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The Suicide of Miss Zhao


Mao Zedong (or Mao Tse-tung), the revolutionary who was to become the leading force in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, was born to the family of a small landowner. As was the custom among the peasantry, a marriage was arranged for Mao when he was 13 or 14 to a young woman some four years older, who was to provide labor for the family until the groom was mature, but Mao refused to acknowledge the arrangement, and the marriage was never consummated.

Mao’s early education was in classical Confucian texts, but he also educated himself in Western political thought. In 1911, Mao left school to fight with the revolutionary army until 1912 when the Republic of China was formed. From 1913 to 1918, he was a student at the Hunan Provincial First Normal School at Changsha, where he increasingly rejected traditional Confucian values, such as family loyalty, and became politically active in forming radical student groups. He was at Peking University in the months leading up to the May Fourth Movement demonstrations of 1919 before returning to Changsha to teach. Committed to Marxism by early 1921, Mao played a major role in organizing the peasantry, developing guerilla tactics to resist the Guomindang (Kuomintang) and later the Japanese, promoting the methods of mass revolutionary violence, and eventually, as leader of the Chinese Communist Party, in the administration of the post-revolutionary state. In 1934–35, Mao led his followers on the Long March from Shanghai to a new base in northwest China. In 1949, Mao defeated Chinese nationalist forces under Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek). In the mid-1950s, as chairman of the People’s Republic, he instituted reforms including the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958), intended to achieve economic reform and the institution of socialist and communist agrarian collectivization, and the Cultural Revolution (1966), intended to eradicate the reactionary cultural beliefs and practices of the past in order to make movement into a fully communist society possible. Ruthless purges, repressive social policies, and mass starvation, however, were among the methods and consequences of Mao’s programs.

During his life, Mao wrote both practical and political works. These included works in the 1930s on guerilla strategy and tactics, the philosophical essay On Practice (1937), and On New Democracy (1940), contrasting China’s future form of government—which Mao saw as a “joint dictatorship” of several revolutionary classes—with the Russian Soviet’s single “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Mao’s concern with theory, as well as practice, is reflected in the excerpts presented here from 10 short newspaper articles written in Changsha in 1919. Among his earliest political writings, these articles predate Mao’s embrace of Marxism, but they clearly show elements of his social thinking and sustained critique of traditional Chinese social practices, especially “feudal” or “capitalist” marriage. His concern with “the woman question” and the reform of the marriage laws (eventually enacted in 1950 to prohibit “polygamy, concubinage, child betrothal, interference with the remarriage of widows, and the exaction of money or gifts in connection with marriage”) are clearly evident here. The articles date from the May Fourth period of 1919, a movement named after student demonstrations protesting the post-World War I Paris Peace Conference’s award of German holdings in Shandong (Shantung) province to Japan instead of returning them to China; this period’s “new thought tide” involved a rapid intellectual shift among Chinese radicals from Confucianism to Marxism/Leninism. The May Fourth period also saw a shift from classical literary diction to much more accessible, colloquial language—often based, as these articles by Mao are, on a specific case study.

The case to which Mao was responding was an incident that became a cause célébre in Changsha. Miss Zhao Wuzhen (Chao Wu-chen), a young peasant woman of Changsha, was engaged to marry the widower Wu Fenglin (Wu Feng-lin) on November 14, 1919; the marriage had been arranged by her parents and the matchmaker, as was traditional in the China of the time, occurring in some 80% of marriages. Miss Zhao had met her fiancé only in brief ritual encounters, but she did not wish to marry a widower, even a rich one, and found him old and ugly. Her parents refused to cancel the wedding or even to postpone its date. On the day of the wedding, as she was being raised in the locked and sealed bridal sedan chair to be transported to the home of the groom, Miss Zhao took out a dagger she had concealed in the chair and slit her throat.

Mao’s articles, published Nov. 16–28, 1919, in the leading Changsha daily Dagongbao (Ta Kung Pao), attempt to identify the causes of the tragedy—not an uncommon one, as suicide was often the only means of escape for women. Mao understands the suicide as the product of Miss Zhao’s untenable social circumstances in being constrained by social customs that fail to recognize the independence and value of women—customs that, in treating half of China’s population in this way, were a source of China’s weakness. Mao rejects the traditional ideal of the woman as subject to ruler, father, and husband, and of the female martyr, who would die to preserve her chastity. Indeed, for Mao, Miss Zhao’s suicide was not really a suicide—she did not wish to die, but could not live in the society she inhabited. Suicide, he holds, is in fact wrong, but this suicide in his view was much more nearly a case of murder—by society. This provided the impetus for social reform.

The incident of Miss Zhao and other suicides became a focus of the May Fourth literature, which included several hundred articles on these topics. Three months after the suicide of Miss Zhao, too late for Mao to comment on it in this series, another young woman of Changsha, Li Jicun (Miss Li Chi-ts’un), also found herself faced with an arranged marriage she loathed: instead of killing herself, Miss Li ran away to Beijing (Peking) to join the Work-Study Program and throw herself into the political struggle against opposition. This, argues Roxane Witke, is what Mao would have favored for Miss Zhao as well. Indeed, Mao himself had resisted a traditional marriage arranged for him.

Stuart R. Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949. Vol. I: The Pre-Marxist Period, 1912-1920.  (Armonk, NY and London: M. E. Sharpe, Inc. 1992), pp 421-449. Quotations in introductory notes also from Arthur A. Cohen and Tilemann Grimm, entry “Mao, Maoism,” in C. D. Kernig, ed., Marxism, Communism and Western Society: A Comparative Encyclopedia,  vol. 5.   New York: Herder and Herder, 1973), pp. 288-298;  Roxane Witke,  “Mao-Tse-tung, Women and Suicide in the May Fourth Era,” The China Quarterly 131 (July-September 1967), p. 147; Theodore Hsi-en Chen, “The Marxist Remolding of Chinese Society,” American Journal of Sociology 58(4):340-346 (Jan. 1953), p. 341; Shelah Gilbert Leader, “The Emancipation of Chinese Women,” World Politics 26(1):55-79 (Oct. 1973), p. 58; Stuart Schram, The Thought of Mao Tse-tung. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 27.



Miss Zhao’s Suicide (November 16, 1919)

When something happens in society, we should not underrate its importance.  The background of any event contains the multiple causes of its occurrence.  For example, the event of a “person’s death” can be explained in two ways.  One is biological and physical, as in the case of “passing away in ripe old age.”  The other goes against biological and physical factors, as in the case of “premature death” or “unnatural death.”  The death of Miss Zhao by suicide belongs to the latter category of “unnatural death.”

A person’s suicide is determined entirely by circumstances.  Was it Miss Zhao’s original intent to seek death?  No, it was to seek life.  If, in the end, Miss Zhao chose death, it was because circumstances drove her to this.  The circumstances in which Miss Zhao found herself included: (1) Chinese society, (2) the family living in the Zhao residence on Nanyang Street in Changsha, (3) the Wu family of the Orange Garden in Changsha, the family of the husband she did not want.  These three factors constituted three iron nets, which we can imagine as a kind of triangular construction.  Within these triangular iron nets, however much Miss Zhao sought life, there was no way for her to go on living.  The opposite of life is death, and so Miss Zhao was obliged to die.

If one of these three factors had not been an iron net, or if one of the iron nets had opened, Miss Zhao would certainly not have died.  (1) If Miss Zhao’s parents had not used excessive compulsion, but had acceded to her own free will, she would certainly not have died.  (2) If, while exercising compulsion, Miss Zhao’s parents had allowed her to put her point of view to her fiancé’s family, and to explain the reasons for her refusal, and if in the end her fiancé’s family had accepted her point of view, and respected her individual freedom, Miss Zhao would certainly not have died.  (3) If, even though neither her own parents nor her husband’s family could accept her free will, there had been in society a powerful segment of public opinion to back her, and if there had been an entirely new world to which she could flee, in which her act of flight would be considered honorable and not dishonorable, Miss Zhao again would certainly not have died.  If Miss Zhao is dead today, it is because she was solidly enclosed by the three iron nets (society, her own family, her fiancé’s family); she sought life in vain, and finally was led to seek death.

Last year in Tokyo, Japan, there was the case of the double suicide of the wife of a count and a chauffer who had fallen in love.  The Tōkyō Shimbun published a special issue, following which a number of writers and scholars discussed the incident for several months straight.  Yesterday’s incident was very important.  The background to this incident is the rottenness of the marriage system, and the darkness of the social system, in which there can be no independent ideas or views, and no freedom of choice in love.  As we discuss different kinds of theories, we should discuss them in the light of real, living events.  Yesterday, Mr. Tianlai and Mr. Jiangong have already provided a short introduction.  In continuing this discussion and presenting some of my own views, I have done so with the express hope that others will earnestly discuss the case of this young woman, a martyr to freedom and to love, from many different perspectives, and will cry “Injustice!” on her behalf.  (See yesterday’s issue of this paper for details.)

The Question of Miss Zhao’s Personality (November 18, 1919)

The day before yesterday, I wrote a commentary in which I said that the cause of Miss Zhao’s death was entirely determined by her circumstances, that is, by the society in which she lived and by the two families, those of her own parents and of her fiancé.  Consequently, I would like to say a few words about the personality of Miss Zhao.

Someone asked me whether Miss Zhao had a personality or not.  I said that I had two replies, one, that Miss Zhao did not have a personality of her own, the other, that she did have a personality.

What did I mean by saying that Miss Zhao did not have a personality?  If Miss Zhao had had a personality, she would not have died.  Why not?  Having a personality requires respect from those one deals with.  Its prerequisite is freedom of the will.  Was Miss Zhao’s will free?  No, it was not free.  Why wasn’t it free?  Because Miss Zhao had parents.  In the West, the free will of children is not affected by the parents.  In the Western family organization, father and mother recognize the free will of their sons and daughters.  Not so in China.  The commands of the parent and the will of the child are not at all on an equal footing.  The parents of Miss Zhao very clearly forced her to love someone she did not want to love.  No freedom of will was recognized at all.  If you do not want to love me, but I force my love on you, that is a form of rape.  This is called “direct rape.”  Their daughter did not want to love that person, but they forced their daughter to love that person.  This, too, is a kind of rape, which is called “indirect rape.”  Chinese parents all indirectly rape their sons and daughters.  This is the conclusion which inevitably arises under the Chinese family system of “parental authority,” and the marriage system in which there is the “policy of parental arrangement.”  For Miss Zhao to have had a personality of her own she would have had to have a free will.  For her to have a free will, her parents would have had to respect her and accede to her wishes.  If Miss Zhao’s parents had respected her, had acceded to her wishes, would she have been put into that cage-like bridal sedan chair in which she finally committed suicide?  But it is now a fact that this happened.  Thus, my first reply is that Miss Zhao did not have a personality of her own.

Why do I also say that she did have a personality?  This is with reference to Miss Zhao herself.  Although Miss Zhao lived for twenty-one years (she was twenty-one sui) in a family that did not allow her to have a personality, and for twenty-one years her father and mother kept her from having a personality, in that last brief moment of her twenty-one years, her personality suddenly came forth.  Alas, alas, death is preferable to the absence of freedom.  The snow-white knife was stained with fresh red blood.  The dirt road of Orange Garden Street, splashed with blood, was transformed into a solemn highway to heaven.  And with this, Miss Zhao’s personality also gushed forth suddenly, shining bright and luminous.  Consequently, my second reply is that Miss Zhao did indeed have a personality of her own.

Thus, my conscience forces me to utter the following two sentences:

1) All parents who are like the parents of Miss Zhao should be put in prison.
2) May the cry of all humanity fill the heavens, “Long live Miss Zhao!”

The Marriage Question—An Admonition to Young Men and Women (November 19, 1919)

Three days ago, the Casual Comments section of this paper carried a piece by Mr. Jiangong, “Those Sacrificed to Reform of the Marriage System.”  Referring to the suicide of Miss Zhao, he addressed a warning to parents.  It read as follows:

…not all Chinese are deaf and blind.  Anyone with even a little tiny bit of conscience should be thoroughly awakened, and refrain from interfering in the marriages of his sons and daughters. This young woman did not die for nothing….We must not fail her, we must not allow the sacrifice of her life to have been in vain.

The words of Mr. Jiangong say half of what must be said, but he left out the other half.  Let me add the following.

Dear young men and women throughout China.  None of you are deaf and blind.  Having seen such a tragedy of “blood splattering the city of Changsha,” you must be stirred to the depths of your souls, and become thoroughly awakened. See to it that you arrange your own marriages yourselves.  The policy of letting parents arrange everything should absolutely be repudiated.  Love is sacred, and absolutely cannot be arranged by others, cannot be forced, cannot be bought.  We must not fail her, we must not allow the sacrifice of her life to have been in vain.

Readers, what are your views?

The Question of Reforming the Marriage System (November 19, 1919)

Yesterday, my piece on Mr. Jiangong’s “Those Sacrificed to Reform of the Marriage System,” and his words on which I was elaborating, offered an appropriate proposal for young men and women.  Today I would like to say that since we have already mentioned “reform of the marriage system” we should proceed to discuss “How to reform the marriage system.” I really hope that all of you young men and women will come up with solutions to this question. This newspaper would of course greatly welcome your essays on such solutions.

 “The Evils of Society” and Miss Zhao (November 21, 1919)

My friend Mr. Yinbo [Peng Huang], in his editorial comments published the day before yesterday in this paper, criticized my article, “Commentary on the Suicide of Miss Zhao,” saying that I had placed all the blame on circumstances, letting Miss Zhao off scot-free, and that this was not right.  He wrote, “The action of Miss Zhao was a weak and negative action.  Such actions must never never be advocated.”  I am basically in total agreement with this positive critique, forcefully put forward by Mr. Yinbo.  On the question of the suicide of Miss Zhao, I had originally intended to criticize her on several different small points.  Among the several small points that I was considering, one was precisely “against suicide.”  Mr. Yinbo’s view and my view are really identical.

In the end, however, I cannot let “society” off.  No matter how weak you might say Miss Zhao’s act of committing suicide was, you cannot say she “died without cause.”  And the “cause” of her death, to one degree or another, indisputably did come from outside of herself, from society.  Since society contains “causes” that could bring about Miss Zhao’s death, this society is an extremely dangerous thing.  It was able to cause the death of Miss Zhao; it could also cause the death of Miss Qian, Miss Sun, or Miss Li.  It can make “women” die; it can also make “men” die.  There are still so many of us who today have not yet died.  We must be on our guard against this dangerous thing that could find the occasion to inflict a fatal blow on us at any moment.  We must protest loudly, warn and awaken those fellow human beings who are not yet dead, and cry out: “Society is evil!”

I said that there were three factors that drove Miss Zhao to her death.  One was her parent’s family, one was her fiancé’s family, and one was society. Ultimately, both her parents’ family and her fiancé’s family are each one component of society.  We must understand that the parents’ family and the fiancé’s family are guilty of a crime, but the source of their crime lies in society.  It is true that the two families could themselves have perpetrated this crime, but a great part of their culpability was transmitted to them by society.  Moreover, if society were good, even if the families had wanted to perpetrate this crime, they would not have had the opportunity to do so.  For example, if the Zhao family had heard that Madame Wu, the prospective mother-in-law, was bad, the go-between, Fourth Madame She, would have insisted that it was not true.  If this had taken place in Western society, there would have been no system of go-betweens to force them together, and no lies to trick them.  Or again, if this had been in Western society, and Miss Zhao’s father had slapped her in the face when she refused to get into the sedan chair, she could have taken him to court and sued him, or she would have resisted in some way to protect herself.  Or yet again, when Miss Zhao wanted the Wu family to change the date, the wife of the eldest brother of the Wu family had the right simply to “refuse adamantly,” and the other side was forced to accept this “refusal,” and go ahead with the marriage.  All these are dirty tricks peculiar to the evil society of China.

Mr. Yinbo wonders why Miss Zhao didn’t just run away, and he says that it would have been possible for her actually to do this.  I say, true enough, but first let me raise a few questions, after which I shall present my view.

1) Within the city of Changsha there are more than forty peddlers of foreign goods.  Within a 30-li radius of Shaoshan Village where I live there are seven or eight peddlers of mixed foreign and domestic goods. [1]  Why is this?
2) Why is it that all the toilets in the city of Changsha are for men only, and none for women?
3) Why is it you never see women entering a barber shop?
4) Why is it single women are never seen staying at hotels?
5) Why is it you never see women going into teahouses to drink tea?
6) Why is it that the customers hastening in and talking business in such silk shops as the Taihefeng or in stores selling foreign merchandise such as Yutaihua are never women, always men?
7) Why is it that of all the carters in the city not one is a woman, they are all men?
8) Why is it that at First Normal School outside South Gate there are no women students?  And why are there no male students at Old Rice Field First Normal?

Anyone who knows the answers to these questions will understand why it was that Miss Zhao could not run away.  The answers to these questions are not difficult.  There is only one general answer, that “men and women are extremely segregated,” that women are not allowed a place in society.  In this society, in which “men and women are extremely segregated” and women are not allowed a place, even supposing Miss Zhao had wanted to run away, where would she have run to?

To those who say that there are examples in this world of those who have run away, I again reply, yes there are.  Once more, I will give you an example.  “In our village of Shaoshan, there is a young woman of eighteen named Mao who is both intelligent and good looking.  She was married to a man named Zhong who was both extremely stupid and extremely ugly.  This young woman was extremely unwilling.  Finally she threw off her husband and had an affair with the son of a neighbor named Li.  In August of this year she ran away from her home to exercise the freedom to love.

You certainly must think that this was very good.  But…

“In less than two days, she was surrounded by some other people who notified her family.  Her family then sent someone to catch her.”

Just being caught wouldn’t have been so bad.

“She was dragged home, where she was beaten very severely and locked in an inner room, where as before she was left with her stupid husband to fulfill that ‘most proper’ marital relationship.”

This still wasn’t much.

[Third Brother Zhang]

“Zhang San says.  ‘She deserved to be beaten.  She ran away.  She’s shameless.’ ”

[Fourth Brother Zhang]

“Zhang Si agrees.  ‘If you don’t beat her now, when will you!  If a family produces a girl like this, it’s really a miserable disgrace to their whole clan.’ ”

This Miss Mao should be seen as putting into practice a positive view of things.  Not afraid of danger or stopped by difficulties, she did everything possible to struggle against the evil demon.  But what was the result?  As far as I can see she got only three things: she got “caught,” she got “beaten,” and she got “cursed.”

If we look at it in this perspective, how could Miss Zhao have done anything else but commit suicide?  Alas for Miss Zhao!  Alas for the evils of society!

After I had finished writing the draft of this article, I saw the critique of Mr. Rulin. [2]  He also emphasizes the aspect of society, on which our views agree.  But from the standpoint of Miss Zhao, as to whether or not there were other means by which she could have fulfilled her free will, and what the relative value of the different means might be, I will discuss that next time.  Any further details on what Miss Zhao’s personal name was, or what school she graduated from, or whether she had bound or natural feet, would be most welcome.

 Concerning the Incident of Miss Zhao’s Suicide (November 21, 1919)

In recent days there have been many commentaries on the incident of Miss Zhao’s suicide, and I too have written a few comments on it that have been published in this city’s Dagongbao.  This is a public event that concerns all mankind, and leaving aside those who advocate extreme individualism and living alone, everyone should pay attention to it and study it.  Because for several thousand years perverse customs based on the [Confucian] rites have prevailed in China, women have had no status in any area of life.  From politics, law, and education, to business, social relations, entertainment, and personal status, women have always been treated very differently from men, and relegated to the dark corners of society.  Not only are they denied happiness, they are also subjected to many kinds of inhumane mistreatment.  That this incident of a woman being driven to suicide should occur at a time like this, when the truth is very clear and there are loud calls for the liberation of women, shows just how profound are the evils of our nations’s society.  Today we need not express more pity for the deceased, but rather we should look for a method that will thoroughly correct this problem so that from now on such a tragedy as this will never happen again.  But before we look for a method, we must first search for the controlling root causes of this domination.

Let us consider why it is that women have been bullied by men and have not been able to emancipate themselves for thousands of years.  Regarding this point, we must examine the question of what, in the last analysis, are the defects of women?  Looked at superficially, women have a lower level of knowledge than men, and are weaker willed than men.  Women have deep emotional feelings, and when the emotions well up, one’s conscious awareness recedes.  In this respect, they are psychologically not the equals of men.  Also, women are physically somewhat weaker, and to this must be added the suffering and painful difficulty of walking with bound feet.  These are the physiological defects of women.  Actually, none of these are inherent defects.  Generally speaking, the psychological processes of women are not different from those of men.  This has already been proven by the fact that the effects of education in all countries show no differences based on gender.  The last two items of physical weakness are the result of custom.  The binding of women’s feet was not practiced in antiquity and cannot be regarded as a basic biological defect.  The search for any inherent biological deficiency in women finally comes down solely to the question of childbearing.

The relationship between men and women should, according to the contemporary view, center on “love,” and apart from love, must not be governed by “economics.”  Thus the contemporary position is, “Each is economically independent, sharing the fruits of love.”  Before modern times, this was not the case.  No one knew of the principle “Love is sacred.”  In the relationship between men and women, love was considered to be only secondary, while the core relationship remained economic, and was thus controlled by capitalism.  In antiquity, eating was a simple affair.  People picked fruit and caught wild animals and fish, and were easily satisfied.  Men and women were equals, and economically women asked nothing of men and men asked nothing of women.  Men and women sought of each other only “love.”  Thus woman sometimes, on the contrary, used her physiological strengths (physiologists say that in sexual physiology women are stronger than men) to control men.  Later, as population increased, and food supplies became inadequate, the competition for survival made it necessary to emphasize work, and with this arrived the terrible age in which women became subjugated to men.

In doing physical labor, women are not inherently inferior to men, but because women cannot work during the period of childbearing, men took advantage of this weakness, exploited this single flaw, made “submission” the condition of exchange and used “food” to shut them up.  This then is the general cause that has kept women subjugated and unable to emancipate themselves.  On the one hand, what member of the human race was not born of woman?  Childbearing by women is an indispensable element in the survival of humanity.  That men should have forgotten this supreme act of benevolence, and on the contrary should have wantonly and unscrupulously oppressed them, merely for the sake of petty economic relationships, is truly a case of returning evil for good.  On the other hand, childbearing is an extremely painful event.  “The pangs of childbirth” is a term that frightens every woman who hears it.  Despite the medical discoveries that have changed the “difficulty of childbirth” into the “ease of childbirth,” we should show great reverence and compassion.  How can we instead take advantage of trivial economic benefits to press the other down?

Having presented the “reasons” above, we can now turn to the “methods.”  The methods by which women can become free and independent and never again be oppressed by men may in general be listed as follows:

1) A woman must never marry before she is physically mature.
2) Before marriage, at the bare minimum, a woman must be adequately prepared in knowledge and skills to live her own life.
3) A woman must prepare herself for living expenses after childbirth.

The above three items are the basic prerequisites for a woman’s own personal independence.  In addition, there is a further condition of “public child support,” to which society should pay close attention.  If women themselves are able to fulfill the above three conditions, and if society, for its part, provides for the public rearing of children, then marital relationships centered on love can be established.  This will depend on the efforts of all us young men and women!

Against Suicide (November 23, 1919)

I have placed the blame for Miss Zhao’s suicide on the circumstances that forced her to this.  I have said nothing so far about “suicide” itself.  On the question of suicide, scholars of ethics, ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, have presented who knows how many arguments.  Whether extolling or condemning suicide, their point of departure has always been their philosophies of life, how they viewed human life.  My attitude toward suicide is to reject it, on several levels.

1) Ethics is the science of defining the objectives of human life and the methods for attaining the objectives of human life.  Aside from a small number of pessimistic moral philosophers, the majority hold that the goal of man is “life.”  Some may define that as meaning “for the public good, freely develop the individual,” and others may define it as meaning “the life and development of the individual and all mankind.”  But Paulsen says it is “developing all the human bodily and mental powers without exception to their highest, with no apologies for doing so.”  I feel that Paulsen’s words, as a concrete expression of the objective of human life, are most apt.  But this objective is definitely not attainable through suicide.  Not only is suicide not a means for “developing to their highest the powers of the human body and spirit, with no apologies for doing so,” it is ultimately the opposite of “developing to their highest the powers of the human body and spirit, with no apologies for doing so.”  This principle is very easy to understand.

2) As to what is going through the mind of the person who commits suicide, we cannot really judge, since we have not had the experience of committing suicide.  Living persons generally reject the concept of “death” and welcome the concept of “life.”  The vast majority of human beings welcome the concept of “life” and reject the concept of “death.”  Thus we have to say that those few who welcome “death” and reject “life” are exceptions to the rule.  These exceptions may be seen as persons having a kind of mental abnormality.

3) Physiologically, a person’s body is composed of cells, and the life of the person as a whole is the composite of the lives of the individual cells.  The natural condition of cellular life is to continue living until a certain age, at which time one dies of old age.  Suicide is a revolt against this natural physiological condition.  This natural physiological condition falls under the control of a kind of abnormal mentality, and is thereby terminated.  We may say that this is a kind of physiological irregularity.

4) In the world of living things, very few of them commit suicide.  Although there are tales about so-called loyal dogs of animals who have been faithful unto death, these are not common occurrences.  Ordinarily animals delight in life, are adapted to their environments, and strive in every way to seek life.

To summarize the above, suicide has no place in ethics, in psychology, in physiology, or in biology.  Thus the criminal law of many nations includes prohibitions against suicide.  Social custom, too, celebrates life and grieves at death, and both of these attitudes are rooted in the “principle of seeking life.”

Today we are concerned with why there are, after all, suicides in human society, and why they are not altogether rare, and also with the question of why we invariably express a feeling of respect for heroic suicides, and sometimes even suggest that it was “a good suicide.”  What is the reason for this?

My response to these two points is:

1) Before the idea of committing suicide develops, a person does not want to commit suicide, but rather wants to seek life.  Moreover, his hope for life is unusually strong.  Such an unusually strong hope as this can only be fulfilled under conditions which are at least adequate.  If one’s environment or poor treatment causes one’s hopes to be repeatedly frustrated and turn into disappointment and loss of hope, then one will invariably seek death.  Thus a criminal cannot be told that he has been given a death sentence very many days before the sentence is actually executed.  Therefore, we know that the motivation for a person’s suicide is absolutely not to seek death.  Not only is it not to seek death, but it is actually an urgent striving toward life.  The reason why there are suicides in human society is that society has robbed that person completely of his “hope” and has left him “in utter despair.”  When society robs someone completely of his hope, leaving him in despair, then that person will surely commit suicide.  Such was the case of Miss Zhao.  If society robs a group or clan of people completely of hope, and leaves them in utter despair, then this group of clan will inevitably commit suicide, as in the case of the 500 Tianheng martyrs who all committed suicide at the same time, [3] or of Hong and Yang’s army of 100,000 who set fire to themselves, [4] or the beginning of the Dutch war with a certain other state when they declared that if pressed too hard they would breach the sea dikes and drown themselves.  If society in a certain place leaves more people in despair, then there will be more suicides in that society.  If society in a certain place leaves fewer people in despair, then there will be fewer suicides in that society.

2) We respect the heroic suicide for the following two reasons.  First, because that person dares to do what others dare not do, we recognize that his spirit surpasses our own, and thus a feeling of respect arises unwittingly within us.  Second, because of his spirit of rebellion against oppression, we recognize that although his body is dead, his aspirations live on (they do not actually continue to exist, but his suicide makes us feel as if they do), and the powers oppressing him are thus foiled.  We derive a feeling of happiness and comfort from this, which turns into respect for the person who has committed suicide.  Consequently, we respect only heroic suicides, which represent the triumph of righteousness over treachery.

At this point, I would like to explain the topic under discussion, “against suicide.”

First, as has been proved in many ways, our goal is the search for life, so we ought not turn around and seek death.  Therefore I am “against suicide.”

Second, the condition of suicide is that society robs a person of hope.  In such circumstances, we ought to advocate struggle against society, to take back the hope that has been lost.  To die in struggle is to “be killed,” it is not “suicide.”  So I am “against suicide.”

Third, we do not feel respect for “suicide” as such, so if we respect a heroic suicide, it is because he has “performed a difficult action,” and “resisted oppression.”  If it were not for these two aspects, suicide would be easy.  Furthermore, if there were no oppression in this world, there would be no need to resist it; in that case, even though suicides might take place, how could they inspire a feeling of respect?  Since we have no feeling of respect for “suicide” as such, we ought to oppose this thing called “suicide.”  Regarding the first point, respect for a “difficult action,” we should look elsewhere for it, rather than in the callous act of suicide.  As for the second point, “resistance to oppression,” we should seek it in struggle.  Thus I am “against suicide.”

“Her suicide had only ‘relative’ value in terms of ‘preserving the personality.’”

The above article, drafted in haste, presents my own personal views.  The reader is invited to judge whether, in the last analysis, I am right or wrong.  I do find it difficult to express agreement with the view of Mr. Xinman, [5] who sees suicide as “a most happy and joyous event.”  In case of glaring errors, corrections would be extremely welcome.

 The Question of Love – Young People and Old People. Smash the Policy of Parental Agreement (November 25, 1919)

I often feel that in matters of all kinds, old people generally take a position of opposition to young people.  From such things in daily life as eating and dressing, to feelings about society and the nation, and attitudes toward mankind in the world at large, they are always drearily, rigidly, and coweringly passive.  Their views are always ingratiatingly humble.  Their position is always negative.  I think that if young and old are none the less able to live together, it is mostly because of a relationship of mutual benefit.  The old rely on the young to provide their food and clothing, while the young rely on the elderly to provide experience and wisdom.  Although you may feel that this is an “extreme” way of putting it, this very peculiar phenomenon does exist in China, thanks to an evil system and evil customs.  It is a fact that there are fundamental differences between the life of the old and that of the young.  This proposition has physiological and psychological foundations.  The reason why human life is different for the old and for the young lies in the differences between the physiology and psychology of the old and of the young.  Generally speaking, human life is the satisfaction of physiological and psychological desires.  Desires differ according to differences in sex, differences in age, differences in occupation, and differences in beliefs.  The difference in desires resulting from age differences is, however, the most pronounced.  This has already been proven by both Eastern and Western scholars.

We have many different kinds of desires, such as the desire to eat, the desire for sex, the desire to play, the desire for fame, and the desire for power and influence (also called the desire to dominate), and so on.  Of these, the desires for food and sex are fundamental, the former to maintain the “present” and the latter to open up the “future.”  Of these two desires, there is no absolute difference in the desire for food according to age.  Sexual desire does, however, differ with age.

The expression of sexual desire, generally speaking, is love.  Young people see the question of love as being very important, while old men don’t think it’s worth worrying about.  The relationship between husband and wife was originally meant to be totally centered around love, with everything else being subordinate.  Only in China is this question put to one side.  When I was young, I saw many people getting married.  I asked them what they were up to.  They all replied that a person takes a wife to have someone to make tea, cook, raise pigs, chase away the dogs, spin, and weave.  At this I asked, wouldn’t it be a lot easier just to hire a servant?  It wasn’t until later that I heard that people got married to “carry on the family line.”  This left me still perplexed.  And right down to today, when you look at what society says about marriage, you still can’t find even a hint of anything about love.  Society does not regard love as being important, and thus, except for the slave’s work of making tea, cooking, and so on, marriage is nothing but that base life of fleshly desire.  (What we call sexual desire, or love, involves not only the satisfaction of the physiological urge of fleshly desire, but the satisfaction of a higher order of desires — spiritual desires and desires for social intercourse.)  The slave’s work of making tea and cooking is a result of capitalism.  Old people pay no attention to love, only to “eating.”  Thus when their sons want to take a wife, they say they are taking a daughter-in-law.  Their goal in getting a daughter-in-law is to have the daughter-in-law do the slave’s work for them.  A passage in the Book of Rites says, “Even if a son is very pleased with his wife, if his parents are not, he repudiates her.  A son should not be pleased with his wife.”  This is firm proof of the fact that the question of love between the son and the daughter-in-law is to be put to one side, and that a wife is only doing the slavework.  When a woman is given in marriage, her parents don’t say that they have chosen a husband for their daughter, but rather that they have selected a happy son-in-law.  A “happy son-in-law” means only that this will make the parents happy.  It doesn’t matter whether their daughter will be happy or not.  And even all the dowry payments are just so that they themselves can eat well.  In short, capitalism and love are in conflict with one another.  Old men are in conflict with love.  Thus there is a tight bond between old men and capitalism, and the only good friends of love are young people.  Wouldn’t you say that old men and young people are in conflict with each other?

Observing that the Zhao family forced their daughter to commit suicide, Mr. Pingzi [6] strongly opposes parent’s controlling the marriage of their children, but he does not bring out the real reasons for this disposition.  The arguments of others like Messrs. Yunyuan, Weiwen, and Buping [7] mostly vacillate back and forth on the issue of parents interfering with the marriages of their children, and do not take a firm stand against such encroachment.  (Mr. Buping’s suggestion that parents act as participants with a strong say in the matter goes even farther.)  I have adduced physiological and psychological evidence to prove that parents absolutely cannot interfere in the marriages of their sons and daughters.  On their side, sons and daughters should absolutely refuse parental interference in their own marriages.  This must be done, for only then can capitalist marriage be abolished; only then can marriage based on love be established, so that loving and happy couples may truly appear.

Smash the Matchmaker System (November 27, 1919)

Speaking of this thing called a “matchmaker,” this is another cheap trick of Chinese society.  Chinese society contains a great many cheap tricks.  Things like those literary essays, imperial examinations, local bandits, and bureaucrats are all nothing but a bunch of tricks and games.  The same is true of things like exorcizing devils, sacrifices to appease the gods, dragon lanterns, lion dances, and even doctors treating patients, teachers teaching classes, and men and women getting married.  A society like that of China should really be called a society of cheap tricks.  This trick called marriage is connected with the problem of men and women, and also gives birth to a bunch of smaller games, such as “crawling in the dust,” “robbing the sister-in-law,” “raising the hero,” “fighting the wind,” “wearing a green bandana,” “making the genie jump,” and so on.  But as regards marriage, standing above all these little tricks, so that it may in all conscience be called the “ultimate cheap trick,” is that three-headed six-armed ubiquitous demon, the “matchmaker.”

The Chinese matchmaker has the following strange features:

the basic philosophy is “successfully dragging them together”;
each marriage is at least 80 percent lies;
the “gods” and the “eight characters” are their protecting talismans.

In China, it is always said that the major power over marriage is in the hands of the parents.  In actuality, although the parents are nominally the ones in control, they do not really make the decision.  It is in fact the matchmaker who has decision-making power.  In China anyone is qualified to be a matchmaker.  Moreover, matchmaking is recognized as a kind of duty.  As soon as someone has a son who needs a wife or a daughter who needs a husband, everybody and anybody around them, no matter who, is eligible to step in and join the search.  For this kind of matchmaker the first thing is to have the basic philosophy of “successfully dragging them together.”  Going around selling both parties on the idea that she genuinely wants the marriage to be a “success,” the matchmaker always says forcefully, you two families must make up your own minds.  In fact, however, after all her badgering, even parents with iron ears have long since become limp rags.  I have seen a lot of matchmakers, 80 or 90 percent of whom have been successful.  The matchmaker thinks that if she can’t get the couple together it is her own fault.  In the event that they do come together, and the two parties go from “unmarried” to “married,” she will have a meritorious deed to her credit.  At the bottom of such a philosophy of dragging people together, one thing is indispensable: “telling lies.”  Since the two families of the man and woman are not close to one another, there are many things that they do no know about each other, and the girl is locked away in the inner chambers, making it even more difficult to find out about her.  So the matchmaker rambles on, making up all kinds of stories, so that on hearing them, both sets of parents will be happy.  A marriage contract is written up on a sheet of paper, and thus the affair is concluded.  As a result, it is frequently the case that after the marriage, the two turn out to be completely incompatible.  This case of Fourth Madame She bringing together Miss Zhao and Fifth Son Wu is a perfect example of such lying.  Some even go so far as to substitute another bridegroom, or switch the bride.  This constitutes “a match between unmatchables,” and not just “a few little lies.”  Totally incompatible marriages in which the matchmaker has simply “dragged” the couple together and then lets out a futile fart to the heavens (country people call a lie a “futile fart”) practically fill Chinese society.  And why is it that one never hears of the man or the woman picking a quarrel with the matchmaker, or that of all the lawsuits in the courts, one rarely hears of one against the “old man of the moon”?  On the contrary, such people get off scot-free, with money in their pockets from the fee for their services.  Why is this?  Thanks to the blessings of the “gods” and the “eight characters,” the responsibility is placed on the supernatural.  Quite apart from the fact that the parents as usual do not blame the matchmaker, even the son and daughter can do no more than bemoan their sins in a previous life.  The wrong has already been cast in bronze, and all they can do is to make the best of a bad job.  This is one of the main causes preventing suitable marriages.  I have already discussed this at length in yesterday’s paper.

Since matchmakers are as bad as all this, when in the future we think about marriage reform, it is imperative that we immediately do away with the matchmaker system.  Vocabulary such as “matchmaker” and “the old man of the moon” must be expunged from dictionaries of the Chinese language.  With the establishment of a new marriage system, provided only that the man and the woman both know in their hearts that they have a deep and mutual affection for each other they should be fully able to mate freely.  If and when they want to make this clearly known to their relatives and friends, the best thing is to place a public announcement in the newspapers, declaring that the two of us want to become man and wife, and that the wedding date is set for such-and-such a month on such-and-such a day, and that’s that.  Otherwise, it should also be sufficient just to register at a public office, or in the countryside to report to the local authorities.  This thing called the matchmaker should be hurled beyond the highest heavens and forever forgotten.  If the atmosphere in the countryside is not yet receptive, so that it is difficult for the time being to abolish the system completely, the couple should at least meet face-to-face to prevent the matchmaker from lying.  And if the marriage does not work out, an inquiry can be requested in which the matchmaker cannot escape responsibility.  An examination of the origins of the matchmaker system would show that it came about because the line separating men and women is drawn too deeply.  Therefore, if we want to abolish the matchmaker system we must first thoroughly crack open the great prohibition against men and women meeting.  In the past few days Messrs. Xincheng, [8] Yuying, [9] Borong, and Xitang [10] have already discussed this in detail, so I need not go over it again here.

The Problem of Superstition in Marriage (November 28, 1919)

In studying the reasons why it is still possible to maintain the old marriage system, I frequently think that it is because of one enormous superstition.

Why do I say this?  At the center of marriage is love.  The power of the human need for love is greater than that of any other need.  Nothing except some special force can stop it.  Since love is an extremely important human need and is extremely powerful, everyone should be able to find what he’s looking for, and after marriage, the relationship between husband and wife should be full of love.  Why is it that, carrying a lantern as big as a house and searching the far corners of all of Chinese society, we find not even the faintest shadow of love?  The two phoney billboards of “the parental command” and “the matchmaker’s word” are easily capable of completely blocking even such a great power as this.  Why?

Some people reply that it is “because of China’s religion of the rites.”  But how many of our 400 million people really understand what the so-called “religion of the rites” is?  It goes without saying that all of China’s 200 million women are totally illiterate.  All of China’s peasants and all of China’s workers and merchants can recognize only a few big characters.  If we eliminate all of these, those who really understand the religion of the rites are only a small portion of those self-styled scholarly gentlemen dressed in long dark robes.  Apart from the “scholarly gentlemen,” for the vast majority of uneducated women, peasants, workers, and merchants, what controls their spiritual world, and enables the two phoney billboards of “the parental command” and “the matchmaker’s word” to block this surging tide of the need for love, is none other, I believe, than “superstition.”

The greatest superstition is the theory that “marriages are determined by destiny.”  Of an infant who has just dropped out of its mother’s belly, it is said that its marriage is already predestined.  When the child gets a little older and develops its own need to be married, it dares not propose a partner itself, but leaves it up to the parents and a matchmaker to make arrangements.  The child believes that making his own choice and leaving it up to the parental and matchmaker intermediaries amounts to the same thing, since it is already predestined and everything will be fine no matter what.  The wedding is held, and the husband and wife are united.  Except for those who have yielded to the irresistible natural force of love, people either throw out everything and start a big ruckus, turning the bedroom into a battleground of deadly mutual hostility, or find themselves another world outside the home, among the mulberry fields on the banks of the Pu River, where they carry on their secret amours.  Apart from these, those numerous husbands and wives who are called good couples with harmonious families have the words “marriage is predestined” writ large in their brains.  Thus they frequently commit to memory such maxims as, “Each generation cultivates sharing the pillow as those who cross over in the same boat have cultivated it for a hundred generations,” “The old man in the moon knots the threads,” “A match made in heaven.”  Such marriages that obey the theory of destiny probably account for 80 percent of Chinese society.  For these 80 percent of Chinese couples the flavor of love is an obscure mystery.  You might say their marriage is good, but then again, they are often known to sigh and moan.  But if you say it’s no good, they are, after all, a couple who live together in the same room, eat and sleep together, give birth to children and raise them as if their marriages really had been “made in heaven.”  Following their periodic quarrels and fights, when they have calmed down a bit, they recall that “each generation cultivates sharing the pillow” and that “matches are made in heaven,” at which point they return to their original state, and go on eating and sleeping as before.  It is because of this theory of predestination that the matchmaker is able to avoid responsibility.  Any Chinese, even the blind and deaf, is qualified to be a matchmaker.  Marital predestination is implanted in everyone’s mind, and when there is a wedding in some family, everyone, always goes along with it, whether or not the match is appropriate.  You think that if you don’t go along with it, you’re certain to be condemned by the gods.  You hear the saying everywhere “go along with marriage, don’t work against it.”  Anyone who “investigates the prospective spouse” by inquiring from the neighbors will never hear anything bad from them.  Once the bride enters the bridegroom’s house, it is considered “determined by the trigrams qian and kun,” and “celebrated with bell and drum.”  After that, no one would dare back out, no matter how bad it is.  All they can do is remember that “marriage is determined by destiny.”  It is this theory of predestination that gives rise to such extremely irrational practices as “marriages decided in the womb” and “choosing a partner in infancy.”  Everyone thinks, however, that it’s all a matter of “perfect destiny.”  No one has even considered that it might be a big mistake.  If you ask someone for a reason, the reply will be that “marriage is determined by destiny.”  Oh, how powerful you are, “marital destiny.”

The theory that “marriage is determined by fate” is an overarching superstition, to which many other small superstitions are appended:

1) “Matching the Eight Characters.”  When arranging for the marriages of their   sons and daughters, it is not that Chinese parents are utterly unselective.  On the contrary, they waste a lot of effort worrying about the selection of a mate for their sons and daughters.  Their criteria for selecting, however, are not looks or disposition or health or learning or age, but rather only whether or not the eight characters.”  There are two ways of matching the eight characters.  One is to ask a fortune-teller to match them, the other is to ask a “Buddha” to match them.  As long as the eight characters can be matched, even a demon can be dragged into becoming a husband or wife.  In society there are many cases of a young girl being mated with an elderly husband, or of a young man taking an elderly woman to wife.  In our village there is a joke, “Eighty-year-old Grandpa produced a baby, and the hundred thousand families of Changsha laughed themselves to death,”  which refers to the story of an eighteen-year-old girl, married to an eighty-year- old man, having a baby.  In addition, there are frequent instances of an ugly husband matched up with a beautiful wife, or a beautiful wife matched up with an  ugly husband, with the consolation that “happiness and wealth come to the ugly.”  None of the other factors, such as disposition or learning, are regarded as significant criteria.

2) “Registering the Dates.”  After the eight characters are matched, the second   step in the marriage procedure is “Registering the Dates,” in which the eight characters of both the man and the woman are written down in the Book of Dates   in the presence of “the illustrious spirits.”  Incense is burned and prayers are invoked that the couple may “live together to a ripe old age.”  From this stage forward, the marriage is considered an ironclad case.  Registering the Dates originally meant sealing the contract, but in the Book of Dates itself nothing is said about contracts.  The only thing that is written down is eight big characters indicating the year, month, day, and hour.  All the many really essential  conditions of marriage count for nothing.  How can this be considered anything but superstition?

3) “Selecting an Auspicious Day.”  After registering the dates, and the exchange of presents, it is necessary to select a lucky day.  It must be a day of no “evil  spirits” or “taboos.”  The almanac is commonly consulted for “suitable” and   “impropitious” days.  Next, a fortune-teller is asked to calculate the position of   the stars.  Then the Buddha’s permission is asked.  It was at this point that Miss Zhao begged her parents to change the wedding date, to which her mother replied. “The auspicious day has already been determined and is virtually impossible to   change.”  Had they agreed to change the date, and waited for her elder brother to  return home, it might not have been necessary to bury her on this “most auspicious day.”

4) “Sending the Sedan Chair.”  This is even stupider.  There is some tale to the effect that when King Zhou of the Shang dynasty was receiving his concubine, Daji, a fox-spirit changed places with her during the journey.  Ever since, whenever a bride is on the way to her groom’s house, it is feared that she might become a second Daji.  First, therefore, a heavy closed sedan chair must be used; second, its door must be locked tightly; and third, the “god of good luck” is entreated to offer proper protection.  Some say that if on this occasion Miss Zhao had been in a light open sedan chair, not tightly locked and sealed, so that she could have been seen from outside, she might not have committed suicide.

5) “Greeting the God of Good Luck.”  Seated in the dark inside a sealed sedan chair, a bride is already depressed, but when she arrives at the bridegroom’s house and the sedan chair is set down, she must also calmly greet the “god of good luck,” requesting him to “ward off unlucky influences.”  On this occasion, when Miss Zhao arrived at the Wu family home, she was already about to expire, but the Wu family was just getting ready to greet the “god of good luck,” in order to “ward off unlucky influences.”

6) “Worshiping Heaven and Earth.”  Worshiping heaven and earth means being presented to the ancestors.  It is said that when a new bride is added to a household it is necessary to ask the ancestors to protect and assist in “giving birth to many heirs,” so that “abundant descendants may glorify the ancestors.”  In the West, they do not report to their ancestors, but they do thank some God, and say that the love of the bride and groom is a gift from God, and their marriage relationship has been put together by God.

These superstitions are really just so many cheap tricks of marriage, and have no other purpose than to be the rope that tightly binds a man and woman together.  Between the matchmaking and the exchange of gifts, the bride and groom are so tightly bound by the bonds of superstition that they can’t even breathe, and afterwards, they become a stable, proper, and very harmonious good couple.  Miss Zhao’s marriage had, of course, gone through all the “big ceremonies” except that of “worshiping heaven and earth.” [11]  Her choice of death was certainly closely related to these superstitions.  As we put forward our call for the reform of the marriage system, it is first of all these superstitions about marriage that must be demolished, above all the belief that “marriages are decided by destiny.”  Once this belief has been demolished, the pretext behind which the arrangement of marriages by parents hides itself will disappear, and “incompatibility of husband and wife” will immediately start appearing in society.  As soon as incompatibility between husbands and wives manifests itself, the army of the family revolution will arise in countless numbers, and the great tide of the freedom of marriage and the freedom to love will sweep over China.  Riding the crest of this tide, new husband and wife relationships will be formed wholly on the basis of a philosophy of love.  At this point, I could not help associating this with a subject that everyone is talking about, “universal education.”

  1. The peddlers to whom Mao alludes were those who brought cotton cloth, particularly that used for women’s undergarments and for children’s clothes, to people’s homes.  The point of this reference is that, unlike the men referred to under item 6 below, who hung about silk shops, women were sequestered in their houses and could only wait for the peddlers to come to them.
  2. Mr. Rulin is believed to be Xiao Rulin (1890-1926), a native of Hunan Province.  After the 1911 revolution he became editor-in-chief of the Changsha Junguomin ribao (National Military Daily), and was deputy chief of the office of Governor Tan Yankai in 1917.  The Dagongbao published his article entitled “My Views on the Suicide of Miss Zhao” on November 19, 1919.
  3. Tianheng (?-202 b.c.) was a nobleman of the state of Qi and a supporter of the king of Qi during the war between Chu and Han.  When Liu Bang became king, Tianheng was unwilling to act as his subject, so committed suicide.  Five hundred of his followers, on hearing of this incident, also took their own lives.
  4. The “army of Hong and Yang” refers to the forces of the Taipings.  In July 1864 the capital of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was taken by Zeng Guofan’s forces, after the campaign for which Mao earlier expressed such admiration.  On the day the city fell, the Xiang Army ravaged the city, looting shops and killing many people.  On seeing this, officers of the Taiping army gathered up all remaining valuables and set fire to the lot, including themselves.  As indicated in the note to Mao’s letter of August 23, 1917, Yang Xiuqing had, in fact, died in 1856, though the supreme leader Hong Xiuquan was still alive.
  5. Mr. Xinman’s identity is unknown.  He was one of three authors whose articles were published in the Dagongbao under the heading “Public Opinion on the Suicide of Miss Zhao” on November 20, 1919.  In his piece, he praised Miss Zhao for being a resolute person who refused to bow to circumstances, and criticized the “erroneous arguments” of Mao and others, who failed to grasp that her suicide (not suicide in general) was a “joyous event.”
  6. Mr. Pingzi is Zhang Pingzi (1885-1972).  zi Qihan, like Mao a native of Xiangtan xian.  Hunan.  A member of the Tongmenghui, he became in 1919 one of the chief editors of the Hunan Dagongbao.  His own arcticle entitled “I Do Not Approve of Parents Controlling Marriage” appeared in the November 22, 1919, issue.
  7. The identities of Yunyuan, Weiwen, and Buping are unknown.  On November 20, 1919, the Dagongbao carried an article by Weiwen, “The problem of the Reform of the Marriage System,” as well as a brief note by Buping under the heading “Public Opinion on the Suicide of Miss Zhao.”  An article signed Yunyuan, “My Views on Reform of the Marriage System,” was published the following day.
  8. Xincheng is Shu Xincheng (1893-1960), a Hunanese who was editor of Hunan Jiaoyu (Hunan Education), a monthly critical of the existing education system founded on November 1, 1919, and suppressed after its fifth issue in March 1920.  At this time he was teaching at Changsha Fuxiang Girl’s School.  The article to which Mao refers had appeared on November 23, 1919, in the Dagongbao.
  9. Yuying is Long Bojian (1879-1983), a Hunanese who had been editor-in-chief of the weekly Xin Hunan (New Hunan).  His article entitled “A Question” was published in the Dagongbao on November 22, 1919.
  10. Borong is Li Borong (1893-1972), and Xitang is Li Youlong (1881-1953), zi Xiaoshen, hao Xitang.  Their articles on the incident were published in the Dagongbao on November 22 and November 24 respectively.
  11. There is an apparent contradiction between Mao’s observation here and the statement, not only in the other sources on the suicide of Miss Zhao, but in Mao’s own article of November 18, to the effect that the victim cut her throat in the sedan chair while being carried to her future husband’s house, so that Orange Garden Street was “splashed with blood.”  The explanation apparently lies in the account published in the Dagongbao on November 16, 1919, according to which Miss Zhao was still bleeding and did not appear to be dead when the chair was opened in front of the Wu family home, and medical attention was sought.  In a macabre twist to the tale, she was taken first to the Red Cross infirmary, and then (because they had no woman doctor to treat her) to the Hunan-Yale Medical College outside the north gate, where it was too late to save her.  This version is compatible with Mao’s statement, in paragraph (5) above, that when she arrived at the Wu family home, she was already “about to expire.”  Assuming it is accurate, Miss Zhao did indeed live to complete all but the last of the marriage ceremonies.

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from Notebooks 1914-1916
from Letters


Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most original and influential philosophers of the 20th century, was born in Vienna, the youngest of eight children in a wealthy family headed by a stern steel tycoon who attempted to train his sons for careers in industry. At the age of 14, Wittgenstein was sent to a school in Linz that emphasized physical sciences and mathematics. He later moved to Berlin where he studied mechanical engineering, and then England to do research in experimental aeronautics. While there, Wittgenstein read Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Mathematics, the book that galvanized his interests in philosophy and logic and led him to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied under Russell. In 1913, Wittgenstein abruptly left for Norway, where he worked in solitude on his Notes on Logic, posthumously edited and published first in 1957. Throughout his life, Wittgenstein continually sought solitude in bucolic settings, a lifestyle that he considered authentic and “pure.” When World War I began, Wittgenstein served in the Austro-Hungarian army in Russia, where he was awarded multiple medals for bravery. At the end of 1918, he was one of many captured and imprisoned in Italy. While in an Italian prison camp, Wittgenstein completed the only philosophical book to be published in his lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (German, 1921; English, 1922), a work that Wittgenstein felt solved all philosophical problems. After the war, he gave up his fortune to his siblings and retired from philosophy, preferring to work as a teacher at several rural Austrian elementary schools, where he was unpopular. He also worked as a gardener, and, for two years, as the architect and designer of his sister’s modernist house. In 1929, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge to teach, but he became increasingly dissatisfied with academics and, in 1936, again sought seclusion in Norway. For the next 15 years, he continued his philosophical work while travelling and working in a variety of capacities; he died of cancer in England in 1951.

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein attempted to define the philosophical problems that could be meaningfully addressed through language; he believed that his work definitively established the boundaries between the expressible and the nonsensical. In his early thought, he understood language as representing or “picturing”; later, however, he rejected his earlier view and came to see that absolute clarity of meaning was impossible and that the significance of words depended instead on the specific context of their use; language was to be seen in terms of doing, of participating in various “language games.” Much of his later thought was published posthumously in The Philosophical Investigations (1952).

Wittgenstein was no stranger to suicide. Wittgenstein, like his brothers, is known to have been plagued by a suicidal imagination throughout his life. At least two and perhaps three of Wittgenstein’s brothers took their own lives. His brother Hans, a musical prodigy, fled to America to pursue a life immersed in music; in 1903, his family was informed that he had disappeared from a boat a year earlier, evidently a suicide. His brother Rudolf sought a career in the theater, but ended his life in a bar with a dramatic self-inflicted cyanide poisoning in 1904. Only six months earlier, Wittgenstein had learned of the suicide of young Otto Weininger, the author of Sex and Character (1903), a work that influenced Wittgenstein’s later thought. At the end of World War I, troops under the command of Wittgenstein’s second oldest brother, Kurt, rebelled against his orders, and Kurt became the third brother to commit suicide.

Wittgenstein friend and collaborator David Hume Pinsent, with whom he traveled on holidays together, describes Wittgenstein’s frequent thoughts of suicide at numerous places in his own diary. In Pinsent’s entry for June 1, 1912, he notes that Wittgenstein told him that he had suffered from terrific loneliness for the past nine years, that he had thought of suicide then, and that he felt ashamed of never daring to kill himself; according to Pinsent, Wittgenstein thought that he had had “a hint that he was de trop in this world.” In his entry for September 4, 1913, when they were traveling in Norway, Pinsent describes Wittgenstein as “really in an awful neurotic state: this evening he blamed himself violently and expressed the most piteous disgust with himself…it is obvious he is quite incapable of helping these fits. I only hope that an out of doors life here will make him better: at present it is no exaggeration to say he is as bad–(in that nervous sensibility)–as people like Beethoven were.  He even talks of having at times contemplated suicide.” In his entry for September 25, 1913, Pinsent reports that “This evening we got talking together about suicide–not that Ludwig was depressed or anything of the sort–he was quite cheerful all today.  But he told me that all his life there had hardly been a day, in which he had not at one time or other thought of suicide as a possibility.  He was really surprised when I said I never thought of suicide like that–and that given the chance I would not mind living my life so far–over again! He would not for anything.”

In these selections from the Notebooks 1914–16 (which include a few entries, like the one presented here, from January 1917) and the letters of May 30 and June 21, 1920, to “Mr. E” (his friend Paul Engelmann, who subsequently edited the letters, as well as a letter of July 7, 1920 to Bertrand Russell), Wittgenstein discusses his confrontation with thoughts of suicide. In the Notebooks, he suggests the fundamental role in ethics of the issue of suicide, and whether suicide is “the elementary sin” or is “neither good nor evil.” In the letters, which he wrote while in a suicidal state himself, Wittgenstein describes suicide as “a dirty thing to do” and insists that one cannot will one’s own destruction; it can only happen as a “rushing of one’s defenses.” 

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914-1916,  eds. G. H. von Wright and G.E. M. Anscombe, tr. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1961), p. 91e. Paul Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, with a Memoir, tr. L. Furtmuller (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1967, no pagination, letters no. 32, 33. David Pinsent, A Portrait of Wittgenstein as a Young Man: From the Diary of David Hume Pinsent, 1912-14, ed. GH von Wright, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, pp. 68-69, 80-81; Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein: Public and Private Occasions, ed. & trans. James C Klagge and Alfred Nordmann, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002, pp. 125-7.


from NOTEBOOKS, 1914-1916

January 10, 1917

If suicide is allowed then everything is allowed.
If anything is not allowed then suicide is not allowed.
This throws a light on the nature of ethics, for suicide is, so to speak, the elementary sin.
And when one investigates it it is like investigating mercury vapour in order to comprehend the nature of vapours.
Or is even suicide in itself neither good nor evil?




May 30, 1920

 D. Mr. E., – Why don’t I hear from you any more?!  (Presumably because you don’t write to me.)  I feel like completely emptying myself again; I have had a most miserable time lately.  Of course only as a result of my own baseness and rottenness.  I have continually thought of taking my own life, and the idea still haunts me sometimes.  I have sunk to the lowest point.  May you never be in that position!  Shall I ever be able to raise myself up again?  Well, we shall see.–Reclam will not have my book.  I don’t care any more, and that is a good thing.

Write soon.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

 June 21, 1920

D. Mr. E., – Many thanks for your kind letter, which has given me much pleasure and thereby perhaps helped me a little, although as far as the merits of my case are concerned I am beyond any outside help. – In fact I am in a state of mind that is terrible to me.  I have been through it several times before: it is the state of not being able to get over a particular fact.  It is a pitiable state, I know.  But there is only one remedy that I can see, and this is of course to come to terms with that fact.  But this is just like what happens when a man who can’t swim has fallen into the water and flails about with his hands and feet and feels that he cannot keep his head above water.  That is the position I am in now. I know that to kill oneself is always a dirty thing to do.  Surely one cannot will one’s own destruction, and anybody who has visualized what is in practice involved in the act of suicide knows that suicide is always a rushing of one’s own defenses.  But nothing is worse than to be forced to take oneself by surprise.

Of course it all boils down to the fact that I have no faith!  Well, we shall see!–Please thank your revered mother in my name for her kind letter.  I will certainly come to Olmütz, but I don’t know when.  I do hope I can make it soon.

Ludwig Wittgenstein


July  7, 1920

Dear [Bertrand] Russell:

Very many thanks for your kind letter, Reclam has, naturally, not accepted my book and for the moment I won’t take any further steps to have it published. But if you feel like getting it printed, it is entirely at your disposal and you can do what you like with it. (Only, if you change anything in the text, indicate that the change was made by you.)  Today I got my certificate, and I can now become a teacher.  How things will go for me–how I’ll endure life–God only knows.  The best for me, perhaps, would be if I could like down one evening and not wake up again. (But perhaps there is something better left for me.)  We shall see.

Warmest regards from your devoted friend,

Ludwig Wittgenstein


Nov/Dec 7, 1931

I now have the feeling as if I would have to join a monastery (inwardly) were I to lose Marguerite. / The thought of a bourgeouis engagement for Marguerite makes me nauseous. No in this  case there is nothing I could do for her & would have to treat her as I would if she had gotten drunk, namely: not talk to her until she slept off her stupor. / It is true that one may be able to live also on the field of rubble from the houses in which one was once accustomed to live. But it is difficult. One had derived one’s joy from the warmth & coziness of the rooms, after all, even if one didn’t know it. But now, as one wanders aimlessly on the rubble, one knows it. / One knows that only the mind can provide warmth now & that one is not at all accustomed to being warmed by the mind. / (When one is chilled it hurts to wash & when one is sick in the mind it hurts to think.) / I cannot (that is, do not want to) give up enjoyment. I don’t want to give up enjoying & don’t want to be a hero. I therefore suffer the piercing & shameful pain of forlornness. / Despair has no end & suicide does not end it, unless one puts an end to it by pulling oneself together. / The person who despairs is like a stubborn child who wants to have the apple. But one usually doesn’t know what it means to break stubbornness. It means to break a bone in the body (and make a joint where there wasn’t one before). / Old lumps of thought which a long time ago had already been pressing in the upper intestines come out later on some occasion. Then one notices a part of a sentence & sees: that’s what I had always been meaning to say a few days ago. / The bourgeois odor of the Marguerite-Talla relationship I find so gruesome, unbearable that I could flee from it out of this world. / Every defilement I can tolerate except the one that is bourgeois. Isn’t that strange? / I don’t know whether my mind is sick in me or whether it is the body. I do the experiment & imagine some things different from how they are, & I feel that my condition would then return to normal right away. So it is the mind; & when I am sitting there listless & dull, my thoughts as if in a thick fog & feel a sort of mild headache, then this is supposed to come from perhaps—or probably—losing Marguerite’s love! / When stuck in excrement, there is only one thing to do: March. It is better to drop dead from exertion than to die in a whimper.”

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from The Courage to Be


Paul Tillich was a German-American theologian whose work helped to revolutionize Protestant theology in light of a philosophical analysis of existence. Born in a small Prussian town, the son of an authoritarian Lutheran minister, Tillich attended universities in Berlin, Tübingen, and Halle before receiving a doctorate from Breslau in 1911, as well as a licentiate of theology from Halle in 1912. As an ordained Lutheran minister and chaplain in the German army, Tillich joined forces with the religious social movement, which struggled to expand social opportunity and justice while opposing both the utopian delusions of Marxism, as well as the individualism and otherworldliness of the dominant forms of Christianity.

Tillich’s early work examined how tradition could coexist with autonomy and freedom. In The Religious Situation (1932), Tillich viewed religion as the ultimate concern of humanity that underlies 20th-century changes in art, politics, and philosophy. Because of his criticism of Hitler, in 1933, he was barred from teaching, and he emigrated to the United States to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Tillich continued to publish sermons and articles on theology and history. Systematic Theology (1951–63), his three-volume magnum opus, presents God not as a being—an anthropomorphic, personal God—but as Being-itself, or ultimate reality; this work attempted to integrate traditional Christianity with contemporary concerns including existential uncertainty, the scientific method, and psychoanalysis. Christian doctrines are seen as resolutions of practical human problems.

In this selection from Tillich’s popular The Courage to Be (1952), suicide is explored in relation to anxiety and despair. Suicide only partially liberates the soul from anxiety, Tillich says; the inescapable guilt and condemnation of despair frustrate the attempt to escape them through this finite act.

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), pp. 54-57.




The Meaning of Despair

Despair is an ultimate or “boundary-line” situation. One cannot go beyond it. Its nature is indicated in the etymology of the word despair: without hope.  No way out into the future appears. Nonbeing is felt as absolutely victorious. But there is a limit to its victory; nonbeing is felt as victorious, and feeling presupposes being. Enough being is left to feel the irresistible power of nonbeing, and this is the despair within the despair. The pain of despair is that a being is aware of itself as unable to affirm itself because of the power of nonbeing. Consequently it wants to surrender this awareness and its presupposition, the being which is aware. It wants to get rid of itself—and it cannot. Despair appears in the form of reduplication, as the desperate attempt to escape despair. If anxiety were only the anxiety of fate and death, voluntary death would be the way out of despair. The courage demanded would be the courage not to be. The final form of ontic self-affirmation would be the act of ontic self-negation.

But despair is also the despair about guilt and condemnation. And there is no way of escaping it, even by ontic self-negation. Suicide can liberate one from the anxiety of fate and death—as the Stoics knew. But it cannot liberate from the anxiety of guilt and condemnation, as the Christians know. This is a highly paradoxical statement, as paradoxical as the relation of the moral sphere to ontic existence generally. But it is a true statement, verified by those who have experienced fully the despair of condemnation. It is impossible to express the inescapable character of condemnation in ontic terms, that is in terms of imaginings about the “immortality of the soul.” For every ontic statement must use the categories of finitude, and “immortality of the soul” would be the endless prolongation of finitude and of the despair of condemnation (a self-contradictory concept, for “finis” means “end”). The experience, therefore, that suicide is no way of escaping guilt must be understood in terms of the qualitative character of the moral demand, and of the qualitative character of its rejection. Guilt and condemnation are qualitatively, not quantitatively, infinite. They have an infinite weight and cannot be removed by a finite act of ontic self-negation. This makes despair desperate, that is, inescapable. There is “No Exit” from it (Sartre). The anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness participates in both the ontic and moral element in despair. Insofar as it is an expression of finitude it can be removed by ontic self-negation: This drives radical skepticism to suicide. Insofar as it is a consequence of moral disintegration it produces the same paradox as the moral element in despair: there is no ontic exit from it. This frustrates the suicidal trends in emptiness and meaninglessness. One is aware of their futility.

In view of this character of despair it is understandable that all human life can be interpreted as a continuous attempt to avoid despair. And this attempt is mostly successful. Extreme situations are not reached frequently and perhaps they are never reached by some people. The purpose of an analysis of such a situation is not to record ordinary human experiences but to show extreme possibilities in the light of which the ordinary situations must be understood. We are not always aware of our having to die, but in the light of the experience of our having to die our whole life is experienced differently. In the same way the anxiety which is despair is not always present. But the rare occasions in which it is present determine the interpretation of existence as a whole.

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from Mrs. Dalloway
from A Room of One’s Own
Journal Entry, May 15, 1940
Letter to Leonard Woolf


Virginia Woolf, the English novelist and literary critic, profoundly influenced both the modern literary form and feminist criticism. She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London and educated at home by her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, a prominent philosopher and biographer. Although her father held that suicide in preference to a life of agony was clearly moral, he did not kill himself, but died of cancer. After her father’s death, when Virginia was 23, she, her sister, and her two brothers moved to a home in the Bloomsbury district of London, a home that soon became a place of gathering for an intellectual circle called the Bloomsbury group. This group included art critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry, economist John Maynard Keynes, novelist E. M. Forster, and writer Leonard Woolf, whom Virginia later married in 1912.

Woolf’s many novels, including The Voyage Out (1915), Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and To the Lighthouse (1927), significantly altered and expanded conventional novelistic form with new techniques like stream-of-consciousness, unique plotting, and focus on the interiority of characters, revealing their inner thoughts by their effects on their surroundings. Woolf also contributed significantly as a literary critic and essayist. Her most important essays, like the landmark A Room of One’s Own (1929), focused on the role of women in history and literature, and established Woolf as one of the founders of feminist criticism.

Virginia Woolf suffered throughout her life from a debilitating mental and physical illness that, although never fully identified (believed in her day to be a disease of the nerves), may have been bipolar disorder, exacerbated by drug therapies and lengthy and confining bed rest. According to the writings of both Woolf and her husband Leonard, the illness was intermittent, often intensifying into dramatic and horrifying episodes that included severe pain, nausea, and delirium, and that provoked at least three suicide attempts. In the novel Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf invents the character of Septimus, who suffers from a similar condition and whose experiences are clearly representative of the same traumas she endured. Through her depiction of Septimus’s illness and his treatment by Dr. Holmes and the specialist Sir William Bradshaw, Woolf indicts the medical institution, which she felt was dismissive and unhelpful, and which she believed made the ailment worse through drug treatments, confinement, forced eating, and no visitations or writing allowed. In the novel, after experiencing this sort of treatment, Septimus commits suicide by throwing himself out of a window, the same way Woolf herself had attempted suicide during a violent episode of her illness.

Some scholars have argued that Woolf’s interest in women’s issues was in part provoked by her experiences with the medical institution. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf imagines a woman of literary genius in the Elizabethan period, Judith Shakespeare, the sister of William Shakespeare [q.v.]. For the imaginary Judith, however, existing social constraints and imposed expectations of cultural roles for women provided only a few drastic options for escape: suicide or madness. Judith chooses suicide.

Woolf explored suicide in other, actual contexts as well. A journal entry from 1940 reveals that Virginia and her husband Leonard (“L.” in the entry) discussed suicide in the event that Germany successfully invaded Britain. She describes the discussion as “sensible, rather matter of fact talk.”

Suicide was always a possibility for Woolf. Although it is true that neither restrictive cultural expectations nor the medical institution were the sole cause of Woolf’s recurrent depressions, she did believe that they made its effects far worse, and that by continuing the prescribed treatment of the doctors, she could never escape from her suffering. On March 28, 1941, as she felt another exacerbation of her illness coming on, Virginia Woolf drowned herself. Many critics and scholars have argued about Woolf’s reasons for committing suicide. In a letter written to her husband shortly before her death, Woolf indicates that she intends to kill herself because she believes that another breakdown is impending. The letter has been variously interpreted as both revealing that Woolf made a rational decision to prevent further anguish, and as showing that Woolf was already suffering from the effects of mental illness.


Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (London:  Harcourt Brace, 1953), pp. 91-102, 147-151; A Room of One’s Own (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957), pp. 46-49; Journal entry, Wednesday 15 May, 1940, from The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. V, 1936-1941, ed. Anne Oliver Bell (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), pp. 284-285; letter to Leonard Woolf, Tuesday, 18? March 1941, from Leave the Letters Till We’re Dead: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. VI, 1936-1941, ed. Nigel Nicolson (London: Hogarth Press, 1980), p. 481.



Dr. Holmes came again. Large, fresh coloured, handsome, flicking his boots, looking in the glass, he brushed it all aside—headaches, sleeplessness, fears, dreams—nerve symptoms and nothing more, he said. If Dr. Holmes found himself even half a pound below eleven stone six, he asked his wife for another plate of porridge at breakfast. (Rezia would learn to cook porridge.) But, he continued, health is largely a matter in our own control. Throw yourself into outside interests; take up some hobby. He opened Shakespeare—Antony and Cleopatra; pushed Shakespeare aside. Some hobby, said Dr. Holmes, for did he not owe his own excellent health (and he worked as hard as any man in London) to the fact that he could always switch off from his patients on to old furniture? And what a very pretty comb, if he might say so, Mrs. Warren Smith was wearing!

When the damned fool came again, Septimus refused to see him. Did he indeed? Said Dr. Holmes, smiling agreeably. Really he had to give that charming little lady, Mrs. Smith, a friendly push before he could get past her into her husband’s bedroom.

“So you’re in a funk,” he said agreeably, sitting down by his patient’s side. He had actually talked of killing himself to his wife, quite a girl, a foreigner, wasn’t she? Didn’t that give her a very odd idea of English husbands? Didn’t one owe perhaps a duty to one’s wife? Wouldn’t it be better to do something instead of lying in bed? For he had had forty years’ experience behind him; and Septimus could take Dr. Holmes’s word for it—there was nothing whatever the matter with him. And next time Dr. Holmes came he hoped to find Smith out of bed and not making that charming little lady his wife anxious about him.

Human nature, in short, was on him—the repulsive brute, with the blood-red nostrils. Holmes was on him. Dr. Holmes came quite regularly every day. Once you stumble, Septimus wrote on the back of a postcard, human nature is on you. Holmes is on you. Their only chance was to escape, without letting Holmes know; to Italy—anywhere, anywhere, away from Dr. Holmes.

But Rezia could not understand him. Dr. Holmes was such a kind man. He was so interested in Septimus. He only wanted to help them, he said. He had four little children and he had asked her to tea, she told Septimus.

So he was deserted. The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes. But why should he kill himself for their sakes? Food was pleasant; the sun hot; and this killing oneself, how does one set about it, with a table knife, uglily, with floods of blood,—by sucking a gas pipe? He was too weak; he could scarcely raise his hand. Besides, now that he was quite alone, condemned, deserted, as those who are about to die are alone, there was a luxury in it, an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know. Holmes had won of course; the brute with the red nostrils had won. But even Holmes himself could not touch this last relic straying on the edge of the world, this outcast, who gazed back at the inhabited regions, who lay, like a drowned sailor, on the shore of the world.

Indeed it was—Sir William Bradshaw’s motor car; low, powerful, grey with plain initials interlocked on the panel, as if the pomps of heraldry were incongruous, this man being the ghostly helper, the priest of science; and, as the motor car was grey, so to match its sober suavity, grey furs, silver grey rugs were heaped in it, to keep her ladyship warm while she waited. For often Sir William would travel sixty miles or more down into the country to visit the rich, the afflicted, who could afford the very large fee which Sir William very properly charged for his advice. Her ladyship waited with the rugs about her knees an hour or more, leaning back, thinking sometimes of the patient, sometimes, excusably, of the wall of gold, mounting minute by minute while she waited; the wall of gold that was mounting between them and all shifts and anxieties (she had borne them bravely; they had had their struggles) until she felt wedged on a calm ocean, where only spice winds blow; respected, admired, envied, with scarcely anything left to wish for, though she regretted her stoutness; large dinner-parties every Thursday night to the profession; an occasional bazaar to be opened; Royalty greeted; too little time, alas, with her husband whose work grew and grew; a boy doing well at Eton; she would have liked a daughter too; interests she had, however, in plenty; child welfare; the after-care of the epileptic, and photography, so that if there was a church building, or a church decaying, she bribed the sexton, got the key and took photographs, which were scarcely to be distinguished from the work of professionals, while she waited.

Sir William himself was no longer young. He had worked very hard; he had won his position by sheer ability (being the son of a shopkeeper); loved his profession; made a fine figurehead at ceremonies and spoke well—all of which had by the time he was knighted given him a heavy look, a weary look (the stream of patients being so incessant, the responsibilities and privileges of his profession so onerous), which weariness, together with his grey hairs, increased the extraordinary distinction of his presence and gave him the reputation (of the utmost importance in dealing with nerve cases) not merely of lightning skill, and almost infallible accuracy in diagnosis but of sympathy; tact; understanding of the human soul. He could see the first moment they came into the room (the Warren Smiths they were called); he was certain directly he saw the man; it was a case of extreme gravity. It was a case of complete breakdown—complete physical and nervous breakdown, with every symptom in an advanced stage, he ascertained in two or three minutes (writing answers to questions, murmured discreetly, on a pink card).

How long had Dr. Holmes been attending him?

Six weeks.

Prescribed a little bromide?  Said there was nothing the matter?  Ah yes (those general practitioners!  Thought Sir William. It took half his time to undo their blunders. Some were irreparable).

“You served with great distinction in the War?

The patient repeated the word “war” interrogatively.

He was attaching meanings to words of a symbolical kind. A serious symptom, to be noted on the card.

“The War?” the patient asked. The European War—that little shindy of schoolboys with gunpowder?  Had he served with distinction?  He really forgot. In the War itself he had failed.

“Yes, he served with the greatest distinction,” Rezia assured the doctor; “he was promoted.”

“And they have the very highest opinion of you at your office?” Sir William murmured, glancing at Mr. Brewer’s very generously worded letter. “So that you have nothing to worry you, no financial anxiety, nothing?”

He had committed an appalling crime and been condemned to death by human nature.

“I have—I have,” he began, “committed a crime—”

“He has done nothing wrong whatever,” Rezia assured the doctor. If Mr. Smith would wait, said Sir William, he would speak to Mrs. Smith in the next room. Her husband was very seriously ill, Sir William said. Did he threaten to kill himself?

Oh, he did, she cried. But he did not mean it, she said. Of course not. It was merely a question of rest, said Sir William; of rest, rest, rest; a long rest in bed. There was a delightful home down in the country where her husband would be perfectly looked after. Away from her? She asked. Unfortunately, yes; the people we care for most are not good for us when we are ill. But he was not mad, was he? Sir William said he never spoke of “madness”; he called it not having a sense of proportion. But her husband did not like doctors. He would refuse to go there. Shortly and kindly Sir William explained to her the state of the case. He had threatened to kill himself. There was no alternative. It was a question of law. He would lie in bed in a beautiful house in the country. The nurses were admirable. Sir William would visit him once a week. If Mrs. Warren Smith was quite sure she had no more questions to ask—he never hurried his patients—they would return to her husband. She had nothing more to ask—not of Sir William.

So they returned to the most exalted of mankind; the criminal who faced his judges; the victim exposed on the heights; the fugitive; the drowned sailor; the poet of the immortal ode; the Lord who had gone from life to death; to Septimus Warren Smith, who sat in the arm-chair under the skylight staring at a photograph of Lady Bradshaw in Court dress, muttering messages about beauty.

“We have had our little talk,” said Sir William.

“He says you are very, very ill,” Rezia cried.

“We have been arranging that you should go into a home,” said Sir William.

“One of Holmes’s homes?” sneered Septimus.

The fellow made a distasteful impression. For there was in Sir William, whose father had been a tradesman, a natural respect for breeding and clothing, which shabbiness nettled; again, more profoundly, there was in Sir William, who had never had time for reading, a grudge, deeply buried, against cultivated people who came into his room and intimated that doctors, whose profession is a constant strain upon all the highest faculties, are not educated men.

“One of my homes, Mr. Warren Smith,” he said, “where we will teach you to rest.”

And there was just one thing more.

He was quite certain that when Mr. Warren Smith was well he was the last man in the world to frighten his wife. But he had talked of killing himself.

“We all have our moments of depression,” said Sir William.

Once you fall, Septimus repeated to himself, human nature is on you. Holmes and Bradshaw are on you. They scour the desert. They fly screaming into the wilderness. The rack and the thumbscrew are applied. Human nature is remorseless.

“Impulses came upon him sometimes?”  Sir William asked, with his pencil on a pink card.

“That was his own affair,” said Septimus.

“Nobody lives for himself alone,” said Sir William, glancing at the photograph of his wife in Court dress.

“And you have a brilliant career before you,” said Sir William. There was Mr. Brewer’s letter on the table. “An exceptionally brilliant career.”

But if he confessed? If he communicated? Would they let him off then, his torturers?

“I—I—” he stammered.

But what was his crime?  He could not remember it.

“Yes?”  Sir William encouraged him.  (But it was growing late.)

Love, trees, there is no crime—what was his message?

He could not remember it.

“I—I—” Septimus stammered.

“Try to think as little about yourself as possible,” said Sir William kindly. Really, he was not fit to be about.

Was there anything else they wished to ask him? Sir William would make all arrangements (he murmured to Rezia) and he would let her know between five and six that evening he murmured.

“Trust everything to me,” he said, and dismissed them.

Never, never had Rezia felt such agony in her life! She had asked for help and been deserted! He had failed them! Sir William Bradshaw was not a nice man.

“The upkeep of that motor car alone must cost him quite a lot,” said Septimus, when they got out into the street.

She clung to his arm. They had been deserted.

But what more did she want?

To his patients he gave three-quarters of an hour; and if in this exacting science which has to do with what, after all, we know nothing about—the nervous system, the human brain—a doctor loses his sense of proportion, as a doctor he fails. Health we must have; and health is proportion; so that when a man comes into your room and says he is Christ (a common delusion), and has a message, as they mostly have, and threatens, as they often do, to kill himself, you invoke proportion; order rest in bed; rest in solitude; silence and rest; rest without friends, without books, without messages; six months’ rest; until a man who went in weighing seven stone six comes out weighing twelve.

Proportion, divine proportion, Sir William’s goddess, was acquired by Sir William walking hospitals, catching salmon, begetting one son in Harley Street by Lady Bradshaw, who caught salmon herself and took photographs scarcely to be distinguished from the work of professionals. Worshipping proportion, Sir William not only prospered himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalised despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion—his, if they were men, Lady Bradshaw’s if they were women (she embroidered, knitted, spent four nights out of seven at home with her son), so that not only did his colleagues respect him, his subordinates fear him, but the friends and relations of his patients felt for him the keenest gratitude for insisting that these prophetic Christs and Christesses, who prophesied the end of the world, or the advent of God, should drink milk in bed, as Sir William ordered; Sir William with his thirty years’ experience of these kinds of cases, and his infallible instinct, this is madness, this sense; in fact, his sense of proportion.

There in the grey room, with the pictures on the wall, and the valuable furniture, under the ground glass skylight, they learnt the extent of their transgressions; huddled up in arm-chairs, they watched him go through, for their benefit, a curious exercise with the arms, which he shot out, brought sharply back to his hip, to prove (if the patient was obstinate) that Sir William was master of his own actions, which the patient was not. There some weakly broke down; sobbed, submitted; others, inspired by Heaven knows what intemperate madness, called Sir William to his face a damnable humbug; questioned, even more impiously, life itself. Why live? they demanded. Sir William replied that life was good. Certainly Lady Bradshaw in ostrich feathers hung over the mantelpiece, and as for his income it was quite twelve thousand a year. But to us, they protested, life has given no such bounty. He acquiesced. They lacked a sense of proportion. And perhaps, after all, there is no God? He shrugged his shoulders. In short, this living or not living is an affair of our own? But there they were mistaken. Sir William had a friend in Surrey where they taught, what Sir William frankly admitted was a difficult art—a sense of proportion. There were, moreover, family affection; honour; courage; and a brilliant career. All of these had in Sir William a resolute champion. If they failed him, he had to support police and the good of society, which, he remarked very quietly, would take care, down in Surrey, that these unsocial impulses, bred more that anything by the lack of good blood, were held in control. And then stole out from her hiding-place and mounted her throne that Goddess whose lust is to override opposition, to stamp indelibly in the sanctuaries of others the image of herself. Naked, defenceless, the exhausted, the friendless received the impress of Sir William’s will. He swooped; he devoured. He shut people up. It was this combination of decision and humanity that endeared Sir William so greatly to the relations of his victims.

But Rezia Warren Smith cried, walking down Harley Street, that she did not like that man.

Septimus remembered Bradshaw said, “The people we are most fond of are not good for us when we are ill.” Bradshaw said, he must be taught to rest. Bradshaw said they must be separated.

“Must,” “must,” why “must”? “What power had Bradshaw over him?” “What right has Bradshaw to say ‘must’ to me?”  he demanded.

“It is because you talked of killing yourself,” said Rezia. (Mercifully, she could now say anything to Septimus.)

So he was in their power! Holmes and Bradshaw were on him! The brute with the red nostrils was snuffing into every secret place! “Must” it could say! Where were his papers? The things he had written?

She brought him his papers, the things he had written, things she had written for him. She tumbled them out on to the sofa. They looked at them together. Diagrams, designs, little men and women brandishing sticks for arms, with wings—were they?—on their backs; circles traced round shillings and sixpences—the suns and stars; zigzagging precipices with mountaineers ascending roped together, exactly like knives and forks; sea pieces with little faces laughing out of what might perhaps be waves: the map of the world. Burn them! he cried. Now for his writings; how the dead sing behind rhododendron bushes; odes to Time; conversations with Shakespeare; Evans, Evans, Evans—his messages from the dead; do not cut down trees; tell the Prime Minister. Universal love: the meaning of the world. Burn them! he cried.

But Rezia laid her hands on them. Some were very beautiful, she thought. She would tie them up (for she had no envelope) with a piece of silk.

Even if they took him, she said, she would go with him. They could not separate them against their wills, she said.

Shuffling the edges straight, she did up the papers, and tied the parcel almost without looking, sitting beside him, he thought, as if all her petals were about her. She was a flowering tree; and through her branches looked out the face of a lawgiver, who had reached a sanctuary where she feared no one; not Holmes; not Bradshaw; a miracle, a triumph, the last and greatest. Staggering he saw her mount the appalling staircase, laden with Holmes and Bradshaw, men who never weighed less than eleven stone six, who sent their wives to Court, men who made ten thousand a year and talked of proportion; who different in their verdicts (for Holmes said one thing, Bradshaw another), yet judges they were; who mixed the vision and the sideboard; saw nothing clear, yet ruled, yet inflicted. “Must” they said. Over them she triumphed.

“There!” she said. The papers were tied up. No one should get at them. She would put them away.

And, she said, nothing should separate them. She sat down beside him and called him by the name of that hawk or crow which being malicious and a great destroyer of crops was precisely like him. No one could separate them, she said.

Then she got up to go into the bedroom to pack their things, but hearing voices downstairs and thinking that Dr. Holmes had perhaps called, ran down to prevent him coming up.

Septimus could hear her talking to Holmes on the staircase.

“My dear lady, I have come as a friend,” Holmes was saying.

“No. I will not allow you to see my husband,” she said.

He could see her, like a little hen, with her wings spread barring his passage.  But Holmes persevered.

“My dear lady, allow me …” Holmes said, putting her aside (Holmes was a powerfully built man).

Holmes was coming upstairs. Holmes would burst open the door. Holmes would say “In a funk, eh?” Holmes would get him. But no; not Holmes; not Bradshaw. Getting up rather unsteadily, hopping indeed from foot to foot, he considered Mrs. Filmer’s nice clean bread knife with “Bread” carved on the handle. Ah, but one mustn’t spoil that. The gas fire? But it was too late now. Holmes was coming. Razors he might have got, but Rezia, who always did that sort of thing, had packed them. There remained only the window, the large Bloomsbury-lodging house window, the tiresome, the troublesome, and rather melodramatic business of opening the window and throwing himself out. It was their idea of tragedy, not his or Rezia’s (for she was with him). Holmes and Bradshaw like that sort of thing. (He sat on the sill.)  But he would wait till the very last moment. He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings—what did they want? Coming down the staircase opposite an old man stopped and stared at him. Holmes was at the door. “I’ll give it you!” he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings.

“The coward!” cried Dr. Holmes, bursting the door open. Rezia ran to the window, she saw; she understood. Dr. Holmes and Mrs. Filmer collided with each other. Mrs. Filmer flapped her apron and made her hide her eyes in the bedroom. There was a great deal of running up and down stairs. Dr. Holmes came in—white as a sheet, shaking all over, with a glass in his hand. She must be brave and drink something, he said (What was it?  Something sweet), for her husband was horribly mangled, would not recover consciousness, she must not see him, must be spared as much as possible, would have the inquest to go through, poor young woman. Who could have foretold it? A sudden impulse, no one was in the least to blame (he told Mrs. Filmer). And why the devil he did it, Dr. Holmes could not conceive.

It seemed to her as she drank the sweet stuff that she was opening long windows, stepping out into some garden. But where? The clock was striking—one, two, three: how sensible the sound was; compared with all this thumping and whispering; like Septimus himself. She was falling asleep. But the clock went on striking, four, five, six and Mrs. Filmer waving her apron (they wouldn’t bring the body in here, would they?) seemed part of that garden; or a flag. She had once seen a flag slowly rippling out from a mast when she stayed with her aunt at Venice. Men killed in battle were thus saluted, and Septimus had been through the War. Of her memories, most were happy.

She put on her hat, and ran through cornfields—where could it have been?—on to some hill, somewhere near the sea, for there were ships, gulls, butterflies, they say on a cliff. In London too, there they sat, and, half dreaming, came to her through the bedroom door, rain falling, whisperings, stirrings among dry corn, the caress of the sea, as it seemed to her, hollowing them in its arched shell and murmuring to her laid on shore, strewn she felt, like flying flowers over some tomb.

“He is dead,” she said, smiling at the poor old woman who guarded her with her honest light-blue eyes fixed on the door. (They wouldn’t bring him in here, would they?) But Mrs. Filmer pooh-poohed. Oh no, oh no! They were carrying him away now. Ought she not to be told? Married people ought to be together, Mrs. Filmer thought. But they must do as the doctor said.

“Let her sleep,” said Dr. Holmes, feeling her pulse. She saw the large outline of his body standing dark against the window. So that was Dr. Holmes.



Here am I asking why women did not write poetry in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting-rooms to themselves; how many women had children before they were twenty-one; what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at night. They had no money evidently; according to Professor Trevelyan they were married whether they liked it or not before they were out of the nursery, at fifteen or sixteen very likely. It would have been extremely odd, even upon this showing, had one of them suddenly written the plays of Shakespeare, I concluded, and I thought of that old gentleman, who is dead now, but was a bishop, I think, who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare. He wrote to the papers about it. He also told a lady who applied to him for information that cats do not as a matter of fact go to heaven, though they have, he added, souls of a sort. How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare.

Be that as it may, I could not help thinking, as I looked at the works of Shakespeare on the shelf, that the bishop was right at least in this; it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare. Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. Shakespeare himself went, very probably—his mother was an heiress—to the grammar school, where he may have learnt Latin—Ovid, Virgil and Horace—and the elements of grammar and logic. He was, it is well known, a wild boy who poached rabbits, perhaps shot a deer, and had, rather sooner than he should have done, to marry a woman in the neighborhood, who bore him a child rather quicker than was right. That escapade sent him to seek his fortune in London. He had, it seemed, a taste for the theatre; he began by holding horses at the stage door. Very soon he got work in the theatre, became a successful actor, and lived at the hub of the universe, meeting everybody, knowing everybody, practising his art on the boards, exercising his wits in the streets, and even getting access to the palace of the queen. Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter—indeed, more likely than not she was the apple of her father’s eye. Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly, but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighboring wool-stapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage. He would give her a chain of beads or a fine petticoat, he said; and there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart? The force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer’s night and took the road to London. She was not seventeen. The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager—a fat, loose-lipped man—guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting—no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted—you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight? Yet her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways. At last—for she was very young, oddly like Shakespeare the poet in her face, with the same grey eyes and rounded brows—at last Nick Greene the actor-manager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so—who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?—killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.

That, more or less, is how the story would run, I think, if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius. But for my part, I agree with the deceased bishop, if such he was—it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare’s day should have had Shakespeare’s genius. For genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people. It was not born in England among the Saxons and the Britons. It is not born today among the working classes. How, then, could it have been born among women whose work began, according to Professor Trevelyan, almost before they were out of the nursery, who were forced to it by their parents and held to it by all the power of law and custom? Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes. Now and again an Emily Brontë or a Robert Burns blazes out and proves its presence. But certainly it never got itself on to paper. When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman. It was a woman Edward Fitzgerald, I think, suggested who made the ballads and the folk-songs, crooning them to her children, beguiling her spinning with them, or the length of the winter’s night.

This may be true or it may be false—who can say? —but what is true in it, so it seemed to me, reviewing the story of Shakespeare’s sister as I had made it, is that any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.

15 May, 1940

An appeal last night for home defence—against parachutists. L. says he’ll join. An acid conversation. Our nerves are harassed—mine at least: L. evidently relieved by the chance of doing something. Gun & uniform to me slightly ridiculous.  Behind that the strain: this morning we discussed suicide if Hitler lands. Jews beaten up. What point in waiting? Better shut the garage doors. This a sensible, rather matter of fact talk.


Monk’s House, Rodmell, Sussex, Tuesday [18? March 1941]


I feel certain that I am going mad again: I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shant recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight it any longer, I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is that I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.


On 11 May 1941 Leonard noted at the foot of this letter: “This is the letter left for me on the table in the sitting room which I found at 1 on March 28.”

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Filed under Europe, Selections, The Modern Era, Woolf, Virginia


from Is Suicide Justifiable?


John Haynes Holmes, an American clergyman and author, was one of the leaders of the Social Gospel movement in Protestantism. Holmes was born in Philadelphia to a family of meager circumstances; he planned to enter the family music publication business, but his success in school prompted his teachers to prepare him for higher education. After extensive study in history and the classics, Holmes attended both Harvard College and Divinity School on scholarships, graduating in 1904. After serving as a minister, he was elected president of the Free Religious Association and the General Unitarian Conference. Holmes, a lifelong pacifist, resigned from the American Unitarian Organization over differences of opinion on World War I in 1918 along with his loyal congregation, renaming his church the Community Church of New York, which was known for its social service and civic instruction programs.

In 1906, Holmes helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After discovering the work of Gandhi, Holmes helped to popularize his views in the United States. Often involved in major civil liberties controversies, including, in 1928, the Sacco-Vanzetti case, he helped found the American Civil Liberties Union. He advocated reformation of conventional religious organizations and ideas and was heavily involved in social and political causes. As a pacifist and an advocate of socialism, Holmes refused to support the government in either world war. He argued that war and violence, once started, only perpetuate themselves. He was also a cofounder and member of the New York City Affairs Committee, which investigated political corruption, and he traveled widely in supporting the causes of labor unions and the American Zionists. Holmes retired from religious leadership in 1949, but he continued to pursue his interests until his death at age 85.

In addition to his public lectures and writings, Holmes wrote stories, poems, hymns, and a play. In his book, Is Suicide Justifiable, Holmes attempts to distinguish martyrdom, heroism, and self-sacrifice, which are praiseworthy, from suicide, which is not. To do so, he examines several sets of parallel cases, including the deaths in battle of, on the one hand, Brutus, and on the other, the Swiss hero Arnold von Winkelried. Holmes’s attempt to define suicide takes the form of identifying what he takes to be its central, reprehensible feature: it is an act of both irresponsible if not blasphemous egoism and cowardly desertion from one’s problems in life.

John Haynes Holmes, Is Suicide Justifiable? (New York: The John Day Company, 1934),  pp. 19-30.




What is suicide?  The dictionary tells us, simply and plainly, that suicide is the act of voluntarily destroying one’s life, or of deliberately placing this life in fatal, or merely serious jeopardy. But is this all? Is there not more involved?  Is not the phenomenon more complicated? Surely there are persons who have hazarded their lives, thrown them deliberately, even gaily away, and yet not committed suicide at all. A man may forfeit his life, in other words, by a direct decision of the will, and yet not for a moment come under the “canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” Familiar examples of voluntary death can be matched point by point, and immediately instances which are suicide be clearly distinguished from instances which are not suicide.

Thus, in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Julius Cesar, there is a closing scene in which Brutus is presented by the dramatist as fleeing from his foes. Beaten on the field of Philippi, he is hotly pursued, and at last surrounded. Unwilling to surrender or to be captured, and thus to suffer the humiliation of falling into the hands of Antony, he decides to kill himself. So he orders his friend, Strato, to hold his sword, and, with one last despairing cry, rushes upon the poisoned blade, and perishes. The character of the deed is obvious. “The noblest Roman of them all” has committed suicide.

Now, compare this death of Brutus with the death of the famous Arnold von Winkelried at the battle of Sempach! The Swiss people were fighting for the freedom of their country from the rule of Austria. Their soldiers had again and again attacked the Austrian line, but had found it impossible to break through the solid clump of spears which were raised against them. At the critical moment a single soldier was seen to rush from the Swiss ranks and deliberately impale himself upon the lifted spears. This was Arnold von Winkelried. As he fell, he stretched out his arms, and embracing as many of the spear-heads as he could reach, fiercely thrust them into his bosom. In so doing, he broke down a portion of the Austrian line, and thus opened the way through which his comrades poured their forces, and thus turned the tide of battle. Von Winkelried’s act, in its outward aspects, was almost identical with that of Brutus. As the Roman ran upon the sword, so the Switzer ran upon the spears. But what was plainly suicide in the one case was as plainly not suicide in the other. The two deeds, similar in appearance, were fundamentally different in character.

A few weeks ago I read in the morning newspaper of the death of a woman in the New York subway.  She had thrown herself in front of a train. Standing quietly on the edge of the platform until the train appeared, she had jumped to the track just the right moment and been ground to pieces beneath the turning wheels. This was obviously suicide.

A few years ago a similar event occurred in England. A woman, standing quietly on the edge of a racetrack, suddenly leaped in front of the horses as they galloped around the turn, and was killed upon the instant by their pounding hoofs. When the victim was picked up, she was found to be a suffragette, in the ranks of Mrs. Pankhurst’s followers, who had deliberately chosen this method of protesting against the disfranchisement of women in Great Britain. She had killed herself voluntarily, in almost exactly the same way the American woman had killed herself voluntarily. But was she a suicide? The thousands of men and women who marched in her funeral procession through the streets of London did not think so. On the contrary, they regarded and reverenced her as a martyr to a great cause.

One more parallel example! Some years ago a man, a friend and parishioner of mine, came to consult me about his will. After several meetings, we reached a definite agreement upon the disposal of his property under my direction. The next day I received the shocking news that he had gone from my study to his home, and, after making every last preparation, had turned on the gas, laid down quietly on his bed and awaited the end. The authorities pronounced this act suicide.

Some months ago the Mahatma of India, after a series of negotiations with officials and friends, solemnly announced that he was about to “fast unto death.” Unless certain agreements could be reached between Hindus and English, he said, he would refuse all food until he died. At the appointed hour, Gandhi laid himself down upon his cot and began his fast. Day after day he refused food and steadily grew weaker. In a few more days he would undoubtedly have perished, by his own hand, so to speak, had not the agreements, upon which he had insisted for the redemption of the Untouchables of India, been happily reached and thus released him from his vow. If the Mahatma had died, would this have been suicide? Not at all! The millions in India and around the world who watched with bated breath the progress of the famous fast, knew they were looking not upon an act of suicide, but upon one of the most sublime instances of sacrifice in history.

These three parallels are illuminating. In every outward aspect the members of each pair of examples are the same. Brutus and Winkelried both impaled themselves on deadly weapons; the woman in the subway and the woman on the racetrack both threw themselves in the way of forces certain to destroy them; my friend in New York and the Mahatma in India both laid themselves down to await death which they had themselves decreed. But while these respective deeds are outwardly identical, they are inwardly distinct. On the one had is suicide; on the other, sacrifice. Where is the difference? When is suicide not suicide? When are the voluntary dead not unhappy victims but glorious martyrs?

The answer to these questions is not far to seek. The distinction between the instances, as compared and contrasted, is at least three-fold:

First, in the case of the martyrs, so-called, it is to be noticed that the occasions of death lie altogether outside themselves. These occasions exist apart from their own problems and interests as persons. The martyrs do what they do for the reasons which are utterly unselfish. In the case of the suicides, on the other hand, the occasions of death lie inside the lives of the dead. These occasions belong to themselves as a part of their own intimate experiences and desires. The suicides do what they do primarily in their own interest, or in the interest of others only in relation to themselves.

Secondly, in order to meet these occasions of death, the martyrs have to plunge into the thick of life, face the fearful impact of some national or world crisis, and thus live, for the moment, at least, more fiercely and terribly than they have ever lived before. But the suicides, in killing themselves, withdraw from life and desert the world. The martyrs turn outward, so to speak, and challenge the injustices and cruelties of society. The suicides, per contra, turn inward, and thus away from society, and destroy their lives that they may be delivered from the problem of living at all.

Thirdly, there is the impressive fact that the martyrs and heroes are giving their lives as precious offerings for some great cause of humankind. Thus, Arnold von Winkelried gave his life for the freedom of his country, the English suffragette for the emancipation of women, the Indian Mahatma for the redemption of the Untouchables. But with the suicides there is no question of the giving of life for anything. On the contrary, these victims of self-violence are engaged not in giving their lives, but in taking them. The act of suicide, in other words, is invariably an act not of sacrifice but of self-assertion. The victim is affirming fundamentally that his life is his own, not the world’s and that he will take it and throw it away at any time for purposes satisfactory to himself.

It is this final distinction between giving and taking one’s life which marks what is basically different, morally speaking, between suicide and martyrdom. Such distinction, of course, is not always perfectly clear. There are border-line cases which confuse opinion and suspend judgment. The man who kills himself, for example, to relieve his family of the burden of his disability from fatal disease, or to give his family the financial help of his insurance policies! He is undoubtedly sacrificing himself for others, though not by their desire nor in their ultimate and higher interest; but he is also undoubtedly escaping from the pain and worry of his own tragic plight.  t is in this sense—clearly in most cases, confusedly in a few cases—that suicide is to be described as fundamentally and escape-mania. Suicide may be defined as the act of running away from life. The man who commits suicide, for any motive, is essentially abandoning his task and his duty. He is surrendering his sword before the battle is either lost or won. Consciously or unconsciously, nobly or ignobly, he is attempting to shift burdens, evade responsibilities, avoid consequences. The definite thing he does is to step out of the picture. The martyr, in his act of dying, plays a decisive, though tragic role in the drama of life—the whole play may turn upon what he has done. But the suicide leaves the stage, and lets the play go on as best it can without him.

The interpretation of suicide, in terms of escape, is nothing new. Great thinkers in every age have seen it, and accepted it as the basis of their condemnation of death by one’s own hand. Plato is the perfect example of the reaction of the philosophical mind upon this question. One of the two passages on suicide that can be found in the Dialogues is the famous passage in the Phaedo, in which Socrates answers the inquiry of Cebes as to why “a man might not take his own life.”

Socrates begins his answer by describing man as “a prisoner who has no right to open the door and run away”—a precept of conduct, by the way, which he himself nobly exemplified, when, after his condemnation by the citizens of Athens, he refused to escape from his prison cell when the door was opened for his release. Socrates then raises the discussion quickly to the higher spiritual level, and speaks of the “gods” as the “guardians” of men, who are “a possession of theirs.” If our lives thus ultimately belong to the gods, is Socrates’ argument, what right have we to take them for our own and run away with them as if these lives really belonged to ourselves?

“If we look at the matter thus,” concludes Socrates, “there may be reason for saying that a man should wait, and not take his own life until God summons him.”

This argument, presented in the typical Socratic form, penetrates to the heart of all spiritual idealism, and uncovers the mystic law of duty implicit therein. We are a part of the whole of things, and under its law for good or ill. Therefore, though “willing to die,” as Plato carefully points out, the good man will not choose to die. Tolstoi discovered the same truth and formulated the same principle, as a result of his agonizing search for the meaning of life.  The great Russian, it will be recalled, felt some “irresistible force” impelling him to kill himself. He resisted, as we have seen, primarily because he realized the possibility that he might be mistaken in his processes of thought. But he was held back also by his realization that suicide was not a solution of any problem, but only, as he himself put it, an “escape from life.”

This interpretation of suicide as fundamentally an act of escape, or desertion, clarifies our discussion. The ethical implications of our question are made at once apparent. When we ask if it is justifiable to destroy one’s life, what we are really asking is if it is justifiable for one to run away from life. Do we think it is? Do we find it so, as a matter of fact, when a person runs away not by killing himself, but by disappearing, or taking flight? This inquiry may be tested by examining certain examples of escape which do not involve the actual destruction of physical existence, and seeing what we think of them.

There is no more common form of escape than wife-desertion. A husband who is tired of life, or discouraged by his failure to support his family, suddenly disappears. So far as his domestic world is concerned, he has, to all intents and purposes, committed suicide. As a matter of fact, it may be quite uncertain as to whether he has killed himself or run away, and it is significant that, in either case, the theoretical and practical aspects of the problem alike remain the same. Alive or dead, he is no longer present with them. For action of this kind there may be a dozen explanations and a score of excuses. The man may have felt that, in her acute economic distress, his deserted wife could get more help for her children than if he were in the home, and thus have acted on precisely the same motive as the suicide who acts to release his insurance policies for the benefit of his family. But this does not alter the character of his deed. In such reason there is no justification. For the husband and father who runs away and deserts his dependents we refuse to accept any plea in extenuation.

A conspicuous instance of escape is that of the flight of the German Kaiser into Hollandat the time of the collapse of the Empire in November, 1918. Wilhelm II, in my judgment, has been most unfairly condemned for this notorious action. We know that it was his own desire and determination, expressed as late as November 6th, that “the King of Prussia and German Emperor” should resist his enemies “to the last drop of his blood.” But he was advised by those who had a right to command even the Emperor that he should depart into Holland, and thus serve his nation by relieving it of the embarrassment of the royal presence in the hour of defeat. It is the testimony of Von Hindenburg that it was in obedience to his specific recommendation that the Kaiser fled. But whatever we may say about the man, there can be no doubt about the deed. The Kaiser’s advisers may have been wise politically, but they were mistaken morally. For the world must ever regret that the defeated sovereign did not stand his ground and meet his fall. Prince Von Bulow, though unfriendly to the Kaiser, rightly laments in his Memoirs that Wilhelm II should have ended his days as “a fugitive from his country.” “Not all the perfumes of Araby,” he says, quoting Lady Macbeth, “can sweeten” such and act.

The sensational episode of Samuel Insull, which so recently held international attention, is another example of escape. This man was not so long ago the most distinguished citizen of Chicago, and one of the richest half-dozen men in the country. His power was as great as his fame was wide and his reputation high. Then came the crash of his fortune, the ruin of thousands of his investors and his flight to Athens. Can Mr. Insull be justified in running away from the disaster which his own carelessness and perhaps illegal actions had precipitated? Did he present a seemly spectacle as he fled betimes across the ocean, and then, as the law got hot upon his trail, sped in an aeroplane to a land which he believed and has since found to be safe for the hiding of himself and the remnant of his fortune? There is no one so low these days as to speak a word of defense, or even of apology, for Samuel Insull. His action is on the face of it morally reprehensible. He is branded forever in men’s minds as a renegade and coward. Yet he has only run away as any suicide runs away from the failure and fault of his own life.  Indeed, the parallel of suicide is here exact. For what Samuel Insull did in escaping to Greece, his contemporary, Ivar Kreuger, did under exactly the same circumstances in escaping, through his pistol-shot, to whatever land may be lying beyond the grave.


The answer to our question must now be clear. If to run away, by deserting or disappearing, is unjustifiable, then must it be equally unjustifiable to run away by taking one’s own life. In both cases the ethical judgment must be the same, not to be confused in the latter case by the drama of destruction and the horror of violent death.

What confronts us, in the last analysis, is a moral syllogism. First proposition—it is always wrong to run away; second proposition—suicide is running away; conclusion—suicide is always wrong. It is our duty, in other words, as an elementary law of conduct, to meet life’s challenges and dare its dangers. “Having done all,” as St. Paul put it, “to stand!”

Sickness may afflict us, loss of property weaken us, disgrace and ruin smite us. Still must we not flinch or fail. For while we may not be able to overcome these ills, may even be overborne by them, yet, by this very fact, may we prove the strength and valor of our spirits and therewith vindicate the experience of living. For life is not failure so long as man endures. On the contrary, it had eternal worth if he meet defeat undaunted and unafraid. And who knows, even under the most dire conditions, when the battle is lost, or may not be turned to victory? For endurance in ourselves is ever the food of courage in other men, and though we fall and perish in the dust, these others, uplifted by our example, may carry on to triumph.

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Filed under Americas, Holmes, John Haynes, Martyrdom, Selections, The Modern Era


from Letters
  • July 10, 1946
  • July 25, 1946
  • Oct. 13, 1951
  • Nov. 10, 1955


Carl Gustav Jung, born Karl Gustav II Jung, is regarded as the founder of analytical psychology. He was born in Kesswil, Switzerland, the son of a poor Protestant clergyman and philologist who taught him Latin at an early age. Although at first pressured to become a minister like many in his family, Jung eventually decided to become a psychiatrist, receiving his M.D. degree from the University of Zurich in 1902. Despite his focus on scientific topics, Jung integrated many religious, philosophical, and archeological works into his studies. Working with asylum patients under Eugen Bleuler, a pioneer in mental illness research, Jung studied patients’ responses to stimulus words, and termed the group of associations they avoided a “complex.” Between 1907 and 1912, Jung collaborated closely with Sigmund Freud, whose theories were supported by Jung’s results and who for a while regarded Jung as his outstanding disciple; however, the pair split in disagreement over the role of sexuality in neurosis and the development of children. Jung’s subsequent publications, Psychology of the Unconscious (1912) and Psychological Types (1921), ran counter to Freud’s arguments and established Jung’s unique views in psychology. In the 1930s and early 1940s, Jung served as professor of psychology at the Federal Polytechnic University in Zurich. He was appointed professor of medical psychology at the University of Basel in 1943, but was forced to resign almost immediately because of his poor health. He continued to write prolifically until well into his 80s.

Among the many concepts that Jung originated were those of “extroverted” and “introverted” personalities (into which two classes he divided most men), the “collective unconscious,” and the theory of “archetypes.” Jung’s ideas have influenced not only psychiatry, but also the fields of religion, literature, and parapsychology. Jung interpreted Christianity as an essential step in the historical development of consciousness and argued that heretical movements were archetypal constituents of religion not fully contained in Christianity. Jung pioneered therapy for older patients who had lost their faith in life. Individuation, or the ingrained capacity to reconcile complementary oppositions in one’s personality, including one’s basic bisexuality, and thus undergo the process of full human development, is at the core of Jung’s teachings. Neuroses are merely impulses to broaden one’s consciousness toward self-realization and totality. Jung conceived of therapy as an active and analytic process, steering away from Freud’s free associations into a form of directed associations. Various societies around the world serve as centers for the development of Jung’s teachings and provide training for new Jungian analysts.

In these selections from Jung’s collected Letters—some originally in English, some in German—Jung communicates with acquaintances who are dealing with suicide. Jung frequently used letters as a way of communicating his views to the outside world (he sent copies to people whose judgment he trusted) and correcting misinterpretations of and expanding on his views. In the three letters addressed to people who have evidently written to him because of his fame, he appears to argue that suicide is a denial of full self-realization, as is clearly evident in the letter of July 10, 1946, addressed to an elderly resident of Germany and the letters of October 13, 1951, and November 10, 1955, to two different “Mrs. N”s. In the more reflective letter of July 25, 1946, addressed to his acquaintance Dr. Eleanor Bertine, however, he appears to adopt an almost fatalistic attitude toward suicide—“I’m convinced that if anybody has it in himself to commit suicide, then practically the whole of his being is going that way”—and arguing against interference or prevention.

Carl Gustav Jung, Letterseds. Gerhard Adler with Aniela Jaffé, tr. R. F. C. Hull. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953, 1975), Vol. 1, pp. 434-37, Vol. 2, pp. 25-26, 278-279.




Dear Sir,                                                                                        10 July 1946

By parental power is usually understood the influence exerted by any person in authority.  If this influence occurs in childhood and in an unjustified way, as happened in your case, it is apt to take root in the unconscious.  Even if the influence is discontinued outwardly, it still goes on working in the unconscious and then one treats oneself as badly as one was treated earlier.  If your work now gives you some joy and satisfaction you must cultivate it, just as you should cultivate everything that gives you some joy in being alive.  The idea of suicide, understandable as it is, does not seem commendable to me.  We live in order to attain the greatest possible amount of spiritual development and self-awareness.  As long as life is possible, even if only in a minimal degree, you should hang on to it, in order to scoop it up for the purpose of conscious development.  To interrupt life before its time is to bring to a standstill an experiment which we have not set up.  We have found ourselves in the midst of it and must carry it through to the end.  That it is extraordinarily difficult for you, with your blood pressure at 80, is quite understandable, but I believe you will not regret it if you cling on even to such a life to the very last.  If, aside from your work, you read a good book, as one reads the Bible, it can become a bridge for you leading inwards, along which good things may flow to you such as you perhaps cannot now imagine.

You have no need to worry about the question of a fee.  With best wishes,

Yours sincerely, C. G. JUNG



Dear Dr. Eleanor Bertine,                                                          25 July 1946

I’m just spending a most agreeable time of rest in my tower and enjoy sailing as the only sport which is still available to me.  I have just finished two lectures for the Eranos meeting of this summer.  It is about the general problem of the psychology of the unconscious and its philosophical implications.

And now I have finally rest and peace enough to be able to read your former letters and to answer them.  I should have thanked you for your careful reports about Kristine Mann’s illness and death long ago,[i] but I never found time enough to do so.  There have been so many urgent things to be done that all my time was eaten up and I cannot work so quickly any longer as I used to do.

It is really a question whether a person affected by such a terrible illness should or may end her life.  It is my attitude in such cases not to interfere.  I would let things happen if they were so, because I’m convinced that if anybody has it in himself to commit suicide, then practically the whole of his being is going that way.  I have seen cases where it would have been something short of criminal to hinder the people because according to all rules it was in accordance with the tendency of their unconscious and thus the basic thing.  So I think nothing is really gained by interfering with such an issue.  It is presumably to be left to the free choice of the individual.  Anything that seems to be wrong to us can be right under certain circumstances over which we have no control and the end of which we do not understand.  If Kristine Mann had committed suicide under the stress of unbearable pain, I should have thought that this was the right thing.  As it was not the case, I think it was in her stars to undergo such a cruel agony for reasons that escape our understanding.  Our life is not made entirely by ourselves.  The main bulk of it is brought into existence out of sources that are hidden to us.  Even complexes can start a century or more before a man is born.  There is something like karma.

Kristine’s experience you mention is truly of a transcendent nature.  If it were the effect of morphine it would occur regularly, but it doesn’t.  On the other hand it bears all the characteristics of an ekstasis.  Such a thing is possible only when there is a detachment of the soul from the body.  When that takes place and the patient lives on, one can almost with certainty expect a certain deterioration of the character inasmuch as the superior and most essential part of the soul has already left.  Such an experience denotes a partial death.  It is of course a most aggravating experience for the environment, as a person whose personality is so well known seems to lose it so completely and shows nothing more than demoralization or the disagreeable symptoms of a drug addict.  But it is the lower man that keeps on living with the body and who is nothing else but the life of the body.  With old people or persons seriously ill, it often happens that they have peculiar states of withdrawal or absent-mindedness, which they themselves cannot explain, but which are presumably conditions in which the detachment takes place.  It is sometimes a process that lasts very long.  What is happening in such conditions one rarely has a chance to explore, but it seems to me that it is as if such conditions had an inner consciousness which is so remote from our matter-of-fact consciousness that it is almost impossible to retranslate its contents into the terms of our actual consciousness.  I must say that I have had some experiences along that line.  They have given me a very different idea about what death means.

I hope you will forgive me that I’m so late in answering your previous letters.  As I said, there has been so much in between that I needed a peaceful time when I could risk entering into the contents of your letter.

My best wishes!

Yours sincerely, C. G. JUNG



Dear Mrs. N.,                                                                                    13 October 1951

It isn’t easy or simple to answer your question, because much depends upon your faculty of understanding.  Your understanding on the other hand depends upon the development and maturity of your personal character.

It isn’t possible to kill part of your “self” unless you kill yourself first.  If you ruin your conscious personality, the so-called ego-personality, you deprive the self of its real goal, namely to become real itself.  The goal of life is the realization of the self.  If you kill yourself you abolish that will of the self that guides you through life to that eventual goal.  An attempt at suicide doesn’t affect the intention of the self to become real, but it may arrest your personal development inasmuch as it is not explained.  You ought to realize that suicide is murder, since after suicide there remains a corpse exactly as with any ordinary murder.  Only it is yourself that has been killed.  That is the reason why the Common Law punishes a man that tries to commit suicide, and it is psychologically true too.  Therefore suicide certainly is not the proper answer.

As long as you don’t realize the nature of this very dangerous impulse you block the way to further development, just as a man who intends to commit a theft, without knowing what he is intending and without realizing the ethical implication of such a deed, cannot develop any further unless he takes into account that he has a criminal tendency.  Such tendencies are very frequent, only they don’t always succeed and there is hardly anybody who must not realize in this or any other way that he has a dark shadow following him.  That is the human lot.  If it were not so, we might get perfect one day which might be pretty awful too.  We shouldn’t be naïve about ourselves and in order not to be we have to climb down to a more modest level of self-appreciation.

Hoping I have answered your question, I remain,

Yours sincerely, C. G. JUNG

Thank you for the fee.
Nothing more is needed.



Dear Mrs. N.,                                                                                19 November 1955

I am glad that you do understand the difficulty of your request.  How can anybody be expected to be competent enough to give such advice?  I feel utterly incompetent—yet I cannot deny the justification of your wish and I have no heart to refuse it.  If your case were my own, I don’t know what could happen to me, but I am rather certain that I would not plan a suicide ahead.  I should rather hang on as long as I can stand my fate or until sheer despair forces my hand.  The reason for such an “unreasonable” attitude with me is that I am not at all sure what will happen to me after death.  I have good reasons to assume that things are not finished with death.  Life seems to be an interlude in a long story.  It has been long before I was, and it will most probably continue after the conscious interval in a three-dimensional existence.  I shall therefore hang on as long as it is humanly possible and I try to avoid all forgone conclusions, considering seriously the hints I got as to the post mortem events.

Therefore I cannot advise you to commit suicide for so-called reasonable considerations.  It is murder and a corpse is left behind, no matter who has killed whom.  Rightly the English Common Law punishes the perpetrator of the deed.  Be sure first, whether it is really the will of God to kill yourself or merely your reason.  The latter is positively not good enough.  If it should be the act of sheer despair, it will not count against you, but a willfully planned act might weigh heavily against you.

This is my incompetent opinion.  I have learned caution with the “perverse.”  I do not underestimate your truly terrible ordeal.  In deepest sympathy,

 Yours cordially, C. G. JUNG


[i]  Kristine Mann had died on 12 Nov. 45.  About 3 or 4 months before her death, while in hospital with a good deal of pain, depressed and unhappy, Dr. Mann saw one morning an ineffable light glowing in her room. It lasted for about an hour and a half and left her with a deep sense of peace and joy. The recollection of it remained indelible, although after that experience her state of health worsened steadily and her mind deteriorated. Jung felt that at the time of the experience her spirit had left her body.


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from Suicide


Born near Vienna to a grain merchant, Adler’s experiences with rickets and a near fatal case of pneumonia as a child made him interested in a medical career. He received his M.D. from the University of Vienna in 1895 and practiced general medicine until about 1900, when he turned to psychiatry and neurology. As a physician, Adler demonstrated a holistic approach to the patient, taking seriously into account the contexts of social and human factors. In 1902, he began a close association with Sigmund Freud, which eventually disintegrated because of irreconcilable differences between their theories. Adler rejected Freud’s idea that neurosis stemmed from childhood sexual conflicts; instead, for Adler, sexuality filled a figurative position in the attempt to overcome feelings of inadequacy, that universal infantile “inferiority feeling” (or “inferiority complex,” as it came to be known), responses to which form the basis of character.

In a Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation (1907) and The Neurotic Constitution (1912), Adler repudiated drive psychology and developed a system that came to be known as “Individual Psychology.” This theory posits that man’s opinion of himself and his surroundings affects all of his psychological operations; man’s principal motive is an inherent effort for perfection while his liability is the inferiority complex. For Adler, psychotherapy was a tool to help the patient become more self-determined, socially useful, reasonable, mature, and self-transcendent; this is accomplished by bringing the patient’s attention to the failures of his attempts to cope with feelings of inferiority. In 1921, Adler was the first to establish child-guidance clinics in Vienna where he could implement his belief that social values were transmitted in the early education of children, though these clinics were closed by the Austrian government in 1934 because of Adler’s Jewish heritage. He lectured and taught widely on social and scientific issues: from 1927 to 1937, he taught in the United States at Columbia University and the Long Island College School of Medicine. He died while on a lecture tour in Scotland.

Adler’s essay “Suicide” (1937) is an example of the increasingly scientific, non-moralizing treatment of suicide that arose with the development of psychiatry and psychology around and after the turn of the century. Adler recognized the situational factors that contribute to suicide, such as cultural beliefs and financial distress; in addition, certain predisposing factors are apparent in certain characteristics of children, such as oversensitivity. Adler also argued that the typical suicide suffers from a limited “social interest”—the importance of social interest was the doctrine Adler had attempted to spread in the 1930s in the face of European nationalist totalitarianism—and has a selfish motive to hurt others by his act; the suicide “hurts others by dreaming himself into injuries or by administering them to himself.” This damaging pattern is not seen as morally blameworthy, however, but as the occasion for therapy directed toward expanding the patient’s social interests.

Alfred Adler, “Suicide,” from Superiority and Social Interest: A Collection of Later Writings, eds. Heinz L. Ansbacher and Rowena R. Ansbacher (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), pp. 248-252.



The frequent fact of suicide is surrounded by mystery for the average observer. When he is not personally touched by the suicide of someone near to him, he usually resorts to a superficial explanation which occasionally makes the suicide comprehensible, but usually leaves it incomprehensible. The members of the suicide’s intimate and wider circles also usually find the occurrence strange and inexplicable. This does not seem very significant, since, in general, an understanding of human nature and thinking directed toward prophylaxis cannot be taken for granted.

Attempts at explanation often begin with the frequency of suicide among mentally disordered individuals, especially depressed persons, to all of whom suicide appears as a way out of their distress even if by their words they seem to reject it. Thus the approximately normal person is inclined to regard suicide as an entirely pathological phenomenon.

 Situational Factors

Even so, there are certain situations from which the normal person regards suicide as the only way out. These are situations which are too distressing and unalterable, such as torment without any prospect for relief, inhumanly cruel attacks, fear of discovery of disgraceful or criminal actions, suffering of incurable and extremely painful diseases, etc. Surprisingly enough, the number of suicides actually committed for such reasons is not great.

Among the so-called causes for suicide, disregarding the cases of the psychologically ill, loss of money and unpayable debts take the first place. This gives us much to think about. Disappointed and unhappy love follow in frequency. Further frequent causes are permanent employment, for which the individual may or may not be responsible, and justified or unjustified reproaches.

Another cause is suicide epidemics which, puzzling as this may be, do occasionally happen. Harakiri, although on the decline, still exists among the Japanese. Among women and girls, suicide or attempted suicide takes place relatively frequently at the time of menstruation. Lastly, suicides increase strikingly after the age of fifty. All these facts ought to be explicable through Individual Psychology.

It is not surprising that qualified and unqualified circles often endeavor to work for the reduction of suicides. So far as we can see, such attempts have not succeeded in reducing the suicide rate. This is because individuals who turn to associations for the prevention of suicide would only be those who still regard the future with a certain amount of hope. In our time, the number of suicides is unchanged, possibly even increasing.

 The Interpersonal Factor

The frequency of suicide is a serious accusation against the none-too-great social interest of mankind. In view of this, a comprehensive exploration of this puzzling phenomenon is urgently needed.

Among inner, endogenous causes, Individual Psychology considers only the style of life which is established out of heredity and environmental influences by the individual’s own creative power with his incomplete, humanly limited insight. In addition, one must determine the external, exogenous cause which reveals the inadequate preparation of the individual in question for the urgent situation before him. When the self-consistent life style thus clashes with the external situation, the extent to which the individual stands the test of living with other in society becomes apparent.

Observations of Individual Psychology have shown that every step of an individual is directed toward the successful solution of a presently imminent task in accordance with the total conception of his self-consistency. What the individual considers success is always a matter of his subjective opinion. Our experience has also shown that all tasks which the individual may have to meet require, without exception, adequate social interest for their correct solution. Each individual is so joined to society that he can make no movement, think no thought, and express no feeling without testifying to the degree of his connectedness with society, to hi social interest. From this is follows that suicide is a solution only for one who in the face of an urgent problem has arrived at the end of his limited social interest.

This coming to the end of their limited social interest shows itself in all failures, be they active or passive, in their greater development of the inferiority complex. That the suicide departs from the line of social interest is quite obvious. All forms of working together, of living together, and of fellowship are lacking. Further, it must certainly be admitted that this departure occurs in an active way. The activity has a particular curve, however, in that it runs apart from social life and against it, and that it harms the individual himself, not without giving pain and sorrow to others.

The suicide generally gives little or no (conscious) thought to the shock which he causes others. But this difficulty in the way of a further understanding can be resolved. Could it not be that he would have to eliminate others from his thoughts before he could commit suicide? In some cases his social interest might well be great enough for that. Moreover one finds quite frequently, by contrast, that in his last letter or words the suicide hints as asking forgiveness for the sorrow he has afflicted. The movement and the direction of the suicide cannot avoid the fact of sorrow to another. And perhaps there are many on the brink of suicide who, through greater social interest, are deterred from afflicting this sorrow to another.

The “other” is probably never lacking. Usually it is the one who suffers most by the suicide.

Predisposing Factors

 Individual Psychology continuously seeks to understand the unity and self-consistency of the individual. We are prepared for failures and try to prevent them, always in the conviction that the origin of a misconception of life and its organization can be traced back into early childhood. Therefore we must try to find the type of child which can be regarded as the potential suicide type. Studies of the past life and the childhood of suicides and of those who have attempted it always bring to light those traits which we have found in similar forms in all those failures who combine lesser social interest with a relatively large degree of activity. Suicidal persons have always been problem children, spoiled at least by one side of the family, very complacent, and oversensitive. Very often they showed hurt feelings to an unusual degree. In case of a loss or defeat, they were always poor losers. While they seldom made a direct attack against others, they always showed a life style which attempted to influence others through increased complaining, sadness, and suffering. A tendency to collapse under psychological pain when confronted with difficult life situations often stood out, in addition to increase ambition, vanity, and consciousness of their value for others. Fantasies of sickness or death, in which the pain of others reaches its highest degree, went parallel with this firm belief in their high values for others, a belief which they usually acquired from the pampering situations of their childhood. I have found similar traits in the early history of cases of depression, whose type borders on that of the suicide, and also of alcoholics and drug addicts.

Among the early childhood expressions of the suicide one also finds the deepest grieving over often negligible matters, strong wishes to become sick or to die when a humiliation is experienced, tantrums with willful self-injury, and an attitude towards others as if it were their duty to fulfill his every wish. Occasionally inclinations toward self-accusation come to the fore which elicit the sympathy of others, deeds of exaggerated foolhardiness which are performed to frighten others, and at times stubborn hunger strikes which intimidate the parents. Sometimes one finds ruses in the nature of a direct or indirect attack against others, acts of aggression followed by suicide, or only fantasies, wishes, and dreams which aim at a direct attach while suicide follows later.

Examples of suicide in the family have an attraction for those of similar tendency, as do the example of friends and well-known persons and special places associated with suicide.


Reduced to the simplest form, the life style of the potential suicide is characterized by the fact that he hurts others by dreaming himself into injuries or by administering them to himself. One will seldom go wrong in determining against whom the attack is aimed when one has found who is actually affected most by it. We find in the suicide the type who thinks too much of himself, too little of others, and who is unable sufficiently to play, function, live, and die with others. Rather, with an exaggerated consciousness of his own worth, he expects with great tension results which are always favorable for him.

The idea of suicide, like all other mistaken solutions of course always breaks out in the face of an urgent confronting exogenous problem for which the individual in question has an insufficient social interest. His greater or lesser activity then determines the direction and development of the symptoms. The symptoms can be done away with through an understanding of the context.

The psychiatrist will do well to keep his diagnosis of a potential suicide to himself, but to take all precautions. He must not tell it to others, but must see to it that something is done for the patient to enable him to find a better, more independent, socially oriented attitude toward life.

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from Indian Home Rule
from An Autobiography: The Story of    My Experiments With Truth
from Non-Violence in Peace and War


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (often called “Mahatma,” or “great soul”), the Indian nationalist and advocate of non-violence, was born in Porbandar to the local chief minister and a mother who was an active disciple of Vaishnavism, the worship of the Hindu god Vishnu. Gandhi’s religious upbringing emphasized principles of ahimsa (non-injury to living beings), fasting, self-purification, and nonviolence; these themes would figure prominently in his political philosophy. His academic performance in Indian schools was mediocre; however, after a rebellious adolescence, Gandhi committed himself to a program of passionate self-improvement. In 1888, he sailed to England to study law at the Inner Temple, but found himself more involved in adjusting to Western culture. His vegetarianism, at first a source of embarrassment, became an opportunity to practice his social influence: he joined the London Vegetarian Society, where he was introduced to the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita.

In 1891, he returned to India to discover that, because he found himself unable to speak in the courtroom and thus was left merely to prepare legal documents, law was not a lucrative career for him in India. Subsequently, in 1893, he took a job for an Indian firm in South Africa; the prejudices against Indians he encountered there persuaded him to remain to help fight discrimination. Almost overnight he was transformed into a skilled politician. He established spiritual communities (ashrams), the Natal Indian Congress, and a weekly newspaper, the Indian Opinion. In 1906, he staged his first nonviolent resistance campaign based on his technique of satyagraha (“the Force which is born of Truth and Love, or nonviolence”), which he derived from the works of Thoreau, Tolstoy, the Hindu scriptures, and the New Testament. Gandhi and his followers in South Africa were often threatened and imprisoned.

In 1915, Gandhi returned to India, where he began to campaign and fast for Indians of the lowest castes and for “untouchables,” whom he renamed Harijan, “children of God.” Upon the passing of the Rowlatt Act in 1919, an infringement on Indian civil liberties, he planned an all-India satyagraha campaign, but the event backfired when some of the protesters resorted to violence. Another campaign in 1920 boycotted the British cloth industry; he was subsequently arrested for sedition in 1922 and spent two years in prison. (During his lifetime, he would spend a total of 2,338 days in jail.) Upon his release, he was elected president of the Indian National Congress. He led several social movements, his “constructive program,” which included women’s rights, education, industry, personal hygiene, and Hindu-Muslim unity. However, the issue of whether there should be a separate electorate for Dalits, an alternative term for “untouchables,” divided him from the activist Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar regarded as a hero of the casteless. In 1933, Gandhi fasted for 21 days over issues concerning untouchables. In 1942, he led a satyagraha to demand the withdrawal of British forces from India; the British reacted sharply and imprisoned the leadership of the Congress. On August 15, 1947, India and Pakistan were declared independent, but Gandhi was deeply disappointed by this lack of unity at the moment of freedom. Renewed riots between Hindus and Muslims led Gandhi to a final fast. In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi by a Hindu fanatic while traveling to his evening prayer meeting.

Gandhi’s collected works—autobiography, letters, editorials, and speeches—fill 100 volumes. In his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927), Gandhi recounts his consideration of suicide during his period of youthful rebellion. His writings on satyagraha often refer to conditions under which it is permissible to lay down one’s own life for a noble cause. In the pamphlet “Indian Home Rule” (1909), he uses the dialogue of a hypothetical editor and reader to explain the attitudes of a “passive resister” toward death; in rejecting the ancient tradition of self-immolation that was practiced by Buddhist monks in Vietnam (q.v., Thich Nhat Hanh) in Harijan (1940), he insists that that was mere passive resistance, not the active, engaged satyagraha that he supported. Non-Violence in Peace and War (1945) illuminates his belief in the importance of learning the “art of dying.”

Mohandas K. Gandhi, “Indian Home Rule,” in The Gandhi Reader: A Source Book of his Life and Writings, ed. Homer A. Jack (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1956; London: Dennis Dobson, 1958), pp. 112, 114-16; An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth, tr. Mahadev Desai (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), pp. 25-28; excerpts from Gandhi on Non-Violence; Selected Texts from Mohandas K. Gandhi’s Non-Violence in Peace and War, ed. Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions Books, 1964, 1965), selections from pp. 39, 43, 45, 46, 47, 48, 52, 55, 60, 61, 62, 64, 73, 85, 86. Material in introduction also from Christine Everaert.



EDITOR: Passive resistance is a method of securing rights by personal suffering; it is the reverse of resistance by arms. When I refuse to do a thing that is repugnant to my conscience, I use soul-force. For instance, the Government of the day has passed a law which is applicable to me. I do not like it. If by using violence I force the Government to repeal the law, I an employing what may be termed body-force. If I do not obey the law and accept the penalty for its breach, I use soul-force. It involves sacrifice of self.

Everybody admits that sacrifice of self is infinitely superior to sacrifice of others. Moreover, if this kind of force is used in a cause that is unjust, only the person using it suffers. He does not make others suffer for his mistakes. Men have before now done many things which were subsequently found to have been wrong. No man can claim that he is absolutely in the right or that a particular thing is wrong because he thinks so, but it is wrong for him so long as that is his deliberate judgment. It is therefore meet that he should not do that which he knows to be wrong, and suffer the consequence whatever it may be. This is the key to the use of soul-force. . .

READER: From what you say I deduce that passive resistance is a splendid weapon of the weak, but that when they are strong they may take up arms.

EDITOR: This is a gross ignorance. Passive resistance, that is, soul-force, is matchless. It is superior to the force of arms. How, then, can it be considered only a weapon of the weak? Physical-force men are strangers to the courage that is requisite in a passive resister. Do you believe that a coward can ever disobey a law that he dislikes? Extremists are considered to be advocates of brute force. Why do they, then, talk about obeying laws? I do not blame them. They can say nothing else. When they succeed in driving out the English and they themselves become governors, they will want you and me to obey their laws. And that is a fitting thing for their constitution. But a passive resister will say he will not obey a law that is against his conscience, even though he may be blown to pieces at the mouth of a cannon.

What do you think? Wherein is courage required—in blowing others to pieces from behind a cannon, or with a smiling face to approach a cannon and be blown to pieces? Who is the true warrior—he who keeps death always as a bosom-friend, or he who controls the death of others? Believe me that a man devoid of courage and manhood can never be a passive resister.

This, however, I will admit: that even a man weak in body is capable of offering this resistance. One man can offer it just as well as millions. Both men and women can indulge in it. It does not require the training of an army; it needs no jiu-jitsu. Control over the mind is alone necessary, and when that is attained, man is free like the king of the forest and his very glance withers the enemy.

Passive resistance is an all-sided sword, it can be used anyhow; it blesses him who uses it and him against whom if is used. Without drawing a drop of blood it produces far-reaching results. It never rusts and cannot be stolen. Competition between passive resisters does not exhaust. The sword of passive resistance does not require a scabbard. It is strange indeed that you should consider such a weapon to be a weapon merely of the weak. . . .

READER: From what you say, then, it would appear that it is not a small thing to become a passive resister, and, if that is so, I should like you to explain how a man may become one.

EDITOR: To become a passive resister is easy enough but it is also equally difficult. I have known a lad of fourteen years become a passive resister; I have known also sick people do likewise; and I have also known physically strong and otherwise happy people unable to take up passive resistance. After a great deal of experience it seems to me that those who want to become passive resisters for the service of the country have to observe perfect chastity, adopt poverty, follow truth, and cultivate fearlessness.

Chastity is one of the greatest disciplines without which the mind cannot attain requisite firmness. A man who is unchaste loses stamina, becomes emasculated and cowardly. He whose mind is given over to animal passions is not capable of any great effort. . . .

Just as there is necessity for chastity, so is there for poverty. Pecuniary ambition and passive resistance cannot go well together. Those who have money are not expected to throw it away, but they are expected to be indifferent about it. They must be prepared to lose every penny rather than give up passive resistance.

Passive resistance has been described in the course of our discussion as truth-force. Truth, therefore, has necessarily to be followed and that at any cost. In this connection, aca

demic questions such as whether a man may not lie in order to save a life, etc., arise, but these questions occur only to those who wish to justify lying. Those who want to follow truth every time are not placed in such a quandary; and if they are, they are still saved from a false position.

Passive resistance cannot proceed a step without fearlessness. Those alone can follow the path of passive resistance who are free from fear, whether as to their possessions, false honor, their relatives, the government, bodily injuries or death.



Stealing and Atonement

I have still to relate some of my failings during this meat-eating period and also previous to it, which date from before my marriage or soon after.

A relative and I became fond of smoking. Not that we saw any good in smoking, or were enamoured of the smell of a cigarette. We simply imagined a sort of pleasure in emitting clouds of smoke from our mouths. My uncle had the habit, and when we saw him smoking, we thought we should copy his example. But we had no money. So we began pilfering stumps of cigarettes thrown away by my uncle.

The stumps, however, were not always available, and could not emit much smoke either. So we began to steal coppers from the servant’s pocket money in order to purchase Indian cigarettes. But the question was where to keep them. We could not of course smoke in the presence of elders. We managed somehow for a few weeks on these stolen coppers. In the meantime we heard that the stalks of a certain plant were porous and could be smoked like cigarettes. We got them and began this kind of smoking.

But we were far from being satisfied with such things as these. Our want of independence began to smart. It was unbearable that we should be unable to do anything without the elders’ permission. At last, in sheer disgust, we decided to commit suicide!

But how were we to do it? From where were we to get the poison? We heard that Dhatura seeds were an effective poison. Off we went to the jungle in search of these seeds, and got them. Evening was thought to be the auspicious hour. We went to Kedarji Mandir, put ghee in the temple-lamp, had the darshan and then looked for a lonely corner. But our courage failed us. Supposing we were not instantly killed? And what was the good of killing ourselves? Why not rather put up with the lack of independence? But we swallowed two or three seeds nevertheless. We dared not take more. Both of us fought shy of death, and decided to go to Ramji Mandir to compose ourselves, and to dismiss the thought of suicide.

I realized that it was not as easy to commit suicide as to contemplate it. And since then, whenever I have heard of someone threatening to commit suicide, it has had little or no effect on me.

The thought of suicide ultimately resulted in both of us bidding good-bye to the habit of smoking stumps of cigarettes and of stealing the servant’s coppers for the purpose of smoking.



[In non-violence] the bravery consists in dying, not in killing.

Those who die unresistingly are likely to still the fury of violence by their wholly innocent sacrifice.

He who meets death without striking a blow fulfills his duty cent per cent. The result is in God’s hands.

A satyagrahi is dead to his body even before his enemy attempts to kill him, i.e., he is free from attachment to his body and only lives in the victory of his soul. Therefore when he is already thus dead, why should he yearn to kill anyone? To die in the act of killing is in essence to die defeated.

Just as one must learn the art of killing in the training for violence, so one must learn the art of dying in the training for non-violence.

The votary of non-violence has to cultivate his capacity for sacrifice of the highest type in order to be free from fear. . . . He who has not overcome all fear cannot practice ahimsa to perfection. The votary of ahimsa has only one fear, that is of God. He who seeks refuge in God ought to have a glimpse of the Atman [the transcendent self] that transcends the body; and the moment one has glimpsed the imperishable Atman one sheds the love of the perishable body. . . . Violence is needed for the protection of things external; non-violence is needed for the protection of the Atman, for the protection of one’s honor.

There is a natural prejudice against fasting as part of a political struggle. . . . It is considered a vulgar interpolation in politics by the ordinary politician, though it has always been resorted to by prisoners. . . . My own fasts have always been strictly according to the laws of satyagraha. . . . I have been driven to the conclusion that fasting unto death is an integral part of the satyagraha program, and it is the greatest and most effective weapon in its armory under giver circumstances. Not everyone is qualified for undertaking it without a proper course of training.

A satyagrahi must always be ready to die with a smile on his face, without retaliation and without rancor in his heart. Some people have come to have a wrong notion that satyagraha means only jail-going, perhaps facing blows, and nothing more. Such satyagraha cannot bring independence. To win independence you have to learn the art of dying without killing.

A satyagrahi should fast only as a last resort when all other avenues of redress have been explored and have failed.

To lay down one’s life for what one considers to be right is the very core of satyagraha.

A satyagrahi may never run away from danger, irrespective of whether he is alone or in the company of many. He will have fully performed his duty if he dies fighting.

You are no satyagrahis if you remain silent or passive spectators while your enemy is being done to death. You must protect him even at the cost of your own life.

The art of dying for a satyagrahi consists in facing death cheerfully in the performance of one’s duty.

Ahimsa is one of the world’s great principles which no force on earth can wipe out. Thousands like myself may die in trying to vindicate the ideal, but ahimsa will never die. And the gospel of ahimsa can be spread only through believers dying for the cause.

Non-violence is the only thing the atom bomb cannot destroy. . . . Unless now the world adopts non-violence, it will spell certain suicide for mankind.

Murder can never be avenged by either murder or taking compensation. The only way to avenge murder is to offer oneself as a willing sacrifice, with no desire for retaliation.

A non-violent man or woman will and should die without retaliation, anger or malice, in self-defense or in defending the honor of his women folk. This is the highest form of bravery. If an individual or group of people are unable or unwilling to follow this great law of life, retaliation or resistance unto death is the second best, though a long way off from the first. Cowardice is impotence worse than violence. The coward desires revenge but being afraid to die, he looks to others, maybe to the government of the day, to do the work of defense for him. A coward is less than a man. He does not deserve to be a member of a society of men and women.

[Jesus—] a man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.

No man, if he is pure, has anything more precious to give than his life.


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Filed under Asia, Gandhi, Mohandas K., Hinduism, Selections, The Modern Era


from The Living of Charlotte Perkins    Gilman
Suicide Note, August 17, 1935
from The Right to Die


Charlotte Perkins Gilman—writer, philosopher, feminist, and social critic—contributed significantly to 20th-century political and feminist theory. Born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut, she lived much of her childhood in poverty after her father left the family when she was seven years old. She taught herself to read, studied music, and was largely self-educated in the fields of history, sociology, biology, and evolution. She attended public school sporadically until age 15 and later studied at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Gilman became active in women’s issues at a young age. She founded a women’s gym in Providence when she was 21 at a time when overexertion was thought to cause hysteria in women. She later gained recognition as a lecturer and writer, focusing her talents on the Nationalist Movement, a type of socialism based on Edward Bellamy’s thought and portrayed in his novel Looking Backward (1888). Gilman’s philosophy, activism, and writings showed enormous breadth, and included works on political and social reform, support for the Labor Movement and women’s suffrage, poetry, essays, and studies on gender issues in economics, anthropology, and history. She is also known for her famous work of short fiction The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), a semi-autobiographical account of her nervous breakdown following the birth of her daughter, which, like Virginia Woolf’s [q.v.] Mrs. Dalloway (1925), includes a searing critique of the manner in which the medical community treated women’s mental health near the turn of the century.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1932. Before this diagnosis, Gilman had written about euthanasia and right-to-die issues. In one passage from her posthumously published autobiography The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), she remarks after visiting her ill father in a sanitarium that a future civilized society would not “maintain such a horror.” In 1935, after living three years with a cancer she had been told would kill her within a year and a half, Gilman ended her life by inhaling chloroform. She left a letter, conventionally called a suicide note, which stressed her view of the primacy of human relationships and social responsibility (“Human life consists in mutual service”) and ended in the famous line: “I have preferred chloroform to cancer.”

At the time of her death, she left with her agent the manuscript of an article entitled “The Right to Die,” a defense not only of suicide but also of voluntary, non-voluntary, and involuntary euthanasia, requesting that it be published after her death. It was intended as a piece for discussion at the height of the euthanasia movement in the United States, before the horrors of the Nazi holocaust became known.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (New York:  D. Appleton-Century Co.), 1935, pp. 215, 333-335, 331; “The Right to Die”, The Forum and Century, Vol. XCIV, no. 5 (Nov. 1935), pp. 297-300.



“Mother gets letter saying Father is worse.  Go to see him at sanitarium, Delaware Water Gap.  He is much better and seems glad to see me.” I stayed overnight, next day: “Little talk with Father.  Give him $5.”—if from me or mother I do not recall. There were many such visits when I was in or near New York. He seemed to value my coming—so long as he knew me. He lingered on, till the beginning of 1900. Softening of the brain. It is not right that a brilliant intellect should be allowed to sink to idiocy, and die slowly, hideously. Some day when we are more civilized we shall not maintain such a horror.

 …In January, 1932, I discovered that I had cancer of the breast. My only distress was for Houghton. I had not the least objection to dying. But I did not propose to die of this, so I promptly bought sufficient chloroform as a substitute. Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, pain, misfortune or “broken heart” is excuse for cutting off one’s life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one.

Public opinion is changing on this subject. The time is approaching when we shall consider it abhorrent to our civilization to allow a human being to die in prolonged agony which we should mercifully end in any other creature. Believing this open choice to be of social service in promoting wiser views on this question, I have preferred chloroform to cancer.

Going to my doctor for definite assurance, he solemnly agreed with my diagnosis and thought the case inoperable.

“Well,” said I cheerfully, “how long does it take?” He estimated a year and a half.  “How long shall I be able to type?”  I asked. “I must finish my Ethics.” He thought I might be quite comfortable for six months. It is now three and a half years and this obliging malady has given me no pain yet.

Then came what was pain—telling Houghton. He wanted an expert opinion, and we got it. No mistake. Then, since I utterly refused a late operation, he urged me to try X-ray treatment, which I did with good effects. He suffered a thousand times more than I did—but not for long. On the fourth of May, 1934, he suddenly died, from cerebral hemorrhage.

Whatever I felt of loss and pain was outweighed by gratitude for an instant, painless death for him, and that he did not have to see me wither and die—and he be left alone.

I flew to Pasadena, California, in the fall of 1934, to be near my daughter and grandchildren. Grace Channing, my lifelong friend, has come out to be with me. We two have a little house next door but one to my Katharine, who is a heavenly nurse and companion. Dorothy and Walter, her children, are a delight. Mr. Chamberlin, my son-in-law, has made the place into a garden wherein I spend happy afternoons under an orange-tree—the delicious fragrance drifting over me, the white petals lightly falling—in May! Now it is small green oranges occasionally thumping.

One thing I have had to complain of—shingles. Shingles—for six weeks. A cancer that doesn’t show and doesn’t hurt, I can readily put up with; it is easy enough to be sick as long as you feel well—but shingles!

People are heavenly good to me. Dear friends write to me, with outrageous praises. I am most unconcernedly willing to die when I get ready. I have no faintest belief in personal immortality—no interest in nor desire for it.

My life is in Humanity—and that goes on. My contentment is in God—and That goes on. The Social Consciousness, fully accepted, automatically eliminates both selfishness and pride. The one predominant duty is to find one’s work and do it, and I have striven mightily at that.

The religion, the philosophy, set up so early, have seen me through.



Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, pain, misfortunate, or “broken heart” is excuse for cutting off one’s life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one. Public opinion is changing on this subject. The time is approaching when we shall consider it abhorrent to our civilization to allow a human being to die in prolonged agony which we should mercifully end in any other creature. Believing this open choice to be of social service in promoting wiser views on this question, I have preferred chloroform to cancer.



Should an incurable invalid, suffering constant pain and begging for a quicker, easier death, be granted that mercy?
Should a hopeless idiot, lunatic, or helpless paretic be laboriously kept alive?

Should certain grades of criminals be painlessly removed—or cruelly condemned to the cumulative evil of imprisonment?

Is suicide sometimes quite justifiable?

We have changed our minds more than once on these matters and are in process of changing them again. On the above questions, asked a hundred or even fifty years ago, there would have been scant discussion. Humans were mainly agreed that certain criminals deserved death, that suicide was a sin, and that agonized invalids and healthy idiots were to be cherished carefully.

The influence of the Christian religion has done much to establish a sort of dogma of the “sanctity of human life,” but the ancient religions of India went further, holding all life sacred, to such an extent that the pious Jain sweeps the path before him lest he step on a worm.

What is the “sanctity of human life”?  Why is it sacred?  How is it sacred?  When is it sacred?

Is it sacred where we lavishly reproduce it, without thought or purpose?  While it is going on?  Or only when it is about to end?

Our mental attics are full of old ideas and emotions, which we preserve sentimentally but never examine. The advance of the world’s thought is promoted by those whose vigorous minds seize upon inert doctrines and passive convictions and shake them into life or into tatters. This theory that suicide is a sin is being so shaken today.

Why has not a man the right to take his own life? Shaw, the inveterate shaker of old ideas, says that his own life is the only one a man has a right to take.

Against this apparently natural right stand two assumptions, one that it is cowardly, the other that it is a sin. The brave man is supposed to endure long, hopeless agony to the bitter end, as an exhibition of courage; the moral man similarly to bear incurable suffering, because to shorten his torment would be wrong.

How much more reasonable is the spirit of the sturdy old country doctor who was found dead in his bed, with a revolver by his side and the brief note, “There’s no damn cancer going to get ahead of me!”

Why it should please God to have a harmless victim suffer prolonged agony was never made clear; but those who so thought also assumed that whatever happened was God’s will, that He was afflicting us for some wise purpose of His own and did not like to be thwarted, balked in his plan of punishment so to speak. Astonishing calumnies have been believed of God.

There is a pleasant tale of an ingenious person, captive of savages and obliged to watch the horrors of his comrades’ dreadful deaths. When his turn came, he told the credulous natives that he knew of an herb which, when rubbed upon the skin, rendered it impervious to any weapon and which he would show them if they would spare him.

So they accompanied him here and there in the forest, till he picked a certain rare plant, which he rubbed well on the side of his neck. Then he laid his head on a log and told them to strike as hard as they liked. Down came the ax, and off went a grinning ghost, enjoying their discomfiture—at least it is pleasant to think so. At any rate he was not tortured. But he had lied, to be sure, and practically committed suicide. Was it sin?

Suicide was a gentleman’s exit in ancient Rome, as it is yet in the Orient. It must have been too popular in the misery of the Dark Ages, for a discerning church soon decided that it was extremely wrong. It was a difficult offense to penalize, the offender having escaped, so they punished the corpse, burying it with a stake through the body, at a crossroads, that, instead of enjoying seclusion and consecrated ground, it might be trampled over by all who passed.


A very special damnation having been provided for such rebellious souls, suicide fell into disrepute. It is now becoming popular again, not merely as a justifiable escape from an unbearable position but as a hopeful experiment for discouraged youth. And no more pathetic instance of the blind groping of such religionless young people could be asked. They no longer believe in the kind of God worshiped by their ancestors, not in “His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” They quite repudiate the earlier moral sense and have not yet succeeded in evolving any satisfactory substitute.

It might be advanced, as consolation in these too-frequent tragedies, that minds so word-befuddled would not in all probability have been of much service to the world had they survived; but such harsh criticism fails to estimate the capacity for suffering which belongs to youth.

As with most moral questions, the confusion lies in our outdated sense of individuality, our failure to recognize social responsibility. Youth is, of course, naturally egotistical, and in home, school, church, and ordinary contact little is done to develop social consciousness.

That an individual’s life, growth, and happiness are dependent on interrelation with other people and that each of us owes to others the best service of a lifetime is not accepted by those who back out of life because it hurts. Such premature and ill-based suicide is timid, feeble, foolish, and, in respect to social responsibility, dishonorable. It is desertion, not in the face of the enemy but before imagined enemies.

On the other hand, military law forbids the attempt to hold an indefensible position. There are times when surrender is quite justifiable. If men or women are beyond usefulness, feel that they are of no service or comfort to any one but a heavy burden and expense, and, above all, if they suffer hopelessly, they have a right to leave.

But, while we are beginning to open the door for a man to take his own life with good reason, we are trying to close it upon the right of society to take the life of a criminal. The opponents of capital punishment rest their arguments largely on the alleged sanctity of human life and further on the fact that the severe and cruel penalties of earlier times did not prevent crime.

This sudden application of sanctity to man at the point of death, a life neglected and corrupted from babyhood, is unconvincing. It is true that severe punishment does not prevent crime, but neither does light punishment or no punishment at all. Can we prevent crime after it has been committed? The prevention must begin with birth, must ensure the best conditions for growth and education, for rightly chosen employment, for rest and recreation.

But, unfortunately, criminals sometimes appear from families of the enlightened and well-to-do, cases of atavism, primitive characters breaking out into the modern world most mischievously. And, furthermore, society is open to many kinds of perversion and disease.

Since we have criminals, engaged in transmitting and increasing evil, what are we to do with them? The most tenderly sentimental would hardly suggest leaving them at large.

To remove such a diseased character as this is not an act of “punishment”; it is social surgery, the prompt excision of the affected part. Those who call death cruel and urge imprisonment instead do not realize the greater cruelty and cumulative danger of confinement.

Much of vice and crime is distinctly infectious. “Evil communications corrupt good manners,” and no antitoxin has been found to prevent that corruption. We may call our prisons isolation hospitals if we like, but if the prisoner is really isolated he goes mad—no punishment is so cruel as solitary confinement. Not being isolated, the prisoners infect and reinfect one another. The cumulative influence of these carefully maintained collections of diseased characters affects not only the prisoners but those who restrain them. It is held by some that the care of the helpless develops noble qualities in those who tend them. These theorists have failed to study the effect of such activity on warders, keepers, guards, and those who wait on and serve utter idiots and maniacs.


The elimination of diseased parts from our body politic should not be discussed as punishment but as an operation on the social body. One does not either “forgive” or “punish” an inflamed appendix but one does cut it out.

The same position may be taken in regard to the incurable idiot or maniac. If, to the best of our present knowledge, such cases are hopeless, why should we isolate and preserve the affected parts? Why should we not painlessly remove them? Affection, gratitude for previous services may be urged, but this attitude is based on the assumption that it is some pleasure or advantage to the ruined minds to live thus ignominiously.

Here is a case of a fine woman who has lived a good and fruitful life. She is affected with a progressive mental disorder, and for fifteen years two daughters are sacrificed to the unfruitful service of increasing idiocy, their lives crippled, wrecked.

But she is their mother, she has loved and served them, we protest. Yes, and what would any mother feel, if she could know it, to realize that she who loved them was now the means of slowly ruining her children?

In another instance we see a man once strong and intellectual, eminent in scholarship, honorable in service to society, now a paretic. Slowly he fails in physical and mental power, reaching the condition of a gross baby, a huge, brainless baby lying like a log in an unclean bed, while nurse and doctor wait for him—for it—to die. What is sacred in that dreadful ignominy? When intelligent consciousness is gone forever, the man is gone, and the body should be decently removed.

The record of a previously noble life is precisely what makes it sheer insult to allow death in pitiful degradation. We may not wish to “die with our boots on” but we may well prefer to die with our brains on.

In New York, some years ago, an elderly woman was suffering from a complication of diseases; recovery was impossible; she know that she must die; and her constant and terrible pain was such that she begged piteously for release.  She was attended by a devoted daughter and by a trained nurse, a sturdy Nova Scotian, rigidly religious.

The patient died somewhat sooner than was expected by the physician. The nurse testified that she had seen the daughter put something in her mother’s drinking glass. Careful inquiry ascertained that there was no inheritance to offer a “motive” for murder and that this mother and daughter had been attached and congenial friends, wholly devoted to each other. The inquest ignored the nurse’s testimony, and no charge, fortunately, was brought against the daughter.

More recently, in England, a man whose beloved little girl was in constant suffering from an incurable disease, after long daily and nightly care and tender nursing, relieved the child’s agony with a quick death. The judge, in charging the jury, pointed out how long and lovingly the poor father had nursed his child and urged upon them that, if he had allowed a dog in his possession to so linger in pain, he would have been liable to punishment for cruelty. The prisoner, and rightly, was not convicted.


Practical Germany has discussed a law allowing physicians to administer euthanasia in certain cases. It was not passed, the two principal objections being the chance of a safe variety of murder and the effect of the patient’s loss of confidence in his physician. That confidence is a valuable asset in the cure of disease. If a sick man felt that, if his doctor decided he could not recover, anesthesia would be promptly administered, it would certainly add fear to his other difficulties and jeopardize his chance of life.

No such power should be left to any individual, physician of other, though it might be advanced that no doctor would voluntarily shorten his “case.” Too many mistakes in diagnosis have been made, too many patients have been given up to die and rebelliously recovered, to permit of any one man governing such a decision.

But suitable legal methods may be devised by a civilized society. When the sufferer begs for release or when the mind is gone and the body going, as in a case where intestinal cancer is accompanied by senile dementia and when the attending physician gives his opinion that there is no hope, then an application to the Board of Health should be made.

That Board should promptly appoint a consulting committee, varying from case to case, to avoid possible collusion and including a lawyer as well as doctors for inquiry should be made in regard to possible motives for the sufferer’s death, among members of the family, and in regard to their attitude toward the patient.

If this committee recommends euthanasia, the Board of Health should issue a permit, and merciful sleep end hopeless misery. What rational objection can anyone make to such procedure?

There is the suggestion that sometimes doctors are all mistaken, and recovery is made after life has been despaired of.  That is of course true.

There might be a small percentage of error, even with careful consulting assistance. This error is present in all matters involving the human equation. It is too small to weigh equally with the mass of misery to be relieved. And it does not apply at all to those still able to decide for themselves.

Our love, our care, out vivid sympathy with human life should be applied most strongly at the other end. With eugenics and euthenics, care and education from infancy, better living conditions for everyone, all that can be done to safeguard and improve human life we should do as a matter of course.

But the dragging weight of the grossly unfit and dangerous could be lightened, with great advantage to the normal and progressive. The millions spent in restraining and maintaining social detritus should be available for the safeguarding and improving of better lives.

Instead of being hardened by such measures of release, we shall develop a refinement of tenderness which will shrink with horror at the thought of the suffering and waste we now calmly endure. Death is not an evil when it comes in the course of nature, and when it is administered legitimately it is far less than the evil of unnecessary anguish.

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from Suicide


Émile Durkheim is widely regarded as the founder of the French school of sociology. He was born in Épinal, Lorraine, to a Jewish family who expected him to become a rabbi like his father. Instead, his success in secular education led him in 1879 to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, then considered the best teachers’ college in France, though he grew disenchanted with the school’s emphasis on superficial philosophical generalizations, and turned to sociology with the aim of establishing a rigorous, objective science of society. He became the first French professor of sociology at Bordeaux and taught social philosophy until 1902; in that year, he was appointed a professor of education and sociology at the Sorbonne, where he remained the rest of his life. Durkheim died a year after his only son was killed in World War I. He left behind a committed following of researchers, including Claude Lévi-Strauss.

In his writings, Durkheim was concerned with religion and education as key instruments in achieving moral and societal reform. In the Rules of Sociological Method (1895), he defined a scientific, rigorous method of study for sociology. He argued for the existence of a societal “collective consciousness” that could not be reduced to individual or biological psychology; social environment is therefore a real entity that can be studied on its own merits.

In 1898, Durkheim founded the Année sociologique, which was intended to bring together social science scholars and encourage the field’s specialization. It was the place of the social sciences and educational reform to help society avoid “anomie,” or, as he later called it, social disconnectedness—the absence, conflict, or weakness of norms for conduct. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim postulated religion’s role as the ultimate representation of communal consciousness; religion is the acknowledged binding force in collective participation that exemplifies the force of social bonds. Durkheim’s systematic and rigorous ideas, resisted during his own life, became the basis for modern empirical research in sociology.

In Suicide (1897), the first book-length treatment of this topic, Durkheim analyzes statistical data on suicides among Catholics and Protestants. Durkheim argued that the forces of social integration and regulation play an essential and complex role in the individual decision to end one’s life; these social forces vary with the type of social organization characteristic of a given group. Durkheim divides these forces and the types of suicide they produce into three, or more accurately, four categories. The first type of suicide is “altruistic”; here, the individual is highly integrated into society and rigorously governed by social custom: suicides occur because they are required by the society in certain circumstances, as in the Hindu custom of sati and Japanese suicides of honor. The second type of suicide is “egoistic”: individuals are loosely integrated into the society and do not respond to social regulations and expectations. The third type is “anomic,” which is the case when society itself fails to provide adequate regulation of its members. Durkheim believed that this third type is characteristic of modern industrial society. A fourth type, “fatalistic suicide,” only briefly discussed by Durkheim in a footnote at the end of Chapter 5, is the opposite of the anomic type, occurring when a person is socially oppressed and sees no other escape from an environment of excessive control (the suicides of slaves, of “very young husbands,” and of “the married woman who is childless”), but Durkheim finds this type not of “contemporary importance” and does not discuss it further.

In the first part of these selections from Suicide, beginning with “The General Nature of Suicide as a Social Phenomenon,” Durkheim explores the interaction of social forces in the historical, legal, and sociological contexts of suicide.

In the second section, beginning with Book 3, Chapter 2, Durkheim surveys the history of prohibitions against suicide in Greek, Roman, and Christian societies. He concludes that the reprobation of suicide has become more universal over time. Concerning the time during the decline of the city-states when suicide was temporarily tolerated, Durkheim writes that such societies “cannot be referred to as an example for imitation; for [their toleration of suicide] is clearly interrelated with the serious disturbances which then affected those societies. It is the symptom of a morbid condition.” Durkheim argues that suicide must be considered immoral because it violates the ideal of collective humanity “as conceived by each people at each moment in history.” No man or society, having accepted this ideal once, now has the right to depart from it; “like every ideal, it can be conceived of only as superior to and dominating reality. This ideal even dominates societies, being the aim on which all social activity depends. This is why it is no longer the right of these societies to dispose of this ideal freely . . . they have subjected themselves to the jurisdiction of this ideal and no longer have the right to ignore it; still less to authorize men themselves to do so.” In order for the “religion of humanity” to maintain its (rightful) authority, suicide as a denial of the individual’s submission to the interests of all human kind “must be classed among immoral acts.”

The third part of this selection, from Book 3, Chapter 3, concerns the changes in modern society that Durkheim believes are necessary to prevent further increases in egoistic and anomic suicides, which are each conditioned by excess individuation. Durkheim argues that in modern society, the formerly central institutions of state, religion, and family no longer provide the constant regulation and power to encourage thorough collective integration what they once did; having lost their socially organizing power, they cannot be reinvested with the compelling collective consciousnesses they once represented. According to Durkheim, “since occupational life is almost the whole of life,” corporations are the best candidates for a type of institution that could persuasively demand the devotion of individuals to a collective consciousness. He coins the term “occupational decentralization” to refer to vast simultaneous conglomeration and internal specialization of corporate activity. “Occupational group” would become the new basis of political organization, and each corporation a “definite institution, a collective personality, with its customs and traditions, its rights and duties, its unity.” The only type of anomie that Durkheim believes would be unaffected by these societal changes is “conjugal anomy.” He argues that divorce should be made more difficult and that, in order to make the constraints of matrimony more agreeable to women, the opportunities for women in society would need to change so that women might come to be as psychologically integrated in collective society as men are.

Émile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, Introduction: The Social Element of Suicide; Book 2, Chapter 3; Book 3, Chapter 1, Part Iv, trs. John Spaulding and George Simpson, ed. George Simpson (New York: The Free Press, 1951), pp. 297-300, 326-342, 370-392.




The Social Element Of Suicide

Now that we know the factors in terms of which the social suicide-rate varies, we may define the reality to which this rate corresponds and which it expresses numerically.


The individual conditions on which suicide might, a priori, be supposed to depend, are of two sorts.

There is first the external situation of agent. Sometimes men who kill themselves have had family sorrow or disappointments to their pride, sometimes they have had to suffer poverty or sickness, at others they have had some moral fault with which to reproach themselves, etc.  But we have seen that these individual peculiarities could not explain the social suicide-rate; for the latter varies in considerable proportions, whereas the different combinations of circumstances which constitute the immediate antecedents of individual cases of suicide retain approximately the same relative frequency. They are therefore not the determining causes of the act which they precede. Their occasionally important role in the premeditation of suicide is no proof of being a causal one. Human deliberations, in fact, so far as reflective consciousness affects them are often only purely formal, with no object but confirmation of a resolve previously formed for reasons unknown to consciousness.

Besides, the circumstances are almost infinite in number which are supposed to cause suicide because they rather frequently accompany it. One man kills himself in the midst of affluence, another in the lap of poverty; one was unhappy in his home, and another had just ended by divorce a marriage which was making him unhappy. In one case a soldier ends his life after having been punished for an offense he did not commit; in another, a criminal whose crime has remained unpunished kills himself. The most varied and even the most contradictory events of life may equally serve as pretexts for suicide. This suggests that none of them is the specific cause. Could we perhaps at least ascribe causality to those qualities known to be common to all? But are there any such? At best one might say that they usually consist of disappointments, of sorrows, without any possibility of deciding how intense the grief must be to have such tragic significance. Of no disappointment in life, no matter how significant, can we say in advance that it could not possibly make existence intolerable; and, on the other hand, there is none which must necessarily have this effect.  We see some men resist horrible misfortune, while others kill themselves after slight troubles.  Moreover, we have shown that those who suffer most are not those who kill themselves most.  Rather it is too great comfort which turns a man against himself.  Life is most readily renounced at the time and among the classes where it is least harsh.  At least, if it really sometimes occurs that the victim’s personal situation is the effective cause of his resolve, such cases are very rare indeed and accordingly cannot explain the social suicide-rate.

Accordingly, even those who have ascribed most influence to individual conditions have sought these conditions less in such external incidents than in the intrinsic nature of the person, that is, his biological constitution and the physical concomitants on which it depends. Thus, suicide has been represented as the product of a certain temperament, an episode of neurasthenia, subject to the effects of the same factors as neurasthenia. Yet we have found no immediate and regular relationship between neurasthenia and the social suicide-rate. The two facts even vary at times in inverse proportion to one another, one being at its minimum just when and where the other is at its height. We have not found, either, any definite relation between the variations of suicide and the conditions of physical environment supposed to have most effect on the nervous system, such as race, climate, temperature. Obviously, though the neuropath may show some inclination to suicide under certain conditions, he is not necessarily destined to kill himself; and the influence of cosmic factors is not enough to determine in just this sense the very general tendencies of his nature.

Wholly different are the results we obtained when we forgot the individual and sought the causes of the suicidal aptitude of each society in the nature of the societies themselves. The relations of suicide to certain states of social environment are as direct and constant as its relations to facts of a biological and physical character were seen to be uncertain and ambiguous. Here at last we are face to face with real laws, allowing us to attempt a methodical classification of types of suicide. The sociological causes thus determined by us have even explained these various concurrences often attributed to the influence of material causes, and in which a proof of this influence has been sought. If women kill themselves much less often than men, it is because they are much less involved than men in collective existence; thus they feel its influence—good or evil—less strongly. So it is with old persons and children, though for other reasons. Finally, if suicide increases from January to June but then decreases, it is because social activity shows similar seasonal fluctuations. It is therefore natural that the different effects of social activity should be subject to an identical rhythm, and consequently be more pronounced during the former of these two periods. Suicide is one of them.

The conclusion from all these facts is that the social suicide-rate can be explained only sociologically. At any given moment the moral constitution of society establishes the contingent of voluntary deaths. There is, therefore, for each people a collective force of a definite amount of energy, impelling men to self-destruction. The victim’s acts which at first seem to express only his personal temperament are really the supplement and prolongation of a social condition which they express externally.

This answers the question posed at the beginning of this work. It is not mere metaphor to say of each human society that it has a greater or lesser aptitude for suicide; the expression is based on the nature of things. Each social group really has a collective inclination for the act, quite its own, and the source of all individual inclination, rather than their result. It is made up of the currents of egoism, altruism or anomy running through the society under consideration with the tendencies to languorous melancholy, active renunciation or exasperated weariness derivative from these currents. These tendencies of the whole social body, by affecting individuals, cause them to commit suicide. The private experiences usually thought to be the proximate causes of suicide have only the influences borrowed from the victim’s moral predisposition, itself an echo of the moral state of society. To explain his detachment from life the individual accuses his most immediately surrounding circumstances; life is sad to him because he is sad. Of course his sadness comes to him from without in one sense, however not from one or another incident of his career but rather from the group to which he belongs.  This is why there is nothing which cannot serve as an occasion for suicide. It all depends on the intensity with which suicidogenetic causes have affected the individual.

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