Category Archives: The Modern Era

(1938 – )

What Counts as Suicide? It’s Not So Easy to Say


Peter Y. Windt, formerly associate professor of philosophy at the University of Utah and former chairman of the department, has worked on many problems in bioethics, especially the ethics of (re)designing human nature; philosophical method and problems of informal logic; and problems in epistemic justification.

Windt’s analysis of the concept of suicide suggests that disagreement over the definition of “suicide” leads to confused thinking and thus to confused social policy. Arguing that the concept of suicide is “open-textured,” he provides a Wittgensteinian analysis of the concept “suicide” in terms of criteria, characteristics in virtue of which an event is a suicide, but which are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions. Thus, to suppose that the term ‘suicide’ always has a core, clearly definable meaning,  or that deaths can be clearly classified as suicide or not, is mistaken. Prof. Windt was influential in the genesis of this collection of historical sources.

Peter Y. Windt, adapted from “The Concept of Suicide,” in M. Pabst Battin and David J. Mayo, eds., Suicide: The Philosophical Issues, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980, pp. 39–47.



What counts as suicide? In many disputes over social practices, opponents call the act suicide; proponents call it something else, for example, self-sacrifice, self-caused accident, martyrdom, heroism, self-deliverance, self-defense, aided dying, and so on. This is because the very term ‘suicide’ often has strongly negative connotations, while alternative terms may have comparatively positive associations. If we are to make moral claims about the ethics of suicide, we need to have some idea of what counts as suicide; but this is a harder problem than it may seem.

Consider, then, what must be the case in order for an act to count as suicide. It might be thought that death must occur in all cases of suicide. But where an attempt at suicide (say, by shooting) results in enough brain damage to destroy the personality, or where abuse of alcohol or other drugs produces radical destruction of memory and character, we sometimes are tempted to speak of suicide, even though the body survives. If calling such cases suicides is not mere metaphor or exaggeration, then death of the organism will not be a necessary condition of suicide (however, we might then make a case for death of the person as a necessary condition). To sidestep the debate about the nature of persons and the definition of death, let us suppose, tentatively, that death, either of the person or of the organism, is a necessary condition of suicide.

If we concede that death is a necessary condition of suicide, then we also may want to concede that another necessary condition is the applicability of some reflexive description of the death. One such description would be that one has killed oneself. In other cases it is more appropriate to say one has gotten oneself killed; and in still other cases that one has let oneself be killed. For example, one may commit suicide by shooting oneself deliberately and with premeditation (killing oneself). Or one may commit suicide by ordering a servant to do the job (getting oneself killed). Or, on falling into a river, one may opt for suicide and refuse to swim (letting oneself be killed). One might even kill oneself by deliberately starting a fight, offering little resistance, and thereby letting oneself by killed (as intended), getting oneself killed, and committing suicide—all at once. Thus, while some cases of suicide might involve the deceased being killed by someone else or someone else’s getting him killed or letting him be killed, the deceased must also kill himself or get himself killed or let himself be killed.

But the applicability of one or more of these descriptions is not a sufficient condition of suicide. One who drives into a rock wall, mistaking a late-evening shadow for a tunnel entrance, has killed himself. It is less natural to say he has gotten himself killed, and wrong to say he has let himself be killed. One who comes between a grizzly bear sow and her cubs while trying to photograph them may get himself killed, but not kill himself (the bear does that) nor let himself be killed (he puts up a good fight, under the circumstances). A prisoner may let himself be killed, rather than give information, but does not thereby get himself killed, nor kill himself. None of these cases should be counted as suicide.

Then what other features distinguish suicide from other kinds of death? The literature on suicide mentions several factors: that death was caused by the actions or behavior of the deceased; that the deceased wanted, desired, or wished death; that the deceased intended, chose, decided, or willed to die; that the deceased knew that death would result from his behavior; that the deceased was responsible for his death. My contention is that all these factors are criteria of suicide, rather than necessary or sufficient conditions.

To analyze the concept of suicide in this way is to approach the question of what is suicide as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein [q.v.] would, by offering an account that is open-textured. This means that characteristics of cases of suicide may be found which are definitional, in the sense that they really are the characteristics by virtue of which an event is a suicide, but which are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for an event’s being a case of suicide—that is, for each such characteristic, cases of suicide may be found which do not have the characteristic, and cases may be found of events which have the characteristic but are not cases of suicide. Such characteristics are criteria of suicide. If the concept of suicide is open-textured, then, it must involve some criteria. This is not to deny that some definitional characteristics of suicide may be necessary conditions, nor is it to deny that some complex combination of characteristics of suicide may constitute a sufficient condition. It is to deny that there is some nuclear set of characteristics which is to be found in all cases of suicide—some core, indispensible characteristics–and in no other cases.

The claim that a concept is open-textured need not indicate that it is arbitrary, vague, or inconsistent. While different criteria may be involved in different cases, we should expect to find similarities among the whole family of cases which justify their assimilation under a single concept. Such similarities will be the result of different combinations of criteria (and any necessary conditions) under different circumstances. And, because similarity is capable of degrees and variations, we might expect to find that some cases of suicide are paradigms, while others, though still genuine cases of suicide, exhibit various atypical characteristics. And we can expect to encounter borderline cases which are similar to typical cases of suicide in some respects, dissimilar in others, so that we simply do not know whether to count them as suicides or not.

How do open-textured accounts work? Let us suppose, for example, that a man has gone hiking along a primitive trail which at one point employs a slender log as a bridge, crossing a very swift stream. At this point on the trail, he ventures out onto the log, falls into the stream, and drowns. What kinds of details about this case would determine that it was a case of suicide, and what kinds of details would determine that it was not?

We should note that if he is in high spirits, generally satisfied with his lot, cheerfully thinking of his plans for the evening, loses his balance because the log shifts under his feet, and tries valiantly to swim to safety, then there will be no question of suicide and the death will be accidental. Or, if he is in despair, wants to die, has planned to do so at that spot by drowning, deliberately leaps from the log and makes no effort to swim, we will have no hesitation in calling his death a suicide. The cases which need careful consideration are those in between, in which only some of the factors in question are present.

Suppose our victim suffers from depression and wants to die, although he has formed no plans for his death. Accidentally, he slips on the log and falls in. But then he refuses to swim and lets himself drown. Here we have a suicide, but no significant causation by the deceased. On the other hand, suppose that he has no depression or inclination to die, but believes falsely that he can swim the stream safely. He leaps in to cool off and is drowned. Here his actions do cause his death, but it is not a suicide. The difference between these two cases rests on the presence or absence of the desire to die and the decision to do so.

But now suppose that our victim has been suffering for some time from a recurring compulsion to commit suicide. He fears this compulsion, desires not to succumb to it, has sought aid in combatting it, but it grows in him as he hikes this day, and at the bridge it drives him into the water and to his death. Although this counts as a case of suicide, the very nature of the compulsion and his struggle with it indicates that he did not desire to die nor intend to do so. In fact, the compulsion operated against his will. Thus, wanting, willing, intending, or deciding to die are not necessary conditions of suicide. In this case we should note that the operant criteria seem to be that his actions did cause his death and that he knew that death would result from them. (We should distinguish this case from one in which he has a compulsion to jump without regard to consequences, in which he would have jumped compulsively but died accidentally as a result. Compulsive suicide requires knowledge of the fatal consequences likely to result from the compulsive behavior.)

If our victim has the intention or desire to die sometime that day but has not decided yet how it should happen, or has decided that it should happen, say, by poison, later on, then he might slip, fall off the log and drown by accident. But what if he specifically wants to or intends to die by jumping off the log and drowning? Suppose that, as he is poised to jump, composing himself and gathering his willpower, a fierce gust of wind upsets him and he falls (not jumps) into the stream. Confused by the unexpected shock of the cold water, he swims as strongly as he can for shore, but drowns anyway. Although he has died as he intended, his death is accidental. Here the absence of fatal causation by the deceased is significant.

In these cases, whether or not a death due to compulsive behavior was suicide depended upon whether the deceased knew that the result of the compulsive behavior would be fatal. But such knowledge is not a necessary condition of suicide. Suppose that our victim is moody, depressed, and decides to leap from the log and try to swim the stream. He is not sure that he will survive, and not sure that he won’t. If he does, he is prepared to take it as a good omen and thinks he will return to his normal life with renewed vigor. If he dies, he supposes that it will be just as well. He is leaving his fate up to chance, the gods, or whatever. Here he cannot be said to have known that he would die; nevertheless, we will count his death as a suicide. But, of course, the kind of knowledge in question is not sufficient to determine that a death is suicide: our victim may know perfectly well that falling into the stream would be fatal for him, fall accidentally, and not have committed suicide.

Finally, what of responsibility? Before considering examples, we should realize that the claim that a person is responsible for an event can mean many different things. It sometimes means that the person has caused the event for which he is responsible. Sometimes to say that a person is responsible is also to say that he is rational, has an adequate grasp of reality, understands his situation, acts within acceptable parameters, and so on. Our victim might have been clearly not responsible in this sense (he may have been suffering from a variety of neuroses or incapacities) and still could have committed suicide by throwing himself from the log. Or, on the other hand, he could have been fully responsible in this sense and have died accidentally by falling from the log. Still, this sort of responsibility is not totally irrelevant to questions about suicide. For example, if our victim thought he could breathe water as easily as air, his killing himself by leaping into the stream would not be a case of suicide. But the significance of this kind of diminished capacity may be only that it reveals lack of knowledge or intention, and, thus, no new criterion is found here.

Again, we might consider whether a person is morally responsible, that is, morally liable for an action. If he were careless or negligent in attempting to cross the stream, then, our victim would be morally responsible for his accidental death. But he would not be morally responsible for the compulsive suicidal death already described. Since the question of one’s moral liability often is a question of one’s intentions, actions, and motives with respect to some behavior, and since intentions, causality, and motives are criterial for suicide, there will be a close connection between the determination of moral responsibility for some deaths and the determination that they are suicides.

It may be felt that there is still some other sense of responsibility in which it must be true of all suicides that the deceased is responsible for his own death. But I think this will turn out to amount to nothing more than a necessary condition already admitted tentatively, namely, that some reflexive description of the death be true. To say that the deceased killed himself, got himself killed, or let himself be killed, perhaps, is to attribute to him some minimal sort of responsibility for his death.

If the concept of suicide is open-textured, as I have argued, can anything be said generally about the similarities which knit the cases of suicide into a single family? It is tempting to reply that what all suicides have in common is just that they are suicides, and that the account of criteria, and the circumstances in which they are significant, is the account of the similarities which connect the various cases. That account, of course, should consider many more situations and circumstances than those given here, and, indeed, the account may be open-ended, so that some further elucidation of significant details always may be possible. But perhaps one useful, if somewhat vague, remark can be made about the similarities cases of suicide bear to one another.

In suicide we find a peculiar negation of the value of life. Of all persons, we should expect he whose life it is to be most sensitive to the value of a life; but in suicide, it is that very person who allows the value of his life to be overridden by other factors. The overriding of the value of the lives of others found in homicide is, somehow, less puzzling, perhaps even less awesome. To understand the suicide, we must understand how this negation of the value of one’s own life is possible. But, of course, while this may say something about the way in which suicides are similar, it does not take us very far. The negation of the value of life occurs in too many ways. In some cases a life really may not be worth living further; in others delusion and irrationality may only make it seem so; in still others something of greater worth may be achieved by sacrificing life; and so on. The sense of negation of the value of life thus invoked is itself open-textured.

Failure to appreciate the open texture of the concept of suicide will result in distortion of our views as to what is and what is not suicide. Definition of the concept in terms of some nuclear set of characteristics may err in excluding some genuine cases of suicide from our consideration, or including cases which are not suicides, or distorting our conception of the nuclear features themselves, so that we may seem to find them just where our strong intuitions about what suicide is tell us they may be.

Consider, as just one among many possible instances of error, the following speculative scenario: Suppose we became convinced that suicide could be defined, say, as self-caused death, where there is a wish to die on the part of the victim. Such a conviction would lead us to ignore the importance of intention or choice. In that case, we would refuse to count as suicides cases in which persons have no wish to die but intentionally do let themselves die, e.g., persons who refuse lifesaving medical treatment because they find the conditions of continued existence (impairment, suffering, etc.) worse than death itself. Such persons intend to die but need not wish to do so—they may find death the least undesirable of the choices available to them. Or, again, we might be led to count as cases of suicide cases of accidental death, e.g., a person who desires to die and unintentionally causes his own death by driving carelessly—the crucial error here being the supposition that there must be some causal connection between the desire and the death.

Or, what is ultimately most dangerous, we might begin to distort our conception of wishing or desiring, incorporating into it aspects of intention and causality. Thus, we might presume that intention to die always reveals a wish to die—in some cases so thoroughly suppressed that it can be detected in no other way save through the intentional self-destructive act. And we might attribute the wish to die an exaggerated causal efficacy, so that where it is present and death occurs, we presume that it must have been the cause of death. But this distortion of what it is to wish to die, combined with the view that all suicides involve this wish, might tend to seduce us into regarding suicide as a medical or behavioral problem, its victims suffering from a desire with which they cannot cope and which will cause their destruction unless some intervention is successful. At this point suicidal behavior would be regarded as a symptom of an illness, and the questions simply would not be raised whether it is intentional or not, rational or not. And so we would not hesitate to intervene, to treat, to commit; for we would see ourselves as rescuing victims rather than as interfering with deliberate, intentional actions. And at this point we would have not only theoretical error but a risk of unjust treatment of persons.

Now this scenario is far too speculative and simple to be an adequate account of any widely held theories or practices regarding suicide. It merely indicates ways in which an incorrect definitional stance on suicide can tend to contribute to error in such theories and policies. But the scenario is not sheer fantasy, either, for such tendencies have played a part in the development of some views of suicide which treat it as such, e.g., always having its origin in a death wish, or in depression, or even as always involving failure of the individual to cope with his situation. But we claim, on the contrary, that in some situations death is the best method of coping, as proponents of aid-in-dying may claim: when suffering in terminal illness leaves no alternative that the person views as acceptable, “suicide” is a method of coping that ought to be honored by the medical profession and by others in general. It may be a full-fledged choice even when it is not an actual wish to die.

Of course, recognition of the open-textured character of the concept of suicide will not, by itself, insure accurate assessment and just treatment of suicides and suicidal individuals or of individuals whose lives end in ways that might be labeled “suicide” but not appropriately so. But it is one step in the right direction.

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Filed under Americas, Physician Assisted Suicide, Selections, The Modern Era, Windt, Peter Y.

(1930– )

from Reason, Self-determination, and Physician-Assisted Suicide


Educated at Yale, Georgetown, and Harvard, Daniel Callahan was a cofounder of The Hastings Center, the first institute for bioethics, in 1969, and served as its president from 1969–1996. Callahan’s interests in bioethics range from the beginning to the end of life, and in later years have focused on health policy and research policy with an increasing concern for global issues. He is the author or editor of some 40 books. Particularly influential has been Setting Limits: Medical Goals in an Aging Society, which launched an extensive discussion of intergenerational justice and the appropriate limits of health care for the elderly.

In the article excerpted here, Callahan responds to the claims of those supporting legalization of physician-assisted suicide in terminal illness. Callahan argues against this view on three grounds: that euthanasia and assisted suicide are evil, or more accurately, “morally mistaken”; that while physical pain and psychological suffering in the terminally ill are to be alleviated, assisted dying is not the way to do it; and that allowing physician-assisted suicide will risk wider killing based on “private standards of a life worth living”—the slippery slope argument. These are among the most prominent arguments in the case against legalization of assisted dying.

Daniel Callahan, “Reason, Self-determination, and Physician-Assisted Suicide,” in Kathleen Foley and Herbert Hendin, eds., The Case against Assisted Suicide: For the Right to End-of-Life Care. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, pp. 52–68. Biographical material in the introductory passage from The Hastings Center.



Claiming the right to control our bodies and our lives is characteristically American. “Give me liberty or give me death” is a part of our history. It could thus well be said that the physician-assisted suicide movement represents the last, definitive step in gaining full individual self-determination: “Give me liberty and, if I want it, give me death.” As a movement, physician-assisted suicide seeks to reassure us that we can die as we choose and, with a physician’s expert help, be certain that we will die in the most technically expeditious fashion.

However mistaken in its direction and emphasis (as I will argue it is), a turn to physician-assisted suicide is a perfectly understandable response to the increased difficulty of dying a peaceful death, a dying ever more ensnared in technological and moral traps. First, there are all the cultural and medical obstacles now thrown in the way of simply allowing people to die from disease. Medicine tends to conflate the value of the sanctity of life and the technological imperative, rendering an acceptance of death morally suspect. Moreover, by increasingly judging all deaths to be events for which humans can and should take responsibility, we are blurring the distinction between killing and allowing to die; there is now every incentive to seek final and decisive control over the process of dying. Physician-assisted suicide seems to present the perfect way to do just that.

The physician-assisted suicide movement rests on two basic claims, secondarily supported by other considerations as well. Those claims are our right to self-determination and the obligation we all owe to each other to relieve suffering, but especially the obligation of the physician to do so. The movement’s deepest point might simply be understood as this: If we cannot trust disease to take our lives quickly or peacefully, and we cannot rely on doctors to know with great precision how or when to stop treatment to allow that to happen, then we have a right to turn to more direct means. In the name of mercy, physicians should be allowed to end our lives at our voluntary request, or, alternatively, be permitted to put into our hands those means that will allow us to commit suicide. We will then be assured a peaceful death, one that we have fashioned for ourselves. For the peaceful death no longer (and never assuredly and perfectly) given us by nature, we must shape, by our choice, a death of our own making.

This is a dangerous direction to go in the search for a peaceful death. This path to peaceful dying rests on the illusion that a society can safely put in the hands of physicians the power directly and deliberately to take life, euthanasia, or to assist patients in taking their own life, physician-assisted suicide. (I see no moral difference between them—just as the law in most places would see no difference between my shooting someone and my giving a gun to another so he or she can do it.) It threatens to add still another sad chapter to an already sorry human history of giving one person the liberty to take the life of another. It perpetuates and pushes to an extreme the very ideology of control—the goal of mastering life and death—that created the problems of modern medicine in the first place. Instead of changing the medicine that generates the problem of an intolerable death (which, in almost all cases, good palliative medicine could do), allowing physicians to kill or provide the means to take one’s own life simply treats the symptoms, all the while reinforcing, and driving us more deeply into, an ideology of control.

The suffering that leads people to embrace physician-assisted suicide can seem compelling: prolonged agony; a sense of utter futility; pain that can be relieved only at the price of oblivion; a desperate gasping for breath that, if relieved, will be followed again and again by the same gasping; or the prospect of months or years in a nursing home, or dependent on a trapped, overburdened family member. The possibilities of suffering, physical and psychological, should not be minimized, and I do not want to rest my resistance to physician-assisted suicide on any slighting of that kind. I can well imagine situations that could drive me to want such relief or feel driven to want it for others. The movement to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide is a strong and, seemingly, historically inevitable response to that fear. It draws part of its strength from the failure of modern medicine to reassure us that it can manage our dying with dignity and comfort. It draws another part from the desire to be masters of our fate. Why must we endure that which need not be endured? If medicine cannot always bring us the kind of death we might like through its technical skills, why can it not use them to give us a quick and merciful release?

The Relief of Suffering: Virtues and Duties 

No moral impulse seems more deeply ingrained than the need to relieve human suffering. It is a basic tenet of the great religions of the world. It has become a foundation stone for the practice of medicine, and it is at the core of the social and welfare programs of all civilized nations. Unless we have been brutalized, our feelings numbed by cruelty or systematic indifference, we cannot stand to see another person suffer. The tears of another, even a total stranger, can bring tears to our own eyes. At the heart of the virtue of compassion is the capacity to feel with, and for, another. With those closest to us, that virtue often leads us to feel the pain of another as if it were our own. And sometimes it is stronger than that: it is a source of intensified anguish that we cannot lift from another the pain we would, if we could, make our own. A parent feels that way about the suffering of a child, and a spouse or friend about the suffering of a loved one who is trapped by pain that cannot be moved from one body to another.

Yet for all the depth of our common response to suffering, and our general agreement as a civilized society that it should be relieved, the scope and depth of that moral duty are not clear, especially for physicians. The problem of physician-assisted suicide forces us to answer a hard question: Ought the general duty of the physician to relieve suffering encompass the right to assist a patient to take his or her own life if that is desired and seems necessary? The question can be put from the patient’s side as well: Is it a legitimate moral request for a patient to ask a doctor for assistance in committing suicide?

But there is an even more fundamental question that must be explored before turning to those questions: What should be done in response to such suffering? Is it simply a nice thing to relieve suffering if we can, a gesture of charity or kindness worthy of praise? We might say that our impulse of compassion is a good to be cultivated and expressed—that we will all be better off if we entertain that as an ideal in our lives together. Or is there more to it than that? Might it be that the relief of suffering is a moral duty, not just a noble ideal, to which we are obliged even if our sense of compassion is faint, even if what is asked of us might cause some suffering on our own part? How far and in what way, that is, does our duty extend in the relief of suffering, and just what kind of suffering is encompassed within such a duty?

One common answer to such questions is that we are, at the least, obliged to relieve the suffering of others when we can do so at no high cost to ourselves, and that we should do so when the suffering at stake is unnecessary. But that does not tell us much that is helpful, though it is surely important to repeatedly remind ourselves and others of such obligations. The hard cases are those in which the demands on us may be morally or psychologically stressful, and in which there is uncertainty about the significance of the suffering.

It is useful to distinguish two kinds of burdens. In one, the demand on us is to act, to do something specifically to relieve the suffering. That may mean giving our already overcrowded time just to be with someone in pain, someone whose first need is for companionship, for closeness; or providing otherwise needed money to improve the nursing care of a dying parent; or taking the trouble to find a better doctor, or hospital, for a spouse receiving poor care. Demands of that kind can be heavy, pressing our sense of duty to the limit; sometimes it can be unclear just where the limit is.

The other burden is subtler: the need to discern when suffering cannot, or should not, be wholly overcome, when our duty may be to accept the suffering of another, just as the person whose suffering it is must accept it. Many legitimate moral demands, for instance, will carry with them the possibility of suffering, and they should not for that reason be shirked. To take an unpopular position, to stand up for one’s rights, to remain true to one’s promises and commitments can all entail unavoidable suffering. A parent’s commitment to the good of a child may require, and probably will at times require, that for the sake of the child’s development the parent accept the need for the child to bear the penalties of his or her own choices and mistakes, and thereby to suffer as a parent is watching that happen. The same can be said of many other human relationships—those with friends, lovers, husbands, and wives. As bystanders to the suffering, we have to accept its unavoidability for the sufferer. We cannot relieve that suffering. The demand in some cases is to accept the suffering that another must endure, not run from it. Patience, loyalty, steadfastness, and fortitude are called for in accompanying the persons who must suffer, to help and allow them to do and be what they must, however heavy the burden on them and others. We are called on to suffer with the other, to be a supportive presence.

For just those reasons it cannot be fully correct to say that our highest moral duty to each other is the relief of suffering. More precisely, our duty is to enhance one another’s good and welfare, and the relief of suffering will ordinarily be an important way to accomplish that. But not always. What we need to know is whether the suffering exists because without it some other human good cannot be attained; and that is exactly the case with the suffering caused by living out one’s moral duties or ideals for a life.

Therein lies the ambiguity of the term “unnecessary suffering,” frequently invoked as the kind of suffering physician-assisted suicide can obviate. Suffering will surely be “unnecessary” when it serves no purpose, when it is not an inextricable part of achieving important human goals. Unavoidable necessary suffering, by contrast, is that which is the essential means, or accompaniment, of valuable human ends, and not all suffering is. Yet the real problem here is in deciding on our goals, and the hardest choice will be in deciding whether, and how, to pursue goals that may entail suffering. If we make the avoidance or relief of suffering itself the highest goal, we run the severe risk of sacrificing, or minimizing, other human purposes. Life would then be focused on avoiding pain, minimizing risk, and craftily eying all possible life projects and goals in light of their likelihood of producing suffering.

If that is hardly desirable in the living of our individual lives, it is no less problematic in devising social policy. A society ought, so far as it can, to work for the relief of pain and suffering; and that is to state a simple moral principle. But a more complex principle is needed: A society should work to relieve only suffering that is not an unavoidable part of living out its other values and aspirations. That means it must ask, on the one hand, what those values are or should be and, on the other, what policies for the relief of suffering might subvert society’s general values.

The most profound question we must then ask is this: If the suffering of illness and dying comes from the profound assault on our sense of integrity and self-direction, what is the best way we can—as those who give care, who want to do right by a person—honor that integrity? The claim of proponents of physician-assisted suicide is that the assault of terminal illness on the self is legitimately relieved, even mercifully and honorably so, by recognizing the right to self-determination to end that life.

Yet notice what we have accepted here. It is the idea that our integrity can be served only by the self-determination that brings death, by the direct implication of another in our death, and by accepting the implicit assumption that the suffering is “unnecessary”—meaningless, avoidable. To accept that comes close to declaiming that life can have meaning only if marked by self-determination, a strange notion indeed, flying directly in the face of human experience. That experience shows that a noble and heroic life can be achieved by those who have little or no control over the external conditions of their lives, but have the wisdom and dignity necessary to fashion a meaningful life without it. We would also be declaring that a life not marked by self-mastery, self-determination, is a meaningless one once burdened with unwanted suffering. It is not for nothing perhaps that modern medicine in its quest for cure has itself contributed to the harmful idea that all suffering is pointless, representing not life and its natural condition but the failure of medicine to overcome, or relieve, that suffering.

Is Self-empowerment Socially Neutral? 

But might it not be said, in response, that permitting physician-assisted suicide would not involve taking a general position on the meaning of life, death, and suffering, but only empowering each individual and his or her physician-accomplice to make that determination? Would it not be, in that sense, socially neutral? Not at all. To establish physician-assisted suicide as social policy is, first, to side with those who say that some suffering is meaningless and unnecessary, to be relieved as decisively as possible, and that only individuals can determine what such suffering is; and, second, to say that such a highly variable, highly subjective matter is best left to the irrevocable judgment of doctor and patient. That is not a neutral policy at all, but one that makes a final judgment about what constitutes an appropriate, socially acceptable response to dying (the mutually agreed-on deliberate death of a person) and about social policy (the legitimation of physician-assisted suicide as a response to perceived threats of suffering and loss of self-integrity).

A great hazard of this approach is that it declares some forms of human suffering—but only those forms determined by private, variable responses—to be so beyond human help and caring that they are open only to death as a solution. It is, moreover, a striking break with both the medical and moral traditions of medicine to treat the desires and wishes of patients as if they alone legitimate a doctor’s skills. It is to make doctors artisans in the fashioning of a patient’s life (and in this case death), a role well beyond the traditional role of medicine, which has been to restore and maintain health.

There is little disagreement about the duty of the physician to relieve physical pain, even though there are some significant disputes about how far that effort should go. Of more pertinence to my concern here, however, is the extent of the duty of the physician to relieve suffering, that is, to try to relieve the psychological or spiritual condition of a person who as a result of illness suffers (whether in pain or not). I contend that the duty is important but limited.

Two levels of suffering can be distinguished. At one level, the principal problem is that of the fear, uncertainty, dread, or anguish of the sick person in coping with the illness and its meaning for the continuation of life and intact personhood—what might be called the psychological penumbra of illness. At a deeper level, the problem touches on the meaning of suffering for the meaning of life itself. The question here is more fundamental: What does my suffering tell me about the point or purpose or end of human existence, most notable my own? The questions here are no longer just psychological but encompass fundamental philosophical and religious matters.

The physician should do all in his or her power to respond, as physician, to the first level, but it is inappropriate, I contend, to attempt to solve by lethal means the problems that arise at the second level. What would that distinction mean in practice? It means that the doctor should, through counseling, pain relief, and cooperative efforts with family and friends, do everything possible to reduce the sense of dread and anxiety, of disintegration of self, in the face of a threatened death. The doctor should provide care, comfort, and compassion. But when the patient says to the doctor that life no longer has meaning, or that the suffering cannot be borne because of its perceived pointlessness, or that a loss of control is experienced as an intolerable insult to a patient’s sense of self—at that point the doctor must draw a line. Those problems cannot properly be solved by medicine, and it is a mistake for medicine even to attempt to solve them.

The purpose of medicine is not to relieve all the problems of human mortality, the most central and difficult of which is why we have to die at all or die in ways that seem pointless to us. The purpose of medicine is not to give us control over our human destiny, or to help us devise a life to our private specifications—and especially the specification most desired these days, that of complete control of death and its circumstances. That is not the role of medicine because medicine has no competence to manage the meaning of life and death, only the physical and psychological manifestations of those problems.

Medicine’s role must be limited to what it can appropriately do, and it has neither the expertise nor the wisdom necessary to respond to the deepest and oldest human questions. What it can do is relieve pain and bring comfort to those who psychologically suffer because of illness. That is all, and that is enough. When physicians would use medical knowledge, designed to help with that task, to directly cause death as a way of solving a patient’s problems with life and mortality itself, they go too far, exceeding their own professional and moral rights. There has been a longstanding, historical resistance to giving physicians the power to assist in suicide precisely because of the skill they could bring to that task. Their technical power to help death along must not be matched by a moral or legal authority to engage in physician-assisted suicide; that would open the way for a corruption of their vocation.

I do not claim that a sharp and precise line can always be found between the two levels of suffering, but only that some limits can be feasibly set to enable us to say when the physician has strayed too far into the thickets of the second level. For ordinary purposes, it remains appropriate to speak of the duty of the physician to “relieve pain and suffering,” but only as long as it is understood that this can be done to relieve only the problems of illness, not the problems of life itself. What life itself may give us, at its end, is a death that seems, in the suffering it brings, to make no sense. That is a terrible problem, but it is the patient’s problem, not the doctor’s. The doctor can, at that point, relieve pain, make the patient as comfortable as possible, and be another human presence. Beyond that, the patient must be on his or her own. Patients have no resource left but themselves at that point.

Suffering and Subjectivity 

There is also another side to the issue. When physician-assisted suicide is requested, the doctor is being asked to act on the subjective suffering of another—variable from person to person, externally unverifiable, and always in principle reversible—with an action that will be objective and irreversible. As the human response to evil and suffering suggests, there is nothing in a particular burden of life, or in the nature of suffering itself, that necessarily and inevitably leads to a desire to be dead, much less a will to bring that about. That will and must always be a function of the patient’s values and the way those values are either legitimated or rejected by the culture of which that patient is a part. Suffering in and of itself is not a good clinical predictor of a desire to be dead, which is why depression or a history of previous mental health problems is a far better predictor of a serious desire for suicide than illness, pain, or old age is. Thus we face a complex double challenge: to determine if, under those ambiguous circumstances, we should empower one person to help another to kill him- or herself; and if so, what the moral standard should be for the one who is to do the helping.

Physician-assisted suicide is mistakenly understood as only a personal matter of self-determination, the control of our own bodies, not to be forbidden since it is only a small step beyond our no longer forbidding suicide. But unlike unassisted suicide, an act carried out solely by the person, physician-assisted suicide should be understood as a social act. It requires the assistance of someone else. Legalizing physician-assisted suicide would also provide an important social sanction for suicide, tacitly legitimating it, and affecting many aspects of our society beyond the immediate relief of individual suffering. It would in effect say that suicide is a legitimate and reasonable way of coping with suffering, acceptable to the law and sanctioned by medicine. Suicide is now understood to be a tragic situation, no longer forbidden by the law but hardly anywhere understood as the ideal outcome of a life filled with suffering. That delicate balance would be lost and a new message delivered: Suicide is morally, medically, legally, and socially acceptable.

All civilized societies have developed laws to reduce the number of situations in which one person is allowed to kill another. Most have resisted the notion that private agreements can be reached allowing one person to help another take his or her life. Traditionally, three circumstances have primarily been acceptable for the taking of life: killing in self-defense or to protect another life, killing in the course of a just war, and killing in the case of capital punishment. Killing in war and killing by capital punishment have been opposed by some, more successfully in the case of capital punishment, which is now banned in many countries, most notably in western Europe.

The proposal to legalize physician-assisted suicide is nothing less than a proposal to add a new category of acceptable killing to those already socially legitimated. To do so would be to reverse the long-developing trend to limit the occasions of legally sanctioned killing (most notable in the campaigns to abolish capital punishment and to limit access to handguns). Civilized societies have slowly come to understand how virtually impossible it is to control even legally sanctioned killing. Even with carefully fashioned safeguards, having legally sanctioned killing invites abuse and corruption.

Does it not make a difference that the absolute power is given, not to subjugate another (as in slavery), but as an act of mercy, to bring relief from suffering? No. Although the motive may be more benign than in the case of slavery as usually understood, that motive is beside the point. The aim in prohibiting physician-assisted suicide is to avoid introducing into society the inherent corruption of legitimated private killing. “All power corrupts,” Lord Acton wrote, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is that profound insight—a reflection on human despotism, usually justified initially out of good, empathetic motives—that should be kept in mind when we would give one person the right to kill another.

We come here to a striking pitfall of the common arguments for physician-assisted suicide. Once the key premises of that argument are accepted, there will remain no logical way in the future to (1) for long hold the line against euthanasia, to take care of those physically or psychologically unable to take their own lives; (2) deny euthanasia to any competent person who requests it for whatever reason, terminal illness or not; and (3) deny euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide to those who suffer but are incompetent, even if they do not request it. I am not saying that such a scenario will in fact take place, but only that the arguments given in favor of euthanasia logically entail the possibility. We can erect legal safeguards and specify required procedures to keep that scenario from coming to pass, but over time they will provide poor protection if the logic of the moral premises on which they are based is fatally flawed. The safeguards will appear arbitrary and flimsy and will invite covert evasion or outright rejection.

The Logic of the Arguments 

Where are the flaws in these arguments? Recall that there are two classical arguments in favor of euthanasia and assisted suicide: our right of self-determination, and our claim on the mercy of others to relieve our suffering if they can do so, especially our claim on doctors. These two arguments are typically spliced together and presented as a single contention. Yet if they are considered independently—and there is no inherent reason they must be linked—they display serious problems. Consider first the argument for our right of self-determination. It is said that a competent adult ought to have a right to physician-assisted suicide for the relief of suffering. But why must the person be suffering? Does not that stipulation already compromise the right of self-determination? How can self-determination have any limits? Why are not the person’s desires or motives, whatever they be, sufficient? How can we justify this arbitrary limitation of self-determination? The standard arguments for physician-assisted suicide offer no answers to those questions.

Consider next the person who is suffering but not competent, perhaps demented or mentally retarded. The standard argument would deny euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide to that person. But why? If a person is suffering but not competent, then it would seem grossly unfair to deny that person relief simply because he or she lacked competence. Are the incompetent less entitled to relief from suffering than the competent? Will it only be affluent, middle-class people, mentally fit and able, who can qualify? Will those who are incompetent but suffering be denied that which those who are intellectually and emotionally better off can have? Would that be fair? Do they suffer less for being incompetent? The standard argument about our duty to relieve suffering offers no response to those questions either.

Is it, however, fair to euthanasia advocates to do what I have done, to separate and treat individually the two customary arguments in favor of a legal right to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide? The implicit reason for joining them is no doubt the desire to avoid abuse. By requiring a showing of suffering and terminal illness, the aim is to exclude perfectly healthy people from demanding that, in the name of self-determination and for their own private reasons, another person can be called on to kill them or assist them in suicide. By requiring a show of mental competence to effect self-determination, the aim is to exclude the nonvoluntary or involuntary killing of those who are depressed, retarded, or demented.

My contention is that the joining of those two requirements is perfectly arbitrary, a jerry-rigged combination if ever there was one. Each has its own logic, and each could be used to justify euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. But that logic, it seems evident, offers little resistance to denying any competent person the right to be killed, sick or not, and little resistance to killing those who are not competent, so long as there is good reason to believe they are suffering, There is no principled reason to reject that logic, and no reason to think it could long remain suppressed by the expedient of an arbitrary legal stipulation that both features, suffering and competence, be present. In fact, in its statutes on physician-assisted suicide, the state of Oregon requires a terminal illness only, not a condition of suffering also. The result, of course, has been to remove a potential barrier to physician-assisted suicide.

There is a related problem worth considering. If the act of physician-assisted suicide, conventionally understood, requires the uncoerced request and consent of the patient, it no less requires that the person to do the assisting have his or her own independent moral standards for acceding to the request. The doctor must act with integrity. How can a doctor who voluntarily brings about, or is instrumental in, the death of another legitimately justify that act? Would the mere claim of self-determination on the part of someone be sufficient? “It is my body, doctor, and I request that you help me kill myself.” There is historical resistance to that kind of claim, and doctors quite rightly have never been willing to do what patients want solely because they want it. To do so would reduce doctors to automatons, subordinating their integrity to patient wishes or demands. There is surely a legitimate fear, moreover, that if such claim were sanctioned, there would be no reason to forbid any two competent persons from entering into an agreement for one to kill the other, a form of consenting-adult killing. Perhaps the resistance also arises out of a reluctance to put doctors in the role of taking life simply as a means of advancing patient self-determination, quite apart from any medical reasons for doing so.

Physician Integrity 

The most likely reason for resistance to a pure self-determination standard is that our culture has, traditionally, defined a physician as someone whose duty is to promote and restore health. It has thus been customary, even among those pressing for euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, to hang on to some part of the physician’s traditional role. That is why a mere claim of self-determination, which requires no reference to health at all, is not enough. A doctor will not cut off my healthy arm simply because I decide my autonomy and well-being would thereby be enhanced.

What may we conclude from these still-viable traditions? To justify committing an act of physician-assisted suicide and still maintain professional and personal integrity, the doctor must have his or her own independent moral standards. What should those standards be? The doctor will not be able to use a medical standard. A decision for physician-assisted suicide is not a medical but a moral decision. Faced with a patient reporting great suffering, a doctor cannot, therefore, justify physician-assisted suicide on purely medical grounds. The doctor must believe that a life of subjectively experienced intense suffering is not worth living in order to feel justified in taking the decisive and ultimate step of killing the patient. It must be the doctor’s moral reason to act, not the patient’s reason (even though their reasons may coincide). But if the doctor believes that a life of some form of suffering is not worth living, then how can the doctor deny the same relief to a person who cannot request it, or who requests it but whose competence is in doubt? There is no self-evident reason why the supposed duty to relieve suffering must be limited to competent patients claiming self-determination—or why patients who claim death as their right under self-determination must be either suffering or dying.

There is, moreover, the possibility that what begins as a right of doctors to engage in physician-assisted suicide under specified conditions will soon become a duty to offer it up front to patients. On what grounds could a doctor deny a request by a competent person for physician-assisted suicide? It is not sufficient just to stipulate that no doctor should be required to do that which violates his or her conscience. As commonly articulated, the arguments about why a doctor has a right to assist in suicide—the dual duty to respect patient self-determination and to relieve suffering—are said to be central to the vocation of being a doctor. Why should duties as weighty as those be set aside on the grounds of “conscience” or “personal values”?

These puzzles make clear that the moral situation is radically changed once our self-determination requires the participation and assistance of a doctor. Executing our will is no longer a solitary act but a social act requiring two people. It is then that doctor’s moral life, that doctor’s integrity, that is also and no less encompassed in the act of physician-assisted suicide. What, we might then ask, should be the appropriate moral standards for a person asked to assist in a suicide? What are the appropriate virtues and sensitivities of such a person? How should that person think of his or her own life and find, within that life, a place for physician-assisted suicide?

Now I could imagine someone granting the weight of the considerations against euthanasia I have advanced and yet having this response: Is not our duty to relieve suffering sufficiently strong to justify running some risks? Why should we be intimidated by the dangers in decisive relief of suffering? Is not the present situation, where death can be slow, painful, and full of suffering, already a clear and present danger?

Our duty to relieve suffering—by no means unlimited in any case—cannot justify the introduction of new evils into society. The risk of doing just that in the legalization of physician-assisted suicide is too great, particularly since the number of people whose pain and suffering could not be otherwise relieved would never be large (as even most physician-assisted suicide advocates recognize). It is too great because it would take a disproportionate social change to bring it about, one whose implications extend far beyond those who are sick and dying, reaching into the practice of medicine and into the sphere of socially sanctioned killing. It is too great because, as the history of the twentieth century should demonstrate, killing is a contagious disease, not easy to stop once unleashed in society. It is too great a risk because it would offer medicine too convenient a way out of its hardest cases, those in which there is ample room for further, more benign reforms. We are far from exhausting the known remedies for the relief of pain (frequently, even routinely, underused) and a long way from providing decent psychological support for those who, not necessarily in pain, nonetheless suffer because of despair and a sense of futility in continuing life.

Reason, Rationality, and Physician-Assisted Suicide

Could it not be said, however, in those cases in which physicians cannot relieve the suffering of a patient, that suicide would be a rational act for that patient? “Rational suicide,” as it has sometimes been called, surely has a kind of initial plausibility. Death is a definitive way to rid oneself of suffering and, if life with the suffering seems not worth living, then it would seem rational to be rid of that life.

In trying to evaluate this line of thought, some distinctions are necessary. The first is the need to distinguish between the rational and the reasonable. In its most minimal sense, an act can be said to be “rational” if it is consistent with the premises behind it. It does not matter what the premises are as long as the conclusion logically follows. In that sense, if it is believed that life is not worth living, then it is rational to end that life. It was no less rational for the Nazis, operating on the premise that inferior groups stood in the way of some imagined superior race, to conclude that it would be best to eliminate them. This form of rationality might be called instrumental rationality: it is indifferent to the quality of the premises and is interested only in coming up with deductions or conclusions consistent with them. Given consistent deductions or conclusions, the criterion of “rational” has been met.

The notion of what is “reasonable,” however, is meant to deal with the failings of instrumental rationality. Good, reasonable premises can stand up to careful scrutiny. Being “rational” in the sense specified above is the easy part. Knowing what is a justifiable premise is the hard part. The history of moral and political debates has shown that rational errors, displaying bad and inconsistent reasoning, are possible but that far more common is disagreement about premises.

Hence, the important question is not whether suicide can be rational—it surely can be in the narrow instrumental sense—but whether it is a reasonable way for human beings to deal with suffering. There are good reasons to doubt this. One of them is the simple fact, which any physician (or even layperson) can readily verify, that there seems to be no correlation whatever between the suffering a person may undergo and a decision to commit suicide. Put another way, if suicide is seen as a rational way to handle suffering, why is suffering a poor predictor of suicide (and thus—one might speculate in the absence of any clear data on this point—of physician-assisted suicide as well)? Both the Dutch experience and the early evidence from Oregon suggest that suicide is most attractive to those who fear a loss of control—and that, as a general rule, the majority of people who commit suicide have some history of mental illness. That history hardly proves suicide to be irrational in any and all cases, but it does give credence to the view that suffering at the end of life is rarely a predictor of suicide—and one test of rationality is whether there is some general and observable consistency between the fact of suffering and the choice of suicide. There simply is no such consistency.

Why is that? I surmise that since life in general—and not just the end of life—can be filled with tragedy and suffering, it is generally judged unreasonable to use suicide as a way of coping with tragedy and suffering. On the contrary, whether it is death from cancer, or the loss of a beloved spouse, or a broken romance, or an economic failure, in almost every culture suicide has not been considered an appropriate response.

There are two likely reasons for this. One of them is that since suffering is likely to be part of every life at one or more stages, life should not end when it occurs. The other reason (and here I speculate) is that there is a kind of perceived or felt duty to bear suffering as a form of mutual human support. The kind of despair that suicide represents is a temptation for all of us when life is miserable. But my ability to put up with it, to show it can be endured, is helpful to my neighbor when he or she is miserable. We all suffer at one point or other, and we all need the witness of each other that we can get through it. If we are essentially social creatures, not simply isolated individuals, then our life with other people will affect the way we look at life; we will learn from them just as they will learn from us. Suicide is, in that sense, not a private act at all. Families have to live with its aftermath, even as do those who only collect the bodies of those who have committed suicide. We are all models for each other’s lives, even if we are not aware of it. A society that accepted suicide as a way of life would be creating a set of models: those who chose to reject the earlier tradition of solidarity in favor of a more contemporary tradition of self-determination and the evasion of suffering.

It is probably some such insight that lies behind the traditional religious rejection of suicide and not, as more commonly thought, the belief that God is the author of life and thus has the final say over its disposal. In any event, I judge it to be reasonable to resist suicide as a way to manage suffering and unreasonable to think about it solely in instrumental terms, that is, that it ends our lives and thus releases us from misery.

Curing One Evil with Another 

Physical pain and psychological suffering among those who are critically ill and dying are great evils. The attempt to relieve them by the introduction of euthanasia and assisted suicide is an even greater evil, or to speak more accurately, is even more gravely morally mistaken, a softer notion that does not presuppose malicious motives. Those practices threaten the future security of the living. They no less threaten the dying themselves. Once a society allows one person to take the life of another based on their mutual private standards of a life worth living, there can be no safe or sure way to contain the deadly virus thus introduced. It will go where it will thereafter. The belief that physician-assisted suicide can be safely regulated is a myth—the confidentiality of the doctor-patient relationship makes it impossible to provide adequate oversight. Since we cannot know what goes on in the privacy of the doctor-patient encounter, we can never know whether, and to what extent, laws regulating physician-assisted suicide (and euthanasia as well) will be violated or ignored. The lack of any correlation between suffering and a desire for suicide means, of necessity, that physicians will have enormous discretion in assisting in suicide—but no way of knowing how to make a definitive evaluation of the extent of, or the legitimacy of, the suffering the patient reports.

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Filed under Americas, Callahan, Daniel, Physician Assisted Suicide, Selections, The Modern Era

(1926– )

from Apologia for Suicide


Born in London and educated at Oxford, Mary Rose Barrington became a lawyer and charity administrator, combining law practice with assisting in the management of a large group of almshouses for the aged. Her principal interests include voluntary euthanasia, animal protection, and psychical research. She is a past chairman of the London-based Voluntary Euthanasia Society (re-named EXIT, The Society for the Right to Die with Dignity, and renamed again Dignity in Dying). She has also been honorary secretary of the Animal Rights Group and is a vice -president of the Society for Psychical Research.

Barrington, an advocate of rational suicide and the notion of “planned death,” argues that humane and advanced societies must embrace this notion—much as traditional pride in extensive procreation has given way to the concept of planned birth—in a world that is increasingly crowded, and increasingly populated by those who are old and no longer have a great desire to live. She argues in detail for the psychological comfort that the notion of planned death would give to the elderly, who might foresee and welcome their own deaths rather than waiting to be “passively suppressed.”

Mary Rose Barrington, “Apologia for Suicide,” from Euthanasia and the Right to Death, ed. A. B. Downing. London: Peter Owen, 1969. Material in introduction and abridgement from M. Pabst Battin and David J. Mayo, Suicide: The Philosophical Issues, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980, pp. 90–103.



Of the many disagreeable features inherent in the human condition, none is more unpalatable than mortality. Many people declare that they find the concept of survival and immortal life both inconceivable and preposterous; but they will usually admit to a minimal pang at the thought of being snuffed out in due course and playing no further part in the aeons to come. That aeons have already passed before they were born is a matter that few people take to heart, and they tend on the whole to be rather glad not to have experienced the hardships of life before the era of the Public Health Acts and pain-killing drugs. To cease from being after having once existed seems altogether different and altogether terrible. This is an odd conclusion, bearing in mind that whereas before birth one must be reckoned to have had no effect on the course of events at all, the very act of birth and the shortest of lives may produce incalculable and possibly cataclysmic effects by indirect causation. Viewed in this light we might all be filled with satisfaction to think that our every move will send ripples of effects cascading down time. In fact, speculations of this kind do little if anything to satisfy the immortal longings, and even though being remembered kindly by others is generally felt to be something of a comfort, absolute death remains absolutely appalling. Many people who have no religious convictions save themselves from despair by filing away in their minds some small outside chance that they might, after all, survive, perhaps as some semi-anonymous cog in a universal system; many others resolutely refuse to give any thought to death at all.

If human convictions and behavior were a direct function of logical thinking, one would expect that the more firmly a person believed in the survival of his soul in an existence unhampered by the frequently ailing body, the more ready he would be to leave this world and pass on to the next. Nothing of the sort appears to be the case, at least for those whose religion is based on the Old Testament. Self-preservation is presented in such religions as a duty, though one that is limited by some inconsistent provisos. Thus a person may sacrifice his life to save others in war, or he may die a martyr’s death in a just cause; but if he were to reason that there was not enough food in the family to go round, and therefore killed himself to save the others from starvation (a fate, like many others, considerably worse than death), this would be regarded as the sin, and erstwhile crime, of suicide. Whether performed for his own benefit or to benefit others, the act of suicide would be condemned as equivalent to breaking out from prison before the expiry of the term fixed, a term for which there can be no remission.

The old notions about suicide, with an influence still lingering on, are well summarized by Sir William Blackstone in his famous Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–9): “The suicide is guilty of a double offence: one spiritual, in invading the prerogative of the Almighty and rushing into his immediate presence uncalled for; the other temporal, against the King, who hath an interest in the preservation of all his subjects.”

Religious opposition to suicide is of decreasing importance as people become ever more detached from dogmas and revelationary teachings about right and wrong. The important matter to be considered is that while the humanist, the agnostic or the adherent of liberal religion seldom condemns suicide as a moral obliquity, he appears on the whole to find it as depressing and horrifying as the religious believer for whom it is sinful. There are many reasons for this, some good, and some regrettable.

Indoctrination against suicide is regrettably to be found at all levels. In itself the tendentious expression “to commit suicide” is calculated to poison the unsuspecting mind with its false semantic overtones, for, apart from the dangerous practice of committing oneself to an opinion most other things committed are, as suicide once was, criminal offenses. People are further influenced by the unhappy shadow cast over the image of suicide by the wide press coverage given to reports of suicide by students who are worried about their examinations, or girls who are upset over a love affair, or middle-aged people living alone in bed-sitting-rooms who kill themselves out of depression―troubles that might all have been surmounted, given time. In pathetic cases such as these, it is not, as it seems to me, the act of suicide that is horrifying, but the extreme unhappiness that must be presumed to have induced it. Death from despair is the thing that ought to make us shudder, but the shudder is often extended to revulsion against the act of suicide that terminates the despair, an act that may be undertaken in very different circumstances.

The root cause of the widespread aversion to suicide is almost certainly death itself rather than dislike of the means by which death is brought about. The leaf turns a mindless face to the sun for one summer before falling for ever into the mud; death, however it comes to pass, rubs our clever faces in the same mud, where we too join the leaves. The inconceivability of this transformation in status is partly shot through with an indirect illumination, due to the death of others. Yet bereavement is not death. Here to mourn, we are still here, and the imagination boggles at the notion that things could ever be otherwise. Not only does the imagination boggle, as to some extent it must, but the mind unfortunately averts. The averted mind acknowledges, in a theoretical way, that death does indeed happen to people here and there and now and then, but to some extent the attitude to death resembles the attitude of the heavy smoker to lung cancer; he reckons that if he is lucky it will not happen to him, at least not yet, and perhaps not ever. This confused sort of faith in the immortality of the body must underlie many a triumphal call from the hospital ward or theatre, that the patient’s life has been saved―and he will therefore die next week instead of this week, and in rather greater discomfort. People who insist that life must always be better than death often sound as if they are choosing eternal life in contrast to eternal death, when the fact is that they have no choice in the matter; it is death now, or death later. Once this fact is fully grasped it is possible for the question to arise as to whether death now would not be preferable.

Opponents of suicide will sometimes throw dust in the eyes of the uncommitted by asking at some point why one should ever choose to go on living if one once questions the value of life; for as we all know, adversity is usually round the corner, if not at our heels. Here, it seems to me, a special case must be made out for people suffering from the sort of adversity with which the proponents of euthanasia are concerned: namely, an apparently irremediable state of physical debility that makes life unbearable to the sufferer. Some adversities come and go; in the words of the Anglo-Saxon poet reviewing all the disasters known to Norse mythology, “That passed away, so may this.” Some things that do not pass away include inoperable cancers in the region of the throat that choke their victims slowly to death. Not only do they not pass away, but like many extremely unpleasant conditions they cannot be alleviated by pain-killing drugs. Pain itself can be controlled, provided the doctor in charge is prepared to put the relief of pain before the prolongation of life; but analgesics will not help a patient to live with total incontinence, reduced to the status of a helpless baby after a life of independent adulthood. And for the person who manages to avoid these grave afflictions there remains the spectre of senile decay, a physical and mental crumbling into a travesty of the normal person. Could anything be more reasonable than for a person faced with these living deaths to weigh up the pros and cons of living out his life until his heart finally fails, and going instead to meet death half-way?

It is true, of course, that, all things beings equal, people do want to go on living. If we are enjoying life, there seems no obvious reason to stop doing so and be mourned by our families and forgotten by our friends. If we are not enjoying it, then it seems a miserable end to die in a trough of depression, and better to wait for things to become more favorable. Most people, moreover, have a moral obligation to continue living, owed to their parents while they are still alive, their children while they are dependent, and their spouses all the time. Trained professional workers may even feel that they have a duty to society to continue giving their services. Whatever the grounds, it is both natural and reasonable that without some special cause nobody ever wants to die yet. But must these truisms be taken to embody the whole truth about the attitude of thinking people to life and death? A psychiatrist has been quoted as saying: “I don’t think you can consider anyone normal who tries to take his own life.” The abnormality of the suicide is taken for granted, and the possibility that he might have been doing something sensible (for him) is not presented to the mind for even momentary consideration. It might as well be argued that no one can be considered normal who does not want to procreate as many children as possible, and this was no doubt urged by the wise men of yesterday; today the tune is very different, and in this essay we are concerned with what they may be singing tomorrow.

There is an obvious connection between attitudes to birth and to death, since both are the fundamentals of life. The experience of this century has shown that what may have appeared to be ineradicably basic instincts can in fact be modified in an advanced society, and modified not merely by external pressures, but by a corresponding feedback movement from within. Primitive people in general take pride in generating large families, apparently feeling in some deep-seated way that motherhood proves the femaleness of the female, and that fatherhood proves the maleness of the male, and that the position in either case is worth proving very amply. This simple pride is not unknown in advanced countries, although public applause for feats of childbearing is at last beginning to freeze on the fingertips, and a faint rumble of social disapproval may be heard by an ear kept close to the ground. The interesting thing is that it is not purely financial considerations that have forced people into limiting their progeny, and least of all is it the public weal; people have actually come to prefer it. Women want to lead lives otherwise than as mothers; men no longer feel themselves obliged to assert their virility by pointing to numerous living tokens around them; and most parents prefer to concentrate attention and affection upon a couple rather than a pack. The modification in this apparently basic drive to large-scale procreation is now embraced not with reluctance, but with enthusiasm. My thesis is that humane and advanced societies are ripe for a similar and in many ways equivalent swing away from the ideal of longevity to the concept of a planned death.

It may be worth pausing here to consider whether the words “natural end,” in the sense usually ascribed to the term, have much bearing on reality. Very little is “natural” about our present-day existence, and least natural of all is the prolonged period of dying that is suffered by so many incurable patients solicitously kept alive to be killed by their disease. The sufferings of animals (other than man) are heart-rending enough, but a dying process spread over weeks, months or years seems to be one form of suffering that animals are normally spared. When severe illness strikes them they tend to stop eating, sleep and die. The whole weight of Western society forces attention on the natural right to live, but throws a blanket of silence over the natural right to die. If I seem to be suggesting that in a civilized society suicide ought to be considered a quite proper way for a well-brought-up person to end his life (unless he has the good luck to die suddenly and without warning), that is indeed the tenor of my argument; if it is received with astonishment and incredulity, the reader is referred to the reception of recommendations made earlier in the century that birth control should be practiced and encouraged. The idea is no more extraordinary, and would be equally calculated to diminish the sum total of suffering among humankind.

This will probably be taken as, or distorted into, a demand for the infliction of the death penalty on retirement. And yet the bell tolls for me no less than for others. Apart from the possibility that he may actually have some sympathy for the aged, no one casting a fearful eye forward into the future is likely to advocate treatment of the old that he would not care to see applied to himself, lest he be hoist with his own petard. It cannot be said too many times that so long as people are blessed with reasonable health, reasonable independence and reasonable enjoyment of life, they have no more reason to contemplate suicide than people who are half their age, and frequently half as sprightly as many in their seventies and eighties today. Attention is here being drawn to people who unfortunately have good reason to question whether or not they want to exercise their right to live; the minor infirmities of age, and relative weakness, and a slight degree of dependence on younger people who regard the giving of a helping hand as a natural part of the life-cycle, do not give rise to any such question. The question arises when life becomes a burden rather than a pleasure.

Many middle-aged people are heard to express the fervent wish that they will not live to be pain-ridden cripples, deaf, dim-sighted or feeble-minded solitaries, such that they may become little else than a burden to themselves and to others. They say they hope they will die before any of these fates descend upon them, but they seldom affirm that they intend to die before that time; and when the time comes, it may barely cross their minds that they could, had they then the determination, take the matter into their own hands. The facile retort will often be that this merely goes to show that people do not really mean what they say and that like all normal, sensible folk, they really want to live on for as long as is physically possible. But this, I would suggest, is a false conclusion. They mean exactly what they say, but the conditions and conditioning of society make it impossible for them to act in accordance with their wishes. To face the dark reality that the future holds nothing further in the way of joy or meaningful experience, and to face the fact without making some desperate and false reservation, to take the ultimate decision and act upon it knowing that it is a gesture that can never be repeated, such clear-sightedness and resolution demand a high degree of moral strength that cannot but be undermined by the knowledge that this final act of self-discipline would be the subject of head-shakings, moralizings and general tut-tutting.

How different it would be if a person could talk over the future with his family, friends and doctors, make arrangements, say farewells, take stock of his life, and know that his decision about when and how to end his life was a matter that could be the subject of constructive and sympathetic conference, and even that he could have his chosen ones around him at the last. As things are at present, he would always be met with well-meant cries of “No, no, you mustn’t talk like that,” and indeed anyone taking a different line might feel willy-nilly that his complicity must appear unnatural and lacking in affection. We feel that we ought to become irrational at the idea that someone we care for is contemplating ending his own life, and only the immediate spectacle of intense suffering can shock us out of a conditioned response to this situation. The melancholy result is that a decision that cries out for moral support has to be taken in cheerless isolation, and if taken at all is usually deferred until the victim is in an advanced state of misery.

But supposing the person contemplating suicide is not in fact undergoing or expecting to undergo severe suffering, but is merely an elderly relation, probably a mother, in fragile health, or partially disabled, and though not acutely ill is in need of constant care and attention. It would be unrealistic to deny the oppressive burden that is very often cast on the shoulders of a young to middle-aged person, probably a daughter, by the existence of an ailing parent, who may take her from her career when she is a young woman in her thirties of forties, and leave her, perhaps a quarter of a century later, an elderly, exhausted woman, demoralized over the years by frequently having had to choke back the wish that her mother would release her by dying. Even in a case such as this, human feeling does demand, I would think, that the younger person must still respond to intimations of suicide with a genuinely felt, “No, no.”

But what of the older person’s own attitude? Here we arrive at the kernel of the violent and almost panic-stricken reaction of many people to the idea of questioning whether it is better, in any given situation, to be or not to be. For if there is no alternative to continued living, then no choice arises, and hence there can be no possibility of an older person, who is a burden to a younger person, feeling a sense of obligation to release the captive attendant from willing or unwilling bondage, no questioning of the inevitability of the older person’s living out her full term. But what if there were a real choice? What if a time came when, no longer able to look after oneself, the decision to live on for the maximum number of years were considered a mark of heedless egoism? What if it were to be thought that dulce et decorum est pro familia mori? This is a possibility that makes many people shrink from the subject, because they find the prospect too frightful to contemplate. Is it (to be charitable) because they always think themselves into the position of the younger person, so that “No, no” rises naturally to their lips, or is it (to be uncharitable) because they cannot imagine themselves making a free sacrifice of this sort?

This very controversial issue is, it may be remarked, outside the scope of voluntary euthanasia, which is concerned exclusively with cases where a patient is a burden to himself, and whether or not he is a burden to others plays no part whatever. The essence of voluntary euthanasia is the co-operation of the doctor in making crucial decisions; the “burden to others,” on the contrary, must make all decisions and take all responsibility himself for any actions he might take. The issue cannot, however, be ignored, because the preoccupation of many opponents of voluntary euthanasia with its supposed implications, suggests that few people have any serious objection to the voluntary termination of a gravely afflicted life. This principal theme is usually brushed aside with surprising haste, and opponents pass swiftly on to the supposed evils that would flow from making twilight existence optional rather than obligatory. It is frequently said that hard-hearted people would be encouraged to make their elderly relatives feel that they had outlived their welcome and ought to remove themselves, even if they happened to be enjoying life. No one can say categorically that nothing of the sort would happen, but the sensibility of even hard-hearted people to the possible consequences of their own unkindness seems just as likely. A relation who had stood down from life in a spirit of magnanimity and family affection would, after an inevitable period of heart-searching and self-recrimination, leave behind a pleasant memory; a victim of callous treatment hanging like an accusing albatross around the neck of the living would suggest another and rather ugly story. Needless to say, whoever was responsible would not in any event be the sort of person to show consideration to an aged person in decline.

Whether or not some undesirable fringe results would stem from a free acceptance of suicide in our society, the problem of three or four contemporaneous generations peopling a world that hitherto has had to support only two or three is with us here and now, and will be neither generated nor exacerbated by a fresh attitude to life and death. The disabled, aged parent, loved or unloved, abnegating or demanding, is placed in one of the tragic dilemmas inherent in human existence, and one that becomes more acute as standards of living rise. One more in the mud-hut is not a problem in the same way as one more in a small, overcrowded urban dwelling; and the British temperament demands a privacy incompatible with the more sociable Mediterranean custom of packing a grandmother and an aunt or two in the attic. Mere existence presents a mild problem; disabled existence presents a chronic problem. The old person may have no talent for being a patient, and the young one may find it intolerable to be a nurse. A physical decline threatens to be accompanied by an inevitable decline in the quality of important human relationships―human relationships, it is worth repeating, not superhuman ones. Given superhuman love, patience, fortitude and all other sweet-natured qualities in a plenitude not normally present in ordinary people, there would be no problem. But the problem is there, and voluntary termination of life offers a possible solution that may be better than none at all. The young have been urged from time immemorial to have valiant hearts, to lay down their lives for their loved ones when their lives have hardly started; it may be that in time to come the disabled aged will be glad to live in a society that approves an honorable death met willingly, perhaps in the company of another “old soldier” of the same generation, and with justifiable pride. Death taken in one’s own time, and with a sense of purpose, may in fact be far more bearable than the process of waiting to be arbitrarily extinguished. A patient near the end of his life who arranged his death so as, for example, to permit an immediate transfer of a vital organ to a younger person, might well feel that he was converting his death into a creative act instead of waiting passively to be suppressed.

A lot of kindly people may feel that this is lacking in respect for the honorable estate of old age; but to insist on the obligation of old people to live through a period of decline and helplessness seems to me to be lacking in a feeling for the demands of human self-respect. They may reply that this shows a false notion of what constitutes self-respect, and that great spiritual qualities may be brought out by dependence and infirmity, and the response to such a state. It is tempting in a world dominated by suffering to find all misery purposeful, and indeed in some situations the “cross-to-bear” and the willing bearer may feel that they are contributing a poignant note to some cosmic symphony that is richer for their patience and self-sacrifice. Since we are talking of options and not of compulsions, people who felt like this would no doubt continue to play their chosen parts; but what a truly ruthless thing to impose those parts on people who feel that they are meaningless and discordant, and better written out.

What should be clear is that with so many men and so many opinions there is no room here for rules of life, or ready-made solutions by formula, least of all by the blanket injunction that, rather than allow any of these questions to be faced, life must be lived out to the bitter end, in sickness and in health, for better of for worse, until death brings release. It is true that the embargo on suicide relieves the ailing dependent of a choice, and some would no doubt be glad of the relief, having no mind for self-sacrifice. But in order to protect the mildly disabled from the burden of choice, the severely sick and suffering patient who urgently wants to die is subjected to the same compulsion to live. The willingness of many people to accept this sheltering of the stronger at the expense of the crying needs of the incomparably weaker may be because the slightly ailing are more visible and therefore make a more immediate claim on sympathy. Everyone knows aged and dependent people who might find themselves morally bound to consider the advisability of continuing to live if an option were truly available; the seriously afflicted lie hidden behind hospital windows, or secluded from sight on the upper floors of private houses. They are threatened not with delicate moral considerations, but with the harder realities of pain, disease and degeneration. Not only are they largely invisible, but their guardians are much given to the issuing of soothing reports about, for example, the hundred thousand or more patients who die of cancer every year, reports in which words like “happiness” and “dignity” are used liberally, and words like “pain” and “humiliation” tactfully suppressed. Let us not be misled by the reassuring face so often assumed by doctors who would have us believe that terminal suffering is just a bad fairy tale put out by alarmist bogey-men. One can only hope that the pathetic human wrecks who lie vomiting and gasping out their lives are as sanguine and cheerful about their lamentable condition as the smiling doctor who on their behalf assures us that no one (including members of the Euthanasia Society) really wants euthanasia. . . .

Here again it must be made clear that what is needed is the fostering of a new attitude to death that should ultimately grow from within, and not be imposed from without upon people psychologically unable to rethink their ingrained views. The suffering and dying patients of today have been brought up to feel that it is natural and inevitable, and even some sort of a duty, to live out their terminal period, and it would do them no service to try to persuade them into adopting an attitude that to most of them would seem oppressive, as aimed against them rather than for their benefit. If people have an ineradicable instinct, or fundamental conviction, that binds them to cling to life when their bodies are anticipating death by falling into a state of irrevocable decay, they clearly must be given treatment and encouragement consistent with their emotional and spiritual needs, and kindness for them will consist of assurances that not only is their suffering a matter of the greatest concern, but that so also is their continued existence. It is future generations, faced perhaps with a lifespan of eighty or ninety years, of which nearly half will have to be dependent on the earning power of the other half, who will have to decide how much of their useful, active life is to be devoted to supporting themselves through a terminal period “sans everything,” prolonged into a dreaded ordeal by ever-increasing medical skill directed to the preservation of life. It may well be that, as in the case of family planning, economic reality will open up a spring, the waters of which will filter down to deeper levels, and that then the new way of death will take root. The opponents of euthanasia conjure up a favorite vision of a nightmare future in which anxious patients will be obsessed with the fear that their relatives and doctors may make surreptitious plans to kill them; the anxiety of the twenty-first century patient may, on the contrary, be that they are neglecting to make such plans . . . focusing attention on practical steps, how is this to be brought about? Should schoolchildren be asked to write essays on “How I Would Feel if I Had to Die at Midnight” or compositions envisaging why and in what circumstances they propose to end their lives? The answer may well be that they should. An annual visit to a geriatric ward might also be in order. The usual argument against facing up to such reality is that life is long and death is short, and that dwelling on an unfortunate aspect is morbid and best shunned. . . . But instant death is granted to few, and the others would be well advised to expect to be an unconscionable time a-dying, and partly a-dying, and be prepared to meet the challenge not only of death, but of the unconscionable time preceding it. I would contend that the true end of education should be to prepare the pupil to learn in the course of life to orientate all knowledge and experience within the framework of a life bounded by decline and death, and to regard a timely and possibly useful death as the summation of the art of living. Pending the comfort of a death-conditioned society, a recommended exercise for the individual who is minded to reconcile himself to dying is a constant making and remaking of wills. An evening spent distributing largesse, followed by the clearing of the desk, the answering of letters and the paying of accounts, has the effect of a direct invitation to the Almighty to take you while you are in the mood to add your final touch to the day’s work.

It is, of course, all too easy to make light of death when it seems far from imminent, and all too easy for someone who has had a satisfying life to say that other people, who may have had very little happiness, must learn to accept that their one and (ostensibly) only life must now cease. It may well turn out that we who insist on the right to come to terms with death before life becomes a burden may, when the time comes, be found to fail in our resolute purpose, and may end our lives by way of punishment in one of the appalling institutions provided by the state for the care of the aged. The failure may be due to physical helplessness coupled with the refusal of others to give the necessary help, or it may be due to a moral failure ascribable to personal weakness and the pressures of society, pressures that sometimes take a form too oblique to be recognized as twisters of the mind. Ending with a further complaint about linguistic misdirection, my final objection to tainted words is that a patient ending his own life, or a doctor assisting him to end it, is said to “take life,” just as a thief “takes” property with the intention of depriving the owner of something he values. Whatever it is that is taken from a dying patient, it is nothing he wants to keep, and the act is one of giving rather than taking. The gift is death, a gift we shall all have to receive in due course, and if we can bring ourselves to choose our time for acceptance, so much the better for us, for our family, for our friends and for society.

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Filed under Barrington, Mary Rose, Europe, Physician Assisted Suicide, Selections, The Modern Era

(1926- )

from Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire: In Search of the Enemy of Man


Thich Nhat Hanh, a scholar in the field of philosophy of religion and an internationally revered figure of Zen Buddhism, was born Nguyễn Xuân Bảo in Vietnam in 1926. (The word “Thich” [pronounced tick] is not a title, but a name that, for Buddhist monks and nuns, replaces the family name to which they were born.) Thich Nhat Hanh became a Zen monk at the age of 16 and was ordained in 1949. He founded the School of Youth for Social Services, a neutral relief corps, and the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Vietnam in 1957. In 1969, Nhat Hanh was the representative for the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris peace talks during the Vietnam War; when the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, he was officially denied reentry into Vietnam. He has been a student at Princeton and a professor at Columbia. Having lived in exile since 1966 (he has been allowed to visit Vietnam regularly since negotiations in 2005), he now lives in Plum Village, a Buddhist retreat center he cofounded in southwestern France, and conducts mindfulness retreats in Europe and North America.

To protest the anti-Buddhist policies of the Catholic president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, during the Vietnam War, in June 1963, an elderly Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, went to the crossroads at Phan-Dinh-Phung Street in Saigon, sat in the lotus position, poured gasoline on himself, and set himself on fire in order to call attention to the sufferings of the Vietnamese people under Diem’s oppressive regime. As he burned to death, a disciple read his last words to the press. Other Buddhist monks and nuns followed Quang Duc’s example: six burned themselves to death within a short period. Unimpressed, Madame Nhu, Diem’s sister-in-law, described these self-immolations as a “barbecue.”

It is the self-immolations of Thich Quang Duc, Thich Giac Thanh (mentioned in the selection presented here), and the other Buddhist monks and nuns that Nhat Hanh is attempting to explain to a sceptical world in the letter reprinted here. The letter is intended particularly for Westerners who see these acts as suicides, acts of self-destruction stemming from lack of courage, loss of hope, or the desire for nonexistence. . . . Although Giac Thanh was young at the time of his death, Quang Duc was over 70. Nhat Hanh had lived with the older monk for nearly a year at Long-Vinh pagoda before he set himself on fire, and describes him as “a very kind and lucid person . . . calm and in full possession of his mental faculties when he burned himself.” Nhat Hanh insists that these acts of self-immolation are not suicide, which, he says, is one of Buddhism’s “most serious crimes.” Nhat Hanh’s letter “In Search of the Enemy of Man” is addressed to Martin Luther King, who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, foreword by Thomas Merton (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), pp. 106-108.  Quotations in introduction also from Thich Nhat Hanh, Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change, foreword by Daniel Berrigan (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1993).



From a letter by Thich Nhat Hanh addressed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., June 1, 1965

The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963 is somehow difficult for Western Christian conscience to understand. The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with utmost courage, frankness, determination, and sincerity. During the ceremony of ordination, as practiced in the Mahayana tradition, the monk-candidate is required to burn one or more small spots on his body in taking the vow to observe the 250 rules of a bhikshu, to live the life of a monk, to attain enlightenment, and to devote his life to the salvation of all beings. One can, of course, say these things while sitting in a comfortable armchair; but when the words are uttered while kneeling before the community of sangha and experiencing this kind of pain, they will express all the seriousness of one’s heart and mind, and carry much greater weight.

The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people. But why does he have to burn himself to death? The difference between burning oneself and burning oneself to death is only a difference in degree, not in nature. A man who burns himself too much must die. The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. In the Buddhist belief, life is not confined to a period of 60 or 80 or 100 years: life is eternal. Life is not confined to this body: life is universal. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but perform an act of construction, that is, to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people. This is not suicide. Suicide is an act of self-destruction, having as causes the following: (1) lack of courage to live and to cope with difficulties; (2) defeat by life and loss of all hope; (3) desire for nonexistence (abhaya).

This self-destruction is considered by Buddhism as one of the most serious crimes. The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope; nor does he desire nonexistence. On the contrary, he is very courageous and hopeful and aspires for something good in the future. He does not think that he is destroying himself: he believes in the good fruition of his act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Like the Buddha in one of his former lives—as told in a story of Jataka—who gave himself to a hungry lioness which was about to devour her own cubs, the monk believes he is practicing the doctrine of highest compassion by sacrificing himself in order to call the attention of, and to seek help from, the people of the world.

I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination which lie within the heart of man. I also believe with all of my being that the struggle for equality and freedom you lead in Birmingham, Alabama, is not really aimed at the whites but only at intolerance, hatred, and discrimination. These are real enemies of man—not man himself. In our unfortunate fatherland we are trying to plead desperately: do not kill man, even in man’s name. Please kill the real enemies of man which are present everywhere, in our very hearts and minds.

Now in the confrontation of the big powers occurring in our country, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Vietnamese peasants and children lose their lives every day, and our land is unmercifully and tragically torn by a war which is already twenty years old. I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their heart, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world’s greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself cannot remain silent. America is said to have a strong religious foundation and spiritual leaders would not allow American political and economic doctrines to be deprived of the spiritual element. You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action, too—to use Karl Barth’s expression. And Albert Schweitzer, with his stress on the reverence for life. And Paul Tillich with his courage to be, and thus, to love. And Niebuhr. And Mackay. And Fletcher. And Donald Harrington. All these religious humanists and many more, are not going to favor the existence of a shame such as the one mankind has to endure in Vietnam. Recently a young Buddhist monk named Thich Giac Thanh burned himself [April 20, 1965, in Saigon] to call the attention of the world to the suffering endured by the Vietnamese, the suffering caused by this unnecessary war—and you know that war is never necessary. Another young Buddhist, a nun named Hue Thien, was about to sacrifice herself in the same way and with the same intent, but her will was not fulfilled because she did not have the time to strike a match before people saw and interfered. Nobody here wants the war. What is the war for, then? And whose is the war?

Yesterday in a class meeting, a student of mine prayed: “Lord Buddha, help us to be alert to realize that we are not victims of each other. We are victims of our own ignorance and the ignorance of others. Help us to avoid engaging ourselves more in mutual slaughter because of the will of others to power and to predominance.” In writing to you, I profess my faith in Love, in Communion, and in the World’s Humanists, whose thoughts and attitude should be the guide for all humankind in finding who is the real enemy of Man.

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The Martyr: On Jihad, Suicide, and Martyrdom


Ayatollah Murtaza Mutahhari (also spelled Morteza Motahhari or Motah-hary), a traditional Shi’ite mujtahid and scholar influential in the Islamic Revolution of Iran (1978–79), was born in a small town in the province of Khorasan, Iran, and studied at the Madrasah-e Fayziyah in Qom, later famous as a center of revolutionary students of theology. Mutahhari studied Islamic jurisprudence under Ayatollah Khomeini, whom he found impressive for his knowledge of philosophy and ethics, and was his devoted student for 12 years. At 23, Mutahhari began the formal study of philosophy; at 25, he discovered communist literature; and at 29, he began to study the works of the 10th-century Islamic thinker Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Mutahhari wrote works in philosophy, jurisprudence, and theology; he taught philosophy at the University of Tehran. Despite his comparatively scholastic and traditional scholarship, he voiced strong social concerns, and played both a philosophical and a political role in the leadership of the Iranian Revolution. In 1978, at Khomeini’s request, Mutahhari founded the Council of the Islamic Revolution, which continued to organize revolutionary forces even after the Shah was deposed. Mutahhari was assassinated in 1979 as he left a meeting and is now regarded as a martyr of the Islamic Revolution.

In the lecture presented here, Mutahhari examines the notions of jihad and shahadat. The Arabic term jihad, which means struggle, exertion, or expenditure of effort, and may include personal strivings for one’s own purity of motive and commitment, as well as armed struggle with the enemies of Islam, does not coincide precisely with the notion of holy war, though it is often used that way in the West; the Arabic shahadat may mean martyrdom or witnessing. In his lecture, Mutahhari argues that war intended to spread Islam by force among disbelievers is not allowed, but at the same time, one must fight to resist persecution and oppression, thus both helping the weak and simultaneously preparing the ground for the spread of Islam by peaceful means. Islam is to be defended by violent means if necessary—this is jihad, and the shahid (i.e., witness, martyr) who commits himself to this cause is one who “infuses new blood into an otherwise anaemic society.” Mutahhari distinguishes sharply between suicide or self-murder, “the worst kind of death,” and shahadat, the conscious, elective sacrifice of life for the sake of a sacred cause: This is “the only type of death which is higher, greater and holier than life itself.”

Morteza Motah-hary [Mutahhari], The Martyr (Houston, TX:  Free Islamic Literatures, Inc., 1980), pp.  3-28.  Quotations in introductory material from Mehdi Abedi and Gary Legenhaus, eds., Jihad and Shahadat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam (Houston, TX: Institute for Research and Islamic Studies, 1986), pp. v-vii, 2, 12, 35-38, 128.





There are certain words and expressions to which, in general use or particularly in Islamic terminology, a certain sense of dignity, and sometimes even, sanctity is attached.

Student, teacher, scholar, inventor, hero, reformer, philosopher, zakir (preacher), momin (faithful), zahid (pious), mujahid (soldier), siddique (truthful), wali (saint), mujahid, Imam, and Prophet are some of the words of this category.  A sense of dignity or even of sanctity is attached to them in general use and especially in Islamic terminology.

It is evident that a word, as such, has no sanctity. It becomes sacred because of the sense which it conveys. The sanctity of a sense depends on a particular mental outlook, and the values which are cherished generally or by a particular section of people.

In Islamic terminology, there is a word which has a special sanctity. When anyone familiar with the Islamic modes of expressions hears this word, he feels it to be invested with a special glory. This word is shaheed or martyr. A sense of grandeur and sanctity is associated with it, in its use by all the people.  Of course the standards and the criteria vary. At present we are only concerned with the Islamic usage of it.

From the Islamic point of view, only that person is regarded to have secured the status of a martyr whom Islam recognizes as having acted according to it’s own standard. Only he, who is killed in an effort to achieve the highest Islamic objectives and is really motivated by a desire of safeguarding true human values, attains this position, which is one of the highest a man can aspire for. From what the Holy Qur’an and the hadith say about the martyrs, it is possible to infer, why so much sanctity is attached to this word by the Muslims and what the logic behind it is.

The Martyr

Martyr’s Proximity to Allah
The Holy Qur’an in respect of the Martyr’s proximity to Allah says: “Think not of those who were slain in the way of Allah, as dead.  Nay, they are alive, finding their sustenance with their Lord.

In Islam, when a meritorious person or deed is to be exalted, it is said that particular person has the status of a martyr, or a particular act merits the reward of martyrdom. For example, with regards to a student, who seeks knowledge with the motive of finding out the truth and gaining the favour of Allah, it is said, that if he dies while learning, he dies the death of a martyr. This expression denotes the high status and sanctity of a student. Similarly, with regards to a person who takes pain and labours strenuously for the support of his family, it is said that he is like a fighter in the way of Allah. It may be noted that Islam is severely opposed to lethargy and parasitism, and regards hard work as a duty.

Martyr’s Prerogative
All those who have served humanity in one way or the other, whether as scholars, philosophers, inventors or as teachers, deserve the gratitude of mankind. But no one deserves it, to the extent the martyrs do, and that is why all sections of the people have a sentimental attachment to them. The reason is, that all other servants of humanity are indebted to the martyrs; whereas the martyrs are not indebted to them. A scholar, a philosopher, an inventor and a teacher require a congenial and conducive atmosphere to render their services, and it is the martyr, who with his supreme sacrifice provides that atmosphere.

He can be compared to a candle, whose job is to burn out and get extinguished, in order to shed light for the benefit of others. The martyrs are the candles of society. They burn themselves out and illuminate society. If they do not shed their light, no organization can shine.

A man who works in the light of the sun during the day, and in the light of a lamp or a candle at night, pays heed to everything, but his attention is not drawn to the source of light, while it goes without saying, that without that light he can accomplish nothing.  The martyrs are the illuminators of society.  Had they not shed their light, on the darkness of despotism and suppression, humanity would have made no progress.

The Holy Qur’an has used a delightful expression about the Holy Prophet. It has compared him to an illuminating lamp.  This expression combines the sense of burning and enlightening.  The Holy Qur’an says: “O Prophet! Surely We have sent you as a witness, a bearer of good news and a warner; and as a guide to Allah, by His permission and as an illuminating lamp.”

There is no doubt that according to the Islamic terminology, the martyr is a sacred word and for those who use an Islamic vocabulary, it conveys a sense, higher than that of any other word.

Islam is a juridical religion. Every Islamic law is based on a social consideration. According to an Islamic law, the dead body of every Muslim has to be washed ceremoniously, and shrouded in neat and clean sheets. Thereafter prayers have to be performed and only then it is buried. There are good reasons for doing all this, but we need not discuss them in the present context.

Anyhow, there is an exception to this general rule. The body of a martyr is neither to be washed, nor is it to be shrouded in fresh sheets. He is to be buried in those very clothes, which he had on his body, at the time of his death.

This exception has a deep significance. It shows that the spirit and the personality of a martyr are so thoroughly purified that his body, his blood and his garments are also affected by this purification. The body of martyr is spiritualized, in the sense that certain rules applicable to his spirit, are applied to them. The body and the garments of a martyr, acquire respectability because of his spirit, virtue and sacrifice. One who falls martyr on a battle-field is buried with his blood-stained body and blood-soaked clothes without being washed.

These rules of the Islamic law are a sign of the sanctity of a martyr.

Reasons of Sanctity
What is the basis of the sanctity of martyrdom? It is evident that merely being killed can have no sanctity. It is not always a matter of pride. Many a death may even be a matter of disgrace.

Let us elucidate this point a bit further. We know that there are several kinds of death:

1) Natural Death: If a man dies a natural death, after completing his normal span of life, his death is considered to be an ordinary event. It is neither a matter of pride nor of shame. It is not even a matter of much sorrow.

2) Accidental Death: Death as the result of accidents or an epidemic disease like small-pox, plague, or due to such natural disasters, as an earthquake or a flood, is considered to be premature, and hence is regarded as regrettable.

3) Criminal Death: In this case, a person kills another in cold blood simply to satisfy his own passion or because he considered the victim to be his opponent or rival. There are many instances of such murders. We often read in the daily newspapers that a particular woman killed the small child of her husband because the father loved the child while the woman wanted to monopolize his attention, or that a particular man murdered the woman who refused to accept his love. Similarly, we read in history, that a particular ruler massacred all the children of another ruler, to foil the chances of any future rivalry.

In such cases, the action of the murderer is considered to be atrociously criminal and heinous, and the person killed is regarded as a victim of aggression and tyranny, whose life has been taken in vain. The reaction which such a murder creates, is one of horror and pity. It is evident that such a death is shocking and pitiable, but it is neither praise-worthy nor a matter of pride. The victim loses his life unnecessarily, because of malice, enmity and hatred.

4) Self-murder: In this case, the death itself constitutes a crime, and hence, it is the worst kind of death. Suicidal deaths and the deaths of those who are killed in motor accidents because of their own fault, come under this category. The same is the case of the death, of those who are killed while committing a crime.

5) Martyrdom: Martyrdom is the death of a person who, in spite of being fully conscious of the risks involved, willingly faces them for the sake of a sacred cause, or, as the Holy Qur’an says, in the way of Allah.

It has two basic elements: a) The life is sacrificed for a cause; and b) the sacrifice is made consciously. Usually in the case of martyrdom, an element of crime is involved.  As far as the victim is concerned, his death is sacred, but as far as his killers are concerned, their action is a heinous crime.

Martyrdom is heroic and admirable, because it results from a voluntary, conscious and selfless action. It is the only type of death which is higher, greater and holier than life itself.

It is regrettable that most of the zakirs who narrate the story of Karbala, call Imam Husain, the Doyen of the Martyrs, although they have little analytical insight into the question of martyrdom. They describe the events in such a way, as though he lost his life in vain.

Many of our people mourn Imam Husain for his innocence. They regret that he was a victim of the selfishness of a power-hungry man, who shed his blood, through no fault of his. Had the fact been really so simple, Imam Husain would have been regarded, only as an innocent person whom great injustice was done, but he could not have been called a martyr, let alone his being the Doyen of the Martyrs.

It is not the whole story, that Imam Husain was a victim of selfish designs. No doubt the perpetrators of the tragedy, committed the crime out of their selfishness, but the Imam consciously made the supreme sacrifice. His opponents wanted him to pledge his allegiance, but he, knowing fully well the consequences, chose to resist their demand. He regarded it as a great sin to remain quiet at the juncture. The history of his martyrdom, and especially his statements, bear witness to this fact.

Jihad or Martyr’s Responsibility
The sacred cause that leads to martyrdom or the giving of one’s life, has become a law in Islam. It is called Jihad. This is not the occasion to discuss its nature in detail, nor to say whether it is always defensive or offensive, and, if it is only defensive, whether it is confined to the defence of the individual or at the most, of national rights, or that its scope is so wide as to include the defence of all human rights such as freedom and justice. There are other relevant questions also, such as whether the faith in the Divine Unity is or is not a part of human rights, and whether jihad is or is not basically repugnant to the right of freedom.  The discussion of these questions can be both interesting and instructive, but in its proper place.

For the present, suffice it to say, that Islam is not a religion directing that should some one slap your right cheek, offer the left one to him, nor does it say: pay unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God. Similarly, it is not a religion which may have no sacred social ideal, or may not consider it necessary to defend it.

The Holy Qur’an in many of its passages, has mentioned three sacred concepts, side by side. They are faith, hijrat and jihad. The man of the Qur’an is a being attached to faith and detached from everything else. To save his own faith, he migrates, and to save society he carries out jihad.  It will take much of the space, if we reproduce all the verses and the hadiths on this subject. Hence we will content ourselves by quoting a few sentences from the Nahj al Balagha: “No doubt jihad is an entrance to Paradise, which Allah has opened for His chosen friends. It is the garment of piety, Allah’s impenetrable armour and trust-worthy shield. He who refrains from it because he dislikes it, Allah will clothe him in a garment of humiliation and a cloak of disaster.”

Jihad is a door to Paradise, but it is not open to all and sundry. Everyone is not worthy of it; Everyone is not elected to become a mujahid. Allah has opened this door for his chosen friends only. A mujahid’s position is so high that we cannot call him simply Allah’s friend.  He is Allah’s chosen friend.  The Holy Qur’an says that paradise has eight doors. Evidently, it does not have so many doors to avoid over-crowding, for there is no question of it in the next world. As Allah can check the accounts of all people instantly. (The Holy Qur’an says: “He is quick at reckoning.”) He can also arrange their entry into Paradise through one door. There is no question of entering in turn or forming a queue there. Similarly, these doors cannot be for different classes of people for there is no class distinction in the next world. There, the people will not be classified according to their social status or profession.

There, the people will be graded and grouped together on the basis of the degree of their faith, good deeds and piety only, and a door analogous to its spiritual development in this world, will be opened to each group, for the next world is only a heavenly embodiment of this world. The door through which the mujahids and the martyrs will enter, and the portion of Paradise set aside for them, is the one which is reserved for Allah’s chosen friends, who will be graced with His special favour.

Jihad is the garment of piety. The expression, garment of piety has been used by the Holy Qur’an in the Sura al A’raf. Imam Ali says that Jihad is the garment of piety. Piety consists of true purity, that is, freedom from spiritual and moral pollutions which are rooted in selfishness, vanity and aliveness, merely for personal profit and pleasure. On this basis, a real mujahid is the most pious. He is pure because he is free from jealously, free from vanity, free from avarice and free from stinginess. A mujahid is the purest of all the pure. He exercises complete self-negation and self-sacrifice. The door which is opened to him, is different from the doors opened to others morally undefiled. That piety has various grades, can be deduced from the Holy Qur’an itself, which says: “On those who believe and do good deeds there is no blame for what they eat, as long as they keep their duty and believe, and do good deeds then again they keep their duty and believe, and keep their duty and do good to others. And Allah loves the good.”

This verse implies two valuable points of the Qur’anic knowledge.  The first point is that, there are various degrees on faith and piety.  This is the point under discussion at present.  The other point concerns the philosophy of life and human rights.  The Holy Qur’an wants to say that all good things have been created for the people of faith, piety and good deeds.  Man is entitled to utilize the bounties of Allah only when he marches forward on the path of evolution prescribed for him by nature.  That is the path of faith, piety and worthy deeds.

Muslim scholars inspired by this verse, and by what has been explicitly or implicitly stated in other Islamic texts, have classified piety into three degrees:
(a)    average piety;
(b)   above average piety; and
(c)    outstanding piety.

The piety of the mujahids, is one of supreme self-sacrifice. They sincerely renounce all they possess, and surrender themselves to Allah. Thus, they put on a garment of piety.

Jihad is an impenetrable armour of Allah. A Muslim community equipped with the spirit of Jihad, cannot be vulnerable to the enemy’s assaults. Jihad is a reliable shield of Allah. The armour is the defensive covering worn during fighting, but the shield is a tool taken in hand, to foil the enemy’s strokes and thrusts. A shield is meant to prevent a blow, and an armour is meant to neutralize its effect.  Apparently, Imam Ali has compared jihad to both an armour and a shield, because some forms of it have a preventive nature and prevent the onslaught of the enemy, and other forms of it have a resistive nature and render his attacks ineffective.

Allah will clothe with a garment of humiliation, a person who refrains from Jihad because he dislikes it. The people who lose the spirit of fighting and resisting the forces of evil, are doomed to humiliation, disgrace, bad-luck and helplessness. The Holy Prophet has said: “All good lies in the sword and under the shadow of the sword.” He has also said: “Allah has honoured my followers, because of the hoofs of their horses, and the position of their arrows. This means that the Muslim community is the community of power and force. Islam is the religion of power. It produces mujahids. Will Durant in his book, “History of Civilization,” says that no religion has called its followers to power to the extent that Islam has.

According to another hadith, the Holy Prophet has been quoted as having said: “He who did not fight and did not even think of fighting, will die the death of a sort of hypocrite.” Jihad, or at least a desire to take part in it, is an integral part of the doctrine of Islam. One’s fidelity to Islam is judged by it. Another hadith reports the Holy Prophet as having said, that a martyr would not be interrogated in his grave.  The Holy Prophet said that the flash of the sword over his head, was enough of a test. A martyr’s fidelity, having once been proved, has no need of any further interrogation.

Longing for Martyrdom
In the early days of Islam, many Muslims had a special spirit, which may be called the spirit of longing for martyrdom. Imam Ali was the most prominent of such people. He, himself says: “When the verse ‘Do men feel that they will be let off, because they say we believe and will not be tried by an ordeal’, was revealed, I asked the Holy Prophet about it. I knew that so long as he was alive, the Muslims would not be subject to an ordeal. The Holy Prophet said that after him, a civil strife would break out among the Muslims. Then I reminded him, that on the occasion of the Battle of Ohad, when I was dejected because a number of Muslims had been killed, and I had been deprived of martyrdom, he consoled me, saying that I would attain martyrdom, he consoled me, saying that I would attain martyrdom in future. The Holy Prophet affirmed it, and asked me whether I would observe patience, at that time. I said that, that would be an occasion of being thankful to Allah, and not that of merely being patient. Then the Holy Prophet gave me some details of the events to come.” This is what we mean by the longing for martyrdom.  Had Imam Ali lost the hope of attaining martyrdom, life would have become meaningless for him.

We always have Imam Ali’s name on our lips, and claim to be devoted to him. If, mere verbal professions could do, no one would be better Shia than we are. But, true Shia’ism requires us to follow in his footsteps, too. We have given just one example of his conduct above.

Apart from Imam Ali, we know of many other people who longed for martyrdom. In the early days of Islam, every Muslim prayed to Allah for it, as is evident from the supplications which have come down to us from the Imams.

In the supplication, which is offered during the nights of the holy month of Ramazan, we say: “O Allah! Let us be killed in your way, in the company of your friend (Imam) and attain martyrdom.”

We find that during the early days of Islam everyone, whether young or old, high or low had this longing. Sometimes the people came to the Holy Prophet and expressed this desire. Islam does not allow suicide. They wanted to take part in jihad, and to be killed while doing their duty. They requested the Holy Prophet, to pray to Allah to grant them martyrdom.

In the book, Safinat al Bihar there is a story of a man named Khaythumah (or Khathimah). At the time of the Battle of Badr, he and his son were both keen to take part in the fighting and to get killed. They argued with each other. In the end they drew lots. The son won, and accordingly went to the battle-field where he laid down his life. Some time later, the father had a dream in which he saw his son living a very happy life, and who told him that Allah’s promise had come true. The old father came to the Holy Prophet and narrated the dream. He told the Holy Prophet, that though he was too old and too weak to fight, he was desirous of taking part in the fighting and falling a martyr. He requested the Holy Prophet, to pray to Allah to grant him, his desire. The Holy Prophet prayed accordingly. Within less than a year the old man had, not only the good fortune of taking part in the Battle of Ohad, but also of achieving martyrdom.

There was another man, whose name was Amr ibn Jamuh. He had several sons. He was lame in one leg and so according to the Islamic law, exempt from taking part in the fighting.  The Holy Qur’an says: “The lame are not under constraint.” On the occasion of the Battle of Ohad all his sons equipped themselves with arms. He said, that he must also go into battle and lay down his life. His sons objected to his decision and asked him to stay behind, as he was not under any obligation to go to battle. But, still he insisted. His sons brought the senior member of their family, to exert pressure on him, but the old man would not change his mind. He went, instead to the Holy Prophet, and said: “Prophet to Allah, who do not the children let me become a martyr? If martyrdom is good for others, it is good for me too.” The Holy Prophet, then, asked his sons, not to restrain him. He said: “This man longs for martyrdom. If he is under no obligation to fight, neither is he forbidden from it. You should have no objection.” The old man was pleased. He immediately armed himself. On the battle-field, one of his sons was watching him. He saw his father, in spite of being aged and weak, fought recklessly and zealously. At last he was killed. One of his sons was also killed.

Ohad is situated near Medina. There, the Muslims suffered heavy losses and their position became critical. In the meantime, a report reached Medina that the Muslims had been defeated. The men and women of Medina hurried to Ohad. One of the women was the wife of this Amr ibn Jamuh. She went to Ohad, found out the dead bodies of her husband, son and brother. She loaded them onto a strong camel, and set out for Medina with the intention of burying them in the cemetery of Baqi. On the way, she noticed that her camel moved very haltingly and slowly towards Medina and turned constantly towards Ohad. Meanwhile, other women including some of the wives of the Holy Prophet, were coming towards Ohad.

One of the wives of the Holy Prophet asked her where she was coming from. She replied that she was coming from Ohad.

“What are you carrying on your camel?”
“Nothing.  Only the dead bodies of my husband, son and brother.  I want to take them to Medina.”
“How is the Prophet?”
“Thank Allah!  Everything is all right.  The Prophet is safe.  The designs of the infidels have been frustrated by Allah.  So long as the Holy Prophet is safe, everything else is immaterial.”

Then, the woman said that there was something queer about her camel. It appeared that it did not want to go to Medina. It should have been going towards his manger eagerly, but it wanted to go back to Ohad. The Prophet’s wife proposed that they should go together to the Holy Prophet and tell him about that. When they met the Holy Prophet, the woman said: “I have a strange story. This animal goes on to Medina with difficulty, but comes to Ohad easily.” The Holy Prophet said: “Did your husband say anything when he came out of his house?” “Yes, when he came out of the house, he raised his hands in prayer and said: ‘O Allah, grant me, that I don’t come back to this house,” said the woman. “That’s it. Your husband’s prayer has been granted. Now let him be buried at Ohad along with the other martyrs,” advised the Holy Prophet.

The Commander of Faithful Imam Ali used to say: “I prefer a thousand strokes of the sword to dying in bed.” Imam Husain on his way to Karbala, used to recite certain lines of poetry. His father is also reported to have recited these verses occasionally.  We give a translation of them below:

Though worldly things are fine and charming,
The recompense of the Hereafter is far better,
If all the possessions and wealth are to be left behind,
Why should one be stingy about them?
If our bodies are meant to die and decay,
Is it not better that they are cut to pieces in the way of Allah?

Martyr’s Motivation
A martyr’s motivation is different from that of ordinary people. His logic is the blind logic of a reformer, and the logic of a Gnostic lover. If the two logics, namely the logic of an earnest reformer, and the logic of a zealous and Gnostic lover are put together, the result will be the motivation of a martyr. Let us elucidate this point further.

When Imam Husain decided to leave for Kufa, some prudent members of his family tried to dissuade him. Their argument was that his action was not logical. They were right in their own way. It was not in conformity with their logic, which was the logic of worldly wise man. But Imam Husain had a higher logic. His logic was that of a martyr, which is beyond the comprehension of ordinary people.

Abd Allah ibn Abbas was no small a person. Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah was not an ordinary man. But their logic was based on the consideration of personal interests and political gains. From their point of view, Imam Husain’s action was not discreet at all. Ibn Abbas made a proposal, which was politically very sound. It is the usual practice of clever people to use others as their tools. They push others forward and remain behind themselves. If others succeed, they take full advantages of their success. Otherwise, they lose nothing. Ibn Abbas said to Imam Hussain, “The people of Kufa have written to tell you, that they were ready to fight for your cause. You should write back asking them to expell Yazid’s officials from there. They would either do what you suggest or they won’t. If they do, you can go there safely. If they are unable to do so, your position is not affected.”

The Imam did not listen to this advice. He made it plain that he was determined to proceed. Ibn Abbas said:

“You will be killed.”
“So what?” said the Imam.
“A man who goes knowing he may be killed, does not take his wife and children along with him.”
“But I must.”

A martyr’s logic is unique. It is beyond the comprehension of ordinary people. That is why the word martyr is encircled with a halo of sanctity. It occupies a remarkable position in the vocabulary of sacred and highly glorious words. It connotes something higher, than the sense of a hero and a reformer. It cannot be replaced by any other word.

Martyr’s Blood
What does a martyr do? His function is not confined to resisting the enemy, and in the process, either giving him a blow or receiving a blow from him. Had that been the case, we could say, that when his blood is shed, it goes waste. But at no time is a martyr’s blood wasted.  It does not flow on the ground. Every drip of it is turned into hundreds and thousands of drops, nay into tons of blood, and is transfused into the body of his society. That is why the Holy Prophet has said: “Allah does not like any drop, more than the drop of blood shed, in His way.” Martyrdom means transfusion of blood into a society, especially a society suffering from anemia.  t is the martyr who infuses fresh blood into the veins of the society.

Martyr’s Courage and Zeal
The distinctive characteristic of a martyr, is that he charges the atmosphere with courage and zeal. He revives the spirit of valour and fortitude, courage and zeal, especially divine zeal, among the people who have lost it. That is why Islam is always in need of martyrs. The revival of courage and zeal is essential for the revival of a nation.

Martyr’s Immortality
A scholar serves the society through his knowledge. It is on account of his knowledge that his personality is amalgamated with the society, just as a drop of water is amalgamated with the sea. As the result of this amalgamation a part of personality, namely his thoughts and ideas, become immortal. An inventor is amalgamated with the society through his inventions. He serves the society, by making himself immortal, by virtue of his skill and inventions. A poet makes himself immortal through his poetic art, and a moral teacher through his wise sayings.

Similarly, a martyr immortalizes himself in his own way. He gives invaluable fresh blood to the society. In other words, a scholar immortalizes his thoughts, an artist his art, an inventor his inventions, and a moral teacher his teachings. But a martyr, through his blood, immortalizes his entire being. His blood for ever flows in the veins of the society. Every other group of people can make only a part of its faculties immortal, but a martyr immortalizes all his faculties. That is why, the Holy Prophet said: “Above every virtue, there is another virtue, but there is no virtue higher than being killed in the way of Allah.”

Martyr’s Intercession
There is a hadith which says, that there are three classes of people who will be allowed to intercede with Allah on the Day of Judgement. They are the prophets, ulema and martyrs. In this hadith, the Imams have not been mentioned expressly, but as the report comes down from our Imams, it is obvious that the term, ‘Ulema” stands for the true divines, who par excellence include the Imams themselves.

The intercession of the prophets is quite apparent. It is the intercession of the martyr’s, which we have to comprehend. The martyrs secure this privilege of intercession because they lead the people onto the right path. Their intercession will be portrayal of the events which took place in this world.

The Commander of the Faithful, Imam Ali says: “Allah will bring forward the martyrs, on the Day of Judgement, with such pomp and splendour, that even the prophets if mounted, will dismount to show their respect for them.” With such grandeur, will a martyr appear on the Day of Judgement.”

Lamenting Over the Martyr
Among the martyrs of the early days of Islam, the name of the most brilliant martyr was, Hamzah ibn Abd al Muttalib. He was given the epithet of the Doyen of the Martyrs. He was an uncle of the Holy Prophet, and was present at the Battle of Ohad. Those who have had the good luck of visitingMedina, must have paid a visit to his grave.

When Hamzah migrated from Mecca, he was alone, for nobody lived with him in his house. When the Holy Prophet returned from Ohad, he found women weeping in the houses of all the martyrs, except that of Hamzah. He uttered just one sentence “Hamzah has no one to weep for him.” The companions of the Holy Prophet went to their houses and told their womenfolk that the Holy Prophet had said that Hamzah had no body to weep for him. All the women who were weeping for their sons, husbands and brothers immediately, set out for the house of Hamzah and wept there, out of respect for the wish of the Holy Prophet. Thereafter, it became a tradition, that whenever anybody wanted to weep for any martyr, he or she first went to the house of Hamzah and wept there. This incident shows, that though Islam does not encourage lamenting the death of an ordinary man, it tends to want the people to weep for a martyr. A martyr creates the spirit of valour, and weeping for him, means participation in his valour and in conformity with his longing for martyrdom.

The title of the Doyen of the Martyrs was first applied to Hamzah. After the tragedy of the 10th Muharram and the martyrdom of Imam Husain which overshadowed all other cases of martyrdom, it was transferred to him. No doubt this epithet is still applied to Hamzah but he was the Doyen of the Martyrs of his own time, whereas Imam Husain in the Doyen of the martyrs of all times, just as the Virgin Mary was the Doyen of the Virgins in her time, and the lady of light Fatima is the Doyen of wives of all times.

Prior to the martyrdom of Imam Husain it was Hamzah who was regarded as the symbol of lamentation over the martyrs. Weeping for him, meant participation in a martyr’s valour, in conformity with his spirit, and in harmony with his longing.  Since his martyrdom, Imam Husain occupies this position.

We deem it necessary at this juncture to refer briefly to the philosophy of lamentation over a martyr. Nowadays, many people object to the weeping for Imam Husain. Some of them assert that this custom, is the result of incorrect thinking and a wrong conception of martyrdom. Moreover, it has had bad repercussions, and is responsible for the backwardness and decline of the people who have adopted it.

The present writer remembers, that when a student at Qum, he read a book by Muhammad Masud, a well-known writer of those days. In it he drew comparison between the Shia custom of weeping for Imam Husain and the Christian practice of celebrating the crucifixion (according to their own belief) of Jesus Christ with festivities.

The author wrote: “It is to be noticed that one nation weeps for its martyr because it regards martyrdom as something undesirable and regrettable, whereas another nation rejoices at the death of its martyr, because it regards his martyrdom as a great achievement and a matter of pride. A nation which weeps and mourns for a thousand years, naturally loses its vitality and becomes weak and cowardly, whereas the nation which celebrates the martyrdom of its hero becomes powerful, courageous and self-sacrificing. For one nation martyrdom means failure. Its reaction is weeping and lamenting which lead to weakness, helplessness and submissiveness. But for the other nation, martyrdom means triumph, and hence, its reaction is joy and rejoicing which bolsters up its morale.”

This is the gist of the criticism made by this author. The same arguments are advanced by other critics also. We would like to analyse this question and prove that the festive celebration of martyrdom by the Christians stems from their individualistic approach, and the weeping for the martyrs by the Muslims, from their social approach.

Of course, we cannot justify the attitude of those of our masses who look at Imam Husain only as a person to whom great injustice was done, and who was killed just for nothing. They express profound regret at his death, but pay little attention to his heroic and praise-worthy performance. We have already denounced this attitude. We intend to explain why the Imams have exhorted weeping for a martyr, and what the real philosophy of this exhortation is.

We do not know since when and by whom the festive celebration of the martyrdom of Jesus Christ was initiated. But we know, that weeping for the martyrs has been recommended by Islam, and it is an indisputable doctrine of the Shiite School of Islam. Now to analyse the main point, let us first discuss the individual aspect of death and martyrdom.

  • Is death an achievement on the part of the individual or something undesirable?
  • Should others regard it as a heroic deed on the part of the individual concerned?

We know that in this world there have been schools of thought, and they may still be existing, which believed that the relationship between man and the world, or in other words, between the soul and the body, was similar to the relationship between a prisoner and a prison, between a man who falls into a well and the well or between a bird and it’s cage. Naturally, according to these schools, death is equivalent to liberation and emancipation. Therefore, they allow suicide. It is said that the famous false prophet, Manikhaios held the same view. According to this theory, death has a positive value and is desirable for everyone. No one’s death is regrettable. A release from prison, getting out of a well, and the breaking of a cage, is a matter of joy and not of sorrow.

Another theory holds that death means nonexistence, complete annihilation and utter destruction, whereas life means to be and to persevere. Obviously, existence is better than nonexistence. It is a matter of instinct that life, whatever its form may be, is preferable to death.

The famous mystic poet, Mawlavi, quotes the Greek physician Galen, as having said, that in all circumstances he preferred to live rather than to die, no matter what form life took. He preferred life, even if it meant living in the belly of a mule, with only the head protruding out for breathing. According to this theory, death has only a negative value.

There is another theory, according to which death does not mean annihilation. It means only shifting from one world to another. The relationship between man and the world, and between the soul and the body, is not similar to that between a prisoner and the prison, between a fellow in a well and the well, and between a bird and the cage. It is similar to the relationship between a student and his school, and between a farmer and his farm.

It is true, that occasionally a student has to live away from his home and roost, where he misses the company of his friends, and has to pursue his studies within the limited atmosphere of his school, but the only way to lead a happy life in a society is to complete his course of studies successfully. It is also true that a farmer has to leave his house and family life, to work on his farm, but that provides him a good means of livelihood, and enables him to pass a happy family life, throughout the year.

The relationship between this world and the next, and between the soul and the body, is of this very nature. To those who have this outlook on the world, but who fail in practical life because of their lethargy and malpractices, the idea of death naturally appears to be dreadful and terrible. In fact, they are afraid of death because they fear the consequences of their own deeds.

But the attitude of those who are successful in their practical life, is naturally that of the student who has paid his whole-hearted attention to his studies, and of the farmer who has worked hard. Such a student, and such a farmer, yearn for their return home, but do not think of leaving their task incomplete.

The holy men are like the successful students. They long for death, which means going into the next world. Every moment, they impatiently wait for it. Imam Ali has said about them: “If Allah had not fixed the time of death, their soul would not have remained in their body for a moment, because of their desire for recompense and fear of retribution.”

At the same time, they do not run after death, for they know that it is only this life which gives them an opportunity to work and attain spiritual development. They know that the longer they live, the greater is the perfection they achieve.  Hence they resist death, and always ask Allah to grant them a long life. Thus, we know that it not contradictory that the holy men on the one hand consider death to be desirable and on the other, resist it and pray for a long life.

Addressing the Jews who claimed to be the friends of Allah, the Holy Qur’an says, “If you are friends of Allah (as you claim to be) then wish for death.” It further says that they will never wish for death, because they know what deeds they have committed, and what retribution they are to receive in the Hereafter. These people belong to the third category mentioned above.

There are two conditions, in which the holy men refrain from praying for a long life. First, when they are not attaining continuous success in doing virtuous deeds, and they fear that instead of progressing, they may retrogress. Imam Ali ibn al Husain used to say: “O Allah, prolong my life only so long as it is spent in obeying You, but if it becomes the grazing field of the Devil, carry me to Yourself.”

Secondly, the holy men pray for martyrdom unconditionally, for it constitutes a virtuous deed as well as spiritual progress. We have already quoted a prophetic saying to the effect that martyrdom is the highest virtue. Further, martyrdom means going into the next world, which the holy men so much yearn for. That is why we find, that Imam Ali’s, joy knew no bounds when he felt that he was going to die as a martyr.

Many sentences uttered by Imam Ali during the interval between his being wounded and his demise, are recorded in books including the Nahj al Blagha. One sentence has a bearing on the point under discussion. He said: “By Allah, nothing unexpected and undesirable has occurred. What has occurred, is what I had wanted.

I have achieved martyrdom, which I had desired. I am like a man, who was in search of water and suddenly struck upon a well or a spring. I am like the man, who was strenuously looking for something, and got it.”

In the early morning of the 19th Ramazan when his assassin struck him on the head, the first or the second sentence which was heard from him was: “By the Lord of the Ka’ba, I have succeeded.” So, from the Islamic point of view, martyrdom is a great, nay the greatest achievement as far as the martyr himself is concerned.

Imam Husain said: “My grandfather told me that I was destined to attain a very high spiritual position, but that could not be attained except through martyrdom.”

So far, we have analysed the individual aspect of death and martyrdom, and have arrived at the conclusion, that death in the form of martyrdom, is really an achievement as far as the martyr himself is concerned. From this angle, no doubt death is a happy event, and that is why, a great scholar, Ibn Tawus has said: “Had we not been given instructions about mourning, I would have preferred to celebrate the days of the martyrdom of the Imams, with festivity.”

On this ground, it may be said that Christianity is right in celebrating the martyrdom of Christ as a festive event. Islam also fully recognizes the martyrdom, to be an achievement of the martyr. But, from the Islamic point of view, the other side of the picture is also to be seen. From the social point of view, martyrdom is a phenomenon which takes place in specific circumstances, and is preceded and followed by events which have to be duly assessed. Similarly, it creates a reaction in society, not depending merely on the success or the defeat of the martyr, but is mainly based on the opinion held by the people, on the respective positions of the martyr and his opponents.

One more aspect of martyrdom is important. It is the martyr’s two-fold relationship with the society: (a) his relationship with those who have been deprived of his presence among them; and (b) his relationship with those, who by their depravity, created an atmosphere in which he had to stand against them and lay down his life. It is evident that from the view point of his followers, a martyr’s death is a great loss. When they express their emotions, they really cry over their own bad luck.

Martyrdom is desirable, if we consider the situation in which it takes place. It is necessitated by an undesirable and ugly situation. In this respect, it is comparable to a surgical operation which becomes necessary, as in the case of appendicitis, duodenal or gastric ulcer and the like.  In the absence of such as situation, the operation will obviously be a mistake.

The moral which the people should draw from martyrdom, is that they should not allow similar situations to develop, in the future. The idea of mourning, is to project the tragedy as an event which should not have happened.  Emotions are expressed, to condemn the villains of oppression and the killers of the martyr, with a view to restrain the members of society from following the example of such criminals. Accordingly, we find that none of those trained in the school of the mourning of Imam Husain would like to have the least resemblance of Yazid, Ibn Ziyad and the like.

Another moral which the society should draw, is that whenever a situation demanding sacrifice arises, the people should have the feelings of a martyr and willingly follow his heroic example. Weeping for the martyr means association with his fervour, harmony with his spirit and conformity with his longing. Now let us see whether festivity, rejoicing, dance and sometimes even mockery, drinking and revelry as witnessed during the religious feasts of the Christians, are more in keeping with the spirit of martyrdom or weeping and mourning are.

Usually a misconception prevails about weeping and it is thought that weeping is caused by pain and distress, and hence it is a bad thing. Weeping and laughter are two peculiar characteristics of human beings. Other animals feel pleasure and pain and get happy and sad, but they neither laugh nor weep. Laughter and weeping are the manifestations of intense emotions, peculiar only to human beings.

Laughter has many varieties, which we do not intend to discuss at present. Weeping also has varieties, but it is always concinnity with a sort of sensitivity and excitement.  We are all aware of tears of love and longing. When one weeps because of the excitement of love, he feels closer to his beloved.  Joy and laughter rather have an introvertive aspect. On the other hand, weeping has an extrovertive aspect, and means self-negation and unification with the object of love.

Because of his noble personality and heroic death Imam Husain evokes the deepest emotions of hundreds of millions of people. The whole world could be reformed, if our preachers could utilize this enormous fund of emotions to bring the spirit of the common man into harmony with the spirit of Imam Husain.

The secret of Imam Husain’s immortality, lies in the fact that on one hand, his movement was logical and rational, and on the other hand it evoked deep emotions. The Imams gave the most judicious direction, when they resorted to weeping for him, for it is weeping that has firmly rooted his movement in the hearts of the people. We again wish that our preachers knew how to utilize this emotional treasure.

When her father gave Fatima Zahra the well-known liturgical formula, which we, also, usually repeat after prayers, or at the time of going to bed (Allahu Akbar 34 times, Al hamdo lillah 33 times and Subhan Allah 33 times), she went to the grave of her grand uncle, Hamzah ibin Abd al-Muttalib, and collected earth from there to make a rosary. What is the significance of her action? The grave of a martyr is sacred. The earth of its vicinity is sacred. She required a rosary for counting the liturgical formula. Actually, it made no difference whether a rosary was made of stone, wood or clay. The earth could be taken from anywhere. But she preferred to take it from the vicinity of the martyr’s grave. Her action meant paying respect to him. After the martyrdom of Imam Husain the epithet of the Doyen of the Martyrs, was taken away from Hamzah and given to the grandson of his brother. Now, if anybody wants to seek the blessing of a martyr’s grave, he should make a rosary of the earth of Imam Husain’s mausoleum.

We have to offer our prayers. At the same time, we do not regard it, permissible to perform sajdah (prostration) on rugs, carpet or anything which is eatable or wearable. Hence, we keep with us a piece of stone or clay. But the Imams have said, that it is better to perform sajdah on the earth of martyr’s grave. If possible the earth of Karbala should be obtained, for it emits the smell of the martyrs. While offering your prayers, you can put your head on any earth, but if for this purpose you use the earth which has had some sort of contact with the martyrs, your reward will be enhanced a hundred times.

And Imam has said: “Perform sajdah on the grave of my grandfather, Husain ibin Ali. When a person offering prayers, performs sajdah on that sacred earth, he pierces seven veils.” The idea is to urge the people to realize the importance of the martyr, and to caress the earth of his grave.

Martyr’s Night
It is the usual practice in the modern world, to dedicate a day every year to a certain group or class of people, to pay homage to them. Mother’s Day, Teacher’s Day, are the examples of such days. But we do not find any day, being dedicated to the martyrs by any people, except the Muslims. It is the day of Ashura (10th Muharram). Its night may be regarded as the Martyrs’ Night.

We have already said, that a martyr’s logic is a combination of the logic of a lover and that of a reformer. If the personalities of a reformer and a Gnostic lover are combined a martyr comes into existence. A Muslim ibn Awsajah, a Hibib ibn Muzahir and a Zuhayr ibn Qayn comes into being. Anyhow, it must be remembered that all martyrs do not hold the same status.

Evidence of the Doyen of the Martyrs
Imam Husain has offered a testimony concerning the martyrs of Ashura which indicates their high status. It is known that the martyrs occupy a prominent position among the pious and the virtuous, and the companions of Imam Husain occupy a prominent position among the martyrs. Do you know what Imam Husain’s testimony was? Though his companions had been screened previously and those found unfit had been asked to leave, on the night of Ashura, he tested them finally. This time, not a single person was rejected.

There are two versions of the report. According to the first version, Imam Husain had a tent where the water was placed. He is reported to have assembled all his companions in the evening. Why he chose that tent, we do not know exactly. Probably he did so because that night there were no water-skins there. The only water which might have been available was that which was brought by Imam Husain’s son, Ali Akbar from the watering place of theEuphrates.

It is reported by the authentic chroniclers, of the Battle of Karbala that on the night of 10th Muharram, Imam Husain, sent his son with a small contingent to fetch water. The mission was successfully accomplished. All drank from the water he brought. Later Imam Husain asked them to take a bath and wash themselves. He told them, that it was the last supply of the water of this world, that they were getting. Whatever be the case, he assembled together all his companions and permitted everyone to leave, should they wish to do so. He delivered and eloquent and forceful sermon to them, in which he referred to the development of that afternoon.

You must have heard that the enemy had delivered his last ultimatum, on the evening of 9th Muharram, according to which the Imam had make his final decision by the morning of the 10th Muharram. Imam Zayn al-Abidin, who was present on that occasion, related that Imam Husain assembled his companions in a tent, adjacent to the tent in which he (Imam Zayn al Abidin) was confined to bed, and delivered a sermon. He began saying: “I praise Allah with the best praise. I am thankful to Him in all circumstances, whether pleasant or otherwise.”

For a person who takes a step, in the pursuit of truth and righteousness, all that happens is good. A righteous man, consciously performs his duty in all circumstances, irrespective of the consequences. In this connection, Imam Husain gave a very interesting reply to the celebrated poet Farazdaq, who met him while he was on his way to Karbala. Farazdaq explained the dangerous situation of Iraq. In reply the Imam said: “If things develop as we want, we will praise Allah and seek His help for being thankful to Him, but if anything untoward happens, we won’t be the losers, because our intentions are good and our conscience is clear.  Hence whatever comes about is good, not bad.”

“I am thankful to Him in all circumstances, whether pleasant or otherwise.” What he meant to say, was that he had seen good days and bad days in his life. The good days were when, in childhood, he sat on the lap of the Holy Prophet and when he rode on his shoulder. There was a time when he was the most favourite child in the Muslim world. He was grateful to Allah for those days. He was grateful to Him for the present hardships also, for all that came about, was good to him. He was thankful to Allah, who chose his family for Prophethood and who enabled his family to understand the Holy Qur’an fully and to have a true insight into the religion.

After stating that the Imam produced his historic testimony in respect of his companions and the members of his family, he said: “I do not know of any companions better or more faithful than my own companions, nor do I know of any kinsmen more virtuous and more dutiful than my own.”

Thus, he accorded to his own companions, a status higher than that of those companions of the Holy Prophet who were killed fighting in his company, and of those companions of his own father, Imam Ali, who were killed in the battles of Jamal, Siffin and Nahrawan. He said that he was not aware of any kinsmen more virtuous and more dutiful than his own. Thus, he accorded recognition to their high position and expressed his gratitude to them.  Then he went on to say: “Gentlemen! I would like to tell you all, my companions and my kinsmen both, that these people are not concerned with anybody except me.  They regard me to be their sole adversary. They want me to take the oath of allegiance. If they could eliminate me, they would have nothing to do with you.  The enemy is not concerned with you. You have pledged your allegiance to me.  Now I release you from your commitment.  You are under no obligation to stay here.  You are compelled by no friend or foe.  You are absolutely free.  Whosoever wants to go, may go.” Then addressing his companions, he said: “Let each one of you take hold of the hand of one of my kinsmen, and leave.”

The members of Imam Husain’s family included both adults and minors. Moreover, they were all strangers there. The Imam did not want them all to leave together.  So he asked each of his companions to hold the hand of one of them and leave the battlefield.

This incident throws light on the high character of Imam Husain’s companions. They were under no compulsion from any side. The enemy was not concerned with them.  The Imam had set them free from their obligation. In these circumstances, the heart warming reply, that each of the companions and relatives of the Imam gave, was remarkable.

Events that Satisified the Imam
On the 10th of Muharram, and during the night preceding it, it was a matter of great satisfaction for the Imam to see that all his relatives from the smallest child to the most aged person, were following in his footsteps.

Another matter of satisfaction for him was that none of his companions showed the slightest sign of weakness. None of them joined the enemy. On the other hand, they brought a number of hostile personnel over to their side. Such people joined them, both on the day of Ashura and the night preceding it. Hur ibn Yazid was one of them.

In all, 30 people joined him during the night of Ashura. These were the gratifying events for the Imam. One by one, Imam Husain’s companions said to him: “Sir! Do you permit us to go away and leave you alone? That can not be. Life has no value, in comparison with you.” One said: “I wish that process were repeated 70 times. To be killed only once, means nothing.” Another said: “I wish I were killed a thousand times consecutively. I wish I had a thousand lives, all to be sacrificed for you.”

Each One of Them Talked in the Same Vein
The first one to speak, was his conscientious brother, Abu al Fazl al Abbas. Others repeated what he said.

This was their last test. After they had all pronounced their decision, Imam Husain disclosed what was going to happen the next day. He said: “I tell you, that you will all be killed tomorrow.”  hey all thanked Allah for being given an opportunity to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their Holy Prophet’s descendant.

Here, there is good food for thought. Had it not been a question of a martyr’s logic, it could have been argued that the stay of those people, was useless. If Imam Husain was to be killed in any case, what should they sacrifice their lives for?  But still they stayed.

Imam Husain did not compell them to depart. He did not tell anyone that their stay was useless; they would only lose their lives in vain; and hence their stay was forbidden.

Imam Husain did not say any of this. On the other hand, he hailed their willingness to make the supreme sacrifice. This shows that a martyr’s logic is different form that of other people. A martyr often sacrifices his life, to create fervour, to enlighten the society, to revive it and to infuse fresh blood into its body. This was one such occasion.

To defeat the enemy, is not the only object of martyrdom. It aims at creating fervour also. If Imam Husain’s companions had not laid down their lives that day, how could so much fervour have been created? Though Imam Husain was the central figure in this event of martyrdom, his companions added to its lustre, grandeur and dignity. Without their contribution, Imam Husain martyrdom might not have assumed such a significance as to move, educate and encourage people for hundreds, nay thousands of years.

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Filed under Islam, Middle East, Mutahhari, Murtaza, Selections, The Modern Era

(b. 1920s, d. 1944-1945)

Kamikaze Diaries
Last Letters Home


In October 1944, toward the end of World War II, as it was becoming clear to the Japanese command that American aircraft carriers massing at the mouth of Leyte Gulf represented a serious threat, the new commander of Japanese naval air forces in the Philippines, Vice-Admiral Takijiro Ohnishi, arrived in Luzon. Knowing that the Japanese air forces in the entire Philippines area had fewer than 100 planes still in operational condition and that naval forces were not adequate to resist the invasion, Admiral Ohnishi recognized that loss to the Americans would mean loss of the Philippines altogether and with it the end of any real possibility of defending Japan. “In my opinion,” one of his senior staff officers later quoted him as saying, “there is only one way of assuring that our meager strength will be effective to a maximum degree. That is to organize suicide attack units composed of Zero fighters armed with 250-kilogram bombs, with each plane to crash-drive into an enemy carrier. . . . What do you think?”

This moment saw the birth of the Japan Naval Special Attack Force, the tokkotai, known as the Thunder Gods or Kamikaze Corps. “Body-crashing” (tai-atari) tactics had been used in air-to-air combat against enemy bombers, and many pilots had urged the use of the same tactics against enemy carriers, but it was at this moment that the idea of the suicide attack, a strategy devised by Sub-lieutenant Shoichi Ota, began its official translation into reality. The idea was presented to the remaining 23 young men of the 201st Air Group, already reduced to a third of its original size, by the officer who had been their commander during training and who, it was said, “was as deeply attached to these men as a father to his children.” The young pilots embraced Admiral Ohnishi’s idea of crash-dive missions “in a frenzy of emotion and joy.” The operation, shortly to be called kamikaze or “divine wind,” began within days.

As time went on, more planes were added and more pilots trained. Training lasted seven days: two days of take-off practice, two days of formation flying, and three days of approaching and attacking a target. Morale was said to be high in the kamikaze units, and pilots were said to have prayed for a direct hit. Within half a year, kamikaze tactics had proved so effective in damaging enemy surface forces that the Japanese high command grew convinced that kamikaze strategies were the only way to halt the American advance. Midget submarines with one or two pilots were also used in kamikaze naval attacks beginning with Pearl Harbor, and kamikaze strikes eventually became the primary strategy for all the armed forces. The attacks continued even after it became evident that Japan could not win; Admiral Ohnishi insisted that his men would be doomed in conventional combat, and argued that “[i]‌t is important to a commander, as it is to his men, that death be not in vain. I believe that a broad perspective indicates the wisdom of crash-diving” and ordered the suicide operations to continue.

There was both loyal support and intense criticism of kamikaze tactics in Japan and abroad. Although it is often assumed that the pilots were willing volunteers, many critics have claimed that the young recruits were pressured into service, that they were threatened with being sent to the front if they refused, and that coercion was heightened by the use of alcohol and amphetamines. Most navy pilots were between 18 and 20 years of age and most army pilots between 18 and 24. There were about 3,000 “boy pilots”; many of these student soldiers were drawn from the cream of young intellectuals. They left diaries (an important cultural practice in Japan), essays, poems, and letters expressing their true feelings of anguish about the war and their role in it.

Some scholars of Japanese culture claim that the Bushido tradition of samurai military culture [q.v., under Daidoji Yuzan] had always stressed readiness to die at any moment, and the kamikaze strategy would not have been seen as problematic. Further, these young men had been taught to believe that if they died heroically in battle, they would become gods, joining the guardian spirits of the nation at Yasukuni Shrine on Kudan Hill. One of the few kamikaze survivors, Hatsuho Naito, rescued when his final flight ended in a forced landing in a paddy field, wrote: “I do not believe that this so-called suicide mentality is unique to the Japanese. The spirit of self-sacrifice exists in all countries among all people, particularly among the young, who are innocent and free of cynicism when they are in a wartime life-or-death situation.” Many other observers hold that the long Japanese tradition of voluntary death, an honorable act, regarded as owed to one’s lord and preferable to living in shame, was what made the kamikaze program possible.

All in all, some 3,913 Japanese pilots, including both those in kamikaze planes and their escorts, were “expended” in the various theaters of the war, including the Philippine Islands, Formosa, and Okinawa. The “Last Letters Home” presented here, collected by Ichiro Ohmi during a four-and-a-half-year trip after the war to visit the homes of the kamikaze pilots, were the last ones written by these young men, shortly before their final special-attack missions. Among many other concerns, they embody Shinto conceptions of the importance of defending ancestors and family. Ohmi explained, It must be borne in mind that for many hundreds of years while the code of the warrior (Bushido), which stressed as necessary a willingness to die at any moment, governed the conduct of the samurai, similar principles were concurrently adopted by merchants, farmers, and artisans, stressing the value of unquestioning loyalty to the Emperor, other superiors, and the people of Japan. Thus, the introduction of the kamikaze principle was not so shocking to these Japanese as it would be to their Western enemies. In addition, the belief that one continues to live, in close association with both the living and the dead, after death, generally causes their concept of death to be less final and unpleasant in its implications.”

Other observers saw the situation differently. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney assembled the diaries of tokkøtai pilots from their families after the war; she sees in these writings, far more revealing than the expected “last letters home,” evidence of the kamikaze pilots’ “desperate struggles to find meaning in a fate they could not avoid [and that] bear no resemblance to those of anyone seeking martyrdom. This is so despite the Japanese government’s sustained propaganda campaign to apotheosize those fallen soldiers into symbols of martyrdom for the imperial nation.”

The United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, on Nagasaki three days later, and Japan announced its surrender on Aug. 15. That night, Admiral Ohnishi committed hara-kiri. Alone, he disemboweled himself with a traditional Japanese sword but was unable to slit his own throat, and when he was discovered still conscious by his aide the next morning, he refused both medical aid and the second’s traditional coup de grace. Captain Inoguchi, his senior staff officer who chronicled the history of the Kamikaze Corps and Admiral Ohnishi’s role in developing it, wrote that “[i]‌t would be wrong to think that his suicide was merely an atonement for sin. I believe that his life was dedicated from the moment he organized the Kamikaze Corps. Thereupon he had resolved to take his own life, and would have carried out that resolve even if Japan had won the war. In imagination he must have ridden with every pilot of his command as each made his final special attack.”

Rikihei Inoguchi, Tadashi Nakajima, and Roger Pineau, The Divine Wind.  Japan’s Kamikaze Force in World War II (Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute, 1958; New York: Bantam Books, 1960), Chapter 21, “Last Letters Home,” pp. 175-185. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers (University of Chicago Press, 2006), pp. xvii, 10-11, 39, 52, 65-66, 72, 78-79, 84. Quotations and paraphrase in the introductory note are also from this volume, and from Hatsuho Naito, Thunder Gods: The Kamikaze Pilots Tell Their Story (Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1989), pp. 16, 21.  A slightly different account of the origins of the Special Attack Force is to be found in Ryuji Nagatsuka, I Was a Kamikaze, tr. Nin Rootes (New York: Macmillan, 1972).



The following are excerpts from the diary of Sasaki Hachiro, born in 1922, who was drafted as a student soldier from the Imperial University Tokyo in December 1943 and volunteered to be a tokkotai pilot of February 20, 1945. He died on his kamikaze mission less than three months later, April 14, 1945.

We entered Kamikochi and greeted the Hodaka mountain peaks in the morning. Leaves of larch and birch are reflecting the morning sun and it is like looking at a scroll painting. I found my absolute authority here. If man did not posses a political nature, I would not mind sacrificing my life for this absolute authority [beauty and nature]. (April 4, 1940).

I prefer to think that “inevitability” is more important than “necessity.” One must always strive for stirb und werde! [“die and become!” or growth through death]. I am truly grateful for being aliveWe cannot detach ourselves from the present condition. It is in Welt sein [the presence in the universe] of Heidegger The most important thing is the freedom of will, freedom of spirit, amidst the chaos at present Blind obedience without free will is not an answer to our chaos. Chaos is not so simple as to be resolved by a Führer. (November 1, 1940)

Zwei Seelen wohnen ach in mein[em] Herz! (Ah, two soulsreside in my heart!] After all I am just a human being. Sometimes my chest pounds with excitement when I think of the day I will fly into the sky. I trained my mind and body as hard as I could and am anxious for the day I can use them to their full capacity in fighting. I think my life and death belong to the mission. Yet, at other times, I envy those science majors who remain at home [exempt from the draft]. Or, I think of those fellows who did not pass the draft examination as “having managed cleverly.”I feel like a fool to be proud of my fitness as a pilot. Those who skillfully escaped by not qualifying in the examination and took shelter in bookkeeping, engineering, and medical tasks must be the real clever ones. One of my souls looks to heaven, while the other is attracted to the earth. I wish to enter the Navy as soon as possible so that I can devote myself to the task. I hope that the days when I am tormented by stupid thoughts will pass quickly.

* * *

Born in Tokyo in 1922, Hayashi Tadao attended the prestigious Third Higher School in Kyoto and then the Imperial University of Kyoto; he was drafted as a student soldier in 1943. He became a Navy Air Force pilot, but was shot down by an American fighter plane that took off from an aircraft carrier he had sighted, two days after the Allied Forces had delivered the Potsdam Declaration to Japan.

Death is immoral and to live is absolutely moral.

(June 2, 1944)

I feel that I have to accept the fate of my generation to fight in the war and die. I call it “fate,” since we have to go to the battlefield to die without being able to express our opinions, criticize and argue pros and cons of issues, and behave with principles, that is, after being deprived of my own agency.To die in the war, to die at the demand of the nation—I have no intention whatsoever to praise it; it is a great tragedy.

(Oct. 12, 1941)

I do not avoid sacrifice. I do not refuse the sacrifice of my self. However, I cannot tolerate the reduction of the self to nothingness in the process. I cannot approve it. Martyrdom or sacrifice must be done at the height of self-realization. Sacrifice at the end of self-annihilation, the dissolving of the self to nothingness, has no meaning whatsoever.

(Jan. 3, 1944)

* * *

From a description by Kasuga Takeo, who had been drafted and assigned to look after the meals, laundry, room cleaning, and other daily tasks for the tokkotai pilots at the Tsuchiura Naval Air Base, on the night before their final flights. He was 86 years old when he wrote this letter, fifty years after the events.

At the hall where their farewell parties were held, the young student officers drank cold sake the night before their flight. Some gulped the sake in one swallow; others kept gulping down [a large amount]. The whole place turned to mayhem. Some broke hanging light bulbs with their swords. Some lifted chairs to break the windows and tore white tablecloths. A mixture of military songs and curses filled the air. While some shouted in rage, others cried aloud. It was their last night of life. They thought of their parents, their faces and images, lovers’ faces and their smiles, a sad farewell to their fiancées—all went through their mind like a running-horse lantern [a rapidly revolving lantern with many pictures on it]. Although they were supposedly ready to sacrifice their precious youth the next morning for imperial Japan and for the emperor, they were torn beyond what words can express—some putting their heads on the table, some writing their wills, some folding their hands in meditation, some leaving the hall, and some dancing in a frenzy while breaking flower vases. They all took off wearing the rising sun headband the next morning. But this scene of utter desperation has hardly been reported. I observed it with my own eyes, as I took care of their daily life, which consisted of incredibly strenuous training, coupled with cruel and torturous corporal punishment as a daily routine.



What, then, were the thoughts and feelings of the suicide pilots themselves as they volunteered, waited their turn, and went out on their missions?

Mr. Ichiro Ohmi made a nationwide pilgrimage for four and a half years after the war to visit the homes of kamikaze pilots.  The families showed him mementoes and letters of their loved ones.  He has kindly provided the authors of the book with copies of these letters, some of which express more clearly than could any other words the thoughts and feelings of the pilots about to die.

In general, what little the enlisted pilots wrote was of a simple, straightforward nature.  Academy graduates also wrote very little—perhaps because they were thoroughly indoctrinated in the way of the warrior and thus accepted their fate matter-of-factly.  It was the reserve officers from civilian colleges and universities, who had had only a hasty military training before receiving their assignments, who wrote the most. A few typical letters serve to convey the spirit of kamikaze pilots.

The following was written by Ensign Susumu Kaijitsu of the Genzan (Wonsan) Air Group in Korea. Kaijitsu was born in 1923 at Omura City, Nagasaki Prefecture of northern Kyushu.  He had graduated from Nagoya Technical College just before entering the naval aviation school.

Dear Father, Mother, brothers Hiroshi and Takeshi, and sister Eiko:

I trust that this spring finds you all in fine health.   have never felt better and am now standing by, ready for action.

The other day I flew over our home and bade a last farewell to our neighbors and to you. Thanks to Mr. Yamakawa I had a chance recently to have a last drink with father, and there now remains nothing but to await our call to duty.

My daily activities are quite ordinary. My greatest concern is not about death, but rather of how I can be sure of sinking an enemy carrier. Ensigns Miyazaki, Tanaka, and Kimura, who will sortie as my wingmen, are calm and composed. Their behavior gives no indication that they are momentarily awaiting orders for their final crash-dive sortie. We spend our time in writing letters, playing cards, and reading.

I am confident that my comrades will lead our divine Japan to victory.

Words cannot express my gratitude to the loving parents who reared and tended me to manhood that I might in some small manner reciprocate the grace which His Imperial Majesty has bestowed upon us.

Please watch for the results of my meager effort. If they prove good, think kindly of me and consider it my good fortune to have done something that may be praiseworthy.Most important of all, do not weep for me. Though my body departs, I will return home in spirit and remain with you forever. My thoughts and best regards are with you, our friends, and neighbors.  In concluding this letter, I pray for the well-being of my dear family.

 *   *   *

Ensign Teruo Yamaguchi was born in 1923 on Goto Island, Nagasaki Prefecture, in northern Kyushu.  Brought up by a stepmother, his youth had not been a particularly happy one.  He enlisted upon graduation from Kokugakuin University in Tokyo and was assigned to the Amakusa Air Group, which was based near his home.  From there he was transferred to the 12th Air Flotilla for a suicide mission.

Dear Father:

As death approaches, my only regret is that I have never been able to do anything good for you in my life.

I was selected quite unexpectedly to be a special attack pilot and will be leaving for Okinawa today. Once the order was given for my one-way mission it became my sincere wish to achieve success in fulfilling this last duty. Even so, I cannot help feeling a strong attachment to this beautiful land of Japan. Is that a weakness on my part?

On learning that my time had come I closed my eyes and saw visions of your face, mother’s, grandmother’s, and the faces of my close friends. It was bracing and heartening to realize that each of you want me to be brave. I will do that!  I will!

My life in the service has not been filled with sweet memories. It is a life of resignation and self denial, certainly not comfortable. As a raisond’être for service life, I can see only that it gives me a chance to die for my country. If this seems bitter it probably is because I had experienced the sweetness of life before joining the service.

The other day I received Lieutenant Oixubo’s philosophy on life and death which you so kindly sent. It seems to me that while he appears to have hit on some truth, he was concerned mostly with superficial thoughts on the service. It is of no avail to express it now, but in my 23 years of life I have worked out my own philosophy.

It leaves a bad taste in my mouth when I think of the deceits being played on innocent citizens by some of our wily politicians. But I am willing to take orders from the high command, and even from the politicians, because I believe in the polity of Japan.

The Japanese way of life is indeed beautiful, and I am proud of it, as I am of Japanese history and mythology which reflect the purity of our ancestors and their belief in the past—whether or not those beliefs are true. That way of life is the product of all the best things which our ancestors have handed down to us. And the living embodiment of all wonderful things out of our past is the Imperial Family which, too, is the crystallization of the splendor and beauty of Japan and its people. It is an honor to be able to give my life in defense of these beautiful and lofty things.

Okinawa is as much a part of Japan as Goto Island. An inner voice keeps saying that I must smite the foe who violates our homeland. My grave will be the sea around Okinawa, and I will see my mother and grandmother again. I have neither regret nor fear about death. I only pray for the happiness of you and all my fellow-countrymen.

My greatest regret in this life is the failure to call you “chichiue” (revered father). I regret not having given any demonstration of the true respect which I have always had for you. During my final plunge, though you will not hear it, you may be sure that I will be saying “chichiue” to you and thinking of all you have done for me.

I have not asked you to come to see me at the base because I know that you are comfortable at Amakusa. It is a good place to live. The mountains north of the base remind me of Sugiyama and Magarisaka on Goto Island, and I have often thought of the days when you took Akira and me on picnics to Matsuyamanear the powder magazine. I also recall riding with you to the crematorium at Magarisaka as a youngster, without clearly understanding then that mother had died.

I leave everything to you. Please take good care of my sisters.

One setback in its history does not mean the destruction of a nation. I pray that you will live long. I am confident that a new Japan will emerge. Our people must not be rash in their desire for death.

Fondest regards.

Just before departure,

Without regard for life or name, a samurai will defend his homeland.

*   *   *

The following letter is by Flying Petty Officer First Class Isao Matsuo of the 701st Air Group.  It was written just before he sortied for a kamikaze attack.  His home was in Nagasaki Prefecture.


28 October 1944

Dear Parents:

Please congratulate me. I have been given a splendid opportunity to die. This is my last day. The destiny of our homeland hinges on the decisive battle in the seas to the south where I shall fall like a blossom from a radiant cherry tree.  I shall be a shield for His Majesty and die cleanly along with my squadron leader and other friends. I wish that I could be born seven times, each time to smite the enemy.

How I appreciate this chance to die like a man! I am grateful from the depths of my heart to the parents who have reared me with their constant prayers and tender love. And I am grateful as well to my squadron leader and superior officers who have looked after me as if I were their own son and given me such careful training. Thank you, my parents, for the 23 years during which you have cared for me and inspired me. I hope that my present deed will in some small way repay what you have done for me. Think well of me and know that your Isao died for our country. This is my last wish, and there is nothing else that I desire.

I shall return in spirit and look forward to your visit at the Yasukuni Shrine.  Please take good care of yourselves.

How glorious is the Special Attack Corps’ Giretsu Unit whose Suisei bombers will attack the enemy. Movie cameramen have been here to take our pictures. It is possible that you may see us in newsreels at the theater.

We are 16 warriors manning the bombers. May our death be as sudden and clean as the shattering of crystal.

Written at Manila on the eve of our sortie.


Soaring into the sky of the southern seas, it is our glorious mission to die as the shields of His Majesty. Cherry blossoms glisten as they open and fall.

*   *   *

Cadet Jun Nomoto of the Himeji Air Group was born in 1922 in Nagasaki Prefecture. He had graduated from the University of Commerce in Tokyo just before enlisting. Apparently written in great haste, the actual letter printed below is preceded by brief notes and is concluded in a hand other than that of the original writer:

Moved forward to * * * under sudden orders. Determination for success renewed upon learning that we will sortie tomorrow.

Cadet * * * was dropped from the list of those assigned to take part in the sortie, upon my arrival. Cannot help feeling sorry for him. This is a situation of mixed emotions.

Man is only mortal. Death, like life, is a matter of chance. Yet destiny, too, plays a part. I feel confident of my ability in tomorrow’s action. Will do my utmost to dive head-on against an enemy warship to fulfill my destiny in defense of the homeland. The time has come when my friend Nakanishi and I must part. There is no remorse whatsoever. Each man is doomed to go his separate way in time.

Since our unit was organized at the end of February we have undergone the most intensive kind of training. Now, at last, our chance to sortie is at hand. In our last briefing the commanding officer cautioned us, “not to be rash to die.” It seems to me that everything is up to Heaven.

I am resolved to pursue the goal that fate has chosen for me. You have always been good to me and I am grateful. My 15 years of schooling and training are about to bear fruit. I feel great joy at having been born in our glorious country.

It is my firm belief that tomorrow will be successful. It is my hope that you will share this belief. The time for our departure was set so suddenly that I will not have a chance to write last letters to my relatives and friends. I shall appreciate it if you will write to these people on my behalf, at your convenience, and express my sentiments….

Dearest Parents:

Please excuse my dictating these last words to my friend.  There is no longer time for me to write more to you.

There is nothing special that I can say, but I want you to know that I am in the best of health at this last moment. It is my great honor to have been selected for this duty. The first planes of my group are already in the air. These words are being written by my friend as he rests the paper on the fuselage of my plane. There are no feelings of remorse or sadness here. My outlook is unchanged. I will perform my duty calmly.

Words cannot express my gratitude to you. It is my hope that this last act of striking a blow at the enemy will serve to repay in small measure the wonderful things you have done for me.

My last wish is that my brothers may have a proper education. It is certain that uneducated men have an empty life.  Please see to it that their lives are as full as possible. I know that my sister is well taken care of because you have provided for her as you did for me.  I am grateful for a wonderful father and mother.

I shall be satisfied if my final effort serves as recompense for the heritage our ancestors bequeathed.


*   *   *

Lieutenant (jg) Nobuo Ishibashi, a native of Saga City in northern Kyushu, was born in 1920. He was a member of the Tsukuba Air Group before his assignment to the Special Attack Corps.  his is his last letter home.

Dear Father:

Spring seems to come early to southernKyushu. Here the blossoms and flowers are all beautiful. There is a peace and tranquillity, and yet this place is really a battleground.

I slept well last night; didn’t even dream. Today my head is clear and I am in excellent health.

It makes me feel good to know that we are on the same island at this time. Please remember me when you go to the temple, and give my regards to all of our friends.


I think of springtime in Japan while soaring to dash against the enemy.

*   *   *

The following letter was written by Ensign Ichizo Hayashi, born in 1922, in Fukuoka Prefecture of northern Kyushu. He had been reared in the Christian faith. Upon graduation from Imperial University at Kyoto he joined the Genzan (Wonsan) Air Group, from which he was assigned to the Special Attack Corps.

Dearest Mother:

I trust that you are in good health.

I am a member of the Shichisei Unit of the Special Attack Corps. Half of our unit flew to Okinawa today to dive against enemy ships. The rest of us will sortie in two or three days. It may be that our attack will be made on 8 April, the birthday of Buddha.

We are relaxing in an officers’ billet located in a former school building near the Kanoya air base. Because there is no electricity we have built a roaring log fire and I am writing these words by its light.

Morale is high as we hear of the glorious successes achieved by our comrades who have gone before. In the evening I stroll through clover fields, recalling days of the past.

On our arrival here from the northern part of Korea we were surprised to find that cherry blossoms were falling. The warmth of this southern climate is soothing and comforting.

Please do not grieve for me, mother. It will be glorious to die in action. I am grateful to be able to die in a battle to determine the destiny of our country.

As we flew into Kyushu from Korea the route did not pass over our home, but as our planes approached the homeland I sang familiar songs and bade farewell to you. There remains nothing in particular that I wish to do or say, since Umeno will convey my last desires to you.  his writing is only to tell you of the things that occur to me here.

Please dispose of my things as you wish after my death.

My correspondence has been neglected recently so I will appreciate it if you remember me to relatives and friends. I regret having to ask this of you, but there is now so little time for me to write.

Many of our boys are taking off today on their one-way mission against the enemy. I wish that you could be here in person to see the wonderful spirit and morale at this base.

Please bum all my personal papers, including my diaries. You may read them, of course, mother, if you wish, but they should not be read by other people. So please be sure to burn them after you have looked at them.

On our last sortie we will wear regular flight uniforms and a headband bearing the rising sun. Snow-white mufflers give a certain dash to our appearance.

I will also carry the rising sun flag which you gave to me. You will remember that it bears the poem, “Even though a thousand men fall to my right and ten thousand fall to my left….”  I will keep your picture in my bosom on the sortie, mother, and also the photo of Makio-san.

I am going to score a direct hit on an enemy ship without fail. When war results are announced you may be sure that one of the successes was scored by me. I am determined to keep calm and do a perfect job to the last, knowing that you will be watching over me and praying for my success. There will be no clouds of doubt or fear when I make the final plunge.

On our last sortie we will be given a package of bean curd and rice. It is reassuring to depart with such good luncheon fare. I think I’ll also take along the charm and the dried bonito from Mr. Tateishi. The bonito will help me to rise from the ocean, mother, and swim back to you.

At our next meeting we shall have many things to talk about which are difficult to discuss in writing. But then we have lived together so congenially that many things may now be left unsaid. “I am living in a dream which will transport me from the earth tomorrow.”

Yet with these thoughts I have the feeling that those who went on their missions yesterday are still alive. They could appear again at any moment.

In my case please accept my passing for once and for all. As it is said, “Let the dead past bury its dead.” It is most important that families live for the living.

There was a movie shown recently in which I thought I saw Hakata. It gave me a great desire to see Hakata again just once before going on this last mission.

Mother, I do not want you to grieve over my death. I do not mind if you weep. Go ahead and weep. But please realize that my death is for the best, and do not feel bitter about it.

I have had a happy life, for many people have been good to me. I have often wondered why.  It is a real solace to think that I may have some merits which make me worthy of these kindnesses.  It would be difficult to die with the thought that one had not been anything in life.

From all reports it is c1ear that we have blunted the actions of the enemy.  Victory will be with us.  Our sortie will deliver a coup de grâce to the enemy.  I am very happy.

We live in the spirit of Jesus Christ, and we die in that spirit.  This thought stays with me.  It is gratifying to live in this world, but living has a spirit of futility about it now.  It is time to die.  I do not seek reasons for dying.  My only search is for an enemy target against which to dive.

You have been a wonderful mother to me.  I only fear that I have not been worthy of the affection you have lavished on me.  The circumstances of my life make me happy and proud.  I seek to maintain the reason for this pride and joy until the last moment.  If I were to be deprived of present surroundings and opportunities my life would be worth nothing. Standing alone, I was good for little.  I am grateful, therefore, for the opportunity to serve as a man.  If these thoughts sound peculiar, it is probably because I am getting sleepy.  But for my drowsiness there are many other things I should like to say.

There is nothing more for me to say, however, by way of farewell.  I will precede you now, mother, in the approach to Heaven. Please pray for my admittance. I should regret being barred from the Heaven to which you will surely be admitted.  Pray for me, mother.


(When his sortie was delayed, this flier added the following postscript to his letter.)

“Strolling between the paddy fields the night is serene as I listen to the chant of the frogs.” I could not help but think of this during my walk last evening. I lay down in a field of clover and thought of home. Upon my return to the barracks, my friends said that I smelled of clover and it brought them memories of home and mother. Several of them commented that I must have been a mamma’s boy.

This did not disturb me at all; in fact, I was pleased by the remark. It is an index that people like me. When I am disturbed it is good to think of the many people who have been so kind to me, and I am pacified. My efforts will be doubled to prove my appreciation of the kind-hearted people it has been my pleasure to know.

The cherry blossoms have already fallen. I wash my face each morning in a nearby stream. It reminds me of the blossom-filled stream that ran near our home.

It appears that we will go to make our attack tomorrow. Thus the anniversary of my death will be 10 April. If you have a service to commemorate me, I wish you to have a happy family dinner.

Now it is raining, the kind of rain we have in Japan rather than what I experienced in Korea. There is an old organ in our billet and someone is playing childhood songs, including the one about a mother coming to school with an umbrella for her child.

The departure was again postponed for this flier and he had a chance to add yet another bit to the letter, which was finally mailed after he had taken off on his final flight:

I have thought that each day would be the last, but just as with most things in life, one can never be certain. It is the evening of 11 April, and this was not my day.

Do hope that I was photogenic today, for several newsreel cameramen were here, and they singled me out for a special series of pictures. Later the Commander in Chief of Combined Fleet greeted us in our billet and said to me, “Please do your best.” It was a great honor for me that he would speak to so humble a person as myself.  He is convinced that the country’s fate rests upon our shoulders.

Today we gathered about the organ and sang hymns.

Tomorrow I will plunge against the enemy without fail.

*   *   *

Ensign Heiichi Okabe was born in 1923. His home was Fukuoka Prefecture of northern Kyushu. Before enlisting he was graduated from Taihoku Imperial University. His first duty was in the Wonsan Air Group, and he was transferred thence to Shichisei Unit No.2 of the Special Attack Corps. He kept a diary which was sent to his family after his final sortie. The following is an excerpt from one of his last entries in that diary:

22 February 1945

I am actually a member at last of the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps.

My life will be rounded out in the next thirty days.  My chance will come!  Death and I are waiting. The training and practice have been rigorous, but it is worthwhile if we can die beautifully and for a cause.

I shall die watching the pathetic struggle of our nation. My life will gallop in the next few weeks as my youth and life draw to a close….

…The sortie has been scheduled for the next ten days.

I am a human being and hope to be neither saint nor scoundrel, hero nor fool—just a human being.  As one who has spent his life in wistful longing and searching, I die resignedly in the hope that my life will serve as a “human document.”

The world in which I live was too full of discord.  As a community of rational human beings it should be better composed.  Lacking a single great conductor, everyone lets loose with his own sound, creating dissonance where there should be melody and harmony.

We shall serve the nation gladly in its present painful struggle.  We shall plunge into enemy ships cherishing the conviction that Japan has been and will be a place where only lovely homes, brave women, and beautiful friendships are allowed to exist.

What is the duty today?  It is to fight.

What is the duty tomorrow?  It is to win.

What is the daily duty?  It is to die.

We die in battle without complaint. I wonder if others, like scientists, who pursue the war effort on their own fronts, would die as we do without complaint.  Only then will the unity of Japan be such that she can have any prospect of winning the war.

If, by some strange chance,Japan should suddenly win this war it would be a fatal misfortune for the future of the nation.  It will be better for our nation and people if they are tempered through real ordeals which will serve to strengthen.

*   *   *

Like cherry blossoms

    In the spring,

       Let us fall

          Clean and radiant.

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Filed under Asia, Japanese Naval Special Attack Force, Martyrdom, Military Defeat, Success, Strategy, Selections, Shinto, The Modern Era


from The Myth of Sisyphus
from Notebooks 1935–1951


The central philosophical concern probed by Albert Camus, novelist, essayist, and playwright, was the problem of finding meaning and value in an absurd world, the basic human issue of the philosophical school known as Existentialism. Camus was born into poverty in Mondovi, Algeria, but was able to attend the University of Algiers, where he was a keen student of philosophy. His academic career was cut short by one of his severe periodic bouts of tuberculosis. After his recovery, Camus founded a theater group aimed toward working-class audiences and, in 1938, became a journalist with a newly founded anti-colonialist paper, the Alger-Républicain. He moved to France during World War II and continued to work as a journalist. He also began to write fiction and soon gained recognition for his novel The Stranger (1942), a work he described as “the study of an absurd man in an absurd world.” Other important works by Camus include The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), a long essay concerning the absurd; The Plague (1947), a novel about the possibility of resisting the absurd through the assertion of human dignity and endurance; and The Rebel (1951), an essay concerning the idea of revolt. Camus received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957 and died tragically in an automobile accident on Jan. 4, 1960.

Camus’s work focuses on the conflict between, on the one hand, death and the absurdity of mortality, and on the other hand, the world of justice, meaning, and moral order. In Camus’s view, it could be argued that complete philosophical absurdism leads logically to moral indifference and even nihilism. Yet Camus’s temperament and his experiences during the war provoked him to search for ethical value, moral responsibility, and a way to resist the seemingly meaningless cruelty of the absurd; human beings can engage in a “revolt” against the absurd in search of the virtues and ethical duty.

In the selection from The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus discusses the philosophical question of whether human beings should even attempt this struggle or whether they may escape it through suicide (i.e., whether it makes any sense to go on living once the meaninglessness of human life is fully understood). The opening sentence of this essay is perhaps the most widely quoted line concerning suicide anywhere: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” 

The Notebooks, Camus’s literary diary, were not initially written for publication. They reflect among other things some of the themes of Sisyphus, and in the excerpts here focus particularly on the challenge that the possibility of suicide poses to Camus’s sense of the finality of death and yet the importance of life.

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1942), tr. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage Books, 1955), pp. 38, 4448; Notebooks 19351951, tr. Philip Thody (New York: Marlowe, 1998; combining two previously published volumes, Notebooks 19351942, Hamilton Ltd. and Alfred A. Knopf, 1963, and Notebooks 19421951, Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), pp. 83, 94, 98, 107, 110, 111, 114, 154, 175, 177, 203.




Absurdity and Suicide

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the restwhether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categoriescomes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.

If I ask myself how to judge that this question is more urgent than that, I reply that one judges by the actions it entails. I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument. Galileo, who held a scientific truth of great importance, abjured it with the greatest ease as soon as it endangered his life. In a certain sense, he did right. That truth was not worth the stake. Whether the earth or the sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference. To tell the truth, it is a futile question. On the other hand, I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions. How to answer it? On all essential problems (I mean thereby those that run the risk of leading to death or those that intensify the passion of living) there are probably but two methods of thought: the method of La Palisse and the method of Don Quixote. Solely the balance between evidence and lyricism can allow us to achieve simultaneously emotion and lucidity. In a subject at once so humble and so heavy with emotion, the learned and classical dialectic must yield, one can see, to a more modest attitude of mind deriving at one and the same time from common sense and understanding.

Suicide has never been dealt with except as a social phenomenon. On the contrary, we are concerned here, at the outset, with the relationship between individual thought and suicide. An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. The man himself is ignorant of it. One evening he pulls the trigger or jumps. Of an apartment-building manager who had killed himself I was told that he had lost his daughter five years before, that he had changed greatly since, and that that experience had “undermined” him. A more exact word cannot be imagined. Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings. The worm is in man’s heart. That is where it must be sought. One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light.

There are many causes for a suicide, and generally the most obvious ones were not the most powerful. Rarely is suicide committed (yet the hypothesis is not excluded) through reflection. What sets off the crisis is almost always unverifiable. Newspapers often speak of “personal sorrows” or of “incurable illness.” These explanations are plausible. But one would have to know whether a friend of the desperate man had not that very day addressed him indifferently. He is the guilty one. For that is enough to precipitate all the rancors and all the boredom still in suspension.

But if it is hard to fix the precise instant, the subtle step when the mind opted for death, it is easier to deduce from the act itself the consequences it implies. In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it. Let’s not go too far in such analogies, however, but rather return to everyday words. It is merely confessing that that “is not worth the trouble.” Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.

What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. All healthy men having thought of their own suicide, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death.

The subject of this essay is precisely this relationship between the absurd and suicide, the exact degree to which suicide is a solution to the absurd. The principle can be established that for a man who does not cheat, what he believes to be true must determine his action. Belief in the absurdity of existence must then dictate his conduct. It is legitimate to wonder, clearly and without false pathos, whether a conclusion of this importance requires forsaking as rapidly as possible an incomprehensible condition. I am speaking, of course, of men inclined to be in harmony with themselves.

Stated clearly, this problem may seem both simple and insoluble. But it is wrongly assumed that simple questions involve answers that are no less simple and that evidence implies evidence. A priori and reversing the terms of the problem, just as one does or does not kill oneself, it seems that there are but two philosophical solutions, either yes or no. This would be too easy. But allowance must be made for those who, without concluding, continue questioning. Here I am only slightly indulging in irony: this is the majority. I notice also that those who answer “no” act as if they thought “yes.” As a matter of fact, if I accept the Nietzschean criterion, they think “yes” in one way or another. On the other hand, it often happens that those who commit suicide were assured of the meaning of life. These contradictions are constant. It may even be said that they have never been so keen as on this point where, on the contrary, logic seems so desirable. It is a commonplace to compare philosophical theories and the behavior of those who profess them. But it must be said that of the thinkers who refused a meaning to life none except Kirilov who belongs to literature, Peregrinos who is born of legend, and Jules Lequier who belongs to hypothesis, admitted his logic to the point of refusing that life. Schopenhauer is often cited, as a fit subject for laughter, because he praised suicide while seated at a well-set table. This is no subject for joking. That way of not taking the tragic seriously is not so grievous, but it helps to judge a man.

In the face of such contradictions and obscurities must we conclude that there is no relationship between the opinion one has about life and the act one commits to leave it? Let us not exaggerate in this direction. In a man’s attachment to life there is something stronger than all the ills in the world. The body’s judgment is as good as the mind’s, and the body shrinks from annihilation.

We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking. In that race which daily hastens us toward death, the body maintains its irreparable lead. In short, the essence of that contradiction lies in what I shall call the act of eluding because it is both less and more than diversion in the Pascalian sense. Eluding is the invariable game. The typical act of eluding, the fatal evasion that constitutes the third theme of this essay, is hope. Hope of another life one must “deserve” or trickery of those who live not for life itself but for some great idea that will transcend it, refine it, give it a meaning, and betray it.

Thus everything contributes to spreading confusion. Hitherto, and it has not been wasted effort, people have played on words and pretended to believe that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living. In truth, there is no necessary common measure between these two judgments. One merely has to refuse to be misled by the confusions, divorces, and inconsistencies previously pointed out. One must brush everything aside and go straight to the real problem. One kills oneself because life is not worth living, that is certainly a truthyet an unfruitful one because it is a truism. But does that insult to existence, that flat denial in which it is plunged come from the fact that it has no meaning? Does its absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicidethis is what must be clarified, hunted down, and elucidated while brushing aside all the rest. Does the Absurd dictate death? This problem must be given priority over others, outside all methods of thought and all exercises of the disinterested mind. Shades of meaning, contradictions, the psychology that an “objective” mind can always introduce into all problems have no place in this pursuit and this passion. It calls simply for an unjustin other words, logicalthought. That is not easy. It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. Men who die by their own hand consequently follow to its conclusion their emotional inclination. Reflection on suicide gives me an opportunity to raise the only problem to interest me: is there a logic to the point of death? I cannot know unless I pursue, without reckless passion, in the sole light of evidence, the reasoning of which I am here suggesting the source. This is what I call an absurd reasoning. Many have begun it. I do not yet know whether or not they kept to it.

When Karl Jaspers, revealing the impossibility of constituting the world as a unity, exclaims: “This limitation leads me to myself, where I can no longer withdraw behind an objective point of view that I am merely representing, where neither I myself nor the existence of others can any longer become an object for me,” he is evoking after many others those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. After many others, yes indeed, but how eager they were to get out of them! At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself.

But what does life mean in such a universe? Nothing else for the moment but indifference to the future and a desire to use up everything that is given. Belief in the meaning of life always implies a scale of values, a choice, our preferences. Belief in the absurd, according to our definitions, teaches the contrary. But this is worth examining.

Knowing whether or not one can live without appeal is all that interests me. I do not want to get out of my depth. This aspect of life being given me, can I adapt myself to it? Now, faced with this particular concern, belief in the absurd is tantamount to substituting the quantity of experiences for the quality. If I convince myself that this life has no other aspect than that of the absurd, if I feel that its whole equilibrium depends on that perpetual opposition between my conscious revolt and the darkness in which it struggles, if I admit that my freedom has no meaning except in relation to its limited fate, then I must say that what counts is not the best living but the most living. It is not up to me to wonder if this is vulgar or revolting, elegant or deplorable. Once and for all, value judgments are discarded here in favor of factual judgments. I have merely to draw the conclusions from what I can see and to risk nothing that is hypothetical. Supposing that living in this way were not honorable, then true propriety would command me to be dishonorable.

The most living; in the broadest sense, that rule means nothing. It calls for definition. It seems to begin with the fact that the notion of quantity has not been sufficiently explored. For it can account for a large share of human experience. A man’s rule of conduct and his scale of values have no meaning except through the quantity and variety of experiences he has been in a position to accumulate. Now, the conditions of modern life impose on the majority of men the same quantity of experiences and consequently the same profound experience. To be sure, there must also be taken into consideration the individual’s spontaneous contribution, the “given” element in him. But I cannot judge of that, and let me repeat that my rule here is to get along with the immediate evidence. I see, then, that the individual character of a common code of ethics lies not so much in the ideal importance of its basic principles as in the norm of an experience that it is possible to measure. To stretch a point somewhat, the Greeks had the code of their leisure just as we have the code of our eight-hour day. But already many men among the most tragic cause us to foresee that a longer experience changes this table of values. They make us imagine that adventurer of the everyday who through mere quantity of experiences would break all records (I am purposely using this sports expression) and would thus win his own code of ethics. Yet let’s avoid romanticism and just ask ourselves what such an attitude may mean to a man with his mind made up to take up his bet and to observe strictly what he takes to be the rules of the game.

Breaking all the records is first and foremost being faced with the world as often as possible. How can that be done without contradictions and without playing on words? For on the one hand the absurd teaches that all experiences are unimportant, and on the other it urges toward the greatest quantity of experiences. How, then, can one fail to do as so many of those men I was speaking of earlierchoose the form of life that brings us the most possible of that human matter, thereby introducing a scale of values that on the other hand one claims to reject?

But again it is the absurd and its contradictory life that teaches us. For the mistake is thinking that that quantity of experiences depends on the circumstances of our life when it depends solely on us. Here we have to be over-simple. To two men living the same number of years, the world always provides the same sum of experiences. It is up to us to be conscious of them. Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. Where lucidity dominates, the scale of values becomes useless. Let’s be even more simple. Let us say that the sole obstacle, the sole deficiency to be made good, is constituted by premature death. Thus it is that no depth, no emotion, no passion, and no sacrifice could render equal in the eyes of the absurd man (even if he wished it so) a conscious life of forty years and a lucidity spread over sixty years. Madness and death are his irreparables. Man does not choose. The absurd and the extra life it involves therefore do not depend on man’s will, but on its contrary, which is death. Weighing words carefully, it is altogether a question of luck. One just has to be able to consent to this. There will never be any substitute for twenty years of life and experience.

By what is an odd inconsistency in such an alert race, the Greeks claimed that those who died young were beloved of the gods. And that is true only if you are willing to believe that entering the ridiculous world of the gods is forever losing the purest of joys, which is feeling, and feeling on this earth. The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man. But the word “ideal” rings false in this connection. It is not even his vocation, but merely the third consequence of his reasoning. Having started from an anguished awareness of the inhuman, the meditation on the absurd returns at the end of its itinerary to the very heart of the passionate flames of human revolt.

Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to deathand I refuse suicide. I know, to be sure, the dull resonance that vibrates throughout these days. Yet I have but a word to say: that it is necessary. When Nietzsche writes: “It clearly seems that the chief thing in heaven and on earth is to obey at length and in a single direction: in the long run there results something for which it is worth the trouble of living on this earth as, for example, virtue, art, music, the dance, reason, the mindsomething that transfigures, something delicate, mad, or divine,” he elucidates the rule of a really distinguished code of ethics. But he also points the way of the absurd man. Obeying the flame is both the easiest and the hardest thing to do. However, it is good for man to judge himself occasionally. He is alone in being able to do so.

“Prayer,” says Alain, “is when night descends over thought.” “But the mind must meet the night,” reply the mystics and the existentials. Yes, indeed, but not that night that is born under closed eyelids and through the mere will of mandark, impenetrable night that the mind calls up in order to plunge into it. If it must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucidpolar night, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. At that degree, equivalence encounters passionate understanding. Then it is no longer even a question of judging the existential leap. It resumes its place amid the age-old fresco of human attitudes. For the spectator, if he is conscious, that leap is still absurd. In so far as it thinks it solves the paradox, it reinstates it intact. On this score, it is stirring. On this score, everything resumes its place and the absurd world is reborn in all its splendor and diversity.

But it is bad to stop, hard to be satisfied with a single way of seeing, to go without contradiction, perhaps the most subtle of all spiritual forces. The preceding merely defines a way of thinking. But the point is to live.



Absurd. If one kills oneself, the absurd is negated. If one does not kill oneself, the absurd reveals on application a principle of satisfaction that negates itself. This does not mean that the absurd does not exist. It means that the absurd is truly without logic. This is why one cannot truly live on it.

* * *

Essay on Revolt: “All rebels act, however, as if they believed in the completion of history. The contradiction is…”

Id. Only a few really want liberty. The majority want justice and the majority even confuse justice and liberty. But question: is absolute justice the equivalent of absolute happiness? One comes to the idea that it is essential to choose between sacrificing liberty to justice or justice to liberty. For an artist, this amounts in certain circumstances to choosing between one’s art and the happiness of mankind.

Can man alone create his own values? That is the whole problem.

Are you pertinent? But I never said that man was not reasonable. What I want is to deprive him of his imaginary survival and show that with such privation he is at last clear and coherent.

Id. Sacrifice leading to value. But the suicide is selfish too: puts forward a value that seems to him more important than his own life―it’s the feeling of that respectable and happy life of which he has been deprived.

Look upon heroism and courage as secondary valuesafter having given proof of courage.

Novel of the appointed suicide. Set for a year from nowhis formidable superiority from the fact that death is a matter of indifference to him.

* * *

There is no freedom for man so long as he has not overcome his fear of death. But not through suicide. In order to overcome, one must not surrender. Be able to die courageously without bitterness.

* * *

At the hospital. The tubercular patient who is told by the doctor that he has five days to live. He anticipates and cuts his throat with a razor. Obviously, he can’t wait five days.

One of the male nurses tells the journalists: “Don’t mention it in your papers. He’s suffered enough already.”

* * *

I have a very keen liking for liberty. And for any intellectual, liberty is eventually confused with freedom of expression. But I am quite aware that this concern is not the primary one of a very large number of Europeans because justice alone can give them the material minimum they need and rightly or wrongly they would gladly sacrifice liberty to that elementary justice.

I have known that for a long time. If I found it necessary to defend the reconciliation of justice and liberty it is because I thought the last hope of the West lay in such a reconciliation. But such a reconciliation can be brought about only in a certain climate which today almost strikes me as Utopian. One or the other of these values must be sacrificed? What to think, in that case?

* * *

People always think that a man commits suicide for a reason. But he may very well commit suicide for two reasons.

* * *

On a door: “Come in. I have hanged myself.” They go in and find it is true. (He says “I,” but there isn’t an “I” any more.)

* * *

M. “Men are not my fellows. They are the people who look at me and judge me. My fellows are those who love me without looking at me, who love me in spite of everything, in spite of failure, betrayal, or humiliation, who love me and not what I have done or shall do, who would love me for as long as I loved myself―up to and including suicide.”

…“with her alone (his wife May) I have this love in common, whether in anguish or not, as some people share sick children who might die.”

* * *


The woman from the floor above has killed herself by jumping into the courtyard of the hotel. She was thirty-one, said one of the tenants. Old enough to live, and, since she had lived a little, to die. The shadow of the drama still lingers on in the hotel. She sometimes used to come down and ask the owner’s wife to let her stay for supper. She suddenly used to kiss herfrom a need to feel another person’s warmth and presence. It ended with a three-inch split in her forehead. Before she died she said: “At last.”

* * *

Novel (Part II―consequences)

The man (J. C.) has picked such and such a day on which to diefairly soon. His immediate and astonishing superiority over all social and other forces.

* * *

Politics can never be the subject of poetry (Goethe).

To add to the Absurdquotation from Tolstoy as a model of illogical logic:

“If all the worldly goods for which we live, if all the delights which life, wealth, glory, honors, and power give to us are taken away by death, then these goods have no meaning. If life is not infinite, it is quite simply absurd, it is not worth living, and we must rid ourselves of it as soon as possible by committing suicide.” (Confession.)

But, later on, Tolstoy modifies his remarks: “The existence of death compels us either to give up life of our own free will, or to change our life in such a way as to give it a meaning that cannot be taken from it by death.”

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Filed under Camus, Albert, Europe, Existentialism, Selections, The Modern Era


from Ethics: The Last Things and the Things Before the Last


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian, was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), the son of a famous psychiatrist. From 1923 to 1927, Bonhoeffer studied theology at the universities of Berlin and Tübingen. He also studied under Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he attended and taught at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, developing a love of Negro spirituals and an acute interest in racial justice. Bonhoeffer’s doctoral thesis and early writings sought to explain Christian theology in light of contemporary philosophy and sociology. He was an early opponent of anti-Semitism and the Nazi regime, and became involved in the Confessing Church, the center of German Protestant resistance to the nazification of the churches. Through his leadership and his books, Gemeinsames Leben (1939; trans. Life Together, 1954) and Nachfolge (1937; trans. The Cost of Discipleship, 1948), Bonhoeffer instituted rigorous practices of private confession, prayer, and discipline while attacking the laxity of popular Protestantism. Bonhoeffer focused on creating a church capable of withstanding National Socialism and its theological proponents.

As early as 1933, Bonhoeffer and his family were persuaded that Hitler’s government was illegitimate and the the church should stand up against the state. He favored killing Hitler, not as an assassination, but as tyrannicide. Bonhoeffer became involved with the Abwehr in 1940 where his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, worked; in that capacity he was able to use his ecumenical connections to carry messages abroad for the German resistance. 

From 1940–43, he wrote fragments of his theological volume Ethik (1949; trans. Ethics, 1955). Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 and hanged just before the end of the war in 1945. Published posthumously, his Widerstand und Ergebung (1951, trans. Prisoner of God: Letters and Papers from Prison, 1953) expresses his profound belief in the maturity of the Christian individual and the worldly groundedness of true Christianity.

In the selections from Ethics, written at the time of the Nazi “euthanasia” killings, Bonhoeffer argues that the possibility of suicide is an indication of human freedom over life: we are free to make this choice, and it can be seen as “a man’s attempt to give a final human meaning to a life which has become humanly meaningless.” However, God alone possesses rights over life, and God’s existence is the only relevant rationale for the inappropriateness of suicide. In individual cases, bodily self-sacrifice is not considered self-murder if the intentions are altruistic. But suicide is in general wrong, something lack of faith may disguise, since it “conceals from a man the fact that even suicide cannot release him from the hand of God. . . .” Suicide, Bonhoeffer wrote (one cannot know whether at the time he could foresee his arrest, internment, and hanging at the hands of the Nazis), is the “hardest of all temptations.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1965), pp. 155–156, 162, 166–172. Material in introduction from Victoria J. Barnett.




The Right to Bodily Life

Bodily life, which we receive without any action on our own part, carries within itself the right to its own preservation. This is not a right that we have justly or unjustly appropriated to ourselves, but it is in the strictest sense an ‘innate’ right, one which we have passively received and which pre-exists our will, a right which rests upon the nature of things as they are. Since it is God’s will that there should be human life on earth only in the form of bodily life, it follows that it is for the sake of the whole man that the body possesses the right to be preserved. And since all rights are extinguished at death, it follows that the preservation of the life of the body is the foundation of all natural rights without exception and is, therefore, invested with a particular importance. The underlying right of natural life is the safeguarding of nature against intentional injury, violation and killing. That may sound very jejune and unheroic. But the body does not exist primarily in order to be sacrificed, but in order that it may be preserved. Different and more exalted considerations may give rise to the right or the duty of sacrificing the body, but this in itself presupposes the underlying right to the conservation of bodily life. . . .

But let us now consider the case when an incurably diseased person in full possession of his senses gives his assent to the termination of his life, and indeed asks for it. Can a wish of this kind carry with it a valid demand for the application of euthanasia? Undoubtedly one cannot speak of a valid demand so long as the patient’s life still raises demands on its own account, in other words so long as the doctor is under an obligation not only towards the will but also towards the actual life of the patient. The question of destroying the life of another is now replaced by the question of the admissibility of terminating one’s own life in a case of extremely severe illness, or of assisting in so doing. We shall be discussing this matter in connection with the problem of suicide. . .

Our conclusion must, therefore, be that consideration for the healthy also establishes no right to the deliberate destruction of innocent life, and from this it follows that the question regarding euthanasia must be answered in the negative. The Bible sums up this judgement in the sentence: ‘The innocent…slay thou not’ (Ex. 23:7).


Man, unlike the beasts, does not carry his life as a compulsion which he cannot throw off. He is free either to accept his life or to destroy it. Unlike the beasts man can put himself to death of his own free will. An animal is one with the life of its body, but man can distinguish himself from the life of his body. The freedom in which man possesses his bodily life requires him to accept this life freely, and at the same time it directs his attention to what lies beyond this bodily life and impels him to regard the life of his body as a gift that is to be preserved and as a sacrifice that is to be offered. Only because a man is free to choose death can he lay down the life of his body for the sake of some higher good. Without freedom to sacrifice one’s life in death, there can be no freedom towards God, there can be no human life.

In man the right to live must be safeguarded through freedom. It is therefore not an absolute right, but a right which is conditional upon freedom. The right to live has as its counterpart the freedom to offer and to give one’s life in sacrifice. In the sense of sacrifice, therefore, man possesses the liberty and the right to death, but only so long as his purpose in risking and surrendering his life is not the destruction of his life but the good for the sake of which he offers this sacrifice.

In his liberty to die man is given a unique power which can easily lead to abuse. Man can indeed by its means become the master of his earthly destiny, for he can by his own free decision seek death in order to avoid defeat and he may thus rob fate of its victory. Seneca’s patet exitus is the proclamation of man’s freedom in relation to life. If in the struggle with destiny a man has lost his honor, his work and the only human being whom he loves, if in this sense his life is destroyed, it will be difficult to persuade him not to make use of this opportunity of escape, provided that he still retains courage enough to secure his freedom and his victory in this way. And indeed it cannot be contested that through this deed a man is once again asserting his manhood, even though he may be misunderstanding its significance, and that he is opposing it effectively to the blind inhuman force of destiny. Suicide is a specifically human action, and it is not surprising if it has on this account repeatedly been applauded and justified by noble human minds. If this action is performed in freedom it is raised high above any petty moralizing accusation of cowardice and weakness. Suicide is the ultimate and extreme self-justification of man as man, and it is therefore, from the purely human standpoint, in a certain sense even the self-accomplished expiation for a life that has failed. This deed will usually take place in a state of despair, yet it is not the despair itself that is the actual originator of suicide, but rather a man’s freedom to perform his supreme act of self-justification even in the midst of this despair. If a man cannot justify himself in his happiness and his success, he can still justify himself in his despair. If he cannot make good his right to a human life in the life of his body, he can still do so by destroying his body. If he cannot compel the world to acknowledge his right, yet he can still assert this right, himself, in his last solitude. Suicide is a man’s attempt to give a final human meaning to a life which has become humanly meaningless. The involuntary sense of horror which seizes us when we are faced with the fact of a suicide is not to be attributed to the iniquity of such a deed but to the terrible loneliness and freedom in which this deed is performed, a deed in which the positive attitude to life is reflected only in the destruction of life.

If suicide must nevertheless be declared wrongful, it is to be arraigned not before the forum of mortality or of men but solely before the forum of God. A man who takes his own life incurs guilt solely towards God, the Maker and Master of his life. It is because there is a living God that suicide is wrongful as a sin of lack of faith. Lack of faith is not a moral fault, for it is compatible with both noble and base motives and actions, but, both in good and in evil, lack of faith takes no account of the living God. That is the sin. It is through lack of faith that a man seeks his own justification and has recourse to suicide as the last possible means of his own justification, because he does not believe in a divine justification. Lack of faith is disastrous in that it conceals from a man the fact that even suicide cannot release him from the hand of God, who has prepared his destiny for him. Lack of faith does not perceive, beyond the gift of bodily life, the Creator and Lord who alone has the right to dispose of His creation. And here we are confronted with the fact that natural life does not possess its right in itself, but only in God. The freedom to die, which is given to human life in natural life, is abused if it is used otherwise than in faith in God.

God has reserved to Himself the right to determine the end of life, because He alone knows the goal to which it is His will to lead it. It is for Him alone to justify a life or to cast it away. Before God self-justification is quite simply sin, and suicide is therefore also sin. There is no other cogent reason for the wrongfulness of suicide, but only the fact that over men there is a God. Suicide implies denial of this fact.

It is not the baseness of the motive that makes suicide wrongful. One may remain alive for base motives, and one may give up one’s life for noble motives. It is not bodily life itself that possesses an ultimate right over man. Man is free in relation to his bodily life, and, in Schiller’s phrase, ‘life is not the highest of possessions.’ Nor can human society, as Aristotle supposes, establish an ultimate right over the bodily life of the individual. For any such right is negatived by the ultimate right to dispose of himself which is conferred on a man by nature. The community may impose penalties on suicide, but it will not be able to convince the offender himself that it possesses a valid right over his life. Insufficient, too, is the argument which is widely used in the Christian Church to the effect that suicide rules out the possibility of repentance and, therefore, also of forgiveness. Many Christians have died sudden deaths without having repented of all their sins. This is setting too much store by the last moment of life. All the arguments we have mentioned so far are incomplete; they are correct up to a point, but they do not state the decisive reason and are therefore not cogent.

God, the Creator and Lord of life, Himself exercises the right over life. Man does not need to lay hands upon himself in order to justify his life. And because he does not need to do this it follows that it is not rightful for him to do it. It is a remarkable fact that the Bible nowhere expressly forbids suicide, but that suicide appears there very often (though not always) as the consequence of extremely grave sin, so, for example, in the case of the traitors Ahithophel and Judas. The reason for this is not that the Bible sanctions suicide, but that, instead of prohibiting it, it desires to call the despairing to repentance and to mercy. A man who is on the brink of suicide no longer has ears for commands or prohibitions; all he can hear now is God’s merciful summons to faith, to deliverance and to conversion. A man who is desperate cannot be saved by a law that appeals to his own strength; such a law will only drive him to even more hopeless despair. One who despairs of life can be helped only by the saving deed of another, the offer of a new life which is to be lived not by his own strength but by the grace of God. A man who can no longer live is not helped by any command that he should live, but only by a new spirit.

God maintains the right of life, even against the man who has grown tired of his life. He gives man freedom to pledge his life for something greater, but it is not His will that man should turn this freedom arbitrarily against his own life. Man must not lay hands upon himself, even though he must sacrifice his life for others. Even if his earthly life has become a torment for him, he must commit it intact into God’s hand, from which it came, and he must not try to break free by his own efforts, for in dying he falls again into the hand of God, which he found too severe while he lived.

Far more difficult than the determining of this general principle is the judgement of particular cases. Since suicide is an act of solitude, the ultimate decisive motives almost always remain hidden. Even when some outward catastrophe in life has gone before, the deepest inward reason for the deed is still concealed from the eye of the stranger. The human eye can often scarcely discern the borderline between the freedom of the sacrifice of life and the abuse of his freedom for the purpose of self-murder, and in such cases there is no basis for forming a judgement. Certainly the taking of one’s own life is as a matter of plain fact different from risking one’s life in a necessary undertaking. But it would be very short-sighted simply to equate every form of self-killing with murder. For, in cases where a man who kills himself is deliberately sacrificing his own life for other men, judgement must at least be suspended because here we have reached the limits of human knowledge. It is only if the action is undertaken exclusively and consciously out of consideration for one’s own person that self-killing becomes self-murder. But who would venture to assess with certainty the degree of consciousness and exclusiveness of such a motive? If a prisoner takes his life for fear that under torture he might betray his country, his family or his friend, or if the enemy threaten reprisals unless a certain statesman is surrendered to them and it is only by his own free death that this statesman can spare his country grievous harm, then the self-killing is so strongly subject to the motive of sacrifice that it will be impossible to condemn the deed. If a sufferer from incurable disease cannot fail to see that his care must bring about the material and psychological ruin of his family, and if he therefore by his own decision frees them from this burden, then no doubt there are many objections to such an unauthorized action, and yet here, too, a condemnation will be impossible. In view of such cases as these the prohibition of suicide can scarcely be made absolute to the exclusion of the freedom of sacrificing one’s life. Even the early Church Fathers held that self-destruction was permissible for Christians in certain circumstances, for example when chastity was threatened by force; though certainly already St Augustine contested this and asserted the absolute prohibition of suicide. Yet it seems scarcely possible to draw any distinction of principle between the cases we have just considered and the unquestioned duty of the Christian which requires, for example, that when a ship is sinking he shall leave the last place in the lifeboat to another in the full awareness that he is thereby going to his death, or again which requires that a friend shall with his own body shield his friend’s body from the bullet. A man’s own decision here becomes the cause of his death, even though one may still distinguish between direct self-destruction and this surrendering of life into the hand of God. Clearly the case is different if suicide is motivated by purely personal matters such as wounded honor, erotic passion, financial ruin, gambling debts or serious personal lapses, in other words if a man kills himself not in order to protect the lives of others but solely in order that his own life may be justified. Even here indeed, in concrete instances, the thought of sacrifice will not be entirely absent, but nevertheless all other motives will be outweighed by the desire to rescue one’s own person from shame and despair, and the ultimate ground for the action will therefore be lack of faith. Such a man does not believe that God can again give a meaning and a right even to a ruined life, and indeed that it may be precisely through ruin that a life attains to its true fulfillment. Because he does not believe this, the termination of his life remains to him as the only possible means whereby he himself can impart a meaning and a right to his life, even though it be only at the moment of its destruction. Here again it becomes quite clear that a purely moral judgement on suicide is impossible, and indeed that suicide has nothing to fear from an atheistic ethic. The right to suicide is nullified only by the living God.

But quite apart from all external motivations there is a temptation to suicide to which the believer is especially exposed, a temptation to abuse the freedom which is given by God by turning it against his own life. Hatred for the imperfection of his own life, experience of the headstrong resistance which earthly life in general opposes to its own fulfillment by God, the grief which arises from this and the doubt as to whether life has any meaning at all, all these may lead him into great danger. Luther was able to say a great deal about this from his own experience. In such hours of trial no human or divine law can prevent the deed. Help can come only from the comfort of grace and from the power of brotherly prayer. It is not the right to life that can overcome this temptation to suicide, but only the grace which allows a man to continue to live in the knowledge of God’s forgiveness. But who would venture to say that God’s grace and mercy cannot embrace and sustain even a man’s failure to resist this hardest of all temptations?

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Filed under Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Christianity, Europe, Selections, Sin, The Modern Era


from The Moral Problem of Suicide


Paul-Louis (also known as Paul-Ludwig) Landsberg was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1901 to a prominent family. Landsberg became a professor of philosophy at the University of Bonn in 1928. He wrote several works on anthropology and German philosophy, as well as Die Welt des Mittelalters und Wir (c. 1922) (The Medieval World and Us, The World of the Middle Ages) when he was only 21. He left Germany in 1933 when Hitler came to power and traveled first to France and Switzerland, before accepting a position in Barcelona, Spain, as professor of philosophy. Landsberg was forced to leave Spain again in 1936 because of the Civil War. He moved to France and began to write for the periodical Esprit—a publication associated with the “Personnaliste,” or Personalist, movement. In 1940, he and his wife were placed in separate internment camps during the German occupation of France. Despite his experiences, he chose to remain in France to support the liberation effort and to aid his wife, who had suffered a nervous breakdown while incarcerated. During this time, Landsberg carried a poison that he intended to use on himself if captured by the Gestapo. He was arrested by German officers in 1943, but he had apparently changed his mind about suicide and had destroyed the poison. He died of exhaustion at a camp in Oranienburg, Germany, in April of 1944.

Landsberg’s philosophy was characterized by a fundamental concern with the nature of human beings and the connections between the body and the soul. He particularly emphasized the importance of the body in relationship with the soul, stressing the need to avoid a complete “abstraction” of the human person as primarily a soul tied to a physical frame. With this complex approach to the human condition, Landsberg addressed the ethical question of self-killing in The Moral Problem of Suicide (published posthumously in French in 1951). In this long essay, excerpted here, Landsberg discusses historical arguments for and against suicide, specifically those associated with Christianity, many of which he finds simplistic. He argues that the issue of suicide is too complex to simply make a universal decree that is applicable to all people and situations. Having found the views of the Church fathers unconvincing, despite his own religious convictions, Landsberg offers his own unique interpretation of suicide and the states of mind leading to it; he sees it as the temptation to complete freedom, a freedom that is often opposed to duty. What is most missing from these early accounts is an example; he finds it in Jesus Christ. Landsberg argues that life is, of necessity, filled with suffering; suffering serves as a purifying process. Happiness is not the goal of life; and the mere prolongation of bodily existence is not of value. A total prohibition of suicide can only be justified because of the “scandal and paradox of the cross”: “live and suffer.” By “paradox,” Landsberg alludes to the perspective of pagan philosophies like Stoicism, which could not understand the Christians’ preference for martyrdom over suicide; he also considers the ways in which Buddhism’s view, though averse to suicide, is deeply different from the Christian view. Suicide, on Landsberg’s view, is unjustified because to throw away one’s life is to throw away one’s suffering, through which the meaning of life is achieved and made evident.

Paul-Louis Landsberg, The Experience of Death and The Moral Problem of Suicidetr. Cynthia Rowland. (New York: Philosophical Library), 1953, pp. 65-97.




I shall be told that the problem I propose to discuss simply does not exist or, at any rate, does not exist for Christians.  We all that know that Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular, and all moral theologies, whether catholic or protestant, consider suicide to be moral sin, and do not admit that it can be justified in any circumstances whatsoever.  All this is quite clear, and there seems nothing more to be said.  Suicide is forbidden by divine authority and that ought to be enough.  I should like to add that, in my case, there seem to be two particular reasons which indeed make the question of suicide a very real problem, which neither Christian philosophy nor theology has the right to overlook.

  1. I have been profoundly impressed by the fact that, of all existing moralities, Christian morality is strictly speaking the only one to forbid suicide outright, without willing to allow exceptions.  There are, it is true, some philosophers, particularly Plato and the Platonists, who share a certain aversion to suicide.  But we have no example of a non-Christian philosopher who considers it to be in every case a grave sin or crime.  We do, it is true, finding in the ethics of certain communities a marked disapproval of suicide, for instance, among the Jews of the Old Testament, the Buddhist, and the followers of the orphic mysteries; but here also we find a considerable number of exceptions which are considered to be justified, and there is no question of an intransigent principle.  The sacred horror of suicide is a peculiarly and exclusively Christian phenomenon.
  2. From the philosophic angle, there is always a moral problem wherever there is a temptation latent in human nature itself.  It should be enough to point out that cases of suicide have occurred at all times and amongst all peoples, even amongst the so-called “primitives,” to a much greater extent than is generally admitted, to show that it is a temptation of fairly common occurrence.

And further, the very way in which the Christian religion opposes suicide by stigmatizing it as an extreme aberration, presumes the existence of such a temptation.  But above all, we need only to have lived and to have understood only a little of the human heart, to know that man can welcome the idea of death.  And as soon as there is temptation we have a positive meaning which can even serve to make our morality deeper and more conscious. The great temptations are active forces which are necessary to the moral evolution of an extremely imperfect creature that is nevertheless destined to perfection, that is to say, to man.  It is not sufficient to point purely and simply to a divine command when humanity is challenged by one of its specific and, so to say, basic temptations.  Man has to respond with his whole being, with the weight of his existence, in action, in feeling and also in his intellect.  All serious moral philosophy is the theoretical expression of the outcome of such a struggle against temptation latent in the human condition.

In view of this, perhaps I shall be allowed to affirm the existence of an authentic problem and of the philosopher’s right to discuss it.  We often find an argument against suicide, which is commonly put forward by the unintelligent.  It is very customary to find all suicides condemned as cowards.  This is a typically bourgeois argument which I find ridiculous.  How can we describe as cowardly the way of dying chosen by Cato, or Hannibal, or Brutus, or Mithridates, or Seneca or Napoleon?  There are certainly far more people who do not kill themselves out of cowardice.  The argument can only be valid on an entirely different level.  It may be that compared with the supernatural courage of Christ and the saints, even the courage of Cato might appear a form of cowardice.  But on an ordinary human level it is more frequently the courageous who, in certain circumstances, decide to kill themselves.  The Christian religion, which condemns it far more as a sin of Lucifer than a banal cowardice.  And further, nothing is more opposed to the spirit of Christianity than to treat the prolongation of empirical existence as an absolute value or even as a value of a very high order.  Similarly, there is no weight in the argument that suicide is always proof of a weakness of will.  There is a will to live and a will to die, and the latter has to be extremely powerful before it leads to suicide.

And then there are those, on the other hand, who still support the right to a voluntary choice of death by countering the Christians argument as follows: you say that voluntary death is contrary to the will of God who created us.  But if this is true, then why did he create us in such a way that we have the capacity and opportunity to kill ourselves.  This argument is all too easy to refute, but perhaps it is more important to learn from it.  The fallacy of course is obvious.  Every crime and sin is in a sense possible to man and the same argument could be used to justify murder and robbery.  The whole significance of a moral prohibition is that it is there to guide a man who has the capacity to act otherwise. But in the case of suicide we must dwell for a moment on the importance of the fact that man is a being who can kill himself and may not do so.  This is quite different from being incapable of doing so.  Temptation is an experience of the difference between the vertigo of power and the decision of duty.  The manifold possibilities open the unstable, intelligent, imperfect creature that we are, from the basis of all moral problems.  A genuine moral problem is always the immense problem of man taken from a given angle.  There are few facts so profoundly characteristic of the abyss of liberty and the power of reflection by which man makes himself, up to a certain point, master of his actions and even of his existence.  This is precisely why man lives his moral problems, and he has therefore to live this problem of self-inflicted death.  The temptation to suicide is part of the vertigo of his dangerous liberty.  If, therefore, the fact of being able to kill oneself is not a justification for suicide; it is nevertheless the basis of a specifically human problem.  For the temptation to fathom the full extent of his freedom is one of the profoundest temptations known to man.

It is therefore not surprising that philosophic discussion of the problem has always centered on the problem of liberty.  I have no room to do justice to the quality of this discussion.  It is no exaggeration to say that the problem of free choice of death is one of the fundamental problems of all the great moral philosophies.  All I can do here is to review briefly the stoic point of view, which is particularly important and well-developed.  Stoic wisdom did not necessarily entail death, but it depended on a frame of mind in which the whole person has become the free arbiter of his own “living or dying” according to the dictates of reason. The stoic was a man who could die if reason so ordained.  The empirical capacity to die which is common to all human beings was transformed in the stoic into a capacity which could function immediately if fate required it of reason.  It is not the external act of suicide which is glorified, but rather the inner liberty which permits and insists on it, in certain cases.  In such circumstances suicide is the via libertatis.  Then the voice of Seneca says to man: “You should not live in necessity, since there is no necessity to live.” It is Cato who will not survive if the Republic has lost its freedom, it is Hannibal who refuses to live as prisoner of the Romans, it is Lucrece who will not survive the dishonor she has suffered.  In modern times, it is Condorcet who will not live to see the degradation of the revolution.  There are the countless heroes of Plutarch; there is a Chamfort saying good-bye to a world where the heart must break or grow cold—or the suicides after the German defeat in 1918, and more recently after the defeat of France.  From the stoic viewpoint the death of Socrates is also voluntary, in the sense that he refuses to live as a fugitive far from the city.  This strong-willed and rationalist roman philosophy of the person Sui compos, master of his own life, is the last great philosophy of Greco-Roman antiquity before the victory of Christianity.  Stoicism has never completely died out and the conflict between Christianity and morality has continued to disturb the conscience of Europe, particularly since the Renaissance.  In any case, what is important here is that it is a philosophy of the autonomy of the reasonable being, the keystone of which is the philosophy of a free choice of death.

It is understandable that the struggle with stoicism should have led the Christian Church to give explicit reasons for its condemnation of self-conflicted death.  I believe, however, that the early Christians did not discuss the problem, simply because they considered it had been solved for them by the example of Christ and the martyrs.  There are many who kill themselves in order to avoid a certain form of death.  Hundreds and thousands of persons have killed themselves in this way, either in the prisons of the inquisition, particularly of the Spanish inquisition in order to escape being burnt, or during the French Revolution, like the Girondins and others, in order to avoid ignominy of the guillotine. Neither is it unknown in our present century, in the prisons of the Tcheka and elsewhere.  On the other hand, during the great persecutions, the Christian martyrs underwent the most hideous forms of death in the strength of a triumphant faith, without attempting to kill themselves before-hand.

It seems only fair, however, to put forward my own definition of suicide, which a human being deliberately creates what he considers to be an effective and adequate cause of his own death.  The theorists who look at Christianity from outside may, in fact, be easily led astray by the almost total contempt for empirical existence displayed by the martyrs.  This fact is important, since it demonstrates once again that Christianity has not been led to condemn suicide from any attachment to earthly life or from any particularly exalted view of its value.  In the story of the martyrdom of St. Peter, for instance, we find contempt for death and empirical existence which is inspired by Christ’s example.  “My brethren, my children, we must not flee suffering, for Christ’s sake, since He Himself of His own free will, accepted death for our sake.”  This is also the significance of the legend of Quo Vadis.  But this is far from justifying the fantastic idea which tries to make of Christ a type of suicide.  To kill oneself to avoid the cross and to suffer martyrdom on the cross are not exactly the same thing.  We should be quite clear that nothing was further from the minds of the early Christians than to condemn a self-inflicted death in the name of any loyalty to our empirical existence.  The contempt for earthly life amongst early Christians was so extreme that to modern eyes it might sometimes seem even monstrous.  Take, as an example, a passage from the epistle to the Romans of Ignatius the martyr:” let me be fodder for the beasts….I am the corn of God; I must be ground in the jaws of beasts….I hope to meet wild beasts of suitable disposition and, if necessary, I shall caress them, so that they may devour me immediately.”  Those who turn Christianity into a sort of virtuous optimism proper to all decent people, will never understand the attitude of true Christians to death, neither, as we shall see, will they understand the deeper reason underlying the Christian rejection of self-inflicted death.  The magistrate who said to Dionysius the martyr,” it is good to live”, received the reply, “Far other is the light we seek.”  Modern man is not superior, but definitely inferior to the stoics.  He has to be reminded that Christianity also condemns all forms of euthanasia, which must indeed be scandalous and hideously paradoxical to all but the heroic cast of mind.

But to return to St. Augustine, who was led to discuss the problem in his arguments with the Donatists, a Christian and belligerent sect which admitted suicide; and above all in his struggle with the Stoics.  His admirable text, which is the foundation of all Christian philosophy on this subject, can be found in the first chapter of the Civitas Dei.  You will remember the events which gave rise to the book: Rome the Eternal City, The City, in short, the holy capital of civilization and the Empire, had fallen for the first time in 410, to the barbarian invader. She had been partially destroyed and terribly ravaged by Alaric. The bishop of hippo, the apologist of the Church, wrote his great work in order to prove that Christianity was not the cause of this shattering event, and that the fall of Rome was far from implying the fall of the religion which, since Constantine, had been to some extent the Roman religion.  So he was compelled to tackle the stoic philosophy from the Christian point of view, since Stoicism had remained to a large degree the philosophy of the Roman nobility, and was apparently being used as the philosophical basis of the argument that Christianity and its slave morality had been responsible for the decadence of Rome.  Christian women were, in particular, reproached for not having killed themselves rather then fall into the hands of the barbarians, which inevitably implied the loss of their virginity.  St. Augustine replies first of all that the essence of virginity is not a physical state but a moral fact.  It can be lost morally without being lost physically but, what is still more important, when a woman loses her physical virginity without any consent of the will, as in the case of the women raped during the sack of Rome, she does not lose her moral virginity; she is innocent and not dishonoured and therefore has no reason to kill herself.

When discussing the classic instance of Lucrece, St. Augustine insists on the spiritual morality of Christians. But in the main he counters the stoic argument with the assertion that suicide is always and everywhere a crime. The arguments he uses reappear again and again in Christian literature down to our own days.  The principal argument is as follows; to kill oneself is to kill a man, therefore suicide is homicide.  Homicide is inexcusable and is forbidden in the Ten Commandments.  With all respect, I hardly feel that the argument is adequate.  The commandment cannot and should not be interpreted to cover every act which involves as a deliberate consequence the death of a man. The Christian tradition, apart from a few sects, has always allowed two important exceptions: war and capital punishment.  St. Augustine knows this very well, and therefore he treads warily. He says: “Ubique si non licet privata potestate hominem occidere vel nocentem, cujus occidendi licentiam lex nulla concedit; profecto etiam qui se ipsum occidet, homicida est.”  The stress is put on privata potestate and on cases where there is no legal sanction.  But the moment we begin to make moral distinctions between the different types of cases which may involve the death of a man, one may just as well make a distinction between suicide and the murder of someone else. In my opinion, it is even necessary to do so. In the first place, if we are deciding something which affects our own life, we are in a totally different position from deciding something which affects the life of another.  What would be an act of violent hostility towards another cannot be the same towards ourselves, if it is we who decide on the act.  In many cases, the man who kills himself has no intention of destroying his person, but rather of saving it.  Rarely, if ever, does he aim at annihilation.  There is a smack of sophistry about this moral identification of the two acts when their dissimilarity is so striking. As for the commandment, we must not make it say what it does not say.  It is universally accepted that it does not forbid a just war or the death penalty, but it is difficult to maintain that it does condemn suicide, at any rate unconditionally.  The Old Testament records as many suicides as it does wars, and some of them are glorified, as in the cases of Samson and Saul. Christians have made out, in the case of these biblical suicides, that a direct and exceptional command from God may hallow acts which are quite immoral in themselves.  This is the paradox taken up by Kierkegaard, of Abraham who is prepared, in faith and obedience, to become the murderer of his son.  It is Calvin’s justification of political sedition when ordained by God.  However, the Old Testament chronicles its suicides without insisting on any such supernatural justification.  There is no reason for believing that the Decalogue was intended to cover cases of suicide.  And the chain of reasoning which plays such a large part in Augustine’s text, is certainly not an example of his profoundest thinking.

There is an allusion to Job which allows us to suspect that he has not spoken his whole mind.  The reason is obvious.  He was dealing with Romans. It often happens that the brilliant orator and advocate, the direct descendant of Cicero, gets the upper hand and then he speaks ad extra and ad hominem.  Thus, in the middle of his expositions we find a beautiful passage which counters the famous example of Cato, so highly praised by his own master, Cicero, not with a Christian counterpart, but with the example of Regulus, who returned to Carthage in order to keep his word, in the certainty that he would be killed by the Carthaginians.

Unfortunately, I have not the space to analyse Augustine’s text as it deserves, nor to follow up in proper detail the evolution of Christian doctrine with regard to suicide.  We find no substantial argument added to the reasoning of the Father of the church in the period between St. Augustine and St. Thomas. But St. Thomas is not satisfied with St. Augustine’s arguments and tries to substitute others.  The fresh arguments that he adduces are three:

  1. suicide is contrary to man’s natural inclinations, contrary to natural law and contrary to charity—to that charity which a man owes to himself. Amor bene ordinatus incipit a semet ipsum. What are we to make of this argument?  First of all, if suicide were, in every case, contrary to natural law, it would not occur, or only in a very few exceptional or pathological cases.  I must admit I find it difficult to see that something can be against natural law when it is practiced, accepted and often honoured amongst all non-Christian peoples.  Suicide is far from being contrary to human nature.  The human animal’s will to live is neither unlimited nor unconditional.  It remains to be seen whether suicide must, in every case, be contrary to the love we should have for ourselves. Suicide, no doubt, deprives us of that good which is life.  But in fact, and from the Christian’s point of view, this good is of highly dubious quality; and, in any case, it is not the highest good and often rather more like an evil. To deprive oneself of a purely relative good to avoid an evil which is expected to be greater, such as the loss of honour or freedom, is not an act directed against oneself.  And this is very often precisely the case of the man who kills himself.  It would be much more reasonable to say that he kills himself out of too great self-love. Consider also the importance of the almost ontological concept of war in the ancient world and Proteus’s suicide out of friendship.  If we interpret it on a deeper level, the argument runs: he who kills himself deprives himself of salvation, which would be the total negation of that charity towards oneself required by the gospels.  But in this case we are arguing in circles, since we have an argument which sets out to prove that suicide is a sin, by assuming the premise that suicide is already mortal sin.  In fact, the vast majority of those who kill themselves have no desire or intention of forfeiting their salvation.  On the contrary, they say, like Doňa Sol to Hernani: “Soon we shall be moving towards fresh light, together we shall spread our wings and fly with measured beat towards a better world.”  The case of Kleist and his woman friend is there to demonstrate that the romantic suicide is not a purely literary invention.  Man finds, on the other side of the grave, an imaginary home for the hopes which have been disappointed in life.  There Werther will meet Lotte once more?  “Death, tomb,” he says, “what do such words mean?”  In the majority of cases, the one who kills himself seeks neither perdition nor extinction; the life he knows seems less desirable than something which is vague and unknown, but at any rate something.  The theological sin of despair is not defined as to the loss of such and such an empirical expectation, but as the loss of that fundamental hope in God and His goodness which is the very life of the human heart.  The loss of expectation is even a necessary step in the spiritual journey of the masters.  It is therefore false to claim that all suicides are men without hope, in the theological sense.  Personally, I go so far as to believe that man never despairs completely, that it is impossible for him and contrary to his essential being, to despair. Desesperare, says St. Thomas, non est descendere in infernum.  He does not speak of suicide in his tremendous chapter on the sin of despair.  In my view, despair is not a characteristic of man on earth, but perhaps only of Hell and the Devil.  We do not even know what it is.  The act of suicide does not, to me, express despair, but rather a wild and misguided hope directed to the vast unknown kingdom on the other side of death. I would even venture on the paradox:  men often kill themselves because they cannot and will not despair. This is why the idea of Hell, which fills the place of the unknown beyond, is such a strong disincentive to suicide. Even Shakespeare, speaking with the voice of Hamlet, is held back by this dread of the terror of a future existence.
  2. St. Thomas repeats the argument used by the platonic school, and particularly Aristotle, to discountenance suicide.  Plato was, in fact, somewhat opposed to the idea of suicide for reasons not unrelated to the enormous influence of the orphic mysteries on the spirit of his philosophy, and also because of his profound attachment to the idea of the Polis; one has only to read Diogenes Laertius to appreciate that suicide was almost the normal end of all Greek philosophers from Empedocles down to the Hellenistic period. But Plato gives the philosophers a place in the City and advises them not to desert this place.  Aristotle turns it into the argument that a man belongs to his country and to society and has no right to deprive them of his presence and activity by suicide.  St. Thomas takes up this argument which would, perhaps, have a certain value in an ideal society; but, in reality, people often kill themselves because the very imperfect societies in which they are condemned to live prevent them from leading any form of creative life.   So long as societies breed more forms of moral and material misery than need be our lot, it would be highly imprudent to authorise them to condemn those who try to escape from their authority by death.  Man did not ask to be born into a society and he does not see why he should not be allowed to leave it by the best door left open, if life in such a society has lost all meaning for him.  The argument may be valid in certain cases, where someone may in fact be abandoning an important social duty, but it is clearly inadequate as a general argument against suicide as such.  Moreover, the same collectivist premise might lead to the opposite conclusion if an individual could no longer find a social justification for his existence.  I would add that, to me, the argument seems inspired by a collectivist outlook, by the atmosphere of the Greek City which is essentially non-Christian.  It is purely and simply anti-personalist to try to decide such an intimately personal question as to whether or not I have the right to kill myself, by reference to society.  Suppose I die a little sooner or a little later, what has that to do with a society to which, in any case, I belong for so short a space?  St. Thomas is taking up one of Aristotle’s arguments, as he often does, without allowing for the profoundly non-Christian outlook which inspires his thinking both in detail and in the whole.  The weakness of the social argument can be seen even more clearly in Kant.  According to Kant, the man who feels temped to commit suicide should consider whether the principle on which his decision is based could become a principle of general legislation.  But man knows very well that he is faced every time with a particular situation, and that he is, as a person, unique.  In modern Christian moralists the argument reappears in the form that man has no right to kill himself since this would constitute a crime against his family.  But as a general argument, this also fails to convince.  First of all, a lot of people have no families, or a shattered or detestable family, and secondly, the question is really far too personal to be decided by such arguments.  Everyone dies sooner or later, and society and the family get over it.  It is true that those who have a normal family life seldom kill themselves, like those who might happen to live in an ideal society.  But all the same, the fact that there are so many suicides proves that many people do not find in their homes what they should find there.  One of the most frequent types of suicide is the result of a love affair, often in the form of a suicide pact.  It would be ridiculous to try to say to these unhappy creatures that they are proposing to commit a mortal sin because they are neglecting their duty towards their family.  Why does no one say the same thing to the young people who go into monasteries, often against the wishes of the family?  This is another of those arguments—not St. Thomas’s argument, but that of one’s duty to the family—which reek of complacency.  Suicide is often taken to be an act indicative of decadent and anarchistic individualism, overlooking the fact that amongst entirely healthy and even extremely warlike communities it is often considered, in certain circumstances, a social duty. But death is above all so much a personal and individual thing that the problem it creates transcend the social life of this planet.
  3. By far the most weighty of St. Thomas’s arguments is the third: we are God’s property, just as the slave is the property of his master.  Man is not sui juris.  It is for God to decide on our life or death.

Leaving aside the comparison with the slave, which invites the stoic reply that it is precisely the free man who can kill himself, there is undoubtedly something strong and cogent in this argument. Suicide may be due to pride. Man can now prove that he can be sicut Deus. Montaigne has replied in defense of the stoic point of view: “God has given us leave enough when He puts us in such a state that living is worse than dying.”  The Thomist argument loses much of its value unless it is taken in a specifically Christian sense.  If we were dealing with a god who was a tyrant and slave owner, the argument would clearly not suffice.

 *   *   *

I have discussed certain traditional arguments, not really so much for their historic importance as to bring out the enormous complexity and difficulty of the problem.  I turned hopefully to the Christian Father for an answer to the question and, in fact, failed to find a really satisfactory reply.  I might add that this seldom happens.  Neither have I criticized for the pleasure of criticizing such and such an argument, but for a much more serious reason.  “We can only discuss something honourably in so far as we sympathise with it”, says Goethe in Werther on the very topic of suicide. Picture to yourself a man who is very much tempted to suicide.  Perhaps he has lost his family, or he despairs of the society in which he has to live, or maybe bitter suffering is depriving him of all grounds for hope.  His present life is terrible, his future dark and menacing.  Suppose you tell him he must live in order to obey the commandment, or in order not to sin against the love of oneself, or to do his duty to society and family, or finally, in order not to decide something himself that only God is entitled to decide: do you think you would convince this man in his misery and suffering?

Of course you would not. He would find your arguments either dubious by technical difficulties, by cowardice or weakness of will, by a certain instinct for life or, as often happen, by an implicit faith in divine protection or by the fear of Hell. But these traditional arguments will probably be ineffective. So what he needs is not so much abstract arguments as an example of Christ.  Here we must turn, not to the letter of the old but to the spirit of the New Testament.  To understand why Christianity is opposed to suicide, we must recall the fundamental character of Christian life which is, in all its forms, an attempt at the imitation of Jesus Christ.

This effort implies a radical conversion of natural human attitudes, more especially with regard to suffering.  The human being has, by nature, a horror of suffering and a desire for happiness.  The man who kills himself almost always does so to escape from the suffering of this life toward an unknown happiness and calm.  In any case he says in his heart, “I want to go somewhere else.  I do not wish to endure this suffering which has no meaning and is beyond my strength”.

It is here that the spirit of Christianity intervenes with its tremendous paradox.  Yes, live and suffer. You should not be surprised that you suffer.  If happiness were the meaning of life, it would indeed be a revolting and finally improbable condition.  But the situation is different if life is a justification, the progress towards a transcendent goal, and if it’s meaning were in fact evident in suffering and achieved through suffering.  “Lord, to suffer or to die”, prays St. Theresa.  Yes, in spite of all those optimistic believers, life is the carrying of a cross.  But even the cross has a sacred meaning.

My belief is, therefore, that far from being one of the so-called natural laws, or the law of some peculiar common sense, the total prohibition of suicide can only be justified or even understood in relation to the scandal and the paradox of the cross.  It is true that we belong to God, as Christ belonged to God. It is true that we should subordinate our will to His, as Christ did.  It is true that we should leave the decision as to our life or death to Him.  If we wish to die, we have indeed the right to pray to God to let us die.  Yet we must always add: Thy will, not mine, be done.  But this God is not our master as if we were slaves.  He is our Father.  He is the Christian God who loves us with infinite love and infinite wisdom.  If He makes us suffer, it is for our salvation and purification.  We must recall the spirit in which Christ suffered the most horrible death.  In certain circumstances, to refuse suicide is far from natural.  To prefer martyrdom to suicide is a paradox peculiar to the Christian.  It was precisely this element in the martyr’s attitude which so profoundly shocked the pagan philosophers.  The martyrs refuse suicide, not through a cowardly attachment to life, but because they found a strange happiness in following the example of Christ, and suffering for Him and with Him. It has been quite reasonably maintained that the fact that people are willing to die for a cause argues nothing as to the value of that cause.  It is true that a great many persons have died for causes which we find deplorable.  So it is in a different sense that the martyrs bear witness to Christianity.  They do not prove any given theoretical truth, but they prove by their example that it is possible to live and die in a Christian manner.  It is not their death, but their manner of dying which is important.  They are witness in a very special way to the fact that Grace may enable a man to follow Christ in His attitude towards suffering and death, which is itself very far from natural. Their blessedness in, and to some extent through, suffering, far exceeds the somewhat frigid heroism of the ancient world.  The vast majority of humanity is morally inferior to the Stoics.  The Christian martyr is superior.  The stoic virtue is perhaps the highest morality known to man outside the sphere of Christian Grace.  The hero, master of his own death, stands above the mass of poltroons and slaves.  “This noble despair, so worthy of the Romans,” wrote Corneille.  The saint is, as it were a super-hero of specifically Christian character.  It is his life that in fact demonstrates the argument.  He shows that it is possible for man to live out his suffering by discovering a transcendental significance in its very depths.  One cannot stress too strongly the paradoxical quality of all this, just as Kierkegaard has so rightly insisted on the paradoxical nature of the whole of Christianity.  In order to gauge the paradox, we should remember what suffering is.  The word is quickly said, but the subject itself is vast, an authentic mystery.  Even physical suffering can take on horrible forms.  We are told that it will be limited and that consciousness, the precondition of suffering, fails at a certain level of pain.  Perhaps: we know little about it.  Man is always mistaken when he thinks he has reached the worst moral tortures.  One falls, one falls from abyss to abyss.  In periods like our own, one must feel frightened at the immensity of present human suffering.  When one reads history, one is overwhelmed by what men have always and everywhere endured.  Sickness, death, misery and all manner of peril, surround the human being.  The optimists are having a joke at our expense.  It is no exaggeration to speak, as Schopenhauer does, of a ruchloser optimismus, a frivolous and criminal optimism.

The same judgment applies equally to those who immediately try to console you with talk of divine Providence and goodness.  There is nothing more paradoxical than this divine love which has, according to Dante, created Hell.  Even Providence is another paradox.  All that is left is the example of Christ and of those men who were able to follow his example, showing that to do so they needed not to be gods, but only to be granted divine Grace, which is equally promised to us.

All that we can say to the suffering man who is tempted to commit suicide, is this “Remember the suffering of Christ and the martyrs.  You must carry your cross, as they did.  You will not cease to suffer, but the cross of suffering itself will grow sweet by virtue of an unknown strength proceeding from the heart of divine love.  You must not kill yourself, because you must not throw away your cross.  You need it.  And enquire of your conscience if you are really innocent. You will find that if you are perhaps innocent of one thing for which the world reproaches you, you are guilty in a thousand other ways.  You are a sinner.  If Christ, who was innocent, suffered for others and, as Pascal said, has also shed a drop of blood for you, how shall you, a sinner, be entitled to refuse suffering?  Perhaps it is a form of punishment.  But divine punishment has this specific and incomparable quality, that it is not revenge and that its very nature is purification.  Whoever revolts against it, revolts in fact against the inner meaning of his own life.”

There is no doubt that there is no justice here below.  Criminal monsters carry all before them, and none suffers more then the saint.  Here we approach the mystery of sin, which is so closely linked with this other mystery that the Christian finds the meaning of life in and through suffering.  Man, we said, was a creature who could kill himself and should not do so.  The meaning of this assertion now becomes clearer.  The temptation exists, and there is rejection of this temptation.  Where this rejection is authentically Christian, it is in the form of an act of love towards God, and towards suffering, not as suffering, which is impossible—algophilia is pathological, and even Christ faltered before His last agony, and prayed that it should be taken from Him—but towards suffering in so far as it contains a remedy desired by God.

Just as there is a qualitative difference between bourgeois and heroic morality, there is an abyss between natural morality on the one hand and the supernatural morality of Christianity on the other.  Our reflections on the problem of suicide show this, just as any profound reflection on any moral problem of practical and vital importance must show it.  Christianity is a new message.  The truth of stoicism lies in its understanding of the close relationship between human freedom and a contempt for death.  Whoever is a slave to death is in fact also a slave to all the accidents of life.  There is no liberation of the person unless the supreme and universal necessity of this mortal accident is transformed into a free act.  But whereas stoicism tries to acquire this freedom through the knowledge of the possibility of suicide, the Christian must acquire it through a loving acceptance of the will of God.  He may prefer life to death, or death to life according to the circumstances, but he must place the will of God with absolute sincerity before his own.  Death is often a boon, and swift was right o speak of “the dreadful aspect of never dying”, but it is God who must set a term to our suffering.

There are other doctrines beside Christianity, which have given a positive, metaphysical significance to earthly suffering.  The orphic mysteries, often considered as an early prototype of Christianity, saw suffering as a way to the liberation from the body.  There is Buddhism, and the almost Buddhist philosophy of Schopenhauer.  It is significant that these doctrines should be equally inimical to suicide.  But there is nothing in these attitudes to compare with the Christian drama.  To authentic Buddhism, as to Schopenhauer, suicide is an error, or sort of impasse.  What Buddha calls thirst, and Schopenhauer, the will to live, cannot be overcome by suicide.  Nor can one escape from existence by such violent means.  The suicide transformed, according to his Karma, but he does not attain Nirvana.  We have seen, in fact, and I know it to be true in many cases I have known of personally, that the purpose of suicide was not the idea of extinction but of attaining an existence radically different from the one left behind by death.  The Buddhist aversion to suicide is naturally not in any way comparable to the Christian rejection.  In the first place, genuine Buddhism is far too intellectualized to entertain any general concept of sin.  If anyone commits the error of refusing, by such an act of violence, to accept his suffering, he will suffer the consequence according to his Karma, and he will learn.  That is all.  Finally, and here the comparison may help us to establish an important point, the moment of physical death has not the same quality of metaphysical decision for the Oriental as for the Christian.  The stress placed by Christianity on this prohibition of suicide is no doubt partly explained by the idea that everything to do with death has a metaphysical aspect, an idea which is absolutely foreign to the East.  What is horrible about suicide to the Christian is that there is little or no time left for repentance after the sin has been committed.  In principle, therefore, canon law refuses Christian burial to the suicide, because he died in a state of mortal sin.  There are, however, two exceptions: one, if the act is committed in a state or even a moment of mental unbalance, which excludes responsibility; the other, if the suicide can be given the benefit of any doubt; if, for instance, there is any possibility that he may have made an act of repentance.  The existence of there two exceptions, and the obvious difficulty of excluding them completely in any particular case, have led the Church, particularly in modern times, to exercise indulgence.  Principles cannot be changed, but there are more scruples about the mental health of the suicide, and a reluctance to assert that no act of repentance, which might be something like a lightning flash of conscience, could have taken place.  Thus judgment is left to God, that is to say, judgment on the person, not judgment on the principle of the act itself.

Before drawing to a close, I should briefly mention one argument against the Christian point of view.  If suffering is sacred and contains the meaning of life, why are we entitled to struggle against it?  If we have this right, and even this duty, why should we not have the right to withdraw from suffering by suicide, if there is no other way out?  I agree at once that man has the right to struggle against the miseries of existence.  The contrary would obviously lead to moral absurdities, such as the immorality of medicine.  But we should not overestimate the struggle, neither in its importance nor in its chances of success.  It is natural and laudable for man to struggle against sickness, cruelty, misery and the rest. But in point of fact there has been no progress in human happiness in all our history, but rather the reverse.  Everything we know leads us to believe that the so-called primitive people are much happier than we are.  What is false is not the struggle against suffering, but the illusion that we can destroy it.  The means of fighting this suffering is, above all, work, which was given to man both as punishment and cure.  But this effort to combat suffering can not be compared with the act of suicide.  Suicide is something on its own.  It seems to me to be a flight by which man hopes to recover paradise lost instead of trying to deserve Heaven.  The desire for death which is unleashed when temptation becomes our master is, psychologically speaking the desire to regress to a pre-natal state.  To disappear, to get away from it all.  Stekel and others have given us a precise psychological analysis of suicide, the longing for the abyss, the mother, the return.  The whole process could be described in Freudian terms.  Theologically speaking, there is, in fact, the vague illusion of a return to Paradise.  The Rousseau-Werther type of suicide is usually conscious of this obscure motivation.  In this connection one could quote many interesting passages from Goethe, Sénancourt, Amiel, and others.  But Christ guides us through struggle and suffering towards a brighter light.  The god, or rather, goddess, of suicide thrusts us back upon the mother’s breast.  In this sense, suicide is an infantilism.  It is this quality of regression which prevents any comparison between suicide and man’s normal struggle against suffering.  It is the failure of all other means which, in the majority of cases, leads to suicide; it is the universal experience of powerlessness.  This convergence of one disaster after the other, destroying all possibility of living and struggling, is the common factor in the biographies of all suicides.  Without going into the details of some personal biographies I have myself studied, let me remind you of two great classics:  Werther and Anna Karenina.  You can see in these two books how life and his own character combine to form a trap for man.  And it is precisely what is most noble in man that may urge him to suicide.  If you can imagine a Werther or an Anna Karenina who were both slightly more frivolous, you will see that their problems might have been solved.  But you will see also that in such cases the only truly positive and honourable solution would be that complete conversion required by Christ.

It is perfectly clear that the Christian apologists were well aware of this real and profound explanation of the Christian attitude to suicide.  Saints such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were certainly far better aware of it than I.  Why then did they not give it?  I think largely because things were taken for granted in that period of militant and heroic Christianity.  Do not forget that St. Augustine only mentions this problem when he is addressing Roman pagans, in defense against the charge that Christianity had grown weaker.  Nowadays, when it has frequently become painfully mediocre, it is again attacked by a new and fanatical paganism, which also has its moments of heroism.  Either Christianity will disappear, or it will recover its original virtues.  We do not believe that it can disappear, but it must certainly renew itself by becoming aware of its true nature.  It is therefore useful, by dwelling on one specific problem, to show that Christian morality is not some sort of natural, reasonable and universal morality, with perhaps a little more sensation in it than some others, but the manifestation in life of a paradoxical revelation.  It cannot be superfluous, either, to remind oneself to-day that Christian morality is not a morality of compromise, but that it requires a heroism more profound, more absurd and, in a way, more intransigent, than any other.  In other words, we had to become explicitly conscious of things which in an age still close to the martyrs could be taken for granted.

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Letter to the President and Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland


Szmul Zygielbojm was born in a village in what is now Poland, then part of the Russian empire. At the age of 10, he left school and began working in a factory. As a young man, he became involved in the Jewish labor movement, and in 1924 he was elected to the Central Committee of the Bund in 1924. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Zygielbojm went to Warsaw to participate in the defense of the city. He volunteered to replace a woman who was also active in the labor movement as one of the 12 hostages the Nazi occupation demanded; the Nazis then made him a member of the Jewish Council, the Judenrat, which they had established in order to create the ghetto in Warsaw, a move that Zygielbojm opposed. Zygielbojm escaped from the country, and during the years 1940–1943, he traveled, trying to persuade the Allies of the Nazi threat to Polish Jews. Representatives of the English and American governments met in Bermuda on April 19, 1943, to discuss the situation of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, but did nothing. At the same time, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out and was definitively suppressed by the Nazis; Ziegelbojm’s wife and son were among the hundreds of thousands killed. Zygielbojm killed himself weeks later, on May 12, 1943, in protest against the Allied indifference to the evolving Holocaust.

Ziegelbojm’s suicide note, dated the day before his death, takes the form of a letter to the Polish president Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz and the Polish prime minister Wladyslaw Sikorski. Ziegelbojm explains the reason for his action; it is a brief but poignant and powerful account of suicide as protest.

Szmul Zygielbojm, “The Last Letter from Szmul Zygielbojm, The Bund Representative With the Polish National Council in Exile,” Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. Available online from Yad Vashem.



May 11, 1943

To His Excellency
The President of the Republic of Poland
Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz
Prime Minister 
General Wladyslaw Sikorski

Mr. President,
Mr. Prime Minister,

I am taking the liberty of addressing to you, Sirs, these my last words, and through you to the Polish Government and the people of Poland, and to the governments and people of the Allies, and to the conscience of the whole world:

The latest news that has reached us from Poland makes it clear beyond any doubt that the Germans are now murdering the last remnants of the Jews in Poland with unbridled cruelty. Behind the walls of the ghetto the last act of this tragedy is now being played out.

The responsibility for the crime of the murder of the whole Jewish nationality in Poland rests first of all on those who are carrying it out, but indirectly it falls also upon the whole of humanity, on the peoples of the Allied nations and on their governments, who up to this day have not taken any real steps to halt this crime. by looking on passively upon this murder of defenseless millions — tortured children, women and men — they have become partners to the responsibility.

I am obliged to state that although the Polish Government contributed largely to the arousing of public opinion in the world, it still did not do enough. It did not do anything that was not routine, that might have been appropriate to the dimensions of the tragedy taking place in Poland.

Of close to 3.5 million Polish Jews and about 700,000 Jews who have been deported to Poland from other countries, there were, according to the official figures of the Bund transmitted by the Representative of the Government, only 300,000 still alive in April of this year. And the murder continues without end.

I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave.

By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.

I know that there is no great value to the life of a man, especially today. But since I did not succeed in achieving it in my lifetime, perhaps I shall be able by my death to contribute to the arousing from lethargy of those who could and must act in order that even now, perhaps at the last moment, the handful of Polish Jews who are still alive can be saved from certain destruction.

My life belongs to the Jewish people of Poland, and therefore I hand it over to them now. I yearn that the remnant that has remained of the millions of Polish Jews may live to see liberation together with the Polish masses, and that it shall be permitted to breathe freely in Poland and in a world of freedom and socialistic justice, in compensation for the inhuman suffering and torture inflicted on them. And I believe that such a Poland will arise and such a world will come about. I am certain that the President and the Prime Minister will send out these words of mine to all those to whom they are addressed, and that the Polish Government will embark immediately on diplomatic action and explanation of the situation, in order to save the living remnant of the Polish Jews from destruction.

I take leave of you with greetings, from everybody, and from everything that was dear to me and that I loved.

S. Zygielbojm

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