Many philosophers have debated the issue of suicide and its moral implications since the beginning of time. Socrates, Plato, Epicurus, and Saint Augustine among many others each debated the issue of suicide, stating when suicide is and is not morally acceptable, if at all. Over thousands of years, society as a whole has changed their view of suicide greatly since ancient times.

After Socrates was sentenced to be exiled from Athens or commit suicide for corrupting the youth of Athens as well as diverting worship from the gods, he and his fellow philosophers had a long discussion on suicide. After much debate, the consensus among the group was that philosophers should not fear death regardless of the form it takes. According to Socrates, “For, if pure knowledge is impossible while the body is with us, one of two thing[s] must follow, either it cannot be acquired at all or only when we are dead; for then the soul will be by itself apart from the body, but not before.” The reason he believed this, is that to him the senses of the human body were not “exact” and therefore hindered the gain of knowledge. It is because of this belief that he believed death to be no and end of life, but a beginning of enlightenment, even if death is reached through suicide.

Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism has a different view of death as a whole. According to his school of thought death is nothing. He believed in separating oneself from society and civic responsibility and seeking spiritual tranquility. If the goal of life is to seek pleasure Epicurus defines pleasure as, “the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul.” If death truly deprives one of their sentience then pain can not exist, and according to Epicurus, the absence of pain is pleasure. Epicurus truly believed that death was nothing to fear. This is because he thought death would help to reach a state completely void of pain and therefore full of spiritual tranquility, even if death was attained through suicide.

The old testament of the bible contains many instances of suicide under a variety of circumstances. In the case of Samson he sacrificed himself in order to defeat his enemies. This act is looked upon as a heroic act because “the dead whom he slew at his death were more than those whom he had slain during his life.” However, Judas committed suicide from the guilt he suffered from betraying Jesus. This act is frowned upon; his death did not solve anything, it merely created more bloodshed. In the time period in which these tales were written, the moral implications of suicide were very heavily based on the circumstances surrounding them.

Saint Augustine has much to say about suicide and the many reasons that it is strongly immoral. He sees suicide caused by fear or disgrace, as in the case of Judas, as dishonorable because Judas committed two sins, betraying Jesus and murdering himself. The most convincing argument that Saint Augustine brings up against suicide is founded in the Ten Commandments. He states that “we must understand the commandment as forbidding this (suicide) when it says: 'Thou shalt not kill,' particularly since it does not add 'Thy neighbor.'” Therefore there is hard evidence stating that murder is a sin and murdering oneself is no better.

It is clear that throughout time there have been many philosophical and religious arguments that try to either justify or prohibit suicide on moral grounds. Mainly the generally accepted belief was that suicide was acceptable under at least a limited set of circumstances until the rise of Christianity. Ever since, suicide has been frowned upon in society.

Principal Sources:
  • Discovering the Western Past: A Look at the Evidence
    - Merry E. Wiesner
  • The Bible