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Suicide has always been seen in different ways during the course of history and across the history of the European countries. The person that produced suicide used to be seen in a bad way moth of the times in the recent past. In France, for example, the body of the person who had produced the suicide was punished for having done such a terrible thing and it was hanged by feet, dragged through the street on a hurdle, burned and then thrown on the public garbage heap. Going back to the ancient civilized Athens of Plato, the body of the person who had had the shamelessness of taking his life off was buried outside the city and above all away from the other graves, the hands, which were considered the means the person had produced the suicide with, were cut off, thrown away and then buried apart. In England nobles producing the suicide used to loose their property and their castles and we have to underline that this particular English law was not changed until 1870.
But the bad considerations about the suicide are born in the primitive societies, when it was considered as a frightening stuff and this horror of suicide survived so long in Europe. The terror and the worse consideration about the suicide derives, moreover, from the fact that people were usually used to equating it with murder.
The word “suicide” is a typical Latin word; but if we studied the very different ways that English language still has to mean the concept we usually think of when we hear this word, we would notice words such as “self-murder”, “self-destruction”, “self-killing”, “self-homicide” and we can see how all these words reflect the association with murder and with the homicide of the self.
They also reflect the difficulty the Church had in rationalizing its ban on suicide, since neither the Old nor the New Testament directly prohibits it. The four suicides recorded in the Old Testament – Samson, Saul, Abimelech and Achitophel – do not get adverse comment by anyone! Judas Iscariot himself is recorded as blankly. We also must say that the idea of suicide interpreted as a crime came later in the Christian doctrine. Only in the VI century a.D., the Church legislated against the suicide and we ought to add up that the only biblical authority was a special point of view of the sixth commandment: “Thou shalt not kill”. The Fathers of the Church interpretated this commandment according to a weird sense of life: whoever would have killed himself, would have also produced an homicide and would have gone against the God’s commandment. Christianity is founded on the belief that the life of each human being is the gift of God and, rejecting it, would mean to reject God Himself and to frustrate His will as well; moreover, killing His image would certainly mean killing Him and this would have taken the Christian to the eternal damnation.
In other societies, whose gods were those of violence and whose ideal was bravery, suicide was often looked on as a great good though. For example, the paradise of the Vikings was Valhalla, “the Hall of those who died by violence”, where the Feast of Heroes was presided over by the god Odin. Only those who had died violently could enter and partake of the banquet. The greatest honour and the surest qualification was death in battle; next best was suicide. Those who died peacefully in their beds, of old age or disease, were excluded from Valhalla through all eternity. So suicide is seen as a good thing and, according to some people, Odin himself, the ancient German god, the supreme god of war, wounded himself with his own sword, and then he was ritually burnt. Similarly there was a Druid maxim promoting suicide as a religious principle: “There is another world, and they who kill themselves to accompany their friends thither, will live with them there”. We notice how the suicide was interpretated differently in the German world and in the Latin world: this might have happened because of the influence of the Christian Church above the Latin world.
If we today stopped ourselves for a moment and if we thought how suicide is usually imagined, we will catch that suicide is an act of choice, a terrible choice, but a choice. The person who thinks this choice is the most correct and the last choice to make, dies by his own hand because he thinks life has not worth living any longer. In the more recent history we have a lot of examples of suicides arisen from the conviction that life had not worth living: we could think of the Spanish Conquest of the New World which represents on of the most deliberate genocide where the treatment of the native inhabitants was so cruel and so bad that many Indians killed themselves rather than keeping on getting massacred.
In the course of history we can count many famous suicides: Socrates, Codrus, Lycurgus, Cato, Zeno, Seneca and Paulina. Among many others were Greek orators such as Isocrates and Demosthenes; the Roman poets Lucretius, Lucan and Labienus, and the dramatist Terence, the critic Aristarchus and then many important characters of history like Hannibal, Brutus, Cassius, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Nero, Otho and so on. And there was also Mithridates who, to protect himself from his enemies, had immunized himself by years of swallowing small doses of poison. But we have to point out that the Romans looked on suicide neither with fear nor revulsion, but as a carefully considered and chosen validation of the way they had lived and the principles the had lived by. So there was no revenges, no degradation, no evidence of fear or any sort of horror. Rarely the Romans used to punish the suicide and just when it was looked on as a crime: for instance, it was a crime for a slave to kill himself for the simple reason that he represented to his master a certain capital investment. If he killed himself, or attempted to, within six months of his purchase he could be returned – alive or dead – to his old master and the deal was declared invalid. In the same way, a soldier was considered to be the property of the State and his suicide was tantamount to desertion. Finally, it was also an offence for a criminal to take his own life in order to avoid trial for a crime for which the punishment would be forfeiture of his estate. In this case, a suicide was declared to be without legal heirs. The relatives, however, were allowed to defend the accused as though he were still alive; if he were found innocent, they then retained their inheritance; if not, it went to the State.
Once Cesare Pavese said that “No one ever lacks a good reason for suicide”. If suicide was once a mortal sin, nowadays it has become a private vice, something shameful to be avoided and tidied away. Suicide is humanly shocking and at the same time it has become a respectable thing because of science and its studies: that is, it has become the subject of intensive scientific research, and science, according to what someone usually says, makes anything respectable. This change began in 1897 with the publication of Emile Durkheim’s classic Suicide: a Study in Sociology. This sub-title made the point unequivocally; the main question was no longer the morality of the act itself but the social conditions which produce such despair. After Durkheim scientific studies about suicide have multiplied since the 1920s on: theories of every colour by psycho-analysts, psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, sociologists and social workers were done. Lately many essays about suicide have been written and many scientists have agreed on the fact that a new science is born: “suicidology”. In order to avoid increasing the numbers of suicides, many centers against suicide have been founded: the most important one is the Suicide Prevention Centres in Los Angeles.
Sometimes suicide may be connected with problems of love and this is very common between young people above all. We can just think of Romeo and Juliet’s suicide story and in this case we’d be in front of a youthful-idealistic and passionate suicide. Romeo and Juliet, moreover, also embody another popular misconception: that of the suicidal great passion. It seems that those who die for love generally do so by mistake and ill-luck, but this is false. Some people, even between the young people, kill themselves because of unhappy love affairs, and others because of debts or something like this. Some other people are able to kill themselves because of bad weather conditions and, by the way, many scientists point out how many of these suicides all over the world happen during the winter season, and this is obviously ridiculous. Suicide cannot be connected with winter or fall or anything else like this and it is definitely produced by a factor of depression in most of the cases. Nowadays lots of young people kill themselves mostly because of problems of love or because of something linked to love. The scientists explain that there is a large number of suicides between teenagers because they act more impetuously, on the wave of emotion whereas the old are more knowing and really careful.
According to the most recent statistics the highly industrialized and prosperous countries tend to have comparatively high suicide-rates but meanwhile we must add that these countries have comparatively sophisticated methods of collecting the information on which the statistics will be based and fewer prejudices against who does suicide too.
A large number of successful and would-be suicides give clear warning of their intentions beforehand and they are often driven to the act because their warnings are ignored or brushed aside or even treated with superficiality. All this causes that terrible act and at a certain point of despair a man will be killing himself in order to show the entire world he had lived in, he was and he is serious.
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