The Possibility of Self-Sacrifice
April 14, 2014
Apr 14, 2014
33 Min read time
When is public death meaningful? A case study of political suicide.
The English suffragette Emily Wilding Davison collapses after running into the path of the king's horse at the Epsom Derby, June 4, 1913.
Normally, death is present in our lives as an ending-yet-to-arrive. For most of us, Simone Weil writes, “Death appears as a limit set in advance on the future.” We make plans, pursue goals, navigate relationships—all under the condition of death. We lead our lives under the condition of death; our actions are shaped by it as a surface is shaped by its boundaries.
However, as we approach this boundary, when our end is present, we are nothing but terror. All pursuits disintegrate, and our self-understanding collapses. At once we are expelled from the sphere of meaning. We are nothing more than this body. This body and its last breath. It is not simply that we cannot survive our own death; we cannot bear the sight of it. We do not want to die. Not now.
And yet the possibility of self-sacrifice suggests that this terror can be overcome, that death can be meaningful. One recent example is that of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010 and whose death put in motion the massive uprising known as the Arab Spring. But there are many less noted acts of self-sacrifice. In different places and moments in time, in different languages and cultures, soldiers, activists, lovers, friends, and parents exhibit a willingness to die that demands our attention.
Such acts, so difficult to comprehend, may seem at first sight unworthy of serious consideration. But rushing to this conclusion would be a mistake. It is not only that by dismissing acts of self-sacrifice as unintelligible we disavow a prevalent and influential human phenomenon. Understanding these acts may also shed light on the way we value things more generally. Indeed, we will see that even if most of us will never actually take such extreme measures, the possibility of self-sacrifice is part of living a meaningful life.
Consider, then, three famous individuals whose deaths are often seen as examples of self-sacrifice. As we consider their deaths, we will come to realize that only one of them found meaning in her own life and that, surprisingly, of the three it is only her death that may properly be called an act of self-sacrifice.
Three Sights of Death
First: a seventy-year-old man. His beard elongates his stocky face. He has an exceptionally broad and flattened nose. Its nostrils flare with each breath, as if each drawing of air originates in a new, voluntary decision to inhale. We watch him in the early hours of dawn, sitting quietly in his prison cell. The skin on his forehead is wrinkled and soft and covered with dried sweat. He has not bathed during these days of waiting, of which this day is second to last.
The old man’s eyes are fixed on the spot where his friend and disciple had just stood. Only a moment ago his friend spoke hopefully, pleading with the old man to flee this jail, to come with him, to save himself. Perhaps the old man is considering the state of mind his friend must be in now: walking back, his mission unfulfilled, unable to understand why his wish that life prevail was shattered by the wisest of men.
Crito has left, and Socrates, who thrived most amongst the crowds, is now alone in his cell, having turned down his last chance of survival. On the day after tomorrow he will drink a cup of poisoned hemlock and expire in accordance with the decision of the Athenian court. The sun rises in the sky outside and daylight fills the dank, dusty cell. Socrates breathes calmly, his nostrils flare and contract. It is summer, 399 BCE.
Socrates could not acknowledge that his death would be a terrible loss.
Second: two months short of his forty-sixth birthday, a man in uniform steps from a balcony into an office that is not his own. The office belongs to the commandant of the Japan Self-Defense Force, who is tied and held at sword-point near the wall. “I don’t even think they heard me,” the man says, as he undoes the last button of his uniform jacket.
A moment ago, standing on the balcony, he had called upon the 800 soldiers of the 32nd Regiment to rise against Japan’s liberal-democratic constitution in the name of the country’s history and tradition: “Will you abide a world in which the spirit is dead and there is only a reverence for life?” he asked. The soldiers jeered and hissed, “Let the commandant go!” “Come down off there!” He was not able to finish his speech and decided to move forward with his plan. He motioned to his soldier, Morita, and together they called out, “Long live his imperial Majesty! Long live his imperial Majesty! Long live his imperial Majesty!”
Having failed to inspire a coup d’état, the man sits on the floor of the commandant’s office, and Morita takes his place behind him and slightly to his left, a sword raised above his head. The man grasps a short sword with both hands and points it to his stomach. His strong eyebrows sharpen, but his face is still imprinted with vulnerability. He was a tender, sickly child, and though his features have hardened over the years, though he is now the commander of his own army, the Shield Society, the fragile essence of his face has remained: his right eye slightly larger than his left and higher on his face.
The next moment, the man will disembowel himself. He will then be decapitated by Morita, with the help of another soldier, Furu-Koga, who will, in turn, decapitate Morita and thereby complete the seppuku ritual and the effort of the Shield Society to revive “the spirit of Japan.” This will be the end of one of Japan’s most celebrated and prolific authors, Yukio Mishima, in Tokyo, November 25, 1970.
Third: a forty-year-old woman in the midst of a great crowd of people huddled around the Epsom Downs Racecourse, south of London. Her thin lips are pressed together, her eyes, normally weary and doubtful, are filled with intent. She stands close to the barrier that separates the masses from the racetrack and watches the horses’ hooves thump the ground.
The socialites, the gamblers, the peddlers, the riff-raff, the jockeys, King George V and his wife Queen Mary—all are present and following the race. None entertains a shred of doubt that the Derby will run its course. Emily Wilding Davison, a militant suffragette, resists this overwhelming certainty. She stands still, around her the incessant movement of things and events, the habitual pattern of human and animal affairs. She clasps the metal bar and takes a deep breath. She slips under the railing, the suffragettes’ flag on her body, and runs to the king’s horse, which has appeared around the bend. Days later she will die of her injuries. It is June 4, 1913—Derby Day.
Socrates, Yukio Mishima, and Emily Wilding Davison. Perhaps the only thing they have in common is their public embrace of death. All three had sufficient time and leisure to consider their options, to choose their ending, and all saw death as their final, life-affirming action.
• • •
At the beginning of the Crito, the Platonic dialogue, Crito greets Socrates as the latter awakens at dawn in his prison cell. “Have you just come, or have you been here for some time?” Socrates asks. Crito has been by Socrates’s side for a while. He explains that he did not want to wake Socrates from his peaceful sleep and wonders at Socrates’s ability to rest so calmly in the face of death.
The court of Athens has unjustly convicted Socrates of impiety and corruption of the youth. Sentenced to death by poisoned hemlock, he now awaits his execution. Socrates tells Crito, “It would not be fitting at my age to resent the fact that I must die now.” But Crito cannot share Socrates’s serenity. Crito does not want to lose “a friend, the like of whom I shall never find again” and fears that his own reputation will be harmed, as he will seem to have done nothing to help his dear friend.
Crito offers Socrates reasons in support of escape while discounting reasons against it. The escape operation would be financially and logistically undemanding, Crito says. He assures Socrates that there are many places where he would be welcomed and protected. It would not be right for Socrates, Crito says, to throw away his life when he has a chance to save it. On top of all this, Crito believes Socrates’s sons need him to complete their education and that Socrates would be betraying his sons by accepting his sentence.
But Socrates believes that it would be unjust for him to escape. “The only valued consideration,” he asserts, “is whether we should be acting rightly in giving money and gratitude to those who will lead me out of here, and ourselves helping with the escape, or whether in truth we shall do wrong in doing all this.” Then Socrates presents Crito with a principle, which Crito readily affirms: “If it appears that we shall be acting unjustly, then we have no need at all to take into account whether we shall have to die if we stay here and keep quiet, or suffer in another way, rather than do wrong.” In this, Socrates repeats a principle from the Apology: “A man . . . [ought to] consider this alone whenever he acts: whether his actions are just or unjust, and the deeds of a good or bad man.”
While there is debate among scholars about why Socrates believes justice requires that he accept his sentence, the resolution of this dispute is not crucial for our purposes. What is pertinent is Socrates’s assertion that justice is the only relevant consideration. Socrates does not merely maintain that wherever considerations of justice conflict with other considerations—such as one’s well-being or the well-being of one’s friends—justice prevails. Rather, Socrates seems to hold that justice is the only consideration that is to be borne in mind. There could therefore be no conflict between the demands of justice and one’s private attachments. Crito’s considerations in favor of escape are not merely defeated by considerations of justice; they lack all force, whatever the verdict of justice might be.
On this plausible reading of the Crito, Socrates believes his imminent death does not give him any reason to escape—not even a reason defeated by justice—and his death is therefore neither a loss nor a sacrifice. He is completely oblivious to the tragedy that animates Crito.
I believe that Socrates’s indifference to his own death—apparent in his denial of his own sacrifice—is at the heart of the dialogue. If only Socrates were able to acknowledge that his death would be a terrible loss, Crito’s frustration with his refusal to flee might be assuaged. After all, even if justice requires great sacrifice, it is still a sacrifice that is required.
By the end of the dialogue, Crito has given up hope of bringing Socrates around. And when Socrates offers him another opportunity to persuade him, Crito resigns: “No, Socrates, I have nothing to say.” As Crito leaves him, Socrates’s face is not the face of an individual in the presence of his own death; it is the face of blind justice.
• • •
If Socrates was indifferent to death, Yukio Mishima was obsessed with it. John Nathan, Mishima’s biographer, believes Mishima “was driven by a longing for death that he had been in touch with, and intermittently terrified by, since his childhood.” In Mishima’s writing, the moment of death is portrayed as one of sublime ecstasy and beauty. It is at once the pinnacle of life’s longings and their satisfaction.
In “A Forest in Full Flower,” written at the age of sixteen, Mishima describes a woman who is terrified of the sea. After days of frenzy, she covers her face and races toward the beach. “The sea breeze beat at her ears and the waves roared at her. When she felt warm dry sand beneath her feet her body trembled. She took her hands away from her face.” Finally, she gives herself to the sea:
From that moment of impact against her breast, the sea god lived inside her. She was enfolded in the mysterious ecstasy of the moment just before the murderer strikes, when we are conscious that we are about to be murdered. It was a moment of unmistakable premonition, but a premonition which held no meaning for the present. It was a beautifully isolated present, a moment disconnected and pure as anything in the world.
But it is important to distinguish between suicide and the harmonious death Mishima venerates. In a portrait of himself called “The Boy Who Wrote Poetry,” Mishima writes:
He liked Oscar Wilde’s short poem ‘The Grave of Keats.’—‘Taken from life when life and love were new / The youngest of the martyrs here is lain . . .’ The youngest of the martyrs here is lain. It was so surprising how catastrophe assailed these poets like a benefaction. He believed in pre-established harmony. The pre-established harmony in the biographies of poets. Belief in that was the same as believing his own genius.
It gave him pleasure to think about the long speeches that would be delivered at his funeral, and about fame and honor after death. But the thought of his own corpse made him uncomfortable. ‘Let me live like a sky-rocket. Let me color the night sky for an instant with all my being and then burn out.’ The boy thought hard, but could think of no other way to live. But he ruled out suicide. Pre-established harmony would do him the favor of killing him.
Suicide is a disruption of the order of things in the name of an individual’s insignificant needs. In contrast, the death that Mishima exalts brings the individual back into the world—into tradition or nature, into beauty—and thereby rescues the individual from his feeble, unjustified, unreal existence. Death is valuable for Mishima as proof of one’s identification with something other than one’s physical being. Only in dying for something does one know she has lived for something.
As Mishima understood it, the tradition for the sake of which he proclaimed his death was a tradition of self-sacrifice. In his words, “The samurai’s profession is the business of death. No matter how peaceful the age in which he lives, death is the basis of all his action. The moment he fears and avoids death he is no longer a samurai.”
But Mishima’s logic of death is self-defeating. It begins with the thought that self-sacrifice is proof of one’s non-instrumental relation to the world, and continues to conceive of self-sacrifice as a mere instrument of self-affirmation. If Mishima died in order to prove he had lived for a greater ideal, then he died not for a greater ideal but for his own vindication.
One of Mishima’s most celebrated short stories, “Patriotism,” describes the last hours of a newlywed couple that commits seppuku. The husband is a lieutenant in the imperial army who was put in charge of suppressing a rebellion led by some of his closest friends. He is resolute in his decision to die in order to avoid battling his friends. His wife promptly decides to join him. The story goes on to depict in great detail “the last moments of this heroic and dedicated couple,” moments that “were such as to make the gods themselves weep.” For the narrator, the ground of their act, the reason for their self-inflicted deaths, is a mere pedestal for the act itself. The story is not about why they died, but about how they died. The characters’ self-sacrifice is valued independently of what it is for. But self-sacrifice for its own sake is no sacrifice at all.
Nathan writes that by the time of his death Mishima had written
forty novels, eighteen plays (all lavishly performed), twenty volumes of short stories, and as many literary essays. He was a director, an actor, an accomplished swordsman and a muscle man; he had been up in an F-102 and had conducted a symphony orchestra; seven times he had traveled around the world, three times he had been nominated for the Nobel Prize.
And yet, in an article he published in July 1970, five months before his death, Mishima wrote, “When I think of the past twenty-five years within myself I am astonished at their emptiness. I can scarcely say that I have lived.” After Mishima’s death, his brother described him as a man who “always wanted to exist but never could.”
In the end Mishima saw self-sacrifice for some ideal as his only hope of finding value in himself. But this motivation made self-sacrifice impossible for him, for its purpose was not any ideal outside of him but instead his own self-affirmation. In dying, he sought to create his self, not to destroy it for the benefit of a cause. While for Socrates the self dissipated into abstract justice—the self could not have been sacrificed because it did not exist—for Mishima all ideals collapsed into the black hole of the self. Mishima wanted to die for something in order to be someone, but this is precisely why he seems to have died for nothing at all.
• • •
Unlike Mishima’s death, Emily Wilding Davison’s cannot be understood without appreciating the ideal for which she died. And unlike Socrates’s view of justice, Davison’s cause cannot be understood without appreciating the losses she and many other women were willing to incur for its sake.
Davison died not only for women’s right to vote; she died as part of her struggle to let the voices of women be heard—in civil affairs, in government, in public discourse. She was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in Manchester, England, in 1903, by Emmeline Pankhurst. The organization adopted steadily escalating tactics to gain public attention and force the government to grant women the right to vote. At first, the WSPU held public rallies and demonstrations with brass bands and choirs, spoke from soapboxes at county fairs, wrote letters to newspapers, and interrupted political meetings with questions about women’s suffrage. Such disrupting actions were often followed by the women’s arrest.
As these actions proved ineffective, the WSPU turned to more extreme measures. Women broke windows, set fire to mailboxes, carved slogans in golf greens, damaged works of art, destroyed orchid collections, and burned unoccupied country mansions. In response, young men and police chased and beat up the women.
Whenever members of the WSPU were arrested and confronted with a choice between paying a fine and going to jail, they chose jail. Socrates, too, opted for the harsher punishment—death over exile. The choice of punishment is offered as a bargain over meaning: the accused are granted a degree of clemency in exchange for acknowledgment of their crime. But neither the suffragettes nor Socrates were willing to concede the rightness of their actions in exchange for lenience.
In 1909 alone Davison was arrested five times and went to jail four. In jail she joined other women on hunger strikes to protest their status as criminals and demand their classification as political prisoners. According to historians, 1,085 women and 9 male supporters were sent to jail between 1905 and 1914, many of them multiple times. Of that number, 241 went on hunger strikes in jail.
If Mishima died to prove he had lived for a greater ideal, then he died only for himself.
At first the hunger strikes compelled prison authorities to release women out of concern for their health. But hunger strikes became futile as the government began to feed the prisoners by force. Horrifying first-person accounts of these forcible feedings were published in the newspapers associated with the WSPU, Votes for Women and The Suffragette. Women emerged from jail with bruises, bleeding noses, injured mouths and throats, damaged teeth, pulled-out hair, bloodshot eyes, high blood pressure, and dehydration. The risk of injury grew as women resisted the procedure. When doctors were not able to force food down a woman’s throat they would push a rubber tube through her nose. Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline, described a group of men forcing steel instruments into her mouth and between her teeth, cutting her gums. As the literary scholar Maud Ellmann points out, the description is one of oral rape.
The suffragettes were at gridlock. They could not accept their sentences, which treated them as criminals rather than political prisoners. But hunger strikes led to their torture by way of forcible feeding. During the first few years of its implementation, the policy of forcible feeding drew no significant public attention. The government was invading the suffragettes’ mouths and bodies, literally suffocating and silencing them. How could women’s political freedom be claimed in such circumstances?
As a result, many suffragettes chose to refrain from hunger striking. But the crisis was so acute that some suffragettes went on secret hunger strikes. Mary Richardson reported on a woman she met in jail who had been sewing small pieces of metal and nails into her clothing so her weight loss would not be detected when she was weighed. Hunger ceased to be a mere instrument of speech and became the last, desperate, self-contained act of freedom.
Regardless of the actual prevalence of secret hunger strikes, these acts may be seen as a natural, if absurd, consequence of the logic that guided the suffragettes. Secret hunger strikes were yet another escalation when all other avenues had failed, a refusal of the oppressive terms set by the authorities. Once political defeat was imminent, the secret hunger strikers—perhaps with Socrates—continued their political struggle in private, within the self.
Those who did not turn inward, however, seem to have conceived of their struggle as public in essence. For Davison and others there was no freedom apart from political freedom, for which recognition was necessary.
• • •
In June 1912, during another episode of forcible feeding of the jailed suffragettes, Davison threw herself off a balcony to stop “the hideous torture” of her friends. A wire net stopped her fall. She was taken off the net but set herself free from the wardresses’ grip and tried again, only to be saved by the net another time. Then she jumped from the net and fell about ten feet onto her head. She felt “a fearful thud” and lost consciousness. As she told the prison governor the next day, she had thought “one big tragedy may save many others.” The prison governor continued to order her forcibly fed despite her serious injuries.
According to the suffragette Gertrude Colmore, after this incident Davison became all the more convinced that a life would have to be given before the vote was won. “It may be so,” a friend of Davison’s agreed, “but it is not your life that should be given. You have done enough—done your full share and more.” This friend might have been Davison’s Crito. Colmore writes that Davison’s answer was always the same: “Why not I as well as another?” Colmore goes as far as to argue, “To Emily Davison life was worthless save as it could be spent in the service of her cause.” But even if both Davison and Socrates insisted on their own deaths, Davison, unlike Socrates, saw her death as a sacrifice.
On Derby Day, 1913, after collecting two suffragettes’ flags from headquarters, Davison bought a third-class return ticket to Epsom and boarded a packed train to join all strata of British society at the Downs. She stood beside the course at Tattenham Corner in the front line of the dense crowds. As the king’s horse came near, Davison slipped under the railings, ran onto the course, and grasped the horse’s bridle, perhaps with the hope of attaching one of the flags. The animal swerved, the jockey was thrown, and Davison, caught up with the horse as it fell, rolled over and over, headlong across the turf. The jockey was not seriously hurt, and the horse was unharmed, but Davison was unconscious. She died four days later.
Davison’s funeral was a grand event, and her death added to the already-growing public pressure against the government. Due to what had been known as The Cat and Mouse Act, suffragettes had been released from prison whenever their hunger strikes put them in danger and were arrested again once they regained strength. Pankhurst, the leader of the WSPU, was continually in and out of prison beginning April 1913. At the time many believed she would not survive the repeated hunger strikes. It was in the context of Pankhurst’s severe condition that Davison went to Epsom to disrupt the Derby.
After Davison’s death and yet another cycle of arrests and releases, George Bernard Shaw wrote in his newspaper column:
The women who want the vote say in effect that we must either kill them or give it to them. In spite of lawyers’ logic, our conscience will not let us kill them. In the name of common sense let us give them the vote and have done with it.
After the Great War, the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed, enfranchising women over the age of thirty who met minimum property qualifications. The Representation of the People Act 1928 extended the voting franchise to all women over the age of twenty-one.
• • •
Socrates’s decision to drink the poisoned hemlock is commonly perceived as a paradigmatic example of political self-sacrifice. However, as we have seen, Socrates did not recognize any value other than justice—not even the value of his own life—and therefore did not view his death as an act of self-sacrifice. For Socrates, to live justly and to die justly were one and the same.
Mishima’s death also falls short of self-sacrifice, but for opposite reasons. Mishima wished to die for something other than himself because in doing so he hoped to find value in himself. Thus, any value other than his own was, at bottom, instrumental to his own value. Due to his all-encompassing self-concern, and despite his intention to sacrifice himself, Mishima killed himself for his own sake. While Socrates did not recognize his own value, Mishima did not recognize any value other than his own. Socrates’s and Mishima’s deaths demonstrate that both a lack and an excess of self-concern preclude self-sacrifice.
Davison was different. As she had said and demonstrated on several occasions, she was willing to die for the cause of women’s political freedom. But it might have been more than mere willingness that characterized Davison’s attitude toward death. Perhaps by insisting on being the one to take mortal risks for the struggle, Davison was not merely sparing her comrades this role but denying them it. Her question—why not I as well as another?—might be read as an exclamation: I, not another. It could be that a life of less than complete devotion to women’s suffrage seemed unbearable to her.
Evidence of such self-understanding may be found in her entry in the Women’s Who’s Who, which she wrote in late 1912 or early 1913. Her account of her life consists almost entirely of a list of arrestable or punishable militant events in which she was involved. As Davison’s biographer Liz Stanley notes, there is no “before feminism” in Davison’s telling of her life story.
This is not to say that, like Socrates, Davison was indifferent to her impending death. She recognized the value of her own life and acknowledged that her death would be a tragedy (though one, she thought, that would prevent many others). Yet the value of her life depended, in her eyes, on her value for the cause. In this she was also different from Mishima, who could not value anything non-instrumentally because his sole concern was with his own value. Davison did not seek her own value in the suffragettes’ struggle, but she did find it there.
This is not unlike the way parents may understand their own value through their value for their children. Although new parents normally continue to value the activities they engaged in and friends they had before their children were born, as their lives are shaped by the needs of their children they come to recognize their own justification in their children’s dependence on them.
At times parents may find themselves imagining what their lives would have been like had they not had children. Or perhaps, only for a moment or two at a time, they may long for their children to disappear and leave them free to do as they wish. But while these forbidden fantasies indicate that parents recognize their value independently of their children, they are also confirmations of their children’s indispensability to them. The fact that in order to imagine being someone else a parent must imagine her life without her child suggests that it is the child who makes the parent the person she is. Thus, the actual loss of a child—as opposed to the fantasy of a child’s disappearance—is a loss of one’s own value and, as such, a loss of one’s sense of self. By making ourselves instruments of something other than ourselves, we feed on the value we serve and affirm our own value through it.
But this familiar rationale may break down. For circumstance might have it that the source of our own value is best served by our demise. Survival then becomes betrayal—both of that which is most valuable to us and of our person, for whom it is a source of value. In such a circumstance—the circumstance in which Davison found herself—not death but life strikes us as transgression.
Indeed, we might consider ourselves lucky to have the opportunity to give our lives to that which renders them valuable. It could be worse: self-sacrifice might be impossible. We might be unable either to hold on to the source of our value or to be consumed by it. To survive such loss may feel like surviving one’s own death. It is as unintelligible, as impossible, as it is wrong. Whether it is the loss of the person we love or the loss of a fight for institutional or communal recognition, we feel that we cannot—should not—be reconciled to it. Are we no more than this body, this body with its barren breath? Will we abide a world in which the spirit is dead?
Self-sacrifice is possible precisely because it is possible to survive loss. Even if we become different people, with different values and goals, and our self-understandings change drastically, it is still we who have suffered the loss and undergone this change. What is unbearable in losing a loved one, failing in one’s life project, or losing one’s home, is the inevitable realization that we are not lost. As much as we might identify with something, as much as we might be devoted to it, we remain distinct from it. This is why loss is possible to begin with: we are doomed to survive things, people, institutions, and ideals that are indispensable to us. Our self-conceptions, whatever they might be, never engulf us completely.
Davison seized the opportunity to give herself for what she valued. Dying for women’s suffrage seemed to her the only way to live a life that was her own. She put her body at the service of the cause that gave her life content.
To be sure, Davison’s self-sacrifice is extreme and uncommon, but the rationale that underlies it is familiar. As parents relate to their children, it is normal to find our own value in that which has value independently of us. The possibility of self-sacrifice is present, if dormant, in the most common of lives.
There is an important difference between private sacrifice, such as the sacrifice parents might incur for their child’s sake, and political sacrifice, such as Davison’s. Private sacrifice may accomplish its goal without being understood. When a parent aims to save her child, or to insure for him a better life, the parent’s act of sacrifice need not be recognized as such in order to be successful. In contrast, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, his act was a plea. Political sacrifice involves a demand for recognition and, as such, it is at the mercy of its observers.
But no matter how bold, public, or explicit, an act of sacrifice may always be discounted after the fact as an isolated, unrepresentative act of a deranged person, or as a mistake, or it may be ignored altogether. When there is no uptake and the message is lost, muffled, or obscured, the community the act addresses does not recognize its meaning, and the sacrifice fails to be political. For this reason acts of political sacrifice are always intensely concerned with their afterlife and the manner in which they will be viewed.
Socrates thought very little of reputation. As far as he was concerned, his refusal to accept Crito’s offer of escape did not turn on whether his decision would be made known or on how an escape would be viewed. It was, for Socrates, simply a matter of abiding by the demands of justice. It was an ethical—not a political—decision, a decision concerned with living according to certain principles.
Nevertheless, Socrates’s decision became famous not only among his fellow Athenians but throughout the ages. Thanks to Plato’s writings, Socrates received the recognition he had never sought. Socrates’s actions and teachings were thereby made political: the principles they stood for influenced and shaped generations to come. Crito’s concern for reputation is not as superficial and wrongheaded as it might first appear to us. It is thanks to this concern for reputation—particularly, Plato’s concern for Socrates’s reputation—that we know of Socrates at all.
Mishima, on the other hand, was well aware of the need to secure the meaning of his death. He made sure three journalists whom he trusted would receive a letter from him an hour before the abduction of the commandant was to take place. He attached to the letter the manifesto he intended to read on the balcony. In the letter, he asks the journalists to publish the manifesto uncut. “To others,” Mishima wrote, “this will seem lunacy; but I hope you will understand that as far as we are concerned, we act purely out of patriotic ardor. . . . I only desire that our purpose be communicated accurately to the public.” But due to the soldiers’ heckles, Mishima never delivered his speech from the balcony of the commandant’s office. Despite his efforts, his death is often viewed just as an act of lunacy.
Accusations of lunacy are regularly employed to deprive actions of their political nature. When suffragettes protested in jail, they faced the risk of being put away in an asylum. The prison authorities—the prison governor, doctors, and wardresses—interpreted the suffragettes’ refusals to abide by their demands as expressions of insanity. By continually putting pressure on the women and addressing their actions and statements as senseless and mad, the prison authorities brought some of the women to the verge of mental collapse. It did not help that the women could hear each other fighting the doctors and wardresses, or crying in pain as they were forcibly fed.
The possibility of self-sacrifice is present, if dormant, in the most common of lives.
After Davison’s death, many argued that she was mentally ill and suicidal. The women of the WSPU set out to debunk such accusations. In a brief biography of Davison, published shortly after her death, Colmore writes:
There are those who declare that St. Paul saw no light on his way to Damascus, and that when he said ‘I am not mad, most noble Festus,’ he uttered an obvious untruth; there are those who maintain that there is no vision save of the earth, earthy, and that in the poet’s eye rolling in fine frenzy is nought of the perception of the seer; there are those who would substitute always the maniac’s straight waistcoat for the martyr’s crown. Nevertheless the vision persists, the martyr’s memory outlives the carpings of the crowd, and the blood of reformers is the seed of the great movements of the world.
Accusations of insanity attempt to deprive the reformer of her principles. This is not surprising, because, like the insane, the reformer strives to oblige her social surroundings, to draw them into a different world. To do this, the reformer, like the lunatic, denies her insanity while defying common sense.
When recognition is denied of it, a sacrifice that is meant to be political may become a double tragedy. It is not only a death, but also a death for nothing. In spite of Colmore’s confidence in the verdict of generations to come, securing the meaning of one’s own death is impossible. Even when recognition is granted it might be taken back. A new generation might come along and know nothing of it. There is no way to control how our stories will unfold when we will not be there to tell them.
Our deaths might lie there, untouched and ignored, until taken up by who-knows-who, used for the sake of political power or financial gain. Someone down the line might create something beautiful out of our deaths—a painting, a story, a poem, a symphony—something beautiful but far from who we were and what we cared for. Or we might appear as examples in an essay that will be written a hundred years after. Or, more likely, our deaths will disappear, together with the deaths of most human beings, into one of the many crevices of history.
Describing the day of the 1913 Derby, King George V wrote in his diary, “Poor Herbert Jones and Anmer had been sent flying” on a “most disappointing day.” Anmer was the King’s horse and Herbert Jones the jockey who rode it. There was no mention of Davison. However, in 1928, at the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst, Jones laid a wreath “to do honour to the memory of Mrs. Pankhurst and Miss Emily Davison.” It has been reported that Jones claimed to be “haunted by that poor woman’s face.” In 1951 Jones was found dead in a gas-filled kitchen.
Last May, Jones’s son said that stories of his father being “haunted” by Davison’s face were “an utter load of rubbish.” Michael Tanner, author of The Suffragette Derby (2013), describes the jockey as “very gregarious, happy and contented and interested in local football and cricket and a keen gardener” until his hearing began to fail. Tanner said his research had suggested that the story of Jones being “haunted” by Davison’s face had only been around for the last ten to fifteen years.
• • •
If our death aims at recognition, there is no knowing whether we will succeed or fail. As devoted as we might be to the meaning of our lives, we lack control over the meaning of our deaths. We deposit our stories in the hands of the community we long for.
Such acts of self-sacrifice may be driven by blind desperation; they may be fraught with recklessness, based on poor judgment, and unlikely to unfold as they are intended. And yet we can now see what such acts attempt to achieve and why sometimes they might be justified despite all that weighs against them. Our parents and children, our homes, our life projects, our landscapes, our society or communities, and the people we love—in our devotion to them lies the possibility of self-sacrifice.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
April 14, 2014
33 Min read time