The great Arab philosopher Abdul Rahman Ibn Khaldun once wrote about the civilizing impulse whereby societies, as they became more settled and prosperous, tried to add meaning to their every little act.1
As a result, once mundane acts such as eating, fighting, dressing etc. were suddenly elevated to the level of art. Only the elites, however, could approach life as one long artistic performance, a luxury that was well beyond the reach of peasants.
Even death, the great leveller, was not exempt from “artification”: the upper classes expended much energy coming up with various kinds of noble and ignoble deaths.
What was the art of dying? It was the ability to meet death with a calm reassurance, without particular attachment to one’s own life.2
At the highest levels of this art, a nobleman would gladly give up his life if it served to uphold justice and universal order. The honorable man would prefer death to a life of dishonor or to serving a new master.3 Mass suicide in order to avoid capture by invaders was practised across the board from India to Indonesia to China.4
For a noblewoman, deification was more or less assured if she willingly followed her husband into the after life.5
Suicide of the right sort was virtuous, a beautiful act of self-sacrifice expressing one’s duty to one’s group. Suicide of the wrong sort however, as in killing oneself to escape debtors (as a peasant might do), was not on.
All sorts of cults and rituals grew around the act of death. The most famous of these was the Japanese Seppuku or disembowelment.
But the Chinese too prescribed specific methods of suicide according to one’s station in life. For example, drowning was the method preferred among the literati.6
In hushed whispers, the Indians would exchange stories of yogis in the Himalayas who could choose death at will.
And finally, the Javanese developed the most exquisite weapon of self-destruction, the kris: so beautiful that often its owner could not bear to use it at all.7