Each year, 800,000 to one million men, women, and children kill themselves; and the number of unsuccessful attempts is ten to twenty times that toll. Jennifer Michael Hecht's Stay shows how philosophers, theologians, and writers since ancient times have grappled with issues about self-destruction. She notes that since the Enlightenment, earlier religious edicts against suicide have been replaced or mitigated by calls for individual decision-making. Hecht herself makes a detailed philosophical and moral case against that ultimate act.
Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against Itby Jennifer Michael Hecht
Worldwide, more people die by suicide than by murder, and many more are left behind to grieve. Despite distressing statistics that show suicide rates rising, the subject, long a taboo, is infrequently talked about. In this sweeping intellectual and cultural history, poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht channels her grief for two friends lost to suicide into a… See more details below
Worldwide, more people die by suicide than by murder, and many more are left behind to grieve. Despite distressing statistics that show suicide rates rising, the subject, long a taboo, is infrequently talked about. In this sweeping intellectual and cultural history, poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht channels her grief for two friends lost to suicide into a search for history’s most persuasive arguments against the irretrievable act, arguments she hopes to bring back into public consciousness.
From the Stoics and the Bible to Dante, Shakespeare, Wittgenstein, and such twentieth-century writers as John Berryman, Hecht recasts the narrative of our “secular age” in new terms. She shows how religious prohibitions against self-killing were replaced by the Enlightenment’s insistence on the rights of the individual, even when those rights had troubling applications. This transition, she movingly argues, resulted in a profound cultural and moral loss: the loss of shared, secular, logical arguments against suicide. By examining how people in other times have found powerful reasons to stay alive when suicide seems a tempting choice, she makes a persuasive intellectual and moral case against suicide.
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A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It
By JENNIFER MICHAEL HECHT
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Yale University
All rights reserved.
The Ancient World
The tale of Samson, in the book of Judges, is one of I the most famous biblical stories of someone engineering his own death. Samson was special from before birth. His mother said that during her pregnancy she was visited by an angel and told that as long as the infant followed Nazirite vows he would have special strength from God. These included refraining from all alcohol—the mother-to-be also had to stop drinking—and never cutting his hair. he grew up in an Israel controlled by the Philistines, and when he became an adult, his strength against them was legendary, demonstrated by such feats as killing a thousand armed soldiers using only the jawbone of an ass. Once he was attacked by a lion and killed it with his bare hands. This vignette fits into the story of his engagement to a Philistine woman. On his way to a party for the coming wedding, he visits the site of his dead lion and finds that a swarm of bees has made its hive in the lion's ribcage. He takes some of the honey, shares it with others without telling them where he got it, and teases his in-laws-to-be with a riddle: "Out of the eater something to eat, out of the strong something sweet." It ends in a bloodbath. The Bible says that in the time of the Philistines, Samson ruled Israel for twenty years. It is love for another Philistine woman that topples him. He falls for Delilah, who nags him to expose his secret weakness, until eventually he tells her that he must not cut his hair.
She immediately betrays him, shaving his head as he sleeps. The Philistines capture Samson in this weakened state, and they blind him with a sword. Later they chain him and make the strongman use his residual strength to push the grindstone around a grain mill, like an ox. The Philistines then drag Samson to their temple, where thousands are gathered to celebrate their victory over him. Meanwhile, however, Samson's hair has grown back a bit, and he prays to God for renewed strength. Samson does not ask God for an escape from his captivity and restoration of his reign, though. Rather, he asks for one last burst of power so that he can pull down the ceiling and kill as many Philistines as possible. As for himself, he says, "I will die with the Philistines." Then Samson flexes mightily, and the ceiling comes down on the multitude. It was said that Samson killed more in death than he did in life. The biblical author says nothing of the morality of his action and does not tell the story as a tragedy. Instead, it is framed as the last impressive act of an unusual hero.
Nor did the ancient Hebrews express explicit disdain for the suicides of lesser figures, which occur on a few occasions in the Hebrew Bible and are mentioned as mundane responses to failure. Wounded and defeated, Saul asks his armor bearer to kill him; when the man refuses, Saul falls upon his own sword, which the armor bearer then does as well. A character named Anhithophel tries to overthrow King David, and when he fails, hangs himself; Zimri usurps the throne of Israel, fails, and burns down the palace around him; and Abimelech, wounded in battle and dying of a broken skull, has his armor bearer kill him. Jonah tried several times to kill himself, but God kept saving him, most notably when Jonah jumped overboard on a voyage he was taking to avoid doing God's bidding. God caused him to be swallowed by a whale, which later spat him out. For thousands of years, Samson and Saul and Jonah have remained part of the conversation about suicide.
Overall, the Hebrew Bible has been seen as neutral toward suicide, but there are exceptions. Job, for example, though he is made so miserable that he wishes he had never been born, resists suicide even when his wife suggests that he "curse God, and die" (Job 2:9)/ Job says, "My soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than my life" (7:15)-seemingly suicidal words, yet he does not do it. For this reason, Job has long been seen as an antisuicide book.
Consider also some of the wisdom of the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus, written around the second century B.C.E.
Give not over thy mind to heaviness, and afflict not thyself in thine own counsel.... Love thine own soul, and comfort thy heart, remove sorrow far from thee: for sorrow hath killed many, and there is no profit therein. Envy and wrath shorten the life, and carefulness bringeth age before the time....
For of heaviness cometh death, and the heaviness of the heart breaketh strength. In affliction also sorrow remaineth: and the life of the poor is the curse of the heart. Take no heaviness to heart: drive it away, and member the last end. (Ecclesiasticus 30:21, 22-24; 38:18-20)
"Love thine own soul, and comfort thy heart." We are given a clear directive there: "Sorrow hath killed many, and there is no profit therein." Scripture is thus not as neutral as it might have seemed.
In this chapter I will introduce the major figures of ancient suicide, especially those from stories that keep recurring in Western civilization. Through these portraits, beginning with the mythical and then turning to the historical, we will see a range of motives for self-murder. In the mythical most fall into one of these categories:
suicide because of great loss,
suicide because of shame,
and suicide because of love gone wrong.
It will become clear that the ancient Jewish and the Greek and Roman worlds were not categorically against suicide; in fact, they sometimes celebrated it. Nonetheless, there is little evidence that suicide was common, at least until the first century B.C.E.
As we will see, suicides of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds do not generally look like our era's despair suicide, the tragic end result of depression. In the ancient world it is very rare to find anything like this diagnosis for any individual, real or fictional. We hear what sounds like despair suicide in negative generalizations-Plato, for instance, praises a suicide as a noble act done for some good reason and adds contrasting disdain for people described as merely having weak characters, unable to face life. But while some figures are specified as noble suicides, the ignoble kind is generally left hypothetical. The ancients considered it suicide even when one was coerced into killing oneself, as was Socrates, a situation which looks, to modern eyes, more like execution.
Another consideration to keep in mind regarding suicide among the ancients is that while families surely lamented a suicide in their midst—wives sometimes followed their husbands' example—suicide in the ancient world was less commonly committed against the family than for them. In the past several centuries suicide might lower the status of a family, but in ancient times suicide was often committed in the wake of a shameful event, in order to preserve or repair the family's name or fortune. In the ancient world, legal regulation was limited, and the honor and trustworthiness of the family name was paramount.
We begin with the archaic myths from Homer and Hesiod and later Greco-Roman literature of Sophocles, Ovid, and others. (Many ancient stories have multiple versions, and sometimes a suicide occurs only in some tellings.) Consider the daughters of Erechtheus. Having asked the oracle how Athens could win the war against Eleusis, Erechtheus was told that he must kill one of his daughters. According to one source, "When he slaughtered the youngest, the others also killed themselves, for some say that they had sworn an oath with each other to die together." They could not stand the loss.
Similar is the story of Erigone. When the god of wine, Dionysus, taught viticulture and oenology to one Icarius, the man foolishly shared his newfound love of wine with his neighbors without sufficiently briefing them on the effects. Drunkenness convinced them that they'd been poisoned. Terrified and infuriated, they killed Icarius and buried him under a tree. His daughter, Erigone, "abandoning hope, and overcome with loneliness and poverty, with many tearful lamentations she brings death on herself by hanging from the very tree beneath which her father was buried." As another source tells us, "sorrowful Erigone wept her fill for her slain sire, and already was untying the fatal girdle, and bent on death was fastening it to the sturdy boughs." The sad story of loss does not end there. Erigone's dog Maera led her to her father's grave, and having done so, the little dog threw itself into a well.
Two stories of special powers lost stand out. The Sphinx strangled and devoured anyone unable to answer her riddle, "What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?" But when Oedipus solves the riddle, answering "man," who as a baby crawls on all fours, as an adult walks on two feet, and then in old age walks with a cane, the Sphinx leaps from the acropolis to her death. Similarly, the Sirens kill themselves when Ulysses successfully evades them: "Ulysses proved fatal to them, for when by his cleverness he passed by the rocks where they dwelt, they threw themselves into the sea." They could not accept having their power thwarted, even once. In each case the supernatural beings had one cardinal purpose and, bested, they could not allow themselves to survive.
Iphigenia, the daughter Agamemnon sacrifices so that Artemis will allow the winds to shift and launch the Greek fleet toward Troy, provides an example of death for a community at war. But in some versions of this tale, Iphigenia makes the sacrifice on her own, for love of her country. "I have chosen death: it is my own free choice. I have put cowardice away from me. Honor is mine now." Honor in this world is not only about the family but also about the polis, the city-state in which one lived. That final short sentence makes it clear that Iphigenia sees something positive in dying in this fashion for the sake of her community.
Yet that is not how her mother, Clytemnestra, reads the situation; when Agamemnon returns from the war, she avenges her daughter's death by killing her husband. Her other daughter, Electra, then persuades her brother Orestes to avenge their father's death by killing their mother. Having done it, he is driven mad by divine spirits. He is later tried and acquitted by an Attic court, with Athena casting the deciding vote. Though a certain equilibrium is restored, Iphigenia's suicide had wide and mortal repercussions, from Agamemnon's House of Atreus to the walls Troy.
Another memorable account from Greek mythology of sacrifice for community is the story of the Coronides, Menippe and Metioche, daughters of Orion. After their father's death, their mother raised them with the help of the gods—Athena tutored them in weaving, and Aphrodite gave them beauty. When all of Ionia was suffering a plague, an oracle declared that two young women must be sacrificed willingly. As one ancient chronicler tells it,
Of course not one of the maidens in the city complied with the oracle until a servant-woman reported the answer of the oracle to the daughters of Orion. They were at work at their loom, and, as soon as they heard about this, they willingly accepted death on behalf of their fellow citizens before the plague epidemic had smitten them too. They cried out ... that they were willing sacrifices. They thrust their bodkins into themselves at their shoulders and gashed open their throats.
Other sources have one of the sisters cracking her loom over her skull.
The illustrious Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.E. to 18 C.E.), wrote of an artist's depiction of Orion's daughters, pictured in the streets of Thebes, wounding themselves with great courage, "cutting their throats, piercing their brave hearts with swords," and dying "for the sake of their people." Here too, suicide has a laudatory quality to it, frighteningly explicit in the wounds they suffered, but summed up as a self-sacrifice for the community.
A classic suicide of shame in ancient literature is that of Ajax. When Achilles is killed, his armor is to be awarded to the next-greatest Greek hero, and Ajax assumes it should fall to him. When the armor is awarded to Odysseus, Ajax goes mad and seeks revenge against his former comrades. Duped by Athena, Ajax slaughters a herd of sheep, thinking they are the Greek warriors. When he awakens from his stupor and sees what he has done, he is so dishonored that he kills himself with his sword. There is a shimmering irony in the fact that the dispute was over armor: the protective garb has left Ajax vulnerable to the foe no piece of armor could have protected him from: his own jealousy, rage, shame, and regret.
Another suicide of shame is that of Jocasta, Oedipus's mother. The story, told most famously by Sophocles, begins with Laius, king of Thebes, being informed by the oracle at Delphi that any son born to him would kill him. When his queen, Jocasta, gives birth to a son, they set him out to die by exposure, piercing his ankles with a small stake. But a servant saves him and gives him to a shepherd; eventually he is adopted by the childless king and queen of Corinth. As a young man, Oedipus hears a rumor that he is adopted, and he visits the oracle to learn the truth. There he is told that he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother. In an attempt to avoid this destiny, he travels far from those he assumes are his parents, all the way to Thebes. On the road he finds himself blocked by another chariot, that of Laius, his true father, and the two fight over who should pass first. In self-defense Oedipus kills Laius. Continuing his journey, he encounters the Sphinx and answers her riddle, thus bringing about her death. The people of Thebes are so grateful to be free of the Sphinx that they make him king and marry him to the newly widowed Queen Jocasta. Four children later the truth is gradually revealed to Jocasta and Oedipus; she hangs herself in shame, and he blinds himself with a pin from her cloak.
One of the great myths of suicide for love is that of Thisbe, a beautiful Babylonian girl, and Pyramus, the boy she loves but is forbidden to marry. They plan a secret meeting one night, but things go horribly wrong. Arriving at the meeting place early, Thisbe is frightened by a lion and runs away, dropping her shawl. The lion, its mouth still bloody from an earlier meal, chews at the garment. When Pyramus finds the bloodstained shawl he thinks Thisbe has been killed and stabs himself in his anguish. Thisbe returns, finds Pyramus dead, and stabs herself. In Ovid's account she cries out in agony over the loss of him, then picks up the sword, places the point of it beneath her breast, and falls "onto the blade still warm with her lover's blood." This prototypical story of love gone wrong later provided a template for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
The story of Narcissus is a story of self-love. In Ovid's famous account, when Narcissus sees himself in the water's reflection, he is frozen there by his own beauty and dies. In two earlier versions he kills himself. In one attributed to Parthenius of Nicaea and written around 50 B.C.E., Narcissus is so tortured by his own image that he plunges himself into the water and purposefully drowns himself. In a version by the mythographer Conon, a slightly earlier contemporary of Ovid, Narcissus is said to destroy himself, after which the narcissus flower blooms in the ground soaked with his blood.
Then there is Hercules, who represents a whole different kind of self-enacted death, one that may not even be suicide. His lover yearns to make the straying Hercules love her anew. Tricked by an enemy of the demigod, she soaks his robe in what she believes is a love potion, but when he puts it on, it sears his flesh, and when he tries to take it off, it pulls out his organs. He asks his friend to build a pyre, and he throws himself on it and dies. A suicide might be called Herculean when it simply hastens an inevitable and otherwise painful end.
Euripides, who lived from around 480 to 406 B.C.E., was the most modern of the three ancient Greek playwrights whose work survives to this day. In his play Iphigeneia in Aulis he writes: "Ill life o'er passeth gracious death"-that is, even a bad life is better than a good death. In The Madness of Hercules, Euripides' hero says: "Yet, thus I have mused-how deep soe'er in ills-shall I quit life and haply prove me craven? Or, ... I will be strong to await death." Euripides values life and seems to disapprove of suicide.
These ancient suicides of myth and literature are all marked by considerable passion. But historical suicides in the ancient world are characterized less by passion than by philosophical calm. The prominent Greek and Roman suicides were typically people who were being told-often by legal authority-to kill themselves. Though our modern definition of suicide doesn't generally include forced self-murder, the protagonists in these historical events are included because they killed themselves with a display of bravery and even indifference to death. Such deaths were celebrated as a prime feature of the philosophical approach to life. We will also look at some commentaries on suicide from the ancient Greek and roman era.
Excerpted from STAY by JENNIFER MICHAEL HECHT. Copyright © 2013 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Jennifer Michael Hecht is a historian of science and culture and a poet. She has written seven books, including the best-selling Doubt: A History, the story of unbelief across the world. Hecht teaches at The New School and lives in Brooklyn.
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