Altruistic Suicide or Altruistic Martyrdom?
Christian Greek orthodox Neomartyrs: A Case Study
[From Archives of Suicide Research, Volume 8, No 1, 2004].
Ancient Greek World
In the ancient Greek world and later in the Christian Greek Orthodox tradition, suicide was not approved while martyrdom as defined above for familial, patriotic and religious principles was honored and martyrs were commemorated annually. The Homeric epics, as both myth and history, as sources of social and patriotic values of archaic Hellenism include several stories of persons greatly honored because they offered themselves as sacrifice for principles of altruistic love, for conscience's sake or for the country's honor and freedom. Alkestis, for example, the wife of Admetos, the king of Thessaly, became legendary because of her self-sacrifice in order to save her husband's life. Her offer to die in her husband's place became a symbol or an ideal that can be realized when one offers oneself for sacrifice so that others may live. Alkestis was fully aware of the nobility of her sacrifice, which saved not only her husband but also her family and country.
There are many examples in classical Greek literature of persons who sacrificed themselves on behalf of honor and freedom of their homeland. The altruistic devotion to patriotic principles that led them to self-sacrifice became the subject of several dramas by Aeschylos, Sophocles and Euripides. Iphigeneia surrendered herself to be sacrificed for the unity of Hellenes and the successful expedition against Troy. Makaria, Hercules's daughter, sacrificed herself to save Athens; Menoikeus, the father of Creon, sacrificed himself to save Thebes; and Antigone preferred to die rather than violate the divine law and obey the rule of men.(2)
However, there is more than mythological and poetic literature that provides illustrations of persons who sacrificed themselves for noble and patriotic causes.
Self-sacrifice for the sake of patriotism is a major theme in the writings of the ancient Greek historians. Herodotos relates that Leonidas, the King of Sparta, and his three hundred hoplites knew that they could not defeat the hundreds of thousands of Persians when they invaded Greece some 2500 years ago. Love for freedom and obedience to the law of the country made them withstand the onslaught of the Persians. In a discussion between Xerxes, the King of King (of Persia), and Demaratos, the Spartan King in exile, Demaratos said: "Brave are all the Greeks ... they will never accept your terms [Xerxes's] which reduce Greece to slavery ... though they be free men, they are not all respects free; law is the master whom they own ... Whatever it commands they do; ... it forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes, and requires them to stand first and either win or die" (Herodotos, trans. 1988, Bk. 7, paragraphs 101-102).
The Greeks under Leonidas "were determined to die" for the sake of their country's freedom. The epigram "Go, stranger and to Lacedeaemonians tell, that here we Lie obeying their laws" reveals that the Spartans and other Greeks with them made the ultimate sacrifice in obedience to Spartan laws (Herodotos, 1988, Bk. 7, paragraphs
Deaths as a heroic ideal, not in the sense of suicide, can be traced back to Greek mythology whose moral principles influenced Greek history and culture. The demi-god Prometheus was condemned to a form of crucifixion because his great philanthropia for humanity led him to disobey Zeus and bring fire and the arts to humanity.
Sources that speak about various causes of suicide proper (autocheiria = self-inflicted death, or autothanasia = self-induced death) indicate that impulsive suicide in ancient Greece was not esteemed. It was considered "a perverted form of self-love." Death motivated by an ideal and as love for family, country and religious or moral principles, was highly approved and honored (van Hooff, 1990). While suicide was condemned by Plato, Socrates' death for standing by his moral and religious beliefs was praised. Belief in a happy life after the death of the body makes martyrdom not only easy to endure, as in the case of Socrates, but even desirable. Plato adds the enlightened person thinks of death often and "if a man has trained himself throughout his life to live in a state as close as possible to death ... it is ridiculous for him to be distressed when death comes to him (Plato, 1985 version, Phaedo, 67-68; Laws). For Plato suicide pre-empts God's decision, a belief that echoes Saint Paul's teaching that "whoever destroys the temple of God [man is the temple of God] will be himself destroyed by God" (1 Co. 3:17).
Aristotle, too, rejected suicide as an injustice to society but he allowed self-sacrifice for the sake of the country. "The virtuous man's conduct is guided by principles which include what is good for... his country, for which he will, lay down his life" (Aristotle, 1926 version, Nichomachean Ethics, 5.10.1-11-5).
In general Greek philosophical schools did not approve of suicide. While suicide is laudable when it is offered on behalf of the fatherland, self-killing was condemned as "a depraved form of self-love" and as an injustice to the commonwealth. Like Plato and Aristotle before them, Stoic and Epicurean philosophers were against suicide. They justified it only when physical pain became unbearable (van Hooff 1990). There are several papyri of the Hellenistic and Roman centuries recording self-sacrifices for personal, moral, religious and political beliefs. Some individuals criticized emperors even though they knew that defying an emperor's rules implied death. There were ordinary people who preferred to tell the truth, as they understood it even though they did not expect to live another day. A good illustration is a certain Appianos who defied death in order to criticize Roman Emperor Commodus (Musurillo, 1988).
In the Judaeo-Christian tradition suicide was not approved while martyrdom for religious faith and cultural traditions was highly honored. During the Maccabean revolt Eleazar, a prominent scribe, was forced to eat pork. He preferred death to violation of his religious traditions. Solomonis and her seven sons were compelled to eat pork, an unlawful practice in the Jewish tradition. "We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers" they said (2 Macc. 7:1 2; 4 Macc. Chapters 6-8). In general Judaism was against suicide. Josephus relates, "suicide is alike repugnant to that nature which all creatures share, and an act of impiety toward God who created us. Among the animals there is not one that deliberately seeks death or kills itself, so rooted in all is nature's law" (Josephus, 1849 version, The Jewish War, Bk. 3, ch. 8.5).
2. - For practical reasons I will not cite editors and editions of the writings of classical authors. One may consult The Oxford Classical Dictionary, third edition, edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York 1996). Very useful is also Barry B. Powell, 'Classical Myth', third edition (Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2001). For Alkestis (Alcestis) in particular see G. Megas, "Alkestis," in 'Archiv für Religionswissenschaft' (1933) pp. 1-33.