The natural end of every human life is death. Some people, for reasons that
have never been fully understood, choose to end their own lives. This is called
suicide, which means literally "self-killing." For all the uncertainty that has
surrounded the phenomenon of suicide, his assessment of the problem is probably
as accurate as any. The individual, in seemingly hopeless conflict with the
world, decides to end his or her existence in what amounts to a final assault
against a society that can no longer be tolerated. In so doing, the person tries
to obtain a final revenge on everything and everyone that have caused their
feelings of depression.
Sometimes suicide has been used as a form of execution. Perhaps the most
famous such case is that of the philosopher Socrates, who was required to drink
hemlock to end his life in 399 BC, after being found guilty of corrupting the
youth of Athens. In the 20th century the German general Erwin Rommel took poison
rather than be executed for his role in a plot to oust Adolf Hitler from office.
In some societies suicide has had social ties. In Japan, for example, the
customs and rules of one's class have demanded suicide under certain
circumstances. Called seppuku or popularly known as hara-kiri, which means
"self-disembowelment" it has long been viewed as an honorable method of taking
one's life. It was used by warriors after losing a battle to avoid the dishonor
of defeat. Seppuku was also used as a means of capital punishment to spare
warriors the disgrace of execution. In India, widows allowed themselves to be
burned to death on their husband's funeral pyre, a practice called suttee.
At least since the 18th century, suicide has been thought of by some as a
romantic type of death. This notion led to the belief that some artistic
individuals writers, painters, and poets glamorize suicide, thinking that such a
death will add to their reputations. The German writer Johann Wolfgang von
Goethe's novel 'The Sorrows of Werther' (1774) reinforced this concept and was
credited with causing a large number of romantic suicides in Europe. Among wel
-known artists who killed themselves are Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Anne
Sexton, Mark Rothko, Jerzy Kosinski, Ernest Hemingway, and Sylvia Plath.
Most suicides in the 20th century occur when the bonds between an individual
and society are injured or broken. Some event, or combination of events, puts
the person "over the edge". Loss of a job or the death of a friend or relative
can start the thoughts of suicide. At the start of the Great Depression, for
example, many people who had...