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The Theme of Suicide in Phaedo, a Book by Plato and City of God, a Book by Saint Augustine

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In much of western civilization, throughout history, suicide has been considered to be morally reprehensible and considered to be no different than murder. This essay examines how suicide was perceived by some of the greatest thinkers in western civilization: Socrates of Athens during Greece’s classical era and Saint Augustine from the declining Western Roman Empire in Hippo. To assist in my thesis, I will be analyzing Plato’s The Phaedo, which recounted Socrates last moments and his discussion of death and suicide, and Saint Augustine’s Book I of The City of God. This paper finds that though their perspectives on suicide differ greatly in many ways, Saint Augustine and Socrates did agree that self-sacrifice in the service of their respective deities is permissible, reflecting the authoritarian nature of both the God of Christianity as well as the ancient Greek pantheon in how humans are treated.

Though suicide has been largely viewed as equivalent to murdering another person in Europe since the dark ages up until the industrial revolution, there have always been exceptions in how suicide is treated depending on its context. As Saint Augustine states,

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“This very same divine law [thou shalt not kill], to be sure, made certain exceptions to the rule that it is not lawful to kill a human being. The exceptions include only such persons as God commands to be put to death, either by an enacted law or by special decree applicable to a single person at the given time – but note that the man who is bound to this service under orders, as a sword is bound to be the tool of him who employs it, is not himself the layer, and consequently there is no breach of this commandment…” (227).

If Augustine gives leeway to those that commit murder as an instrument in the service of God, then surely committing suicide in that same form of service is also permissible under Christian doctrine. Indeed, Augustine even refers to Samson from the Old Testament of the Bible: “Nor is Samson acquitted of guilt on any other plea, inasmuch as he crushed himself by the collapse of the house along with his enemies, than the plea that the Spirit who through him had been working miracles, had secretly order this” (229). Only self-sacrifice necessitated by divine powers beyond our control are allowed according to Saint Augustine. It is implied that even as one kills himself in the service of God, such a person must have been chosen among the ranks of the faithful devout, and certainly being chosen as the vessel of God’s will would be considered an honor. Socrates’ views on the relationship between man and deity are not so different as he states that “…the gods are our guardians and that we men are one of the chattels of the gods” (216). Though in Christianity there is only one god as opposed to the ancient Greek pantheon, humans are seen as possessions to be used by the divine. As the tools of God(s), humans are meant to follow instructions, and unless otherwise directed, the murder of the self would constitute in the destruction of the deity’s property for which the offender would be condemned and punished. Yet in a case such as Socrates’, where he was sentenced to drink the hemlock poison and die, he would fall into that exception in the condemnation of suicide, as he explains when he says, “Then perhaps from this point of view it is not unreasonable to say that a man must not kill himself until god sends some necessity upon him, such as has now come upon me” (216). Saint Augustine and Socrates both acknowledge their belief in humanity’s predestined role as servants of a higher power and that suicide should only be permitted in the case that it benefits said power.

Though both the Christian and ancient Greek religions have deities that are authoritarian and self-serving in relation to how suicide is treated, it is the institutions of these religions that were created and run by humans that perpetuate the harsh authoritarianism that God(s) are seemingly responsible for. Though Saint Augustine does regard suicide for the God’s purposes to be righteous and incorruptible, he does not specify that it must be God that orders such an act. Augustine states, “Let anyone, therefore, who is told that he has no right to kill himself, do the deed if he is so ordered by him whose orders must not be slighted. There is just one proviso: he must be sure that his divine command is not made precarious by any doubt” (231). This statement gives enormous power to those considered to be the conduits between God and the rest of humanity, which were the many priests, monks, bishops, and popes of the Church. Indeed, many horrors and atrocities such as the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades have been committed upon the will of the Church throughout history, for if a man representing God’s will could give a divine command to kill oneself, then similarly inspired orders could be used to control anybody under the Church’s influence. This type of divine legitimacy would give Christianity unprecedented political and religious hegemony in the western world for centuries. Though the belief in the Greek pantheon was never as widespread as Christianity, its religious institution also followed a similar paradigm of divine authority. Following Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian war, Socrates had been charged by his enemies with leading the youth of Athens away from their traditional gods, which resulted in Sparta’s victory. By using the gods as a foundation for judicial legitimacy, Socrates’ enemies were able put him on trial, which would eventually lead to his death by hemlock.

However, Socrates could have easily avoided his death sentence if he did not act in such a way that would earn the ire of his jury. This heavily suggests that Socrates’ death was less of an execution rather than suicide. He believed that the body was an impure and mortal counterpart to the pure and immortal soul, which in attempting to attain truth or knowledge in symphony with the body, would be deceived by it. As Socrates states,

“Would not that [he who prepares himself most carefully to understand the true essence of each thing that he examines] do this most perfectly who approaches each thing, so far as possible, with the reason alone, not introducing sight into his reasoning nor dragging in any of the other senses along with his thinking, but who employs pure, absolute reason in his attempt to search out the pure, absolute essence of things, and who removes himself, so far as possible, from eyes and ears, and, in a word, from his whole body, because he feels that its companionship disturbs the soul and hinders it from attaining truth and wisdom? Is not this the man, Simmias, if anyone, to attain to the knowledge of reality?” (218).

Socrates, in mocking and defying the religiously inspired authority of Athens, chose to end his life in the endless pursuit of knowledge, believing that his soul, no longer bound by the impurities of the body, would attain the enlightenment that he so desired. Though Socrates believed in the Greek gods, he did not respect the religious authority of the Athenian jury, instead preferring to end his life in seeking the greatness of soul. Saint Augustine, as a direct representation of the Christian Church’s religious authority, rejects this idea, saying that, “…no matter what precedents are brought forward by heathen that know not God, it is obvious that suicide is unlawful for those who worship the one true God” (230). Augustine, though well aware of the same kind of suicidal pursuit of truth, denounces those that have followed it, citing God’s authority. This shows that Socrates and Augustin have very different perspectives in what would constitute as suicide in service to God, even if the basic concept is acceptable to both of them.

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