Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Honorable Way Out

There are many things in our culture that are disturbing to me, but the one that has been bothering me the most lately has been the disparagement of the concept of personal honor. At a time when men fought hand to hand for the defense of their country and their tribe and their family, there were killings for honor, and there was suicide for the sake of honor, and most people understood that just because a man had killed himself, this did not necessarily mean that he was mentally ill.  It also most certainly did not mean that he was a coward.

A certain celebrity recently took his own life. Many people are grieving. Some are angry. Some have called him a coward, and others excused his action as stemming from clinical depression. He didn't kill himself, they say. The depression did.

How many of these people realize how culturally constructed their view of suicide is? How many have contemplated the examples of suicide throughout the ages, and the many honorable men and women who took their own lives?

King Saul needed help to fall on his sword.  Hannibal took poison at the age of 65 when he saw that they were coming for him. Petronius slit his wrists and died luxuriating in the bathtub. The people of Masada committed mass suicide rather than surrender.Were these examples from history cowardly? Nobody thought so at the time. Did they involve mental illness? I don't think so.  Was it sad? Yes. But it was also honorable. What happened to the concept of honor? When did we lose it?

In 1929, when businessmen were casting themselves off rooftops, was there a massive case of clinical depression? Or were these men taking the honorable way out because they could not pay their just debts?

The idea of taking one's own life is scary, and most of us are incapable of it. To call someone a coward because he is able to do so seems to subvert the concept of bravery and cowardice. It is double think. It is cultural conditioning. It is based on the idea that our lives are not our own to dispose of as we wish. It suggests that no matter what happens, we have to submit. But ultimately the one way to avoid slavery after all other options are foreclosed has got to be to end it all. Why are the authorities so afraid of this that they have actually made laws against suicide?

While I realize that those who say it was depression that killed the celebrity are doing so in his own defense, I have to question that as well. What would be wrong with simply saying it was his right? That he didn't owe us anything? That it's none of our business why?

If you were facing an impossible situation, wouldn't you want a way out? Wouldn't you want to be part of a culture that respected your right to own your life? A culture that allowed you to decide when enough is enough?

When they were taking Captain DesFarges out to hang from the Revenue Service Cutter, because they had found him guilty of piracy, he asked for a gun so he could shoot himself and avoid a hanging. When that was denied him, he tried to drown himself in the river. They fished him out alive and hanged him. Do you think the Federal government was trying to save him from falling victim to a mental illness, or were they just insisting on killing him themselves in a much less dignified manner?

Death with dignity is a topic that Theodosia is obsessed with toward the end of The War Against Spain. She is so afraid of having Jean hanged after his capture, that she would rather hire a sharpshooter to have him shot, instead. Hanging was considered a dishonorable death. But some men do not find hanging to be such a very horrible end, and some even choose it as their way out.

The War Against Spain

Rather than judging others for the method they choose, would it not be better to make sure that they are honored for their courage, rather than condemned for their choice? Someday, each of us may be faced with a similar choice. We none of us know what we may do on that day.


  1. The Japanese took the honor death to the limit with seppuku, in which a defeated or disgraced samurai would disembowel himself while his friend stood behind him to quickly decapitate the man and alleviate suffering. The samurai's wife also often killed herself in an honor death, too, by slitting her throat after binding her knees together so she would not be found in an undignified pose.

    1. Hi, Pam, there is definitely a cultural element to the practice of suicide, as your example points out. But there are also individual choices that may deviate from the accepted practices of any given culture.
      Many of the honor death practices that we may find most awful are when the person is allowed no other choice. But throughout history there have been documented cases where a person chose an honorable way out, as a matter of his own preferences, when he could clearly have chosen something else.