opposed (Polling Report 2002).

Still, Americans appear to be less likely to support suicide for reasons other than terminal illness. The fact that people often make moral judgments as to the conditions under which suicide may occur only enhances the difficulty of creating a rationale through which we can understand suicidal behavior. At issue is whether the state, a professional group, or any individual should be allowed to determine whether and under what conditions suicide may be permissible. These are essential issues that will undoubtedly become increasingly important in the future.


The religious, legal, and social propriety of self-intentioned death has been under scrutiny for the full span of recorded history, and the public debate that first began over suicide late in the 16th century continues to the present. Once considered a crime, suicide has been decriminalized, in part as the result of philosophies that were first developed during the 16th century. This official decriminalization, however, has failed to silence secular and religious debates over the nature of suicide: whether it is an act of derangement or whether it may, under certain conditions, actually be a symbolic act of dignity and grandeur. In an epilogue to his book History of Suicide titled “From the French Revolution to the Twentieth Century, or, From Free Debate to Silence,” Minois (1999:302-28) argues that despite the vast array of knowledge generated through the efforts of social and behavioral scientists, the central question surrounding the right to engage in self-destructive behavior has yet to be settled. In the early years of the 21st century the suicide question remains, albeit under the guise of a different issue. The case of human suffering and euthanasia has become the central focal point of public debate and social conflict concerning individual rights and the collective good. On this matter Minois states:

In spite of everything that the moral and political authorities can do, the problem of suicide is recurring today through the extreme case of euthanasia. Moral leaders continue to assert that suffering, even excruciating, incurable suffering, has a positive value; political leaders fear backsliding. This is why thousands of human beings who are dehumanized by intolerable suffering are condemned to live. (P. 328)

Minois concludes his powerful work on the history of suicide by raising a question that seems to capture the essence of a pressing contemporary issue. Despite its long historical legacy, the act of self-destruction remains a matter of secular, legal, and religious concern and will undoubtedly continue to serve as a focal point of interest. The question that Minois raises is this: “In the difficult mutation that values are undergoing today, should not debate on bioethics also work to create a thanato-ethics?” (p. 328).

Perhaps the philosophy of Stoicism may yet serve us well in our attempts to understand what continues to be a most contentious issue. Thus, for those individuals committed to reason, suicide may indeed be a matter of pragmatic thinking rather than a moral issue. In some instances, suicide may be a reasonable alternative to living.