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Violence Against Oneself


Varieties of Self-Inflicted Violence Human beings do violence to themselves in different forms and for a variety of reasons that are often hard to pin down. Physical violence, in the guise of corporal punishment or starvation are one form of violence that humans inflict to themselves (famous the images of the Medieval monks flagellating their bodies); yet, humans often take courses of action that do inflict themselves psychological violence, as when they decide to embark on a solo sailing tour of the earth or on a solo expedition to the North Pole. What do those sorts of actions tell us about ourselves? Is violence inflicted against ourselves a form of sin?

Is Violence Against Oneself a Sin?
In his Commedia, Dante places the violent against themselves in the fourth circle of the Inferno (Canto thirteenth): by committing suicide, they had been sinning. Dante’s view was not isolated: in the history of Western philosophy, sin has always been regarded as an unethical action. On the other hand, we do find many societies in which suicide is regarded as an act of responsibility and wisdom: there are circumstances in which the only good option you may have left is to kill yourself. Why is it that in Western society suicide has such a bad name is a complex question: part of the reason may have to do with religion, salvation, and the purpose of creation. If God created the world for humans to enjoy it, if God gives and takes life, it is not up to the individual to decide when her life ought to be over.

Violence and Self-Determination
That violence against oneself is regarded as a sin is even the more striking when we consider that several of those who would submit to such a tenet are also strenuous defenders of the right to self-determination. If every human has a right to autonomously decide what to be or become in life, why is it that taking away one’s own life is not an option? What makes it a crime?

One possible answer is that by committing suicide you are harming your dearests: the loss of a dear person is a trauma, thus by committing suicide you are actually doing psychological violence to them.

This line of reasoning, however, seems quite weak. After all, most of your autonomously taken decisions may inflict psychological violence to your dearest. For example, deciding to marry a person that your parents do not like, or deciding to take a job or lead a lifestyle that your parents despise may be occasions of psychological violence: your parents cannot even argue against you, on pain of violating your autonomy, on the other hand they may be placed under much distress. If you decide to commit suicide, what’s so different?

Of course, death is a much more traumatic event then marriage or the wrong career path. We are certainly not arguing for the opportunity of anyone to take away her life: I do love living and would never give away the pleasure of being in this world for anything. But I find it difficult, sometimes, to square this perspective with some other of the major tenets of our society.

Violence and the Paradox of Tragedy
Leaving suicide aside, now, as an extreme case of violence against oneself, it remains a mystery why human beings enjoy inflicting pain to themselves. Consider the so-called paradox of tragedy: why is it that human beings rejoice in watching tragedy, if they are in pain while watching it and they have bad dreams and bad thoughts afterwards? No different is the question concerning horror: why do humans watch horror movies?

Those sorts of questions are part of the broader set of interrogatives surrounding violence: why are humans violent, in the first place?

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