The worst of all sins, or the greatest expression of liberty? A private cat of revenge against those who have wronged us, or a powerful weapon levelled the enemies of our people? The defence of the honour of a defeated hero or the manifestation of fidelity of a virtuous bride toward her dead husband? These are selected examples of motivations for suicide and meanings attributed over the centuries to this gesture by men and women belonging to different cultures. In this volume the author describes the evolution of suicide rates in Europe, India, China and the Middle East, in a grand comparative historical fresco. An emphasis on cultural aspects over Durkheimian social ones allows the author to identify significant differences between East and West. In the western world Christianity set a strong ethical sanction on "self-homicide", until in the early 17th century there took hold a new conception of the individual that overcame the Christian ideal. In Asia there exists a plurality of forms of suicide that stretch from the elaborate rites of the Indian "sati" to suicide aimed at "hurting others" which pervades Chinese history. The modern era features a combination of cultural traditions and novel forms of political struggle, giving way to episodes of aggressive self-sacrifice (including the Buddhist monk that set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963 and today's Hezbollah suicide missions).
Marzio Barbagli teaches Sociology at the University of Bologna.