The suicide of Ajax the great.
It's an act that flies in the face of the basic instinct that governs our lives and the lives of most other animals: self-preservation. Many of the world's religions, especially the three monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have traditionally condemned it.
Suicide has baffled us through the ages. It has a long and ever-changing history. As A. Alvarez, the author of The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, tells us, "suicide has permeated Western culture like a dye that cannot be washed out."
In ancient Greece and Rome, suicide was quite common and sometimes even glorified. Even early Christianity was surprisingly non-judgmental about the act. The Old Testament, for example, tells us at least four suicide stories without much commentary let alone condemnation. But all that changed in the 4th century when St. Augustine pronounced suicide as a sin against God. Western philosophers have, through the ages, grappled with suicide.
Aristotle was against it, calling it an act against the State. Plato was also opposed. St. Thomas St. Aquinas argued that suicide was a sin because it usurped God's power over our lives and deaths. However, the Roman Stoic Seneca was more nuanced in his judgment of suicide. He believed the quality of one's life was more important than it's length. When his own life became too difficult, he killed himself.
For centuries, suicide was equated with murder, so words like self-killing, self-murder and self-slaughter were part of the vocabulary. This might explain why in many parts of Europe, the remains of suicides were burned, dragged through the streets or hung from a gibbet like criminals.
But as Western society shrugged off centuries of religious tradition, suicide became more of social problem than a moral one. Some point to a book published in 1897 - Emile Durkheim's seminal work: Suicide: A Study of Sociology. As the English poet and critic Alvarez put it: "the subtitle made the point unequivocally, the question was no longer the morality of the act but the social conditions that produced such despair."
Today, despite over a century of research, suicide continues to puzzle scientists, academics and psychiatrists.