Suicide In Early Times And Among Primitive Peoples by S.A.K. Strahan 1893
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Here glance at self-destruction as it occurred in past times among the natives of the far East: the Brahmins and Buddhists. Next consider very briefly suicide among the ancient Jews. And finally, see how often and under what circumstances voluntary death was embraced by the Greeks, Romans, and other early European peoples.
THE BRAHMINS [Hindus].
The teachings of Brahmanism could not do other than favour the commission of suicide. The Brahmins held that the soul was loaded with a certain amount of sin which had to be got rid of before the cleansed soul could return to the great spirit Brahma, of which it was a part. With them there was nothing individual in the soul. It was merely a part of the great spirit separated therefrom for a purpose, and when that purpose was effected it merged once more in the divinity of which it was a part.
With the Brahmins the purification of the soul was not the rapid and easy process it is in some systems of religion. With them it was only effected by tribulation and suffering experienced, and religious observances practised, through a whole series of earthly pilgrimages. The doctrine of transmigration held that the soul was sent back from Brahma again and again, until, at length, by repeated purging it became sufficiently pure to be received into its divine source.
The natural consequence of this teaching was a contempt for life and a desire for death. To the Brahmin the body was a mere covering for the soul during its pilgrimage on the earth, and was accounted of no value. Life itself was but a period of servitude and suffering in consequence of sin, and was also valueless. Life, in fact, was a curse—a thing to be got rid of as soon as possible. The one aim and object was to have done with life and the world, and get back to rest in Brahma. This, however, could only be attained by a certain number of painful earthly pilgrimages, becoming less painful as the soul became purer. As a consequence of this belief, when the Brahmin thought he had gone some way in the purification of his soul by prayer and other spiritual exercises, he hurried from the world. By this act he not only shortened the period of separation from God, but he entered upon a purer and happier life in his next incarnation than the life he gave up. "Numbers of persons who felt themselves doomed to many more transmigrations in penalty for sins, and were dissatisfied with their present, condition, would commit suicide in the hope of improving it by the next incarnation, for of the sinfulness of suicide there appears not to have been the slightest suspicion."
With the diseased and otherwise afflicted, as would naturally be expected, suicide was even more common than with the healthy. They had a double incentive to the act. Not only did these by death get one step nearer that "consummation devoutly to be wished," but they rid themselves of suffering which made life intolerable, and which they stood a fair chance of not having to endure in their next appearance upon the earth. Thus, lepers and other diseased persons among the Hindus destroyed themselves in immense numbers annually, partly on religious grounds, and partly to rid themselves of an existence which their sufferings had made unbearable. Of the thousands who annually sought and found an end of life in the Ganges and other sacred streams, or beneath the wheels of the car of juggernaut, a majority were probably the victims of religious fanaticism; but it is certain that a large proportion were driven [to the act by physical suffering. Indeed, at the present day it is the regular custom for those attacked by an incurable disease, or by a tedious and painful illness, to make an end of their lives in some sacred stream.
Drowning appears to have been the mode of death most commonly resorted to by the Hindus in the past, as, indeed, it is at present. For special reasons, however, and in certain districts, other modes were at times followed. The author just quoted relates how the difficult feat of self-decapitation was performed in a certain district. This authority was informed that "there existed formerly at a village near Nudeeya, an instrument which was used by devotees to cut off their own heads. It was made in the shape of a half moon, with a sharp edge, and was placed at the back of the neck, having chains fastened at the two extremities. The infatuated devotee, placing his feet in the two stirrups, gave a violent jerk, and severed his head from his body."
Fire was frequently resorted to by the natives all over India as a means of self-destruction; more especially by lepers and other diseased persons. The general belief was that lepers and others dying of their disease were afflicted with the same disease in their next appearance on the earth; whereas, those who cast themselves in the fire and so perished were cleansed of the disease, and appeared in healthy bodies in their next incarnation. This belief caused great numbers of suicides by fire, as did also the observance of the Suttee. In this latter form of self-sacrifice the widow was consumed on the funeral pile along with the body of her deceased husband; but, as we shall see later on, this sacrifice was not by any means voluntary in even a majority of cases.
Several other modes of destroying life were practised by the Hindus; among others may be mentioned precipitation from heights, burial alive, and starvation. Nevertheless, drowning was at all times the most favourite mode of quitting life adopted by the Brahmins.
Buddhism took no more cheerful view of life than did the earlier religion. With the Buddhists life was a calamity just as it had been with their predecessors; and the faithful were ever ready to give it up. The Buddhist stood to gain by death even more than the Brahmin, and as his estimate of the value of life was no higher, self-destruction was still more common among the followers of Buddha than it had been before the promulgation of the new religion.
By the Buddhists suicide is looked upon even in the present day as justifiable under almost any circumstances. There are, it is true, some few suicides which are looked upon as dishonorable in China: as those arising from gambling and the like. But all through China and Japan, indeed everywhere that Buddhism has penetrated, human life is held as of little or no value, and suicide is committed on the slightest provocation imaginable, or without provocation at all. With the followers of Buddha life is a penance, and death the doorway to eternal Joy; consequently it is not surprising that they are ever ready to take leave of life on the slightest pretext. An insult, for instance, or some trivial affront, is, among the Chinese and Japanese, frequently followed by the death, not of the aggressor, but of the offended one, who performs hara-kiri upon himself, and goes direct to his god with eclat, leaving his assailant whatever infamy may attach to the transaction. Religious fanaticism reaches a level of development among the Buddhists almost beyond belief. To-day, both in China and Japan, immense numbers of infatuated devotees destroy their lives amid their singing and feasting relatives, in the firm belief that they go direct to Buddha. Travellers tell how, in Japan, when a man has made up his mind to quit life, he invites all his friends, and tells them of his resolve. He then induces as many of them as he can—usually several—to die with him; then a feast is arranged, and at its conclusion the devotees despatch themselves in the sight of their assembled friends.
Charlevoix [Historie du Japon] says:—"Nothing is more common than to see boats filled with fanatical worshippers lining the shore, who weight themselves with stones, and plunge into the sea, or scuttle their vessels, and sink with them beneath the waves, all the while pouring forth glad hymns to their idols. A crowd of spectators standing looking on, praise them to the skies, and entreat their blessing before they disappear. The votaries of Amida immerse themselves in caves having only one small breathing hole and barely sitting-room, where they quietly wait death by starvation. Others plunge into sulphur pits, invoking their gods and entreating them to graciously accept the sacrifice of their lives." Of course, this account is a century old; but at the present day suicide is shockingly common with both Chinese and Japanese, who practice drowning, hanging, hara-kiri or belly-rip, starvation, and many other modes ol voluntary death.
It is interesting to compare the foregoing account of Charlevoix with that of Eleazar in his speech to the garrison of Massada eighteen centuries earlier. The Jewish leader said, "What shall we say to the Indian philosophers and Brahmins? a wise and virtuous sort of people. They look upon life only as a necessary function of nature; an office which they discharge uneasily enough, and not without some impatience to be quit of the trouble. And they are not weary of life either, upon the account of pain or inconvenience; but for the love of immortality, and a blessed conversation that shall never have an end. Nay, they take solemn leave of their friends, too, as if it were but for a journey, and tell them when they are agoing; neither does anybody offer to hinder them; but, on the contrary, wish them happy, and send formal messages by them to their acquaintances, in a full and certain confidence that they understand one another. And so when they have received all their orders and instructions, they commit their bodies to the fire, as a preparatory purification, and go off with acclamations, and to the satisfaction of all the spectators. For among them friends follow one another more cheerfully to death than they would do to a long journey; joying with those that are now entering into a state of immortality, and only lamenting the rest that stay behind. What a shame it will be for us now to fall short of the Indians in a matter of this importance." [Josephus: "Wars of the Jews," 1. vii., c. 28.]
This description of suicide in India was written more than eighteen hundred years ago, yet it might have been written yesterday of many of the back stations in British India. It may appear at the first glance ridiculous to include such
suicidal exhibitions as those mentioned above under the head of religious suicides; but if we recognise that these creatures are actuated by exactly the same ecstatic spirit which prompted the Christian martyrs to provoke persecution and seek death, and die at the stake when a word would have saved them, and then leap into the flames crying to their God for joy that they were dying to His glory, it will not appear ridiculous.
Suicide was not apparently so common among the early Jews as it came to be later on. It would seem that suicide was commonest among this people about the beginning of the Christian era. Strange to say, there are but four suicides
mentioned in the Old Testament as at present arranged.
The first suicide recorded in the Bible is that of Samson. In his case the act was that of a man driven to revengeful fury by the indignities and cruelties of his persecutors. He was not so much actuated by a wish for his own death as by a burning desire for revenge upon his persecutors. That this was so is proved beyond doubt by his prayer, uttered immediately before the fatal act "O Lord God," he said, "remember me, I pray Thee, and strengthen me, I pray Thee, only this once, O God, that I may at once be avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes." And as he took hold of the pillars, he cried, "Let me die with the Philistines." Clearly his object was revenge, although it is doubtful whether he cared much for his own life. Shorn of his grandeur, and deprived of his sight, he willingly gave what remained to him of life for that one moment of sweet revenge when he felt that he was wreaking vengeance upon his brutal persecutors.
The second and third suicides of Holy Writ are those of Saul and his armour-bearer. These clearly belong to the same class as does Samson's; that is, they were committed not for love of death, but from force of external circumstances. Samson died that he might gain something dearer than life—revenge; Saul and his follower died that they might escape something worse than death—falling into the hands of the enemy. Saul was retreating from a lost field when he was "sore wounded of the archers." Rather than be captured by the enemy, he called upon his armour-bearer to kill him. This request not being immediately complied with, the leader fell upon his sword and died; whereupon the armour-bearer, in imitation of his master, and actuated by the same dread of capture, despatched himself. (1 Samuel xxxi. 4.)
The fourth and last suicide recorded in the Bible is that of Ahitophel, and is of the same class as the preceding. Having fomented rebellion in company with Absalom, this cunning and designing man hanged himself to escape the consequences of his unsuccessful treachery; as many possibly had done before, and certainly have done since. (2 Samuel xvii. 23)
The case of Abimelech was virtually one of suicide, although it is not generally reckoned as such. Having had his skull broken by a stone flung from a height by a woman, this leader was despatched at his own bidding that he might escape the humiliation of dying by the hand of a woman. "A certain woman cast a piece of a millstone upon Abimelech's head, and all to break his skull. Then he hastily called unto the young man, his armour-bearer, and said unto him, Draw thy sword, and slay me, that men say not of me, A woman slew him. And his young man thrust him through, and he died." (Judges ix. 53, 54)
In the Apocrypha [2 Maccabees xiv. 42, 46] we-are given a detailed account of the truly terrible suicide of Razis. This case, while showing with what determination defeated Jewish leaders sought death, also makes it clear that the Jews looked upon such suicides as that of Razis with favour.
When Nicanor's soldiers had broken the stronghold in which Razis and his troops were besieged, and nothing but defeat and surrender lay before them, Razis, fearing capture, threw himself upon his sword, "choosing rather to die manfully than to fall into the hands of the wicked, to be abused otherwise than beseemed his noble birth; but missing his stroke through haste, the multitude also rushing within doors, he ran boldly up to the wall, and cast himself down manfully among the thickest of them; but they, quickly giving back, and a space being made, he fell down in the midst of a void place. Nevertheless, while there was yet breath within him, being inflamed with anger, he rose up, and though his blood gushed out like spouts of water, and his wounds were grievous, yet he ran through in the midst of the throng, and standing on a steep rock, when, as his blood was not quite gone, he plucked out his bowels, and taking them in both his hands, he cast them among the throng, and calling upon the Lord of life and spirit to restore him them again, he thus died."
In the case of Eleazar and those who took refuge with him in Massada after the capture of Jerusalem by Titus, we have an example of a whole Jewish garrison choosing death before submission. As related by Josephus, ["History of the Wars of the Jews," 1. vii., c 28] this leader and a few thousand soldiers and followers were, in A.d. 70, besieged in the stronghold named Massada, by the Romans under Silva. When the Jews saw that they could not repulse their enemies, and that defeat was certain, they decided to die by their own hands rather than surrender to those without the walls. "The wall, however, being consumed to the ground, and no hope or possibility left of safety or relief, the only brave thing they had before them was to consider how they might deliver their wives and children from the ignominious outrages they might expect from the Romans whenever they became the masters of the place. Eleazar concluded, upon the balancing of this question, that a glorious death was infinitely to be preferred to a life of infamy, and that the most generous resolution they could take in the world would be, not to outlive their liberties."
Having come to this conclusion in his own mind, Eleazar called together his people and eloquently harangued them upon what he considered their duty to their families and to themselves, namely to kiil themselves and their families. His first address did not convince all who heard him of the wisdom of the course advocated; but a second and more powerful appeal brought the whole assembly into agreement with their leader, and they fell to butchering their wives and children, preparatory to destroying their own lives. In describing the scene, Josephus says:—"Such was the passion these people had for the destruction of themselves and their families that not one man of them shrank when they came to execution. They kept up their dear and natural affection to the last, upon an opinion that they could not do their friends a better office. They took their last leave of their wives and children in their arms, with a kiss and a stab. . . . This was a miserable necessity, but they were driven upon it by a miserable choice; for the destroying of their wives and children (as it appeared to them) was the least evil they had before them." After this slaughter they gathered together their portable property and burnt it, and then, "choosing ten men by lot out of their number to do execution upon all the rest, they ranged themselves as near as they could to the dead bodies of their friends, gave them a parting embrace, and cheerfully presented their throats to those who were to do the inhuman office. So soon as the ten had, with a mighty resolution, discharged their part, they cast lots among themselves which of the remaining ten should despatch the other nine, with a condition that the surviving tenth man should kill himself upon the bodies of the rest, such a confidence had these people in one another. The nine died with the same constancy as the rest. The last man overlooked the bodies, and finding that they were all stark dead, set fire to the palace, and so cast himself upon his sword among his friends. . . . The number of the slain was nine hundred and sixty, reckoning women and children into the account"
Even to the Romans, who were accustomed to self-destruction, this carnage was startling. Of all in the stronghold, only two women and five children who had hidden in an aqueduct survived. These "told the Romans the whole story, which was so incredible, however, that they could not believe it. But betaking themselves to the quenching of the fire, and following their way up to the palace, they found such a carnage of dead bodies, that without insulting and rejoicing as enemies, they brake out into admiration at the generous greatness of the Jews' minds, the steadiness of their counsels, and the obstinate agreement of such a number of men in the contempt of death." [History of the Wars of the Jews," 1. vii.]
Josephus, who relates the above, came very near to disappearing in a like slaughter. About the same time, when leading the Jewish army against the Romans, he and his soldiers were besieged in Jotaphat When the commander saw that his position was hopeless, he decided to surrender to the enemy. With this, however, the troops would not agree, and with threats urged upon their leader the higher and nobler course of self-destruction. In reply Josephus addressed the army in a most eloquent and able speech upon the baseness and wickedness of suicide. He could not, however, convince his soldiers, and they proceeded to cast lots and to kill each other until only the leader and one other remained. When Josephus found himself in this position he argued the case once more with his sole companion, and finally they agreed that both should live, and gave themselves up to Vespasian, the leader of the victorious Romans.*
From all these records of suicide among the Jews, sacred and profane, together with the fact that suicide is nowhere in the Bible specifically mentioned as a sin, or even a misdemeanour, it is evident that among the Jews self-destruction was considered justifiable under very easy circumstances. It is true that, according to Josephus, the Jews did not bury the bodies of those who had killed themselves until after sunset; but of this rule or law I don't think we have any other proof than the passing mention by Josephus. We know that there was an Athenian law to this effect, and possibly Josephus may have been thinking of it when he wrote. Donne accepts the existence of the custom among the Jews, but says it was clearly used to deter men from suicide rather than to punish the commission of the act. That no indignity was shown the body of the suicide by the Jews of an earlier period, is proved, by the fact that the body of Ahitophel, who, having "set his house in order," killed himself in cold blood, was buried in his father's grave. [2 Samuel xvii. 23.] This would not have been done had his voluntary death been looked upon as in any sense a grave offence against the law, either moral or civil.
THE GREEKS AND ROMANS.
Among the early Greeks suicide was rare, and it was not until they became contaminated by Roman teaching that it became common. Their religious teaching, unlike that of their Asiatic contemporaries, was strongly opposed to self-destruction. While a pure and virile people, they looked upon it as a most heinous crime, and laws existed which heaped indignity upon the body of the suicide. By an Athenian law the body of the suicide was not buried until after sunset; and the hand was cut from the body and buried apart, as having been a traitor to its owner. It was not permissible to burn the body of the suicide.
The only suicides ever spoken of with respect or anything approaching commendation by the early Greeks, were those of a purely patriotic character, like those of King Codrus and Themistocles, who were both considered patriots. Codrus, when the Heraclidae invaded Attica, went down disguised among the enemy with the intention of getting slain, and, having picked a quarrel with some of the soldiery, succeeded. The reason for this insane act was that the Oracle had pronounced that the leader of the conquering army must fall; and the king sacrificed his life that his troops might be victorious and his country saved. Themistocles, another of the few cases of suicide which the Athenians condoned, is supposed to have committed suicide rather than lead the Persians against his own people.
This spirit, however, and the laws which it had created, began to fade and fall into disuse with the rise of the philosophic school. The Sophists, declaring that the gods had been invented by some clever statesman to overawe the people (Critias), preached the new doctrine of individual liberty. They taught that the gods were myths, that man's reason was his only guide, and that guided by conscience and reason, he had absolute freedom as to his own life and death. With this teaching, which was accepted by many, suicide, as would be expected, soon lost its old criminal character, and came in time to be looked upon not only as a legitimate, but as an honourable mode of quitting life.
This doctrine of individual freedom was enlarged and maintained by the Cynics, many of whose greatest philosophers voluntarily quitted life, when from any cause they thought a continuance of life undesirable. Thus Diogenes, whom Plato called the "mad Socrates," destroyed himself, as did many of his followers, among whom might be mentioned Stilpo, Menedemus, Onesicratus, Metrocles, Demonax, and Peregrinus.
With the Stoics, who followed the Cynics, suicide was made a dogma, and the utter worthlessness of life was preached on every opportunity. The Stoics lived severe, moral, and useful lives; but when, from any cause, they found life intolerable or even displeasing, they promptly quitted it In this way died the founder of the school, Zeno, his successor, Cleanthes, and many others of its most notable leaders.
The Epicureans, from a lower platform, preached the same freedom to terminate life when it ceased to give pleasure. If was from the Stoic and Epicurean schools that what might be called rational suicide spread to Rome, where it found a congenial soil in a deteriorating people.
The teaching of the Stoics and Epicureans was adopted by some of the greatest scholars of Rome, and soon was common as it was fashionable. Seneca, the tutor of Nero, was one of the most ardent and powerful advocates of suicide. His scheme of life may be summed up in his own words, "Does life please you? live on. Does it not? go from whence you came. No vast wound is necessary; a mere puncture will secure your liberty."
During the centuries immediately preceding and those following the opening of the Christian era, voluntary death was at its worst in Europe. Broadly speaking, the teaching of all the philosophers, orators, and poets of the time, was that suicide was not only justifiable, but that it was a noble and courageous act. Among the propagators of this doctrine might be mentioned Zeno, Plato, Cleanthes, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, the elder Pliny, and a host of others.
Of the great men of pagan Europe it might be said that most of them died by their own hands. In this way died Lycurgus, Charondas, Themistocles, Demosthenes, Aristotle, Zeno, Cleanthes, Hannibal, Aristarchus, Cato, Brutus, Cassius, Mark Antony, Lucian, Seneca, Nero, and Otho, together with numerous others whose names have gained immortality.
This popularity of suicide with great men must have been due to a certain extent to the teaching of the learned men of the time, which has always a powerful effect upon the educated and the intellectually better class. And, as the actions of great men are always aped by large numbers of smaller men who wish to rank with those they imitate, we may in part attribute its frequency among the populace indirectly to the same source. We cannot, however, class even a majority of the suicides of this period among the Greeks and Romans as the outcome of any teaching. Many were undoubtedly due to this cause; but it is certain that the great mass, occurring as they did among markedly degenerate peoples who were deteriorat1ng with every generation, were, like our suicides of to-day, due to madness, disgust of life, and last and greatest, that uncontrollable impulse to death which cannot be explained.
It was when vice and dissipation were running riot in Rome that self-destruction was at its height among the Romans; and it was after Roman manners and customs had contaminated the Greeks that suicide was most common among that people. Such self-slaughter could only be looked upon as disease consequent upon their generally depraved condition. As the people deteriorated under vice and debauchery, suicide increased, as did crime, immorality and disease. Indeed, with the Romans under the Empire, suicide appears to have been one of the most active and effectual means employed by indignant nature to stamp out a people who had become too degraded and vicious to live.
Recognising the impossibility of preventing those who wished to die carrying out their desire, and hoping in some degree to limit self-destruction by legalising it under certain conditions, both Greeks and Romans instituted tribunals for the hearing of the applications of those who wished to die. If the applicant showed what the Court considered good cause for quitting life, his prayer was granted, and he destroyed himself with the sanction of the Court. In some cases, as in the island of Ceos and among the Massilians, the Court not only sanctioned the suicide, but supplied the means in the shape of a decoction of hemlock. (Sir Thomas More, in his "Utopia, suggested the adoption of a system almost identical with this.) If anyone applied for permission to put an end to his life and was refused, and in defiance of that decision committed suicide, his act was illegal, and punishment was inflicted; among the Greeks his memory was held dishonoured, and his body was treated with indignity; among the Romans his property was confiscated by the State.
The Roman law, as laid down in the Institutes and Digest of Justinian—a Christian emperor—about the middle of the sixth century, held that suicide was justifiable if it arose from disgust of life—taedium vitae; from grief at loss of friends; when it was to escape the disgrace of insolvency or bodily suffering from disease; and also when the act arose from madness, the distinction being thus early drawn between the suicide who is in the ordinary sense responsible, and the one who is not responsible for his act.
Suicide was illegal under the Roman law only when it was committed in consequence of crime, in order to escape some sentence, in disobedience to the decision of the magistrate, or, when no sufficient reason could be discovered. The act in itself was not criminal, and only became so when it affected the State injuriously, as it was held to do in the above instances. The criminal and the accused person injured the State in evading in voluntary death, that just punishment which the criminal acts deserved. In the case of suicide of an accused person, it was held that he had pleaded guilty to the accusation against him by refusing to meet it. But even to the accused who sought voluntary death, the law was just; and if he were proved innocent of the charge imputed, no injury fell upon his memory, relatives, or estate. The property of a person who committed suicide while under an accusation of crime was pro forma confiscated; but the heirs were at liberty to have the cause tried as if the accused were alive, and if the offence were not proven, the heirs took the estate as if the deceased had not been under accusation at the time of death.
Even soldiers and slaves were, under the Roman law, entitled to put a period to their lives like ordinary citizens. If a soldier unsuccessfully attempted suicide, he was forgiven the act if he could prove that he had been driven thereto by some great sorrow or misfortune, or by suffering or madness; but if he failed in this his offence was capital, and, as a punishment, the State carried to a successful issue the very act he had unsuccessfully attempted.
THE EARLY CHRISTIANS.
It would appear that the Christian Church was from the first opposed to suicide. It was not, however, for several centuries after the death of Christ that it did more than enter a remonstrance against the act, and that only when it occurred under certain circumstances. Nevertheless, suicide was rare among the early Christians as compared with its occurrence among their Pagan contemporaries. However, as persecution came upon them, and their fervour increased, the craving for the joys of heaven prompted many to meet death half way, and even to deliberately destroy themselves.
Gibbon in his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," tells how, when Christianity came to be tolerated by the pagans, and martyrdom became comparatively rare, the more 1nfatuated of the Christians deliberately incited their pagan brethren to acts of violence against themselves, and when brought before the magistrates, begged that sentence of death might be passed and carried out. This conduct of the early Christians was in many places so glaring that their pagan rulers often scoffed at them, refused to sentence them as they desired, and told them to go and hang themselves if they were so anxious to die.
"Stories are related of the courage of martyrs, who actually performed what Ignatius had intended; who exasperated the fury of the lions, pressed the executioner to hasten his office, cheerfully leaped into the fires which were kindled to consume them, and discovered a sensation of joy and pleasure in the midst of the most exquisite tortures. Several examples have been preserved of a zeal impatient of those restraints which the emperors had provided for the security of the Church. The Christians sometimes supplied by their voluntary declarations the want of an accuser, rudely disturbed the public service of paganism, and rushing in crowds round the tribunals, called upon them to pronounce and to inflict the sentence of the law." On one such occasion, Antonius Pius, the proconsul, refused their clamour for sentence of death, saying, "Unhappy men, unhappy men! if you are thus weary of your lives, is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?"
It may be said that this seeking after martyrdom at the hands of enemies was not suicide, but it cannot be said that it was not suicidal. Moreover, when these fanatics could not tempt others to kill them, they deliberately killed themselves. So late as the fifth century, many of the more fanatical sects indulged in self-slaughter, principally by precipitating themselves from heights, and casting themselves into fires kindled for the purpose.
Gibbon gives a terrible picture of one of these sects, the Donatists (a.d. 400). These misguided people were given up to fanaticism as gross and insane as ever seized Brahmin, Buddhist, or any other religionist whatever. "Many of these fanatics were possessed with a horror of life and the desire of martyrdom; and they deemed it of little moment by what means or by what hands they perished, if their conduct was sanctified by the intention of devoting themselves to the glory of the true faith and the hope of eternal happiness. Sometimes they rudely disturbed the festivals and profaned the temples of paganism, with the design of exciting the most zealous of the idolaters to revenge the insulted honour of their gods. They sometimes forced their way into the courts of justice and compelled the affrighted judge to give orders for their immediate execution. They frequently stopped travellers on the public highways, and obliged them to inflict the stroke of martyrdom by the promise of a reward if they consented, and by the threat of instant death if they refused to grant so very singular a favour. When they were disappointed of every other resource, they announced the day on which, in the presence of their friends and brethren, they should cast themselves headlong from some lofty rock; and many precipices were shown which had acquired fame by the number of religious suicides."
The Council of Arles, A.d. 452, condemned suicide under all circumstances, and from this time voluntary Christian martyrdom became much less common. Nevertheless, the old spirit was by no means quenched by this formal decision of the Church, which it was found necessary to repeat and accentuate again and again. Centuries later the same spirit blazed up among the more fanatical of the Christian believers. Several examples of this occurred during the Crusades, and even later. "At the battle of Hittin, where the Latin empire of the East was broken for ever, those Knights Templars who refused to adopt the Moslem faith were ruthlessly slain by command of Saladin; and many Christian soldiers who thirsted for the glory of martyrdom, but were not of that order, put on the mantles of the slain Templars, and went gladly to their deaths." Indeed, this desire for Christian martyrdom still exists, and examples might be found if looked for. But public opinion is now opposed to such exhibitions of faith, and the verdict of insanity, usually passed upon such, acts as a healthy repressant.
Another form of suicide which for a long time found favour in the eyes of the leaders of the early Christians was what were called "virgin suicides"; that is, suicides committed to preserve chastity. During the first four or five centuries of the Christian era many suicides of this character took place, and were approved and defended by most of the then fathers of the Church, among others by St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and St. Chrysostom. St. Augustine, however, held that suicide for the preservation of chastity was unjustifiable and sinful. Notwithstanding his teaching, however, the Church went so far as to canonise Pelagia, who threw herself from the housetop to escape her would-be ravishers. Donne says, "The memory of Pelagia, as a virgin and martyr, is celebrated the ninth of June. .... The Church celebrates the act as though it were glad to take any occasion of approving such a courage in such a cause, which was the preservation of chastity." ["Biathanatos," by John Donne.]
Suicides of this character did occur in civil life, but the greater number occurred on such occasions as the fall of a city to the enemy, or when an army and its followers were overcome. Thus, when Alric the Goth with his northern hordes captured Rome in 410 A.d., great numbers of Christian women killed themselves that they might escape violation at the hands of the conquerors. In his famous "City of God," St. Augustine refers to these suicides and condemns them; nevertheless they were approved by many of the Christian leaders of the time.
It is thought that suicides of this character do not occur frequently in the present day.
NORSEMEN, GOTHS, ETC
Voluntary death was quite commonly practised among the barbaric peoples, Norse and Celtic, of the northern and western parts of Europe, as it was by the Greeks and Romans in the south. These hardy warriors, who overran the whole north and west of the Continent, including Britain, Ireland, and Iceland, and even marched victors through the streets of Rome, feared a peaceful death from disease or old age above all things, and only rarely allowed such to overtake them. According to their belief, a violent death, whether met with in battle or at their own hands, ushered them into the presence of their god, Odin, in the sacred Hall of Valhalla. Those who died a natural death, however illustrious, were not so honoured, and, as a consequence, suicide was very common. ["Hall of Valhalla" is literally "the hall of those dead of violence."]
Great numbers of those who had escaped death in battle, when they felt that death was approaching through disease or age, cast themselves over precipices, or otherwise destroyed their lives. The feeble and the ailing were often carried at their own request from their beds and left in the battlefield, in the hope that they might there be despatched during the fight
Suicide was also a common and honourable mode of death among the ancient Egyptians from the earliest times; and it would appear that it became much more common than it had previously been about the beginning of the Christian era, that is to say, when the nation had reached a certain level of deterioration. That the ancient Egyptians looked upon suicide as justifiable in such circumstances as incurable disease, physical suffering, and personal calamity, is proved by the fact that Rameses the Great put an end to his own life in a most deliberate manner because he had gone blind.
Suicide was never practised to any great extent by the inhabitants of Central Asia. The Tartars have been at all times particularly free from the suicidal instinct. Among the Persians, also, it was rare, for the reason, probably, that it was opposed to their religious teaching. It would appear, however, that among these Asiatics self-destruction was looked upon as justifiable under certain conditions, as it was, indeed, among all known peoples until the belief was gradually overborne by the teaching of the Christian and Mohammedan religions.
From the foregoing hasty and imperfect sketch of the history of suicide among early peoples, we learn that there were three great incentives to the act. These were: religious fanaticism, fear of slavery or ill-treatment at the hands of conquerors, and the desire to escape physical suffering consequent on disease. The first, religious fanaticism, was undoubtedly the great cause; certainly sickness and disease must have at all times been responsible for a large number, but such could never have even remotely approached the total due to fanaticism. Fear of slavery and the innate dislike to submission to conquerors again, brought about terrible carnage at times; such slaughter, however, occurred only at long intervals, and suicides from this cause were probably less numerous than those arising from either of the other causes mentioned.
It is also interesting to note how these causes varied in effect among different peoples and nations. Religious fanaticism, for example, was the most fruitful cause of suicide among such widely removed races as the Hindus, the barbarians of Northern Europe, and some of the sects of early Christians; while escape from slavery and indignity acted as the great incentive among the ancient Jews and their enemies, the Romans, as also with the aborigines of Mexico and Peru. Of these latter peoples Froude ["Short Studies on Great Subjects," p. 308.] tells how they often destroyed themselves in great numbers, by the advice of their chiefs, in order to escape the cruelties and barbarities put upon them by their Spanish conquerors.
Again, it is remarkable how often we find what was the great cause of suicide among a people the same to-day as it was centuries ago. Thus religious ecstacy and escape from bodily suffering are to-day the chief causes of voluntary death among the inhabitants of India, China, and Japan, as they were a score of centuries ago.
On the other hand, the Jews, who have stuck to their original religion with wonderful tenacity and exactitude, were never, either in the present or past times, fanatical suicides. Before the dawn of the Christian era they often preferred death at their own hands to slavery, and in comparatively modern times they have exhibited the same spirit. How many of this devoted people are to-day, in Eastern Europe, seeking and finding relief from cruel and inhuman persecution in death it is impossible to say. Whether there be many or few we are never likely to discover. We know, however, that so late as the tenth and even fourteenth centuries, under like persecution great numbers sought relief in death. On one occasion in York [Drake's "History and Antiquities of York," bk. i., ch. iv.] 500 Jews destroyed themselves to escape persecution; and on various occasions during the Middle Ages large numbers were driven to self-destruction by the same means, in France and Germany as well as in England; notably at the siege of the Castle of Verdun, in 1320; and later in the same century during the outbreak of the "Black Death" in several Rhenish towns. [Bugenot's " Memoir of the Jews of the West."]
Again, it was exactly the same spirit that prompted the hardy Norsemen and Celts to seek violent death in the battlefield and elsewhere, which now actuates the peoples occuping Northwestern Europe to sing the glories of those who fall in battle, and declare such death the most heroic and glorious man can achieve. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" breathes exactly the same barbaric spirit and contempt for death as did the wild chants of the Sea Kings.
Voluntary death to escape suffering from disease was common among all ancient peoples, although it never approached in magnitude anything like that from either of the other causes above mentioned. But before Christianity, which inculcated patience in suffering, and held out hope of future reward for pain endured here, suicide to escape physical suffering rapidly diminished among European nations. It is evident, however, that the true cause of this diminution was the advance of medical and surgical science rather than Christian teaching; or, more truly, it might be said that Christianity and the relief of pain by science worked hand in hand in reducing suicide from this cause.
In the East, suicide to escape suffering is still of common occurrence, although even there it is fast diminishing before the advance of Christian precept and example, and the still more potent relief and hope held out to the sufferer by modern medical and surgical science.
Life in the East has changed comparatively little since the early times of which we have already spoken; and as a consequence, suicide, taking it broadly, stands in many parts much as it did centuries ago. On the other hand, life in the Western world has altered much in recent times. With the advance of our civilisation religious dogma has been brought more and more into accord with reason. Slavery—at least the slavery of earlier ages—has been effectually scotched, if not absolutely killed; suffering arising from disease has been reduced a thousandfold; and the estimate of the value and sanctity of human life has, on the whole, been considerably raised. As a consequence of these changes, suicide to gain the joys of heaven, to escape slavery, inhuman persecution, the cruelties of conquerors, or suffering from disease, has declined proportionately. Men do not now destroy themselves, nor provoke their religious opponents to kill them that they may enter Paradise; neither do defeated soldiers fear to lay down their arms and march over to the enemies' lines.
What were the chief causes of suicide among the ancients have ceased to be incentives to self-destruction among European peoples to-day. But as one set of causes have disappeared, or become in the main inoperative, another set have appeared, and it will be our business in the following pages to examine this new set of causes, discover if possible how they arose, and whether they are related to those which went before.