Category Archives: The Early Modern Period

(documented 1853-present)

  1. African Origin Myths: Man Desires Death
    (Hans Abrahamsson)


  1. The Souls of the Dogons
    (documented by Solange de Ganay, 1937-39)


  1. Restraining the Bereaved to Prevent Suicide
    (documented by Jack Goody, 1962)


  1. The Detection of Witches: Ordeal and Punishment


  1. Law and Constitution: A Suicide’s Trial
    (documented by Capt. R. S. Rattray, 1929)
  2. Funeral Rites for Babies and Kings
    (documented by Capt. R. S. Rattray, 1929)
  3. The Price of Intrigue with Women of Royal Blood
    (documented by A. B. Ellis, 1887)


  1. Killing Oneself “Upon the Head of Another”: The Tragedy of Adjuah Amissah
    (documented by Brodie Cruickshank, 1853)


  1. The Prohibition of Death
    (documented by M. J. Field, 1937)


  1. The Criminality of Suicide
    (documented by A.B. Ellis, 1890)


  1. The Kings of the Yoruba
    (documented by Samuel Johnson, 1897)
  2. Yoruba Laws and Customs: Suicide
    (documented by A. K. Ajisafe, 1924)


  1. Evil Spirits
    (documented by Northcote W. Thomas, 1913)
  2. Sacrifices, Death, and Burial
    (documented by G. T. Basden, 1938)
  3. A Murderer Must Hang Himself
  4. An Old Woman’s Prearranged Funeral
    (documented by G. T. Basden, 1921)


  1. The Timely Death
  2. Godusa: The Old Woman and the Antbear’s Hole
    (documented by R.C.A. Samuelson, 1929)
  3. Ukugodusa: The First Woman Who Became a Christian
    (documented by L. H. Samuelson, 1912)
  4. The Burial of a King
    (documented by R.C.A. Samuelson, 1929)


  1. The Ghost of a Suicide
    (documented by John Roscoe, 1923)


  1. The Folktale of the Four Truths
  2. Burial Alive: The Master of the Fishing-Spear


A continent comprising a fifth of the world’s land area, once the central portion of earth’s landmass, Africa was the area of origin for homo sapiens, the modern human, some 130,000–200,000 years ago. Below the vast desert that has come to serve as a cultural divide between sub-Saharan Africa and the largely Arabic regions edging the Mediterranean to the north, the African terrain consists primarily of flat or lightly rolling plains, without a central mountainous core or a broad continental shelf, a continent marked primarily by gradual changes of altitude and a highly regular coastline, rich in mineral, plant, and animal resources.

Within sub-Saharan Africa, forms of social organization range from small nomadic bands of hunter-gatherer-forager peoples, to farming and cattle-herding cultures, to highly urbanized societies. Traditional cultures have been largely rural and agricultural, many with trading networks but largely without centralized governmental authorities; yet Africa has also seen the formation of vast empires, including the 10th-century empire of Ghana, the 14th-century empire of Mali, the 15th-century empire of Bunyoro, the Ashanti empire of the 18th and 19th centuries, the 19th-century empire of Buganda, and the 19th-century kingdom of the Zulu, among many others. Many traditional communities stress both kinship networks with a unilineal pattern of descent and age-graded associations, especially among males. Among many, dowries are paid from male to female (the “bridewealth”), procreation is emphasized, and polygyny is a traditional ideal. However, traditional African societies are extremely diverse, and generalization is not possible. Furthermore, geographic and cultural boundaries do not always coincide, and an overall picture of Africa and its many societies is necessarily complex.

The standard way of classifying traditional oral African societies is by language, though this process is complicated by patterns of migration and language spread and by issues concerning the distinction between language and dialect. Four major language families or phyla contain what Barbara Grimes estimates to be Africa’s approximately 2,000 distinct indigenous languages. Among these language families, the largest groups are the Niger-Congo (including Kordofanian and Bantu), spoken in western and south-central Africa, with some 1,436 languages; Nilo-Saharan, spoken in central and central-eastern interior regions (196 languages); the Khosian family of click languages, spoken in the southern interior (35 languages); and Afroasiatic, including Semitic, Egyptian, Berber, Cushitic, and other languages of the north (371 languages). Among Africa’s huge variety of languages, Hausa, a Chadic language of the Afroasiatic family, and Swahili, an eastern coastal Niger-Congo language of the Bantu subfamily, have played the roles of lingua franca for trade; so have a variety of other languages, including Arabic, Afrikaans, French, and English. Many of the selections presented here are from the Niger-Congo family, which includes languages spoken by the majority of sub-Saharan Africans.

Few of Africa’s traditional sub-Saharan societies have written literatures. However, most have substantial, longstanding oral traditions. Wherever possible, these selections attempt to present traditional African legends, myths, stories, and histories concerning suicide from the earliest documenters of each culture’s oral history. Many of these documents were written or compiled from other accounts by Western explorers and missionaries using native informants. Other documents, however, come from educated Africans who wrote in Western languages but could interview informants in their native tongues.

While it is impossible to generalize effectively over such a large range of cultures in a geographic region as large as Africa, some similarities, Robert Lystad argues, are evident among traditional African values: that human nature is neither good nor evil, but capable of error; that humans should adapt to nature and the universe, rather than seek to alter it; that property is to be shared; and that the solutions to human problems are to be sought in traditional legends and stories. The universe is understood as a unity, not a dualism of mind/body or matter/spirit; the Creator or creative power is distant, though lesser gods and local spirits may intervene in the affairs of humans. Particularly relevant to issues of suicide are the beliefs that there is life after death and that kinship networks include family members who have already died, as well as those who are still living.

Beginning in the late 15th century, European commercial, colonizing, and proselytizing interests began to penetrate sub-Saharan Africa. The Portuguese, British, French, Germans, Spanish, Italians, Dutch, and Belgians all established areas of colonial rule, variously exporting minerals, goods, and slaves. Taking advantage of certain traditional slaving practices, the European slave trade increased from about 275,000 between 1450–1600, to about 1.3 million during the 17th century, about 6 million during the 18th century, and ended, after another 2 million, in the latter half of the 19th century. Brazil, the Spanish Empire, the British West Indies, the French West Indies, and North America were all major importers of slaves; so was the Arab world. Altogether, an estimated 12 million left the African continent as slaves in the European trade; an estimated 10–20% died during the Middle Passage.

The sources provided here largely postdate the era of enslavement and the slave trade, but that era and its consequences were hardly forgotten: As Brodie Cruickshank had commented in 1853 on the comparatively few European forts that remained after the end of the slave trade in the Gold Coast, “. . . there is something exceedingly horrible in the contemplation of the nations of Europe thus clinging to Africa like leeches and sucking her very life-blood, and to find her now almost neglected and forsaken when she is no longer permitted to be their prey.”

As with other oral cultures, accounts of myths, histories, and practices by outsiders, invaders, missionaries, and exploiters may well be influenced by the cultural ideologies of the reporters—in Africa, primarily Christianity and Islam—but they nevertheless offer the closest insight into traditional African culture and its views. A particularly vivid example of the tensions between direct access to traditional cultural material and Westernizing influences is to be found in the accounts of the Yoruba by Rev. Samuel Johnson (c. 1845–1901) (selection #11), one of the earliest and most prolific writers on African history. Johnson was himself a great-grandson of the Alafin Abiodun, the famous king of the Oyo Empire in the late 18th century, but was also a committed Christian, educated in Greek, Latin, mathematics, and Western philosophy and religious studies. A diplomat, missionary, and peacemaker in the disputes among Yoruba groups, as well as between the British and the Oyo, Johnson spoke African languages and was able to interview the traditional arokin, or court historians, in compiling his immense and authoritative History of the Yoruba; yet he reinterpreted Yoruba history as exhibiting its development toward the ultimate end of becoming Christianized. Johnson eventually became an Anglican priest, hoping “. . . above all that Christianity should be the principal religion in the land—paganism and Mohammedanism having had their full trial—[and that this] should be the wish and prayer of every true son of Yoruba.” Such overlays of personal commitment and worldview affect virtually all of the early published accounts of African belief and practice, which are then sometimes taken as sources for later traditions or held to “confirm” the work of later scholars. Yet at the same time, modern scholars like Kwame Gyekye insist that the difficulty of getting at indigenous ideas is not insuperable: he notes that in Akan, as in every African community, there are a few older individuals regarded as wise and steeped in traditional lore, who are able to distinguish between traditional philosophical conceptions and those of Christianity and Islam. Indigenous thinking may sometimes be formulated in Christian or Islamic religious language, but it often survives in comparatively untouched form.

Further risks in the use of early ethnographic sources include the overlay of unconfirmed theories of indigenous belief and practice. In perhaps the best-known example of apparent overinterpretation, it was reported as late as 1910 that the Shilluk (or Chollo), a culture of Nilo-Saharan speakers in southern Sudan closely related to the Dinka presented here, customarily strangled their kings when they grew old or ill in order to save the divinity within, a report that Sir James George Frazer developed in The Golden Bough (1911–15) into the centerpiece of his influential theory of African regicide. However, the practice of ceremonial regicide and the theory Frazer constructed were never reliably confirmed, and despite later modifications by Evans-Pritchard in 1948 and David Cohen in 1972, the claim that the disappearance of the Shilluk kings was the product of regicide or “royal suicide” has not been substantiated. Nevertheless, similar claims are represented here in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s account of required suicide for despotic kings among the Yoruba (selection #11), and in the accounts of live burial by the Dinka of their chieftain, the Master of the Fishing-Spear (selection #23). In such cases, it is impossible to say what was in fact the case in the earlier periods of African civilization, or to determine whether the African kingship was an archaic magical system or a political, bureaucratic, and military institution, but the stories and legends that have been transmitted and collected have played a major role in conveying many forms of African thought. Similar difficulties in interpretation affect virtually all of the ethnographic material for every early culture presented in this volume. Yet despite their biases, the early reporters remain perhaps the most direct source of insight into the issues about suicide and voluntary death under scrutiny here.

The Selections

The selections are ordered geographically and by language-group in roughly counterclockwise fashion,  beginning with the northern areas of West Africa, moving down around heavily populated regions of the Niger delta, then south and east to the region of the Zulu, and finally northeast to the Bantu in what is now northern Zimbabwe, the Ganda in Uganda [check], and the Dinka in the Nile basin of the Sudan.  Sources from written traditions in North Africa and the Nile and Horn region are entered separately in this volume.  Most sources in this section come from West Africa, the region of subSaharan Africa most populated and most fully documented by early ethnographers.

Selection #1, “African Origin Myths”, casts a broad sweep over a wide range of African origin myths serving to account for the occurrence of death, from the Islamic cultures of the Hausa to the traditional Benue-Congo cultures of  the lower Zambesi. Despite the considerable variety of these myths, what is significant is that in many of them  death has come into being because man needs it, requires it, or desires it.

The Voltaic Branch of the Niger-Congo Subfamily
Selection #2, “The Souls of the Dogons,” is drawn from the accounts of the Griaule ethnographic expeditions during 1931-39 to the Dogon, a group whose language is of the Voltaic branch of the Niger-Congo language family and who now live in the remote and rugged area of the Bandiagara escarpment and the Niger bend in southwest Mali. In part because of their isolation, the Dogon have been less affected by colonialism than many other African groups and have been able to maintain many of their precolonial cultural traditions.  Ancestor-worship is an important component of Dogon religion, and the Dogon are famed for their religious masks.  In this selection from Dogon mottoes, a distinction is drawn between the individual soul that may survive in a life after death and the nyama or impersonal life-force, or vital principle, that would ordinarily be transmitted from the dead person to a specific newborn relative. The selection describes the negative implications of suicide for this process.

Also from a Voltaic-speaking group is Jack Goody’s contemporary account of the LoDagaa (selection #3), inhabitants of two settlements in the northwest corner of Ghana near the Black Volta River, who speak dialects of Dagari, a Mossi language. Although they have no centralized political system, the LoDagaa have highly developed funeral customs, including an elaborate set of suicide precautions for bereaved family members, reflecting assumptions about the likelihood, expectedness, and desirability of suicide after the death of a spouse or close family member.

The Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo Subfamily
Moving to the south, selections #4 through #10 are drawn from various groups of Akan, a broad constellation of separate ethnic groups who speak Twi, a language of the Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo linguistic subgroup. According to archeological and linguistic evidence, the Akan have inhabited a heartland in south central Ghana for some 2000 years. Akan groups include the Akan proper, the Ashanti (or Asante), the Fante (or Fanti or Fantee), and the Ga, members of which groups are now living in Ghana (called the Gold Coast in colonial times; now named after the Ga), Côte d’Ivoire, and Togo. Traditional Akan societies, largely agricultural, consist in some seven or eight matrilineal clans, and inheritance, kinship, and succession are all descended through the mother’s line, although some offices and spiritual attributes are inherited patrilineally. After Portuguese traders and colonizers reached the coast of Ghana in the late 15th century, some Akan groups began to trade gold and slaves for European products, including guns.  Beginning in about 1700, the Asante established the most powerful Akan state, dominating the region now known as Ghana until conquered by the British in 1900; this empire, said to be one of the “largest and most sophisticated imperial systems ever constructed without the aid of literary skills,” was particularly known for its sumptuous artistic culture. However, in contrast to many other Akan, the Ga, who inhabited the coast, were patrilineal, though females could inherit property from their mothers; the men fished and raised crops while the women conducted trade.  On one account, the Gã king, Okai Koi, committed suicide in 1660 after another Akan people, the Akwamu, defeated the Ga; on another, he was killed in battle in 1677. The Ga are now among the most urbanized of West African peoples.

Several of the Akan selections presented here describe  the effects of contact  with European colonizers on these traditional groups. Selection #4, from the Akan proper, “The Detection of Witches: Ordeal and Punishment,” alludes to the British colonial government’s efforts to suppress the execution  of alleged witches and the practice of coerced suicide thus generated. From the Ashanti, selection #5,  “Law and Constitution: A Suicide’s Trial,” taken from Capt. Rattray’s monumental attempt to trace the development of Ashanti legal, political, and judicial institutions from their origin in the simple family group under a house-father to their functions in a colonial system under a paramount chief, describes traditional Ashanti (and, more generally, Akan) beliefs and legal principles concerning suicide,  comparing them to European views.  In this selection as well as in selection #6, among others, traditional practices  are seen in contrast to the legal systems administered by Europeans—for example, while  among the Namnan, a small Northern Territory Ashanti tribe, a suicide’s property was to be confiscated by the Chief, much as the British suicide’s property was forfeit to the King, some of his property in livestock might nevertheless remain to the wife and children, and dead bodies are subjected to trial and punishment (selection #5).

The contemporary philosopher Kwasi Wiredu explains these practices  as rooted in the absolute principle of Akan justice that  “no human being could be punished without a trial. Neither at the lineage level nor at any other level of Akan society could a citizen be subjected to any sort of sanctions without proof of wrongdoing.” Wiredu  also points to the importance of the belief that the life-principle is immortal. “Death is preferable to disgrace” runs a characteristic Akan saying; Wiredu notes that defeated generals, taking this to heart, often chose to commit suicide in the field. 

Selection #6, on Ashanti funeral rites, is also taken from Capt. Rattray’s accounts. Drawing on earlier reports and elderly informants, Rattray  first describes the complete absence of  funeral rites for stillborns, neonates, and children who die—no ceremony  at all, and the corpse is merely tossed into the bush—and then the contrastingly  lavish funerals for kings, replete with both voluntary and nonvoluntary deaths of the newly deceased king’s wives, retainers, and captives in order to mark the funeral and continue to serve the king in the afterlife. Whether institutional suicide of those in subordinate social roles  is to be regarded as suicide in any robust sense, or merely conformity to strong social expectation, is an issue in many traditional cultures, both in Africa and elsewhere.

Selection #8, on socially-expected suicide, describes what contemporary suicidologists might call the “get-even” practice  called  killing oneself “upon the head of another”: by committing suicide, one person can visit the same calamity on another  person.  In Fante culture (as in many  others, for example the Tlingit of Alaska), social responsibility for suicide is assigned to an outside party, not to the person who kills himself.  Suicide  thus makes it possible to control the behavior of other parties.  A particularly vivid example is described in the tragedy of Adjuah Amissah, a beautiful young Fante woman from a town on what is now the coast of Ghana, whose sad story comes from the earliest selections in these accounts.  The tale has evidently undergone evolution in its telling: Cruickshank’s account holds that she killed herself with a silver bullet, while Edward Bowdich’s version refers to golden bullets.  The central point remains unchanged, however: Adjuah Amissah’s suicide is attributed to her wish to save her family.  In accord with Ashanti law, her family would be held responsible for the suicide of her suitor and, in effect, must pay in kind; Adjuah Amissah’s own suicide protects them from this penalty.

Selection #9, “The Prohibition of Death,” concerning the Ga people,  raises issues about what counts as suicide.  The traditional beliefs of the Ga about certain types of deaths do not appear to conceptualize them as suicide, but nevertheless do hold people accountable for dying at times or in ways that are impermissible; these beliefs  thus seem to suggest that such deaths are after all in some sense voluntary.

The groups from which selections #10 through #16 arise, the Ewe, the Yoruba, and the Ibo, are also members of the Kwa branch of Niger-Congo and also inhabit areas of West Africa surrounding the Niger River drainage basin—Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria—heavily vegetated areas with high temperature levels, heavy rainfall, and frequent thunderstorms, where population density is high.

The traditional Ewe heartland is southern Togo; the group’s oral traditions tell of its flight from a brutal 17th-century tyrant, King Agokoli of Notsé, perhaps giving rise to its distrust of strong central authority. The absence of a strong central state left the Ewe particularly vulnerable to slave-raiding during the 17th-19th centuries. Selection #10, a British major’s 1890 account of the Ewe-speaking peoples of the coast of West Africa, briefly describes practices in Dahomey, now Benin, in punishing suicides. Striking in this brief account  is the apparent appropriation of European notions—“every man is the property of the king” and exposure  of a suicide’s body to public ridicule, reminiscent of European practices of desecration of the body—coupled with traditional African practices regarding suicide, in particular decapitation.

The Yoruba, in contrast, were highly urbanized before colonial times and formed powerful city-states centered around the royal residence of the oba, or king.  Linguistic and archeological evidence suggests that speakers of a distinct Yoruba language emerged some 3000-4000 years ago in the area around the Niger-Benue confluence in what is now Nigeria.  Patrilineal in descent patterns, Yoruba men farmed and practiced crafts; women dominated marketing and trade. The 13th and 14th-century Yoruba bronzes and terracotta sculptures, as well as an oral literature of histories, folklore, and proverbs, mark the richness of Yoruba culture. Traditional Yoruba religion recognizes a supreme but remote creator-god with a pantheon of lesser deities more directly involved in human affairs.  Internal wars among Yoruba groups and city-states in the 19th century left the Yoruba vulnerable to slavery; exported with Yoruba slaves, Yoruba religion still forms the basis of Santería as practiced in modern Cuba, Trinidad, and Brazil, and homes practicing forms of Santería such as Ocha (“the religion”) may still contain shrines to Catholic saints and at the same time shrines to ancestral African dead. After the British gained control of Yorubaland in the late 19th century, the formerly strong Yoruba kings lost their sovereignty but were permitted to continue to play a role in local government.

Also belonging to the Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo linguistic family, the Igbo (formerly Ibo) have lived for thousands of years in a heartland around the lower Niger River. Unlike the Yoruba, they did not develop centralized state authorities or monarchies, but lived in autonomous, relatively democratic villages each of which was knit together by overlapping kinship ties, secret societies, professional organizations, and religious cults and oracles.  By the late 17th century, many Igbo had become slave traders who sold members of other ethnic groups as well as other Igbo captured in the interior; the British outlawed the slave trade with the Abolition Act of 1807, attempting to substitute for it trade in palm oil. However, the decentralization and openness of Igbo culture seemed to invite missionaries, and most Igbo are now Christian. An ill-fated attempt in 1967 to establish an Igbo state, Biafra, resulted in massive starvation among the Igbo before the state was reabsorbed by Nigeria in 1970.

The lengthy Yoruba selection (#11) from Samuel Johnson’s History of the Yorubas,  completed in 1897, reflects the historical centrality of the king in Yoruba society, and, consequently, the social importance of the king’s lineage  and succession, the king’s immediate  family, and the king’s funeral rites, as well as the forms of recourse available should a king prove  despotic.   Samuel Johnson’s king-histories from Sango onwards  depict many  kings as suicides, including Sango himself.  Family is important but can be too important: in Yoruba tradition, the king’s natural mother is expected to commit suicide, to be replaced by a surrogate drawn from the court.  An interlude concerning beliefs about birth and death suggests that the Yoruba hold that some children about to be born are in fact abiku or evil spirits:  they enter the world only temporarily and then leave it at a preappointed date: though parents may attempt to dissuade them from doing so. This voluntaristic explanation of repeated failures of pregnancy is offered in a culture in which reproduction is held to be of paramount importance:  it is not so much the mother who is blamed, but the child itself if it dies.  In Bascom’s account, the abiku is granted short spans of life by Olorun “because it does not want to remain long on earth, preferring  life in heaven or wishing only to travel back and forth between heaven and earth”—a phenomenon believed to be common where infant mortality is high.  Funeral customs concerning the king are of central cultural importance:  much as in a number of other traditional cultures in Africa, South America, Egypt, China, and elsewhere, the Yoruba considered it a privilege or an obligation  to accompany the king into the afterlife, and accounts of early customs involve both voluntary and nonvoluntary  deaths by wives, retainers, and others for this purpose.  Distinctive here is the practice of “wearing the death cloth,” a much-cherished cloth received by  those who will be expected to die with the king—the crown prince, certain other members of the royal family and some of the king’s wives–a cloth worn on special occasions that  marks them for this eventual honor.  Although such accounts may be challenged as exaggerated and unreliable,  as was Sir James Frazer’s theory of regicide among the Shilluk, they nevertheless appear consistent with traditional beliefs about life, death, and the afterlife. Finally, according to Johnson, whose very early accounts are based on oral histories and on his interviews with tribal elders, Yoruba practice involves expecting a despotic king or one otherwise unable to govern wisely to commit suicide when he loses the confidence of the people. An ill or despotic king is not to be killed by others, but, when the populace so indicates, is expected to die by his own hand.  Less colorful than Johnson’s narrations,  A.K. Ajisafe’s brief account (selection #12), concluding the Yoruba section,  recounts practices he described in 1906 which reflect the ways in which historical attitudes toward suicide were reflected in everyday practice.

Selections #13-#16, concerning the Igbo, conclude  the material  from the Kwa linguistic branch.  In selection #13, a brief passage describes an evil spirit, the akalagoli, who after committing suicide continues to harm those who are still living; selections #14 and #15 describe  rituals associated with suicide and the imposition of required suicide as a penalty for homicide.  Selection #16 is particularly vivid in its description of cooperation in one’s own death for practical reasons:  advance planning for a death that will be carried out underscores the importance of a suitable funeral for continuity after death.

The Zulu, who are believed to have migrated into southern Africa sometime after the second century A.D., speak a Bantu tongue  (Bantu is the best-known subgroup of Niger-Congo, spoken in much of the southern third of Africa) that developed as a distinct language well before the Zulu achieved a collective identity or centralized political structure, which did not emerge until intergroup conflict  arose among Nguni groups over grazing lands and ivory sources in the late 18th century.  Under the leadership of the brilliant strategist Shaka, who became clan chief in 1815 and who introduced such military innovations as the short stabbing spear, the Zulu established a huge kingdom, the size of contemporary Natal Province, within a single decade. They did not become subject to colonial rule until 1883, when the British invaded, and Zulu nationalism has remained a potent force in contemporary South African politics.

Selection #17 describes traditional Zulu attitudes towards timely and untimely death, providing the background for understanding the custom of godusa, “sending home,” (also goduka, ukugodusa, root meaning to go away; go home; die).  The term denotes the practice of killing or assisting in the suicide of an old person, or may refer to a ceremonial feast of farewell to an old relative before assisting in his death. Although the practice was opposed by the colonial authorities and missionaries at the time of the accounts provided here, the two selections display the differing overlays of different observers. The two selections, #18 and #19, are reported by the daughter and one of the two sons of the Rev. S. M. Samuelson (d. 1916), who went to Natal in 1851 as a missionary,  yet are strikingly different:  R.C.A. (Robert Charles Azariah) Samuelson (b. 1858), the son, narrates the story of the old woman and the antbear’s hole  (selection #19), an event that apparently took place in 1869-1870, describing  the practice as one that is acquiesced in, indeed accepted, by the old woman who is its target; she is described as consenting to burial alive and the practice  is said to be understood by the Zulu as humane.  At the same time, his elder sister, L.H. (Levine Henrietta, known as Nomleti) Samuelson (b. 1856), exhibits in selection #19 much more clearly the  repugnance felt by many missionary reporters for the practice of senicide: she sees the old woman’s death as cruel, the culmination of many years of threat with no humane intent.  Selection #20 describes traditional customs surrounding the burial of a Zulu king, involving, as is reported from many other early cultures around the world, the burial of live or newly killed wives and servants to accompany him.

Selection #21 is from the Banyoro, also Bantu-speakers whose language is Runyoro-Rutooro, live in the area of western Uganda to the immediate east of Lake Albert. The Bunyoro has been particularly concerned to uphold the ancient cultural traditions of their ancestors.  This selection describes fears of ghosts—including the ghosts of suicides.

Selections #22 and #23 are from the Dinka, a cattle-herding group who live in the broad savannahs of the central Nile basin in the Sudan and move from dry-season river camps to permanent settlements in the rainy season; they are closely related to the Shilluk. Cattle of are central importance in Dinka culture, and are central in the suicide-related ceremonies described. Selection #22 is a traditional Dinka folktale, “The Four Truths,” in which a threat of suicide not only shows its force in altering the situation, but exhibits the prospective suicide’s own perception of his very modest replacement value as the 6th son, and recognizes himself as a far less valuable member of society than his adult uncle.  Selection #23 describes the practice of burial alive, with full ceremonial honors, accorded the clan chieftain, the “Master of the Fishing-Spear.” Dinka belief holds that the Master of the Fishing-Spear “carries the life of his people,” and that if he dies like ordinary men—involuntarily—the life of his people, which is in his keeping, will be gone with him. In contrast, burial alive, normally at the Master of the Fishing-Spear’s own request, assures the people of their own vitality and success in war. If the Master of the Fishing-Spear were to die an accidental death or death from illness, it could have serious consequences for the whole tribe. The practice of burying the Master of the Fishing-Spear alive is believed to prevent illness among the people; as one Master of the Fishing-Spear is reported to have explained, “I am going to see (deal with) in the earth the Powers of sickness which kill people and cattle,” as well as to settle a family dispute; after three months, the old men of the tribe reported, there was no more cattle-plague. In another famous case in Western Dinkaland, a renowned Master of the Fishing-Spear was reported to have “entered the grave clutching in his hand a tsetse fly, and thereby removed the scourge of tsetse from his people.” Burial alive is reported by various anthropologists, including Charles G. and Brenda Seligman in their expedition to the Sudan 1909-1912, and Lienhardt 1947-1950, though in both cases informants are describing earlier practices not documented directly. Dinka sources also describe the interference by government officials in attempting to suppress such practices and the various sorts of subterfuge the Dinka used in order to persuade the authorities that burial alive was no longer being practiced.

Suicide and attempted suicide were not uncommon among Africans captured and transported in the slave trade.  Accounts of numbers of suicides are reported by some ship captains and slave owners or traders, but wholly without interest in the ethical issues such acts might have raised for the slaves themselves.  A more compelling account of suicides among slaves under transport is to be found in the work of Olaudah Equiano [q.v.], an Igbo born in Nigeria and transported to Virginia. He was later freed; traveled widely, was eventually resident in London.  Equiano published what became an influential factor in Britain’s abolition of the slave trade, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself  (1789); this work contains accounts of slaves’ suicides at sea and their belief that it would enable them to return home to their homelands.

Additional sources:

  1. Account of traditional African values in introductory section from Robert A. Lystad, Encyclopedia Americana, 1998, vol 1, p. 298;
  2. of languages, estimate from Barbara F. Grimes, ed., Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 13th ed.  Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Texas at Austin, 1996;
  3. see also Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse, eds., African Languages: An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 1;
  4. concerning slavery, Brodie Cruickshank, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa.  London: Hurst and Blackett, 1853; reprint, London, Frank Cass, 1966, vol. 2, p. 27 [check: vol 2?];
  5. concerning methodological problems, Kwame Gyekye, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 53-54;
  6. quotation concerning the Asante empire, from Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore, Medieval Africa 1250-1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 78;
  7. quotation from Samuel Johnson, from Toyin Falola, “Ade Ajayi on Samuel Johnson: filling the gaps,” chapter 7 in Toyin Falola, ed., African Historiography: Essays in honour of Jacob Ade Ajayi, Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1993,  p. 86.
  8. Concerning the Ashanti, also see “Public and Private Offenses,” in K. A. Busia, The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of the Ashanti.  London: Published for the International African Institute by Oxford University Press, 1951, pp. 65-71.
  9. Concerning the Fante story of Adjuah Amissah, see also “Expected Suicide: ‘Killing Oneself on the Head of Another,'” from A. B. Ellis [Alfred Burdon Ellis, 1852-1894], The Tshi-Speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast of West Africa; their religion, manners, customs, laws, language, etc.  London: Chapman and Hall, 1887, reprint Chicago: Benin Press, Ltd., 1964, pp. 287, 302-303;  and T. Edward Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee,  London: John Murray, 1819, reprint London:  Frank Cass, 1966, ftn. p. 259.
  10. Quotation in introductory passage concern Yoruba abiku in repeated pregnancy failure from William Bascom, The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969, pp. 74.
  11. Also see S. O. Biobaku, Sources of Yoruba History, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973, p. 5.
  12. Account of Frazer’s theory of regicide and its critics from Benjamin C. Ray, Myth, Ritual and Kingship in Buganda, New  York: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 10 et passim;
  13. quotation on Akan principles of justice from Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective,  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 164-165.
  14. Jocelyn Murray, Cultural Atlas of  Africa. New York: Equinox, 1981-1982;
  15. James George Frazer, The Golden Bough.  A Study in Magic and Religion, New York: Macmillan, 1922.

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(documented 1840-1940)

Eskimo of Diomede Island:

  1. Father and Son
    (Edward Moffat Weyer, 1932)


  1. Are the Aleut Prone to Commit Suicide?
    (Veniaminov, 1840)

St. Lawrence Eskimo:

  1. Notes on Eskimo Patterns of Suicide
    (Leighton and Hughes, 1940)


  1. Suicide as Shameful or Insane
    (Osgood, 1937)

Copper Eskimo:

  1. Death Taboos
    (Rasmussen, 1921-24)
  2. Suicide as Rare
    (Jenness, 1913-18)

Eskimo of Cumberland Sound:

  1. Man’s Two Souls: The Afterlife
    (Boas, 1883-84)

Caribou Eskimo:

  1. Moral Rights, Social Obligations
    (Birket-Smith, 1921-24)

Netsilik Eskimo:

  1. Famine; On the Treatment of the Aged
    (Rasmussen, 1921-24)

Iglulik Eskimo:

  1. The Moon Spirit
    (Rasmussen, 1921-24)
  2. Death, and Life in the Land of the Dead
    (Rasmussen, 1921-24)
  3. Those Who Were Left Behind
    (Rasmussen, 1921-24)

Hudson Bay Inuit:

  1. Desertion of Old Women
    (Turner, 1882-84, 1889-90)

Eskimo of Baffin Island:

  1. Theological Questions
    (Hall, 1860-62)
  2. Tribal Life
    (Bilby 1923)

Labrador Eskimo:

  1. Respect for the Aged
    (Hawkes, 1914)

Greenland Eskimo:

  1. The Old Woman and the Cliff
    (Nansen, 1893)

The native inhabitants of Arctic and sub-Arctic North America and the tip of northeastern Siberia include a wide range of groups, often loosely referred to as the Eskimo or the Inuit. Generally, these peoples had no name for themselves as a group, and terms for the complete population were given by outsiders. The word “Eskimo,” a name sometimes said to mean “eaters of raw meat,” is now often regarded as derogatory; more plausible etymologies trace the name from Montagnais, an Algonquian language, as “snowshoe netters” or “people who speak a different language.” The terms “Inuit” or “Yuit” (meaning “people” or “real people”) and “Inupiaq” are also frequently used. There is no universal term accepted in all regions: the terms “Eskimo” and “Alaska Native” are more frequently used in Alaska; “Inuit” and “Inuinnaq” in Canada; and “Kalaallit” or “Greenlanders” in Greenland. Names used in the sources presented here follow the original in each case.

Arctic groups are speakers of languages within two principal branches, the Aleut and the Eskimoan, which include among others the languages Yupik, Yuit, and Inuit. While there is ongoing disagreement about precise dates, most specialists believe that all Eskimo-Aleut groups moved across the Bering land bridge several millennia ago; after reaching Alaska, they first separated into Aleut and Eskimoan, and then the latter group separated into Yupik and Inuit; some Yupik groups then migrated back across the Bering at a later date. They are all primarily coastal groups. Arctic cultures spread from Siberia in the west, across Alaska and Canada, to Greenland in the east; the selections provided here are presented in approximately this geographical order. At the westernmost extent of Arctic habitation are the Siberian Eskimo and the Eskimo of the Bering Strait, a grouping that includes the inhabitants of the St. Lawrence and Diomede Islands, as well as the Aleutian Islands. Moving east and north, Eskimo groups are found in western, northern, and southern Alaska, as well as the Mackenzie Eskimo near the Canadian border. In north-central Canada, there are several groups including the Netsilik and Iglulik, along with the Caribou and Copper Inuit. Toward the east, there are the Labrador Eskimo and the Eskimo of Baffin Island. Finally, the Inuit of Greenland inhabit the easternmost portion of the western-hemisphere Arctic world. Many of the religious, social, psychological, and economic patterns of culture are relatively constant across these various groups, although important differences do exist.

Arctic peoples have persisted despite harsh climatic conditions. Winter temperatures across the areas inhabited average minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit; snow blankets the ground from September until June. Most groups live in coastal regions and have traditionally subsisted by hunting marine mammals, including seal and whale, as well as by fishing and hunting some land animals, like caribou.

It is believed that the first contact between Europeans and Arctic peoples occurred in southern Greenland around the 12th century A.D. as the Eskimo migrating south and east came into contact with Norse settlers (including Erik the Red). Friendly relations apparently deteriorated and conflict raged until the early 1400s, when the Norse disappeared somewhat mysteriously; the poor relations with the Inuit, climate changes, and trade difficulties all might have contributed to the demise of the Scandinavians in Greenland. Also, some have speculated that the Norse were assimilated by the native inhabitants (see, e.g., Nansen, 1911, and Oleson, 1963). The similarities that exist between the Viking and the Greenlandic conception of death by violence might serve to support this theory, or they may indicate some other sort of exchange of ideas and cultural values between the two groups.

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, Arctic peoples first came into enduring contact with Europeans. The Jesuits began missionizing in 1605; whaling ships and other vessels used routes along the coast; Henry Hudson arrived in 1610; and Hudson’s Bay Company opened its first trading station in Labrador in 1749. Europeans began fishing intensively off the coast in the late 1770s. Such contact initiated a cultural revolution among the Eskimo that continues today. Widespread interaction with Europeans began in the 18th and 19th centuries, and several American and European expeditions were sent to study Eskimo ethnology and archaeology during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These include the famous Fifth Thule Expedition (1921–24) led by Knud Rasmussen, a Danish explorer and ethnologist born in Greenland who was himself half Inuit and spoke Greenland Inuit, as well as several Canadian dialects, and the Canadian Arctic Expedition (1913–18) led by Diamond Jenness. Since the Eskimo were not a people who kept written records, the accounts of these early expeditions are the only way to access original Inuit beliefs; however, it must be remembered that these accounts are filtered through the lenses of outside observers who bring with them their own sets of assumptions and biases.

The Selections

A review of these early accounts indicates that suicide was a common practice among many Arctic groups, though Veniaminov (selection #2) voices skepticism about claims that the Aleut are prone to commit suicide and Jenness’s account of the Copper Eskimo (selection #6) argues that suicide is extremely rare. In some or many groups, individuals who were near the end of life, when they perceived their utility to the group as minimal, would seek suicide as a way to relieve their fellows of the burden of having to care for them. Examples of this seemingly altruistic type of suicide include Ernest W. Hawkes’s 1914 report on the Labrador Eskimo (selection #16), Kaj Birket-Smith’s description of the Caribou Eskimo, documented in 1921–24 (selection #8), and Julian Bilby’s 1923 observations of the Inuit of Baffin Island (selection #15). If these reports are accurate (though like all reports of oral cultures by outside observers, they may well be distorted by outside values and suppositions), this practice was probably linked to other Inuit activities, such as infanticide and abandonment of the elderly: under the inexorable conditions of the Arctic tundra, those who could not contribute were undesirable. The more unproductive members of the group understood this, it is said, and thus often participated in their own demise. Suicide, according to Foulks, was also believed to be able to save the life of another, often that of a sick child. Sometimes it is true, however, that death was forced upon a sick or aged individual—see, for example, the observations of Lucian M. Turner in 1882–84 (selection #13) and Rasmussen’s report on the Netsilik (selection #12).

It was commonly reported that family members assisted in the death of their relatives; sometimes this participation became highly ritualized and subject to taboo regulation—the St. Lawrence account of Leighton and Hughes (selection #3), who did pioneering fieldwork in ethnopsychiatry in the 1940s, exemplifies this tendency. The Diomede Islander who, according to Weyer’s 1928 report (selection #1), aided in the stabbing of his father demonstrates that in other Inuit groups, there was also a community and familial involvement, although at a less formalized level. Thus, among many groups, suicide possessed a strong public flavor. In many groups, hanging was the favored method, although regional variations did exist, including throwing oneself into the frigid seawater or exposing oneself to the cold.

Inuit conceptions of the afterlife may also have contributed to a readiness to commit suicide. Most Inuit groups are said to have believed in a continuance of the soul in an afterlife and in the existence of multiple destinations that a soul could achieve after death. Broadly speaking, the Inuit thought that the conditions of the soul after death depended, at least in part, on how the person died—whether by starvation, in childbirth, by sickness, or by accidental or intended violence. Violence was often seen as having a purifying effect on those that experienced it; therefore, death by violence—including suicide—often led to a placement in the better regions of the afterlife, as for instance in Hall’s report of the Baffin Islanders, 1860–62 (selection #14) and Hawkes’s 1914 report on the Labrador Inuit (selection #16). Turner’s field study (selection #13) and Boas’s report from the early 1880s (selection #7), however, demonstrate different beliefs for other Inuit groups. If, as certain Inuit groups asserted, how one dies is largely beyond one’s control, the lot of the soul is largely determined by accidents of chance. Suicide, however, would be one way a person could exert more control over his or her future state, and might, therefore, present an attractive alternative.

Rasmussen’s account of the intellectual culture of Iglulik Eskimo, documented during the Fifth Thule Expedition of 1921–24, contains a more detailed account of these religious influences (selection #10). The Moon Spirit, protector of all those who die violently and commit suicide, beckons the Inuit soul: “Come, come to me! It is not painful to die. It is only a brief moment of dizziness. It does not hurt to kill yourself.” The Moon Spirit, for this Inuit group, was a benevolent deity, offering to the Eskimo the hope of a pleasant afterlife. It should be noted that in this system, the honored souls go up, while in other groups, the preferred direction is down to warmer regions.

Although most writers suspect that suicide practices among Arctic peoples are of ancient origin, some disagree. Asen Balikci (1970) has argued that the suicides reported by the early explorers among the Netsilik Eskimo were largely (but not entirely) a product of greater societal upheavals during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, exacerbated by increases in emigration and the introduction of new technologies like firearms (and later intrusions such as radar stations) that disrupted traditional hunting schemes. As with accounts of all oral cultures, descriptions of native beliefs and practices are filtered through the often disapproving eyes of outside observers, although the early accounts of the Inuit are clearly not as distorted by the ideologies of colonizers and missionaries as, say, those of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca, or of various African groups. And some practices are dramatically altered in more recent times, presumably in response to European influences; see Osgood on the Ingalik, 1937 (selection #4), for responses to practices concerning abandonment of the elderly. In any case, caution is important in trying to determine the content and antiquity of beliefs and practices concerning suicide in Arctic cultures.

In contemporary times, suicide rates are high in many Inuit groups. Alcohol, unemployment, and the stress and social upheaval associated with loss of traditional cultural patterns and the challenges of adaptation to modern Alaskan and Canadian life are often blamed, though some researchers have suggested that the high suicide rate is due at least in part to cultural traditions in pre-contact times that accepted altruistic self-destruction—as, according to Leighton and Hughes (selection #3), apparently was the case among all Eskimo from Alaska to Greenland.

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(documented 1820-1984)



  1. The Principal Wife of the Chief
    (William Mariner, 1820)
  2. Elderly Parents and the Time to Die
    (Charles Wilkes, 1845)
  3. Deaths of the Old Chief and his Wives
    (Thomas Williams, 1858)

Solomon Islands

  1. Tikopian Attitudes Towards Suicide
    (Raymond Firth, 1967)

Papua New Guinea: Kiriwina/The Trobriand Islands:

  1. Suicide as an Act of Justice
    Expiation and Insult: Jumping from a Palm
    (Bronislaw Malinowski, 1916, 1926)
  2. The Kaliai: Good Death, Bad Death
    (David R. Counts and Dorothy Ayers Counts, 1983-84)



  1. A Tale of Two Lovers: Tying Their Hair Together
    (Freycinet, 1819)


  1. Sea Spirit Spasms
    (Frank Joseph Mahony, 1950-1968, 1970)
  2. Group Rejection and Suicide
    (Thomas Gladwin and Seymour Bernard Sarason, 1953)



  1. Who Will Go With Me?
    (George Turner, 1884)


  1. The Love-Sick of Vavau
    (Basil Thomson, 1886-1891, 1894)

Niue Island

  1. Traditions of Niue
    (Edwin M. Loeb, 1926)

Pukapuka, Cook Islands

  1. After Defeat in Fighting: Burying Oneself Alive
    (Ernest Beaglehole and Pearl Beaglehole, 1938)


  1. Coconut Rites for Suicide
    (E. S. Craighill Handy, 1920, 1930)

Mangareva, Gambier Islands

  1. Cliff Suicide: The Privilege of Women
    (Te Rangi Hiroa [Sir Peter H. Buck], 1938)


  1. The Maori Myth of Tane The Myth of Rakuru
    (John White, 1887)
  2. Maori: Tupu and Mate
    (J. Prtyz Johansen, 1954)
  3. The Spirit
    (Frederick Edward Maning, 1922)
  4. The Dying Maori Chief and his Old and Young Wives
    (Frederick Edward Maning, 1922)


  1. The Secrecy of the Bones of a Chief
    (Laura C. Green and Martha Warren Beckwith, 1926)


Oceania, or the Pacific Islands, includes several thousand open-water islands in the Pacific Ocean. Oceania is traditionally grouped by the three principal regional categories of Melanesia (New Guinea and the islands northeast of Australia), Polynesia (the central and southeast Pacific including New Zealand and Hawaii), and Micronesia (north of Melanesia and west of Polynesia); Australia is occasionally included as a fourth zone. Of the three regions, Polynesia was colonized the most recently by Austronesian-speaking peoples and is the most culturally and linguistically homogenous; Micronesia and Melanesia include peoples with a wider diversity of cultural traditions in origin and antiquity, and are regarded by some scholars as primarily geographic regions rather than cultural zones. In New Guinea alone, some 800 languages are spoken. Both the land area and the population of Oceania are small, though the dispersal over the globe is huge: the total area of Oceania including Australia is more than three million square miles.

The first of many waves of human migration out of Asia to the Pacific Islands began in northern Melanesia at least 40,000 years ago. The migration of Austronesian-speaking peoples out of Taiwan and southern China began perhaps 6,000 to 8,000 years ago; modern Polynesians developed out of settlers in the Samoa-Tonga-Fiji triangle around 2,000 years ago. They moved southward and eastward, and north to Hawaii, traveling by boat and outrigger canoe and eventually inhabiting the major islands of the South Pacific by 750 A.D.

Before European contact (1521–1800 A.D.), Pacific Islanders lived in societies ranging from small communities on atolls to large, highly hierarchical chiefdoms on the larger islands. With many terrestrial animal and bird species soon eaten to extinction and the natural landscape of most islands largely free of edible plants, the islands that would support societies large or small had to be groomed to support human life; forests were initially cleared through shifting agriculture, and the island ecologies and landscapes were dramatically altered over successive generations for human cultivation. Regional trade was conducted extensively among the islands in specialized networks. Despite the progress made in agricultural technology throughout Oceania, disease, especially malaria, is thought to have been the cause of the very low population growth of Near Oceania (western Melanesia), with the exception of the New Guinea highlands, in contrast to Remote Oceania (Micronesia and the regions east of the Solomon Islands that were all colonized in a post-1200 b.c. expansion), which was relatively free of disease in comparison and much more densely populated at the time of European contact.

By the end of the 18th century, Europeans had explored most of the Pacific Islands and established a strong economic and political presence in the region with the effect of native decimation, largely through the introduction of disease; throughout the 19th century, Oceania was widely colonized by the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the United States. European religious groups, especially Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists, mounted substantial missionary efforts, and by 1890, most of the indigenous inhabitants of Oceania had been at least nominally converted.

The Selections

As with other oral cultures, views of the ethics of suicide among Oceanic cultures must be extrapolated from reports of cultural practices, anecdotes, sayings, and other material from Western observers, keeping in mind that both the antecedent convictions of these observers may have distorted what they saw and that the overlay of Western religion and political organization may have already influenced native attitudes by the time they were reported. The ethnographic reports of early explorers and missionaries are often presented with undisguised editorial comment, as, for example, in George Turner’s 1884 account (selection #10, “Who Will Go With Me?”) that attributes a sati-like practice in Samoa to “the downward tendency of heathenism,” and Thomas Williams’s account (selection #3) in the same year of voluntary regicide and uxoricide in Fiji as evidence of “the tyranny exercised by the devil over those who were so entirely under his control.”

Oceanic cultures exhibit many examples of institutionalized suicide that carry with them a strong social element. Charles Wilkes, recounting his observations of Fiji in 1840 in a narrative of his voyages published in 1845 (selection #2, “Elderly Parents and the Time to Die”), describes the suicides of unhappily betrothed young women and occasions of voluntary senicide. Aged parents, he observes, felt a sense of duty to have themselves killed at the appropriate time. Some elements of the customs Wilkes describes appear to involve voluntary choice: the parent informs his or her children when the time to die has come, not the other way around, and the parent is allowed to choose the manner of death (strangulation or burial alive) and the place where the grave is to be dug. That the parent is subject to such expectations, however, marks this variant of suicide as institutionalized and in this sense less than fully voluntary: it is what old people are supposed to do. This social expectation of voluntary senicide is found in many areas of the Pacific Islands, including the Maori cultures of New Zealand.

The voluntary or consensual death of widows at or around the time of their husband’s funeral—much like sati practices in India—was also found in Oceanic cultures, particularly among the Fijians, though it was generally restricted to rituals marking the death of chiefs, and thus an uncommon but socially important occurrence that served to heighten the expression of elevated status. Sometimes the widow begged to be strangled and buried with her deceased husband; at other times, the widow went to her grave with much less enthusiasm, though a surviving widow would be certain to face an unfortunate life of insult and discrimination, particularly since her refusal to accept death would be seen as an act of disrespect to her late husband, family, and friends. Both William Mariner’s 1820 report, “The Principal Wife of the Chief” (selection #1), and Thomas Williams’s “Deaths of the Old Chief and his Wives,” based on his observations between 1840–53 (selection #3, expanded in the Archive), reflect the entrenched status of voluntary and consensual uxoricide in Fiji culture, but also describe institutional suicide practices involving regicide: it is the old king who is to die, and with him, his favorite wives. In Hawaii and many other places, servants were also sometimes killed voluntarily upon the death of their master. Similar and related forms of institutional suicide are reported in Turner’s account of Samoa and also in Green and Beckwith’s Hawaiian account (selection #20), “The Secrecy of the Bones of a Chief,” of two men, designated the kahu and the moe puu, who are entrusted with placing the bones of a deceased chief in a hidden cave, knowing they will pay for their crucial role in maintaining the secrecy of the location with their own lives.

Observers in Tikopian culture (e.g., Raymond Firth) also document the occurrence of certain “suicidal adventures,” particularly those of young men sailing alone far out to sea toward other lands—risky undertakings that often ended in death. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the voyage, some such adventures are seen as suicide attempts, while others are not (selection #4). Indeed, suicide practices in the Pacific Islands often exhibit the sharp gender differentiation characteristic of many forms of institutionalized or semi-institutionalized suicide. As in Firth’s account of Tikopia, suicide by drowning in the ocean is sharply differentiated by gender: females swim out to sea; males take a canoe. In the Polynesian culture of Mangareva, described by Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck) in 1938 (selection #15), the “privilege” of committing suicide by jumping off a cliff was reserved for women (men were expected to jump from coconut trees), and they were also segregated by social rank. One part of the cliff was reserved for women of high social rank, another for commoners.

Institutional suicide practices often involve not only gender differentiation, but a highly structured pattern for performance of the act. In Malinowski’s famous 1926 account of Kima’i’s suicide in Papua New Guinea’s Kiriwina Islands (formerly known as the Trobriand Islands) (selection #5, “Suicide as an Act of Justice; Expiation and Insult: Jumping from a Palm”), a characteristic suicide pattern is exhibited: the individual dons festive attire, climbs a tall palm tree, and announces his or her suicidal intention and the reasons for it (typically, the shame or insult that has been incurred) before jumping off. The pattern is well understood by both the person committing suicide and those watching from below; Malinowski comments on the social role such suicides play. Among the Kaliai of New Guinea, contemporary observations (selection #6, Counts and Ayers’s “The Kaliai: Good Death, Bad Death,” expanded in the Archive) examine the social roles of suicide and identify the rules—received in oral tradition, known to members of the community, and operative in practice—concerning the way in which a person should kill himself or herself. Other accounts of institutionalized suicide in Polynesia include a report from Pukapuka in the Cook Islands, “After Defeat in Fighting” (selection #13), that losers in warfare committed suicide by burying themselves alive.

In Micronesian folklore, probably the most famous of all stories is the Two Lovers Leap story, a kind of Romeo and Juliet story though without the mistaken assumptions about each others deaths found in Shakespeare. This tale does not appear to have institutionalized features suggesting that the dual suicide is controlled by social expectations; it more closely resembles a common tale of young lovers thwarted by social practices. The cliff from which the lovers leapt is now one of Guam’s most famous tourist destinations. Another famous spot, Suicide Cliff in Saipan, honors the spot where, in the waning days of World War II, Japanese families—told that the invading Americans were particularly bloodthirsty—would line up to plunge over the cliffs.

Particularly in Polynesian cultures, anger may play a significant role in suicide. Even today, according to Don Rubinstein, suicide is characteristically triggered by a perceived rejection from a close relative; killing oneself is the expression of loss at a ruptured relationship, rather than a response to anger per se. Edwin Loeb, writing in 1926, “Traditions of Niue” (selection #12), says that suicide occurred “upon slight provocation.” Shame, jealousy, frustration, aggrievement, and many other emotional responses to specific situations might play a role, though anger is described as principal among them.

Suicide also played a role in the mythological and ritualistic character of some Oceanic cultures. In a Maori origin legend called the Myth of Tane, retold by John White (selection #16), the daughter of the god Tane, Hine-i-tauira (meaning “model daughter”), kills herself after learning of her own incestuous relationship with her father. After this act, her name is changed to “daughter of defiance” and in the world of spirits and darkness where she comes to reside, she is known as “great daughter of darkness.” In another Maori legend recounted by White, available in the Digital Archive, the first thief, Rakuru, steals a magic fish-hook; he too commits suicide out of shame when his theft is discovered (selection #16, in the Archive).

Among Pacific Islanders and in other oral cultures, some deaths defy Western classification as homicide or suicide. As in Fiji, the voluntary or consensual killing of widows is such an instance; while suicide itself is frowned upon and those who commit it are believed to be isolated in the next world, the voluntary funeral death of widows is encouraged. Many observers have explored connections between Pacific Islanders’ attitudes toward death in general and various suicidal practices. Among the inhabitants of the Solomon Islands, for example, the overarching attitude toward death is said by Raymond Firth to be regret rather than fear: to commit suicide is to actualize an already inevitable end (selection #4). The contemporary analysis pursued in “The Kaliai: Good Death, Bad Death” (selection #6) attempts to identify what distinguishes between “good” and “bad” deaths in another Melanesian culture; the key, apparently, is whether it does or does not cause social disruption. In most traditional Oceanic cultures, there do not appear to be conceptions of an afterlife punishment for suicide, as distinct from isolation, although Handy (selection #14) reports that Marquesan women who killed themselves out of jealousy were believed to be able to return as malevolent spirits to haunt their husbands and their husbands’ lovers. In the Marquesan myth that Handy records, a young woman commits suicide out of loneliness when her husband is away; performance of a ritual is able to bring her back to her husband and children, but only as a spirit, and she is able to stay with them only until her oldest child is grown.

Finally, overall worldviews may affect the ethics of suicide as well. Among the indigenous Maori population of New Zealand, Johansen (selection #17) shows how cultural conceptions of psychology and religion play into the concept of suicide. The Maori see themselves in a world that swings between periods of growth, called tupu, and periods of weakening or decay, called mate. According to Johansen, the Maori see their world holistically: a weakening in the emotional or spiritual life will also include a diminishment in the physical dimensions (e.g., health may be lost). Mate, which is often caused by insult or shame, often causes a flight from life and society. Suicide is the extreme form of flight and is thus related to the concept of weakening. In the Niue language, as “Traditions of Niue” (selection #12) points out, mate is the word for death itself. Indeed, mate and cognate forms mean dead/death throughout Oceanic languages generally.

No comprehensive account for all Pacific Island cultures can be provided for the significance of death, the meaning of life, the relationship between the individual and society, or many other matters of background culture relevant to the ethics of suicide, so varied are these cultures. Furthermore, the earliest available accounts, including those provided here, are filtered through a European mindset and a constellation of biases clearly hostile to the practices they report; it cannot be assumed that the descriptions, perceptions, and sentiments are fully authentic. Under the broad influence of Christianity in the Pacific today, many people now regard suicide as sinful and believe that there is an afterlife punishment for it; but it is clear that certain forms of institutionalized suicide and suicidal responses to interpersonal reactions have been widespread in the past and were an apparently “normal” part of these cultures.

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from Essays in Philosophy: On Suicide


The English essayist and critic, Thomas De Quincey, was one of the foremost figures in English Romanticism. De Quincey was born in Manchester of a mercantile family; at 17, he ran away from school and wandered through Wales and led an impoverished bohemian life in London. While at Oxford, he introduced himself to Coleridge and Wordsworth in 1807, having been an early admirer of their Lyrical Ballads. In an attempt to escape his creditors, in 1828, De Quincey moved with his family to Edinburgh, then a focus of literary activity. There the family was compelled to move into the Holyrood debtors’ sanctuary. The father of eight children, it was only in the last decade of his life that he achieved some financial success. His literary output was immense, including many brilliant but often digressive magazine articles. His most famous critical work was “On Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” a classic of Shakespearean criticism. Although he wrote on a number of different subjects—history, economics, psychology, and others—he is best known for the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), an autobiographical account of his early life and opium addiction. His addiction was so severe that he left his wife to struggle almost alone with their debts and the responsibility for the children, while De Quincey himself lay in bed, tortured by nightmares. De Quincey continued to take opium for the rest of his life. The declared purpose of the work is to warn the reader of the dangers of opium, but it simultaneously describes the pleasures of addiction.

In this section from Essays in Philosophy entitled “On Suicide” (1823), De Quincey, disputing issues discussed by John Donne [q.v.] in Biathanatos and also by Kant [q.v.], argues that there are some cases in which self-destruction is justified. Such cases include the woman who chooses to die rather than be dishonored and the man who dies rather than suffer human nature in his person to be degraded by corporal punishment or by being forced to perform the labor of animals. As a sufferer of “suicidal despondency,” De Quincey argues that suicide motivated by personal self-interest is unjustified, but suicide that seeks to protect paramount interests of human nature is permissible.


Thomas De Quincey, “On Suicide,” in Essays in Philosophy. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1856, pp. 209-213. Quotation from De Quincey, Works, 2. 66.



It is a remarkable proof of the inaccuracy with which most men read—that Donne’s Biathanatos has been supposed to countenance Suicide; and those who reverence his name have thought themselves obliged to apologize for it by urging, that it was written before he entered the church. But Donne’s purpose in this treatise was a pious one: many authors had charged the martyrs of the Christian church with Suicide—on the principle that if I put myself in the way of a mad bull, knowing that he will kill me—I am as much chargeable with an act of self-destruction as if I fling myself into a river. Several casuists had extended this principle even to the case of Jesus Christ: one instance of which, in a modern author, the reader may see noticed and condemned by Kant, in his Religion innerhalb der grenzen der blossen Vernunft; and another of much earlier date (as far back as the 13th century, I think), in a commoner book—Voltaire’s notes on the little treatise of Beccaria, Dei delilli e delle pene. Those statements tended to one of two results: either they unsanctified the characters of those who founded and nursed the Christian church; or they sanctified suicide. By the way of meeting them, Donne wrote his book: and as the whole argument of his opponents turned upon a false definition of suicide (not explicitly stated, but assumed), he endeavored to reconstitute the notion of what is essential to create an act of suicide. Simply to kill a man is not murder: prima facie, therefore, there is some sort of presumption that simply for a man to kill himself—may not always be so: there is such a thing as simple homicide distinct from murder: there may therefore, possibly be such a thing as self-homicide distinct from self-murder. There may be a ground for such a distinction, ex analogid. But, secondly, on examination, is there any ground for such a distinction? Donne affirms that there is; and, reviewing several eminent cases of spontaneous martyrdom, he endeavors to show that acts so motived and so circumstantiated will not come within the notion of suicide properly defined. Meantime, may not this tend to the encouragement of suicide in general, and without discrimination of its species? No: Donne’s arguments have no prospective reference or application; they are purely retrospective. The circumstances necessary to create an act of mere self-homicide can rarely concur, except in state of disordered society, and during the cardinal revolutions of human history: where, however, they do concur, there it will not be suicide. In fact, this is the natural and practical judgment of us all. We do not agree on the particular cases which will justify self-destruction: but we all feel and involuntarily acknowledge (implicitly acknowledge in our admiration, though not explicitly in our words or in our principles), that there are such cases. There is no man, who in his heart would not reverence a woman  that chose to die rather than to be dishonored: and If we do not say, that it is her duty to do so, that is because the moralist must condescend to the weakness and infirmities of human nature: mean and ignoble natures must not be taxed up to the level of noble ones. Again, with regard to the other sex, corporal punishment is its peculiar and sexual degradation; and if ever the distinction of Donne can be applied safely to any case, it will be to the case of him who chooses to die rather than to submit to that ignominy. At present, however, there is but a dim and very confined sense, even amongst enlightened men (as we may see by the debates of Parliament), of the injury which is done to human nature by giving legal sanction to such brutalizing acts; and therefore most men, in seeking to escape it, would be merely shrinking from a personal dishonor. Corporal punishment is usually argued with a single reference to the case of him who suffers it; and so argued, God knows that it is worthy of all  abhorrence: but the weightiest argument against it—is the foul indignity which is offered to our common nature lodged in the person of him on whom it is inflicted. His nature is our nature: and, supposing it possible that he were so far degraded as to be unsusceptible of any influences but those which address him through the brutal part of his nature, yet for the sake of ourselves—No! not merely for ourselves, or for the human race now existing, but for the sake of human nature, which transcends all existing participators of that nature—we should remember that the evil of corporal punishment is not to be measured by the poor transitory criminal, whose memory and offence are soon to perish: these, in the sum of things, are as nothing: the injury which can be done him, and the injury which he can do, have so momentary an existence that they may be safely neglected: but the abiding injury is to the most august interest which for the mind of man can have any existence,—viz. to his own nature: to raise and dignify which, I am persuaded, is the first—last—and holiest command* which the conscience imposes on the philosophic moralist. In countries, where the traveller has the pain of seeing human creatures performing the labors of brutes,*—surely the sorrow which the spectacle moves, if a wise sorrow, will not be chiefly directed to the poor degraded individual—too deeply degraded probably, to be sensible of his own degradation, but to the reflection that man’s nature is thus exhibited in a state of miserable abasement; and, what is worst of all, abasement proceeding from man himself. Now, whenever this view of corporal punishment becomes general (as inevitably it will, under the influence of advancing civilization), I say, that Donne’s principle will then become applicable to this case, and it will be the duty of a man to die rather than to suffer his own nature to be dishonored in that way. But so long as a man is not fully sensible of the dishonor, to him the dishonor, except as a personal one, does not wholly exist. In general, whenever a paramount interest of human nature is at stake, a suicide which maintains that interest is self-homicide: but, for a personal interest, it becomes self-murder. And into this principle Donne’s may be resolved.


  1. On which account, I am the more struck by the ignoble argument of those statesmen who have contended in the House of commons that such and such classes of men in this nation are not accessible to any loftier influences.  Supposing that there were any truth in this assertion, which is a libel not on this nation only, but on man in general,—surely it is the duty of law givers not to perpetuate by their institutions the evil which they find, but to presume and gradually to create a better spirit.
  2. Of which degradation, never let it be never forgotten that France but thirty years ago1 presented as shocking cases as any country, even where slavery is tolerated.  An eye-witness to the fact, who has since published it in print, told me, that in France, before the revolution, he had repeatedly seen a woman yoked with an ass to the plough; and the brutal ploughman applying his whip indifferently to either.  English people, to whom I have occasionally mentioned this as an exponent of the hollow refinement of manners in France, have uniformly exclaimed—‘That is more than I can believe;’ and have taken it for granted that I had my information from some prejudiced Englishman.  But who was my informer?  A Frenchmen, reader,—M. Simond, And though now by adoption an American citizen, yet still French in his heart and in all his prejudices.
    [written in 1823.]

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from Translation of a Conference Between an Advocate For, and an Opponent Of, the Practice of Burning Widows Alive


Raja Rammohun Roy (also spelled Ram Mohun) was born in Bengal in an ancient Brahman family in 1774, or, according to some sources, 1772. Roy was a religious and social reformer during the British colonial period and founder of the Brahmo Samaj, a theist Hindu revivalist movement with strong social-reform commitments. Well-educated, Roy studied Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit, and later Hebrew and Greek; he was influenced by the monotheistic teachings of Islam, and at about age 15 or 16 went to Tibet to study Buddhism, causing considerable controversy with his opposition to lama-worship. He was also influenced by Western society’s traditions and his study of the Christian gospels. He served for a decade with the East India Company, eventually as Diwan, or head of revenue collections.

Roy was a reformer in many areas, including education, the caste system, freedom of the press, the abolishment of polygamy and child marriage, and the issue of women’s right to inheritance. He considered certain aspects of Hindu culture to be counterproductive in terms of India’s political interests, and directed his reform movement toward changing these aspects in the name of preserving the whole of Hindu culture.

In 1811, Roy is reported to have been a “horrified witness” of the act of sati or self-immolation when his elder brother Jagomohan died and one of his widowed wives was burnt alive with him; Rammohun “vowed never to rest until he had uprooted this custom.” His “Translation of a Conference Between an Advocate For, and an Opponent Of, the Practice of Burning Widows Alive” (1818) is one of several tracts dedicated to examining the alleged religious obligation of sati or concremation. Roy was given the title Raja by the emperor of Delhi and appointed his special envoy to convey the case concerning sati to the Privy Council in England. Roy lived to see the 1829 abolition of sati formally upheld by the Privy Council in 1832, but died unexpectedly the following year at Bristol, his death attributed to brain fever.

Ram Mohun Roy, “Translation of a Conference Between an Advocate For, and an Opponent Of, the Practice of Burning Widows Alive,” from the original Bungla (Calcutta 1818), in The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy, Bahadhurganj, Alllahabad, 1906. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1978, pp. 323-332. Material in the introduction from the biographical sketch of the author, pp. ix-xi, and from Benoy Bhusan Roy, Socioeconomic Impact of Sati in Bengal and the Role of Raja Rammohun Roy (Calcutta: Naya Prokash, 1987).


Advocate. I am surprised that you endeavour to oppose the practice of Concremation and Postcremation of widows,[1] as long observed in this country.

Opponent. Those who have no reliance on the Sastra, and those who take delight in the self-destruction of women, may well wonder that we should oppose that suicide which is forbidden by all the Sastras, and by every race of men.

Advocate. You have made an improper assertion in alleging that Concremation and Postcremation are forbidden by the Sastras. Hear what Angira and the other saints have said on this subject:

“That Woman who, on the death of her husband, ascends the burning pile with him, is exalted to heaven, as equal to Arundhati.

“She who follows her husband to another world, shall dwell in a region of joy for so many years as there are hairs in the human body, or thirty-five millions.

“As a serpent-catcher forcibly draws a snake from his hole, thus raising her husband by her power, she enjoys delight along with him.

“The woman who follows her husband expiates the sins of the three races; her father’s line, her mother’s line, and the family of him to whom she was given a virgin.

“There possessing her husband as her chiefest good, herself the best of women, enjoying the highest delights, she partakes of bliss with her husband as long as fourteen Indras reign.

“Even though the man had slain a Brahman, or returned evil for good, or killed an intimate friend, the woman expiates those crimes.

“There is no other way known for a virtuous woman except ascending the pile of her husband. It should be understood that there is not other duty whatever after the death of her husband.”

Hear also what Vyasa has written in the parable of the pigeon:

“A pigeon, devoted to her husband, after his death entered the flames, and ascending to heaven, she there found her husband.”

And hear Harita’s words:

“As long as a woman shall not burn herself after her husband’s death she shall be subject to a transmigration in a female form.”

Hear too what Vishnu, the saint, says:

“After the death of her husband a wife must live an ascetic, or ascend his pile.”

Now hear the words of the Brahma Purana on the subject of Postcremation:

“If her lord die in another country, let the faithful wife place his sandals on her breast, and pure enter the fire.”

The faithful widow is declared no suicide by this text of the Rig Veda: “When three days of impurity are gone she obtained obsequies.”

Gotama, says:

“To a Brahmani after the death of her husband, Postcremation is not permitted. But to women of the other classes it is esteemed a chief duty.”

“Living let her benefit her husband; dying she commits suicide.”

“The woman of the Brahman tribe that follows her dead husband, cannot, on account of her self-destruction, convey either herself or her husband to heaven.”

Concremation and Postcremation being thus established by the words of many sacred lawgivers, how can you say they are forbidden by the Sastras, and desire to prevent their practice?

Opponent. All those passages you have quoted are indeed sacred law; and it is clear from those authorities, that if women perform Concremation or Postcremation, they will enjoy heaven for a considerable time. But attend to what Manu and others say respecting the duty of widows: “Let her emaciate her body, by living voluntarily on pure flowers, roots, and fruits, but let her not, when her lord is deceased, even pronounce the name of another man. Let her continue till death forgiving all injuries, performing harsh duties, avoiding every sensual pleasure, and cheerfully practising the incomparable rules of virtue which have been followed by such women as were devoted to one only husband.”

 Here Manu directs, that after the death of her husband, the widow should pass her whole life as an ascetic. Therefore, the laws given by Angira and others whom you have quoted, being contrary to the law of Manu, cannot be accepted; because the Veda declares, “Whatever Manu has said is wholesome;” and Vrihaspati, “Whatever law is contrary to the law of Manu is not commendable.” The Veda especially declares, “By living in the practice of regular and occasional duties the mind may be purified. Thereafter by hearing, reflecting, and constantly meditating on the Supreme Being, absorption in Brahma may be attained. Therefore from a desire during life of future fruition, life ought not to be destroyed.” Manu, Yajnavalkya, and others, have then, in their respective codes of laws prescribed to widows, the duties of ascetics only. By this passage of the Veda, therefore, and the authority of Manu and others, the words you have quoted from Angira and the rest are set aside; for by the express declaration of the former, widows after the death of their husbands, may, by living as ascetics, obtain absorption.

Advocate. What you have said respecting the laws of Angira and others, that recommended the practice of Concremation and Postcremation we do not admit: because, though a practice has not been recommended by Manu, yet, if directed by other lawgivers, it should not on that account be considered as contrary to the law of Manu. For instance, Manu directs the performance of Sandhya, but says calling on the name of Hari. The words of Vyasa do not contradict those of Manu. The same should be understood in the present instance. Manu has commended widows to live as ascetics; Vishnu and other saints direct that they should either live as ascetics or follow their husbands. Therefore the law of Manu may be considered to be applicable as an alternative.

Opponent. The analogy you have drawn betwixt the practice of Sandhya and invoking Hari, and that of Concremation and Postcremation does not hold. For, in the course of the day the performance of Sandhya, at the prescribed time, does not prevent one from invoking Hari at another period; and, on the other hand, the invocation of Hari need not interfere with the performance of Sandhya. In this case, the direction of one practice is not inconsistent with that of the other. But in the case of living as an ascetic or undergoing Concremation, the performance of the one is incompatible with the observance of the other. Scil. [To wit,] Spending one’s whole life as an ascetic after the death of a husband, is incompatible with immediate Concremation as directed by Angira and others; and vice versa, Concremation, as directed by Angira and others, is inconsistent with living as an ascetic, in order to attain absorption. Therefore those two authorities are obviously contradictory of each other. More especially as Angira, by declaring that “there is no other way known for a virtuous woman except ascending the pile of her husband,” has made Concremation an indespensible duty. And Harita also, in his code, by denouncing evil consequences, in his declaration, that “as long as a woman shall not burn herself after the death of her husband, she shall be subject to transmigration in a female form,” has made this duty absolute. Therefore all those passages are in every respect contradictory to the law of Manu and others.

Advocate. When Angira says that there is no other way for a widow except Concremation, and when Harita says that the omission of it is a fault, we reconcile their words with those of Manu, by considering them as used merely for the purpose of exalting the merit of Concremation, but not as prescribing this as an indespesable duty. All these expressions, moreover, convey a promise of regard for Concremation, and thence it appears that Concremation is only optional.

Opponent. If, in order to reconcile them with the text of Manu, you set down the words of Angira and Harita, that make the duty incumbent, as meant only to convey an exaggerated praise of Concremation, why do you not also reconcile the rest of the words of Angira, Harita, and others, with those in which Manu prescribes to the widow the practice of living as an ascetic as her absolute duty? And why do you not keep aloof from witnessing the destruction of females, instead of tempting them with the inducement of future fruition? Moreover, in the text already quoted, self-destruction with the view of reward is expressly prohibited.

Advocate. What you have quoted from Manu and Yajnavalkya and the text of the Veda is admitted. But how can you set aside the following text of the Rig Veda on the subject of Concremation? “O fire! let these women, with bodies anointed with clarified butter, eyes coloured with collyrium, and void of tears, enter thee, the parent of water, that they may not be separated from their husbands, but may be, in unison with excellent husbands, themselves sinless and jewels amongst women.”

Opponent. This text of the Veda, and the former passages from Harita and the rest whom you have quoted, all praise the practice of Concremation as leading to fruition, and are addressed to those who are occupied by sensual desires; and you cannot but admit that to follow these practices is only optional. In repeating the Sankalpa of Concremation, the desire of future fruition is declared as the object. The text therefore of the Veda which we have quoted, offering no gratifications, supercedes, in every respect, that which you have adduced, as well as all the words of Angira and the rest. In proof we quote from the Kathopanishad: “Faith in God which leads to absorption is one thingl and rites which have future fruition for their object, another. Each of these, producing different consequences, hold out to man inducements to follow it. The man, who of these two chooses faith, is blessed: and he, who for the sake of reward practices rites, is dashed away from the enjoyment of eternal beatitude.” Also the Mundakopanishad: “Rites, of which there are eighteen members, are all perishable: he who considers them as the source of blessing shall undergo repeated transmigrations; and all those fools who, immersed in the foolish practice of rites, consider themselves to be wise and learned, are repeatedly subjected to birth, disease, death, and other pains. When one blind man is guided by another, both subject themselves on their way to all kinds of distress.”

It is asserted in the Bhagavad Gita, the essence of all the Smirtis, Puranas, and Itihasas, that, “all those ignorant persons who attach themselves to the words of the Vedas that convey promises of fruition, consider those falsely alluring passages as leading to real happiness, and say, that besides them there is no other reality. Agitated in their minds by these desires, they believe the abodes of the celestial gods to be the chief object; and they devote themselves to those texts which treat of ceremonies and their fruits, and entice by promises of enjoyment. Such people can have no real confidence in the Supreme Being.” Thus also do the Mundakopanishad and the Gita state that, “the science by which a knowledge of God is attained is superior to all other knowledge.” Therefore it is clear, from those passages of the Veda and of the Gita, that the words of the Veda which promise fruition, are set aside by the texts of contrary import. Moreover, the ancient saints and holy teachers, and their commentators, and yourselves, as well as we and others, agree that Manu is better acquainted than any other lawgiver with the spirit of the Veda. And he, understanding the meaning of those different texts, admitting the inferiority of that which promised fruition, and following that which conveyed no promise of gratifications, has directed widows to spend their lives as ascetics. He has also defined in his 12th chapter, what acts are observed merely for the sake of gratifications, and what are not. “Whatever act is performed for the sake of gratifications in this world or the next is called Prabartak, and those which are performed according to the knowledge respecting God, are called Nibartak. All those who perform acts to procure gratifications, may enjoy heaven like the gods; and he who performs acts free from desires, procures release from the five elements of this body, that is, obtains absorption.”

Advocate. What you have said is indeed consistent with the Vedas, with Manu, and with the Bhagavad Gita. But from this I fear, that the passages of the Vedas and the other Sastras, that prescribe Concremation and Postcremation as the means of attaining heavenly enjoyments, must be considered as only meant to deceive.

Opponent. There is no deception. The object of those passages is declared. As men have various dispositions, those whose minds are enveloped in desire, passion and cupidity, have no inclination for the disinterested worship of the Supreme Being. If they had no Sastras of rewards, they would at once throw aside all Sastras, and would follow their several inclinations, like elephants unguided by the hook. In order to restrain such persons from being led only by their inclinations, the Sastra prescribes various ceremonies, as Syenayaga for one desirous of the destruction of the enemy, Putreshti for one desiring a son, and Jyotishtoma for one desiring gratifications in heaven, &c.; but again reprobates such as are actuated by those desires, and at the same moment expresses contempt for such gratifications. Had the Sastra not repeatedly reprobated both those actuated by desire and the fruits desired by them, all those texts might be considered as deceitful. In proof of what I have advanced I cite the following text of the Upanishad, “Knowledge and rites together offer themselves to every man. The wise man considers which of these two is better and which the worse. By reflecting, he becomes convinced of the superiority of the former, despises rites, and takes refuge in knowledge. And the unlearned, for the sake of bodily gratifications, has recourse to the performance of the rites.” The Bhagavad Gita says: “The Vedas treat of rites are for the sake of those who are possessed of desire: therefore, O Arjuna! do thou abstain from desires.”

Hear also the text of the Veda reprobating the fruits of rites: “As in this world the fruits obtained from cultivation and labour perish, so in the next world fruits derived from rites are perishable.” Also the Bhagavad Gita: “Also those who observe the rites prescribed by the three Vedas, and through those ceremonies worship me and seek for heaven, having become sinless from eating the remains of offerings, ascending to heaven, and enjoying the pleasures of the gods, after the completion of their rewards, again return to earth. Therefore, the observers of rites for the sake of rewards, repeatedly, ascend to heaven, and return to the world, and cannot obtain absorption.”

Advocate. Though what you have advanced from the Veda and sacred codes against the practice of Concremation and Postcremation, is not to be set aside, yet we have had the practice prescribed by Harita and others handed down to us.

Opponent.Such an argument is highly inconsistent with justice. It is every way improper to persuade to self-destruction by citing passages of inadmissible authority. In the second place, it is evident from your own authorities, and the Sankalpa recited in conformity with them, that the widow should voluntarily quit life, ascending the flaming pile of her husband. But, on the contrary, you first bind down the widow along with the corpse of her husband, and heap over her such a quantity of wood that she cannot rise. At the time too of setting fire to the pile, you press her down with large bamboos. In what passage of Harita or the rest do you find authority for thus binding the woman according to your practice? This then is, in fact, deliberate female murder.

Advocate. Though Harita and the rest do not indeed authorize this practice of binding, &c., yet where a woman after having recited the Sankalpa not to perform Concremation, it would be sinful, and considered disgraceful by others. It is on this account that we have adopted this custom.

Opponent. Respecting the sinfulness of such an act, that is mere talk: for in the same codes it is laid down, that the performance of a penance will obliterate the sin of quitting the pile. Or in case of inability to undergo the regular penance, absolution may be obtained by bestowing the value of a cow, or three kahans of cowries. Therefore the sin is no cause of alarm. The disgrace in the opinion of others is also nothing: for good men regard not the blame or reproach of persons who can reprobate those who abstain from the sinful murder of women. And do you not consider how great is the sin to kill a woman; therein forsaking the fear of God, the fear of conscience, and the fear of the Sastras, merely from a dread of the reproach of those who delight in female murder?

Advocate. Though tying down in this manner be not authorized by the Sastras, yet we practise it as being a custom that has been observed throughout Hinustan.

Opponent. It never was the case that the practice of fastening down widows on the pile was prevalent throughout Hindustan: for it is but of late years that this mode has been followed, and that only in Bengal, which is but a small part of Hindustan. No one besides who has the fear of God and man before him, will assert that male or female murder, theft, &c., having been long practised, cease to be vices. If, according to your argument, custom ought to set aside the precepts of the Sastras, the inhabitants of the forests and mountains who have been in the habits of plunder, must be considered as guiltless of sin, and it would be improper to endeavour to restrain their habits. The Sastras, and the reasonings connected with them, enable us to discriminate right from wrong. In those Sastras such female murder is altogether forbidden. And reason also declares, that to bind down a woman for her destruction, holding out to her the inducement of heavenly rewards, is a most sinful act.

Advocate. This practice may be sinful or anything else, but we will not refrain from observing it. Should it cease, people would general apprehend that if women did not perform Concremation on the death of their husbands, they might go astray; but if they burn themselves this fear is done away. Their family and relations are freed from apprehension. And if the husband could be assured during his life that his wife would follow him on the pile, his mind would be at ease from apprehensions of her misconduct.

Opponent. What can be done, if, merely to avoid the possible danger of disgrace, you are unmercifully resolved to commit the sin of female murder. But is there not also a danger of a woman’s going astray during the life-time of her husband, particularly when he resides for a long time in a distant country? What remedy then have you got against this cause of alarm?

Advocate. There is a great difference betwixt the case of the husband’s being alive, and of his death; for while a husband is alive, whether he resides near or at a distance, a wife is under his control; she must stand in awe of him. But after his death that authority ceases, and she of course is divested of fear.

Opponent. The Sastras which command that a wife should live under the control of her husband during his life, direct that on his death she shall live under the authority of her husband’s family, or else under that of her parental relations; and the Sastras have authorized the ruler of the country to maintain the observance of this law. Therefore, the possibility of a woman’s going astray cannot be more guarded against during the husband’s life than it is after his death. For you daily see, that even while the husband is alive, he gives up his authority, and the wife separates from him. Control alone cannot restrain from evil thoughts, words, and actions; but the suggestions of wisdom and the fear of God may cause both man and woman to abstain from sin. Both the Sastras and experience show this.

Advocate. You have repeatedly asserted, that from want of feeling we promote female destruction. This is incorrect, for it is declared in our Veda and codes of law, that mercy is the root of virtue, and from our practice of hospitality, &c., our compassionate dispositions are well known.

Opponent. That in other cases you shew charitable dispositions is acknowledged. But by witnessing from your youth the voluntary burning of women amongst your elder relatives, your meighbors and the inhabitants of the surrounding villages, and by observing the indifference manifested at the time when the women are writhing under the torture of the flames, habits of insensibility are produced. For the same reason, when men or women are suffering the pains of death, you feel for them no sense of compassion, like the worshippers of the female deities who, witnessing from their infancy the slaughter of kids and buffaloes, feel no compassion for them in the time of their suffering death, while the followers of Vishnu are touched with strong feelings of pity.

Advocate. What you have said I shall carefully consider.

Opponent. It is to me a source of great satisfaction, that you are now ready to take this matter into your consideration. By forsaking prejudice and reflecting on the Sastra, what is really conformable to its precepts may be perceived, and the evils and disgrace brought on this country by the crime of female murder will cease.


[1] When a widow is absent from her husband at the time of his death, she may in certain cases burn herself along with some relic representing the deceased. This practice is called Anumaran or Postcremation.

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from Mental Maladies: A Treatise on Insanity


Jean-Étienne Esquirol is considered the most renowned French psychiatrist of the 19th century. He was born in Toulouse to a destitute but influential family. After traveling to Paris for a career in medicine, Esquirol formed a close bond with Philippe Pinel. Esquirol eventually succeeded his teacher in 1811 as the chief psychiatric administrator at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. In 1825, he was named chief physician of the Charenton Asylum, where he established an international reputation for his work in creating more humane conditions for the mentally ill.

Along with Pinel, Esquirol was offended by the conditions present in European mental institutions—in 1818, after a three-year tour of mental hospitals around France, he wrote a memoir addressed to the minister of the interior in which he presented his findings, describing the plight of the mentally ill and its negative reflection on their custodians. He was a pioneer in advocating humane treatment of the mentally ill; along with his colleague Guillaume Ferrus, Esquirol was a key player in the law reforms of 1838 that led to improved conditions in asylums. Esquirol realized Pinel’s vision of a “therapeutic community,” in which physicians and patients lived communally in a psychiatric environment. As an example of such ideals, Esquirol’s private patients were invited to eat at the same table as his family.

Esquirol also pioneered the method of using explicit clinical observations to accomplish a systematic analysis of mental disturbances. Among his accomplishments are the invention of the term “hallucination” and a more accurate distinction between mental retardation and insanity. His influential work Mental Maladies: A Treatise on Insanity (1838) is recognized as the first modern attempt in clinical psychiatry to classify mental disorders; the work elucidates both biological and behavioral causes for mental illness, recognizing that some mental illness may be caused by emotional disturbance rather than organic brain damage. The text remained a standard for 50 years, and Esquirol’s writings also strongly influenced the treatment and perception of the mentally ill in England. Esquirol died in Paris in 1840.

Esquirol was one of the first psychiatrists to organize a statistical report of suicides; for example, he researched the most common methods of suicide, and he compared rates of suicide in neighboring countries. From his clinical experiences, he was inclined to believe that a suicidal nature is involuntary and often hereditary, and therefore should not be morally condemned or punished by law. Esquirol’s views anticipate the beginning of the transition—though it would not occur with full force until the time of Freud and Durkheim, nearly a century later—from the conception of suicide as a sin and a crime to the conception of it as the product of psychological and social forces beyond an individual’s control. The transition moves to seeing suicide as the product of illness, not as a voluntary, deliberate act that can be wrong.

In these selections excerpted from Mental Maladies, Esquirol takes a clinical perspective on the causes of and motives for suicide. His perceptive observations are coupled with what now seem quaint theories of medicine, but they do represent an important early attempt to interpret suicide as a symptom or sequela of mental illness and to identify predisposing factors for suicide. For Esquirol, suicide is an “effect of disease”; it is to be understood as a symptom of “mental alienation,” that is, mental illness. He provides a striking portrait of an insane asylum of the time as he discusses methods for preventing suicides there.

Jean-Étienne-Dominique Esquirol, Mental Maladies: A Treatise on Insanity, tr. E. K. Hunt. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1845, pp. 253-317.


It does not belong to my subject to treat of suicide in its legal relations, nor, consequently, of its criminality. I must limit myself to showing it to be one of the most important subjects of clinical medicine. Self-murder takes place under circumstances so opposite, and is determined by motives so diverse, that it cannot be limited to any single denomination. However varied may be the motives and circumstances, which cause men to expose their lives, and to brave death, they almost always exalt the imagination, either on account of a good, more precious than life, or an evil more formidable than death.

Before tracing the history of suicide, it may be well perhaps, to point out the principal circumstances which lead man to terminate his own existence. From these preliminary considerations, we will pass to an exposition of the symptoms, to an enquiry into the causes, and to the post-mortem examination of bodies. We will finally close, with some general views respecting the means proper to prevent suicide, and to combat the fatal impulse which urges man to the commission of self-murder. Man destroys himself, or exposes his life to certain destruction, under the impulse of the loftiest sentiments. The act is then worthy of admiration, and excludes all blame. The victims of false, but popular views; of barbarous, but national usages; not only are individuals, but whole sects, doomed to a voluntary death. All the passions have their seasons of fury. In their excesses, there is nothing that they do not sacrifice; and man, while a prey to a passion, spares not his own life. In febrile delirium and mania, more lives are taken than is usually supposed. Hypochondria and lypemania are most frequently the true cause of that abhorrence and utter weariness of life, which so often give birth to that form of suicide, which we call voluntary. He who wishes to terminate his existence, moved by diverse motives, does not always lay violent hands upon himself, but becomes a homicide. It is not unusual for two individuals, led away, either by blind passion, or by wretchedness, to resolve to die, and reciprocally to take each other’s life.

Finally, suicide is sometimes feigned. From what precedes, we already perceive, that suicide is, with respect to our knowledge; only a phenomenon, consecutive to a great number of diverse causes; that it presents itself under very different characters; and that this phenomenon is not exclusively confined to any one malady. It is in consequence of having made suicide a malady sui generis, that they have established general propositions, which experience disproves. He is not the homicide of himself, who, listening to the dictates of noble and generous sentiments, places himself in certain peril, exposes himself to inevitable death, and makes a voluntary sacrifice of life in obedience to the laws, and to guard the faith, plighted for the salvation of his country. Such were the Decii, who sought death in the camp of the enemy, to fulfil an oracle, which, at this price, had furnished victory to the Athenians. Such also, was Curtius, who precipitated himself armed, into an abyss, to assure victory to the Romans. Assas was another, who hesitated no to sacrifice his life to save the regiment of Auvergue, which would have been surprised, had it not been for the heroic devotion of this officer. The generous inhabitants of Calais and Rouen, were of this number; who made an offering of their lives, to save their fellow citizens who were ready to perish by the sword of the enemy, or by famine. Were Socrates and Regulus self-murderers; the one, for having refused to avoid the execution of the laws which condemned him to death; the other, for being unwilling to forfeit his word? Shall we denominate suicides, those wretched beings who, victims to religious beliefs, and the usages of their country, think, that by devoting themselves to death, they perform a duty, and an act at once memorable, and worthy of recompense? This hope, embraces with ardor, has resulted in the sacrifice of life, not only on the part of a few individuals, but of colonies, and entire nations. Such were the Thracians, Germans and Arabians; and such, at this day, are the Indians…

Suicide Provoked by the Passions

A few words will satisfy the most incredulous, that the passions, when strongly excided, ever produce disturbance, either in the organism or understanding of man. When the soul is strongly moved, by a violent and unexpected affection, organic functions are perverted, the reason is disturbed, the individual loses his self-consciousness, is in a true delirium, and commits acts the most thoughtless; those most opposed to his instinct, to his affections and interests. Thus, terror often takes away the thought of flight, and urges its victim into perils, greater than the danger he would shun. Love deprives him who is powerfully impressed by it, of all those qualities proper for the accomplishment of his desires; while anger and jealousy, lead the man who is endowed with the mildest disposition, to imbrue his hands in the blood of his best friend. A sudden and unexpected trial, love betrayed, ambition disappointed, honor compromised, the loss of fortune, by overthrowing the reason, deprive man of the power of reflection. Does the delirium of the passions permit man to reflect? Do not all laws acquit him who has committed, during the first transports of a violent passion, an act, which would have been criminal had it not been for this circumstance? The actions of a man, transported by a sudden passion, are regarded as performed without free agency; and are judged of, as the effect of a temporary delirium. Strong men, of a sanguine temperament, of great susceptibility, and of an irascible disposition, are impelled to suicide by an impulse so much the more strong, as the impression has been unexpected; and the passion a social one, suddenly called into exercise. But the acute delirium provoked by the passions, is temporary, and the suicide which it provokes is promptly executed. If not consummated, the impulse is not, ordinarily, renewed. The fruitless attempt seems to have been the crisis of the moral affection. The involuntary and acute form of suicide is very different from that which is chronic, and the result of premeditation. Examples of acute suicide produced by disorder of the passions are so frequent, that it will be sufficient for me to point out a small number of them. The trustee of the fortunes of his fellow-citizens, loses at play the money that has been committed to his care. His honor is lost, and he blows out his brains…

But the most violent passions do not always impel the passionate man suddenly to the commission of acts of fury. When the passion is primitive, or the moral impression has been foreseen, its action is less rapid, especially when it operates upon enfeebled subjects, or those of a lymphatic temperament. The secret prey of hatred and jealousy and of miscalculations with respect to schemes of ambition and fortune, man arrives slowly, and by successive paroxysms, to the most fatal resolutions. Although acting slowly, the passions do not less enfeeble the organs, nor less disturb the reason. They are not less likely to destroy life, and when time is still afforded to relieve these wretched beings from their peculiar fury, they present all the features of despair, as well as the characteristics of lypemania. Many have made attempts upon their lives, without knowing what they were doing; and many have assured me, that they recollected nothing that they had done. Many also, had singular hallucincinations. This, though voluntary suicide, is chronic. It is to this variety, that we are to refer that form of suicide which is resolved upon through hatred or weariness of life; which last, appears to me to offer important considerations. Chronic suicide has, more particularly, given rise to discussions respecting the criminality of self-murder, because it presents the characteristics of a premeditated act. It is not, perhaps, so much with respect to the act, in itself considered, that this dissidence exist; for it is certain, that up to the moment of its execution, he who attempts his own life, almost always resembles a man in a state of despair, connected with delirium. Physical suffering, which often leads to lypemania and hypochondria, also causes suicide. It changes the sensations, concentrates the attention, impairs the courage, and destroys the reason, by modifying the sensibility so as to accord with the prevailing passions. Its action however, is slower than that of moral suffering, and rarely provokes self-murder. The man to whom physical suffering leaves no moment of relief, who perceives not the limit of a long and cruel malady, after having at first supported his ills with resignation, at length becomes impatient. Overcome by sufferings which have for a long time enfeebled him, He takes his life, to put an end to these intolerable evils. He considers that the pain of dying is but temporary, and yields to premeditated despair. It is the same moral condition, that determines the suicide of hypochondriacs; all of whom are persuaded that their sufferings are greater than one can conceive, and are never to terminate; partly, on account of their extraordinary nature, and in part, in consequence of the impotence of art, or the ignorance of physicians…

When maniacs commit self-murder, they do it without reflection. They usually throw themselves from a height; a circumstance which proves that they obey a blind impulse, by the employment of a means the most easy and accessible. Maniacs are affected by illusions; perceive imperfectly the relations of things, and are often pursued by panic terrors. They are the sport of their sensations, or of the hallucinations which constantly deceive them. One, wishing to descend the stairs, and believing that he is opening the door of his apartment, opens the window, and precipitates himself to the ground. Another, estimating distances imperfectly, and believing that he is on the ground floor, throws himself out of the window. This latter person, wishes to do violence to a woman who waits upon him, and throws himself from the stair-way of the third story, hoping to arrive at the bottom before she escapes his pursuit. A maniac, impelled by hunger, was accustomed to eat whatever came in his way. He dies suddenly, and on examining his body, they find a spunge that he devoured, and which rested in the esophagus. Some maniacs destroy themselves while endeavoring to perform feats of strength and address. There are maniacs who suffer from a violent cephalalgia, and who, by striking their heads against the walls, experience relief. Others believe that they have some foreign body in the cranium, and hope to remove it by opening the head.   We have seen them destroy life by smiting themselves for this purpose. Maniacs also destroy themselves at the commencement of the disease, driven to despair by the moral affection which has caused the delirium, or coincided with its explosion; the recollection of this affection, not being destroyed by the delirium, which has not yet invaded the entire understanding. This class of patients also take their lives, because they have a knowledge of the disease which is commencing, and which plunges them into despair. There are those who destroy themselves during convalescence from mania, rendered desperate by the excess they have committed, or ashamed of having been insane. Finally, (we must confess it), there are those who destroy life while making efforts to disengage themselves from means of restraint, unskilfully applied, or to escape from places in which they had been confined. Those who are suffering from a fever, in their delirium destroy themselves, like maniacs.

Every case of monomania may lead to self-murder; whether the monomaniac obey his illusions or hallucinations, or fall a victim to a delirious passion. A monomaniac hears an internal voice, which is constantly repeating; slay thyself, slay thyself; and he takes his life, in obedience to a superior power, whose mandate he cannot disobey. A man, whose brain was deranged by some obscure and mystical notions, believed that he was in communication with God. He hears a celestial voice which says to him: my son, come and sit down at my side. He springs from the window, and fractures a leg. Whilst they are raising him up, he expresses much astonishment at his fall, and particularly on finding himself wounded. A soldier hears an organized hurdy-gurdy. He thinks he is listening to celestial music, and at the same time sees a luminous chariot, which is coming to bear him away to heaven. He very seriously opens the window, extends a leg to enter the car, and falls to the ground…

Nostalgia leads to suicide. The ranz des vaches, and the notes of the bagpipe, through the influence which actual sensations have over the ideas and recollections, produce regret at being no longer in the country of their birth; and grief, at being removed from the objects of their earliest attachments. Hence, springs up a violent desire to revisit the places where they were born. The emotions thus awakened, together with their despair at being separated from those objects which call them into exercise, rise superior to all other feelings, and both Swiss and Scotch soldiers destroy themselves, if they cannot desert. How many lypemaniacs, who believe themselves pursued by robbers, or agents of government, destroy themselves, in order to avoid falling into their hands! Some make no estimate of the danger they run, in order to effect their escape; while others prefer certain death, to the torture and disgrace which are preparing for them. How many, who believe that they are betrayed by fortune and their friends, destroy themselves, after a struggle of longer or shorter duration! They take their lives as do men, whom a passion urges slowly, to the commission of self-murder…

Weariness of life, has not been sufficiently distinguished from hatred of it, when writers have enquired into the determining motives to self-murder. Not-withstanding, these two conditions of the mind are very different. Hatred of life is an active state, and supposes a sort of irritation and exaltation of the sensibility. Weariness of life is a passive state, the effect of atony of the sensibility. Hatred of life is frequent, because a thousand circumstances provoke it. It spares no class of society, and most frequently attacks men abounding in wealth and dignity, because they possess more passions, which are called into active exercise. A prey to vexations, either real or imaginary, or to a chronic passion, man, at first disgusted with life, ends by hating it, and destroying himself. I ought finally to state, that words here but imperfectly express the ideas which they are designed to convey, and that from this circumstance, discussions have sprung up respecting hatred of life and desire of death. In fact, they have no aversion to life, but hate the sufferings which traverse it, and have a horror of their uneasiness. They do not desire death; but wish to be delivered from pains, oppositions and vexations, and have recourse to death as the most certain means. Suicide, determined by hatred of life, forms one of the distinctions which we have already established. It appertains to lypemaniacal suicide, or to suicide produced by a chronic passion; according as the causes which occasion hatred of life, are real or imaginary.

Weariness of life, the tœdium vitœ, leads to self-murder. Although weariness may be a passive condition, it is, in some instances, not the less a motive of action. Such has been the opinion of many philosophers, and I have observed, that weariness determined certain monomaniacs to do what had appeared most repugnant to them, and that they were cured by efforts made upon themselves, from excessive ennui. Ennui, at the epoch of puberty, originates in a vague desire, the object of which is unknown to him who experiences it; and this want gives rise to an inquietude, which occasions sadness, terminating in weariness. The most common effects of this tediousness are, decay, feebleness, and sometimes suicide: a phenomenon noticed by Hippocrates among young girls, who either have not, or but imperfectly, menstruated. Ennui recognizes moreover as a cause, the cessation of engrossing occupations; the transition from a very active life to one of repose and idleness, when no occupation for the mind or affections of the heart have been previously formed. Weariness is also the effect of the abandonment, either forced or voluntary, of the fashionable world, and frivolous pleasures; when the individual remains isolated, and without any interest whatever. It is so much the more fatal, when, having no aptitude for the arts and sciences, one is deprived of the resources of pleasures, in consequence of having abused them.

Man must have desires, or he falls into a state of painful weariness. But if he has exhausted his sensibility by the excessive exercise of the emotions and the abuse of pleasures; if, having exhausted all the sources of happiness, there is nothing more that can cause him to feel that he still lives, and all external objects are indifferent to him; if, the more means of self-satisfaction he has enjoyed, the less numerous are the new objects which he meets with that are calculated to awaken his interest; man then occupies a frightful void. He sinks into a state of satiety; a terrible weariness, which conducts to suicide. To quit life, is to him an act as indifferent as that of leaving a splendidly furnished table, when he no longer desires food, or to abandon a woman whom he formerly adored, but whom he no longer loves. That form of suicide which is called splenic, is chronic. It is executed with coolness and composure. Nothing announces either violence or effort, like other forms of suicide. Finally, those who suffer from spleen, present all the characteristics of melancholy. The most frequent causes of spleen are debilitating, and act upon the nervous system. Such are the abuse of pleasures, onanism, and the immoderate use of alcoholic drinks. There is the same changes of disposition and habits; the same indifference towards the dearest objects; the same physical symptoms; loss of appetite, insomnia, constipation, emaciation or œdema; the same concentration of the attention upon a single idea: the same integrity of the understanding upon every other subject; the same perverseness: and the same dissimulation in the execution of the determinations in the former as in the latter.

I have strong reasons for believing that the spleen is a very rare disease, even in England. We too often attribute the suicides of the English to weariness of life, because England is the country in which most frequently the people have recourse to it. The English without doubt, suffer most from this distressing weariness; still many other motives than this give rise to suicide among them. I have had charge, as well in establishments for the insane as in my private practice, of a great many individuals, who have either attempted, or taken their lives. I have seen no one who was driven to suicide in consequence merely of weariness of life. All had determinate motives, real or imaginary vexations, which led them to loathe existence…

There are persons who, amidst fortune, grandeur and pleasures, and enjoying the perfect use of their reason; after having embraced their relations and friends, set their affairs in order, and written excellent letters, clip the thread of life. Do they yield to a delirious resolution? Yes, unquestionably. Is it not true that monomaniacs appear rational, until an external or internal impression comes in suddenly to awaken their delirium? Do they not know how to repress the expression of their delirium, and to dissemble the disorder of their understanding, so as to deceive the most skilful, as well as persons who live with them on terms of intimacy? The same is true of some individuals, over whom the purpose to commit suicide holds complete sway. A physical pain, an unexpected impression, a moral affection, a recollection, an indiscreet proposal, the perusal of a book, kindle up anew the dominant thought, and instantaneously provoke determinations the most fatal, in the breast of an unfortunate being who, an instant previous, was perfectly composed. That then happens, which took place in the case of the maniac detained at the Bicêtre, of whom Pinel says, that the revolutionists set him at liberty, because he appeared to them perfectly sane. They led him forth in triumph, as a victim of tyranny, when being excited by the vociferations and the sight of the arms of his liberators, he suddenly fell upon them, sabre in hand.

Does not the fury of the homicidal monomaniac burst forth instantaneously, so that no antecedent circumstance may have forewarned the victim? We cannot deny that there are individuals whom a fatal inclination leads to suicide, by a sort of resistless charm. I have never seen such persons; and I dare say that if those cases had been more carefully studied, in which they pretend that the patients obeyed an insurmountable impulse; it would have unfolded the motives which led to their determination. There are suicides as well as other insane persons, of whom we speak, as of unfortunate beings, who are obeying a blind destiny. I believe that many persons have learned to read the thoughts of these patients, and proved that their determinations are, almost always, the result of motives and the logical consequence of a principle, though it may be, in truth, a false one. There are persons, however, who, in the midst of good fortune, destroy themselves. Voltaire, sustained by certain striking examples, pretends that it is those who are distinguished for their good fortune who voluntarily terminate their existence, and not the man who is the victim of want, and compelled to labor for his subsistence. This proposition is false. Misery leads to suicide, and self-murder is most frequent during years signalized by calamities. Amidst ruin and famine, suicides are frequent. During the horrors of a siege, the besieged destroy themselves. Amidst defeats, soldiers take their own lives. Self-murder takes place during great political convulsions. The fortunate of the age destroy themselves; but good fortune, says Jean Jacques, has no external sign. To judge of it, we must read the heart of the man who appears to be happy…

Thus, among those wretched beings who destroy others, before taking their own lives, some obey those vehement passions which lead them quickly to this double homicide. Others are aroused by passions whose effects are slow in manifesting themselves. There are those who are unwilling to destroy themselves, through fear of eternal condemnation; knowing that suicide is a great crime, for which they could not obtain pardon. They are however, certain of being condemned to death after taking the life of a fellow-being, and hope to have time, before their punishment, to reconcile themselves to God, and to prepare for a happy death. There are those who slay the dearest objects of their affection, in order to preserve them from the trials of life and the dangers of condemnation. Finally, we have seen those who slew the objects of their tenderest attachment, being unwilling to be separated from them, and believing that they should be reunited after death. Is it possible to believe that such a violation of the fundamental laws of nature; such exaltation of the imagination; such perversion of the sensibility; can be compatible with the enjoyment of sound health and the integrity of reason? Must he not, on the contrary, have reached the extreme limit of delirium, who resolves to take the life of the wife whom he tenderly loves, and the children whom he adores? Does he not abandon himself at once, to acts most opposed to natural laws, and the instinct of self-preservation? Notwithstanding, many facts prove that these unfortunate beings, aside from this act, both before and after its accomplishment, are composed and rational. Do we not observe this composure and reason among those maniacs who, from the slightest motives, from the most trifling opposition, give themselves up to the commission of acts indicative of the blindest fury? It is not the signs of delirium on the part of those who commit suicide, that are wanting; but observers who are at hand to see all, and to see correctly.

Reciprocal suicide is that act by which two individuals slay, one the other. It is generally the delirium of some passion, and sometimes extreme wretchedness, which lead those who are their victims, to devote themselves to death. The same passion, leading to the same determination, finds a certain charm in dying by the hand it adores. Examples of this form of fury are not rare, and we can trace them back to the remotest antiquity…

What precedes, will justify the remark which was made at the commencement of this article, to wit: that self-murder is only a phenomenon, consecutive to very different causes; that it cannot be regarded as a malady sui generis; and that it is, almost invariably, a symptom of mental alienation. The greater part of those unfortunate beings who have made attempts upon their own lives, or who have committed suicide, belong to families, some of whose members have been affected with mental alienation. Most of those who have failed in accomplishing their designs, remain insane for a longer or shorter period of time, or become so afterwards. A large proportion of them have manifested, before committing the fatal deed, all the symptoms of lypemania. Some have destroyed themselves, after having had an attack of mania, subsequently to which they have remained sad and morose…

Cabanis observed, that after a very dry summer, succeeded by a rainy autumn, that suicides were most frequent during the latter season. I made the same observation in 1818. We received during that year into our hospital, a much greater number of suicides than we had received in previous years, or have since admitted. In my private practice also, I had at the same period a greater number of suicides to treat. Is not the transition from a dry summer to a humid autumn, especially favorable to the development of abdominal affections, upon which suicide so often depends? We do not charge external causes alone with producing suicide. There are certainly individual predispositions, a certain physical state, which modifies, exalts or enfeebles the sensibility.

The difference in the mood of mind, causes one man to laugh at the most afflictive events, while another is excessively agitated, or filled with despair. The latter destroys himself; while the former becomes insane. Is not this predisposition rendered evident by the hereditary nature of suicide? We have known entire families destroy themselves, just as we have known whole families become insane…

But these conclusions are subject to accidental exceptions. In fact, authors speak of epidemics of suicide, which have been confined to women. The character of these epidemics confirms what we have said; that suicide is only a consecutive symptom. The appearance of an epidemic form of suicide is most singular. Does it depend upon a latent condition of the atmosphere; upon imitation, so powerful in its influence over the determinations of men; upon those circumstances which produce a revolution, in a country; in fine, upon any governing sentiment? It is certain, that these sudden and temporary epidemics are the effect of different causes, and confirms what we have already said;—that suicide is not a malady sui generis

Education, the reading of works that extol suicide, the power of imitation, contempt for religious opinions, the excesses of civilization, a military spirit, political revolutions, the depravation of morals, gaming, onanism, the abuse of fermented liquors, physical pain, pelagra, are also causes that lead man to commit suicide. If by education, the mind of man is not fortified by a religious belief, by moral precepts, by habits of order, and a regular course of life; if he is not taught to respect the laws, to fulfil his duties towards society, and to support the vicissitudes of life; if he has learned to despise his equals, to treat with disdain the authors of his being, and to be imperious and capricious in his desires; then unquestionably, cæteris paribus, he will be most disposed to terminate his existence by a voluntary act, so soon as he shall experience any serious vexations or reverses. Man needs a controlling authority, which shall direct his passions and govern his acts. Given over to the guidance of his own native weakness, he falls into indifference, and from that into acepticism. Nothing now sustains his courage. He meets unarmed, the conflicts of life, the anguish of the heart, the vicissitudes of fortune, and the wayward impulses of the passions. A student, educated in religious principles, becomes melancholic, and finally speaks of death. He often enquires of one of his companions if man has a soul. The latter replies that he has not. After a painful struggle between the principles of his childhood and the errors of youth, this unfortunate young man terminates his career by suicide. A young man, before destroying himself, in a writing which he leaves, censures his parents for the education they have given him. Another utters blasphemies against God and imprecations upon society. A third, destroys himself because he has not air enough to breath at his ease. Two students, at the age of twenty-one, asphyxiate themselves, because a play which they had prepared together, did not succeed. A child, thirteen years old, hangs himself, and leaves a note which begins thus: I bequeath my soul to Rousscau, my body to the earth!! When a great intellectual and moral change is brought about in society, it influences the progress of thought, and the conditions of existence.

Recklessness of mind reveals itself not only in useless writings and romances, but also in productions of a more elevated character. When the theatre presents only the triumphs of crime, and the misfortunes of virtue; when books, placed by their cheapness within the reach of all, contain only declarations in opposition to creeds, family ties, and the duties which all owe to society; they inspire a contempt for life, and suicides multiply. Death is regarded as a safe asylum against physical pains and moral sufferings. The reading of books which extol suicide is so fatal, that Madame de Staël assures us, that the reading of the Werther of Goëthe has produced more suicides in Germany, than all the women of that country. Suicide has become more frequent in England, since the apology that has been made for it by the Downes, Blounts, Gildons, etc. The same is true of it in France, since they began to write in favor of self-murder, and have held it up before the public as an act of our free will and courage. The suicide of Richard Smith and his wife: that of Philip Mordant, who destroyed himself, saying that when one is dissatisfied with his house, he should leave it; were the signal for a great number of suicides in England.

What precedes, establishes the fact there are epochs in society, more favorable than others to suicide, in consequence of the general exaltation of mind. The more excited the brain is, and more active the susceptibility, the more do the wants augment; the more imperious become the desires; the more do the causes of chagrin multiply; and the more frequent become mental alienation and suicide. Any person may satisfy himself of this, by comparing the number of suicides in cities, particularly capital cities, with those that take place in the country. The same fact will appear by comparing the number of suicides in Russia with those that occur in France, and particularly England. If one now compares the actual state of Europe with that of Italy, during the time of the emperors, will he be astonished that epochs so similar, as it respects morals and the splendor of civilization, are equally fruitful in suicides? During the ninth and tenth centuries, the epoch of confusion in opinions and doctrines, the donatists, seized with a suicidal frenzy, devoted themselves to death, or gave themselves up to it for money. Men, women and children hung themselves, or threw themselves from precipices, or upon funeral piles. The gnostics permitted themselves to die of hunger, through fear of wounding a creature which was a part of the Deity.

A military spirit, which inspires indifference to life, which attaches little importance to a good which one is ready to sacrifice to the ambition of a master, is favorable to suicide. At Rome, during their civil wars, the conquered generals destroyed themselves, that they might not fall beneath the yoke of the victor. The vessel which carried Vitellius and his cohort, was taken by the fleet of Pompey, among the sands of the Illyrian sea. After having fought valiantly, fatigued with the carnage, Vitellius exhorted his surviving soldiers to prevent, by a death of their own choosing, the disgrace of falling into the hands of the victors. Animated by his discourse, his soldiers slew each other upon the deck.

Great calamities also lead to suicide. It prevailed extensively during the existence of the black plague that ravaged Europe, towards the middle of the fourteenth century. Historians assure us that the Peruvians and Mexicans, in despair at the destruction of their worship, usages and laws, destroyed themselves in great numbers; and that more fell by their own hands than by the fire and sword of their barbarous conquerors. Ross Cox, in his account of a voyage in the waters of Columbia, published in London in the year 1831, relates, that at the close of the last century the small pox committed horrible ravages in India, and that thousands of Indians hung themselves to trees, believing that the Great Spirit had delivered them over, to be punished by evil ones. Montaigne states, that during the wars of the Milanese, this people, impatient of so many changes of fortune, so fully determined to die, that I have heard it stated to my father that they had taken an account of at least twenty-five heads of families, who destroyed themselves in a single week.

In 1320, five hundred Jews, pursued by the peasantry of the country, took refuge in the château of Verdun, upon the Garonne. Besieged by their implacable enemies, and driven to despair, after having thrown their infants over the walls to their besiegers, they cut their own throats. The Jews, at the time of the siege and taking of Jerusalem by Titus, in order to put an end to their sufferings, threw themselves from the top of the ramparts, or set fire to their houses, in order to become a prey to the flames.

Onanism is referred to by Tissot, as one of the causes of suicide. I have very often seen suicide preceded by the practice of masturbation. The same is true with respect to the abuse of alcoholic drinks. These two causes exhaust the sensibility, producing languor or despair. They produce also much insanity. Individuals thus enfeebled sink into lypemania, and form no other purpose than that of ridding themselves of life, which they have no longer the capacity to endure…

I will not enlarge more upon the causes of suicide, but will confine myself to the indication of those, which seem to produce it most frequently. If I have not spoken of the passions which often occasion suicide, either acute or chronic, it is because I have noticed them sufficiently, while analyzing the circumstances which almost invariably precede it. The phenomena which accompany or succeed the disposition to suicide, offer the most striking analogy to those of mental maladies. We say in general, that persons of a melancholic temperament and a bilious constitution, are very prone to suicide. They have a sallow complexion, and the features of the countenance are shrunken. They suffer also from abdominal constrictions and embarrassments. We see individuals however, endowed with a sanguine temperament, and offering all the signs of plethora, who terminate their own existence. This plethora is particularly manifest among women, who usually destroy themselves, or attempt to do so, during the menstrual period. Those who are known to suffer from suicidal impulses, should be carefully watched at these seasons. A scrofulous habit is also very often met with in persons who have been driven to commit suicide. It disposes to discouragement, apathy, indifference, and consequently, to ennui. As it respects the moral character of the suicidal, from which an effort has been made, to deduce something ennobling in the act of self-murder, there is nothing constant. Courage is manifested, it is said, in committing suicide. But poltroons and warriors, women and men, master and slave, rich and poor, the criminal and honest man, all destroy themselves; offering no other differences, than those which spring from causes foreign to the character of each…

There is not an individual belonging to this class, who has not ideas of suicide and a desire even, to precipitate himself therefrom, whenever he finds himself upon an elevation, or near a window; or of drowning himself when passing over a bridge. These, like all possible ideas, which are constantly renewed, and succeed each other by crowds in the mind, are represented in turn. They usually leave no traces in the mind, more than other thoughts. But if a man actually experiences a violent vexation; if the idea of self-destruction presents itself, in connection with a thousand other thoughts, to his mind; this one thought of suicide associates itself strongly to the moral state which is present together with the vexation, and the desire of freeing himself from it. Hence arises the determination to self-murder, as an infallible means of terminating his misfortunes. The impulse to suicide is more or less violent and sudden, and depends upon numerous causes; upon the age, sex, temperament, habits, profession and irritability of the individual, and a thousand other circumstances that escape our observation. Does not this obstinate association of ideas occur fortuitously in a state of health, while we are engrossed with a given subject? It is durable, in proportion as the false ideas are associated together, in a manner calculated to absorb the understanding, and to concentrate the attention and sensibility. These ideas, closely connected, and varying with individual cases, lead men to form erroneous judgments; and to determinations, sometimes sudden, and sometimes long reflected, in connection with the prejudices and exclusive reasonings which characterize monomania…

What misgivings characterize the conduct of those who meditate suicide! What conflicts before determining upon it! What efforts to reconcile themselves to it, hidden and concealed from the public, to secure to this senseless act, the external aspect of courage and fortitude! It is self-love still, that invests suicide with its mantle. How many self-murders would yet live, were some friend able to unite again the thread of life which they have severed! How many are there, who regret, in quitting life, the destiny which they found too unhappy! With what avidity do they seize again upon life, by every means that are offered them! A man throws himself into a well. He makes every effort to get out of it, and points out the means of effecting this purpose. Pauline, the wife of Seneca, both young and beautiful, wished to die with her husband. She opens certain blood vessels. Nero, on being informed of this act, orders the bleeding wounds to be stanched. Snatched from the portals of the tomb, she thinks no more of death. The struggles of suicides, against the desire which leads them to the commission of self-murder, are either exceedingly painful, or they contemplate their destruction with a kind of joy. They have paroxysms, now regular, and now irregular; deferring the execution of their design, now, from one motive, and now from another. Often do they wear upon their persons, or conceal in a safe place, the instruments or means of destruction; uncertain with respect to the time, place or occasion, most favorable for the accomplishment of their purpose. We can also, with some experience, prevent the effects of these exasperations, which impress upon the physiognomy a sinister expression, in consequence of the return of the physical and moral symptoms, previously indicated. The physical symptoms are then most grave, the moral sufferings most intense, and life most insupportable.

Finally, after having engaged for months and years, in an internal struggle, with alternate remissions, a prey to the most frightful passions, or else indifferent and insensible to every thing; experiencing neither the blessings nor pain of living; led on slowly, to the last degree of physical and moral insensibility, which deprives man of the conservative instinct of his own proper existence; they quit life, to avoid intolerable sufferings, or a most trying weariness of it. Their eyes are haggard, the countenance is flushed, or very pale, the respiration is hurried, and the mind perplexed. They are no longer masters of their actions. The sentiments which some of them leave behind; do not these prove the exaltation and derangement of their reason? If some write to their relatives and friends, letters which express the composure of reason, do they not dissemble their moral condition, as so often happens in the case of monomaniacs?

This destruction of all physical sensibility is not rare among monomaniacs, as we have known them to mutilate and burn themselves, and amputate the limbs, without appearing to suffer any pain in consequence of it; so completely had the exaltation and fixedness of their emotions blunted their sensibility, and driven it from its true seat.

Many suicides, after having most seriously wounded themselves, do not complain of the pain of their wounds. This state of organic insensibility indicates that the delirium has not ceased, and that the patients ought to be watched with care. Porcia, filled with despair on account of the death of her husband, swallows burning coals. Haslam speaks of a woman who, having champed some glass in her mouth for a half-hour, assured him that it did not occasion the least suffering. I have applied blisters, setons, moxas and the actual cautery, to persons strongly inclined to suicide, and lypemaniacs, in order to interrogate their sensibility, without producing pain. Some, after their restoration to health, have assured me that they did not suffer in the least from these applications. A young man, twenty-seven years of age, in a fit of financial despair, throws himself from the fourth story; protests that it has done him no harm, and ascends immediately to his apartment. The fibula was fractured. A soldier fractured one of his thighs, by throwing himself from the second story. He constantly repeated, it is nothing, I am not in pain. I do not insist upon this point of analogy between suicides and the insane. We shall see other examples of it, in the course of this article…

The obstinacy manifested in the resolution to commit suicide, and perseverance in the execution of this design, surpass all belief; especially among lypemaniacs. When this class of persons, controlled by a fixed idea, have resolved to terminate their existence, they resist, not merely the councils of reason, of friendship and tenderness, and those material obstacles that oppose their designs; but support unheard of sufferings, whilst preserving a composure and resignation which contrast singularly with the convulsive and painful expression of their countenance. In vain do they tell us that they do not suffer, whilst every thing betrays the keenest mental agony…

All that I have said hitherto, together with the facts which I have related, prove that suicide offers all the characteristics of mental alienation, of which it is, in reality, a symptom: that we must not look for a single and peculiar sign of suicide, since we observe it under circumstances the most opposite, and since it is symptomatic or secondary, either in acute or febrile delirium, or in chronic delirium…

Treatment of Suicide: Means of Preventing It

Suicide being an act consecutive to the delirium of the passions or insanity, I ought to have little to say respecting the treatment of a symptom; a treatment which belongs to the therapeutics of mental diseases, and reposes essentially upon the appreciation of the causes and determining motives of suicide. Therefore, it is to the treatment adapted to each variety of insanity that we must have recourse, in treating an individual urged on to his own destruction; just as it is necessary to go back to the councils of religion and public morals, when we would prevent the numerous suicides that are provoked by general error of opinion, and the exaltation of the passions. I would have limited myself to these general remarks, were not suicide so grave a symptom as to render it important that we should avail ourselves of all possible means of combating and preventing it. Suicide is sometimes cured spontaneously, like mental diseases; through the influence of hygienic agents, by some physical or moral crisis; or by the aid of medicines. Pinel speaks of a certain scholar who, being in London for the purpose of dissipating a melancholic affection, was going to drown himself in the Thames, when he was attacked by robbers. He defended himself against these ruffians, and forgot the purpose which had led him from home. This gentleman died at the age of eighty-four years; and although often reduced to the necessity of receiving aid from his friends, he did not again experience a desire to destroy himself.

A young man wishes to take his life, and goes out to purchase a pair of pistols. The gun-smith demands an exorbitant price; he becomes irritated, disputes with the dealer, and forgets that he wanted to purchase arms wherewith to destroy himself. How many people are there who, after an ineffectual attempt to take their own lives, no longer entertain a thought of it; because they have been frightened by the risk that they run, or saw death so near at hand, as to desire no more immediate intercourse. A lady desires to die of hunger, because she has openly betrayed the secrets of her heart. Attentions and consolations, the assurance that no one credits what she has said, and the hope of seeing her lover whom she supposed dead; cause her to entertain once more a desire for life, and she decides, not only to take nourishment, but to do whatever is recommended, with a view to her entire cure…

Some physicians have proposed a specific treatment for suicide. Persuaded that the liver is the seat of the evil, and that the bile is the prime cause of it; some recommended what are called hepatic purgatives. Others believe that we should bleed, so as to unload the great vessels of the brain. The latter holding that the tendency to suicide, is the effect of the weakness or oppression of the vital principle, have recommended tonics in large doses. I can say that bark, in combination with opium, hyoscyamus and musk, has sometimes succeeded in modifying the sensibility of this class of patients, and in procuring sleep. These means however, would not be applicable to all cases. Subjects enfeebled by onanism, are much benefited by the cold bath, and even aspersions of cold water. Avenbrugger proposed an exutory over the region of the liver, and copious draughts of water. The celebrated Theden, and more recently, Dr. Leroy, physician at Anvers, have insisted upon the very abundant use of cold water as a specific, Theden states that he made a most successful trial of it upon himself, and relates some cases in support of the efficacy of this method. Dr. Chevrey, cites several cases establishing the fact, that the cure of the disposition to suicide, has been effected by the method of Avenbrugger. I have submitted to this treatment several patients who had made divers attempts to commit suicide, but with little success. In three cases, treated at the Salpêtrière, I ordered, for two of them, a seton over the right hypochondrium, and a blister for the third. I also prescribed a great quantity of water. I related above the case of a lady, in which I had caused a large seton to be inserted over the region of the liver. At Charenton, I caused blisters to be placed over the same region. Setons and blisters continued for several months, effected no amelioration.

Suicides, like all lypemaniacs, think too much. We must either prevent them from thinking, or oblige them to think differently from what they are in the habit of doing. Reasoning effects little; moral commotions are of more service. Celsus advises that individuals who entertain a desire for suicide, should go abroad; and physicians, in all times, have recommended corporeal exercises, gymnastics, riding on horseback, the cultivation of the soil, journeying, etc…

I have nothing to remark respecting the treatment which the symptoms, following attempts at suicide, may demand. Cerebral congestions, asphyxia, whether produced by immersion or strangulations, wounds, bruises, the symptoms of poisoning and the effects of abstinence, present various indications of which we cannot here speak. Persons who have a propensity to suicide, should occupy apartments on the ground floor of a building, cheerful, and pleasantly located. They should be guarded night and day by attendants, vigilant, and having experience to meet the wiles of suicides, usually exceedingly skillful in baffling the watchfulness of the most active. If it be necessary at any time, to have recourse to the camisole, this should not operate as a motive to security, for patients have made use of it to strangle themselves. A woman at the Salpêtrière had been fastened upon her bed, by means of this garment. During the night she threw herself from it, and her body, resting with all its weight upon the waistcoat, compressed the trachea, and the patient was asphyxiated. A patient, confined to his bed, succeeds in throwing from his couch every portion of his bedding, and is suspended and strangulated by the camisole. In public establishments, individuals who are disposed to suicide, demand the utmost attention. These patients should not be placed in isolated cells, but in public halls, where they may be better watched, by both their fellow patients, and the attendants. They should never be out of sight. It is to this attention, and the advantage of having all the apartments of this class of patients upon the ground floor, that we are indebted, at the Salpêtrière, for having scarcely any suicides; since, among eleven or twelve hundred insane persons, of whom one hundred at least have made attempts upon their lives in the course of ten years, only four suicides have been committed; whilst, every where else, the number is far more considerable. I congratulate myself, on having first laid down a general rule for the government of suicides, even with respect to their sleeping arrangements; a precept that has not been lost in other establishments, where they have made use of it, and in which many individuals are disposed to suicide…

I might here close what I have to say upon the subject of suicide. It is, however, a malady so deplorable and frequent, it propagates itself in a manner so frightful to families and society, and suggests questions of so much importance, that I cannot refrain from saying a word upon these points. And in the first place, is suicide a criminal act which may be punished by the laws? Has the legislator the means of preventing it? Since suicide is almost always the effect of disease, it cannot be punished; the law inflicting penalties, only upon acts voluntarily committed, in the full enjoyment of reason. Now I believe that I have shown, that man only makes attempts upon his life, when in a state of delirium, and that suicides are insane persons. Fodéré is of the same opinion. In 1777, the parliament of Paris examined this question, but without deciding it. But, in view of the interest of humanity and society, can the legislator have recourse to means adapted to prevent an act, which outrages equally, natural laws, the laws of religion and of society, and which is so frequent also, that in France for example, there are annually committed, three times as many suicides as assassinations? Experience shows, that comminatory enactments have sufficed to prevent suicide. When the declamations of Agesias rendered suicide frequent in Egypt, a law of Ptolemy, which forbad any one, on pain of death, from teaching the philosophy of Zeno, put an end to this dreadful practice. When the daughters of Miletus hung themselves in emulation one of another, the senate passed a decree, that the bodies of suicides should be exposed in some public place, and the contagion ceased. The negroes who were transported to America, were accustomed to destroy themselves, in the hope of returning to Africa after death. An Englishman caused this impulse to cease, by ordering the hands of those negroes who committed suicide to be cut off, and exposed to the observation of their companions. Penal enactments were passed by certain ancient nations with a view to prevent suicide. The laws of Athens prosecuted this crime even beyond the limits of life; requiring that the hand of the offender should be burned separately from the body. A law of the elder Tarquin, deprived of the right of sepulture, the body of any citizen, who voluntarily destroyed himself. The senate of the republic of Marseilles, which tolerated suicide, condemned him who took his own life without a legitimate cause. At an earlier period, the Roman laws favorable to suicide, annulled the testament of him, who destroyed himself, in order to escape an ignominious punishment, and forbade mourning for it. Soldiers were disgraced, if they made an attempt upon their own lives. At Thebes, the dead body of a suicide, was burnt in disgrace.

The laws of Christian countries, which condemn all murder, have pronounced self-murder to be the greatest crime, because it leaves no room for repentance. They refuse to the dead bodies of suicides, a Christian burial. All modern legislation, to which the laws of the church have served as a basis, have branded suicide with infamy. In England, the corpses of suicides were formerly thrown out into the highway. More recently, they have been interred in the country, where three roads meet. In France, during the time of St. Louis, the household goods of the suicide were confiscated for the benefit of the proprietor of the soil on which the crime was committed. At a later period, the dead bodies of suicides were drawn through the streets upon a hurdle. All these laws have fallen into desuetude, particularly in France. In England, they evade their application, by obtaining the certificate of a physician, who testifies that the person who has committed the act of self-murder was insane. At this day in France, and in the greater portion of Europe, they would look upon the punishment of suicide, as an act of barbarism. Beccaria opposes the penalties enacted against suicide, on the grounds that they are inflicted only upon a dead body, and produce no impression upon the living; whilst, at the same time, by causing the relatives to suffer, the innocent are punished, which is unjust. If it be affirmed in opposition, says this writer, that the disgrace and penalties attending this act, and the fear of infamy, will prevent the most resolute man from the commission of it; I reply that he whom the horror of death, and the threats of eternal punishment do not restrain, will not be deterred, by considerations far less weighty.

Are not the fundamental laws of our being, and the warnings of religion, daily sacrificed to the force of prejudice, to passions and social interests? Did we not say, that the punishments inflicted upon sorcerers and the possessed, far from diminishing their number, augmented it? Will it not be the same, with respect to the penalties enacted against suicide? With reference to the former, the penalties inflicted upon sorcerers and the possessed, were enacted in accordance with a popular error. The more severe the enactments, the more thoroughly persuaded were the public of the existence of sorcerers and the possessed, of which, the laws sanctioned the belief. The number of these deluded people began to lessen, so soon as they ceased to believe in the existence of sorcerers, and to fortify the public mind in this belief, by the zeal which was manifested, not in destroying error, but in punishing it.

Popular opinion is not favorable to suicide, nor is it exercised with a view to combat an error, but to prevent an act, whatever, aside from this, its moral or legal character may be. Argument merely, should not prevail against the authority of experience. Comminatory laws caused suicides, to cease in Egypt, Miletus and America. Suicide is more frequent, since the laws which condemn it, have lost their force. Hence, for the welfare of society, the legislature should establish laws, not attaching penalties to the dead body of the suicide, and still less against his relatives; but with a view to prevent the commission of suicide. It does not belong to me to say what these laws shall be, but, in my opinion, they should vary to suit the dispositions, morals, and even the prejudices of the people inhabiting different countries; and should be designed to meet the social causes, which are calculated to develop a tendency to suicide. For example, in our day, the king of Saxony has enacted a law, that the bodies of suicides, should be placed in public amphitheatres for dissection. Until wise legislation apply some remedy to this social evil, the friends of humanity should desire that education may repose upon the solid basis of moral and religious principles. They should protest against the publication of works which inspire a contempt for life, and laud the advantages connected with a voluntary death. They should point out to the government, the dangers which result from making public the infirmities to which man is exposed. They should loudly demand, that the journals be forbidden to publish suicides, and from relating the motives and trifling circumstances connected with the commission of the act. These frequent accounts familiarize the mind to the idea of death, and cause it to be regarded with indifference. The examples daily presented for imitation, are contagious and fatal; and that person, who is now harassed by reverses or vexations, would not have destroyed himself had he not read in a journal, the history of the suicide of a friend or an acquaintance. The freedom of the press should not prevail over the true interest of humanity.

When speaking of the particular causes of suicide, I demonstrated that the present age was fruitful in causes adapted to produce it. As when in times of ignorance, and at periods when religious discussions prevail, and religious monomania abounds, we meet with magicians, sorcerers and the possessed; so suicides prevail, when the excesses of civilization threaten the destruction of empires. During the prosperous periods of the Roman Republic, suicide was rare. But it became frequent, when the philosophy of the stoics found partisans in the patrician order; when two soothsayers could no longer regard each other without a smile; when luxury and wealth had corrupted the morals of the people; and political agitations had shaken the Republic to its centre.

The same has been true in England, since Richard Smith, and particularly Mordan, set an example which became contagious. Moreover, since the writings of Donne, Blount and Gildon have found readers; since certain philosophers in France have revived and given credit to the doctrine of Zeno; since certain others have taken up the defence of self-murder; and revolutions have given a new impulse to all the passions, suicide has become more frequent. Under all these circumstances, the natural motives which inspire a horror of death, and especially of self-murder, are not strengthened by considerations drawn from morals, religion and the laws. If suicide is constantly represented in books and upon the stage, not merely as an indifferent act, but as one indicative of courage, from which men the most grave, and often the most eminent in society do not recoil; the public mind will doubtless be more disposed to suicide; and this disposition will be fortified by the force of imitation, if examples are daily presented in the public prints.

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Filed under Esquirol, Jean-Etienne-Dominique, Europe, Psychiatry, Selections, The Early Modern Period


from The Novices of Sais

Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg was a lyric poet of German Romanticism and a prose writer of encyclopedic talent; he wrote under the nom de plume Novalis. He was born into a family descended from the low German nobility; his father, a deeply pietistic man, managed a salt mine, as well as the family estate in the Harz mountains. Novalis was educated in law at Jena, Leipzig, and Wittenberg. At age 22, he fell in love with the 12-year-old Sophie von Kühn and became engaged to be married, but was devastated when she died, at the age of 15. During this time, he was first introduced to the philosophy of Johann Fichte [q.v], who would be a main influence on his later work.

His prose lyrics Hymnen an die Nacht (Hymns to the Night, 1800), written after Sophie’s death in 1797, show his mediated, universal religiosity, the view that there must be an intermediary between man and God, not necessarily a cleric or divine figure, but in this case, the beloved—now dead. Novalis later studied geology, chemistry, biology, history, mathematics, mining, and philosophy; these contributed to his anticipated encyclopedia project. He died of tuberculosis at age 29.

The novel fragment The Novices of Sais (1802) reflects Novalis’s fascination with universal science; in particular, this short work explores the possibility of using poetry to describe a universal world harmony. In this context, Novalis alludes to the notion of universal suicide, imagining nature as hostile and man able to free himself from this threat only if all of humankind were to bring their lives to an end.

Novalis, The Novices of Sais, tr. Ralph Manheim. New York: Curt Valentin, 1949; New York: Archipelago Books, 2005, pp. 19-45.


It must have been a long time before men thought of giving a common name to the manifold objects of their senses, and of placing themselves in opposition to them. Through practice developments were furthered, and in all developments occur separations and divisions that may well be compared with the splitting of a ray of light. It was only gradually that our inwardness split into such various forces, and with continued practice this splitting will increase. Perhaps it is only the sickly predisposition of later men that makes them lose the power to mix again the scattered colors of their spirit and at will restore the old, simple, natural state, or bring about new and varied relations between the colors. The more united they are, the more united, complete and personal will every natural object, every phenomenon enter into them; for to the nature of the sense corresponds the nature of the impression, and therefore to those earlier men, everything seemed human, familiar, and companionable, there was freshness and originality in all their perceptions, each one of their utterances was a true product of nature, their ideas could not help but accord with the world around them and express it faithfully. We can therefore regard the ideas of our forefathers concerning the things of this world as a necessary product, a self-portrait of the state of earthly nature at that time, and from these ideas, considered as the most fitting instruments for observing the universe, we can assuredly take the main relation, the relation between the world and its inhabitants. We find that the noblest questions of all first occupied their attention and that they sought the key to the wondrous edifice, sometimes in a common measure of real things, and sometimes in the fancied object of an unknown sense. This key, it is known, was generally divined in the liquid, the vaporous, the shapeless. The inertia and helplessness of solid bodies gave rise, no doubt, to a not unmeaningful belief in their baseness and dependence. But soon a pondering mind encountered the difficulty of deriving forms from forces and oceans without form. He attempted to loose the knot by a kind of combination; making the first beginnings into solid particles definitely shaped but minute beyond conception, and from this sea of dust, he believed that he could complete the immense edifice, though not without the help of ideal fictions of attracting and repellent forces. Earlier still we find, instead of scientific explanations, myths and poems full of marvelous imagery, of men, gods and beasts all building together, and it is here that the genesis of the world is most naturally described. Here at least we find certainty as to an accidental, handicraft origin, and even for those who despise the uncontrolled outpourings of the imagination, this conception is full of meaning.  To treat the history of the universe as a history of mankind, to find only human happenings and relations everywhere, is a continuous idea, reappearing at the most widely separate epochs, always in a new form, and this conception seems to have excelled all others in miraculous effect and persuasiveness. Moreover, the capriciousness of nature seems of itself to fall in with the idea of human personality, which is apparently best grasped in the form of a human creature. That is why poetry has been the favorite instrument of true friends of nature, and the spirit of nature has shone most radiantly in poems. When we read and hear true poems, we feel the movement of nature’s inner reason and, like its celestial embodiment, we dwell in it and hover over it at once. Scientists and poets have, by speaking one language, always shown themselves to be one people. What the scientists have gathered and arranged in huge, well-ordered stores, has been made by the poets into the daily food and consolation of human hearts; the ports have broken up the one, great, immeasurable nature and molded it into various small, amenable natures. Poets have lightheartedly pursued the liquid and fugitive, while scientists have cut into the inner structure and sought after the relations between its members.  Under their hands friendly nature died, leaving behind only dead, quivering remnants, while the poet inspired her like a heady wine till she uttered the blithest, most godlike fancies, till, lifted out of her everyday life, she soared to heaven, danced and prophesied, bade everyone welcome, and squandered her treasures with a happy heart. Thus she enjoyed heavenly hours with the poet and called the scientist only when she was sick and bowed down with conscience. On these occasions she answered each one of his questions and treated the stern man with reverence. Those who would know her spirit truly must therefore seek it in the company of poets, where she is free and pours forth her wondrous heart.  But those who do not love her from the bottom of their hearts, who only admire this and that in her and wish to learn this and that about her, must visit her sickroom, her charnel-house.

Our relations with nature are as inscrutably various as with men; to the child she shows herself childlike, pressing fondly to his childlike heart, and to the god she discloses herself divine, in accord with his exalted spirit. It is bombast to speak of one nature, and all striving after truth in discourse about nature only removes us farther from the natural. Great is the gain when the striving to understand nature completely, is ennobled to yearning, a tender, diffident yearning that gladly accepts the strange, cold creature, in the hope that she will some day become more familiar. Within us there lies a mysterious force that tends in all directions, spreading from a center hidden in infinite depths. If wondrous nature, the nature of the senses and the nature that is not of the senses, surrounds us, we believe this force to be an attraction of nature, an effect of our sympathy with her; but behind these blue, distant shapes one man will seek a home that they withhold, a beloved of his youth, mother and father, brothers and sisters, old friends, cherished times past; to another it seems that out there unknown glories await him, a radiant future is hidden, and he stretches forth his hand in quest of a new world. A few stand calmly in this glorious abode, seeking only to embrace it in its plenitude and enchainment; no detail makes them forget the glittering thread that joins the links in rows to form the holy candelabrum, and they find beatitude in the contemplation of this living ornament hovering over the depths of night. The ways of contemplating nature are innumerable; at one extreme the sentiment of nature becomes a jocose fancy, a banquet, while at the other it develops into the most devout religion, giving to a whole life direction, principle, meaning. Even among the childlike peoples there were grave men, for whom nature was the face of a godhead, while other, merry hearts only prayed to her at table; the air was to them a soothing drink, the stars were a light to dance by, plants and beasts were merely delectable fare, nature to them was not a wondrous, silent temple, but a jolly kitchen and pantry.  In between, there were other, more contemplative souls, who found in the nature before them only large but neglected gardens, and busied themselves creating prototypes of a nobler nature.—For this great work they broke into companionable groups, some sought to awaken the spent and lost tones in the air and in the forests, others fixed their presentiments and images of more beautiful races in bronze and stone, fashioned more beautiful rocks and made them into dwellings, brought back to light the treasures hidden in the crypts of the earth; tamed unruly streams, populated the inhospitable sea, restored noble plants and beasts to desert regions, damned the forest floods and cultivated the nobler flowers and herbs, opened the earth to the touch of the fructifying air and the kindling light, taught the colors to mingle and order themselves into charming shapes, taught wood and meadow, springs and crags to join again in pleasant gardens, breathed tones into living things, that they might unfold and move in joyous rhythms, took under their protection those poor forsaken beasts amenable to human ways, and cleansed the woods of savage monsters, the misbegotten creatures of a degenerate fantasy.  Soon nature learned friendlier ways again, she became gentler and more amiable, more prone to favor the desires of man.  Little by little her heart learned human emotions, her fantasies became more joyful, she became companionable, responding gladly to the friendly questioner, and thus little by little she seems to have brought back the old golden age, in which she was man’s friend, consoler, priestess and enchantress, when she lived among men and divine association made men immortal.  Then once more the constellations will visit the earth that they looked upon so angrily in those days of darkness; then the sun will lay down her harsh scepter, becoming again a star among stars, and all the races of the world will come together after long separation.  Families orphaned of old will be reunited, and each day will see new greetings, new embraces; then the former inhabitants of the earth will return, on every hill embers will be rekindled; everywhere the flames of life will blaze up, old dwelling places will be rebuilt, old times renewed, and history will become the dream of an infinite, everlasting present.

He who belongs to this race and this faith and wishes to contribute his part towards the taming of nature, frequents the workshops of artists, gives ear to the poetry that bursts forth unawares in every walk of life, never wearies of contemplating nature and conversing with her, follows all her beckonings, finds no journey too arduous if it is she who calls, even should it take him into the dank bowels of the earth: surely he will find ineffable treasures, in the end his candle will come to rest, and then who knows into what heavenly mysteries a charming subterranean sprite may initiate him. Surely no one strays farther from the goal than he who imagines that he already knows the strange realm, that he can explain its structure in few words and everywhere find the right path. No one who tears himself loose and makes himself an island arrives at understanding without pains. Only to children or childlike people, ignorant of what they are doing, can this happen. Attentiveness to subtle signs and traits, an inward poetic life, practiced senses, a simple, God-fearing heart—these are the basic requisites for a true friend of nature, and without them his striving will not prosper. Without full, flowering humanity, the striving to understand a human world does not seem wise. Not one of the senses must slumber, and even if not all are equally awake, all must be stimulated and not repressed or neglected. As we see the future painter in the boy who covers every wall and every level stretch of sand with his drawings, who combines bright colors into figures, we see the future philosopher in him who untiringly pursues and inquires into all things in nature, who turns his mind to everything, gathers whatever is noteworthy and is happy if he has made himself the master and possessor of a new phenomenon, a new force and knowledge.

Now to some it seems not worth the trouble to pursue the infinite divisions of nature, and moreover, they find it a dangerous undertaking without fruit or issue.  Never can we find the smallest grain or the simplest fiber of a solid body, since all magnitude loses itself forwards and backwards in infinity, and the same applies to the varieties of bodies and forces; we encounter forever new species, new combinations, new phenomena, and so on to infinity.  They seem to stand still only when our fervor wanes; we waste the precious time in vain study and tedious enumeration, and this in the end becomes a true madness, a fatal vertigo over the horrid abyss.  And nature, they say, remains wherever we turn a terrible mill of death: everywhere monstrous change, indissoluble endless chain, realm of voracity and mad luxuriance, incommensurable and fraught with disaster; the few bright points, they say, only serve to illumine a night that is all the more terrifying, filled with all manner of specters that frighten the beholder into insensibility. Death stands like a savior by the side of unfortunate mankind, for without death the madman would be the happiest among creatures. The effort to fathom the giant mechanism is in itself a move towards the abyss, a beginning of madness: for every lure seems an expanding vortex, which soon takes full possession of the unfortunate and carries him away through a night of terrors. Here, they say, is the insidious pitfall of human reason, which nature looks upon as her worst enemy and everywhere seeks to destroy. Praised be the childlike ignorance and innocence of men, which leaves them unaware of the terrible dangers, which everywhere like awesome storm clouds surround their peaceful dwelling places, threatening at every instant to break over them.  Only the inner disunity of nature’s forces has preserved man up to now, but inexorably the great moment will come when all mankind by common resolve will save itself from this intolerable lot, will wrench itself free from this hideous prison, when through voluntary renunciation of their earthly possessions men will redeem their race forever from this misery, and escape to a happier world, to the home of their ancient father. Thus men would end in a manner worthy of them, thus they would anticipate their inevitable extermination or even more terrible degeneration into beasts through gradual destruction of the mind, through madness. Association with the forces of nature, with beasts, plants, rocks, storms and waves, must inevitably make men resemble these things, and this adaptation, transformation, dissolution of the divine and human into uncontrolled forces is, they say, the spirit of the awful, devouring power that is nature: and is not indeed everything we see a rape of heaven, a desolation of former glories, the remnant of a hideous feast?

“Very well,” say some who are more courageous, “let our race carry on a slow, well-conceived war of annihilation with nature! We must seek to lay her low with insidious poisons. The scientist is a noble hero, who leaps into the open abyss in order to save his fellow citizens. Artists have dealt her many covert blows: continue along this road, possess yourselves of the secret threads, and make her lust after herself. Exploit her strife to bend her to your will, like the fire-spewing bull. She must be made to serve you. Patience and faith befit the children of mankind.  Distant brothers are united with us for one purpose, the starry wheel will become the spinning wheel of our life, and then with the help of our slaves we shall build ourselves a new Djinnistan. With inward triumph let us behold her devastations, her tumults, she shall sell herself to us, and bitterly atone for every violent deed.  With a rapturous sentiment of our freedom let us live and die; here rises the stream that will some day submerge and quell her, let us bathe in it and gather courage for new heroic deeds. The monster’s rage cannot reach us, a drop of freedom is enough to lame it forever, and put an end to its devastation,”

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from Philosophy of Right


Born to a Protestant family in Stuttgart, Hegel received an excellent early education. He studied philosophy and theology at the seminary of Tübingen, where he was particularly influenced by the works of Kant and Schiller. After passing his theological examinations in 1793, Hegel worked in Bern and Frankfurt as a tutor for several years.

Among the German idealists, Hegel attempted to formulate a complete system of philosophy that would account for the differences and similarities of all previous philosophies. In 1801, with a dissertation written in Latin entitled On the Orbits of the Planets, Hegel secured a lectureship at the University of Jena, where he spoke on a wide variety of subjects. On October 13, 1806, the same day that Napoleon victoriously entered the city, he finished his Phenomenology of Spirit. In this work, an early masterpiece much influenced by German Romanticism, Hegel describes the process by which both individuals and societies can grow to “absolute knowledge” by developing consciousness from sense perceptions to reason, which is the ultimate essence of the world and the guiding principle of history. Reconciliation is reached when a concept progresses through an endless dialectical process; thesis leads to antithesis, which finally leads to synthesis, which itself inherently contains a contrasting element that negates it and serves as the antithesis in the next stage of development.

Due to the war, Hegel left Jena and eventually settled in Nürnberg, where he served as headmaster of the Royal Gymnasium, met his future wife, and wrote the Science of Logic (1812–16). In 1816, he resumed his academic career at the University of Heidelberg and published The Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline (1817), which serves as an introduction to his philosophy. His major work of his last period was the Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, or Elements of the Philosophy of Right, known in English as the Philosophy of Right (published 1820, title page 1821), which argues that the nation-state is a manifestation of God and that the ideal state is the real materialization of the ethical idea. The work was heavily criticized as a hidden apologia for the Prussian state., but more recent scholarship challenges this view. Hegel’s philosophy of government and law became highly influential in Prussia, and Hegel himself became a power in the political and academic life of Germany. He died suddenly, at the peak of his career, from an attack of cholera.

In this brief selection from the Philosophy of Right, along with an addition made by Hegel’s students from his oral lectures and comments, Hegel argues that there is no right to suicide since there is no right over one’s own life—indeed, the concept is a contradiction. Central to Hegel’s thinking is the notion of the individual as secondary to moral and societal interests; “the particular person,” he says, “is really a subordinate, who must devote his life to the service of the ethical fabric.”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Paragraph 70 and Addition, tr. S. W. Dyde. London: George Bell and Sons, 1896, p. 76.

from The Philosophy of Right

Since personality is something directly present, the comprehensive totality of one’s outer activity, the life, is not external to it. Thus the disposal or sacrifice of life is not the manifestation of one’s personality so much as the very opposite. Hence I have no right to relinquish my life. Only a moral and social ideal, which submerges the direct, simple and separate personality, and constitutes its real power, has a right to life. Life, as such, being direct and unreflected, and death the direct negation of it, death must come from without as a result of natural causes, or must be received in the service of the idea from a foreign hand.

The particular person is really a subordinate, who must devote his life to the service of the ethical fabric; when the state demands his life, he must yield it up. But should the man take his own life? Suicide may at first glance be looked upon as bravery, although it be the poor bravery of tailors and maid-servants. Or it may be regarded as a misfortune, caused by a broken heart. But the point is, Have I any right to kill myself? The answer is that I, as this individual am not lord over my own life, since the comprehensive totality of one’s activity, the life, falls within the direct and present personality. To speak of the right of a person over his life is a contradiction, since it implies a right of a person over himself. But no one can stand above and execute himself. When Hercules burnt himself, and Brutus fell upon his sword, this action against their personality was doubtless of an heroic type; but yet the simple right to commit suicide must be denied even to heroes.

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from On the Influence of the Passions
from Reflections on Suicide


Anne Louise Germaine née Necker, Baroness of Staël-Holstein, widely known as Madame de Staël, was an important Swiss-French writer known for her work in literary criticism and for her novels. She was the daughter of a politician, Jacques Necker; in 1786, she married the Swedish ambassador to France, Baron de Staël-Holstein, in a marriage of convenience. Her first works were romantic love stories, but success came with her letters on Rousseau. She was much involved in the events of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, defending her friends among the liberal aristocrats, often at the peril of her own life. Her literary contributions are considerable, including The Influence of Literature on Society (1800), and the novels Delphine (1802) and Corinne (1807). She published a lengthy work on German philosophy and literature, On Germany, in 1810, which attempted to stimulate France to fresh creativity, idealizing the German Romantic movement in an implicit critique of Napoleon’s France. All 5,000 copies of the printed book (2 vols.), the plates, and the manuscript were confiscated and destroyed by Napoleon, and only the quick action of her son saved a copy of the manuscript, which was published three years later in London. She was banished from France by Napoleon. She also published works on Rousseau and on the French Revolution.

Mme. de Staël, in one respect nearly unique among authors on suicide, published two starkly different views of self-killing. In 1798, in On the Influence of the Passions, she defended suicide as a valid solution to what she refers to as the unhappiness of “passionate minds.” Later, however, she rejected this view in Reflections on Suicide (1812), arguing resolutely against it. She gives the following account of this turnabout: “In my work On the Influence of the Passions I have applauded suicide and I have ever since repented of that inconsiderate expression. I was then in the pride and vivacity of early youth, but of what use is life, without the hope of improvement.” The work concludes with her reconstruction of Lady Jane Grey’s last days in the Tower of London, considering—and rejecting—the option of suicide.

Baroness of Staël-Holstein, A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations, tr. K. Staël-Holstein. London: George Cawthorne, [1789] 1798; Madame de Staël, Reflections on Suicide, in George Combe, The Constitution of Man, Considered in Relation to External Objects, Alexandrian edition. Columbus, OH: J & H Miller, n.d., second half of volume, pp. 99-112.


…of all the passions, love is the most fatal to the happiness of man. If we had the courage to die, we might venture to indulge the hope of so delightful a fate, but we resign our minds to the empire of feelings which poison the rest of our life. For some moments we enjoy a happiness which has no correspondence with the ordinary state of life, and we wish to survive its loss. The instinct of self preservation is more powerful than the emotions of despair, and we continue to exist without being able to indulge the hope of recovering in the future what the past has taken from us, without being able to find any reason to abandon our sorrow, either in the circle of the passions, in the sphere even of a sentiment which, deriving its source in a real principle, can admit of no consolation from reflection. None but men capable of resolving to commit suicide, can with any shadow of wisdom, venture to explore this grand path of happiness.*

But he who desires to live, and exposes himself to the necessity of retreat; he who desires to live, and yet renounces in any manner the empire over his own mind, devotes himself, like a madman, to the greatest of misfortunes.

The majority of men, and even a great number of women, have no idea of this sentiment, such as I have described it; and there are more people qualified to appreciate the merit of Newton than to judge of the real passion of love. A kind of ridicule is attached to what are called romantic sentiments; and those little minds, who assign so much importance to all the details of their self-love or of their interest, have arrogated to themselves a superior degree of reason to those whose character hurries them into a different kind of selfishness, which society considers with greater indulgence in the man who is occupied exclusively with himself. People of vigorousunderstandings consider the labours of thought, the services done to the human race, as alone deserving of the esteem of men. There are some geniuses who are entitled to consider themselves as useful to their fellow creatures; but how very few can flatter themselves with the possession of any thing more glorious than to constitute the happiness of another! Severe moralists dread the wanderings of such a passion. Alas! In our days, happy the nation, happy the individuals, that could boast of men susceptible of the impulse of sensibility! But, indeed, so many fleeting emotions bear a resemblance to love, so many attachments of quite a different nature, among women from vanity, among men from youth, take the appearance of this sentiment, that these degraded copies have almost entirely effaced the remembrance of the real object. In a word, there are certain characters prone to love, who, deeply convinced of the obstacles which oppose the happiness of this passion, which thwart its perfection, and, above all, threaten its permanence; and alarmed at the irritability of their own hearts, and those of others, reject, with courageous reason and timid sensibility, every thing that could excite this passion. From all these causes arise the errors adopted even by philosophers with regard to the real importance of the attachment of the heart, and the unbounded tortures which those who resign themselves to its guidance are accustomed to experience.

It unfortunately is not true, that we are never captivated but by the qualities which bespeak a certain resemblance of character and sentiments. The charms of a seducing figure, that species of advantage which permits the imagination to conceive all the beauties by which it is captivated, and to see all the expression which it wishes, acts powerfully upon an attachment which cannot exist without enthusiasm. The grace of manner, wit, language; in a word, grace, more difficult to be defined than any other charm, inspires this sentiment, which, at first over-looked, frequently arises from something which cannot be explained. Such an origin cannot secure either the happiness or the duration of a connection. Yet when love exists, the illusion is complete, and nothing can equal the despair excited by the certainty of having loved an object unworthy of us. This fatal ray of light darts in, and awakens reason before it has detached the heart. Haunted by the opinion we had formed, which we must now renounce, we still love while we cease to esteem. We act as if there still were room for hope. In our torture, as if all hope had vanished, we cling to the image which we ourselves have created. We hang upon those features which once we considered as the emblems of virtue, and we are repulsed by something more cruel than hatred, by the want of every tender and profound emotion. We ask if the object on which we doat is of another nature, if we are wild in our paroxysms. We could wish to persuade ourselves that we are distracted, in order to belie the judgment we pronounce on the heart of those we loved. The past even no longer exists to cherish our recollections. The opinion we are forced to adopt recurs to the moment when we were deceived. We call to mind those incidents which should have opened our eyes, and the misery we feel is diffused over every moment of life; regret is connected with remorse and melancholy; the last hope of the wretched can no more soften that repentance which agitates and consumes our frame, and renders solitude frightful, without rendering us capable of amusement.

If, on the contrary, there has been a single moment of life in which we have been beloved; if the object on whom we had fixed our choice was generous, was in any respect such as we had conceived him to be; and if time, the inconstancy of the imagination, which likewise loosens the attachments of the heart; or if another object less worthy of his tenderness has deprived us of that love on which our whole existence depended, how agonizing are the sufferings which we experience from this overthrow of our scheme of life! How poignant the tortures of that moment when the hand, which so often has traced the most sacred oaths of the eternal love, traces in characters, that stab to the heart, the cruel intelligence, that we have ceased to be the objects of affection! Oh! How painful, when comparing the letters which the same hand had written, our eyes can scarcely believe that the different periods at which they were composed, can alone explain the difference! How agonizing our sensations, when that voice, whose accents haunted us in solitude, thrilled through our agitated soul, and seemed to recall the fondest recollections; when that voice speaks to us without emotion, without embarrassment, without betraying the slightest movement of the heart! Alas! The passion we still feel, long renders it impossible to believe that we cease to interest the object of our tenderness. We seem to experience a sentiment which requires to be communicated. We imagine that we are separated by a barrier independent of his will; that when we see, when we speak to him, the feelings of the past will revive; that he will again yield to the tenderness he once experienced; we imagine that hearts, which have once completely unbosomed themselves, cannot cease to cherish the ancient union; we imagine that nothing can renew the impulse which we alone possess the secret of bestowing; yet we know that he is happy far from us, that he is happy with the object least calculated to bring back the recollection of us. The cords of sympathy remain in our hearts, but those which once vibrated in concert to them are annihilated. We must for ever forego the sight of him whose presence would renew our remembrance of the past, and whose conversation would render it still more poignant. We are condemned to wander over the scenes in which he loved us, over those scenes that remain unaltered, to attest the change which all the rest has undergone. Despair is rooted in our hearts, while a thousand duties, while pride itself imposes the necessity of concealment, and no outward sign of woe must challenge the attention of pity. Alone in secret, our whole being is changed from life to death.

What consolation can the world afford to grief like this? The courage of self slaughter! But in this situation even the aid of this terrible act is stripped of that consolation which it sometimes is supposed to bestow. The hope of exciting the interest of others when we are no more, that species of immortality, is for ever torn from her who no longer hopes that her death could inspire regret. It is indeed a most cruel death, to be unable either to afflict, to punish, or to engage the remembrance of the object by whom we are betrayed; and to leave him in the possession of her whom he prefers, inspires a sensation of anguish which extends beyond the grave, as if this idea would haunt us even in its silent retreat.

Most of the metaphysical ideas which I have just been endeavouring to unfold, are pointed out and illustrated by the mythological relations of the ancients respecting the final destiny of those who had signalized themselves by their crimes. The ever-streaming casks of the Danaides, Sysiphus labouring at an huge stone, which rolls down the mountain as often as he strives to roll it up, picture to us a faithful image of that necessity of acting, even without any fixed object, which compels a criminal to the most painful and laborious action, merely because it relieves him from rest, than which nothing to him is so insupportable. Tantalus continually endeavouring to approach an object which as uniformly recedes from him, pourtrays the habitual torment of those men who have consigned themselves over to wickedness and guilt. They are equally unable to attain any thing that is good, or to desist from desiring it. In a word, the ancient philosophical poets were sensible that it was not enough to shadow out and describe the sufferings of repentance; the description of their hell required something more, and they thought it necessary to shew what the wicked experience even in the full career of their wickedness, and what their very passions for crimes made them endure, even before it had ceased to operate, and had been succeeded by remorse.

But it may be asked, why, under the supposed pressure of so painful a situation, the relief of suicide is not more frequently resorted to; for death, after all, is the sole remedy against irreparable ills? But though it but rarely happens, that the profligate lay violent hands upon themselves, it is not, therefore, to be inferred, that the profligate are less unhappy and miserable than those who resolve upon and perpetrate suicide; and, without laying the least stress on that vague uncertain dread, with which the apprehension of what may follow this life, never ceases to haunt the mind of the guilty; there is something in the very act of suicide that argues a sensibility of disposition, and a cast of philosophy, which are altogether foreign to the nature of a depraved soul.

If we fling out of this mortal life, in order to rescue ourselves from the torments of the heart, we are not without a wish that our loss should be somewhat regretted; if we resolve upon suicide from an utter disrelish of existence, which enables us to appreciate the destiny of man, deep and serious reflections, long and repeated examinations of our own mind, must necessarily have preceded that resolution; but the malice with which the heart of the wicked man rankles against his enemies, would make him dread that his death would enable them to breathe in security;—the rage that agitates him, far from disgusting him with life, on the contrary, makes him cling to it with a kind of rancorous rapture; a certain degree of pain dispirits and fatigues; but the irritation that accompanies the perpetration of crimes, makes the criminal fasten upon existence with a mixture of fury and of fear; he beholds in it a kind of prey which he pursues for the pleasure of tearing it in pieces. It is, moreover, peculiar to the character of the eminently guilty, not to acknowledge, even to themselves, the miseries they endure: their pride forbids it. But this illusion, or rather this internal struggle and restraint, in no measure contributes to mitigate their sufferings; for the severest of all pain is that which cannot repose upon itself. The guilty man is ever restless and distrustful, even in the secret recesses of his own mind. He behaves towards himself as if he were negociating with an enemy; he observes with regard to his own reflection the same precaution and reserve which he puts on in order to shew himself in public. Under the alarms of such a state it is impossible there should ever exist that interval of calm meditation, that silence and serenity of reflection which is requisite for a full examination of truth, and in obedience to her dictates, to form an irrevocable resolution.

That courage which enables a man to brave the terrors of death, bears not the least affinity to the disposition that resolves upon self destruction. The greatest criminals may evince intrepidity in the midst of dangers: with them it is an effect of mad folly, a kind of resource, an emotion, a hope that prompts to action; but those very men, though the most miserable of mortal beings, scarcely ever attempt to cut short their existence; whether it be, that Providence has not armed them with this sublime resource, or that there is in the nature of guilt itself a kind of ardent selfishness, which, while it affords no enjoyment, excludes those elevated sentiments with which the boon of protracted existence is spurned and renounced.

Alas! How difficult would it be not to take an interest in the fate of a man who rises superior to nature, when he throws away what he holds from her; when he converts life into an instrument to destroy life; when he can prevail upon himself, by energy of soul, to subdue the most powerful movement of the human breast, the instinct of self-preservation! How difficult would it be not to suppose some generous impulse in the heart of the man whom repentance should drive to the act of suicide!—It is indeed not to be lamented that the truly wicked are incapable of such a resolve; it would, doubtless, be a painful punishment to an honourable soul, no to be able to hold in sovereign contempt a being which it can only loath and execrate.

If the life of man were to consist of but one period or æra, that of youth, then perhaps it might be permitted to run all the chances of the greater passions. But as soon as the winter of old age approaches, it points out and requires a new mode of existence, and this transition the philosopher only can endure with unconcern and without pain. If our faculties, if our desires, which originate from our faculties, were to run in uniform accord with the tenor of our destiny, we might indeed, at all periods of life, enjoy some portion of happiness; but the same blow does not strike at once our faculties and our desires. The lapse of time frequently impairs our lot without having enfeebled our faculties; and, on the contrary, enfeebles our faculties without having extinguished our desires. The activity of the soul survives the means of exercising it; our desires survive the loss of those pleasures to the enjoyment of which they were wont to impel us. The terrors and pangs of dissolution press home upon us, amidst the full consciousness of existence. We are, as it were, called upon to assist at our own funeral; and while we continue to hang with all the vehemence of grief on this mournful spectacle, we renew, within our own breast, the Mezentian punishment; we tie death and life together in one loathsome embrace.

When philosophy assumes the dominion of the soul, its first act is, undoubtedly, to depreciate the value both of what we possess and of what we hope to possess. The passions, on the other hand, magnify, to a great degree, the prices of everything: but when philosophy has once established this medium, or average of moderation, it continues through the whole of life: every moment then suffices to itself; one period of life does not encroach upon the other: nor does the hurricane of the passions disturb their regularity, nor precipitate their course: the years roll on in one tranquil flow, together with their events, and succeed each other in an undisturbed course, agreeably to the intention of nature, and give the breast of man to participate in the silent calm of universal order.

I have already observed, that he who can place suicide among the number of his resolves may fearlessly enter and run the career of the passions: to the passions he may consign his life, if he be but conscious of sufficient resolution to cut short its thread the moment that the thunderbolt of Fate shall have blasted and destroyed the object of all his wishes and of all his cares. But as a kind of instinct, which belongs, I believe, more to our physical than to our moral nature, frequently compels us to preserve a life, every instant of which is marked and marred by misfortune, can it be conceived an easy matter to run the almost certain chance of plunging into misery that will make us execrate existence, and of a disposition of the soul that fills us with the dread of its dissolution?

And this, not because, under such a situation life can still have any charms, but because we must compress into one moment’s space all the incentives of our grief, in order to struggle against the ever-recurring thought of death; and because misfortune spreads itself over the whole extent of life; while the terrors that suicide inspires concentrate themselves into the space of an instant: and, in order to effect the act of self-murder, a man must take in the picture of his misfortunes, like the spectacle of his final end, aided by the intense energy of one sentiment and of one single idea.

Nothing, however, inspires more horror than the possibility of existing purely and simply; and that, for want of sufficient resolution to die. For, as it is our fate to be exposed to all the vehement passions, such an object of dread suffices to make us cherish that power of philosophy, which supports man at the level of the events of life, without either attaching him to it too closely, or making him shrink from it with undue abhorrence.

  1. I am afraid least I be accused of having, in the course of this work, spoken of suicide as an act deserving of praise.
  2. I have not examined it in the ever respectable view of religious principles, but politically.  I am persuaded that republics cannot forego the sentiment which prompted the ancients to commit self-murder; and, in particular situations, passionate minds, which resign themselves to the impulse of their nature, require the prospect of this resource, that they may not be driven to depravity in their misfortunes; and still more, perhaps, they require it during the efforts they exert to avoid them.



To His Highness The Prince Royal of Sweden. 

Stockholm, December, 1812.

My Lord,

I wrote these Reflections on Suicide, at a time when misfortune rendered the solace of meditation necessary to sustain me. Near you, my lord, my troubles have been alleviated; my children and I, like the shepherds of Arabia, when they see a storm approaching, have sought shelter in the shade of the laurel. You, my lord, have ever considered death only in the light of devotion to your country; your mind has never been touched by the mortification which sometimes afflicts those who believe themselves useless upon earth. But to your superior mind no philosophical subject is strange; and your views are taken from so great an elevation that nothing can escape you. I have ever until now dedicated my works to the memory of my father but I have requested of you, my lord, the honor of doing you homage, because your public life is an exhibition to the world of sterling virtues which alone deserve the admiration of reflecting minds.

Intrepidity personally distinguishes you amidst the brave; but this intrepidity is directed by a feeling not less sublime; the blood of the warrior, the tears of the poor, even the cares of the unfortunate are objects of your watchful humanity. You dread the sufferings of your fellow creatures, and the exalted station in which you are placed will never be able to banish sympathy from your heart. A Frenchman said of you, my lord, that to ‘the chivalry of republicanism you united the chivalry of royalty:’ in truth generosity, in whatever manner it can be displayed, appears to be natural to you.

In your intercourse with the world, you never impose restraint, by factitious formality, upon the minds of those who surround you. You might, if I may be allowed the expression, gain the hearts of a whole nation, one by one, if each individual of which it is composed, had but the happiness of a few minutes conversation with you; combined with this affability, so full of grace, your manly energy attaches to you all heroic characters.

The Swedish nation, formerly so celebrated for its exploits, and which still preserves its early reputation, cherishes in you the presage of its glory. You respect the rights of this nation, both from inclination and duty and we have beheld you under many trying circumstances, as firm in supporting the constitutional barriers, as others are impatient of their restraint.

Duty never seems to you a restraint, but a support; and it is thus that your habitual deference for the experienced wisdom of the king gives a new lustre to the power he confides to you.

Pursue, my lord, the career which offers to you so fine a futurity, and you will teach the world anew, what it seems to have forgotten, that the most enlightened wisdom sheds a glory on morality, and that the greatest heroes, far from despising, believe themselves superior to their fellow-men, only by the sacrifices which they make to them.

I am with respect, my lord,

Your royal highness’
most humble, and obedient servant,
Baroness de Stael-Holstein

I would impart consolation to the afflicted; the children of prosperity are instructed by their own experience only, and to them general reflections on most subjects appear useless: but it is not thus with the wretched: reflection is their best asylum, since separated by adversity from the distractions of the world, they fly to self-examination, and endeavor, like the invalid on the couch of pain, to find every alleviation of suffering.

Excess of misery gives birth to the idea of suicide, and this subject cannot be too thoroughly investigated: it involves the whole moral organization of man, I will endeavor to throw some new light upon the motives which lead to this action, as well as on those which prevent its perpetration I will examine the subject without prejudice or pride. We ought not to be offended with those who are so wretched as to be unable to support the burden of existence, nor should we applaud those, who sink under its weight, since, to sustain it, would be a greater proof of their moral strength.*

The opponents of suicide, feeling themselves on the ground of duty and reason, too often employ, in support of their arguments, an intolerant manner, offensive to their adversaries; and also frequently mingle unjust invective against enthusiasm, generally, with their well-merited reprobation of an unjustifiable action. It appears to me, on the contrary, that we can easily demonstrate from the principles themselves of true enthusiasm, or, in other words, from the love of pure morality, how far resignation to destiny is superior to rebellion against it.

I propose to present the question of suicide in three different points of view: I shall first examine what is the influence of suffering on the mind; secondly, I shall show, ‘what are the laws which the Christian religion impose on us in relation to suicide;’ and thirdly, I shall consider ‘in what consists the greatest moral dignity of man in this world.’

What Is the Influence of Suffering on the Mind?                                                                                           

We cannot dissemble that there is in the effect of impressions, produced by grief as much difference between individuals, as can exist relatively with genius and character. Not only the circumstances, but the manner of feeling them, differ so essentially, that people otherwise estimable may misunderstand each other in this respect; and yet, of all the limits of the understanding, the most grievous is that which prevents us from comprehending one another.

It appears to me that happiness consists in a destiny harmonizing with our faculties. Our desires are the offspring of the moment, and often are of fatal consequence to us; but our faculties are permanent, and their necessities are unceasing: hence the conquest of the world may have been as necessary to Alexander, as the possession of a cottage to a shepherd. It does not follow, however, that the human race should have served but as nourishment to the gigantic faculties of Alexander; but it may be admitted that, according to the constitution of his nature, there were no other means of happiness for him.

A capacity to love, an activity of mind, a value attached to opinion, are the sources of happiness to some and altogether productive of infelicity to others, the inflexible law of duty is the same for all, but moral strength is purely individual; and in forming an opinion of the happiness or unhappiness of those who are constituted differently from ourselves, a profound knowledge of the human heart is essential to the philosophical and just conclusion.

It appears to me then that we should never dispute the feelings of others; counsel can only operate on conduct, the laws of religion and virtue providing alike for all situations; but the causes of misery, and its intensity, vary equally with circumstances and individuals. We might as well attempt to count the waves of the sea, as to analyze the combinations of destiny and character. Conscience alone exists within us as a pure and unchangeable being, from whom we can all obtain what we all most need, the repose of the soul. The greater part of men resemble each other, not so much in their actions as in their powers, and no one capable of reflection will deny, that, in committing sins against morality, we always feel we might have avoided them. If then we admit that it is part of our condition here to endure affliction, we cannot excuse ourselves; either by the weight of this affliction, or by the acuteness of the felling which it produces. We all have within us the means of performing our duty; and what is most wonderful in moral as well as in physical nature, is, how equally and universally what is necessary to us is disturbed, while what is superfluous is diversified in a thousand ways.

Physical and moral pain are one and the same thing in their effect upon the mind; for corporeal and mental affliction are both productive of pain; but the one destroys the body, while the other regenerates the soul.

It is not enough to believe with the stoics that ‘pain is not an evil’; to submit to it with resignation, we must be convinced that it is a blessing. The least evil would be insupportable, if we considered it as purely accidental; individual irritability governing sensibility, there would be no more justice in blaming him who should destroy himself on account of the prick of a pin, than for an attack of the gout; for some slight difficulty, than for a real calamity. The smallest sensation of pain may excite rebellious dispositions in the mind, if it tend not towards its perfection; for there is more injustice in a light evil, if unnecessary, than in the heaviest affliction, if it have a noble end in view.

It is not necessary here to recur to the grand metaphysical question of the origin of evil, in the discussion of which philosophers have so vainly interested themselves. We can have no conception of free-will without admitting the possibility of evil; we can have no conception of virtue without free-will; nor of life eternal, without virtue;—this chain, the first link of which is, at the same time, incomprehensible and indispensable, ought to be considered as the condition of our being. If reflection and feeling lead us to believe that there is ever, in the ways of providence, a latent or apparent justice, we cannot consider suffering as either accidental or arbitrary. If we believe that the deity could endow us with unlimited faculties or powers, and that the infinite were thus transferable, we should have as much right to complain of some happiness withheld, as of some trouble imposed. Why should not man as well be incensed at not having always existed, as that he must cease to exist? In short, on what ground do his complaints rest? Is it against the system of the universe that he rebels, or against the part allotted to him in a system, subject to immutable laws? Affliction is one of the essential elements of the means of happiness; and it is impossible to form a conception of the one without the other. The vivacity of our desires is always in proportion to the difficulties with which they have contend; the height of our enjoyments, to the fear of losing them; the strength of our affections, to the dangers which menace the objects of our regard. In a word, the Gordian knot of pleasure and of pain can only be severed by the stroke that terminates existence. Let us submit, say the unfortunate, to the balance of good and evil which belongs to the ordinary course of events; but when we are treated as enemies by destiny we have a right to endeavor to escape its malignity: and yet the regulator which determines the result of this balance is entirely within ourselves: the same sort of life, which reduces one to despair, would fill another with joy, who is placed in a sphere of less elevated hopes. This reflection is not incompatible with what I have said as to the respect we owe to the various modes of feeling: without doubt, the happiness of one may not accord with the character of another; but resignation belongs equally to all. If there are in physical nature two opposite powers, impulse and gravity, which are the causes of the motion of the earth, it may also be asserted that the desire of action, and the necessity of submission, volition, and resignation, are the two poles of moral being, and that the equilibrium of reason is only to be found between them.

The greater part of men can scarcely comprehend more than two powers in life, destiny, and their own will, which is of itself, they believe, sufficient to influence destiny; and hence the general transition from irritation to pride. When they are in a state of irritation, they inveigh against destiny, as children beat the table against which they hurt themselves; and when they are satisfied with the events of life, the attribute them entirely to themselves, deriving a degree of complacency from the means they have employed to direct them, and considering these means as the only source of their felicity. Both these modes of judging are erroneous.

The will of man acts commonly, it is true, in concurrence with destiny; but when this destiny is the result of necessity, that is to say, when it is unalterable, it becomes the manifestation of the designs of providence towards us. A man of genius has observed that ‘necessity invigorates.’ We must rise to a great elevation of thought to adopt this expression in its full extent; but it is certain that we should always have a sort of respect for destiny. It is a power which, sooner or later, unforeseen or anticipated, seizes on a certain epoch of life and determines the course of it; but far from destiny being blind, as we are pleased to imagine it, we have reason to believe that it comprehends us thoroughly, for it scarcely ever fails to assail our inmost weaknesses. It is the secret tribunal which pronounces judgment on us, and when it may appear unjust, perhaps we alone can tell what it would intend and what it would exact.

There is no doubt of our coming forth, sensibly improved, from the trials of adversity, when we submit to them with a becoming fortitude. The greatest faculties of the soul are developed only by suffering, and this purification of ourselves restores us, after a time, to happiness; for the circle closes up again, and carries us back to those days of innocence which preceded our faults. We then abandon virtue when we fly to suicide as a refuge from misfortune; we reject the enjoyments that virtue would bestow by enabling us to triumph over our distresses. The disciples of Plato said that ‘the soul had need of a certain period of sojournment upon earth to become purified from guilty passions.’ We should, in fact, believe that the end of life is properly to renounce it. Physical nature accomplishes this work by destruction, and moral nature by sacrifice. Human existence, rightly conceived, is but the abdication of personality to gain admission into universal order. Children only comprehend themselves, young people each other an the friends who are a part of themselves; but when the presages of decay appear, we must seek consolation in general reflections, or abandon ourselves to all the terrors which the latter part of life presents; for the unfortunate or fortunate circumstances of each individual are of little consequence in comparison with the inflexible laws of nature. Old age and death, much more than our peculiar distresses, should fill us with despair; but we readily submit to an universal condition, and yet rebel against our own portion, without reflecting that the universal condition is found in each lot, and that the distinction is more apparent than real.

In treating of the moral dignity of man, I shall strenuously insist upon the difference which exists between suicide and self-devotion, that is to say, between the sacrifice of ourselves to others, or which is the same thing, to virtue; and the renunciation of existence because it is a burden to us. The motives which lead to this act change entirely the nature of it; for when we abdicate life in order to do good to others, we immolate, if I may use the expression, our body to our soul, whilst, when we destroy ourselves from impatience under misfortune, we sacrifice almost always our conscience to our passions.

It is nevertheless wrong to contend that suicide is an act of cowardice: this strained assertion never convinced any one; but we ought here to distinguish between courage and fortitude. The act of suicide implies contempt of death, but to be unable to endure suffering shows a want of fortitude. A species of frenzy is necessary to subdue in us the instinct of self-preservation, when no religious feeling demands the sacrifice. The generality of those who have unsuccessfully endeavored to destroy themselves have not renewed the attempt, because there is in suicide, as in every extravagant act of the will, a certain degree of folly, which is appeased when it nearly accomplishes the end it had in view. Unhappiness is scarcely ever absolute; its associations with our recollections or our hopes, often constitutes the greater part of it; and when we experience a lively check, our affliction frequently presents itself to our imagination under a very different aspect.

Observe, after a period of ten years, a person who has sustained some great privation, of whatever nature it may be, and you will find that he suffers and enjoys from other causes than those from which ten years ago his misery was derived. It does not, therefore, follow that his is restored to happiness; but hope and fear have changed their course in him; and of the activity of these two passions moral life is composed.

There is one cause of suicide which interests the hearts of most women: it is love. The spell of this passion is no doubt the principal cause of the errors we commit in our judgment on the question of self-destruction. We are willing that love should subjugate the highest powers of the soul, and that nothing should be beyond his empire. All sorts of enthusiasm having encountered the attacks of mocking incredulity, romances have still maintained the delusion of sentiment in those countries of the world, to which good faith has retired: but of all the miseries of love there is but one, it appears to me, which should subdue the energy of the soul; it is the death of the object we love and by whom we are beloved.

An inward horror pervades our nature when the heart with which our existence was blended rests cold in the tomb. This affliction, the only one perhaps which surpassed the strength god has given us to resist suffering, has nevertheless been considered by several moralists as easier to be supported than those in which offended pride is in any respect mingled. In fact, in the misery which is produced by the infidelity of the object of our love, though the heart receives the wound, self-love instills its poisons. Without doubt also, a sentiment nobler than self-love rends our hearts when we are obliged to relinquish the esteem we had conceived for the first object of our affections; when there remains no more of an enthusiasm so profound, than the remembrance of the delusive appearances which gave birth to it. We must, however, in strictness urge, that, in an intimate and sincere union, such as ought to exist between true and pure beings, from the moment that either is unfaithful, or that either has deceived, he becomes unworthy of the sentiment he had inspired. I do not wish by this reasoning to imitate those pedants who reduce the troubles of life to syllogisms. We suffer in a thousand ways, we suffer form various, opposite and contending feelings; and no one has a right to contest the causes of our miseries: but in all the sufferings of the soul, in which self-love has its share, it is as unwise as reprehensible to seek our own destruction: for all that partakes of vanity is necessarily fleeting and we must not accord to that which is fleeting the right to precipitate us into eternity.

A misfortune entirely free from all emotion of pride is then the only one which should lead to suicide; but for the very reason that such a misfortune originates entirely in sensibility, religion can deprive it of its bitterness. Providence, which desires not that the wounds of the human soul should be without a cure, brings relief to him whom he has afflicted beyond his strength. Often, at such a time, the wings of the angel of peace overshadow our dejected heads, and who can say that this angel is not the very object of our regret? Who can say that, touched by our tears, it has not obtained from heaven the power of watching over us?

The pains of sensibility, which self-love embitters, are necessarily moderated by time; and those of an affecting nature, without any mixture of the emotion of pride, inspire a religious disposition, which leads the soul to resignation. The most frequent causes of suicide in modern times are ruin and dishonor. A reverse of fortune, as society is constituted, produces a most acute unhappiness, which multiplies itself in a thousand different ways. The most cruel of all, however, is the loss of the rank we occupied in the world. Imagination has as much to do with the past, as with the future, and we form with our possessions an alliance, whose rupture is most grievous; but, after a time, a new situation presents a new perspective to almost all men. Happiness is so composed of relative sensations, that it is not things in themselves, but their connection with yesterday and to-morrow, which affects the imagination. If destiny or the menaces of a tyrant have led a man to apprehend a certain degree of unhappiness, and he learns that he is to be spared the half of what he dreaded, his impressions will be very different from those he would have experienced, if he had not suffered so great a terror. Destiny has almost always much to do in the composition of our miseries; we may say that he also sometimes repents as well as other sovereigns of causing too much evil.

Opinion exercises over most individuals a degree of influence whose power it is difficult to diminish: the words, ‘I am dishonored,’ affect the whole mind of a social being, and it is not possible to avoid pitying him who sinks under the weight of this misfortune; for, since he feels it so bitterly, it is, in all probability, unmerited: but yet we must range the causes of dishonor in two principal classes; those which are derived from faults with which our conscience reproaches us; and those which originate in involuntary error and are in no wise criminal.

Repentance is necessarily connected with our ideas of divine justice, for if we did not regulate our actions by this supreme standard of equity, we should experience in life nothing but discontent. We must consider existence in two points of view; either as a game, the gain or loss of which consists in the advantages of this world; or as a novicate for immortality. If we regard it as a game, we shall be able to trace in our own conduct only the consequences of true or false reasoning; if we have the life to come in view, it is intention only to which our conscience clings. The man whose views are limited to the interests of this world may suffer discontent, but repentance belongs only to the religious man; and being such, he necessarily feels that expiation is the first duty, and that conscience commands us to endure the consequences of our transgressions, to the end that we may repair them, if possible, by doing good. Merited dishonor is then, to the religious man, a just punishment, from which he believes he has no right to fly; for, although, among human actions, there may be many more perverse than suicide, there is not one which seems so formally to deprive us of the protection of god.

Our passions lead us to many culpable actions which have happiness for their end; but, in suicide, there is a renunciation of all succor from above, that cannot be reconciled with any pious disposition.

He who is truly affected by repentance will exclaim, with the prodigal son: ‘I will arise, and go to my father, and will say unto him, father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.’ With this affecting resignation would a religious being express himself, for the more criminal he believes himself to be, the less would he arrogate to himself the right to quit life, since he has not used the gift as the bestower of it exacts. As for those guilty beings who do not believe in a future existence, and who have lost their consequence in this world, suicide, according to their manner of thinking, has no other inconvenience than to deprive them of the happy chances that might yet remain for them, and each individual can estimate these chances as he chooses, from his calculation probabilities.

I believe we may affirm that unmerited dishonor is never of long duration. The influence of truth on the public is such, that patience only is requisite to restore us to our station. Time has something sacred in it, and seems to act independently of the events it embraces. It is a support for the weak and unfortunate, and, in fact, is one of those mysterious ways by which the deity manifests himself to us. The world, which is in most respects so different a thing from the individual, the world, which is a sensible being, although composed of so many stupid ones, the world, which is liberal, although follies without number are committed by those who make a part of it, the world always concludes by returning to justice, as soon as predominating and momentary circumstances have disappeared. ‘In patience possess ye your souls,’ says the gospel, and this counsel of piety is also that of reason. When we reflect on the holy writings, we find in them and admirable combination of the best precepts for conducting ourselves with success in this world, and often also the best means of obtaining it. Physical suffering, incurable infirmity, in short, all such miseries as are inseparable from corporeal existence, would seem to constitute one of the most plausible causes of suicide; and yet, scarcely ever, particularly among the moderns, does this species of misery occasion it. Miseries which are in the ordinary course of events may overcome us, but do not excite us to rebel against our condition. It is essential that irritation should be mingled with our feelings before we can be enraged against destiny, and wish to liberate ourselves from its evils, or revenge ourselves against it, as an oppressor. There is a singular kind of error in the manner in which most men consider their destiny. This error has so much influence on the impressions of the mind, that we cannot too often contemplate it under various aspects. Indeed, a community of suffering is sufficient to make us resigned to the most distressing events, and we find injustice only in those afflictions which are peculiarly our own. And yet, are not these varieties , as well as these resemblances, for the most part counterbalanced? And are they not all, I repeat it, equally comprised in the laws of nature? I shall not dwell upon the common consolations that may be derived from the hope of a change in our circumstances; there are some afflictions which are not susceptible of this sort of comfort: but I believe we may boldly affirm, that all who have resorted to an active and steady employment have found an alleviation of their distress. There is an object in all occupations, and it is an object that man constantly requires. Our faculties devour us, like the vulture of Prometheus, when they have no external cause of action, and employment exercises and directs these faculties: in short, when we possess imagination, and most people in sorrow have a great deal, we can always find renovated pleasure in the master-pieces of the human mind, either as amateurs of artists. A celebrated woman has remarked that ‘ennui is mingled in all our distresses,’ and this reflection is full profundity. True ennui, that of active minds, is the absence of all interest in what surrounds us, combined with faculties, which render this interest essential to us; it is thirst without the possibility of quenching it. Tantalus is a just image of the soul in this state. Occupation gives a zest to existence, and the fine arts contain, at the same time, the originality of particular objects, and the grandeur of universal ideas. They preserve our relation with nature; we might love her without the aid of these charming mediators, but they teach us the better to appreciate her.


What Are the Laws which the Christian Religion Imposes on Us, in Relation to Suicide?

When the ancient man of sorrows, Job, was stricken with every evil, when he had lost his fortune and his children, and when frightful physical afflictions made him suffer a thousand deaths, his wife advised him to renounce life. ‘Curse god,’ said she, ‘and die.’—‘What,’ replied he, ‘I have received good at the hand of god, and shall I not receive evil?’ And in whatsoever depth of depair he was plunged, he was resigned to his fate, and his patience was rewarded. It is supposed that Job preceded Moses; he existed, at least, long before the coming of Jesus Christ, and at a time when the hope of the soul’s immortality was not yet assured to mankind. What would he then have thought at the present time? We see in the bible, men, such as Samson and the Maccabees, who devoted themselves to death, to accomplish a design they believed to be noble and salutary; but in no part do we find examples of suicide, of which disgust to life or its troubles is the only cause; in no part has that species of suicide, which is only a desertion from destiny, been considered as possible. It has been frequently asserted, that there is no passage in the gospel which indicates a formal disapprobation of this act. Jesus Christ, in his discourses, rather ascends to the principles of action than enters into a particular application of the law; but is it not enough, that the general spirit of the gospel tends to hallow resignation?

‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ said Jesus Christ, ‘for they shall be comforted. If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, for my sake.’ Jesus Christ every where announces that his mission is, to teach man that the design of misfortune is the purification of the soul, and that celestial happiness is obtained by pious endurance of our miseries on earth. The interpretation of the doubtful meaning of affliction, is the special intention of the doctrine of Jesus Christ.

We find many good things respecting social morality in the Hebrew prophets and in the Pagan philosophers; but it was to teach charity, patience, and faith, that Jesus Christ descended upon earth; and these three virtues all alike tend to the relief of the unhappy. The first, charity, teaches us our duty towards them; the second, patience, teaches them to what consolations they ought to have recourse, and the third faith, announces to them their recompense. Most of the precepts of the gospel would want foundation if suicide were permitted; for, from misfortune we learn the necessity of appealing to heaven, and the insufficiency of the goods of this world is what, above all, renders another life necessary.

We must not disdain, in whatever misery we may be plunged, the primitive gifts of our creator, life and nature. A social being places too much importance upon the tissue of circumstances of which his individual history is composed. Existence is in itself a marvelous thing; the happiness of the savage is derived from it alone; sick people often pray for nothing else; the prisoner considers liberty as the supreme good; the blind man would willingly give all he possessed for the blessing of sight; the climates of the south, which give life to colors and develop perfumes, produce an undefinable impression; the consolations of philosophy have less empire over us than the enjoyments we derive from the spectacle of heaven and earth. Among our means of happiness then the power of reflection is most valuable. We are so contracted in ourselves, so many things agitate and wound us, that we have constantly need to plunge into this boundless sea of thoughts, where we must, as in the Styx, become invulnerable, or altogether resigned.

No one will venture to say that we can endure every calamity we are subjected to in this world, nor will any one dare to place such confidence in his own strength as to make this assertion. There are but few beings endowed with such superior faculties that despair has not reached them more than once; and life appears but as a protracted shipwreck, the fragments of which are friendship, love and glory. The borders of the stream of time are covered with them; but if we have preserved the internal harmony of the soul, we may yet hold communion with the works of the deity.

The mercy of heaven, the stillness of death, the beauty of the universe, which was not designed to show man his own insignificance, but as an earnest of better days; some noble thoughts, always the same; are like the harmony of creation, and restore us to tranquility when we are accustomed to comprehend them. From these sources the hero and the poet draw their inspirations; why then would not some drops from the cup, which elevates them above humanity, be salutary for all?

We accuse destiny of malignity because its blows are always aimed at the tenderest part of us. This is not attributable to the malignity of destiny but to the impetuosity of our desires, which precipitates us against the obstacles we encounter, as we run deeper upon the sword of our adversary in the ardor of combat: and besides, the instruction we should receive from misfortune necessarily applies to that part of our character which stands most in need of reproof. We cannot admit the belief of god without supposing that he directs in its influence upon men: we cannot then consider this destiny as a blind power; it remains to be considered whether he who governs it has given to man the liberty of submitting to or flying from it. I shall examine this in the second part of these reflections.

It is seldom that individuals, in the intoxication of prosperity, preserve a holy respect for sacred things. The allurements of this world are so brilliant as to darken all other joys, even the glory of a future existence. A German philosopher, disputing with his friends, once said, ‘To obtain such a thing, I would give millions of years of my eternal felicity,’ and he was singularly moderate in the sacrifice he offered; for temporal enjoyments have generally much more activity than religious hopes; and spiritual life, or Christianity, which is the same thing, would not exist, if sorrow dwelt not in the heart of man. Premeditated suicide is incompatible with Christian faith, because this faith rests chiefly on the different duties of resignation. With respect to suicide resulting from a moment of delirium, from an excess of despair, it is not probable the divine legislator of men had occasion to notice it among the Jews, who rarely offered examples of this sort of offence. He unceasingly combated, in the Pharisees, the vices of hypocrisy, of unbelief, and of hardness of heart. Indeed, he appears to have considered the faults of the passions as the disease of the soul, and not as its habitual state, and always to have appealed rather to the general spirit of morality than to the precepts which grow out of circumstances.

Jesus Christ constantly directed man to occupy himself with life as it has relation to immortality only. ‘Then, why take ye thought for raiment,’ said he, ‘consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin; yet Solomon, in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these.’ It is not slothfulness nor indifference that Jesus Christ inculcates by this passage, but a sort of calm which would be useful even as it regards the interests of this world. Warriors call this sentiment confidence in their good fortune; religious men, the hope of divine assistance; but both the one and the other find in this internal disposition of the soul a support, which, while it enables them to form a clearer judgment of the circumstances of this life, at the same time affords the means of escaping from them. We believe we can obtain our emancipation from the tyranny of human events by determining to destroy ourselves if we do not attain the end of our desires. Under this idea, we consider ourselves as entirely at our own disposal; and free to relinquish life when we are no longer content with the condition of it. If the gospel accorded with this manner of thinking, we should find in it some lessons of prudence; but all those which relate to virtue would have a very limited application, for virtue consists only in the preference we give to others, that is to say, to our duty over our personal interests: now, when we renounce life, merely because we are not happy, we prefer ourselves to all the world, and become, if I may be allowed the expression, egotists in suicide.

Of all the religious arguments which have been adduced against suicide, that which has been most frequently reiterated, is that it is formally comprised in the prohibition expressed by the commandment of god: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Without doubt, this argument might also be admitted; but as it is impossible to consider the suicide in the same light with the assassin, the true point of view of this question is, that happiness not being the end of human life, man ought to aim at perfection, and consider his duties as necessarily connected with his sufferings. Marcus Aurelius said that ‘there was no more crime in leaving him than a room that smokes:’ certainly, if it were so, instances of suicide would be still more frequent than they are; for it is difficult, when the illusion of youth is past, to reflect on the course of things, and still to preserve our attachment to existence. We might adhere to this existence, through fear of leaving it; but if this motive alone retained us upon earth, all those who have conquered fear, by the force of military habits, all those whose imaginations are more terrified by the phantom of life than by that of death, would spare themselves their latter days, which repeat in so melancholy a tone the brilliant airs of our youth.

J. J. Rousseau, in his letter in favor of suicide, says, ‘Why, if we are allowed to cut off a leg, are we not also permitted to take away our lives?’ Has not the will of god given us the one as well as the other?’ A passage of the gospel seems to reply texturally to this sophism: ‘If thy right hand offend thee,’ says Jesus Christ ‘cut it off. If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.’ What the gospel here says, applies to temptation, and not suicide; but nevertheless it is sufficient to refute the argument of J. J. Rousseau. Man is permitted to seek a cure for all his evils; but it is forbidden him to destroy his being, or in other words, the power he has received of choosing between good and evil. He exists by this power, he ought to be regenerated by it, and to this principle of action, to which the exercise of free will entirely belongs, every thing is subordinate.

Jesus Christ, in encouraging man to endure the pains of life, repeats unceasingly the efficacy of prayer. ‘Knock,’ says he, ‘and it shall be opened unto you; ask and it shall be given unto you.’ But the hopes he presents relate not to the events of this life; it is the disposition of the soul upon which prayer exerts the greatest influence. Peace of mind and the prosperities of the world are both alike denominated by the word happiness; and yet, no two things are so different as these sources of enjoyment. The philosophers of the eighteenth century have founded morality on the positive advantages it procures in this world, and have considered it as personal interest, well understood. Christians have fixed the centre of our greatest enjoyments in the bottom of the soul. Philosophers promise temporal benefits to those who are virtuous; they are right, in some respects; for, in the ordinary course of things, it is very probable that the blessings of this life will accompany a course of moral conduct; but if our confidence in this should be deceived, despair would then be lawful; for, considering virtue only as a speculation, when it is unsuccessful we may abandon existence. Christianity, on the contrary, places happiness above all, in the impressions we receive from conscience. Have we not experienced, independently of religious feelings, and our internal disposition has not always agreed with our circumstances, and that we have often felt more or less happy, than we ought to be, after an examination of our situation? If the mere force of the mobility of our nature is sufficient to produce such an effect, how much more power ought the holy and secret operation of piety to have upon the soul! How often have those virtuous beings whom affliction has visited, found an unexpected calm in the bottom of their hearts! An unknown celestial music is heard in the desert, and seems to announce that the fountain will soon spring, even from the bosom of the rock.

When we have beheld Louis XVI, the purest and most respectable victim that faction could immolate, led to the scaffold, we cannot but demand what relief the hand of God stretched forth to him in the abyss of misery? Of a sudden the voice of an angel is heard, who under the form of a minister of the church, says to him, Son of Saint Louis, rise to heaven?’ His worldly grandeur, his heavenly hopes were all united in these simple words. They uplifted him, by recalling to him his illustrious race from the debasement into which man had wished to plunge him; they invoked the shades of his ancestors, who, without doubt, already stretched forth their crowns to welcome the coming of the august saint to heaven. Perhaps, at this moment, the eye of faith made him no longer. He approached the limits of time, and our calculation of its hours concerned him no longer. Who knows with what blissful emotion a single moment of tender reflection at that time filled his soul!

While the blood-stained executioner bound those hands, which has wielded the scepter of France, the same missionary of god said to his king, ‘Sire, it was thus that our lord was led to death.’ What aid did he not impart to the martyr, by presenting to his view his divine model! In fact, is not the most glorious example of the sacrifice of life the basis of the Christian’s belief? And does not this example mark the difference which exists between the martyr and the suicide? The martyr serves the cause of virtue, by yielding up his blood for the instruction of the world: the suicide perverts all idea of courage, and scandalizes even death itself. The martyr teaches man the power of conscience, it subdues the most powerful physical instinct; the suicide also proves the power of will, over instinct, but it is that of an unsteady charioteer, who can no longer hold the reins, but precipitates himself into the abyss, instead of conducting in safety to the goal. Indeed, in committing this terrible act, the soul is wrought to a pitch of frenzy, which concentrates, in an instant, an eternity of pain.

The last scene of the life of Jesus Christ appears destined, above all, to confound those who believe they have the right to destroy themselves in order to escape misfortune. The dread of suffering seized upon him, who had voluntarily devoted himself to the death, as well as to the life of man. He prayed a long time to his father, on the mount of Olives, and his soul was exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death. ‘My father,’ cried he, ‘if it be possible let this cup pass from me!’ Three times he repeated this prayer, his countenance bathed in tears. All our pains had passed into his divine being. He feared, like us, the outrageous of man; like us, perhaps, he regretted those he had loved, his mother and his disciples; like us, and more than us, perhaps, he loved this fruitful earth, and the celestial pleasures of an active beneficences, for which returned thanks to his father every day. But not being able to avert the cup to which he was destined, he cried, ‘Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done, O, my father,’ and replaced himself in the hands of his enemies. What more would we seek in the gospel on resignation in affliction, and the duty of supporting it with courage and patience? The resignation we obtain from religious faith is a species of moral suicide, and it is in that it so much differs from suicide, properly so called, for the renunciation of self has for its end the sacrifice of ourselves to our fellow creatures; while suicide, caused by a disgust of life, is only the bloody mourning of personal happiness. Saint Paul says, ‘She that liveth in pleasure, is dead while she liveth.’ In every line of the holy writings we see this great misunderstanding between the beings of time and those of eternity; the first make life consist in what the last regard as death. It is then plain that the opinion of beings of time consecrates the suicide, while that of the beings of eternity exalts the martyr: for he who grounds morality on the happiness it may produce upon earth, hates life when it does not realize its promises; whilst he who makes true felicity consist in the internal emotion, which sentiments and thoughts in communication with the deity excite, can be happy in spite of men, and, if I may use the expression, in defiance of destiny. When the experience of existence has taught us the vanity of our own strength, and the almighty power of god, it often works in the soul a sort of regeneration, the delights of which are inexpressible. Then it is that we become accustomed to judge ourselves, as we judge of others; to place our conscience as a third person between our personal interests and those of our adversaries; we are passive as to our destiny, certain that we cannot direct it; we are passive also as regards our self-love, certain that it is not ourselves but the world that casts our character: we are passive, in fine, as to that hardest of all human trials, the wrongs and injuries of friendship; whether it be by recollection of our own imperfections, or by confiding to the tomb of the being who has best loved us our most secret thoughts; or, finally, by raising towards heaven the sensibility it has bestowed upon us. How great it the difference between this religious denial of terrestrial strife, and the frenzy which leads to suicide as a refuge from suffering. The renunciation of ourselves is in every respect opposed to suicide.

Besides, how can we be assured that suicide will deliver us from the evils which pursue us? What certainty can atheists have of annihilation or philosophers of the mode of existence nature has reserved for them? While Socrates taught to the Greek the immortality of the soul, many of his disciples committed suicide, greedy to taste of this intellectual life, of which the confused images of paganism had not given them the idea. The emotion excited by so novel a doctrine led their ardent imaginations astray; but, can Christians, to whom the promises of a future life have been extended only in connection with menaces of punishment to the guilty, can they hope that suicide will be the means of extricating them from the troubles which overwhelm them? If the soul survives death, will not the sentiment which filled it entirely, whatever may be its nature, still make a part of it? Who among us knows what connection is established between the recollections of earth and celestial enjoyments? Is it for us to draw near, by our own resolution, to this unknown region, from which, at the same time a secret dread repulse us? How can we annihilate, by the caprice of our will, (and I denominate thus every act not founded upon duty) the work of God in us? How shall we determine our death, when we had no power over our birth? How answer for our eternal destiny, when the most trifling actions of this brief existence have often filled us with the most bitter regret? Who will dare believe himself wiser and stronger than destiny, and venture so say to it—this is too much?

Suicide draws us from nature as well as from its author. Natural death is almost always softened by the enfeebling of our strength, and the exaltation of virtue sustains us in the sacrifice of life to our duty: but the suicide seems to spring with hostile arms beyond the borders of the tomb, and defies alone the images of horror and of darkness.

Oh! What despair is required for such an act! May pity, the most profound pity, be granted to him who is guilty of it! But, at least, let him not mingle human pride with it. Let not the wretch believe himself the more a man, for being the less a Christian, and let a reflecting being know ever where to place the true moral dignity of man.

Of the Moral Dignity of Man

Almost every individual aims here below either at his physical well-being or at his consideration in the world, and the greater part of mankind at both united: but consideration, in the estimation of some, consists in the ascendancy which power and fortune bestow, and in that of others, in the respect which talents and virtue inspire. Those who seek riches and power are also desirous to be thought possessed of moral qualities, and above all, of superior faculties; but this last is a secondary end, which must give place to the first; for a certain depraved knowledge of the human race, teaches us, that the solid advantages of life command the interests of men still more than their esteem.

We will set aside, as foreign from our subject, those whose ambition has only power and riches for its end; but we will examine with attention in what the moral dignity of man consists; and this examination will lead us necessarily to judge the action of self-destruction under two opposite points of view; the sacrifice inspired by virtue, and the disgust which results from mistaken passions. We have opposed, in respect to religion, the martyr to the suicide; we may also, in respect to moral dignity, present the contrast of devotion to duty, with rebellion against our condition.

Devotion generally leads us rather to submit to death, than to be instrumental in bringing it upon ourselves; yet, there were among the ancients suicides from devotion. Curtis, precipitating himself to the depth of the abyss, that he might cause it to close; Cato, stabbing himself to teach the world that there still existed a soul free under Caesar’s dominion, did not destroy themselves to escape from misery; the one wished to save his country, and the other gave the universe an example whose ascendancy still continues. Cato passed the night preceding his death in reading the Phaedon of Socrates, and the Phaedon explicitly condemns suicide, but this great citizen knew that he did not die for himself but for the cause of liberty; and, according to circumstances, this cause may teach us to await death, like Socrates, or to be ourselves the instrument of it, like Cato.

The characteristic of the true moral dignity of man, is devotion to duty. What we do for ourselves may have a sort of grandeur which excites surprise; but admiration is only due to the sacrifice of selfish feeling, under whatever from in may appear. Elevation of soul constantly tends to free us from what is purely individual, for the purpose of uniting us to the great views of the creator of the universe. Love and reflection comfort and exalt us only by withdrawing us from all egotistical impressions. Devotion and enthusiasm infuse a purer air into our breasts. Self-love, irritation, impatience, are the enemies against which conscience obliges us to combat, and the tissue of our lives is almost entirely composed of the continual action and reaction of internal strength against external circumstances, and of external circumstances against internal strength. Conscience is the true standard of the greatness of man, but it has only a claim to our admiration in the generous being, who opposes duty himself, and can sacrifice himself when duty commands him to do so.

Genius and talent can produce great effects upon this earth; but when the object of their exercise is the personal ambition of him who possesses them, they no longer constitute the divine nature of man. They only serve for address, for prudence, for all those worldly qualities, the type of which is found in animals, although the perfection of them belongs to man. The paw of the fox, and the pen of him who barters his opinion for his interest, are one and the same thing in respect to moral dignity. The man of genius who serves himself at the expense of the happiness of his fellow-creatures, whatever eminent faculties he may be endowed with, acts always with regard to self; and in this respect the principle of his conduct is the same with that of animals. What distinguishes conscience from instinct is sentiment and the knowledge of duty, and duty always consists in the sacrifice of self to others. The whole problem of moral life is included in this principle; the whole dignity of the human being is in proportion to its strength, not only against death, but against the interests of existence. The other impulse, that is to say, that which overthrows the obstacles opposed to our desires, has success for its recompense, as well as its end; but it is not more wonderful to make use of our intelligence to subject others to our passions, than to employ our feet in walking, or our hands in taking, and, in the estimate of moral qualities, it is the motive of actions which alone determines their worth.

Hegesippus of Cyrene, a disciple of Aristippus, discoursed in favor of suicide as well as sensuality. He contended that man should have no object but pleasure in this world; but as it is very difficult to insure our own enjoyments, he advised death to those who could not obtain them. This doctrine is one of those by which we can best determine the motives of suicide, and it evinces the species of egotism which mingles, as I have before observed, in the very act by which we would annihilate ourselves.

A Swedish professor, named Robeck, wrote a long work upon suicide, and killed himself after having composed it: he says in his book, that we should encourage a contempt of life, even to suicide. Do not the most profligate also despise life? Every thing consists in the sentiment to which we make the sacrifice. Suicide, regarding only self, which we have carefully distinguished from the sacrifice of existence to virtue, proves but one thing in point of courage, which is, that the will of the soul overcomes physical instinct: thousands of soldiers afford constant evidence of this truth. Animals, it is said, never kill themselves. Actions, which are the result of reflection, are incompatible with their nature; they appear to be enchained but the present, ignorant of the future, and gathering only habits from the past: but as soon as their passions become roused, they brave pain, and this greatest pain which we term death; of which, without doubt, they have not the least idea. The courage of a great many men also partakes of this want of thought. Robeck was wrong in extolling the contempt of life so highly. There are two ways of sacrificing life, either because we give duty the preference, or because we give our passions this preference, in not wishing to live when we have lost the hope of happiness. This last sentiment cannot merit esteem: but to fortify ourselves by our own thoughts, in the midst of the reverses of life; to make ourselves a defense against ourselves, in opposing the calm of conscience to the irritation of temperament: this is true courage, in comparison with which, that which springs from instinct, is very little, and that which is the fruit of self-love, still less. Some people pretend, that there are circumstances in which, feeling ourselves a burden upon others, we may make a duty of ridding them of the encumbrance. One of the great means of introducing errors in morality is, to fancy situations, to which there would be nothing to reply, if it were not that they do not exist. Who is so unfortunate as to find no fellow-creature to whom he may impart consolation? Who is so unhappy, that by his patience and his resignation, he may not give an example to move the soul, and give birth to sentiments, that the best precepts have never been able to inspire. The half of life is its decline: what has then been the intention of the creator in presenting this melancholy perspective to man, to man whose imagination has need of hope, and who counts as nothing what he has, except as the means of obtaining yet more! It is clear that the creator has willed that mortal man should obtain a mastery over self, and that he should commence this great act of dis-interestedness long before the degradation his strength should render it more easy to him.

When you reach the age of maturity, you are already in every thing reminded of your death. Do you marry your children? You make an estimate yourself of the fortune they may have when you shall be no more. Paternal duty consists in a continual devotion; and as soon as children attain the age of reason, almost all the enjoyments they afford are grounded on the sacrifice we make to them. If then happiness were the only end of life, we should destroy ourselves as soon as we cease to be young, as soon as we descend the mountain, whose summit appeared environed with so many brilliant illusions.

A man of wit, who was complimented on the fortitude with which he had supported great reverses, replies ‘I have sufficient consolation in being only twenty five years old.’ In fact, there are very few griefs more bitter than the loss of youth. Man accustoms himself to it by degrees, it will be said. Without doubt, time is an ally of reason, and weakens the resistance it meets with in us; but where is the impetuous soul, which is not irritated at the approaches of old age? Do the passions always decay with the faculties? Do we not often see the spectacle of the punishment of Mezentius renewed by the union of a soul still alive and a ruined body, inseparable enemies? Of what use would this sad herald be, which nature causes to precede dissolution, if it were not ordained that we should exist without happiness, and abdicate each day, flower after flower, the crown of life.

Savages, having no idea of the religious or philosophical destiny of man, believe they perform a duty to their parents by depriving them of life when they become old; this act is founded on the same principle as suicide. It is certain that happiness, in the acceptation given it by the passions, that the enjoyments of self-love at least, exist but in a small degree for old age; but it is this, which , by the development of moral dignity, seems to announce the approach of another life, as in the long days of the north, the twilight of the evening is confounded with the dawn of the ensuing day. I have seen these venerable countenances absorbed entirely with the future; they seem to announce, as a prophet, the old man who no longer interests himself with the remainder of his life, but is regenerated, by the elevation of his soul, as if he had already passed the barriers of the tomb. It is thus we must arm ourselves against misfortune; it is thus that in the strength of life itself, destiny often gives the signal of this detachment from existence, that time sooner or later exacts from us. ‘You have very humble thoughts,’ some men will say, convinced that pride consists in what we exact from destiny, and from others; while, on the contrary, it consists in what we exact from ourselves. These very men contrast Christianity with the philosophy of the ancients, and pretend that their doctrine was much more favorable to energy of character, than that whose foundation is resignation: but certainly we must not confound resignation to the will of God with condescension to the power of man. Those heroic citizens of antiquity, who would have endured death rather than slavery, were capable of a pious submission to the power of heaven; while modern writers, who pretend that Christianity weakens the soul, could very well bend, notwithstanding their apparent strength, to tyranny, with more suppleness than a feeble but Christian-like old man.

Socrates, that saint of sages, refused to make his escape from prison after he was condemned to death. He believed he ought to set an example of obedience to the magistrates of his country, although they were unjust to him. Does not this sentiment belong to the true firmness of character? What greatness likewise was there not in that philosophical discourse on the immortality of the soul, continued so calmly, even to the very moment when the poison was brought to him! For two thousand years, men of profound thought, heroes, poets, and artists, have consecrated the death of Socrates by their praise; but the thousands of instances of suicide, caused by disgust and ennui, with which the annals of every corner of the world are filled, what traces have they left in the remembrance of posterity?

If the ancients were proud of Socrates, Christians, even without including the martyrs, can present a great number of example of this noble strength of mind, in comparison with which the irritation or the depression, which leads us to destroy ourselves, is deserving only of pity. Sir Thomas More, Chancellor of Henry VIII., during a whole year of close confinement in the tower of London, refused day after day, the offers that an all-powerful king made him, to return to his service, if he would suppress the scruples of conscience which withheld him. Thomas More know how to confront death during a year: and to abandon life, still loving it, re-double the greatness of the sacrifice. A celebrated writer, he loved those intellectual occupations which fill every hour with a still increasing interest. A beloved daughter capable of appreciating the genius of her father, diffused an habitual charm throughout his household; he was in a dungeon, through the grates of which only a glimmering light, broken by the dark bars, could penetrate. While near this horrible abode, a delicious estate on the verdant borders of the Thames offered to him the union of every pleasure that the affection of his family and philosophical studies could impart. Nevertheless, he was immoveable; the scaffold could not intimidate him: his health, cruelly impaired, weakened not his resolution; he found strength in that fire of the soul, which is inexhaustible because it is eternal. He met death because it was his choice, sacrificing happiness, with life, to conscience; immolating every enjoyment to this sentiment of duty, the greatest wonder of moral nature; that which fertilizes the heart, as, in physical order, the sun enlightens the world. England, the birth-place of this virtuous man, where so many other citizens have so unostentatiously sacrificed their lives to virtue, England, I say, is nevertheless the country in which suicide is most frequently committed: and we are with reason, astonished that a nation, in which religion exercises so noble an empire, should offer the example of such an aberration: but they, who represent the English as cold in character, suffer themselves to be entirely deceived by the reserve of their manner. The English character, in general, is very active, and even impetuous; their admirable constitution, which develops the moral faculties in the highest degree, is of itself able to sustain their need of action and reflection; monotony of existence does not suit them, although they often inflict it upon themselves; they then diversify, by the exercises of the body, the sort of life which to us appears uniform.

No nation loves enterprise so much as the English, and from one end of the world to the other, from the falls of the Rhine, to the cataracts of the Nile, if anything singular and daring is attempted, it is by an Englishman. Extraordinary wagers, sometimes even blamable excesses, are a proof of the vehemence of their character. Their respect for all laws, that is to say, for moral law, for political law, and the laws of decorum, represses the outward indications of their natural ardor; but it does not the less exist; and when circumstances do not give it nourishment, when ennui takes possession of their lively imaginations, it produces incalculable ravages.

It is also maintained, that the climate of England tends particularly to melancholy: I cannot judge of it, for the sky of liberty has always appeared to me purer than any other; but I cannot think that we ought to attribute the frequent examples of suicide altogether to this physical cause. The climate of the north is much less agreeable than that of England, and yet they are less subject to disgust of life, because the mind has there less need of impulse and variety. Another cause also which renders suicide more frequent in England is the extreme importance which is attached to public opinion: as soon as a man’s reputation is impaired, life becomes insupportable to him. This great dread of censure is certainly a very salutary restraint for most men; but there is something still more sublime in having an asylum in ourselves, and there to find, as in a sanctuary, the voice of God inviting us to repent of our faults, or recompensing us for our secret good intentions.

Suicide is very rare among the people of the south. The air they breathe attaches them to life; the empire of public opinion is less absolute in a country where there is less need of society; the enjoyments of nature suffice for the rich as well as the poor; there is something in the spring of Italy which communicates happiness to every being.

Germany furnishes many examples of suicide, but the causes are various, and often whimsical, as is natural amongst a people, where a metaphysical enthusiasm prevails, which has yet no fixed object nor useful end. The defects of the Germans are much more the result of their situation, than of their character, and they will no doubt correct them, when there shall exist among them a political state of things, that will call into action men worthy of being citizens.

An event that happened recently at Berlin, may give an idea of the singular exaltation of which the Germans are susceptible.* The particular motives, which could lead any two individuals astray, are of little importance; but the enthusiasm with which an act has been spoken of, which ought rather to sue for indulgence, merits the most serious attention. If two persons, profoundly unhappy, had destroyed themselves after imploring the commiseration of sensible beings, and recommending themselves to the prayers of the pious, no one could have refused a tear to grief, that had driven them to distraction, whatever had been the species of folly to which it prompted. But can any one represent a mutual assassination as the sublime of reason, of religion, and of love! Can we give the name of virtue to the conduct of a woman, who voluntarily absolves herself from the duties of daughter, wife, and mother,—to that of a man who lends her his courage, thus to get rid of life!

What! This woman has sufficient confidence in the action she is committing, to write before she dies, ‘that she will watch over her daughter fro heaven:’ and while the righteous often tremble on the bed of death, she feels assured of celestial happiness! Two beings said to be estimable, introduce religion as a third, into the most bloody of actions! Two Christians bring murder into comparison with the communion, by leaving open beside them the canticle, chanted by the faithful, when they meet together to offer up their vows of obedience to the divine model of patience and resignation! What delirium in the woman, and what an abuse of faculties in the man! For must he not have regarded himself as an assassin, although he had obtained the consent of the wretched being he destroyed? Did the ever-fluctuating will of a human being give to a fellow creature the right of infringing the eternal principles of justice and humanity! He killed himself, it will be said, almost at the same moment with his friend; but can any one believe he has so ferocious a right over the life of another, at the same time also that he takes away his own!

And had this man, who wished to die, no country? Could he not have fought for it? Was there no noble or perilous enterprise in which he might have set a glorious example? What is that he has given? He did not expect, I imagine, that mankind would one day agree to renounce, in the sight of heaven, the gift of life; and yet, what other consequence could be drawn from the suicide of these two persons, who, as is supposed, knew no other misfortune than that of existence?

What then: there remained to these faithful friends a year perhaps, at least a day, to see and hear each other, and they voluntarily destroyed this happiness. One of them was capable of deforming those features in which he had read noble thoughts; the other no longer wished to hear the voice which had excited them in her soul; and every thing descriptive of hatred they called love! The most perfect innocence, we are assured, was mingled with it; is this enough to justify so barbarous a weakness? And what advantage do not such delusions give to those who consider enthusiasm as an evil! True enthusiasm should be the companion of reason, because it is the heat that develops it. Can there exist opposition between two qualities natural to the soul, and which are both rays of the same fire? When we say that reason is irreconcilable with enthusiasm, it is because we put calculation in the place of reason, and folly in the place of enthusiasm. There is reason in enthusiasm, and enthusiasm in reason, whenever they spring from nature and are without any mixture of affectation.

We are astonished at discovering affectation and vanity in a suicide; those sentiments, so contemptible even in this life, what do they not become in the presence of death? It appears that nothing is so profound, nor so powerful, as to prove a barrier against the most terrible of acts: but man has so much difficulty in picturing to himself the end of his existence, that he associates even with the tomb the most miserable interests of this world. In fact, we cannot avoid discerning sentimental affectation on the one side, and philosophical vanity on the other, in the manner in which the double suicide at Berlin was accomplished. The mother sends her daughter to an entertainment the night before she intended to kill herself, as if the death of a mother ought to be considered as a festival by her child, and as if it were already necessary to fill her young heart with the most false impressions of a bewildered imagination! This mother clothes herself in new attire as a holy victim; in her letter to her family she enters into a minute detail of household affairs, in order to show her indifference as to the act she is about to commit; indifference, great God, in disposing of herself without thy order! In passing from life to death without the aid of duty or nature to overleap the abyss!

The man, who, about to kill his friend, solemnizes a festival with her, and excites himself by songs and liquors, as it he feared the return of just and reasonable emotions: this man, I say, does he not resemble an author destitute of genius, who has recourse to a real catastrophe to produce effect she could not attain in fiction! True superiority of every kind has nothing of caprice in it: it is a more energetic and profound intensity in the impressions which the mass of mankind experiences. Genius is, in many respects, popular; that is to say, it has points of contact with the manner in which most people fell. It is not thus, with a bombastic mind, or a disordered imagination: those who torment themselves to attract public attention, by withdrawing it from others, fancy they have made discoveries in the unexplored regions of the human heart. They go so far as to imagine that what is revolting to the feelings of the greater part of the world is of a more elevated character than that which touches and captivates them. What a gigantic vanity is that which places us, if I may so speak, out of our kind. The eloquence and the inspiration of genius revives what had often existed in the hears of the most obscured individuals, and subdues their apathy or vulgar interests. Great minds, by their writings or their actions, some times scatter the ashes which covered the sacred fire: but to create, so to speak, a new world, in which it will be virtuous to abandon our duties; religious, to rebel against divine authority; affectionate, to immolate what is dear to us; is the melancholy result of sentiments without harmony, of faculties without force, and of a desire of that celebrity, to the attainment of which, the gifts of nature are not subsidiary.

I should not have taken the pains to dwell upon an act of madness, which may be excused by peculiar circumstances, of the details of which we are to a certain extent ignorant, if the event had not found apologists in Germany. The taste of German writers for the spirit of hypothesis is found in almost all the relations of life; they cannot be prevailed upon to devote all the powers of the soul to simple and acknowledged truths; it may be said they are as ambitious to make innovations in sentiment and conduct as in literature. Yet physical nature invents nothing better than the sun, the sea, forests, and rivers. Why then should not the affections of the heart also be always the same in their principle although varied in their effects? Is there not much more soul in what is understood by all, than in these human creations, invented, so to speak, like a fiction made at pleasure?

The Germans are endowed with most excellent qualities, and most extensive understandings; but it is from books the greater part of them are formed, and the result is a habit of analysis and sophistry, a certain research after ingenuity, which effects the manly decision of their conduct. The energy that knows not where to employ itself, inspires the most extravagant resolutions: but when they shall be able to consecrate their powers to the independence of their country, when they shall be regenerated as a nation, and thus reanimate the heart of Europe, paralyzed by slavery, we shall hear no more of sickly sentimentality; of literary suicides; of abstracted commentaries on subjects which shock the soul; they must then imitate those strong and hardy people of antiquity, whose character, constant upright, and resolute, never suffered them to undertake any thing arduous without accomplishing it; who considered it as pusillanimous for a citizen to shrink from a patriotic resolution, as for a soldier to fly on the day of battle.

The gift of existence is a constant miracle; the thoughts and feelings, which compose it, have something so sublime in them, that we cannot, without astonishment, contemplate our being by the aid of the faculties of this being. Shall we then squander, in a moment of impatience and ennui, the breath by which we have felt love, recognized genius, and adored the deity? Shakespeare says, in speaking of suicide,

—‘And then, what’s brave, what’s noble,

Let’s do it after the high Roman fashion,

And make death proud to take us.’

In short, if we are incapable of that Christian resignation, which makes us submit to the ordeal of life, at least we should return to the classical beauty of character of the ancients, and make glory our divinity, when we do not feel ourselves able to sacrifice this glory itself to the highest of all virtues.

We believe we have shown that suicide, whose end is, to rid ourselves of life, carries with it no character of devotion to duty, and cannot, of course, merit the name of enthusiasm.

Genius, and even courage, are only worthy of commendation when they tend to this devotion, which is able to produce greater miracles than genius. We have seen the greatest ability overcome, but the combination of religious and patriotic sentiment never is subdued. There is nothing truly great without the mixture of some virtue; every other rule of judgment necessarily leads to error. The events of this world, however important they may appear to us, are sometimes moved by the smallest springs, and chance has much to do with them. But there is neither littleness nor chance in a generous sentiment; whether it impel us to offer up life, or only exact the sacrifice of a day; whether it win a diadem, or be lost in oblivion; whether it inspire master-pieces of art, or prompt: to obscure benefits, is of no consequence; it is still a generous sentiment, and it is by this standard alone that man ought to admire the words and actions of man.

There are examples of suicide in the French nation, but we cannot generally attribute them to the melancholy of their character, nor to the elevation of their ideas. Positive evils have led some Frenchmen to this act, and they have committed it with intrepidity, but also with the thoughtlessness which often characterize them. Nevertheless, the multitudes of emigrants, which the revolution produced, have supported the most cruel privations with a sort of equanimity, of which no other nation would have been capable. Their genius disposes them more to action than to reflection, and this manner of life diverts them from the troubles of existence. What cost most to Frenchmen is separation from their country; and, indeed, what a country was theirs before faction had rent, before despotism had degraded it! What a country should we not see regenerated, if it were the voice of the nation that disposed of it? Imagination paints to us this beautiful France, which would welcome us under its azure heavens;—those friends who would melt with tenderness in beholding us again;—those recollections of youth, those traces of our relatives we should find at every step: and this return appears to us like a terrestrial resurrection; like another life granted to us here below:—but, if celestial goodness has not reserved for us this happiness, wherever we may be, we will offer up our prayers for this country, which will be so glorious, if it ever learns to appreciate liberty, or, in other words, the political guarantee of justice.

Notice of Lady Jane Gray

Lady Jane Gray was grand-niece of Henry VIII, by her grandmother Mary, sister of that king, and widow of Louis XII; she married Lord Guildford, son of the duke of Northumberland, who caused Edward, son of Henry VIII, to call him to the throne by his will, in 1533, to the exclusion of Mary and Elizabeth. Catherine of Arragon, was the mother of the former; her intolerant catholicism made her dreaded by the English Protestants,—and the birth of the daughter of Anna Boleyn was liable to be contested.

The duke of Northumberland urged these motives to Edward VI. Lady Jane Gray, not being herself satisfied of the validity of her right to the crown, refused at first to accede to the will of Edward, but at length the entreaties of her husband, whom she tenderly loved, and over whom Northumberland exercised great authority, drew from her the fatal consent they desired. She reigned nine days, or rather her father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, availed himself of her name to govern during that time.

Mary, eldest daughter of Henry VIII, however overcame her spite of the resistance of the partisans of the reformation: and her cruel and vindictive character signalized itself by the death of the Duke of Northumberland, his son Guildford, and the innocent lady Jane Gray. She was but eighteen years of age when she perished: yet her name was celebrated for her profound knowledge of ancient and modern languages, and her letters in Latin and Greek, still extant, evince very uncommon faculties for her years. She possessed the most perfect piety, and her whole existence was marked by sweetness and dignity. Her father and mother strongly urged her, notwithstanding her repugnance, to ascend the throne of England; her mother herself bore the train of her daughter on the day of her coronation; and her father, the duke of Suffolk, made and attempt to revive her party, while she was still a prisoner, and had been for some months condemned to death. It was this attempt which served as a pretext for executing her sentence, and the Duke of Suffolk perished a short time after his daughter.

The following letter might have been written in the month of February, 1554. It is certain that at this period, which is that of the death of Lady Jane Gray, she cultivated in her prison, a constant correspondence with her family and friends, and that even to her latest moments her philosophical disposition and religious firmness never forsook her.

Lady Jane Gray to Doctor Alymer.

 It is to you, my worthy friend; I owe that religious instruction, that life of faith, which can alone endure forever: my last thoughts are addressed to you in the solemn trial to which I am condemned. Three months have elapsed since the sentence of death, which the queen caused to be pronounced against my husband and myself, as a punishment for that unhappy reign of nine days, for that crown of thorns, which rested on my head only to mark it for destruction. I believed, I avow to you, that the intention of Mary was, to intimidate me by this sentence, but I did not imagine that she wished to shed my blood, which is also hers. It appeared to me my youth would have been sufficient to excuse me, when it should be proved that for a long time I resisted the melancholy honors with which I was menaced, and that my deference to the wishes of the Duke of Northumberland my father-in-law, was alone able to mislead me to the fault I have committed; but it is not to accuse my enemies, I write to you; they are the instruments of the will of god, like every other event of this world, and I ought to reflect but upon my own emotions. Enclosed in this tower, I live upon my thoughts, and my moral and religious conduct consists only in conflicts within myself.

Yesterday our friend Ascham came to see me, and the sight of him at first gave me a lively pleasure; it recalled to my mind the recollection of the delightful and profitable hours I have passed with him in the study of the ancients. I wished to converse with him only on those illustrious deaths, the descriptions of which have opened to me a train of reflections without end. Ascham, you know, is serious and calm; he leans upon old age as a support against the evils of existence; in fact, the old age of a reflecting being is not feeble; experience and faith fortify it, and when the space which remains is so short, a last effort is sufficient to bear us over it; the goal is yet nearer to me than to an old man, but the sufferings accumulated upon my last days will be bitter.

Ascham announced to me that the queen permitted me to breathe the air in the garden of my prison, and I cannot express the joy I felt at it; it was such that our poor friend had not at first the courage to disturb it. We descended together, and he permitted me to enjoy for some time that nature of which I had been for several months deprived; it was one of those days at the close of winter which announces spring. I know not if that beautiful season itself would so much have affected my imagination as this presentments of its return; the trees turned their still leafless branches towards the sun; the grass was already green; a few premature flowers seemed, by their perfume, to form a prelude to the melody of nature, when she should reappear in all her magnificence! The air was of an undefinable softness it seemed as if I heard the voice of God, in the invisible and all-powerful breath, which, at every moment restored me again to life—to life! What have I said! I have thought until this day that it was my right, and now I receive its last benefits the adieus of a friend.

I advanced with Ascham towards the borders of the Thames, and we seated ourselves in the yet leafless wood, which was soon to be clothed with verdure; the waves seemed to sparkle with the reflection of the light of heaven; but although this spectacle was brilliant as a festival, there is always something melancholy in the course of the waves and no one can long contemplate them, without yielding to those reveries whose charm consists, above every thing, in a sort of detachment from ourselves. Ascham perceived the direction of my thoughts, and suddenly seizing my hands, and bathing it with tears, ‘Oh thou,’ said he, ‘who art ever my sovereign, is it for me to acquaint you with the fate which menaces you? Your father has assembled your partisans to oppose Mary, and this Queen, justly detested, charges you with all the love your name has excited.’ His sobs interrupted him. ‘Continue,’ said I to him; ‘Oh, my friend, remember those contemplative beings, who with a firm countenance, have looked upon the death even of those who were dear to them; they knew whence we came, and whether we go, that is enough. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘your sentence is to be executed, but, I bring that succor which has delivered so many illustrious men from the proscription of tyrants.’ This old man, the friend of my youth, then tremblingly offered me the poison, with which he would have saved me, at the peril of his life. I remembered how often we had together admired certain voluntary deaths among the ancients, and I fell into profound reflection, as if the lights of Christianity were suddenly extinguished in me, and I was abandoned to that indecision, from which even man, in the most simple occurrence, finds so much difficulty in extricating himself. Ascham fell on his knees before me, and covering his eyes with one had, with the other he presented me the fatal resource he had prepared. I gently repulse his hand; and renovating myself through prayer, found power to answer him as follows—

‘Ascham,’ said I, ‘you now with what delight I read with you the philosophers and poets of Greece and Rome; the masculine beauties of their language, the simple energy of their minds, will for ever remain incomparable. Society, such as is constituted in our days, has filled most minds with frivolity and vanity, and we are not ashamed to live without reflection, without endeavoring to understand the wonders of the world, which are created to instruct man by brilliant and durable symbols. The ancients have gone much beyond us in this respect, because they made themselves; but what revelation has planted in the soul of a Christian is greater than man. From the ideal of the arts, even to the rules of conduct, everything should have relation to religious faith, since life has no other end than to teach mortality. If I fly from the signal misfortune to which I am destined, I should not fortify, by my example, the hope of those on whom my fate ought to have an influence. The ancients elevated their souls by the contemplation of their own powers—Christians have a witness before whom thy must live and die; the ancients sought to glorify human nature; Christians consider themselves but as the manifestation of god upon earth; the ancients placed in the first rank of virtues, that death which freed them from the power of their oppressors, Christians prefer that devotion, which subjects us to the will of Providence. Activity and patience have their times by turns; we must make use of our will as long as we may thus serve others and perfect ourselves; but when destiny is, in a manner, face to face with us, our courage consists in awaiting it; and to look steadily on our fate is more noble than to turn from it. The soul thus concentrating itself in its own mysteries, every external action becomes more terrestrial than resignation.’ ‘I will not seek,’ said Ascham, ‘to dispute with you opinions whose unshaken firmness may be necessary to you; I am troubled only on account of the sufferings to which your fate condemns you; will you be able to support them? And this expectation of a mortal stroke, of a fixed hour; will it not be beyond your strength. If you should terminate your fate yourself, would it not be less cruel?’ ‘We must,’ replied I, ‘let the divine spirit take back what he has given. Immortality commences on this side the tomb, when by your own will we break off with life; in this situation, the internal impressions of the soul are more delightful than you can imagine. The source of enthusiasm becomes altogether independent of the objects which surrounds us, and god alone then constitutes all our destiny, in the most inward sanctuary of our souls.’ ‘But,’ replied Ascham, ‘why give to your enemies, to the cruel queen, to a worthless crowd, the unworthy spectacle—‘

He could not proceed.

‘If I should free myself,’ said I, ‘even by death, from the fury of the queen, I should irritate her pride, and should not serve as the instrument of her repentance. Who knows how far the example I shall give may do good to my fellow-creatures? How can I judge of the place my remembrance shall occupy in the chain of the events of history? By destroying myself, what shall I teach man but the just horror inspired by a violent outrage, and the sentiment of pride which leads us to avoid it? But, in supporting this terrible fate by the firmness which religion imparts to me, I inspire vessels, heathen, like myself, but the storm, with a greater confidence in the anchor of faith, which has sustained me.’

‘The people,’ said Ascham, ‘Falsehood,’ replied I, ‘may deceive individuals for a while, but nations and time always make truth triumphant: there is an eternity for all that belongs to virtue, and what we have done for her will advance even to the sea, however small the rivulet we may have been during our life.

‘No, I shall not blush to submit to the punishment of the guilty, for it is my innocence itself calls me to it, and I should impair this sentiment of innocence by perpetrating an act of violence; we cannot accomplish it ourselves, without disturbing the serenity the soul should feel on its approach towards heaven—‘ ‘Oh! What is there more violent,’ cried our friend, ‘than this bloody death?’ ‘is not the blood of martyrs,’ replied I, ‘a balm for the wounds of the unfortunate!’ ‘This death,’ answered he, ‘inflicted by man, by the murderous ax, that a ruffian shall dare to raise over your royal head!’ ‘My friend,’ said I, ‘if my last moments were encompassed with respect, they would not the less inspire me we dread; does death bear a diadem on his pale front? Is he not always armed with the same terrors? If it were to nothing he conducted us, would it be worth while to dispute with this shadow? If it is the call of god through this veil of darkness, then day is behind this night, and heaven is concealed from us only by vain phantoms.’

‘What!’ said our friend, with a still agitated voice, and whom, at all other times, I had seen so calm, ‘are you aware that this punishment may be grievous, that it may be protracted, that an unskillful hand—‘ ‘Stop!’ said I, ‘I know it, but this will not be.’ ‘Whence comes this confidence?’ ‘From my own weakness,’ replied I. ‘I have always dreaded physical suffering and my efforts to acquire courage to brave it have been vain. I believe, therefore, I shall be always spared it; for there is much secret protection extended towards Christians, even when they seem most miserable, and what we feel to be above our strength, scarcely ever happens to us. We generally know only the exterior of man’s character; what passes within himself, may still afford new hints during thousands of ages. Irreligion has rendered the mind superficial; we are captivated by the external appearance of things, by circumstance, by fortune; the true treasures of thought, as well as of imagination, are the relations of the human heart with its creator; there are to be found presentiments, there prodigies, there oracles, and all that the ancients believed they saw in nature, was but the reflection of what they experienced within themselves, without their knowledge.’

Ascham and I were silent for some time; an uneasiness pervaded me, and I dared not express it, so much did it trouble me. ‘Have you seen my husband?’ said I. ‘Yes,’ replied Ascham. ‘Did you consult him on the offer you were about to make me? ‘Yes,’ answered he again. ‘Finish, I pray you,’ said I. ‘If Guildford and my conscience do not agree, which of these two powers should be imperative on me?’ ‘Lord Guildford,’ said he, ‘did not express an opinion on the part you ought to take, but as to him, his resolution to perish on the scaffold, in immovable.’ ‘Oh, my friend,’ cried I, ‘how I thank you for having left me the merit of a choice; if I had sooner known of the resolution of Guildford, I should not even have deliberated, and love would have been sufficient to animate me to what religion commands. Should I spare myself a single one of his sufferings? And does not every step of his towards death mark my path also?’ Ascham then perceiving my resolution not to be shaken, departed from me, sad and pensive, promising to see me again.

Doctor Feckenham, chaplain to the queen, came a few hours after, to announce to me, that the day of my death was fixed for the next Friday, from which five days still separated me. I acknowledge to you, it seemed as if I were prepared for nothing, so much did the designation of a day appall me. I tried to conceal my emotion, but Fenckenham undoubtedly perceived it, for he hastened to avail himself of my trouble, to offer me life, if I would change my religion. You see, my worthy friend, that God came to my assistance at that moment, for the necessity of repulsing an offer, so unworthy of me, restored to me the strength I had lost.

Doctor Feckenham wished to enter into controversy with me, which I prevented, by observing to him, ‘that my understanding being necessarily obscured by the situation in which I was placed, I should not, dying as I was, discuss truths of which I had been convinced when my mind was in all its strength.’ He endeavored to intimidate me, by saying that he should see me no more, neither in this world nor in heaven, from which my religious belief had excluded me. ‘You would occasion me more alarm than my executioners,’ replied I, ‘if I could believe you; but the religion to which we sacrifice life, is always the true one for the heart. The light of reason is very vacillating in questions of such moment, and I cling to the principle of sacrifice; of that I can have no doubt.’

This conversation with doctor Fenckenham revived my dejected soul; providence had just granted what Ascham desired for me, a voluntary death; I did not destroy myself, but I refused to live;—and the scaffold, accented by my will seemed no longer but as the altar chosen by the victim. To renounce life when we can purchase it but at the price of conscience, is the only kind of suicide which should be permitted to a virtuous being.

Convinced I had done my duty, I dared to count upon my courage; but soon again my attachment to existence, with which I had sometimes reproached myself, in the days of my felicity, revived in my feeble heart. Ascham came again the next day, and we visited once more the borders of the Thames, the pride of our delightful country. I endeavored to resume my habitual subjects of conversation. I recited some passages from the beautiful poetry of the Iliad and from Virgil, that we had studied together; but poetry serves above all, to penetrate us with a tender enthusiasm for existence; the seductive mixture of thoughts and images, of nature and the soul, of harmony, of language, and of the emotions it retraces, intoxicates us with the power of feeling and admiring; and these pleasures no longer exist for me! I then turned the conversation to the more sever writings of the philosophers. Ascham considers Plato as a soul predestined to Christianity; but even he, and the greater part of the ancients, are too proud of the intellectual strength of the human mind; they enjoy so much of the faculty of thought, that their desires do not lead them towards another life; they believe they can produce an evocation of it in themselves, by the energy of contemplation: I also once derived the purest delight from meditating upon heaven, genius, and nature. At the remembrance of this, a senseless regret of life took possession of me. I represented it to myself in colors compared with which, the world to come appeared no more than an abstraction destitute of charms. ‘How,’ said I to myself, ‘will the eternal duration of sentiment be equal to this succession of hope and fear, which renews, in so lively a manner, the tenderest affections? Will the knowledge of the mysteries of the universe ever equal the inexpressible attraction of the veil which covers them? Will certainty have the flattering illusion of doubt? Will the brilliancy of truth ever afford as much enjoyment, as the research and the discovery of it? What will youth, hope, memory, affection be, if the course of time is arrested? In fine, can the supreme being, in all His glory, give to the creature a more enchanting present than love?’

I humbly confess to you, my worthy friend, that these fears were impious. Ascham, who, in our conversation the evening before, had appeared less religious than myself, at once availed himself of my rebellious grief.

‘You ought not,’ said he, ‘to make use of benefits to cast a doubt upon the power of the benefactor, whose gift is this life that you regret? And if its imperfect enjoyments seem to you so valuable, why should you believe them irreparable? Certainly our imagination itself may conceive of something better than this earth; but, if it be unequal to this, is it for us to consider the deity merely as a poet, who is unable to produce a second work superior to the first?’ This simple reflection restored me to myself, and I blushed at the obliquity into which the dread of death had betrayed me! Oh! My friend! What it costs me to fathom this thought! Abysses, still deeper and deeper, open under each other!

In four days I shall no longer exist; that bird which flies through the air will survive me; I have less time to live than he; the inanimate objects which surround me will preserve their form, and nothing of me will remain upon earth, but the remembrance of my friends. Inconceivable mystery of the soul, which foresees its end here below, and yet cannot prevent it. The hand directs the coursers who conduct us: thought cannot obtain a moment’s victory over death! Pardon my weakness, oh my father in religion, you, who have so tenderly cherished me: we shall be reunited in heaven; but shall I still hear that affecting voice which revealed to me a god of mercy? Shall these eyes contemplate your venerable features? Oh, Guildford! Oh, my husband! You whose noble figure is unceasingly present to my heart, shall I behold you again, such as you are, among the angels whose image you are upon earth? But what do I say? My feeble soul desires nothing beyond the tomb but the actual return of life!—


My husband has requested to see me to-day for the last time. I have avoided that moment in which joy and despair would be too closely blended. I dreaded the loss of the resignation I now feel. You have seen that my heart has had but too much attachment to happiness; let me not relapse into it again. My father, do you approve of me? Has not this sacrifice expiated all? I no longer fear that existence will still be dear to me.

The morning of the execution.

Oh! My father! I have seen him! He marched to his execution with as firm a step as if he had commanded those by whom he was conducted. Guildford raised his eyes towards my prison, then directed them still higher; I understood him: he continued on his way. At the turn of the road which leads to the place where death is prepared for both of us, he stopped to behold me once more; his last looks blessed her, who was his companion upon the throne and upon the scaffold!

An hour after.

They have carried the remains of Guildford under the windows of the tower; a sheet covered his mutilated corpse;—through his sheet a horrible image presented itself. If the same stroke was not reserved for me, could earth support the weight of my affliction? My father, how could I regret life so deeply? Oh holy death! Gift of heaven as well as life! Thou art now my tutelary angel! Thou restorest me to serenity! My sovereign master has disposed of me, but since he will reunite me to my husband, he has demanded nothing of me surpassing my strength, and I replace my soul without fear in his hands?

  1. In my work ‘On the Influence of the Passions’ I have applauded suicide, and I have ever since repented of that inconsiderate expression.  I was then in all the pride and vivacity of early youth; but of what use is life, without the hope improvement?
  2. M. de K——an Madame de V——, two persons of very estimable character, left Berlin, the place of their abode, towards the end of the year 1811, to repair to an inn at Potsdam, where they passed some time in taking refreshment, and in singing together the canticles of the holy sacrament.  Then, by mutual consent, the man blew the woman’s brains out, and killed himself the minute after.  Madame de V——had a father, a husband, and a daughter. M. de K——was a poet, and an officer of merit.

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from Bet Efrayim


Ephraim Zalman Margolioth, a Galician rabbi, was the author of many commentaries esteemed as authoritative within the Jewish tradition. He was born in Brody, Poland, Dec. 19, 1762, and began to distinguish himself as a Talmudic scholar at a young age. Before the age of 20, Margolioth was corresponding with the foremost scholars of Talmudic thought; in 1785, he was a appointed a rabbi of Brody. He eventually became head of his own yeshivah, or Talmudic academy, and mentored many pupils to their appointment as rabbis.

Among Margolioth’s many works is his collected responsa, Bet Efrayim (2 vols., 1809–10), including a commentary on the Yoreh De’ah. In its short passage concerning suicide, Margolioth makes several important points. First, in a discussion of the rites associated with suicides, he maintains that self-killing may constitute an act of repentance, in which case suicide is permitted. Second, he argues that Saul’s suicide [q.v., under Hebrew Bible] was licit because Saul, by killing himself, avoided a mocking death by torture at the hands of the Philistines and because it was prophesied that Saul would soon die. Margolioth also cites other sources that excuse suicides which result from indigence or grief and do not subject them to the law of suicides described in the Talmud [q.v. under Babylonian Talmud]. He appears to second the view that he cites from the Besamim Rosh that a “suicide is [only] someone who despises God’s good like the philosophers” and not someone with a good reason to despair.

Ephraim Zalman Margolioth, Bet Efrayim YD, 76, tr. Baruch Brody.


Since he did not say first, how do we know that he did it from spite. Perhaps he did it as an act of repentance, and all who commit suicide as an act of repentance have done a permissible act… We also find in Besamim Rosh, that was recently printed, that a suicide is someone who despises God’s good like the philosophers, but someone who says that my life is a burden on me because of my poverty is not a suicide. It is true that his proof from Saul is no proof, as Nachmanides and the other commentators explain. Saul knew that he was going to die because of the prophecy of Samuel, who told him that he and his sons would die. For a short period of time alone, it [killing oneself] is permitted, so that he would not be mocked. Nevertheless, he may be right… We certainly find in the Talmud many who committed suicide out of anguish. As in the case of the woman with her seven sons… It is implausible to say about her that she was afraid that she would be forced to sin, as Tosafot says about the children who jumped into the sea.

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