The idea that Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther made suicide fashionable among young Romantic Germans is, we now know, a mere legend. But there was one text that managed to drive many to suicide: not the Necronomicon, but the Apokarteron (The Man Starving Himself to Death) by Hegesias of Cyrene.
This is the essence of Hegesias’ teaching, in the words of Edgar Saltus:
Life seems pleasing only to the fool; the wise regard it with indifference, and consider death just as acceptable….Death, is as good as life ; it is but a supreme renunciation in which man is freed from idle complaints and long deceptions. Life is full of pain, and the pangs of the flesh gnaw at the mind and rout its calm. In countless ways fate intercepts and thwarts our hopes. Contentment is not to be relied on, and even wisdom cannot preserve us from the treachery and insecurity of the perceptions. Since happiness, then, is intangible we should cease to pursue it, and take for our goal the absence of pain; this condition, is best obtained in making ourselves indifferent to every object of desire and every cause of dislike, and above all to life itself. In any event, death is advantageous in this, it takes us not from blessings but from evil.
According to Plutarch, Hegesias was so persuasive that when he taught in Alexandria his students all started killing themselves, and Cicreo adds that Ptolmey had to forbid Hegesias to speak further, in order to stop the epidemic. (Wallace I. Mason calls this the first recorded case of a professor’s academic freedom being abrogated by the government.)
The ancient world had a different relationship with suicide than our own, of course. If no other philosopher was quite as fond of suicide as Hegesias, Socrates and Seneca under duress, and Empedocles and Chrysippus (and Diogenes, and least according to Anthisthenes) of their own free will, killed themselves. Cleombrotus jumped off a cliff after reading in Plato that souls survive the body; Zeno the Stoic held his breath until he died because he did not want to deal with a broken toe; Isocrates starved himself to death as Hegesias (and Schopenhauer!) would have wanted.
(Philosophers were supposed to be butch in those days. When the tyrant Nicocreon tortured Anaxarchus in a giant mortar, Anaxarchus said, “Pound all you will, for you merely pound the shell of Anaxarchus, and Anaxarchus himself you cannot touch.” Nicocreon commanded that the philosopher’s tongue be cut out for this impudence, but Anaxarchus immediately bit it off and spat the wriggling organ in the tyrant’s face. Later, for unrelated reasons, Nicocreon was compelled to commit suicide.)
John Donne, in his beautiful and surprisingly pro-suicide tract Biathanatos, relied mostly on classical examples to justify suicide. But Donne was writing in the seventeenth century, after a millennium and a half of Christian condemnation of suicide and his book was a scandal, never published in his lifetime.
Early Christianity had mixed views on suicide (as presumably did their Jewish forbearers, to judge by Masada). Origen thought it was no sin, but Origen also cut off his own junk, and was hardly orthodox. The heretical Donatists were positively Hegesiac over it, as were, arguably, some early martyrs. But after Augustine, Christendom came down pretty hard on the con side.
By the Middle Ages, anti-suicide legislation had become so formalized that it developed an economic component. (All, and I do mean all my information about this comes from this book.) In England, the family and village of a suicide owed the king a penalty. The suicide’s goods were all forfeited to the crown, and the village was taxed the value of the means of suicide: the price of a rope, e.g., or, in one instance, the calculated worth of the amount of water required to drown a man.
This statute gave an incentive to local communities to persuade judges that suicides were anything but; generally, they would argue that the deceased had gone insane before death, for the insane could not be guilty of suicide. Meanwhile, the king’s men had an incentive to wheedle suicides out of doubtful or ambiguous cases. Refused to let a physician bleed you before you died? Yup, that was a suicide. Got into a fight with a guy you knew could kill you? Better believe that was a suicide.
This last judgment flies so thoroughly in the face of so much not only heroic but also Christian martyr tradition that it must have been a tough sell. Certainly there were many medieval counterexamples in which hopeless fights were viewed without stain. Any number of epics or martyrologies could be cited here, but let’s take a real world example instead. In his history of the Seventh Crusade (Life of St. Louis), Jean de Joinville records a moment when he and his men are surrounded by Moslem forces. One member of his band suggests that they fight and die and go thus go to Heaven. Joinville laconically notes (this is the Penguin translation): “But we none of us heeded his advice,” and it is unlikely that fear of sin was a factor in their decision.
In addition to many martyrs, Christ went willingly to his death and not only heterodox Origen but also Tertullian and Jerome saw his death as being suicide of a sort. Samson, as a precursor of Christ, offers an even stronger biblical example, although Donne says some theologians claim Samson, like Jesus, had special dispensation to will his own death.
Samson is obviously right on the margin between glorious death in battle and deliberate self-slaughter. But the most interesting account of this margin that I know of, also from antiquity, is not from the customs of the Greeks or Romans, but from their Celtic neighbors’. According to Aelian, the Celts considered it cowardice to leave a burning house, or retreat from the incoming tide.