The Rhetoric of Suicide
In this paper I intend to draw attention to one aspect of the concept of suicide, namely, what I shall call its "responsibility-ascribing" function. In view of the lively controversy generated by R. G. Frey's contention that Socrates committed suicide, 1 I shall use the case of Socrates as a convenient thread to run through my argument. Though I hope, in the process, to shed some light on the way we view the death of Socrates, it is not my main purpose in this paper to solve the problem of describing correctly his manner of death.
True enough, Socrates died, literally, "by his own hand": he knew what he was doing when he lifted the hemlock to his lips and he could (in one sense of "could," at any rate) have escaped into exile. Nevertheless I want to deny that most of us should want to call him a suicide. My ground is that any definition of suicide (such as Durkheim's or Frey's) which allows for Socrates' inclusion in this class is incomplete insofar as it blurs important distinctions between what are, in fact, different manners of viewing a person's death. To claim, as Frey does, that Socrates committed suicide amounts to a disregard of the practical function and, therewith, the rhetorical connotation(s) of the concept of "suicide."
In Durkheim's words: "The term suicide is applied to all cases of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim himself, which he knows will produce this result." 2 This definition, by doing away with motives and intentions, led Durkheim to term suicides acts which are not normally so clas-____________________