When looking at discussions of suicide in the ancient world I have been struck by how different attitudes were then when compared to our own. I guess I always knew this, but had not really thought too deeply upon it. I am reluctant to post some of them, because I think that out of context they could be read harmfully as a support for if not glorification of suicide. At the same time, however, I think it probably does more harm than good not to take a hard look at ancient attitudes.
Here’s an anecdote that is chilling and a bit upsetting. Warning: it contains misogyny as well as reference to suicide clusters. In general, this reminded me of the suicide clusters in Silicon Valley discussed widely a few years ago. But–and I think this is more important–it also points to groups of suicide as an attempt to wrest agency in response to desperation, a lack of agency, and marginalization.
Aulus Gellius, Varia Historia 15.10
“In his first of the books On the Soul, Plutarch included the following tale when he was commenting on maladies which afflict human minds. He said that there were maiden girls of Milesian families who at a certain time suddenly and without almost any clear reason made a plan to die and that many killed themselves by hanging.
When this became more common in following days and there was no treatment to be found for the spirits of those who were dedicated to dying, The Milesians decreed that all maidens who would die by hanging their bodies would be taken out to burial completely naked except for the rope by which they were hanged. After this was decreed, the maidens did not seek suicide only because they were frightened by the thought of so shameful a funeral.”
Plutarchus in librorum quos περὶ ψυχῆς inscripsit primo cum de morbis dissereret in animos hominum incidentibus, virgines dixit Milesii nominis, fere quot tum in ea civitate erant, repente sine ulla evidenti causa voluntatem cepisse obeundae mortis ac deinde plurimas vitam suspendio amississe. id cum accideret in dies crebrius neque animis earum mori perseverantium medicina adhiberi quiret, decrevisse Milesios ut virgines, quae corporibus suspensis demortuae forent, ut hae omnes nudae cum eodem laqueo quo essent praevinctae efferrentur. post id decretum virgines voluntariam mortem non petisse pudore solo deterritas tam inhonesti funeris.
Suicides of public figures cause disbelief because of our cultural misconceptions about depression and about the importance of material wealth and fame to our well-being. While some clusters of suicide can be understood as a reflex of the “threshold problem”, we fail to see the whole picture if we do not also see that human well-being is connected to a sense of agency and belonging. Galen, in writing about depression, notes that melancholy can make us desire that which we fear.
Galen, De Locis Affectis 8.190-191
“But there are ten thousand other fantasies. The melancholic differ from one another, but even though they all exhibit fear, despair, blaming of life and hatred for people, they do not all want to die. For some, fear of death is the principle source of their depression. Some will seem paradoxical to you because they fear death and desire death at the same time.”
ἄλλα τε μυρία τοιαῦτα φαντασιοῦνται. διαφέρονται δὲ ἀλλήλων οἱ μελαγχολικοὶ, τὸ μὲν φοβεῖσθαι καὶ δυσθυμεῖν καὶ μέμφεσθαι τῇ ζωῇ καὶ μισεῖν τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἅπαντες ἔχοντες, ἀποθανεῖν δ’ ἐπιθυμοῦντες οὐ πάντες, ἀλλ’ ἔστιν ἐνίοις αὐτῶν αὐτὸ δὴ τοῦτο κεφάλαιον τῆς μελαγχολίας, τὸ περὶ τοῦ θανάτου δέος· ἔνιοι δὲ ἀλλόκοτοί σοι δόξουσιν, ἅμα τε καὶ δεδιέναι τὸν θάνατον καὶ θανατᾷν.
In thinking about the impact of agency and belonging on our sense of well-being and relationship to death, I have been significantly influence by this book:
Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. London: Allen Lane, 2015.
If you or someone you know feel alone, uncertain, depressed or for any reason cannot find enough joy and hope to think life is worth it, please reach out to someone. The suicide prevention hotline has a website, a phone number (1-800-273-8255), and a chat line. And if we can help you find some tether to the continuity of human experience through the Classics or a word, please don’t hesitate to ask.