The act of taking one's own life. Traditional Christian teaching has consistently regarded suicide as a crime, and in this it has the support of most religious and moral codes. Some societies have tolerated suicide, but even these have attempted to limit it to certain categories, of which the religious suicides of Japan and the courageous suicides of the Greco-Roman world are examples. Greek and Roman philosophers were divided on the subject. It was condemned by Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, but regarded as a reasonable exercise of freedom by the Epicureans and Stoics, especially Seneca. The latter view found support in the work of Thomas More* and,* and also in that of Voltaire,* Montesquieu, and Hume.* More recently it has been defended as permissible or even virtuous on the grounds that a man's life is his own and that in the last resort he must be allowed to terminate it at his own discretion, or more narrowly, that suicide is justifiable in cases of extreme senility or painful and incurable disease.
The traditional Christian view has no direct support from the Bible, in which various cases of suicide are mentioned but without reference to a penalty and without condemnation of it-perhaps because the biblical emphasis is on the joyous acceptance of life as a gift from God. It was formulated by Augustine* and other early Fathers of the Church. Augustine condemned suicide on the grounds that it was self-murder; that it precluded any opportunity for repentance; and that it was a cowardly act. These views found expression in church law, by which suicide was denounced by a series of councils and was elaborated by Aquinas* and other Scholastics during the. Aquinas condemned suicide as being contrary to the natural law, to man's natural inclinations, and to a proper self-love. He held that man has no right to deprive society of his presence and activity or to reject the gift of life given him by God.
In the twentieth century, increasing attention has been paid to the psychopathology and sociology of suicide, and this has led to certain modifications of the Christian view. It now seems clear that suicide is probably only rarely a carefully premeditated act, but is more often the result of mental illness, of an overwhelming sense of failure or rejection, of loneliness, or of the loss of status and income during severe economic depression.
In addition to Augustine's City of God I and Aquinas's Summa Theologica II-II, Q.65, art. 5, see G. Williams, The Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law (1958); N. St. John-Stevas, Death and the Law (1961); S.E. Sprott, The English Debate on Suicide from Donne to Hume (1961).