13 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 19

Ancient & modern

The death of Dr David Kelly has raised questions about justifications for suicide. The ancient Greeks were equally interested in the issue.

Greeks, Like Romans, tended to take the view that humans were, for the most part, in full control of what they chose to do. The concepts of 'mental imbalance' or 'unconscious motivation' were not commonly applied. The main question, then, was 'Why did X commit suicide?', and the judgment about whether the suicide was to be applauded or condemned depended on the circumstances. In eneral, it was more favourable to commit suicide as a result of conscious deliberation than rash impulse: one must at all times be in control. Given that public appearances and reputation meant so much to the Greeks, anyone who committed suicide out of shame or because they thought they had been irretrievably dishonoured would be regarded as acting appropriately; while self-sacrifice, on behalf of friend or country, was actively applauded. The method of suicide also had to be taken into consideration. To use the sword was heroic; to jump from a cliff, drown or hang oneself was not the mark of a noble spirit. Philosophers debated the issue at length. In the dialogue Phaeclo, Socrates, immediately before being executed by the state, argues that men are in the care of the gods, as one of their possessions. If any of a man's possessions destroyed itself, just like that, without telling its owner, one would be very angry; therefore, as a possession of the god, one must not put an end to oneself — unless the god imposes unavoidable conditions. Socrates' disciple Plato follows this up in his last dialogue, Laws, when he forbids suicide in his perfect state, except on the grounds of excruciating and unavoidable misfortune or irremediable disgrace. Aristotle, in his Nicornachean Ethics, explains that Athenians regarded the act as an offence against the state, and therefore punished the suicide with 'certain marks of dishonour'. Elsewhere, Aristotle argues that only a coward uses suicide in an attempt to escape poverty, the pangs of love, pain or sorrow, 'for it is weakness to fly from troubles; such a suicide does not endure death because it is noble, but to escape evil'.

A noble suicide in the ancient world was the act of someone who hoped to preserve his honour: the motive derived from perceptions of what virtus meant for a male. Personal despair or grief did not to come into this category. An ancient Greek jury, at any rate, would still be out on Dr Kelly.

Peter Jones