In a project of this scope, comprehensiveness must be balanced with selectiveness, and significance assessed in various ways. The texts themselves are drawn as much as possible from original sources. The print volume from Oxford University Press necessarily involves disciplined, even draconian editing; fuller versions of many of these texts are available in the Digital Archive for this volume hosted by the University of Utah J. Willard Marriott Library at <http://ethicsofsuicide.lib.utah.edu>. Some selections are available in the Digital Archive only, and are so indicated in the table of contents and the introductory material for each author or cultural group. Except where otherwise indicated, material in the general introduction, in the author-specific biographical introductions, and in the source references covers both the excerpted texts in the print volume and the full-length selections in the Digital Archive. In general, the biographical material is drawn from and cross-confirmed with the principal general and specialized encyclopedic and reference works in the relevant fields, reviewed and revised in collaboration with the Consulting Editors.
Authors of texts included in this collection are identified with dates and modest biographical information. This information varies in degree of detail in approximate relation to the importance of the figure or the text. However, especially for early and for non-Western texts, authorship is sometimes unknown, inexact, or only traditional (e.g., Hippocrates is the traditional, but not actual, author of the Hippocratic Oath; Confucius is the traditional, but not actual, author of The Book of Filial Piety). Particular attention is given to authors whose writings on suicide have been central in their own thought and/or influential in subsequent discussion of suicide. The volume attempts to achieve a balance between familiar, ordinary, and sometimes banal things said by significant figures and interesting, original things said by obscure figures. Given a particular way of thinking about suicide, who thinks it is, in some cases, as important as what is thought.
Chronology and Dating of Sources
Sources are entered in the chronological listings of this collection by the birthdate of the author or, when there is no identifiable author, the date of the text. Some exceptions are made, and chronological ordering—though for the most part effective—does present some challenges, particularly with older or non-Western texts. For example, chronological presentation of texts by the author’s birthdate does not always reflect the chronology of the composition of the texts or the chronology of the author’s influence on surrounding or subsequent discussion. While traditions such as Judaism and Buddhism are entered by the approximate dates of the earliest written texts, these dates are often extremely inexact. Birthdates are unclear or unknown for some figures (among others, Ignatius of Antioch and Ibn Fadlan); in these cases, chronological listing is by assumed approximate birthdate. Later texts within a tradition that has developed over an extended period are sometimes accumulated under an earlier entry if directly contiguous in content to it; this is true of Jainism and with some of the Talmudic commentaries. When there are discrepancies between traditional dates and historically documented dates, courtesy to a tradition has sometimes prevailed (e.g., the date 632 A.D. [the date of Muhammad’s death] is the date traditionally cited as the beginning of Islam, although scholarly evidence suggests that the earliest material for the Quran and for Muhammad’s autobiography is no earlier than the 690s, and Islam does not emerge as a full theological and legal tradition until the 800s).
Within groupings of oral cultures, which are generally classified by region, cultural or tribal identity, or language group, the assignment of dates in an ongoing chronology is even more problematic. Although the grouping itself is entered in the overall chronology by the date of the earliest text, within a grouping the texts are sometimes arranged by content, often so that myth-related material is first, then descriptions of “the old-ways,” followed by descriptions of then-current practices. The dating of these texts does not necessarily reflect the beginnings or development of particular practices, or beliefs within a group; rather, they reflect the date of recorded contact with outside observers.
Identification and Nomenclature
Identification of sources and authors in the Western, largely European tradition is generally unproblematic. However, for non-Western texts and reports from traditional oral cultures, identification and groupings of texts are made in a variety of ways. Many different systems are in use: Oceanic cultures are usually labeled geographically (by the name of the island or by the name of the people); early European cultures by ethnicity (e.g., Viking); sub-Saharan African cultures by language group; and Central and South American cultures by political society (Aztec, Maya, Inca). In some cases, early ethnographic research has been done in ways that reflect ethnic or linguistic distinctions that, in light of modern findings about genetic relationships among peoples or linguistic changes, are no longer tenable. In general, the identification of groups in this volume seeks to achieve balance among familiarity of conventional ways of identifying cultures, respect for preferences of current members of those cultures about identifying labels, and consistency among cultures. In general, a group’s currently preferred name is used as a heading (e.g., Inuit), while usage of the source texts (e.g., Eskimo) is retained in the sources themselves.
Nomenclatures, both popular and scientific, are often confusing and change over time. For example, all of the following have been used to name Western hemisphere groups: Indians, New World Indians, indigenous peoples, First Peoples, First Nations, Native Americans, MesoAmericans, and Amerindians. Although there are some differences among the meanings of these terms, they are frequently used interchangeably; the practice in this volume is to try to minimize confusion. Nomenclature may also differ as a function of religious identity. For example, a body of text originating in the Middle East from the 12th through the 9th century b.c. and on, though scriptural for all three of the major monotheist religious groups, is called “The Bible,” “The Hebrew Bible,” or (for its first five books) “The Pentateuch” by Jews; “The Old Testament” by Catholics (this label includes the Apocrypha), and “The Old Testament and Apocrypha” by Protestants. In general, the treatment of religious texts in this collection employs the names used by originating groups.
Finally, not only does this volume seek to avoid crude generalizations about cultures and to recognize that the various members of a culture may exhibit a wide range of individual views, but it also recognizes that the ways in which various cultures and individuals within them refer to each other and to each others’ beliefs and practices are at times not generous; such prejudices are sometimes evident in the texts. This collection does not wish to perpetuate such conventions but nevertheless seeks to portray accurately what these sources sought to convey.
Treatment of Texts
For the most part, this collection uses the original titles of sources throughout, though descriptive titles are also sometimes supplied to augment the original or provide identification in the absence of a specific section title. Spelling and capitalization have been for the most part modernized, and diacritical marks for the most part omitted. The textual apparatus in scholarly editions has been omitted, though crucial terms are inserted in brackets in the text. In the print version of this volume, footnotes are held to an absolute minimum and are routinely deleted without specific acknowledgement; some are interpolated into the texts. Chapter and section numbers (for older texts, often added by later editors) have for the most part been removed. Numbering of texts is used only within oral-tradition groups, primarily because these groupings involve a large number of often small selections. However, for most selections, full original texts are available online in this volume’s Digital Archive, and in the source or sources cited at the end of the text. The Digital Archive, hosted by the University of Utah at http://ethicsofsuicide.lib.utah.edu/ and accessible from this text via the QR codes at the beginning of each selection, also provides information about other libraries with holdings of these materials. The Digital Archive is fully searchable.
For texts in translation, most titles have been translated as well, though in some cases, reference to the original title is also made, typically when the work is well known in that way. Where translations have retained some original terms, these are for the most part deleted. Because transliteration from other languages to English may follow a variety of systems (for example, the name of the 4th-century B.C. Chinese poet would be, in Wade-Giles, “Ch’ü Yüan”; in Pinyin, “Qu Yuan”). Because texts may be drawn from different sources using different systems, transliterated names and terms may not be consistent within a tradition.
Severe discipline has been exercised in editing for the print volume, and it has been necessary to exclude much. Omissions, deletions, and the extent of ellipses marked in a text can be determined from the page references given in source notes. Furthermore, the material that appears in the print collection is sometimes part of a much longer discussion and/or has analogues in other works by the same author. Because the editing of sources is so severe and necessarily excludes much of the text’s environment and context, readers are urged to consult the full texts in the Digital Archive—quick access is provided by the QR codes—and indeed the complete works of the authors in whom they are interested.
Note: An earlier version of this essay, framed as a hypothetical project, appears in Margaret Pabst Battin, Ending Life: Ethics and the Way We Die (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 163–174.