Friday, January 16, 2009

Suicide as a Religious Act

In her laudably dangerous article, "Religious Suicide in an Investor's World," Rita Polevoy dares to take suicide seriously. Suicide, says Polevoy, is often a religious act - a conscious act, in protest against the evils of the world, and in preservation of a different kind of dignity than J. David Velleman has in mind in his papers on suicide.

Polevoy, identified as "a student at Loyola University Chicago," writes:
Suicide, as historian of religion David Chidester reminds us in Salvation and Suicide, his seminal study of the People's Temple, is frequently a religious act, invested with religious motivations and following a religiously understood logic. The Jewish zealots at Masada, for instance, facing death (or, worse, torture, rape, forced conversion, and slavery) at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE took their own lives as a way of escaping with their religious identity and dignity intact. Likewise, when the utopian community at Jonestown drank poison in 1978, a ruling interpretation among those who participating willingly was that this act of suicide was in protest of "the conditions of an inhumane world." Suicide presented a means of remaining fully human in the face of a society defined by race, class, and gender divisions and, thus, intent on dehumanization. [Emphasis and links mine.]

In response to the suicide of Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, we have seen the predictable, safe ruminations on selfishness and mental illness. And yet, with shocking boldness, de la Villehuchet's brother, Bertrand, told the press that his brother's suicide was an "act of honor."

Advocates of suicide censorship abhor any consideration of the idea that suicide might sometimes be honorable or right. Douglas Faneuil, who claims to "work in the field of suicide prevention," writes that "Praising a suicide as honorable may come with an extremely high price: namely, more suicides." He encourages censorship (though you're not supposed to call it censorship, he says, but rather "putting it in context") of suicide coverage and justifies that by clinging to the idea of suicide contagion. (I have previously argued that there is clinical evidence that suicide contagion might not exist, and that even if it does, it does not justify censorship.)

But rather than failing to put suicide "in context," Polevoy is merely describing a genuine aspect of many suicides, including de la Villehuchet's. She writes,

Villehuchet's suicide was a public act, an utterance aimed, surely, to resonate throughout the media and thus voice the outrage and despair of many anonymous investors, in the process focusing public attention on the very real ramifications of this white collar crime.

Not all suicides are idealistic, but certainly some are. Polevoy acknowledges a truth; to insist that all suicides are the product of mental illness, that there is never honor in suicide, is to sacrifice truth for the sake of political correctness - bullshit in the strict Frankfurt sense.

Update: An anonymous commenter points to a note by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of The Black Swan) on the suicide of his acquaintance, de la Villehuchet. Note 106, "On Killing Oneself," reads in part:

This is an aristocratic act coming from an aristocratic character: you take your own life when you believe that you failed somewhere -- and the solution is to inflict the ultimate penalty on yourself. It is not the money; but the embarrassment, the shame, the guilt that are hard to bear. Someone callous, indifferent to the harm done to others would have lived comfortably ("it is all about money"). A life of shame is not worth living. Christianity never allowed suicide; the stoics did --it allows a man to get the last word with fate.

Thierry, veuillez recevoir l'expression de mon respect le plus profond. [Emphasis in original.]

2 comments:

  1. Thierry de la Villehuchet --an acquaintance of mine -- just killed himself in the aftereffects of the Madoff case. He had dragged his clients into investing with Madoff . "Killing himself over money?" I kept hearing. No, it is not about the money --it was other people's money. It is about dignity. I could not help comparing it to Madoff, pictured walking around Manhattan with a faint smirk --totally insensitive to the harm he caused.

    This is an aristocratic act coming from an aristocratic character: you take your own life when you believe that you failed somewhere -- and the solution is to inflict the ultimate penalty on yourself. It is not the money; but the embarrassment, the shame, the guilt that are hard to bear. Someone callous, indifferent to the harm done to others would have lived comfortably ("it is all about money"). A life of shame is not worth living. Christianity never allowed suicide; the stoics did --it allows a man to get the last word with fate.

    Thierry, veuillez recevoir l'expression de mon respect le plus profond.

    Nassem Nicholas Taleb on his blog "Fooled by Randomness"

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you so much - here's the link to it (it's down the page, note 106).

    ReplyDelete

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