Suicide has been regarded differently by societies around the world and throughout history. To the ancient Romans, it was an honourable reaction to disgrace: “falling on your own sword” refers to the action that might be taken by a disgraced leader. In Japanese society, the feudal notion of ritual suicide, seppuku, long persisted: in WWII, Japanese soldiers and even civilians suicided rather than surrender; even in 1999, a manager committed seppuku in opposition to a corporate restructure. Suicide by self-immolation set off the Arab Spring.

But in the modern West, attitudes to suicide are markedly different. Even today, it’s a measure of our society’s abhorrence of suicide that advocates of legalised suicide not only refuse to call it by name, but react furiously to anyone who does.

The aversion to suicide is a notable feature of a West that used to be called Christendom – and it has its origins in Christian belief. Christianity regards suicide as an act of sin. While today, suicide is regarded with pity and empathy, not so long ago reactions would have been very different.

Christian morality and the role of Judas are heavily intertwined with the development of the idea of suicide as sin. According to all the four canonical gospels, Judas Iscariot was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ. Judas’ betrayal ultimately started the chain of events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion.

To prevent the crucifixion, Judas attempted to return the money he had taken to reveal Jesus’ identity. Failure to do so pushed him into committing suicide by hanging. Over time, Judas’ name began being associated with betrayal and backstabbing, with as much disgust as Brutus’ betrayal of Caesar.

The Christian aversion to suicide is also rooted in theology.

One of the earliest documented views on suicide in Christianity are those by Augustine of Hippo , in the City of God (413-426 AD). His interpretation of the Sixth Commandment “Thou shalt not kill” was seen to encompass the self. He saw it as a “detestable and damnable wickedness,” equating it with murder. Even in a situation where a Christian feared for their life in getting corrupted, or raped, Augustine thought it to be unthinkable to consider suicide as an option.

Christian theology also teaches that, as God has granted one life, to take one’s own is to defy God. Islamic theology is similarly clear on the matter: “Do not kill yourselves”.

But in feudal Europe, it was not only God who owned the souls of the common folk.

Between the 10th and 12th centuries in many parts of Europe, self-murder became a felony crime. Pre-industrial Europe, prior to becoming a vast imperial power, was not just under the influence of the Church, but also, feudalism. The propertied nature of the “Lord” and “Serf” relationship meant that the master saw a peasant’s suicide as a denial of his possession. Confiscation of the serf’s goods was seen as a legitimate action of claiming what was anyway “the Lord’s property.”

The confiscation of land and property, either by the overlord or the monarch, only increased statist power. With an increase in authoritarian control, punishment became harsher. In England, the “Customs of Anju and Maine” of 1411, equated suicide with rape and murder. In France, in the same period, laws called for the house of the suicide victim to be torn down and the sinner’s family to be banished. The victim’s body, if male, was to be hanged again in the gallows, and then burnt. Even “post-mortem torture” was seen as a legitimate form of punishing suicide, particularly by invoking the fear of self-murder into the living.

Those who committed suicide became the subject of gossip and folklore, often accused of upsetting the balance of order in nature. In Switzerland, for example, a bout of bad weather was blamed on the burial of a woman in town who’d committed suicide. Punishment of suicide in the afterlife was enshrined in the law too. For example, in England, in 740 AD, the Archbishop of York drew up legislation ordering priests to not give Christian burials to those who’d died by suicide.

As historian Geoffrey Blainey has written, in order to understand what today seems to us to be the unduly harsh persecution of sins such as suicide and heresy, we must understand the mindset of the times. To the medieval mind, such sins were an existential threat, by inviting God’s wrath on the community.

To protect their families from social exile, figuratively, family members would often try to influence the coroner’s report in suicide cases. If that failed, attempts were made to hide some of their possessions, so that these were protected from the state.

In situations where a married male committed suicide, this was often the case, the widow would be left nothing by the state. In many other cases, in a bid to hush-up the matter, family members would attempt to bury the deceased themselves.

Ancient Origins

By the Romantic era, attitudes began to shift somewhat. Goethe’s 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, concerning the despair and suicide of its titular hero, was a European smash hit. Though Goethe is today most remembered for Faust, it was Werther which first made him a literary celebrity. The book spurred the first known wave of copycat suicides.

But suicide was still a crime and a sin: Goethe’s book was banned in several countries; others went further, banning the wearing of “Werther” style clothes.

Modern jurisdictions have mostly purged legal proscriptions of suicide, but the Christianised aversion persists. Even today, media are strongly restricted in how they may report suicide: most often, they avoid mentioning it altogether. Even in our secular age, a Christianised ethos continues to shape attitudes.

If you or someone you know needs help, call one of the numbers below.

  • Lifeline Aotearoa Incorporated – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • Healthline – 0800 611 116

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The Changing View of Suicide in Western Culture

Lushington D. Brady

Punk rock philosopher. Liberalist contrarian. Grumpy old bastard. I grew up in a generational-Labor-voting family. I kept the faith long after the political left had abandoned it. In last decade or...