Eluana, or Man’s Ultimate Freedom. Ending One’s Life. 2

Lucretia stabs herself after rape. Joos van Cleve, Flemish artist, 1485 - 1540. Click for credits

Rape and death of Roman Lucretia

To her husband’s question, “Is all well?,” Lucretia replied:

“Far from it; for what can be well with a woman when she has lost her honour?
The print of a strange man is in your bed. Yet my body only has been violated;
my heart is guiltless, as death shall be my witness.” …

Taking a knife which she had concealed beneath her dress, she plunged it into her heart,
and sinking forward upon the wound, died as she fell.

(Livy Book I. 57-60)

Ψ

A discussion about the acceptable reasons for ending one’s life (see our previous post) can profit from the opinion of our forefathers, the Ancients, and from that of the Renaissance men, who channelled ancient thought into modernity.

This post is not a paean to suicide. I am sure Eluana Englaro and Terry Schiavo loved life: was theirs an acceptable life though?

Most of the quotes are taken from the French Renaissance writer Montaigne (II:3), whose Gutenberg English text is available in the translation of Charles Cotton (1630 – 1687). See also the original French text.

Note to readers

To many, old writings are a terrible bore.
They are wrong in my view.
Ancient writings, actual time machines connecting the past to the present, are mind expanding and one of the pleasures of life.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

“The wise man lives as long as he should, not as long as he can” said Seneca, who nobly committed suicide when accused of an attempt on emperor Nero’s life. And Cicero said that while “life depended upon the will of others, death depended upon our own.”

Greco-Roman writers like Plutarch expressed great appreciation for anyone who showed this kind of ultimate dignity.

Tacitus admires Boiocalus, a German chief, “who said to the Romans that he and his tribe might lack enough land to live upon, but land sufficient to die upon could never be wanting.”

Plutarch tells us of this Spartan boy “sold as a slave and by his master commanded to some abject employment, who said: ‘You shall see whom you have bought; it would be a shame for me to serve, when freedom is at reach,’ and having so said, threw himself from the top of the house.”

Ancient thought didn’t always condone suicide. Plato didn’t accept it and the Roman poet Virgil (Aeneid, IV, 434-437) destined those who committed suicide to a region of the afterlife where they were overwhelmed by sadness (tenent maesti loca).

But the prevalent Roman ideal was that of the stoic sage who counted on reason and self-control and who was not afraid of pain or misfortune (see our post ‘On solitude‘). Should life become unbearable, or should one face great dishonour, the Romans of both sexes were not hesitant to commit suicide.

Death was considered an act of ultimate freedom and this was deeply ingrained in the Roman tradition. “Nature has ordained only one entrance to life – said Cicero – but a hundred thousand exits.”

Death was less important than the way of death, which had to be decent, full of dignity, rational (and sometimes theatrical,) while to the Christian mind, self-killing being a sin, suicide is often a desperate, irrational action fruit of depression.

Among famous examples of suicide are Lucretia, Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony (and Cleopatra,) Cato the younger (see picture below), Seneca, Lucan, Petronius Arbiter etc. plus a good number of emperors, Nero, Maximian, Otho, Quintillus etc.

Common people as well considered dignity more important than life in many cases.

Cato of Utica reading the Phedo before comitting suicide. Jean-Baptiste Romand & François Rude (1832). Photo by M. Romero SchmidkteRoman stoicism deeply influenced the West despite the victory of Christianity. “For much of modern Western history, Stoic ideas of moral virtue have been second to none in influence” (Ecole Initiative, Early Church On-Line Encyclopedia.)

We see examples of noble death in Shakespeare, who, like all his contemporaries from Renaissance, felt the influence of ancient thought. The imagination of the Victorian British was captured by Cato’s death (see image on the right), «clawing out his own entrails to avoid Caesar’s despotism — as a courageous and noble death.”

Montaigne, imbued with Roman stoicism, refers how “Alexander laying siege to a city in India, those within, finding themselves very hardly set, put on a vigorous resolution to deprive him of the pleasure of his victory, and accordingly burned themselves together with their city, despite his humanity.” He seems to praise that the Indians preferred a death with honour rather than a life without it.

Montaigne adds a moving example:

“Nothing can be added to the beauty of the death of the wife of Fulvius, a good friend of Augustus. Augustus having discovered that his friend had vented an important secret he had entrusted him withal, one morning that he came to make his court, received him very coldly and looked frowningly upon him. Fulvius returned home full of despair, where he sorrowfully told his wife that, having fallen into this misfortune, he was resolved to kill himself.
To whom she frankly replied, ‘Tis right, seeing that having so often experienced the indiscipline of my tongue, you could not take warning: but let me kill myself first,’ and without more ado she ran herself through the body with a sword.”

Montaigne, quoting Pliny the elder, observes that the mythical Hyperboreans, “when weary and satiated with living, had the custom, at a very old age, after having made good cheer, to precipitate themselves into the sea from the top of a certain rock, assigned for that service” (see our series on the Hyperboreans.)

“Unbearable pain and the fear of a worse death seem to me the most excusable incitements for suicide” is Montaigne’s conclusion.

He was a sincere Christian. But he found inspiration and solace in the teachings of antiquity.

Eluana, or Man’s Ultimate Freedom. Ending One’s Life. 1

A pro Euthanasia demostration before Italy's parliament in Rome

The case of Eluana has again sparked a heated debate in Italy about the right to end one’s life. Eluana Englaro’s sufferings ended on Feb 9 2009. Her family had requested the omission of treatment since their daughter had been kept artificially alive for 17 years.

Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi first tried to ‘save’ Eluana with a decree rejected by our President Napolitano. Thence he desperately tried to pass a bill before Eluana’s death. He arrived late. Now he’s about to pass a bill that will impose ‘artificial life’ indefinitely, despite the prior will of the person (the so-called ‘living will’, pre formulated in the event of incapacity) or the desire of the person’s family. This bill will be voted tonight at the Senate and at the lower house in the next days, despite the hostility of the Italian High Court and of the President of the Italian Republic.

(I’m translating Italian labyrinthine politics: this bill was about the ‘living will’ but a last minute prearranged amendment de facto nullified this will. Classic)

I wonder how many people in Italy (or abroad) really believe that Berlusconi and many politicians of his coalition are so religious. Many think – me included – that this is the umpteenth occasion they found to strengthen their grip on power and on institutions, since Berlusconi plans to change the Constitution and the support of the Catholic church in this country is always a powerful political factor.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

The Church and strict Catholics applaud. ‘Life’ to them must be saved at any cost.  I respect this belief and I respect the Catholic Church, which is somewhat a remnant of what was Rome, and the Pontifex Maximus, or Pope, the last surviving magistrate of ancient Rome.

But, if I respect Catholic beliefs, are strict Catholics respecting the beliefs of others?

I mean, in a free democratic state, how can a religion or a government impose their will on an individual or his family in such private matters? How can they trample on what is, to few (or to many,) their ultimate freedom, death? In name of what? Of so to say absolute truths believed only by a part of the population?

(We’ll skip the historical fact that the first Christians condoned suicide)

What if one belongs to another religion? What if one has no religion? Shouldn’t people be free thinking (and given free choice) and isn’t personal freedom enshrined in the Italian constitution?  (art. 13, inviolability of individual freedom)

Isn’t this an expropriation of our civil rights?

This is the problem with some people: all they want is power. This is also the problem with decent people who believe in absolute truths: these truths escape doubt and inquiry and, seen as undeniable, are considered by them mandatory also for those who don’t believe in them.

Ψ

This I’m thinking while watching on TV all these politicians, some sincere and some not, cheering about the upcoming victory of ‘life’.

Young People vs Life


World Youth Orchestra. Fair use

World Youth Orchestra. Fair use

 

Young people sometimes hold in little account their wonderful life and give it away in the name of a cause without too much reflecting on the consequences of their actions. When I was a child my mother told me about this guy, one of her father’s best friends, a seven-generations Roman (romano di sette generazioni, used here to indicate a real Roman) who died as a volunteer in World War I leaving a young wife and four orphaned children, two girls and two boys, all of them extremely attractive, she said.

The girls and the youngest boy led a normal life (he was often sad and incidentally died too as a volunteer in World War II); the eldest boy went a bit on the wild side and became a hopeless lady-killer, apparently even more affected than his youngest brother by this deprivation of paternal counsel. His children and grandchildren suffered because of his bearing, my mother said, and many turned out to be a failure in their lives.

If what my mother said is true it seems that the price for a moment of thoughtless idealism was a high one to pay and all this badly affected the generations to come (which doesn’t mean at all that I am against idealism or against the idea of fighting for a right cause, this is not my point).

Corfu Island Channel. Public domain

Corfu Island Channel. Public domain

 

Young people are such radical idealists. During the 1968 student revolution a few youths burned themselves alive as a sign of protest.

10 years later approximately I was enjoying my August holidays on the enchanting Greek island of Corfu together with Flavia and a couple of friends (see picture above). There we met this Greek father of a young man who apparently was my age (I was between 27 and 30 at that time, don’t remember exactly, while my friends were younger than me).

This poor father was a tailor and being noon and terribly hot I really wanted my jeans to be cut Bermuda-like in order to better resist the heat. So we saw this tiny little workshop and entered it (the little street was similar to the one in the picture below). While bending to the ground in order to measure my pants and be able to cut them accordingly, the old man suddenly burst into tears, a bewildering behaviour that surprised us.

When he calmed down a bit he said that I was the age his son would have been if he didn’t burn himself alive for protest against the Greek colonels (namely the dictators that governed Greece with an iron hand one decade roughly before that summer, and who were supported by the US who were trying to prevent Greece from embracing communism).

I will never forget this poor man’s eyes, wet with tears and expressing such an infinite pain.

Corfu Town. Gnu Licence low res Fair Use

Corfu Town. Gnu Licence (low res Fair Use)

 

Italian version
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 122 other followers