Category Archives: The Modern Era


from Psychopathology of Everyday Life
from Contributions to a Discussion on    Suicide
from Mourning and Melancholia
from The Psychogenesis of a Case of    Homosexuality in a Woman
from The Economic Problem of    Masochism


Freud was born in Freiberg in Mähren, in what is now Czechoslovakia. His intellectual gifts were apparent early on, and at 17, he entered the University of Vienna to study medicine. He published his first academic paper at 20 on neurology. In 1885, while studying with the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris, Freud began to perceive that mental illness might have entirely psychological origins apart from organic causes. These studies gave way to an interest in psychology, and in 1895, he co-published Studies in Hysteria with the physician Josef Breuer; hysteria, he believed, was the result of repressed desires. This work also introduced Freud’s notion of free association, a technique through which the psychoanalyst may uncover the hidden workings of the unconscious by allowing the patient to freely associate “random” thoughts in his or her mind. Perhaps Freud’s best known work, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), analyzed the complexly symbolic and frequently sexually oriented operations underlying the process of dreaming. A controversial study of 1905, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, outlined his theories of infantile sexuality and the stages of human psychological and sexual development.

After initial ostracism by the Viennese medical community, the first International Psychoanalytical Congress of 1908 marked the beginning and recognition of the analytical movement in psychology. Freud’s many theories—including the Oedipus complex, the tripartite structure of the mind (ego, id, superego), as well as his speculations on the psychoanalytical aspects of myth, religion, and culture—underwent revision throughout his long life. His legacy includes the concepts of repression, defense mechanisms, “Freudian slips,” projection, and many others. His deterministic, anti-rational, and, some would say, pessimistic views of the importance of unconscious drives and instincts in human conduct radically altered the way people viewed the world and themselves. Despite a history of criticism and attempts to declare him obsolete, Freudian and neo-Freudian psychoanalytic theory is still in use by practitioners worldwide, and it continues to influence such diverse fields as history, art, and sociology.

The selections presented here outline Freud’s views on suicide. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Freud argues for an unconscious drive for suicide and illustrates the human tendency to view self-inflicted injuries as unintentional. Indeed, according to Freudian death-instinct theory, suicide is the prototypal death. Contributions to a Discussion on Suicide (1910) contains Freud’s speculations on the causes of suicide in secondary schools. In Mourning and Melancholia (1917) and The Economic Problem of Masochism (1924), Freud discusses how the dynamics among internal psychological forces can lead to self-destruction or punishment. By using a case study in The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman (1920), Freud argues that suicide stems from infantile fantasies. He does not, however, discuss suicide in the circumstances of painful and ultimately terminal illness, as in his own case.

In 1923, Freud was diagnosed with cancer of the palate. The growth was removed but recurred, and during the 16 years between diagnosis and death, he underwent over 30 operations, as well as repeated fittings, cleanings, and refittings of a prosthesis for his jaw. He retrained himself to speak, but his voice never recovered its clarity. When the Nazis came to power, he considered exile, but resisted it until the occupation of Vienna in spring l938. During that spring, over 500 Austrian Jews committed suicide, but Freud rejected the idea even when it was raised by his daughter Anna. In June 1938, he fled to London, where he had further surgery, but by August, the pain was severe and the smell from his ulcerated cancer so foul, it was reported, that his pet dog would cringe from him. Freud had long had an agreement with his physician Max Schur, also in exile in London, that Schur would help him end his life when the cancer had progressed too far, and on September 21, 1939, Schur injected Freud with morphine, followed by further injections the following day; Freud died on September 23.

Sigmund Freud, Ch. 8:Erroneously Carried Out Actions.” (1901)from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life,  ed. and tr. A. A. Brill (1914).  Online at , pp. 198-206.
“Contributions to a Discussion on Suicide,” Vol. 11, 1957,  pp. 231-32; “Mourning and Melancholia,” Vol. 14, 1957, pp. 250-52; “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman,” Vol. 18, 1955, pp. 160-163; “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” Vol. 19, 1961, pp. 168-70, all from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud,  ed. and tr. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1953-74).



It is known that in the more serious cases of psychoneuroses one sometimes finds self-mutilations as symptoms of the disease. That the psychic conflict may end in suicide can never be excluded in these cases. Thus, I know from experience, which some day I shall support with convincing examples, that many apparently accidental injuries happening to such patients are really self-inflicted. This is brought about by the fact that there is a constantly lurking tendency to self-punishment, usually expressing itself in self-reproach, or contributing to the formation of a symptom, which skillfully makes use of an external situation. The required external situation my accidentally present itself or the punishment tendency may assist it until the way is open for the desired injurious effect.

Such occurrences are by no means rare even in cases of moderate severity, and they betray the portions of unconscious intention through a series of special features—for example, through the striking presence of mind which the patients show in the pretended accidents:

One of my boys, whose vivacious temperament was wont to put difficulties in the management of nursing him in his illness, had a fit of anger one morning because he was ordered to remain in bed during the forenoon, and threatened to kill himself: a way out suggested to him by the newspapers. In the evening, he showed me a swelling on the side of his chest which was the result of bumping against the door knob. To my ironical question why he did it, and what he meant by it, the eleven-year-old child explained, “That was my attempt at suicide which I threatened this morning.” However, I do not believe that my views on self-inflicted wounds were accessible to my children at that time.

Whoever believes in the occurrence of semi-intentional self-inflicted injury—if this awkward expression be permitted—will become prepared to accept through it the fact that aside from conscious intentional suicide, there also exists semi-intentional annihilation—with unconscious intention—which is capable of aptly utilizing a threat against life and masking it as a casual mishap. Such mechanisms are by no means rare. For the tendency to self-destruction exists to a certain degree in many more persons than in those who bring it to completion. Self-inflicted injuries are, as a rule, a compromise between this impulse and the forces working against it, and even where it really comes to suicide, the inclination has existed for a long time with less strength or as an unconscious and repressed tendency.

Even suicide consciously committed chooses its time, means and opportunity; it is quite natural that unconscious suicide should wait for a motive to take upon itself one part of the causation and thus free it from its oppression by taking up the defensive forces of the person. These are in no way idle discussions which I here bring up; more than one case of apparently accidental misfortune has become known to me whose surrounding circumstances justified the suspicion of suicide.

For example, during an officers’ horse-race one of the riders fell from his horse and was so seriously injured that a few days later he succumbed to his injuries. His behavior after regaining consciousness was remarkable in more than one way, and his conduct previous to the accident was still more remarkable. He had been greatly depressed by the death of his beloved mother, had crying spells in the society of his comrades, and to his trusted friend had spoken of the taedium vitae. He had wished to quit the service in order to take part in a war in Africa which had no interest for him. Formerly a keen rider, he had later evaded riding whenever possible. Finally, before the horse-race, from which he could not withdraw, he expressed a sad foreboding; in the light of our conception, it is not surprising that his premonition came true. It may be contended that it is quite comprehensible without any further cause that a person in such a state of nervous depression cannot manage a horse as well as on normal days. I quite agree with that, only I should like to look for the mechanism of this motor inhibition through “nervousness” in the intention of self-destruction here emphasized.

Another analysis of an apparently accidental self-inflicted wound, detailed to me by an observer, recalls the saying, “He who digs a pit for others falls in himself.”



I.  Introductory Remarks

Gentlemen,—You have all listened with much satisfaction to the plea put forward by an educationalist who will not allow an unjustified charge to be levelled against the institution that  is so dear to him.  But I know that in any case you were not inclined to give easy credence to the accusation that schools drive their pupils to suicide.  Do not let us be carried too far, however, by our sympathy with the party which has been unjustly treated in this instance.  Not all the arguments put forward by the opener of the discussion seem to me to hold water.  If it is the case that youthful suicide occurs not only among pupils in secondary schools but also among apprentices and others, this fact does not acquit the secondary schools; it must perhaps be interpreted as meaning that as regards its pupils the secondary school takes the place of the traumas with which other adolescents meet in other walks of life.  But a secondary school should achieve more than not driving its pupils to suicide.  It should give them a desire to live and should offer them support and backing at a time of life at which the conditions of their development compel them to relax their ties with their parental home and their family.  It seems to me indisputable that schools fail in this, and in many respects fall short of their duty of providing a substitute for the family and of arousing interest in life in the world outside.  This is not a suitable occasion for a criticism of secondary schools in their present shape; but perhaps I may emphasize a single point.  The school must never forget that it has to deal with immature individuals who cannot be denied a right to linger at certain stages of development and even at certain disagreeable ones.  The school must not take on itself the inexorable character of life: it must not seek to be more than a game of life.

II.  Concluding Remarks

Gentlemen,—I have an impression that, in spite of all the valuable material that has been brought before us in this discussion, we have not reached a decision on the problem that interests us.  We were anxious above all to know how it becomes possible for the extraordinarily powerful life instinct to be overcome: whether this can only come about with the help of a disappointed libido or whether the ego can renounce its self-preservation for its own egoistic motives.  It may be that we have failed to answer this psychological question because we have no adequate means of approaching it.  We can, I think, only take as our starting-point the condition of melancholia, which is so familiar to us clinically, and a comparison between it and the affect of mourning.  The affective processes in melancholia, however, and the vicissitudes undergone by the libido in that condition, are totally unknown to us.  Nor have we arrived at a psycho-analytic understanding of the chronic affect of mourning.  Let us suspend our judgement till experience has solved this problem.



Melancholia, therefore, borrows some of its features from mourning, and the others from the process of regression from narcissistic object-choice to narcissism.  It is on the one hand, like mourning, a reaction to the real loss of a loved object; but over and above this, it is marked by a determinant which is absent in normal mourning or which, if it is present, transforms the latter into pathological mourning.  The loss of a love-object is an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love-relationships to make itself effective and come into the open.  Where there is a disposition to obsessional neurosis the conflict due to ambivalence gives a pathological cast to mourning and forces it to express itself in the form of self-reproaches to the effect that the mourner himself is to blame for the loss of the loved object, i.e. that he has willed it.  These obsessional states of depression following upon death of a loved person show us what the conflict due to ambivalence can achieve by itself when there is no regressive drawing-in of libido as well.  In melancholia, the occasions which give rise to the illness extend for the most part beyond the clear case of a loss by death, and include all those situations of being slighted, neglected or disappointed, which can import opposed feelings of love and hate into the relationship or reinforce an already existing ambivalence.  This conflict due to ambivalence, which sometimes arises more from real experiences, sometimes more from constitutional factors, must not be overlooked among the preconditions of melancholia.  If the love for the object—a love which cannot be given up though the object itself is given up—takes refuge in narcissistic identification, then the hate comes into operation on this substitutive object, abusing it, debasing it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic satisfaction from its suffering.  The self-tormenting in melancholia, which is without doubt enjoyable, signifies, just like the corresponding phenomenon in obsessional neurosis, a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate which relate to an object, and which have been turned round upon the subject’s own self in the ways we have been discussing.  In both disorders the patients usually still succeed, by the circuitous path of self punishment, in taking revenge on the original object and in tormenting their loved one through their illness, having resorted to it in order to avoid the need to express their hostility to him openly.  After all, the person who has occasioned the patient’s emotional disorder, and on whom his illness is centred, is usually to be found in his immediate environment.  The melancholic’s erotic cathexis in regard to his object has thus undergone a double vicissitude: part of it has regressed to identification, but the other part, under the influence of the conflict due to ambivalence, has been carried back to the stage of sadism, which is nearer to that conflict.

It is this sadism alone that solves the riddle of the tendency to suicide which makes melancholia so interesting—and so dangerous. So immense is the ego’s self-love, which we have come to recognize as the primal state from which instinctual life proceeds, and so vast is the amount of narcissistic libido which we see liberated in the fear that emerges at a threat to life, that we cannot conceive how that ego can consent to its own destruction. We have long known, it is true, that no neurotic harbours thoughts of suicide which he has not turned back upon himself from murderous impulses against others, but we have never been able to explain what interplay of forces can carry such a purpose through to execution. The analysis of melancholia now shows that the ego can kill itself only if, owing to the return of the object-cathexis, it can treat itself as an object—if it is able to direct against itself the hostility which relates to an object and which represents the ego’s original reaction to objects in the external world. Thus in regression from narcissistic object-choice the object has, it is true, been got rid of, but it has nevertheless proved more powerful than the ego itself.  In the two opposed situations of being most intensely in love and of suicide the ego is overwhelmed by the object, though in totally different ways.



We are led into quite another realm of explanation by the analysis of the attempt at suicide, which I must regard as seriously intended, and which, incidentally, considerably improved her position both with her parents and with the lady she loved.  She went for a walk with her one day in a part of the town and at an hour at which she was not unlikely to meet her father on his way from his office.  So it turned out.  Her father passed them in the street and cast a furious look at her and her companion, about whom he had by that time come to know.  A few moments later she flung herself into the railway cutting.  The explanation she gave of the immediate reasons determining her decision sounded quite plausible.  She had confessed to the lady that the man who had given them such an irate glance was her father, and that he had absolutely forbidden their friendship.  The lady became incensed at this and ordered the girl to leave her then and there, and never again to wait for her or to address her—the affair must now come to an end.  In her despair at having thus lost her loved one for ever, she wanted to put an end to herself.  The analysis, however, was able to disclose another and deeper interpretation behind the one she gave, which was confirmed by the evidence of her own dreams.  The attempted suicide was, as might have been expected, determined by two other motives besides the one she gave: it was the fulfilment of a punishment (self-punishment), and the fulfilment of a wish.  As the latter it meant the attainment of the very wish which, when frustrated, had driven her into homosexuality—namely, the wish to have a child by her father, for now she ‘fell’ through her father’s fault. The fact that at that moment the lady had spoken in just the same terms as her father, and had uttered the same prohibition, forms the connecting link between this deep interpretation and the superficial one of which the girl herself was conscious.  From the point of view of self-punishment the girl’s action shows us that she had developed in her unconscious strong death-wishes against one or other of her parents—perhaps against her father, out of revenge for impeding her love, but more probably against her mother too, when she was pregnant with the little brother.  For analysis has explained the enigma of suicide in the following way: probably no one finds the mental energy required to kill himself unless, in the first place, in doing so he is at the same time killing an object with whom he has identified himself, and, in the second place, is turning against himself a death-wish which had been directed against someone else.  Nor need the regular discovery of these unconscious death-wishes in those who have attempted suicide surprise us (any more than it ought to make us think that it confirms our deductions), since the unconscious of all human beings is full enough of such death-wishes, even against those they love.  Since the girl identified herself with her mother, who should have died at the birth of the child denied to herself, this punishment-fulfilment itself was once again a wish-fulfilment.  Finally, the discovery that several quite different motives, all of great strength, must have co-operated to make such a deed possible is only in accordance with what we should expect.



After these preliminaries we can return to our consideration of moral masochism. We have said that, by their behaviour during treatment and in life, the individuals in question give an impression of being morally inhibited to an excessive degree, of being under the domination of an especially sensitive conscience, although they are not conscious of any of this ultra-morality. On closer inspection, we can see the difference there is between an unconscious extension of morality of this kind and moral masochism. In the former, the accent falls on the heightened sadism of the super-ego to which the ego submits; in the latter, it falls on the ego’s own masochism which seeks punishment, whether from the super-ego or from the parental powers outside. We may be forgiven for having confused the two to begin with; for in both cases it is a question of a relationship between the ego and the super-ego (or powers that are equivalent to it), and in both cases what is involved is a need which is satisfied by punishment and suffering. It can hardly be an insignificant detail, then, that the sadism of the super-ego becomes for the most part glaringly conscious, whereas the masochistic trend of the ego remains as a rule concealed from the subject and has to be inferred from his behaviour.

The fact that moral masochism is unconscious leads us to an obvious clue. We were able to translate the expression ‘unconscious sense of guilt’ as meaning a need for punishment at the hands of a parental power. We now know that the wish, which so frequently appears in phantasies, to be beaten by the father stands very close to the other wish, to have a passive (feminine) sexual relation to him and is only a regressive distortion of it. If we insert this explanation into the content of moral masochism, its hidden meaning becomes clear to us. Conscience and morality have arisen through the overcoming, the desexualization, of the Oedipus complex; but through moral masochism morality becomes sexualized once more, the Oedipus complex is revived and the way is opened for a regression from morality to the Oedipus complex. This is to the advantage neither of morality nor of the person concerned. An individual may, it is true, have preserved the whole or some measure of ethical sense alongside of his masochism; but, alternatively, a large part of his conscience may have vanished into his masochism. Again, masochism creates a temptation to perform ‘sinful’ actions, which may then be expiated by the reproaches of the sadistic conscience (as is exemplified in so many Russian character-types) or by chastisement from the great parental power of Destiny. In order to provoke punishment from this last representative of the parents, the masochist must do what is inexpedient, must act against his own interests, must ruin the prospects which open out to him in the real world and must, perhaps, destroy his own real existence.

The turning back of sadism against the self regularly occurs where a cultural suppression of the instincts holds back a large part of the subject’s destructive instinctual components from being exercised in life. We may suppose that this portion of the destructive instinct which has retreated appears in the ego as an intensification of masochism. The phenomena of conscience, however, lead us to infer that the destructiveness which returns from the external world is also taken up by the super-ego, without any such transformation, and increases its sadism against the ego. The sadism of the super-ego and the masochism of the ego supplement each other and unite to produce the same effects. It is only in this way, I think, that we can understand how the suppression of an instinct can – frequently or quite generally – result in a sense of guilt and how a person’s conscience becomes more severe and more sensitive the more he refrains from aggression against others. One might expect that if a man knows that he is in the habit of avoiding the commission of acts of aggression that are undesirable from a cultural standpoint he will for that reason have a good conscience and will watch over his ego less suspiciously. The situation is usually presented as though ethical requirements were the primary thing and the renunciation of instinct followed from them. This leaves the origin of the ethical sense unexplained. Actually, it seems to be the other way about. The first instinctual renunciation is enforced by external powers, and it is only this which creates the ethical sense, which expresses itself in conscience and demands a further renunciation of instinct.

Thus moral masochism becomes a classical piece of evidence for the existence of fusion of instinct. Its danger lies in the fact that it originates from the death instinct and corresponds to the part of that instinct which has escaped being turned outwards as an instinct of destruction. But since, on the other hand, it has the significance of an erotic component, even the subject’s destruction of himself cannot take place without libidinal satisfaction.

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Filed under Freud, Sigmund, Psychiatry, Selections, The Modern Era

(c. 1889)

The Plight of Hindu Widows as Described by a Widow Herself


This anonymous selection was originally published in the Methodist Church Missionary Society’s magazine The Gospel in All Lands in April of 1889. Little is known about its author or its exact date of composition, except that the author, “a widow herself,” identifies herself as a member of the Kayastha caste, living in the Punjab. The caste is a community of scribes, highly educated and historically very influential, and of well-to-do economic status.

Sati or suttee, as the British called it, also known as widow-burning, in which the new widow immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, was practice with apparent antecedents as far back as the 5th century A.D. or even earlier [q.v., Vedas]. The practice has never been universal among Hindus, and it does not always involve fire: for instance, the Bengali Jogi weaver caste and the Jasnathi caste in Rajasthan buried the wife alive with her husband. Sati stones or grave markers often served as sites of veneration, and were known throughout India by the 10th century. Rulers during the Mughal period attempted to suppress the practice but without lasting success, and it reached the greatest rates of frequency in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1813, the British East India Company recognized the legitimacy of sati as long as it was based on the widow’s “consent,” not coercion. Between 1813 and 1828, the period during which the British collected statistics on sati, approximately 8,000 widows were burnt. The practice was banned by the Bengal presidency in 1829 and upheld by the British Privy Council in 1832; statistics were not kept after that time, though the decree affected only some areas of India and that portion of the population where British rule was in sway. In 1856, the law was also amended to allow widows to remarry, but the Social Reform Movement found that traditional custom could not be undone overnight and that opposition to the continuing practice of sati was necessary. Although it is now illegal to attempt to commit sati or to glorify or abet it, it still occasionally occurs in rural areas of India.

“The Plight of Hindu Widows” is a distinctly graphic and disturbing account arising from the body of literature written in the second half of the 19th century focusing on the issue of widow remarriage and with it the question of women’s rights in India; it is significant in that it presents a view of sati not from the vantage point of European male observers, who were almost universally unsympathetic and disapproving (though often fascinated by the beauty of the doomed wife), but from that of an Indian woman who could have undergone sati herself.

Sati is sometimes conceptualized as a form of suicide, sometimes as a form of social murder. Earlier treatments of sati in Hindu literature had sometimes romanticized it (e.g., in Bana’s Harsha-Carita [q.v.], where the queen’s death is portrayed as a devout and fully voluntary choice against the opposition of her son, a religiously inspired act of devotion to her dead husband in the expectation of reward and reunion in the afterlife, though Bana was himself opposed to the practice). In popular belief, it is claimed, sati is said to be painless and will remove the sins of seven generations in a woman’s family, and she will not be reborn as a woman. In “The Plight of Hindu Widows,” in contrast, the practice of sati is seen by its widow author as an unwelcome alternative, though still preferable to the vicious social treatment experienced by widows, a treatment that she describes as a lifelong, slow death compared to sati’s quick but cruel death. Thus a widow might knowingly, even voluntarily, choose death by sati rather than the life that would otherwise await her after the death of her husband, even though the alleged voluntariness of her choice is severely compromised by oppressive social circumstances.

Anonymous, “The Plight of Hindu Widows as Described by a Widow Herself,” Methodist Church Missionary Society, The Gospel in All Lands, 1889, pp. 160-162, tr. Maya Pandit, in Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Centuryeds. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita (New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1991), pp. 358–363. Material in introduction also from Lata Mani, “Cultural Theory, Colonial Texts: Reading Eyewitness Accounts of Widow Burning,” from Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler, eds., Cultural Studies, Routledge, 1992, Ch. 22, pp. 392–408; and Christine Everaert.



There are four major castes among the Hindus and I was born into the caste known as Kayastha, which is the third in the hierarchy and most infamous for its maltreatment of widows.

Widows anywhere have to suffer, but the customs in our caste are too terrible. The people in the Punjab don’t treat their widows so strictly. But we do not belong to the Punjab. Originally we migrated from the northwest and settled there. And since ours is a well-to-do, why, even wealthy, caste, our regulations in this regard are extremely strict.

Once the husband dies, the torture of his wife begins, as if the messengers of the death god Yama themselves have come to take away her soul. None of her relatives will touch her to take her ornaments off her body. That task is assigned to three women from the barber caste. Their number varies from three to six. No sooner does the husband breathe his last than those female fiends literally jump all over her and violently tear all the ornaments from her nose, ears, etc. In that rush, the delicate bones of the nose and ears are sometimes broken. Sometimes while plucking the ornaments from her hair, tufts of hair are also plucked off. If she is wearing any gold or silver ornaments, these cruel women never have the patience to take them off one by one; they pin her hands down on the ground and try to break the bangles with a large stone. And many a time her hands are severely wounded in the process. Why, these callous women torture even a six- or seven-year-old girl, who doesn’t even know what a husband means when she becomes a widow!

At such times grief crashes down on the poor woman from all sides. On the one hand she has to endure the grief of the husband’s death, and on the other hand, no one comes near her to console her. On the contrary, those who had loved her from her childhood, and had brought her up tenderly, even they shower curses on her. In our caste, it is the custom that all the women accompany men when the corpse is carried for cremation. Everyone has to walk even though they are wealthy and have carriages. The menfolk walk in front and women follow them, clad in veils. And the poor widow follows them all. She is supported by the barber women. There has to be a distance of two hundred feet between her and the rest of the women because it is believed by our people that if her shadow falls over a married woman, she too will become a widow. It doesn’t affect the barber women, who torture her, however, in the same fashion. Because of this stupid superstition, even a relative whose heart melts at the sight of her doesn’t dare to look at her. But people are not satisfied even when they have tortured her so much. They brand her heart further as if with red-hot irons. Several men keep on shouting in that procession, asking people to stay away from her, and the barber women literally drag her along throughout the walk.

The place for cremation is usually on the bank of a river or a lake. When the procession reaches the site, the widow is pushed into the water. She has to lie there till the corpse is burned to ashes and all the people have had their bath and dried their clothes. When people are ready to go home, they pull her out of the water. Whether the water is cold as ice or the sun scorches down fiercely, she has to stay there until everyone has finished. Nobody takes pity on her. Even on the way back home, she is dragged along throughout. Because of such things, women prefer to burn themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. If the poor woman falls ill on such occasions, nobody even thinks of giving her medicine.

Once, before I became a widow myself, I had been in one such funeral procession. The place of cremation was nearly six miles away. It was summer. It was three o’clock in the afternoon by the time we reached home after having completed all the rites. I will never forget how the scorching heat of the sun was literally burning us on our way. We used to halt at regular intervals to rest a while and drink water. But that poor widow did not dare to ask for water. Had she asked for it, she would have lost her honor. The women with her could have given her some, but they felt no pity for her. Finally she collapsed unconscious. But even then her torturers continued to drag her throughout the road. On top of it, they kept nagging at her, saying, “Are you the only widow in the world? What’s the point of weeping now! Your husband is gone forever!”

Later on, when this poor forsaken woman did not even have the strength to crawl, she was tied up into a bundle as if of rags, and then dragged off. This woman was one of our relatives; but none of us dared go anywhere near her. Had anyone done so, she would have been showered with curses. But even then, one woman somehow managed to take her water in a glass. On seeing her the widow ran to her like a wild beast. I cannot even bear to describe her behavior then. First of all, she gulped down the water, which revived her a bit. Then she fell at the feet of the woman who had given her the water and said, “Sister, I’ll never forget what you have done for me. You are like a god to me. You have given my life back to me. But please go away quickly. If anybody comes to know of what you have done, both of us will have to pay for it. I, at least, will not let this out.”

It is the custom that a widow should eat only once a day for a year after her husband’s death; apart from that, she also has to fast completely on several days. Other relatives also eat only once a day. But only for fifteen days. After returning from the cremation ground, she has to sit on the ground in a corner, without changing her clothes, whether dry or wet. Nobody, apart from the barber women, visits her. If her own relatives are poor, even they don’t come to see her. She has to sit alone. Oh, cruel corner, all of us widows know you so thoroughly well. And we never remember you unless we are grieved.

A woman whose husband is dead is like a living corpse. She has no rights in the home. In spite of her grief, her relatives brand her with frightening words and gestures. Though she is all alone there and not allowed to speak to anyone, her relatives go to her and pierce her with sharp words. Her mother says, “What a mean creature! I don’t think there is anyone more vile than she. It would have been better if she were never born!” Her mother-in-law says, “This horrible snake bit my son and killed him. He died, but why is this worthless woman still alive?” There are even other widows among the women who speak cruelly to her! They feel that if they don’t speak so, people, and God too, would think that they actually pitied her. The sister-in-law says, “I will not cast even a glance at this luckless, ill-fated creature! I will not even speak a word to her.” Those who come to console the relatives of the dead say to the mother of the dead man, “Mother, this monstrous woman has ruined your house. She must be cursed. It’s only because of her that you have been thrown into the ocean of grief!” And to the widow they say, “Now, what do you want to live for?” If she wails aloud, they say, “What a shameless woman! How callous! She cries because she wants a husband.” Thus, she has to spend those thirteen days of grief in that alcove. What an unendurable state! No one can understand how painful it is unless she experiences it.

On the eleventh day, the brahmin comes. He comes like a policeman to arrest a convict. And then he authoritatively demands money or oil and so on. The widow has to pay him even if she is very poor; if she cannot pay immediately, she has to promise him that she will pay in future. Even if the widow is exceedingly poor, she has to pay at least thirteen rupees. Other brahmins demand other things. They demand more if the family is a rich one. Sometimes the widows have to work as servants doing household jobs, to earn money to pay these brahmins their dues.

Thus, there is nothing in our fate but suffering from birth to death. When our husbands are alive, we are their slaves; when they die, our fate is even worse.

The thirteenth day is the most fateful, the worst day for the widow. Though on this day she is allowed to change the clothes she has been wearing since her husband’s death and have a bath, people continue to condemn her. Her relatives gather around her and place some money before her. This is supposed to be for her keep. They curse her a million times while doing so. If the money gathered is a large sum, one of her relatives takes it into his possession and doles it out to her in small installments.

Then the brahmin comes again to demand money. The brahmin and the barber women have to be paid again when the widow’s head is shaved. After six weeks, she is again given the very clothes she had been wearing for the first thirteen days. When she sees those clothes again, she shudders from head to toe, as if she has been widowed again. Then she is sent on a pilgrimage to the Holy Ganges, and those clothes are thrown into the river after she has taken a holy dip in it.

After one year, if the widow is staying with her parents, she may be allowed to wear some ornaments. If asked about the reason, the parents say, “How long can our daughter continue not wearing ornaments? How can we bear to see her sit like that before us, wearing none, when we ourselves wear so many?”

Those widows who have lost their parents, however, have a terrible fate. They have to remain as slaves to their brothers’ wives or even sons. People feel there is no need to employ a servant if there is a widow in the house. If the widow has a sister-in-law (her brother’s wife), she has to suffer harassment at her hands. They constantly quarrel. Her fate isn’t any different in her husband’s family. Her mother-in-law and her sister-in-law hate her and often beat her. If she decides to separate and live independently because of the frequent quarrels, her honor is maligned. If she has any children, she has to toil hard for their upkeep. And when they grow up and get married, she becomes a slave to their wives. If a widow does not have any children, her relatives make her adopt a male child. He becomes heir to her property. And when he grows up and gets married, he is ruled by his wife and provides his adopted mother only with food and clothing. The widow has no right whatsoever to any property she may have. In such a condition, it is better for her if she earns her own living by working for others as a domestic servant.

In our caste, a woman does not have a right over even a piece of her father’s property. It all goes to his relatives. Similarly, widows do not get a share in their husband’s property either. They can claim only that which someone is kind enough to offer them. If they get any cash, they know neither how to keep it safe nor how to spend it. If a woman dies when her husband is still alive, her body is decorated with ornaments and new clothes, and then cremated. But when a widow dies, her body is just wrapped up in plain white cloth and cremated. It is reasoned that if a widow goes to the other world in ornaments and new clothes, her husband will not accept her there.

Thousands of widows die after a husband’s death. But far more have to suffer worse fates throughout their life if they stay alive. Once, a widow who was a relative of mine died in front of me. She had fallen ill before her husband died. When he died, she was so weak that she could not even be dragged to her husband’s cremation. She had a burning fever. Then her mother-in-law dragged her down from the cot onto the ground and ordered the servant to pour bucketfuls of cold water over her. After some eight hours, she died. But nobody came to see how she was when she was dying of the cold. After she died, however, they started praising her, saying that she had died for the love of her husband.

Another woman jumped from the roof of her house and committed suicide when she heard that her husband had died away from home. I and many of her other friends knew that this woman had never gotten along well with her husband. They used to quarrel often. Yet people praised her for committing suicide. If all these tales are put together, it would make a large book. The British government put a ban on the custom of sati, but as a result of that several women who could have died a cruel but quick death when their husbands died now have to face an agonizingly slow death.

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Filed under Asia, Hindu Widow, anonymous, Hinduism, Honor and Disgrace, Love, Selections, Slavery, The Modern Era

(documented 1853-present)

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


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


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


  1. The Detection of Witches: Ordeal and Punishment


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Selections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional sources:

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

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from Thus Spake Zarathustra:    Voluntary Death
from The Twilight of the Idols: A Moral    for Doctors


Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most influential and controversial figures in German philosophical thought, was born in Rocken, Prussia, and studied theology and classical philology at the University of Bonn. One year later, he gave up theology, having lost his faith, and moved to the University of Leipzig, where he discovered the works of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (q.v.) and the German composer Richard Wagner. These two figures, as well as Greek tragedians like Aeschylus, represented the most important influences on Nietzsche’s early thought. At age 24, Nietzsche became a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, Switzerland, where he continued to utilize pagan themes in developing his philosophy. In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), these influences coalesce in his theory of Greek literature, which asserts that the two opposing forces in life, the Apollonian or rational, and the Dionysian or passionate, must come into momentary harmony with the “Primordial Mystery.”

In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–85), Nietzsche develops many of the philosophical tenets central to his thought. Other significant works by Nietzsche include Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). Nietzsche’s views have been seen as influencing German attitudes in World War I and in providing the philosophical underpinnings for the Third Reich, even though Nietzsche was severely critical of German culture (a view that had undermined his friendship with Wagner) and would have considered the ways in which Nazism co-opted his views a complete distortion. Nietzsche suffered from poor health for most of his life; in 1889, he experienced a severe mental breakdown, perhaps associated with syphilis, from which he never recovered. He died on August 25, 1900.

In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche introduced his concepts of the “superman” (Übermensch), “the will to power,” and “the death of God.” One must find value in life without the hope of a future reward in Heaven. The new science of Darwinism had done away with the notion of a watchful Creator; hence, a new order of supermen was needed to create value for themselves through the will to power, a fearless love for every aspect of life and fate, free from self-delusion or life-denying morality. In the following excerpts from Thus Spake Zarathustra, written in poetic prose, and The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche explores the notion of voluntary death within the new ethics of the Übermensch: Death should not so much be something that happens to us beyond our control as a matter of chance or surprise, but something we choose freely and deliberately, a choice that becomes a defining act of our lives. Entirely in contrast to Christianity, Nietzsche sees suicide as a positive act: “The man who does away with himself,” Nietzsche writes in The Twilight of the Idols, “performs the most estimable of deeds.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra,  Ch. 21, “Voluntary Death.”  tr. Thomas Common. In The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Vol. 11, ed. Oscar Levy. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1909-11, 1964, pp. 82-85; also available from Project Gutenberg Release #1998. The Twilight of the Idolstr. Anthony M. Ludovici. In The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Vol. 16, ed. Oscar Levy. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927, pp. 88-91.




Many die too late, and some die too early. Yet strange soundeth the precept: “Die at the right time!

Die at the right time: so teacheth Zarathustra.

To be sure, he who never liveth at the right time, how could he ever die at the right time? Would that he might never be born!—Thus do I advise the superfluous ones.

But even the superfluous ones make much ado about their death, and even the hollowest nut wanteth to be cracked.

Every one regardeth dying as a great matter: but as yet death is not a festival. Not yet have people learned to inaugurate the finest festivals.

The consummating death I show unto you, which becometh a stimulus and promise to the living.

His death, dieth the consummating one triumphantly, surrounded by hoping and promising ones.

Thus should one learn to die; and there should be no festival at which such a dying one doth not consecrate the oaths of the living!

Thus to die is best; the next best, however, is to die in battle, and

sacrifice a great soul.

But to the fighter equally hateful as to the victor, is your grinning death which stealeth nigh like a thief—and yet cometh as master.

My death, praise I unto you, the voluntary death, which cometh unto me

because I want it.

And when shall I want it?—He that hath a goal and an heir, wanteth death at the right time for the goal and the heir.

And out of reverence for the goal and the heir, he will hang up no more

withered wreaths in the sanctuary of life.

Verily, not the rope-makers will I resemble: they lengthen out their cord, and thereby go ever backward.

Many a one, also, waxeth too old for his truths and triumphs; a toothless mouth hath no longer the right to every truth.

And whoever wanteth to have fame, must take leave of honour betimes, and practise the difficult art of—going at the right time.

One must discontinue being feasted upon when one tasteth best: that is

known by those who want to be long loved.

Sour apples are there, no doubt, whose lot is to wait until the last day of autumn: and at the same time they become ripe, yellow, and shrivelled.

In some ageth the heart first, and in others the spirit. And some are

hoary in youth, but the late young keep long young.

To many men life is a failure; a poison-worm gnaweth at their heart. Then let them see to it that their dying is all the more a success.

Many never become sweet; they rot even in the summer. It is cowardice that holdeth them fast to their branches.

Far too many live, and far too long hang they on their branches. Would

that a storm came and shook all this rottenness and worm-eatenness from the tree!

Would that there came preachers of SPEEDY death! Those would be the appropriate storms and agitators of the trees of life! But I hear only

slow death preached, and patience with all that is “earthly.”

Ah! ye preach patience with what is earthly? This earthly is it that hath too much patience with you, ye blasphemers!

Verily, too early died that Hebrew whom the preachers of slow death honour: and to many hath it proved a calamity that he died too early.

As yet had he known only tears, and the melancholy of the Hebrews, together with the hatred of the good and just—the Hebrew Jesus: then was he seized with the longing for death.

Had he but remained in the wilderness, and far from the good and just!

Then, perhaps, would he have learned to live, and love the earth—and laughter also!

Believe it, my brethren! He died too early; he himself would have disavowed his doctrine had he attained to my age! Noble enough was he to disavow!

But he was still immature. Immaturely loveth the youth, and immaturely also hateth he man and earth. Confined and awkward are still his soul and the wings of his spirit.

But in man there is more of the child than in the youth, and less of melancholy: better understandeth he about life and death.

Free for death, and free in death; a holy Naysayer, when there is no longer time for Yea: thus understandeth he about death and life.

That your dying may not be a reproach to man and the earth, my friends: that do I solicit from the honey of your soul.

In your dying shall your spirit and your virtue still shine like an evening after-glow around the earth: otherwise your dying hath been unsatisfactory.

Thus will I die myself, that ye friends may love the earth more for my sake; and earth will I again become, to have rest in her that bore me.

Verily, a goal had Zarathustra; he threw his ball. Now be ye friends the heirs of my goal; to you throw I the golden ball.

Best of all, do I see you, my friends, throw the golden ball! And so tarry I still a little while on the earth—pardon me for it!

Thus spake Zarathustra.



The sick man is a parasite of society. In certain cases it is indecent to go on living. To continue to vegetate in a state of cowardly dependence upon doctors and special treatments, once the meaning of life, the right to life, has been lost, ought to be regarded with the greatest contempt by society. The doctors, for their part, should be the agents for imparting this contempt—they should no longer prepare prescriptions, but should every day administer a fresh dose of disgust to their patients. A new responsibility of ruthlessly suppressing and eliminating degenerate Life, in all cases in which the highest interests of life itself, of ascending life, demand such a course—for instance in favour of the right of procreation, in favour of the right of the right of being born, in favour of the right to live. One should die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly. Death should be chosen freely,—death at the right time, faced clearly and joyfully and embraced while one is surrounded by one’s children and other witnesses. It should be affected in such a way that a proper farewell is still possible, that he who is about to take leave of us is still himself, and really capable not only of valuing what he has achieved and willed in life, but also of summing-up the value of life itself. Everything precisely the opposite of the ghastly comedy which Christianity has made of the hour of death. We should never forgive Christianity for having so abused the weakness of the dying man as to do violence to his conscience, or for having used his manner of dying as a means of valuing both man and his past!—In spite of all cowardly prejudices, it is our duty, in this respect, above all to reinstate the proper—that is to say, the physiological, aspect of so-called Natural death, which after all is perfectly “unnatural” and nothing else than suicide. One never perishes through anybody’s fault but one’s own. The only thing is that the death which takes place in the most contemptible circumstances, the death that is not free, the death which occurs at the wrong time, is the death of a coward. Out of the very love one bears to life, one should wish death to be different from this—that is to say, free, deliberate, and neither a matter of chance nor of surprise. Finally let me whisper a word of advice to our friends the pessimists and all other decadents. We have not the power to prevent ourselves from being born: but this error—for sometimes it is an error—can be rectified if we choose. The man who does away with himself, performs the most estimable of deeds: he almost deserves to live for having done so. Society—nay, life itself, derives more profit from such a deed than from any sort of life spent in renunciation, anæmia and other virtues,—at least the suicide frees others from the sight of him, at least he removes one objection against life. Pessimism pur et vert, can be proved only by the self refutation of the pessimists themselves: one should go a step further in one’s consistency; one should not merely deny life with “The World as Will and Idea,” as Schopenhauer did; one should in the first place deny Schopenhauer…. Incidentally, Pessimism, however infectious it may be, does not increase the morbidness of an age or of a whole species; it is rather the expression of that morbidness. One falls a victim to it in the same way as one falls a victim to cholera; one must already be predisposed to the disease. Pessimism in itself does not increase the number of the world’s decadents by a single unit. Let me remind you of the statistical fact that in those years in which cholera rages, the total number of deaths does not exceed that of other years.


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from The Principles of Psychology
from Is Life Worth Living?


The son of the eccentric American philosopher Henry James, Sr., who was influenced by Swedenborgianism and Fourierism, and the brother of Henry James, the eminent novelist and literary critic, William James became a major figure in both philosophy and psychology. In philosophy, he was one of the founders of the school known as Pragmatism; in psychology, he led the movement of functionalism. His childhood was characterized by irregular schooling, respect for opposing ideas (developed in discussions with his father at the family dinner table), and frequent travel. After an unsatisfying attempt to study art, he attended Harvard, where he studied chemistry, physiology, and medicine. While still in school, he served as assistant to the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz on an expedition to the Amazon.

His health failing, James returned to medical school and in 1867–68 studied in Germany; he also read extensively in philosophy and experimental psychology. While in Germany, he experienced a breakdown and contemplated suicide. He received his M.D. in 1869, but was unable to practice as a result of an extended illness that kept him a semi-invalid and confined him to home until 1872. His recovery began with reading Charles Renouvier on free will: James decided that “my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” That year he began to teach physiology at Harvard. In 1878, he married and his health improved; it was from this point on that his original thinking began in earnest.

James published The Principles of Psychology in 1890; its scope grew to be far beyond its conception as a textbook of physiological psychology. In this work, he established a functional viewpoint, thus assimilating mental science to those biological disciplines which viewed thinking and knowledge as tools in the struggle for survival. James defended the idea of free will, yet outlined the influences of physical processes upon mental operations. In The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897), he viewed the existence of God as established by the record of religious experience, often occurring during times of crisis. Freedom of action is made possible by a looseness in the connection between past and future events, in a way analogous to Darwin’s notion of spontaneous variation. James’s Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, though delayed several years by further health problems, were published as The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and became popular for their discussions of science and the religious experience.

Near the turn of the century, James turned to philosophy and formulated the philosophical method of Pragmatism. Building on the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, James argued that the meaning and veracity of all ideas are a function of the consequences that result from them. Pragmatism flowered, and James achieved great fame in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in England; it is often said that from James, “a new vitality flowed into the veins of American philosophers.” After several years of lecturing, teaching, and further writing though in deteriorating health, James died in New Hampshire in 1910.

In this selection from The Principles of Psychology, James argues that suicide for “positive” wholly altruistic motives is impossible, since one inevitably expects to be rewarded for the act. Suicides with “negative” motivations (e.g., fear, retreat) can be genuine, though suicidal frenzy is itself pathological. In the essay “Is Life Worth Living?” (1896), James outlines a way to help overcome the pessimism that leads to suicide. He argues that only a distrust of life can invalidate the value that endurance might bestow upon it; life is “what we make of it.”


William James, The Principles of PsychologyVol. 1. New York: Dover Publications, 1890, 1918, 1950, pp. 313-317. “Is Life Worth Living?” from The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York, London, and Bombay: Longmans Green, 1896, 1899, pp. 32-62.



A tolerably unanimous opinion ranges the different selves of which a man may be ‘seized and possessed,’ and the consequent different orders of his self-regard, in an hierarchical scale, with the bodily Self at the bottom, the spiritual Self at top, and the extracorporeal material selves and the various social selves between. Our merely natural self-seeking would lead us to aggrandize all these selves; we give up deliberately only those among them which we find we cannot keep. Our unselfishness is thus apt to be a ‘virtue of necessity’; and it is not without all show of reason that cynics quote the fable of the fox and the grapes in describing our progress therein. But this is the moral education of the race; and if we agree in the result that on the whole the selves we can keep are the intrinsically best, we need not complain of being led to the knowledge of their superior worth in such a tortuous way.

Of course this is not the only way in which we learn to subordinate our lower selves to our higher. A direct ethical judgment unquestionably also plays its part, and last, not least, we apply to our own persons judgments originally called forth by the acts of others.  It is one of the strangest laws of our nature that many things which we are well satisfied with in ourselves disgust us when seen in others.  With another man’s bodily ‘hoggishness’ hardly anyone has any sympathy;—almost as little with his cupidity, his social vanity and eagerness, his jealousy, his despotism, and his pride. Left absolutely to myself I should probably allow all these spontaneous tendencies to luxuriate in me unchecked, and it would be long before I formed a distinct notion of the order of their subordination. But having constantly to pass judgment of my associates, I come ere long to see, as Herr Horwicz says, my own lusts in the mirror of the lusts of others, and to think about them in a very different way from that in which I simply feel. Of course, the moral generalities which from childhood have been instilled into me accelerate enormously the advent of this reflective judgment on myself.

So it comes to pass that, as aforesaid, men have arranged the various selves which they may seek in an hierarchical scale according to their worth. A certain amount of bodily selfishness is required as a basis for all the other selves. But too much sensuality is despised, or at best condoned on account of the other qualities of the individual. The wider material selves are regarded as higher than the immediate body. He is esteemed a poor creature who is unable to forgo a little meat and drink and warmth and sleep for the sake of getting on in the world. The social self as a whole, again, ranks higher than the material self as a whole. We must care more for our honor, our friends, our human ties, than for a sound skin or wealth. And the spiritual self is so supremely precious that, rather than lose it, a man ought to be willing to give up friends and good fame, and property, and life itself.

In each kind of self, material, social, and spiritual, men distinguish between the immediate and actual, and the remote and potential, between the narrower and the wider view, to the detriment of the former and advantage of the latter. One must forego a present bodily enjoyment for the sake of one’s general health; one must abandon the dollar in the hand for the sake of the hundred dollars to come; one must make an enemy of his present interlocutor if thereby one makes friends of a more valued circle; one must go without learning and grace, and wit, the better to compass one’s soul’s salvation.

Of all these wider, more potential selves, the potential social self is the most interesting, by reason of certain apparent paradoxes to which it leads in conduct, and by reason of its connection with our moral and religious life. When for motives of honor and conscience I brave the condemnation of my own family, club, and ‘set’; when, as a protestant, I turn catholic; as a catholic, freethinker; as a ‘regular practitioner,’ homœopath, or what not, I am always inwardly strengthened in my course and steeled against the loss of my actual social self by the thought of other and better possible social judges than those whose verdict goes against me now. The ideal social self which I thus seek in appealing to their decision may be very remote: it may be represented as barely possible. I may not hope for its realization during my lifetime; I may even expect the future generations, which would approve me if they knew me, to know nothing about me when I am dead and gone. Yet still the emotion that beckons me on is indubitably the pursuit of an ideal social self, of a self that is at least worthy of approving recognition by the highest possible judging companion, if such companion there be. This self is the true, the intimate, the ultimate, the permanent Me which I seek. This judge is God, the Absolute Mind, the ‘Great Companion.’ We hear, in these days of scientific enlightenment, a great deal of discussion about the efficacy of prayer; and many reasons are given us why we should not pray, whilst others are given us why we should. But in all this very little is said of the reason why we do pray, which is simply that we cannot help praying. It seems probable that, in spite of all that ‘science’ may do to the contrary, men will continue to pray to the end of time, unless their mental nature changes in a manner which nothing we know should lead us to expect. The impulse to pray is a necessary consequence of the fact that whilst the innermost of the empirical selves of a man is a Self of the social sort, it yet can find its only adequate Socius in an ideal world. All progress in the social Self is the substitution of higher tribunals for lower; this ideal tribunal is the highest; and most men, either continually or occasionally, carry a reference to it in their breast. The humblest outcast on this earth can feel himself to be real and valid by means of this higher recognition. And, on the other hand, for most of us, a world with no such inner refuge when the outer social self failed and dropped from us would be the abyss of horror. I say ‘for most of us,’ because it is probable that individuals differ a good deal in the degree in which they are haunted by this sense of an ideal spectator. It is a much more essential part of the consciousness of some men than of others. Those who have the most of it are possibly the most religious men. But I am sure that even those who say they are altogether without it deceive themselves, and really have it in some degree. Only a non-gregarious animal could be completely without it. Probably no one can make sacrifices for ‘right,’ without to some degree personifying the principle of right for which the sacrifice is made, and expecting thanks from it. Complete social unselfishness, in other words, can hardly exist; complete social suicide hardly occur to a man’s mind. Even such texts as Job’s “Though He slay me yet will I trust Him,” or Marcus Aurelius’s “If gods hate me and my children, there is a reason for it,” can least of all be cited to prove the contrary.  For beyond all doubt Job revelled in the thought of Jehovah’s recognition of the worship after the slaying should have been done; and the Roman emperor felt sure the Absolute Reason would not be all indifferent to his acquiescence in the gods’ dislike. The old test of piety, “Are you willing to be damned for the glory of God?” was probably never answered in the affirmative except by those who felt sure in their heart of hearts that God would ‘credit’ them with their willingness, and set more store by them thus if in His unfathomable scheme He had not damned them at all. All this about the impossibility of suicide is said on the supposition of positive motives. When possessed by the emotion of fear, however, we are in a negative state of mind; that is, our desire is limited to the mere banishing of something, without regard to what shall take its place. In this state of mind there can unquestionably be genuine thoughts, and genuine acts, of suicide, spiritual and social, as well as bodily. Anything, anything, at such times, so as to escape and not to be! But such conditions of suicidal frenzy are pathological in their nature and run dead against everything that is regular in the life of the Self in man.



WHEN Mr. Mallock’s book with this title appeared some fifteen years ago, the jocose answer that “it depends on the liver” had great currency in the newspapers. The answer which I propose to give to-night cannot be jocose. In the words of one of Shakespeare’s prologues,—

“I come no more to make you laugh; things now,
That bear a weighty and a serious brow,
Sad, high, and working, full of state and woe,”—

must be my theme. In the deepest heart of all of us there is a corner in which the ultimate mystery of things works sadly; and I know not what such an association as yours intends, not what you ask of those whom you invite to address you, unless it be to lead you from the surface-glamour of existence, and for an hour at least to make you heedless to the buzzing and jigging and vibration of small interests and excitements that form the tissue of our ordinary consciousness. Without further explanation or apology, then, I ask you to join me in turning an attention, commonly too unwilling, to the profounder bass-note of life. Let us search the lonely depths for an hour together, and see what answers in the last folds and recesses of things our question may find.

“It ends soon, and never more can be,” “Lo, you are free to end it when you will,”—these verses flow truthfully from the melancholy Thomson’s pen, and are in truth a consolation for all to whom, as to him, the world is far more like a steady den of fear than a continual fountain of delight. That life is not worth living the whole army of suicides declare,—an army whose roll-call, like the famous evening gun of the British army, follows the sun round the world and never terminates. We, too, as we sit here in our comfort, must ‘ponder these things’ also, for we are of one substance with these suicides, and their life is the life we share. The plainest intellectual integrity,—nay, more, the simplest manliness and honor, forbid us to forget their case.

To come immediately to the heart of my theme, then, what I propose is to imagine ourselves reasoning with a fellow-mortal who is on such terms with life that the only comfort left him is to brood on the assurance, “You may end it when you will.” What reasons can we plead that may render such a brother (or sister) willing to take up the burden again? Ordinary Christians, reasoning with would-be suicides, have little to offer them beyond the usual negative, “Thou shalt not.” God alone is master of life and death, they say, and it is a blasphemous act to anticipate his absolving hand. But can we find nothing richer or more positive than this, no reflections to urge whereby the suicide may actually see, and in all sad seriousness feel, that in spite of adverse appearances even for him life is still worth living? There are suicides and suicides (in the United States about three thousand of them every year), and I must frankly confess that with perhaps the majority of these my suggestions are impotent to deal. Where suicide is the result of insanity or sudden frenzied impulse, reflection is impotent to arrest its headway: and cases like these belong to the ultimate mystery of evil, concerning which I can only offer considerations tending toward religious patience at the end of this hour. My task, let me say now, is practically narrow, and my words are to deal only with that metaphysical tedium vitœ which is peculiar to reflecting men. Most of you are devoted, for good or ill, to the reflective life. Many of you are students of philosophy, and have already felt in your own persons the skepticism and unreality that too much grubbing in the abstract roots of things will breed. This is, indeed, one of the regular fruits of the over-studious career. Too much questioning and too little active responsibility lead, almost as often as too much sensualism does, to the edge of the slope, at the bottom of which lie pessimism and the nightmare or suicidal view of life. But to the diseases which reflection breeds, still further reflection can oppose effective remedies; and it is of the melancholy and Weltschmerz bred of reflection that I now proceed to speak.

Let me say, immediately, that my final appeal is to nothing more recondite than religious faith. So far as my argument is to be destructive, it will consist in nothing more than the sweeping away of certain views that often keep the springs of religious faith compressed; and so far as it is to be constructive, it will consist in holding up to the light of day certain considerations calculated to let loose these springs in a normal, natural way. Pessimism is essentially a religious disease. In the form of it to which you are most liable, it consists in nothing but a religious demand to which there comes no normal religious reply.

We are familiar enough in this community with the spectacle of persons exulting in their emancipation from belief in the God of their ancestral Calvinism,—him who made the garden and the serpent, and preappointed the eternal fires of hell. Some of them have found humaner gods to worship, others are simply converts from all theology; but, both alike, they assure us that to have got rid of the sophistication of thinking they could feel any reverence or duty toward that impossible idol gave a tremendous happiness to their souls. Now, to make an idol of the spirit of nature, and worship it, also leads to sophistication; and in souls that are religious and would also be scientific the sophistication breeds a philosophical melancholy, from which the first natural step of escape is the denial of the idol; and with the downfall of the idol, whatever lack of positive joyousness may remain, there comes also the downfall of the whimpering and cowering mood. With evil simply taken as such, men can make short work, for their relations with it then are only practical. It looms up no longer so spectrally, it loses all its haunting and perplexing significance, as soon as the mind attacks the instances of it singly, and ceases to worry about their derivation from the ‘one and only Power.’

Here, then, on this stage of mere emancipation from monistic superstition, the would-be suicide may already get encouraging answers to his question about the worth of life. There are in most men instinctive springs of vitality that respond healthily when the burden of metaphysical and infinite responsibility rolls off. The certainty that you now may step out of life whenever you please, and that to do so is not blasphemous or monstrous, is itself an immense relief.  The thought of suicide is now no longer a guilty challenge and obsession.

“This little life is all we must endure;
The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,”—

says Thomson; adding, “I ponder these thoughts, and they comfort me.” Meanwhile we can always stand it for twenty-four hours longer, if only to see what to-morrow’s newspaper will contain, or what the next postman will bring.

But far deeper forces than this mere vital curiosity are arousable, even in the pessimistically-tending mind; for where the loving and admiring impulses are dead, the hating and fighting impulses will still respond to fit appeals. This evil which we feel so deeply is something that we can also help to overthrow; for its sources, now that no ‘Substance’ or ‘Spirit’ is behind them, are finite, and we can deal with each of them in turn. It is, indeed, a remarkable fact that sufferings and hardships do not, as a rule, abate the love of life; they seem, on the contrary, usually to give it a keener zest. The sovereign source of melancholy is repletion. Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void.

What are our woes and sufferance compared with these? Does not the recital of such a fight so obstinately waged against such odds fill us with resolution against our petty powers of darkness,—machine politicians, spoilsmen, and the rest? Life is worth living, no matter what it bring, if only such combats may be carried to successful terminations and one’s heel set on the tyrant’s throat. To the suicide, then, in his supposed world of multifarious and immoral nature, you can appeal—and appeal in the name of the very evils that make his heart sick there—to wait and see his part of the battle out. And the consent to live on, which you ask of him under these circumstances, is not the sophistical ‘resignation’ which devotees of cowering religious preach: it is not resignation in the sense of licking a despotic Deity’s hand. It is, on the contrary, a resignation based on manliness and pride. So long as your would-be suicide leaves an evil of his own unremedied, so long he has strictly no concern with evil in the abstract and at large. The submission which you demand of your self to the general fact of evil in the world, your apparent acquiescence in it, is here nothing but the conviction that evil at large is none of your business until your business with your private particular evils is liquidated and settled up. A challenge of this sort, with proper designation of detail, is one that need only be made to be accepted by men whose normal instincts are not decayed; and your reflective would-be suicide may easily be moved by it to face life with a certain interest again. The sentiment of honor is a very penetrating thing. When you and I, for instance, realize how many innocent beasts have had to suffer in cattle-cars and slaughter-pens and lay down their lives that we might grow up, all fattened and clad, to sit together here in comfort and carry on this discourse, it does, indeed, put our relation to the universe in a more solemn light. “Does not,” as a young Amherst philosopher (Xenos Clark, now dead) once wrote, “the acceptance of a happy life upon such terms involves a point of honor?” Are we not bound to take some suffering upon ourselves, to do some self-denying service with our lives, in return for all those lives upon which ours are built? To hear this question is to answer it in but one possible way, if one have a normally constituted heart.

Thus, then, we see that mere instinctive curiosity, pugnacity, and honor may make life on a purely naturalistic basis seem worth living from day to day to men who have cast away all metaphysics in order to get rid of hypochondria, but who are resolved to owe nothing as yet to religion and its more positive gifts. A poor half-way stage, some of you may be inclined to say; but at least you must grant it to be an honest stage; and no man should dare to speak meanly of these instincts which are our nature’s best equipment, and to which religion herself must in the last resort address her own peculiar appeals.

Now, when I speak of trusting our religious demands, just what do I mean by ‘trusting’? Is the word to carry with it license to define in detail an invisible world, and to anathematize and excommunicate those whose trust is different? Certainly not! Our faculties of belief were not primarily given us to make orthodoxies and heresies withal; they were given us to live by. And to trust our religious demands means first of all to live in the light of them, and to act as if the invisible world which they suggest were real. It is a fact of human nature, that men can live and die by the help of a sort of faith that goes without a single dogma or definition. The bare assurance that this natural order is not ultimate but a mere sign or vision, the external staging of a many-storied universe, in which spiritual forces have the last word and are eternal,—this bare assurance is to such men enough to make life seem worth living in spite of every contrary presumption suggested by its circumstances on the natural plane. Destroy this inner assurance, however, vague as it is, and all the light and radiance of existence is extinguished for these persons at a stroke. Often enough the wild-eyed look at life—the suicidal mood—will then set in.

Now turn from this to the life of man. In the dog’s life we see the world invisible to him because we live in both worlds. In human life, although we only see our world, and his within it, yet encompassing both these worlds a still wider world may be there, as unseen by us as our world is by him; and to believe in that world may be the most essential function that our lives in this world have to perform. But “may be! may be!” one now hears the positivist contemptuously exclaim; “what use can a scientific life have for maybes?” Well, I reply, the ‘scientific’ life itself has much to do with maybes, and human life at large has everything to do with them. So far as man stands for anything, and is productive or originative at all, his entire vital function may be said to have to deal with maybes. Not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a maybe; not a service, not a sally of generosity, not a scientific exploration or experiment or textbook, that may not be a mistake. It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true. Suppose, for instance, that you are climbing a mountain, and have worked yourself into a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap. Have faith that you can successfully make it, and your feet are nerved to its accomplishment. But mistrust yourself, and think of all the sweet things you have heard the scientists say of maybes, and you will hesitate so long that, at last, all unstrung and trembling, and launching yourself in a moment of despair, you roll in the abyss. In such a case (and it belongs to an enormous class), the part of wisdom as well as of courage is to believe what is in the line of your needs, for only by such belief is the need fulfilled. Refuse to believe, and you shall indeed be right, for you shall irretrievably perish. But believe, and again you shall be right, for you shall save yourself. You make one or the other of two possible universes true by your trust or mistrust,—both universes having been only maybes, in this particular, before you contributed your act.

Now, it appears to me that the question whether life is worth living is subject to conditions logically much like these. It does, indeed, depend on you the liver. If you surrender to the nightmare view and crown the evil edifice by your own suicide, you have indeed made a picture totally black. Pessimism, completed by your act, is true beyond a doubt, so far as your world goes. Your mistrust of life has removed whatever worth your own enduring existence might have given to it; and now, throughout the whole sphere of possible influence of that existence, the mistrust has proved itself to have had divining power. But suppose, on the other hand, that instead of giving way to the nightmare view you cling to it that this world is not the ultimatum. Suppose you find yourself a very well-spring, as Wordsworth says, of—

“Zeal, and the virtue to exist by faith
As soldiers live by courage; as, by strength
Of heart, the sailor fights with roaring seas.”

Suppose, however thickly evils crowd upon you, that your unconquerable subjectivity proves to be their match, and that you find a more wonderful joy than any passive pleasure can bring in trusting ever in the larger whole. Have you not now made life worth living on these terms? What sort of a thing would life really be, with your qualities ready for a tussle with it, if it only brought fair weather and gave these higher faculties of yours no scope? Please remember that optimism and pessimism are definitions of the world, and that our own reactions on the world, small as they are in bulk, and necessarily help to determine the definition. They may even be the decisive elements in determining the definition. A large mass can have its unstable equilibrium overturned by the addition of a feather’s weight; a long phrase may have its sense reversed by the addition of the three letters n-o-t. This life is worth living, we can say, since it is what we make it, from the moral point of view, and we are determined to make it from that point of view, so far as we have anything to do with it, a success.

These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. The ‘scientific proof’ that you are right may not be clear before the day of judgment (or some stage of being which that expression may serve to symbolize) is reached. But the faithful fighters of this hour, or the beings that then and there will represent them, may then turn to the faint-hearted, who here decline to go on, with words like those with which Henry IV, greeted the tardy Crillon after a great victory had been gained: “Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques, and you were not there.”

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Filed under Americas, Christianity, Illness and Old Age, James, William, Selections, The Modern Era, Value of Life


from Philosophy of the Unconscious


Born in Berlin in 1842, Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann initially intended to embark on a military career. However, plagued by a problem with his knee, he turned to philosophy, obtaining a doctorate from the University of Rostock.

Hartmann wrote voluminously, producing some 12,000 pages, later published in selected form in 10 volumes. Hartmann’s works include historical and critical works (among them studies of Kant [q.v.], Schelling, Schopenhauer [q.v.], Hegel [q.v.], and extended polemics against Nietzsche [q.v.]), popular works, and systematic works including self-criticism originally published anonymously. His wife Agnes Taubert was co-author of the work Pessimism and its Opponents (Berlin 1873). Hartmann’s thought is based on a metaphysics of the absolute associated with Hegel and Schopenhauer.

Hartmann’s first and most celebrated work Philosophy of the Unconscious (Berlin, 1869), selections from a chapter of which is presented here, develops an extensive and unique treatment of universal suicide. It is heavily influenced by Buddhist thought. Hartmann posits three stages of illusion to which humanity is subject, around which Philosophy of the Unconscious is structured: (1) that “happiness is considered as having been actually attained at the present stage of the world’s development, accordingly attainable by the individual of today in his earthly life”—this illusion is in Hartmann’s view exhibited particularly prominently in the ancient world and in childhood; (2) that “happiness is conceived attainable by the individual in a transcendent life after death,” an illusion characteristic of the Middle Ages and youth; and (3) that “happiness [is] relegated to the future of the world,” an illusion associated with modern times and adulthood. Hartmann opposes the suicide of the individual as selfish and ethically reprehensible, but he argues for the release of the Unconscious from its sufferings, when humanity—all humanity, everywhere—unites in the collective understanding that by willing its own nonexistence, the world-process will cease. Future human existence is thus precluded. Humankind and the world in general will thus be released from the misery of existence once and for all in the “cosmic-universal negation of will as the act that forms the end of the process, as the last moment, after which there shall be no more volition, activity, or time.”

Hartmann died in Berlin in 1906.

Eduard von Hartmann, Philosophy of the Unconscioustr. William Chatterton Coupland, Vol III. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., 1893, pp. 98-100, 120-142; footnotes and internal references deleted.



This perception, that from the point of view of the ego of the individual the denial of the will or forsaking of the world and renunciation of life is the only rational course, Stirner entirely misses.  It is, however, an infallible specific for an over-balanced egoism.  Whoever has once realized the preponderating pain that every individual must endure, with or without knowledge, in his life, will soon contemn and scorn the standpoint of the self-preserving and would-be enjoying—in a word, self-affirming ego.  He who has come to hold lightly his egoism and his ego will hardly insist upon the same as the absolute pivot on which everything must turn, will rate personal sacrifice less highly than usual, will less reluctantly accept the result of an investigation which exhibits the Ego as a mere phenomenon of a Being that for all individuals is one and the same.

Contempt of the world and life is the easiest path to self-denial; only by this path has a morality of self-denial, like the Christian and Buddhist, been historically possible.  In these fruits which it bears for facilitating the infinitely difficult self-renunciation lies the immense and hardly to be sufficiently estimated ethical value of Pessimism.

But lastly, had Stirner approached the direct philosophical investigation of the Idea of the Ego, he would have seen that this idea is just as unsubstantial and brain-created a phantom as, for instance, the Idea of honour or of right, and that the only being which answers to the idea of the inner cause of my activity is something non-individual, the Only Unconscious, which therefore answers just as well to Peter’s idea of his ego as Paul’s idea of his ego.  On this deepest of all bases rests only the esoteric ethics of Buddhism, not the Christian ethics.  If one has firmly and thoughtfully made this cognition his own, that one and the same Being feels my and thy pain, my and thy pleasure, only accidentally through the intervention of different brains, then is the exclusive egoism radically broken, that is only shaken, though deeply shaken, by contempt of the world and of life; then is the standpoint of Stirner finally overcome, to which one must at some time have entirely given adhesion in order to feel the greatness of the advance; then first is Egoism sublated as a moment in the consciousness of forming a link in the world-process, in which it finds its necessary and relatively, i.e., to a certain degree, authorised place.

There occurs, namely at the end of each of the preceding stages of the illusion, and before the discovery of the next, the voluntary surrender of individual existence—suicide, as a necessary consequence.  Both the life-weary heathen, and the Christian, despairing at once of the world and his faith, must in consistency do away with themselves; or if, like Schopenhauer, they believe themselves unable to attain by this means the end of the abolition of individual existence, they must at any rate divert their will from life to quietism and continence, or even asceticism.  It is the height of self-deception to see in this saving of the dear Ego from the discomfort of existence anything else than the grossest selfism, than a highly refined Epicureanism, that has only taken a direction contrary to instinct through a view of life opposed to instinct.  In all Quietism, whether with brutish inertness it is content merely to eat and drink, or loses itself in idyllic love of Nature, or in reverie natural or artificially induced (by narcotics) passively revels in the images of a luxuriant fancy, or surrounded by the refinements of a luxurious life, languidly drives away ennui with the choicest morsels of the arts and sciences—in all this Quietism the Epicurean trait is unmistakable, the inordinate desire to pass life in the manner most agreeable to the individual constitution, with a minimum of effort and displeasure, unconcerned about the thereby neglected duties to fellow-men and society.  But even asceticism, which is apparently the counterpart of Egoism, is also always egoistic, even when it does not, like the Christian, hope for reward in an individual immortality, but merely hopes, by the temporary assumption of a certain pain, to attain the shortening of the evil of life and individual deliverance from all continuation of life after death (new birth, &c.)  In the suicide and in the ascetic the self-denial is as little deserving of admiration as in the sick person who, to escape the prospect of a perpetual toothache, reasonably prefers the painful drawing of the tooth.  In both cases there is only well-calculated egoism without any ethical value; rather an egoism that in all such situations of life is immoral, save when the possibility of fulfilling one’s duties to one’s relatives and society is entirely cut off….

The Goal of Evolution and the Significance of Consciousness
(Transition to Practical Philosophy)

We saw that the chain of final causes is not, like that of phenomenal causality, to be conceived as endless, because every end in respect of the following one in the chain is only means; therefore in the end-positing understanding the whole future series of ends must always be present, and yet a completed endlessness of ends cannot be present in it.

Accordingly the series of final causes must be finite, i.e., they must have a last or ultimate end, which is the goal of all the intermediate ends.  Further, we have seen that justice and morality by their very nature cannot be final ends, but only intermediate ends; and the last chapter has taught us that also positive happiness cannot be the goal of the world-process, because not only is it not attained at every stage of the process, but even its contrary, misery and unblessedness, is at all times attained, which besides increases in the course of evolution by destruction of the illusion and with the heightening of consciousness.

It is altogether absurd to conceive evolution as end in itself, i.e., to ascribe to it an absolute value; for evolution is still only the sum of its moments; and if the several moments are not only worthless, but even objectionable, so too is their sum, the process.  Many indeed call freedom the goal of the process.  To me freedom is nothing positive, but something private, the absence of constraint.  I cannot understand how this is to be regarded as goal of the evolution, if the Unconscious is one and all, and therefore there is no one from whom it could suffer constraint.  If, however, there is anything positive in the notion of freedom, it can only be the consciousness of inner necessity, the formal in the rational, as Hegel says.  Then is an increase of freedom identical with an increase of consciousness.  Here we come to a point already frequently mentioned.  If the goal of evolution is anywhere to be looked for, it is certainly on the path where we, so far as we can overlook the course of the evolution, perceive a decided and continuous progress, a gradual advance.

This is only and solely the case in the development of consciousness, of conscious intelligence, but here also in unbroken ascent from the origin of the primitive cell to the standpoint of humanity of the present day, and with the highest probability farther as long as the world lasts.  Thus Hegel says: “All that happens in heaven and on earth happens eternally; the life of God and all that takes place in time has this sole aim, that the spirit attain self-knowledge, become its own object, find itself become independent, unite itself with itself; it is duplication, alienation, but in order to find itself to be enabled to come to itself.”  Likewise Schelling: “To the Transcendental philosophy Nature is nothing but the organ of self-consciousness, and everything in Nature is only necessary because only through such a Nature can self-consciousness be achieved”; “and consciousness is that with which the whole creation is concerned”.  Individuation, with its train of egoism and wrong-doing and wrong-suffering, serves the origination of consciousness; the acquisitive impulse serves the enhancement of consciousness by the liberation of the mental energies through increasing opulence, likewise vanity, ambition, and the lust of fame by spurring on the mental activity; sexual love serves it by improving mental capacity; in short, all those useful instincts that bring the individual far more pain than pleasure may often impose the greatest sacrifices.  By the way of the unfolding of consciousness must then the goal of evolution be sought, and consciousness is beyond a doubt the proximate end of Nature—of the world.  The question still remains open whether consciousness is really ultimate end, therefore also self-end, or whether it again serves only another end?

One’s own object consciousness can assuredly not be.  With pain it is born, with pain it consumes its existence, with pain it purchases its elevation; and what does it offer in compensation for all this?  A vain self-mirroring!  Were the world in other respects fair and precious, the empty self-satisfaction in the contemplation of its reflected image in consciousness might at any rate be excused, although it would always remain an infirmity; but an out-and-out miserable world, that can never have any joy in the sight of itself, but must condemn its own existence as soon as it understands itself, could such a world be said to have a rational, final, and proper end in the ideal apparent duplication of itself in the mirror of consciousness?  Is there then not enough of real wretchedness that it should be repeated in the magic lantern of consciousness?  No; Consciousness cannot possibly be the ultimate object of the world-evolution guided by the all-wisdom of the Unconscious.  That would only mean doubling the torment, preying on one’s own vitals.  Still less can one suppose that the purely formal determination of action according to laws of conscious reason can be a rational man’s aim; for why should the reason determine action, or why should action be determined by reason apart from the diminution of pain thereby to be induced?  Were there not painful being and willing, no reason need trouble itself about its determination.  Consciousness and the continuous enhancement of the same in the process of the world’s development can thus in no case be end in itself; it can merely be means to another end, if it is not to float aimlessly in the air, whereby then also regressively the whole process would cease to be evolution, and the whole chain of natural ends would hang aimlessly in the air; thus, properly speaking, would, as ends, be annulled and declared irrational.  This assumption contradicts the all-wisdom of the Unconscious, therefore it only remains for us to search for the end which the development of consciousness subserves as means.

But where to get such an end?  The observation of the process itself, and of that which mainly grows and progresses in it, leads only to the knowledge that it is Consciousness; morality, justice, and freedom have already been set aside.

However much we may ponder and reflect, we can discover nothing to which we could assign an absolute value, nothing that we could regard as end in itself, nothing that so affects the world-essence in its inmost core, as Happiness.  After happiness strives everything that lives, according to endæmonist principles motives influence us, and our actions are consciously or unconsciously guided.  On happiness in this or that fashion all systems of practical philosophy are grounded, however much they may think to deny their first principle.  The endeavour after happiness is the most deeply rooted impulse, is the essence of the will itself seeking satisfaction.  And yet the investigations of the last chapter have shown that this endeavour is exposed to objections; that the hope of its fulfilment is an illusion; and that its consequence is the pain of disillusion, its truth the misery of existence; have taught us that the progressive evolution of consciousness has the negative result of gradually perceiving the illusory character of that hope, the folly of that endeavour.  Between the will striving after absolute satisfaction and felicity and the intelligence emancipating itself more and more from the impulse through consciousness a deeply pervading antagonism cannot therefore be mistaken.  The higher and more perfectly consciousness develops in the course of the world-process, the more is it emancipated from the blind vassalage with which it at first followed the irrational will; the more it sees through the illusions aroused in it by impulse for the cloaking of this irrationality, the more does it assume a hostile position in opposition to the will struggling for positive happiness, in which it combats it step by step in the course of history, breaks through the ramparts of illusions behind which it is entrenched one after the other, and will not have drawn its last consequences until it has completely annihilated it, in that after the destruction of every illusion only the knowledge remains that every volition leads to unblessedness, and only renunciation to the best attainable state, painlessness.  This victorious contest of consciousness with the will as it empirically meets our eyes as result of the world-process, is now, however, anything but accidental; it is ideally contained in consciousness, and is necessarily posited along with its development.  For we saw that the essence of consciousness is emancipation of the intellect from the will, whereas in the Unconscious the idea only appears as servitor of the will, because there is nothing but the will to which it can owe its origin, being incapable of self-origination.

Further, we know that in the sphere of ideation the logical, rational, rules, which is intrinsically just as repugnant to the will as the will to it; whence we conclude that if the idea has only attained the necessary degree of independence, it will have to condemn everything contra-rational (anti-logical) that it finds in the irrational (alogical) will, and to annihilate it.  Thirdly, we know from the foregoing chapter that there follows from volition always more pain than pleasure; that therefore the will that wills happiness attains the contrary, unhappiness; therefore most irrationally and for its proper torment digs its teeth into its own flesh, and yet on account of its unreason can be taught by no experience to desist from its unblessed willing.  From these three premises it necessarily follows that consciousness, so far as it attains the necessary clearness, activity, and fullness, must also more and more perceive, and accordingly contest to the last, the irrationality of volition and endeavour after happiness.  This contest, hitherto recognized by us only a posteriori, was accordingly not an accidental, but a necessary result of the creation of consciousness; it lay therein a priori preformed.  But now, if consciousness is the proximate end of Nature or the world; if we necessarily need for consciousness a further end, and can absolutely think no other true end than the greatest possible happiness; if, on the other hand, an endeavour after positive happiness that is identical with volition is preposterous because it only attains unblessedness, and the greatest possible attainable state of happiness is painlessness; if, lastly, it lies in the notion of consciousness to have for result the emancipation of the intellect from the will, the combating and final annihilation of willing, should it be any longer doubtful that the all-knowing Unconscious thinking end and means at once has created consciousness for that very reason, to redeem the will from the unblessedness of its willing, from which it cannot redeem itself,—that the real end of the world-process, to which consciousness serves as final means, is this, to realize the greatest possible attainable state of happiness, namely, that of painlessness?

We have seen that in the existing world everything is arranged in the wisest and best manner, and that it may be looked upon as the best of all possible worlds, but that nevertheless it is thoroughly wretched, and worse than none at all.  This was only to be comprehended in such wise, that, although the “What and How” in the world (its essence) might be determined by an all-wise Reason, yet the “That” of the world (its existence) must be posited by something absolutely irrational, and this could only be the will.  This consideration is for the rest only the same applied to the world as a whole that we have long known as applied to the individual.  The atom of body is attractive power, its “What and How,” i.e., attraction according to this or that law, is Presentation; its “That,” its existence, its reality, its force, is will.  Thus also the world is what it is and how it is as presentation of the Unconscious, and the unconscious idea has as servant of the will, to which it itself is indebted for actual existence, and as compared with which it has no independence, also no counsel and no voice in the “That” of the world.  The will is essentially only non-rational (destitute of reason, alogical), but in that it acts, it becomes through the consequences of its volition, irrational (contrary to reason, anti-logical), inasmuch as it attains unblessedness, the contrary of its volition.  Now to bring back this irrational volition, which is guilty of the “That” of the world, this unblessed volition into non-volition and the painlessness of nothingness, this task of the logical in the Unconscious is the determinator of the “What and How” of the world.  For the Reason the question therefore is to repair the mischief done by the irrational Will.  The unconscious idea represents the will, if not positively as will, yet negatively as the negative of the logical, or as its own limit, i.e., as the non-logical; but it has in the first place and as such no power over the will, because it has no independence in respect of it, therefore it must employ an artifice to utilize the blindness of the will, and to give it such a content, that by a peculiar turning back upon itself in individuation it falls into conflict with itself, whose result is consciousness, i.e., the creation of an independent power opposed to the will, in which it can now begin the contest with the will.  Thus the world-process appears as a perpetual struggle of the logical with the non-logical, ending with the conquest of the latter.  If this conquest were impossible, if the process were not at the same time development to a fairly beckoning goal, if it were interminable, or even one that exhausted itself in blind necessity or contingency, so that all wit would in vain endeavour to steer the ship into harbour, then, and only then, would this world be really absolutely cheerless, a hell without an exit, and dumb resignation the only philosophy.  But we who perceive in Nature and history only a single grand and marvelous process of development, we believe in a final victory of the ever more radiantly shining reason over the unreason of blind volition; we believe in a goal of the process that brings us release from the torment of existence, and to whose induction and acceleration we too may contribute our mite in the service of reason.

The main difficulty consists in this, how the termination of this contest, the final redemption from the misery of volition and existence into the painlessness of non-willing and non-being, in short, how the entire annulling of volition by consciousness is to be conceived.  There is only one attempt to solve this problem known to me, namely, that of Schopenhauer, in sects. 68-71 of the first volume of the “World as Will and Idea,” which essentially agrees with the similar but more obscure designs of the mystical ascetics of all ages, and of the doctrine of Buddha, as Schopenhauer himself very plainly shows.

The main point of this theory consists in the assumption that the individual, in virtue of the individual cognition of the misery of existence and the unreason of volition, is able to cause his personal willing to cease, and thereby to be individually annihilated after death, or, as Buddhism expressed it, to be no more born again.  It is obvious that this assumption is altogether incompatible with the fundamental principles of Schopenhauer, and only his inability to grasp the notion of development renders explicable the shortsightedness which made it impossible for him to get rid of this palpable inconsistency in his system.  This inconsequence must here be indicated very briefly.—The will is for him the ἕν καì πâν, the sole being of the world, and the individual only subjective appearance, in strictness never objectively actual phenomenon of this essence.  But even if it were the latter, how should it be possible for the individual to negate his individual will as a whole, not merely theoretically but also practically, as his individual volition is only a ray of that Only Will?  Schopenhauer himself rightly declares that in suicide the negation of the will is not attained, but it is said to be attained in the highest conceivable degree in voluntary starvation.  That sounds indeed almost absurd, if one remembers his declaration “that the body is the will itself, objectively regarded as a phenomenon in space,” whence it immediately follows that with the annulling of the individual will, also its appearance in space, the body must disappear.  According to our view, with suppression of the individual will at least all the organic functions dependent on the unconscious will, as heart-throb, respiration, &c., must instantly cease, and the body collapse as corpse.  That this too is empirically impossible will be doubted by nobody; but whoever is obliged to first kill his body by refusal of food proves by that very act he is not able to deny and abolish his unconscious will to live.

But supposing the impossible to be possible, what would be the consequence?  One of the many rays or individual objectifications of the One Will, that which related to this individual, would be withdrawn from its actuality, and this man be dead.  That is, however, no more and no less than happens at every decease, no matter to what cause it is due, and to the Only Will the consequences would have been the same if a tile had killed that man; it continues after, as before, with unenfeebled energy, with undiminished avidity, to lay hold of life wherever it finds it and can lay hold of it; for to acquire experience and become wiser by experience is impossible to it, and it cannot suffer a quantitative abatement of its essence or its substance through the withdrawal of a merely one-sided direction of action.  Therefore the endeavour after individual negation of the will is just as foolish and useless, nay, still more foolish, than suicide, because it only attains the same end more slowly and painfully: abolition of this appearance without altering the essence, which for every abolished individual phenomenon is ceaselessly objectified in new individuals.  Accordingly all asceticism and all endeavour after individual negation of will is perceived and proved to be aberration, although an aberration only in procedure, not in aim.  And because the goal which it endeavours to gain is a right one, it has when rare, by ever whispering in the world’s ear a memento mori, as it were, and provoking a presentiment of the issue of all endeavour, a high value; it becomes, however, injurious and pernicious when, attacking whole nations, it threatens to bring the world-process to stagnation, and to perpetuate the misery of existence.  What would it avail, e.g., if all mankind should die out gradually by sexual continence?  The world as such would still continue to exist, and would find itself substantially in the same position as immediately before the origin of the first man; nay, the Unconscious would even be compelled to employ the next opportunity to fashion a new man or a similar type, and the whole misery would begin over again.

If we look more deeply into the nature of asceticism and personal negation of will, and to the position which it occupies in the historical process in its highest flowering in pure Buddhism, it appears as the issue of the Asiatic pre-Hellenic period of development, as the union of hopelessness for here and hereafter with the still uneradicated egoism which thinks not of the redemption of the whole but only of its own individual redemption.  As we briefly pointed out above the immorality and perniciousness of this standpoint for the whole of humanity and the world-process, so now the folly of the same is revealed for the individual who builds upon it, in that the personal hope of redemption has turned out illusory, consequently every means made use of for this end (thus also Quictism, so far as it is not to serve an individual or nationally coloured Epicureanism, but to lead to redemption through individual negation of the will) is absurd.

Schopenhauer, too, means at bottom something different to what he says.  Before him, too, hovers in shadowy outlines, as the only goal worthy of effort, a universal negation of will, as, e.g., the following passage proves: “After what was said in the second book on the connection of all phenomenon of will (humanity), the weaker reflection of the same, animality (and the still lower forms of objectification of will), would also pass away, as with the full light the penumbræ disappear”.

On the following page he points, among others, to the biblical passage (Rom. Viii. 22) in which it is said, “For we know that the whole creation groaneth together” for the redemption; it expects, however, its redemption “from us which have the first-fruits of the spirit.”  Such deeper perspectives are, however, nevertheless, out of the question for Schopenhauer’s expressly declared standpoint, not only because their consideration would require a surrender of the latter, but also because the following out of them is not at all possible with the unhistorical world-theory of his subjective idealism.  It only becomes so when the reality of time and the positive meaning of the temporal, i.e., historical, development is acknowledged, through whose cumulative progress the prospect opens up of a future attainment of such states of humanity as may enable that which now appears absurd one day to obtain realization.

For him, who has grasped the idea of development, it cannot be doubtful that the end of the contest between consciousness and the will, between the logical and the non-logical, can only lie at the goal of evolution, at the issue of the world-process; for him who before all holds fast to the universality and unity of the Unconscious, the redemption, the turning back of willing into non-willing, is also only to be conceived as act of each and all, not as individual, but only as cosmic-universal negation of will, as the act that forms the end of the process, as the last moment, after which there shall be no more volition, activity, or time (Rev. x. 6).  That the cosmic process cannot be thought without an end in time, cannot be of endless duration, is presupposed; for if the goal lay at an infinite distance, a finite duration of the process, however long, would bring no nearer the goal, that would still remain infinitely remote.  The process would thus no longer be a means for reaching the goal, consequently it would be purposeless and aimless.  As little as it would comport with the notion of development to ascribe an infinite duration in the past to the world-process, because then every conceivable development must be already traversed, which yet is not the case, just as little can we allow to the process an endless duration for the future; both would abolish the idea of development towards a goal, and would put the world-process on a level with the pouring of water into a sieve of the daughters of Danaus.  The complete victory of the logical over the alogical must therefore coincide with the temporal end of the world-process, the last day.

Whether humanity will be capable of so high an enchancement of consciousness, or whether a higher race of animals will arise on earth, which, continuing the work of humanity, will attain the goal, or whether our earth altogether is only an abortive attempt to reach such goal, and it will only be reached, when our little planet has long been reckoned to the frozen celestial bodies, on a planet invisible to us of another fixed star under more favourable conditions, is hard to say.  Thus much is certain, wherever the process may come to an end, the goal of the process and the contending elements will always be the same in this world.  If really humanity is able and called to bring the world-process to a final issue, it will at all events have to do this at the height of its development under the most favourable circumstances of the earth’s habitableness, and therefore we do not need for this case to trouble about the scientific perspective of a future congelation and refrigeration of the earth, since then long before the occurrence of such a terrestrial refrigeration the world-process altogether would have been arrested, and the existence of this kosmos with all its world-lenses and nebulæ have been abolished.

Schopenhauer does not hesitate to declare man equal to the task, but he is only so decided because he conceives the problem in an individual sense, whereas we must apprehend it universally, when it of course requires quite other conditions, which we shall soon examine more closely.  However that be, of the world known to us we are the first-fruits of the spirit and must bravely wrestle.  If victory does not follow, it is not our fault.  If, however, we are capable of victory, and we should only miss obtaining it through indolence, we, i.e., the creative being of the world, which is one with us, would have to bear so much the longer as immanent punishment the torment of existence.  Therefore vigorously forward in the world-process as workers in the Lord’s vineyard, for it is the process alone that can bring redemption!

Here we have reached the point where the philosophy of the Unconscious gains a principle which alone can form the basis of practical philosophy.  The truth of the first stage of the illusion was despair of existence here; the truth of the second stage of the illusion was despair also of the hereafter; the truth of the third stage of the illusion was the absolute resignation of positive happiness.  All these points of view are merely negative; practical philosophy and life, however, need a positive stand-point, and this is the complete devotion of the personality to the world-process for the sake of its goal, the general world-redemption (no longer, as in the third stage of the illusion, in the hope of a positive happiness in some later phase of the process).  Otherwise expressed, the principle of practical philosophy consists in this, to make the ends of the Unconscious ends of our own Consciousness, which follows immediately from the two premises, that, in the first place, consciousness has made the goal of the world-redemption from the misery of volition its own goal; and, secondly, that it has the persuasion of the all-wisdom of the Unconscious, in consequence of which it recognizes all the means made use of by the Unconscious as the most suitable possible, even if in the special case it should be inclined to harbour doubts thereon.  Since selfishness, the original source of all evil, which theoretically, by the acknowledgment of Monism, has already been ascertained to be naught, can practically be effectively broken by nothing else than the cognition of the illusory nature of all endeavours after positive happiness, the requisite perfect devotion of the personality to the whole is at this standpoint more readily attainable than at any other….Further, since the dread of pain, the fear of the eternal prolongation of the sensually present pain, yields always a far more energetic motive for effective action than the hope of a felicity represented as future, at this standpoint instinct will be restored to its rights far more powerfully than in the third stage of the illusion by the mere suppression of egoism, and the affirmation of the will to live proclaimed provisionally alone true; for only in complete devotion to life and its pains, not in cowardly renunciation and withdrawal, is anything to be achieved for the world-process.  The reflecting reader will also, without further suggestion, understand how a practical philosophy erected on these principles should be shaped, and that such an one cannot contain the disunion, but only the full reconciliation with life.  It is now also obvious how only the unity of Optimism and Pessimism, here expounded, of which every human being carries in himself an obscure image as his norm of action, is able to give an energetic, and indeed the strongest conceivable impulse to effective action, whilst the one-sided Pessimism from nihilistic despair, the one-sided and really consistent Optimism from easy unconcern must lead to Quietism.  [For those readers who regard the standpoint of our time, which I call the third stage of the illusion, the true one, and who are not inclined to deem it possible that this too will ever be recognized in the manner indicated by me as illusion by the further historical development of the consciousness of humanity, I will only remark, that the principles here expressed (to make the ends of the Unconscious ends of consciousness, &c.) remains just as valid for them, as the observations made on occasion of the third stage of the illusion with respect to egoism (suicide, Quietism, &c.) retain their validity from the point of view here reached, since it is for both indifferent whether the final goal of the world-development be conceived positively or negatively.]

We have in conclusion still to deal with the question, in what manner the end of the world-process, the relegation of all volition to absolute non-volition, with which, as we know, all so-called existence (organization, matter, &c.), eo ipso disappears and ceases, is to be conceived.  Out knowledge is far too imperfect, our experience too brief, and the possible analogies too defective, for us to be able, even approximately, to form a picture of the end of the process; and I beg the gentle reader not to take the following for an apocalypse of the end of the world, but only for hints which are to prove that the matter is not quite so unthinkable as it might well appear to many at the first blush.  But even those whom these aphorisms on the mode of conceiving that event may far more repel than the bare enouncement of the same, I beg not to be misled as to the proved necessity of that only possible goal of the world-process by the difficulties which attend the comprehension of the “How” at a point so remote from the end.  Of course, we can only contemplate the case that mankind, and not another species of living beings unknown to us, is called to solve the problem.

The first condition of the success of the work is this, that by far the largest part of the Unconscious Spirit manifesting itself in the present world is to be found in humanity; for only when the negative part of volition in humanity outweighs the sum of all the rest of the will objectifying itself in the organic and inorganic world, only then can the human negation of will annihilate the whole actual volition of the world without residuum, and cause the whole kosmos to disappear at a stroke by withdrawal of the volition, which alone gives it existence.  (That is here the only question, not as to a mere suicide of humanity en masse, the complete inutility of which for attaining the goal of the world-process has already been proved above.)  This supposition now, that one day the major part of the actual volition or of the functioning Unconscious Spirit may be manifested in humanity, seems to possess no difficulty in principle.  On the earth we see man ever suppressing other animal and vegetable life, save those animals and plants that he employs for his own use.  Future still undreamt-of advances in chemistry and agriculture may permit the increase of the earth’s population to a very considerable degree, although it already now amounts to upwards of  I 300 millions, a relatively small part of the solid land supporting as dense a population as the means of obtaining nourishment known at our present stage of civilization allow.  Of the stars only a comparatively small part have entered upon that brief period of refrigeration which permits of the existence of organisms; but not to mention that for the raising of a luxuriant organisation quite other conditions are required than merely the right temperature (e.g., irradiation through rays of light, suitable atmospheric pressure, existence of water, right mixture of the chemical constituents of the atmosphere, &c.), of that insignificant number which at all support organisation, only a very small part again will be able to produce beings of a stage of organisation approximating to the human.  The sidereal developments are measured by such immense intervals that it is a priori extremely improbable that the existence of a highly organized species on another star should coincide with the duration of mankind on earth.—But now how much greater is the spirit that manifests itself in a cultivated man than that in an animal or a plant; how much greater than that in an unorganised complex of atoms!  One must not commit the error of estimating the strength of the active will merely by the mechanical effect, i.e., by the degree of the resistance of atomic forces overcome; this would be extremely one-sided, since the manifestation of the will in the atomic forces is only the lowest.  The will, however, has many other aims, and a contest of the most violent desires can take place without any perceptible influence on the position of the atoms.  Therefore the hypothesis seems to me to be by no means far-fetched, that one day in a remote future humanity may combine in itself such a quantity of spirit and will, that the spirit and will active in the rest of the world is considerably outweighed by the former.

The second condition of the possibility of victory is, that the consciousness of mankind be penetrated by the folly of volition and the misery of all existence; that it have conceived so deep a yearning for the peace and the painlessness of non-being, and all the motives hitherto making for volition and existence have been so far seen through in their vanity and nothingness that that yearning after the annihilation of volition and existence attains resistless authority as a practical motive.  According to the last chapter, this condition is one whose fulfilment in the hoary age of humanity we may expect with the greatest probability, when the theoretical cognition of the misery of existence is truthfully comprehended, and this cognition gradually more and more overcomes the opposing instinctive emotional judgment, and even becomes a practically efficient feeling, which, as a union of present pain, memory of former pain and fore-feeling of care and fear—becomes a collective feeling in every individual, embracing the whole life of the individual, and through sympathy the whole world, which at last attains unlimited sway.  Doubt as to the general motive power of such an idea at first certainly arising and communicated in more or less abstract form, would not be authorised, for it is the invariably observed course of historically regulative ideas which have arisen in the brain of an individual, that although they can only be communicated in abstract form, they penetrate in course of time into the heart of the masses, and at last arouse their will to a passionateness not seldom bordering on fanaticism.  But if ever an idea was born as feeling, it is the pessimistic sympathy with oneself and everything living and the longing after the peace of non-existence; and if ever an idea was called to fulfil its historical mission without turbulence and passion, silently but steadily and persistently in the interior of the soul, it is this.  Since experientially the individual negation of the will at variance with the ends of the Unconscious furnished in such numerous cases a sufficient motive for overcoming the instinctive will to live in quietistic ascetic self-immolation (certainly without any metaphysical result), it is not obvious why at the end of the world-process the universal negation of will fulfilling the purpose of the Unconscious should not likewise be able to afford a sufficient motive for overcoming the instinctive will to live, especially as everything hard is the more easily executed the greater the co-operation.  It should further be noted that humanity has still a life of many generations in which to gradually subdue and deaden, by habit and hereditary influence, the passions opposing the pessimistic feeling and the longing after peace, and to strengthen the pessimistic disposition by hereditary transmission.  Even now we may remark that the natural force of passion and its demoniac power has to yield no inconsiderable domain to the leveling and enfeebling influences of modern life, and this enfeebling process will attain results the more considerable the more law and morals restrict personal caprice, and the more rationally life is managed according to the pattern of trivial worldly prudence from childhood upwards.  It is one of the signs of humanity’s growing old that not a growth, but a diminution of the energy of feeling and of passion opposes the growth of intellectual clearness; that thus the influence of conscious intellect in the provinces of feeling and willing, undeniably present at every stage, is for a twofold reason, constantly on the increase, until in old age it becomes decidedly dominant.  From this point of view, too, the possibility therefore appears anything but remote that the pessimistic consciousness will one day become the dominant motive of voluntary choice.—We may modify this second condition in such a way that not all humanity, but only a part thereof, need be penetrated by this consciousness, provided that the spirit that is manifested in it be the larger half of the active spirit of the universe.

The third condition is a sufficient communication between the peoples of the earth to allow of a simultaneous common resolve.  On this point, whose fulfilment only depends on the perfection and more dexterous application of technical discoveries, imagination has free scope.

If we assume these conditions as given, there is a possibility that the majority of the spirit active in the world may form the resolve to give up willing.

There now arises the further question whether, in the nature of the will, its functional activity and the mode of its determination by motives, the possibility is at all given of attaining a universal negation of the will, supposing the preponderating part of the actual world-will to be contained in that mass of conscious mind which resolves a tempo to will no more, no matter whether this supposition be fulfilled within humanity or another species, or only under quite other conditions of existence of a future phase of development of the kosmos?  We have to go back for the decision of this last question to our knowledge of the nature of volition and the laws of motivation following therefrom, it being always assumed that these must remain identical in every possible form of objectification of the will.

It admits of no doubt that a special volition in man, a desire, affection, or passion, may, in certain circumstances, be neutralized by the influence of conscious reason in the special case.  If, e.g., I aim at honour by a deed or a work, and my reason tells me that those whose recognition I covet are fools and blockheads, this insight, if it is sufficiently convincing and potent, is able to allay my ambition, at least in this case.  But now all psychologists are agreed that such a suppression is not to be conceived by direct influence of the reason on the desire to be suppressed, but only indirectly by the motivation or excitement of an opposite desire, which now on its part comes into collision with the first, the result of which is that they neutralise one another.  Only in this manner is the suppression of the positive world-will to be conceived that Schopenhauer calls the will to live.  Conscious cognition cannot directly diminish or suppress the will, but it can only excite an opposite, therefore negative will, which diminishes the intensity of the positive will.  Quite inadmissible accordingly is Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the quietive of the will consisting in an altogether different mode of knowledge, before which the motives are to be inefficient, and which shall be the only possible case of an incursion of the transcendent freedom of the will into the world of phenomena.  Such incomprehensible, utterly unjustified miracles are with our view superfluous.  How beautifully, on the contrary, Schelling says, “Even God cannot otherwise conquer the will than through itself.”

If in the struggle of the special desires often two desires effect no reciprocal suppression in spite of the struggle, this happens either because they are only partially opposed, but partially pursue different side-ends, therefore their paths form only an angle, as it were; or it happens because the one desire is indeed in fact continually annihilated, but just as continually is instinctively born anew from the persistent ground of the Unconscious, so that there arises the appearance of its not being altered at all.  In the opposition of the affirmation and negation of will the contrast is so mathematically strict that the former case certainly cannot occur, and for an immediate resurgence of the world-will after its total annihilation there is at any rate entirely wanting the analogy with the single desire, because in the latter the background of the actual world-will, in the former, however, nothing actually any longer remains.  (For the rest, the possibility of a resurgence will receive notice in the following chapter.)  As long, then, as the opposition of the will motived by consciousness has not yet attained the strength of the world-will to be suppressed, so long will the continually annihilated part continually reassert itself, supported on the remaining part, which also further secures the positive direction of the will; but as soon as the former has attained the same strength as the latter, there is no obvious reason why both should not completely paralyse one another and reduce to zero, i.e., be destroyed without residuum.  A negative excess is therefore inconceivable, because the zero-point is the goal of the negative will which it will not transgress.

The motivation or excitement of the negative will by conscious knowledge is, according to the analogy of the excitement of a special negative desire through rational insight, not merely conceivable, but demanded; for here in the universal, just as in the individual, the ground on which reason sets in motion the conscious will of opposition is no other than an endæmonological one—regard to the attainment of the happiest possible state, beyond which goal the positive unconscious will in its blindness darts to its misery.  This endeavour after the greatest possible state of satisfaction, which the blind will only seeks from want of understanding in a perverse direction, thus belongs actually quite universally to the nature of the will itself, and wherever in the kosmos so high a consciousness may arise that it perceives the absurdity of the way to the goal, there necessarily a conscious volition is motived by this knowledge, which seeks to attain the greatest possible state of satisfaction by the opposite path, namely, by way of negation of the will.

The result of the last three chapters is, then, as follows.  Volition has by its nature an excess of pain for its consequence.  Volition, which posits the “That” of the world, thus condemns the world, no matter how it may be constituted, to torment.  To obtain redemption from this unblessedness of volition, which the all-wisdom or the logical element of the unconscious Idea cannot directly effect, because it is itself in bondage to the Will, the logical in the Unconscious procures the emancipation of the Idea through consciousness in that it thus dissipates the will in individuation, so that its separate tendencies turn against one another.  The logical principle guides the world-process most wisely to the goal of the greatest possible evolution of consciousness, which being attained, consciousness suffices to hurl back the total actual volition into nothingness, by which the process and the world ceases, and ceases indeed without any residuum whatever whereby the process might be continued.  The logical element therefore ensures that the world is a best possible world, such a one, namely, as attains redemption, not one whose torment is perpetuated endlessly.

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Filed under Christianity, Europe, Hartmann, Eduard von, Selections, The Modern Era

(documented 1840-1940)

Eskimo of Diomede Island:

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


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

St. Lawrence Eskimo:

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


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

Copper Eskimo:

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

Eskimo of Cumberland Sound:

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

Caribou Eskimo:

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

Netsilik Eskimo:

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

Iglulik Eskimo:

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

Hudson Bay Inuit:

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

Eskimo of Baffin Island:

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

Labrador Eskimo:

  1. Respect for the Aged
    (Hawkes, 1914)

Greenland Eskimo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Selections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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from An Account of the Hara-Kiri


Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, 1st Baron of Redesdale, was the second secretary to the British Legation in Japan when he published Tales of Old Japan (1871), a collection of stories, fairy tales, accounts of superstitions, sermons, and other short pieces based on traditional Japanese culture. He had learned Japanese, and in his writings he drew from materials describing virtually all the classes in Japanese culture—except, as he acknowledged, the Emperor and his court. Mitford saw his work as an effort to depict the social and cultural life of the traditional feudal system just as it was passing away, “like a dissolving view,” during the latter years of the 19th century.

In 1868, Mitford was sent to witness an occasion of seppuku as the representative of the British Legation, one of seven foreign witnesses who were the first outsiders to witness such an execution. In his now-classic account of hara-kiri, or “cutting the belly” (q.v., under Daidoji Yuzan), Mitford describes the ceremony, which had been ordered by the Mikado himself. The self-execution was performed at night in a temple near Kobe; the condemned man was Taki Zenzaburo, a samurai officer who had given the order to fire on foreigners in the Kobe settlement.

Mitford’s direct observations are followed by an account translated from a rare Japanese manuscript that contrasts traditional and then-contemporary practices of ritual suicide. This is followed by accounts of several variants of seppuku in different capital-punishment contexts. Between its origins in the late 12th century and the 19th-century practice Mitford was describing, seppuku had evolved from being a demonstration of the extreme courage of the true samurai into a highly elaborate ceremony in which every detail was rigorously stipulated by custom and tradition. Of particular interest in Mitford’s account is his reference to the debates in the Japanese Parliament in 1869 over a proposal to abolish seppuku—a proposal that was roundly rejected. During World War II, seppuku would be performed by countless numbers of Japanese officers in the South Pacific, and immediately after Japan’s surrender to the Allies, some patriots committed seppuku on the grounds of the Imperial Palace as a way of apologizing to the Emperor for losing the war. The ritual self-disembowelment of the well-known writer and Nobel Prize nominee Yukio Mishima (1925–1970), intended as protest and admonition against the modernization of Japan, also followed these ceremonial patterns.

A. B. Mitford, “An Account of the Hara-Kiri,” in Tales of Old Japan. London: Macmillan and Co., 1883, pp. 355-363. Available online from Project Gutenberg Release # 13015.


As a corollary to the above elaborate statement of the ceremonies proper to be observed at the hara-kiri, I may here describe an instance of such an execution which I was sent officially to witness. The condemned man was Taki Zenzaburô, an officer of the Prince of Bizen, who gave the order to fire upon the foreign settlement at Hiogo in the month of February 1868,—an attack to which I have alluded in the preamble to the story of the Eta Maiden and the Hatamoto. Up to that time no foreigner had witnessed such an execution, which was rather looked upon as a traveller’s fable.

The ceremony, which was ordered by the Mikado himself, took place at 10.30 at night in the temple of Seifukuji, the headquarters of the Satsuma troops at Hiogo. A witness was sent from each of the foreign legations. We were seven foreigners in all.

We were conducted to the temple by officers of the Princes of Satsuma and Choshiu. Although the ceremony was to be [pg 282] conducted in the most private manner, the casual remarks which we overheard in the streets, and a crowd lining the principal entrance to the temple, showed that it was a matter of no little interest to the public. The courtyard of the temple presented a most picturesque sight; it was crowded with soldiers standing about in knots round large fires, which threw a dim flickering light over the heavy eaves and quaint gable-ends of the sacred buildings. We were shown into an inner room, where we were to wait until the preparation for the ceremony was completed: in the next room to us were the high Japanese officers. After a long interval, which seemed doubly long from the silence which prevailed, Itô Shunské, the provisional Governor of Hiogo, came and took down our names, and informed us that seven kenshi, sheriffs or witnesses, would attend on the part of the Japanese. He and another officer represented the Mikado; two captains of Satsuma’s infantry, and two of Choshiu’s, with a representative of the Prince of Bizen, the clan of the condemned man, completed the number, which was probably arranged in order to tally with that of the foreigners. Itô Shunské further inquired whether we wished to put any questions to the prisoner. We replied in the negative.

A further delay then ensued, after which we were invited to follow the Japanese witnesses into the hondo or main hall of the temple, where the ceremony was to be performed. It was an imposing scene. A large hall with a high roof supported by dark pillars of wood. From the ceiling hung a profusion of those huge gilt lamps and ornaments peculiar to Buddhist temples. In front of the high altar, where the floor, covered with beautiful white mats, is raised some three or four inches from the ground, was laid a rug of scarlet felt. Tall candles placed at regular intervals gave out a dim mysterious light, just sufficient to let all the proceedings be seen. The seven Japanese took their places on the left of the raised floor, the seven foreigners on the right. No other person was present.

After an interval of a few minutes of anxious suspense, Taki Zenzaburô, a stalwart man, thirty-two years of age, with a noble air, walked into the hall attired in his dress of ceremony, with the peculiar hempen-cloth wings which are worn on great occasions. He was accompanied by a kaishaku and three officers, who wore the jimbaori or war surcoat with gold-tissue facings. The word kaishaku, it should be observed, is one to which our word executioner is no equivalent term. The office is that of a gentleman: in many cases it is performed by a kinsman or friend of the condemned, and the relation between them is rather that of principal and second than that of victim and executioner. In this instance the kaishaku was a pupil of Taki Zenzaburô, and was selected by the friends of the latter from among their own number for his skill in swordsmanship.

With the kaishaku on his left hand, Taki Zenzaburô advanced slowly towards the Japanese witnesses, and the two bowed before [pg 283] them, then drawing near to the foreigners they saluted us in the same way, perhaps even with more deference: in each case the salutation was ceremoniously returned. Slowly, and with great dignity, the condemned man mounted on to the raised floor, prostrated himself before the high altar twice, and seated himself on the felt carpet with his back to the high altar, the kaishaku crouching on his left-hand side. One of the three attendant officers then came forward, bearing a stand of the kind used in temples for offerings, on which, wrapped in paper, lay the wakizashi, the short sword or dirk of the Japanese, nine inches and a half in length, with a point and an edge as sharp as a razor’s. This he handed, prostrating himself, to the condemned man, who received it reverently, raising it to his head with both hands, and placed it in front of himself.

After another profound obeisance, Taki Zenzaburô, in a voice which betrayed just so much emotion and hesitation as might be expected from a man who is making a painful confession, but with no sign of either in his face or manner, spoke as follows:—

“I, and I alone, unwarrantably gave the order to fire on the foreigners at Kôbé, and again as they tried to escape. For this crime I disembowel myself, and I beg you who are present to do me the honour of witnessing the act.”

Bowing once more, the speaker allowed his upper garments to slip down to his girdle, and remained naked to the waist. Carefully, according to custom, he tucked his sleeves under his knees to prevent himself from falling backwards; for a noble Japanese gentleman should die falling forwards. Deliberately, with a steady hand, he took the dirk that lay before him; he looked at it wistfully, almost affectionately; for a moment he seemed to collect his thoughts for the last time, and then stabbing himself deeply below the waist on the left-hand side, he drew the dirk slowly across to the right side, and, turning it in the wound, gave a slight cut upwards. During this sickeningly painful operation he never moved a muscle of his face. When he drew out the dirk, he leaned forward and stretched out his neck; an expression of pain for the first time crossed his face, but he uttered no sound. At that moment the kaishaku, who, still crouching by his side, had been keenly watching his every movement, sprang to his feet, poised his sword for a second in the air; there was a flash, a heavy, ugly thud, a crashing fall; with one blow the head had been severed from the body.

A dead silence followed, broken only by the hideous noise of the blood throbbing out of the inert heap before us, which but a moment before had been a brave and chivalrous man. It was horrible.

The kaishaku made a low bow, wiped his sword with a piece of paper which he had ready for the purpose, and retired from [pg 284] the raised floor; and the stained dirk was solemnly borne away, a bloody proof of the execution.

The two representatives of the Mikado then left their places, and, crossing over to where the foreign witnesses sat, called us to witness that the sentence of death upon Taki Zenzaburô had been faithfully carried out. The ceremony being at an end, we left the temple.

The ceremony, to which the place and the hour gave an additional solemnity, was characterized throughout by that extreme dignity and punctiliousness which are the distinctive marks of the proceedings of Japanese gentlemen of rank; and it is important to note this fact, because it carries with it the conviction that the dead man was indeed the officer who had committed the crime, and no substitute. While profoundly impressed by the terrible scene it was impossible at the same time not to be filled with admiration of the firm and manly bearing of the sufferer, and of the nerve with which the kaishaku performed his last duty to his master. Nothing could more strongly show the force of education. The Samurai, or gentleman of the military class, from his earliest years learns to look upon the hara-kiri as a ceremony in which some day he may be called upon to play a part as principal or second. In old-fashioned families, which hold to the traditions of ancient chivalry, the child is instructed in the rite and familiarized with the idea as an honourable expiation of crime or blotting out of disgrace. If the hour comes, he is prepared for it, and gravely faces an ordeal which early training has robbed of half its horrors. In what other country in the world does a man learn that the last tribute of affection which he may have to pay to his best friend may be to act as his executioner?

Since I wrote the above, we have heard that, before his entry into the fatal hall, Taki Zenzaburô called round him all those of his own clan who were present, many of whom had carried out his order to fire, and, addressing them in a short speech, acknowledged the heinousness of his crime and the justice of his sentence, and warned them solemnly to avoid any repetition of attacks upon foreigners. They were also addressed by the officers of the Mikado, who urged them to bear no ill-will against us on account of the fate of their fellow-clansman. They declared that they entertained no such feeling.

The opinion has been expressed that it would have been politic for the foreign representatives at the last moment to have interceded for the life of Taki Zenzaburô. The question is believed to have been debated among the representatives themselves. My own belief is that mercy, although it might have produced the desired effect among the more civilized clans, would have been mistaken for weakness and fear by those wilder people who have not yet a personal knowledge of foreigners. The offence—an attack upon the flags and subjects of all the Treaty Powers, which lack of skill, not of will, alone prevented from ending in a [pg 285] universal massacre—was the gravest that has been committed upon foreigners since their residence in Japan. Death was undoubtedly deserved, and the form chosen was in Japanese eyes merciful and yet judicial. The crime might have involved a war and cost hundreds of lives; it was wiped out by one death. I believe that, in the interest of Japan as well as in our own, the course pursued was wise, and it was very satisfactory to me to find that one of the ablest Japanese ministers, with whom I had a discussion upon the subject, was quite of my opinion.

The ceremonies observed at the hara-kiri appear to vary slightly in detail in different parts of Japan; but the following memorandum upon the subject of the rite, as it used to be practised at Yedo during the rule of the Tycoon, clearly establishes its judicial character. I translated it from a paper drawn up for me by a Japanese who was able to speak of what he had seen himself. Three different ceremonies are described:—

1st. Ceremonies observed at the “hara-kiri” of a Hatamoto (petty noble of the Tycoon’s court) in prison.—This is conducted with great secrecy. Six mats are spread in a large courtyard of the prison; an ometsuké (officer whose duties appear to consist in the surveillance of other officers), assisted by two other ometsukés of the second and third class, acts as kenshi (sheriff or witness), and sits in front of the mats. The condemned man, attired in his dress of ceremony, and wearing his wings of hempen cloth, sits in the centre of the mats. At each of the four corners of the mats sits a prison official. Two officers of the Governor of the city act as kaishaku (executioners or seconds), and take their place, one on the right hand and the other on the left hand of the condemned. The kaishaku on the left side, announcing his name and surname, says, bowing, “I have the honour to act as kaishaku to you; have you any last wishes to confide to me?” The condemned man thanks him and accepts the offer or not, as the case may be. He then bows to the sheriff, and a wooden dirk nine and a half inches long is placed before him at a distance of three feet, wrapped in paper, and lying on a stand such as is used for offerings in temples. As he reaches forward to take the wooden sword, and stretches out his neck, the kaifihaku on his left-hand side draws his sword and strikes off his head. The kaishaku on the right-hand side takes up the head and shows it to the sheriff. The body is given to the relations of the deceased for burial. His property is confiscated.

2nd. The ceremonies observed at the “hara-kiri” of a Daimio’s retainer.—When the retainer of a Daimio is condemned to perform the hara-kiri, four mats are placed in the yard of the yashiki or palace. The condemned man, dressed in his robes of ceremony and wearing his wings of hempen cloth, sits in the centre. An officer acts as chief witness, with a second witness under him. Two officers, who act as kaishaku, are on the right and left of the condemned man; four officers are placed at the corners of the mats. The kaishaku, as in the former case, offers to execute [pg 286] the last wishes of the condemned. A dirk nine and a half inches long is placed before him on a stand. In this case the dirk is a real dirk, which the man takes and stabs himself with on the left side, below the navel, drawing it across to the right side. At this moment, when he leans forward in pain, the kaishaku on the left-hand side cuts off the head. The kaishaku on the right-hand side takes up the head, and shows it to the sheriff. The body is given to the relations for burial. In most cases the property of the deceased is confiscated.

3rd. Self-immolation of a Daimio on account of disgrace.—When a Daimio had been guilty of treason or offended against the Tycoon, inasmuch as the family was disgraced, and an apology could neither be offered nor accepted, the offending Daimio was condemned to hara-kiri. Calling his councillors around him, he confided to them his last will and testament for transmission to the Tycoon. Then, clothing himself in his court dress, he disembowelled himself, and cut his own throat. His councillors then reported the matter to the Government, and a coroner was sent to investigate it. To him the retainers handed the last will and testament of their lord, and be took it to the Gorôjiu (first council), who transmitted it to the Tycoon. If the offence was heinous, such as would involve the ruin of the whole family, by the clemency of the Tycoon, half the property might be confiscated, and half returned to the heir; if the offence was trivial, the property was inherited intact by the heir, and the family did not suffer.

In all cases where the criminal disembowels himself of his own accord without condemnation and without investigation, inasmuch as he is no longer able to defend himself, the offence is considered as non-proven, and the property is not confiscated. In the year 1869 a motion was brought forward in the Japanese parliament by one Ono Seigorô, clerk of the house, advocating the abolition of the practice of hara-kiri. Two hundred members out of a house of 209 voted against the motion, which was supported by only three speakers, six members not voting on either side. In this debate the seppuku, or hara-kiri, was called “the very shrine of the Japanese national spirit, and the embodiment in practice of devotion to principle,” “a great ornament to the empire,” “a pillar of the constitution,” “a valuable institution, tending to the honour of the nobles, and based on a compassionate feeling towards the official caste,” “a pillar of religion and a spur to virtue.” The whole debate (which is well worth reading, and an able translation of which by Mr. Aston has appeared in a recent Blue Book) shows the affection with which the Japanese cling to the traditions of a chivalrous past. It is worthy of notice that the proposer, Ono Seigorô, who on more than one occasion rendered himself conspicuous by introducing motions based upon an admiration of our Western civilization, was murdered not long after this debate took place.

There are many stories on record of extraordinary heroism being [pg 287] displayed in the hara-kiri. The case of a young fellow, only twenty years old, of the Choshiu clan, which was told me the other day by an eye-witness, deserves mention as a marvellous instance of determination. Not content with giving himself the one necessary cut, he slashed himself thrice horizontally and twice vertically. Then he stabbed himself in the throat until the dirk protruded on the other side, with its sharp edge to the front; setting his teeth in one supreme effort, he drove the knife forward with both hands through his throat, and fell dead.

One more story and I have done. During the revolution, when the Tycoon, beaten on every side, fled ignominiously to Yedo, he is said to have determined to fight no more, but to yield everything. A member of his second council went to him and said, “Sir, the only way for you now to retrieve the honour of the family of Tokugawa is to disembowel yourself; and to prove to you that I am sincere and disinterested in what I say, I am here ready to disembowel myself with you.” The Tycoon flew into a great rage, saying that he would listen to no such nonsense, and left the room. His faithful retainer, to prove his honesty, retired to another part of the castle, and solemnly performed the hara-kiri.


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from Is Suicide a Sin? Col. Ingersoll’s Reply to his Critics


Robert Green Ingersoll, raised in New England as the son of a Congregational minister, became a noted agnostic lecturer. The family moved often because of his father’s unpopularity for his liberal views; when young Ingersoll was nine, his father was prohibited from preaching altogether. Ingersoll’s family settled in Illinois, where he and his brother became prominent trial lawyers. During the Civil War, Ingersoll led a volunteer Union regiment; he was captured along with many of his men, but was paroled and discharged in 1863.

Attacking popular Christian beliefs and supporting the views of Darwin and Huxley, Ingersoll became known as “the great agnostic”—the word was newly coined—a title he proudly claimed. While his radical views on topics such as religion and women’s suffrage limited his political success, he did serve as attorney general of Illinois from 1867–69, and was an influential spokesman for various Republican candidates.

Ingersoll’s lectures on religion, science, literature, politics, and history became famous, and the legendary force of his oratory won him many patrons, clients, and lecture opportunities. In 1879, he moved to Washington with hopes of expanding his law practice and finding a larger audience for his views. His religious thinking during this time, highly critical of conventional Christian beliefs such as the existence of God and immortality, was expressed in lectures including “Some Mistakes of Moses” (1879), “Why I am an Agnostic” (1896), and “Superstition” (1898). He continued to insist, however, that he neither affirmed nor denied the existence of God—rather, he said, “I wait.”

In this reply to his critics, originally published in the New York Evening Telegram of 1892, addressing the question of whether suicide is a sin, Ingersoll affirms man’s right to kill himself and dismisses religious arguments to the contrary. Suicide is not cowardly; it can be the result of a rational decision. In fact, Ingersoll argues, suicide lies at the very heart of Christianity: “If Christ were God,” Ingersoll insists, he could have protected himself from his assailants, and since he did not do so, “he consented to his own death and was guilty of suicide.” Christ could have made himself known; he could have avoided pain; he could have “changed the crucifixion to a joy.”

Robert G. Ingersoll, “Is Suicide a Sin? Colonel Ingersoll’s Reply to His Critics,” in The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll. New York: Dresden Publishing Co., C. P. Farrell, 1895, 1903, Vol. 7, pp. 388-408. Also available from the Secular Web Library.


In the article written by me about suicide the ground was taken that “under many circumstances a man has the right to kill himself.”

This has been attacked with great fury by clergymen, editors and the writers of letters. These people contend that the right of self-destruction does not and cannot exist. They insist that life is the gift of God, and that he only has the right to end the days of men; that it is our duty to bear the sorrows that he sends with grateful patience. Some have denounced suicide as the worst of crimes — worse than the murder of another.

The first question, then, is:
Has a man under any circumstances the right to kill himself?

A man is being slowly devoured by a cancer — his agony is intense — his suffering all that nerves can feel. His life is slowly being taken. Is this the work of the good God? Did the compassionate God create the cancer so that it might feed on the quivering flesh of this victim?

This man, suffering agonies beyond the imagination to conceive, is of no use to himself. His life is but a succession of pangs. He is of no use to his wife, his children, his friends or society. Day after day he is rendered unconscious by drugs that numb the nerves and put the brain to sleep.

Has he the right to render himself unconscious? Is it proper for him to take refuge in sleep?

If there be a good God I cannot believe that he takes pleasure in the sufferings of men — that he gloats over the agonies of his children. If there be a good God, he will, to the extent of his power, lessen the evils of life.

So I insist that the man being eaten by the cancer — a burden to himself and others, useless in every way — has the right to end his pain and pass through happy sleep to dreamless rest.

But those who have answered me would say to this man: “It is your duty to be devoured. The good God wishes you to suffer. Your life is the gift of God. You hold it in trust and you have no right to end it. The cancer is the creation of God and it is your duty to furnish it with food.”

Take another case: A man is on a burning ship, the crew and the rest of the passengers have escaped — gone in the lifeboats — and he is left alone. In the wide horizon there is no sail, no sign of help. He cannot swim. If he leaps into the sea he drowns, if he remains on the ship he burns. In any event he can live but a few moments.

Those who have answered me, those who insist that under no circumstances a man has the right to take his life, would say to this man on the deck, “Remain where you are. It is the desire of your loving, heavenly Father that you be clothed in flame — that you slowly roast — that your eyes be scorched to blindness and that you die insane with pain, your life is not your own, only the agony is yours.

I would say to this man: Do as you wish. If you prefer drowning to burning, leap into the sea. Between inevitable evils you have the right of choice. You can help no one, not even God, by allowing yourself to be burned, and you can injure no one, not even God, by choosing the easier death.

Let us suppose another case:

A man has been captured by savages in Central Africa. He is about to be tortured to death. His captors are going to thrust splinters of pine into his flesh and then set them on fire. He watches them as they make the preparations. He knows what they are about to do and what he is about to suffer. There is no hope of rescue, of help. He has a vial of poison. He knows that he can take it and in one moment pass beyond their power, leaving to them only the dead body.

Is this man under obligation to keep his life because God gave it, until the savages by torture take it? Are the savages the agents of the good God? Are they the servants of the Infinite? Is it the duty of this man to allow them to wrap his body in a garment of flame? Has he no right to defend himself? Is it the will of God that he die by torture? What would any man of ordinary intelligence do in a case like this? Is there room for discussion?

If the man took the poison, shortened his life a few moments, escaped the tortures of the savages, is it possible that he would in another world be tortured forever by an infinite savage?

Suppose another case: In the good old days, when the Inquisition flourished, when men loved their enemies and murdered their friends, many frightful and ingenious ways were devised to touch the nerves of pain.

Those who loved God, who had been “born twice,” would take a fellow-man who had been convicted of “heresy,” lay him upon the floor of a dungeon, secure his arms and legs with chains, fasten him to the earth so that he could not move, put an iron vessel, the opening downward, on his stomach, place in the vessel several rats, then tie it securely to his body. Then these worshipers of God would wait until the rats, seeking food and liberty, would gnaw through the body of the victim.

Now, if a man about to be subjected to this torture, had within his hand a dagger, would it excite the wrath of the “good God,” if with one quick stroke he found the protection of death?

To this question there can be but one answer.

In the cases I have supposed it seems to me that each person would have the right to destroy himself. It does not seem possible that the man was under obligation to be devoured by a cancer; to remain upon the ship and perish in flame; to throw away the poison and be tortured to death by savages; to drop the dagger and endure the “mercies” of the church.

If, in the cases I have supposed, men would have the right to take their lives, then I was right when I said that “under many circumstances a man has a right to kill himself.”

Second. — I denied that persons who killed themselves were physical cowards. They may lack moral courage; they may exaggerate their misfortunes, lose the sense of proportion, but the man who plunges the dagger in his heart, who sends the bullet through his brain, who leaps from some roof and dashes himself against the stones beneath, is not and cannot be a physical coward.

The basis of cowardice is the fear of injury or the fear of death, and when that fear is not only gone, but in its place is the desire to die, no matter by what means, it is impossible that cowardice should exist. The suicide wants the very thing that a coward fears. He seeks the very thing that cowardice endeavors to escape. So, the man, forced to a choice of evils, choosing the less is not a coward, but a reasonable man.

It must be admitted that the suicide is honest with himself. He is to bear the injury; if it be one. Certainly there is no hypocrisy, and just as certainly there is no physical cowardice.

Is the man who takes morphine rather than be eaten to death by a cancer a coward?

Is the man who leaps into the sea rather than be burned a coward? Is the man that takes poison rather than be tortured to death by savages or “Christians” a coward?

Third. — I also took the position that some suicides were sane; that they acted on their best judgment, and that they were in full possession of their minds. Now, if under some circumstances, a man has the right to take his life, and, if, under such circumstances, he does take his life, then it cannot be said that he was insane.

Most of the persons who have tried to answer me have taken the ground that suicide is not only a crime, but some of them have said that it is the greatest of crimes. Now, if it be a crime, then the suicide must have been sane. So all persons who denounce the suicide as a criminal admit that he was sane. Under the law, an insane person is incapable of committing a crime. All the clergymen who have answered me, and who have passionately asserted that suicide is a crime, have by that assertion admitted that those who killed themselves were sane.

They agree with me, and not only admit, but assert that “some who have committed suicide were sane and in the full possession of their minds.”

It seems to me that these three propositions have been demonstrated to be true: First, that under some circumstances a man has the right to take his life; second, that the man who commits suicide is not a physical coward, and, third, that some who have committed suicide were at the time sane and in full possession of their minds.

Fourth. — I insisted, and still insist, that suicide was and is the foundation of the Christian religion. I still insist that if Christ were God he had the power to protect himself without injuring his assailants — that having that power it was his duty to use it, and that failing to use it he consented to his own death and was guilty of suicide.

To this the clergy answer that it was self-sacrifice for the redemption of man, that he made an atonement for the sins of believers. These ideas about redemption and atonement are born of a belief in the “fall of man, on account of the sins of our first “parents,” and of the declaration that “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.” The foundation has crumbled. No intelligent person now believes in the “fall of man” — that our first parents were perfect, and that their descendants grew worse and worse, at least until the coming of Christ.

Intelligent men now believe that ages and ages before the dawn of history, man was a poor, naked, cruel, ignorant and degraded savage, whose language consisted of a few sounds of terror, of hatred and delight; that he devoured his fellow-man, having all the vices, but not all the virtues of the beasts; that the journey from the den to the home, the palace, has been long and painful, through many centuries of suffering, of cruelty and war; through many ages of discovery, invention, self-sacrifice and thought.

Redemption and atonement are left without a fact on which to rest. The idea that an infinite God, creator of all worlds, came to this grain of sand, learned the trade of a carpenter, discussed with Pharisees and scribes, and allowed a few infuriated Hebrews to put him to death that he might atone for the sins of men and redeem a few believers from the consequences of his own wrath, can find no lodgment in a good and natural brain.

In no mythology can anything more monstrously unbelievable be. But if Christ were a man and attacked the religion of his times because it was cruel and absurd; if he endeavored to found a religion of kindness, of good deeds, to take the place of heartlessness and ceremony, and if, rather than to deny what he believed to be right and true, he suffered death, then he was a noble man — a benefactor of his race. But if he were God there was no need of this. The Jews did not wish to kill God. If he had only made himself known all knees would have touched the ground. If he were God it required no heroism to die. He knew that what we call death is but the opening of the gates of eternal life. If he were God there was no self-sacrifice. He had no need to suffer pain. He could have changed the crucifixion to a joy.

Even the editors of religious weeklies see that there is no escape from these conclusions — from these arguments — and so, instead of attacking the arguments, they attack the man who makes them.

Fifth. — I denounced the law of New York that makes an attempt to commit suicide a crime.

It seems to me that one who has suffered so much that he passionately longs for death, should be pitied, instead of punished — helped rather than imprisoned.

A despairing woman who had vainly sought for leave to toil, a woman without home, without friends, without bread, with clasped hands, with tear-filled eyes, with broken words of prayer, in the darkness of night leaps from the dock, hoping, longing for the tearless sleep of death. She is rescued by a kind, courageous man, handed over to the authorities, indicted, tried, convicted. clothed in a convict’s garb and locked in a felon’s cell.

To me this law seems barbarous and absurd, a law that only savages would enforce.

Sixth. — In this discussion a curious thing has happened. For several centuries the clergy have declared that while infidelity is a very good thing to live by, it is a bad support, a wretched consolation, in the hour of death. They have in spite of the truth, declared that all the great unbelievers died trembling with fear, asking God for mercy, surrounded by fiends, in the torments of despair. Think of the thousands and thousands of clergymen who have described the last agonies of Voltaire, who died as peacefully as a happy child smilingly passes from play to slumber; the final anguish of Hume, who fell into his last sleep as serenely as a river, running between green and shaded banks, reaches the sea; the despair of Thomas Paine, one of the bravest, one of the noblest men, who met the night of death untroubled as a star that meets the morning.

At the same time these ministers admitted that the average murderer could meet death on the scaffold with perfect serenity, and could smilingly ask the people who had gathered to see him killed to meet him in heaven.

But the honest man who had expressed his honest thoughts against the creed of the church in power could not die in peace. God would see to it that his last moments should be filled with the insanity of fear — that with his last breath he should utter the shriek of remorse, the cry for pardon.

This has all changed, and now the clergy, in their sermons answering me, declare that the atheists, the freethinkers, have no fear of death — that to avoid some little annoyance, a passing inconvenience, they gladly and cheerfully put out the light of life. It is now said that infidels believe that death is the end — that it is a dreamless sleep — that it is without pain — that therefore they have no fear, care nothing for gods, or heavens or hells, nothing for the threats of the pulpit, nothing for the day of judgment, and that when life becomes a burden they carelessly throw it down.

The infidels are so afraid of death that they commit suicide.

This certainly is a great change, and I congratulate myself on having forced the clergy to contradict themselves.

Seventh. — The clergy take the position that the atheist, the unbeliever, has no standard of morality — that he can have no real conception of right and wrong. They are of the opinion that it is impossible for one to be moral or good unless he believes in some Being far above himself.

In this connection we might ask how God can be moral or good unless he believes in some Being superior to himself?

What is morality? It is the best thing to do under the circumstances. What is the best thing to do under the circumstances? That which will increase the sum of human happiness — or lessen it the least. Happiness in its highest, noblest form is the only good; that which increases or preserves or creates happiness is moral — that which decreases it, or puts it in peril, is immoral.

It is not hard for an atheist — for an unbeliever — to keep his hands out of the fire. He knows that burning his hands will not increase his well-being, and he is moral enough to keep them out of the flames.

So it may be said that each man acts according to his intelligence — so far as where he considers his own good is concerned. Sometimes he is swayed by passion, by prejudice, by ignorance — but when he is really intelligent, master of himself, he docs what he believes is best for him. If he is intelligent enough he knows that what is really good for him is good for others — for all the world.

It is impossible for me to see why any belief in the supernatural is necessary to have a keen perception of right and wrong. Every man who has the capacity to suffer and enjoy, and has imagination enough to give the same capacity to others, has within himself the natural basis of all morality. The idea of morality was born here, in this world, of the experience, the intelligence of mankind. Morality is not of supernatural origin. It did not fall from the clouds, and it needs no belief in the supernatural, no supernatural promises or threats, no supernatural heavens or hells to give it force and life. Subjects who are governed by the threats and promises of a king are merely slaves. They are not governed by the ideal, by noble views of right and wrong. They are obedient cowards, controlled by fear, or beggars governed by rewards — by alms.

Right and wrong exist in the nature of things. Murder was just as criminal before as after the promulgation of the Ten Commandments.

Eighth. — Many of the clergy, some editors and some writers of letters who have answered me, have said that suicide is the worst of crimes — that a man had better murder somebody else than himself. One clergyman gives as a reason for this statement that the suicide dies in an act of sin, and therefore he had better kill another person. Probably he would commit a less crime if he would murder his wife or mother.

I do not see that it is any worse to die than to live in sin. To say that it is not as wicked to murder another as yourself seems absurd. The man about to kill himself wishes to die. Why is it better for him to kill another man, who wishes to live?

To my mind it seems clear that you had better injure yourself than another. Better be a spendthrift than a thief. Better throw away your own money than steal the money of another — better kill yourself if you wish to die than murder one whose life is full of joy.

The clergy tell us that God is everywhere, and that it is one of the greatest possible crimes to rush into his presence. It is wonderful how much they know about God and how little about their fellow men. Wonderful the amount of their information about other worlds and how limited their knowledge is of this.

There may or may not be an infinite Being. I neither affirm nor deny. I am honest enough to say that I do not know. I am candid enough to admit that the question is beyond the limitations of my mind. Yet I think I know as much on that subject as any human being knows or ever knew, and that is — nothing. I do not say that there is not another world, another life; neither do I say that there is. I say that I do not know. It seems to me that every sane and honest man must say the same. But if there is an infinitely good God and another world, then the infinitely good God will be just as good to us in that world as he is in this. If this infinitely good God loves his children in this world, he will love them in another. If he loves a man when he is alive, he will not hate him the instant he is dead.

If we are the children of an infinitely wise and powerful God, he knew exactly what we would do — the temptations that we could and could not withstand — knew exactly the effect that everything would have upon us, knew under what circumstances we would take our lives — and produced such circumstances himself. It is perfectly apparent that there are many people incapable by nature of bearing the burdens of life, incapable of preserving their mental poise in stress and strain of disaster, disease and loss, and who by failure, by misfortune and want, are driven to despair and insanity, in whose darkened minds there comes like a flash of lightning in the night, the thought of death, a thought so strong, so vivid, that all fear is lost, all ties broken, all duties, all obligations, all hopes forgotten, and naught remains except a fierce and wild desire to die. Thousands and thousands become moody, melancholy, brood upon loss of money, of position, of friends, until reason abdicates and frenzy takes possession of the soul. If there be an infinitely wise and powerful God, all this was known to him from the beginning. and he so created things, established relations, put in operation causes and effects, that all that has happened was the necessary result of his own acts.

Ninth. — Nearly all who have tried to answer what I said have been exceedingly careful to misquote me, and then answer something that I never uttered. They have declared that I have advised people who were in trouble, somewhat annoyed, to kill themselves; that I have told men who have lost their money, who had failed in business, who were not good in health, to kill themselves at once, without taking into consideration any duty that they owed to wives, children, friends, or society.

No man has a right to leave his wife to fight the battle alone if he is able to help. No man has a right to desert his children if he can possibly be of use. As long as he can add to the comfort of those he loves, as long as he can stand between wife and misery, between child and want, as long as he can be of any use, it is his duty to remain.

I believe in the cheerful view, in looking at the sunny side of things, in bearing with fortitude the evils of life, in struggling against adversity, in finding the fuel of laughter even in disaster, in having confidence in to-morrow, in finding the pearl of joy among the flints and shards, and in changing by the alchemy of patience even evil things to good. I believe in the gospel of cheerfulness, of courage and good nature.

Of the future I have no fear. My fate is the fate of the world — of all that live. My anxieties are about this life, this world. About the phantoms called gods and their impossible hells, I have no care, no fear.

The existence of God I neither affirm nor deny, I wait. The immortality of the soul I neither affirm nor deny. I hope — hope for all of the children of men. I have never denied the existence of another world, nor the immortality of the soul. For many years I have said that the idea of immortality, that like a sea has ebbed and flowed in the human heart, with its countless waves of hope and fear beating against the shores and rocks of time and fate, was not born of any book, nor of any creed, nor of any religion. It was born of human affection, and it will continue to ebb and flow beneath the mists and clouds of doubt and darkness as long as love kisses the lips of death.

What I deny is the immortality of pain, the eternity of torture.

After all, the instinct of self-preservation is strong. People do not kill themselves on the advice of friends or enemies. All wish to be happy, to enjoy life; all wish for food and roof and raiment, for friends, and as long as life gives joy, the idea of self-destruction never enters the human mind.

The oppressors, the tyrants, those who trample on the rights of others, the robbers of the poor, those who put wages below the living point, the ministers who make people insane by preaching the dogma of eternal pain; these are the men who drive the weak, the suffering and the helpless down to death.

It will not do to say that God has appointed a time for each to die. Of this there is, and there can be, no evidence. There is no evidence that any god takes any interest in the affairs of men — that any sides with the right or helps the weak, protects the innocent or rescues the oppressed. Even the clergy admit that their God, through all ages, has allowed his friends, his worshipers, to be imprisoned, tortured and murdered by his enemies. Such is the protection of God. Billions of prayers have been uttered; has one been answered? Who sends plague, pestilence and famine? Who bids the earthquake devour and the volcano to overwhelm?

Tenth. — Again, I say that it is wonderful to me that so many men, so many women endure and carry their burdens to the natural end; that so many, in spite of “age, ache and penury,” guard with trembling hands the spark of life; that prisoners for life toil and suffer to the last; that the helpless wretches in poorhouses and asylums cling to life; that the exiles in Siberia, loaded with chains, scarred with the knout, live on; that the incurables. whose every breath is a pang, and for whom the future has only pain, should fear the merciful touch and clasp of death.

It is but a few steps at most from the cradle to the grave: a short journey. The suicide hastens, shortens the path, loses the afternoon, the twilight, the dusk of life’s day; loses what he does not want, what he cannot bear. In the tempest of despair, in the blind fury of madness, or in the calm of thought and choice, the beleaguered soul finds the serenity of death.

Let us leave the dead where nature leaves them. We know nothing of any realm that lies beyond the horizon of the known, beyond the end of life. Let us be honest with ourselves and others. Let us pity the suffering, the despairing, the men and women hunted and pursued by grief and shame, by misery and want, by chance and fate until their only friend is death.

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Filed under Americas, Illness and Old Age, Ingersoll, Robert, Rights, Selections, The Modern Era


from The Diary of a Writer
  • In Lieu of a Preface on the Great and Little Bear, on the Prayer of the Great Goethe, And, Generally, on Bad Habits
  • Two Suicides
  • The Verdict
  • Arbitrary Assertions
  • A Few Words About Youth
  • On Suicides and Haughtiness
  • The Boy Celebrating His Saint’s Day
  • The Dream of a Strange Man: A Fantastic Story


Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in Moscow, the second child of a civil servant, a surgeon in a hospital for the poor. Despite their love of literature, Dostoevsky’s father compelled his sons to attend the St. Petersburg Academy of Engineers to prepare for stable careers. In 1839, the father—a strict, irritable, and cruel personality—died. Although historians now argue that the cause of death was probably stroke, Dostoevsky believed throughout his life that his father had been murdered by his serfs, angered at his ill treatment of them. For the rest of his life, Dostoevsky would suffer guilt over his father’s death, the product of his own ambivalent feelings.

Having published his first novel Poor Folk (1846), which was praised by an influential critic as Russia’s first significant social novel, and in the same year, a second but less well-received novel The Double, in 1847, Dostoevsky began to form a connection with the “Petrashevsky Circle,” a moderately revolutionary group. The members of the group, including Dostoevsky, were arrested and convicted of conspiracy and subversion. The tsar, in order to emphasize his benevolence, staged a false execution before a firing squad, which was called off seconds before Dostoevsky believed his life would end. His time was then spent working off an eight-year sentence to hard labor and military service in Siberia. These experiences revived Dostoevsky’s philosophy with spiritual revelations based on Christian love, redemption, and absolution.

In 1864, Dostoevsky published Notes from the Underground, in which he demonstrates that freedom is an essential attribute of man, yet argues against the notion that man (and the society organized around him) is rational. Man desires freedom, but unchecked freedom may lead to destruction. Dostoevsky subsequently published a number of major novels: Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1867–69), The Possessed (1871–72). The Brothers Karamazov (1879–80) is particularly noted for its section entitled “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” in which the figure of Christ conceives of man as capable of handling true freedom, while the Grand Inquisitor, the Devil, argues that man is cowardly, menial, and unable to endure freedom. Much of Dostoevsky’s writing challenges rational, scientific humanitarianism and insists on the need for faith in God to achieve real freedom. Soon after completing this last work and already planning a sequel to it, Dostoevsky died of a pulmonary hemorrhage.

As Gene Fitzgerald describes The Diary of a Writer (1873–81), from which these selections are taken, Dostoevsky works out a rather developed scheme concerning the human being and “rectilinearity” (прямолинейность). In doing so, he establishes a basic requirement for his notion of what it is to be human. He divides people into two cateogories—those who are “reflective thinkers” and those who are “enthusiasts.” The reflective thinkers continue to think and question their own conclusions and, while they sincerely believe in their ideas for a time, because they never stop thinking, they ultimately contradict, qualify, or negate them and can even “laugh at them” as somewhat ridiculous if warranted. Enthusiasts, on the other hand, are rectilinear thinkers, believing in and accepting their mental constructs as absolutes. Once they have constructed a belief system, they can “put their mind to rest” and, secure in their beliefs, they no longer need to question them. Thus, enthusiasts stop thinking; for this, Dostoevsky castigates them as “cast iron people” with “cast iron beliefs” who have become inert and have willingly given up the freedom of their consciousness. Such people, he asserts, have become spiritually dead. Clearly, for Dostoevsky, constant thought is a basic requirement for earning the right to be called a human being. 

In the Diary, Dostoevsky examines various cases of suicide, comparing and examining their differing motivations against the background of Russian society. In the view of Kenneth Lantz, Dostoevsky selects suicides that reveal fundamental spiritual crises in Russian life. “We have many inappropriate ideas,” Dostoevsky wrote, “. . . In Russia an idea crashes upon a man as an enormous stone and half crushes him. And so he shrivels under it, knowing not how to extricate himself. One fellow is willing to live, though in a half-crushed state; but another one is unwilling and kills himself.” It is the seeming unexplainedness of these differences that Dostoevsky explores.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Diary of a Writer, tr. Boris Brasol. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949, pp. 157-158, 335-338, 468-473, 538-547, 590-592, 676-678. Material in introduction from Gene Fitzgerald.



In Lieu of a Preface on the Great and Little Bears, on the Prayer of the Great Goethe and, Generally, on Bad Habits

Nowadays all people have perfect peace of mind: they are calm and, perhaps, even happy. It is doubtful if anyone renders an account to oneself; everybody is acting “simply,” and this already is complete happiness. Nowadays, much as heretofore, everybody is corroded with egoism, but heretofore egoism used to enter timidly, feverishly looking around, staring at faces. “Did I enter as I should have? Did I speak as I should have?”But nowadays everyone, entering anywhere, is convinced from the start that everything belongs to him alone. And, if not to him, he does not even grow angry, but instantly settles the problem. Haven’t you heard about little epistles such as:

“Dear papa, I am twenty-three, and as yet I have accomplished nothing; being convinced that nothing will come of me, I have decided to commit suicide. . .”

And he shoots himself. Still, here at least something may be comprehended: “What, if not pride, is the point of living?” But another fellow will look around, will roam awhile and will silently shoot himself, solely because he has no money to hire a mistress. This is already utter swinishness.

It is being maintained in the press that theirs is a case of too much thinking: “He thinks and thinks and then he emerges exactly at the contemplated spot.” On the contrary, I am convinced that he does not think at all; that he is wholly incapable of forming a judgment; that he is savagely undeveloped, and if he should long for anything, he could be longing not consciously but in an animal-like fashion-simply perfect swinishness-and there is nothing liberal about it.

And in this connection-not a single Hamletian question:

            But that the dread of something after death…

And in this there is much that is strange. Is it possible that it is thoughtlessness in Russian nature?I say: thoughtlessness, and not absurdity. All right: do not believe, but at least give thought. In our felo-de-se there is even no shadow of doubt, no shadow of suspicion that he is called “I” and that he is an immortal creature. It seems as if he had even never heard anything about this. And yet neither is he an atheist. Do recall former atheists: having lost faith in one thing they would promptly start passionately believing something else. Do recall the fervent faith of Diderot, Voltaire. . . . In our case-a perfect tabularasa, and where does Voltaire come in here?Simply, there’s no money to hire a mistress; nothing more.

The self-destroyer Werther, when committing suicide, in the last lines left by him, expresses regret that he would nevermore behold “the beautiful constellation of the Great Bear” and he bids it farewell. Oh, how was the then still youthful Goethe revealed in this little trait I Why were these constellations so dear to young Werther?—Because, whenever contemplating them, he realized that he was by no means an atom and a nonentity compared with them; that all these numberless mysterious, divine miracles were in no sense higher than his thought and consciousness; not higher than the ideal of beauty confined in his soul, and, therefore, they were equal to him and made him akin to the infinity of being. . . . And for the happiness to perceive this great thought which reveals to him who he is, he is indebted exclusively to his human image.

“Great Spirit, I thank Thee for the human image bestowed on me by Thee.”

Such must have been the lifelong prayer of the great Goethe. In our midst this image bestowed upon man is being smashed quite simply and with no German tricks, while no one would think of bidding farewell not only to the Great, but even to the Little, Bear, and even if one should think of it he would not do it: he would feel too much ashamed.

However, just now I mentioned the word “independence.” But do we love independence?That’s the question. And what is our independence? Are there any two persons who would understand it in one and the same sense? Nor do I know if there is among us even a single idea which would be seriously believed. Our rank and filewhether rich or poorlove to think about nothing and, without giving much thought, simply to indulge in debauch as long as strength permits and one does not become bored with it. Men standing away from the routine “segregate” themselves into groups and pretend that they believe something; but it would seem that they are straining themselves, merely as a matter of diversion. There is also a special kind of people who have adopted, and are exploring, the formula “the worsethe better.” Finally, there are paradoxicalistssometimes even very honest, but usually rather inept; among these, especially the honest ones, countless suicides are being committed. And in truth of late, suicides in Russia have become so frequent that nobody even speaks of them. The Russian soil seems to have lost the strength to hold people on it. And how many unquestionably honest men, particularly, honest women!

We have many inappropriate ideas, and that is what oppresses one. In Russia an idea crashes upon a man as an enormous stone and half crushes him. And so he shrivels under it, knowing not how to extricate himself. One fellow is willing to live, though in a half-crushed state; but another one is unwilling and kills himself . . . .Very typical is a letter of a girl who took her life into her own hands; it has appeared in The New Times; it is a long letter. She was twenty-five years old. Her name was Pisareva; she was the daughter of formerly well-to-do landowners. But she came to Petersburg and paid her tribute to progress by becoming a midwife. She succeeded in passing the examinations and found a position as a zemstvo midwife. She herself admitted that she was not in need, and was able to earn a decent living; but she grew tired, very tiredso tired that she decided to take a rest. “And where can one rest better than in a grave?” As a matter of fact, she did become exceedingly tired. Even the letter of this unfortunate girl is permeated with fatigue. This is a snarling, impatient letter: “Do but leave me alone! I am tired, tired! … Don’t forget to pull off me the new shirt and stockings: on my night table you will find an old shirt and a pair of old stockings. These should be put on me.” She did not use the words “take off,” but wrote”pull off”; and so it is in everything: terrible impatience. All these harsh words are caused by impatience, and impatienceby fatigue. She even uses abusive language: “Did you really believe that I was going home? What the devil would I go there for?” Or: “Now, Lipareva, forgive me, and let Petrova forgive me [it was in the latter’s apartment that Pisareva took poison]particularly Petrova. I am committing a swinish act, a filthy thing . . . . “Apparently she was fond of her relatives, but she wrote: “Don’t let Lizanka know, because she will inform sister, and she will come here and will start howling. I don’t wish that people should be howling over me, but all relatives without exception howl over their relations.”Howl” and not “weepall this is, apparently, the result of grumbling, impatient fatigue: “Let’s hurry, lets get it over as quickly as possibleand let me rest” Of grumbling and cynical incredulity there was much, painfully much, in her; she did not believe even in Lipareva and Petrova, for whom she had so much affection. Here are the opening words of the letter: “Don’t lose your head! Don’t start crying ‘ah!’ and ‘oh!.’ Make an effort and read to the end, and then decide what’s the best course. Don’t frighten Petrova. Maybe nothing will come of it, anyway, except laughter. My passport is in the cover of the trunk.”

“Except laughter!” This thought that she, her wretched body, will be laughed at and who would be the ones to laugh?Lipareva and Petrova? This thought flashed through her mind in a moment such as this! That’s awful!

The financial instructions concerning the paltry sum which she had left preoccupied her to the point of queerness: “Such and such monies should not be taken by the relatives; this sum should be given to Petrova; twenty-five rubles which the Chechotkins loaned me for the journey should be returned to them.” The importance attributed to money was, perhaps, the last echo of the main prejudice of her whole life—”that these stones be made bread.” In a word, there may be discerned the guiding conviction of her whole life, i.e., “if everyone were provided for, everybody would be happy; there would be no poor and no crimes. There are no crimes at all. Crime is a pathological condition resulting from poverty and unhappy environment,” etc., etc. It is precisely of this that consists that petty, conventional and most typical finite catechism of convictions to which they dedicate themselves during their lives with such ardent faith (despite the fact that very soon they grow tired of both their convictions and of life), and for which they substitute everything: the élan of life, the ties with the soil, faith in truth—everything, everything. Obviously, she had grown tired because of the tedium of life, having lost all faith in truth, all faith in any kind of duty. In a word—a total loss of the sublime of existence.

And thus, a good girl has died. I am not howling over you, poor girl, but at least let me pity you; do permit me this. Let me hope for your soul a resurrection to a life in which you would no longer grow weary. You, nice, good, honest girls—(all these qualities you possess!)—whither do you depart? Why is that dark, dull grave so dear to you? Look: a bright spring sun shines in the sky; trees are budding but you feel tired even without having lived! How, then, can your mothers help but howl over you—those mothers who have brought you up and who have so admired you when you were still infants! Here, I look at all these “outcasts”: how they long to live, how boldly they declare their right to exist! You, too, were an infant and you also desired to live; and your mother remembers this; and she compares your dead face with that laughter. With that joy which she beheld and which she remembers in your pretty little baby face-how can she refrain from “howling” how can she be reproached for doing so? Just now they showed me a little girl, Dunia; she was born with a crooked leg, that is, altogether without a leg; instead of it, there hung something resembling a string. She is only eighteen months old; she is healthy and remarkably good-looking. Everybody babies her; she nods her little head to everyone, she smiles at everyone, and she greets everybody with a smack of her lips. As yet, she knows nothing about her leg; she does not know that she is a deformed being and a cripple. But is this one, too, designed to contract hatred toward life? “We will make her an artificial leg; we will give her crutches; we will teach her to walk, and she even will not notice it,” said the doctor fondling her. And let’s pray God that she shouldn’t notice it. Nay, to grow tired, to contract hatred toward life, which means hate for everybody…. Nay, this pitiful, ugly, abortive generation of human beings, shriveling under stones that have fallen upon them, will pass out of existence; a new great idea will begin to shine like that bright sun and will strengthen the vacillating mind, and all people will say: “Life is good, but we have been bad.”

Two Suicides

Recently I happened to discuss with one of our writers (a great artist) the comicalness in life and the difficulty of defining a phenomenon by its proper word. Before that I had made the remark that I, who have known Woe from Wit for almost forty years, only this year have properly understood one of the most vivid characters in the comedy, namely, Molchalin—after this same writer with whom I conversed had explained to me Molchalin when, unexpectedly, he portrayed this character in one of his satirical sketches. (Some day I am going to dwell on Molchalin. It is a great theme.)

“Do you know”—suddenly said my interlocutor, who apparently had long ago been impressed with his idea—“do you know that no matter what you might write or depict, no matter what you might record in a belletristic work, you would never be equal to reality? No matter what you might delineate, it would always be weaker than actual life. You might think that in some work you have reached the maximum of comicalness in this or that phenomenon of life, that you have caught its most ugly aspect—not at all! Reality forthwith will reveal to you such a phase along similar lines that you have never suspected, and one that exceeds everything your own observation and imagination was able to create!. . .”

This I had known ever since 1846, when I started writing—perhaps even before that. Time and again I used to be impressed with this fact, and the apparent impotence of art made me wonder about its usefulness. Indeed, trace a certain fact in actual life—one which at first glance is even not very vivid—and if only you are able and are endowed with vision, you will perceive in it a depth such as you will not find in Shakespeare. But the whole question is: compared with whose vision, and who is able? Indeed, not only to create and write artistic works, but also to discern a fact, something of an artist is required. To some observers all phenomena of life develop with a most touching simplicity and are so intelligible that they are not worth thinking about or being looked at. However, these same phenomena might embarrass another observer to such an extent (this happens quite often) that, in the long run, he feels unable to synthesize and simplify them, to draw them out into a straight line and thus to appease his mind. He then resorts to a different kind of simplification and very simply plants a bullet in his brain so as to extinguish at once his jaded mind, together with all its queries. Such are the two extremes between which the sum total of human intelligence is enclosed. But it stands to reason that never can we exhaust a phenomenon, never can we trace its end or its beginning. We are familiar merely with the everyday, apparent and current, and this only insofar as it appears to us, whereas the ends and the beginnings still constitute to man a realm of the fantastic.

By the way, last summer one of my esteemed correspondents wrote me about a strange and unsolved suicide, and all the time I have been meaning to speak about it. In that suicide everything is a riddle—both from the outside and from within. Of course, conforming to human nature, I sought somehow to unravel the enigma so as to stop at something and “to appease myself.” The suicide was a young girl of twenty-three or twenty-four, the daughter of a well-known Russian emigrant; she was born abroad, of Russian parents, but almost not a Russian at all by upbringing. I believe there was a vague mention of her in the newspapers at the time, but the details are most curious: “She soaked a piece of cotton in chloroform, tied it around her face and lay down on the bed. …And thus she died. Before she died, she wrote the following note:

“‘Je m’en vais entreprendre un long voyage. Si cela ne réussit pas qu’on se rassemble pour fêter ma résurrection avec du Cliquot. Si cela réussit, je prie qu’on ne me laisse enterrer que tout à fait morte, puisqu’il est très desagréable de se réveiller dans un cercueil sous terre. Ce n’est pas chic!’ 

Which means:

“I am undertaking a long journey. If I should not succeed, let people gather to celebrate my resurrection with a bottle of Cliquot. If I should succeed, I ask that I be interred only after I am altogether dead, since it is very disagreeable to awake in a coffin in the earth. It is not chic!”

In this nasty, vulgar “chic,” to my way of thinking, there sounds a protest, perhaps indignation, anger—but against what? Simply vulgar persons destroy themselves by suicide only owing to a material, visible, external cause, whereas by the tone of the note one may judge that no such cause could have existed in her case. Against what, then, could the indignation be?—Against the simplicity of the visible, against the meaninglessness of life? Was she one of those well-known judges and deniers of life who are indignant against the “absurdity” of man’s appearance on earth, the nonsensical casualness of this appearance, the tyranny of the inert cause with which one cannot reconcile himself? Here we seem to be dealing with a soul which revolted against the “rectilinearness” of the phenomena, which could not stand this rectilinearness conveyed to her since childhood in her father’s house. The ugliest thing is that, of course, she died devoid of any distinct doubt. It is most probable that her soul was devoid of distinct doubt or so-called queries. Likewise, it is quite probable that she implicitly believed, without further verification, everything which had been imparted to her since childhood. This means that she simply died of “cold darkness and tedium” with, so to speak, animal and un-accountable suffering; she began to suffocate as if there were not enough air. The soul unaccountably proved unable to bear rectilinearness and unaccountably demanded something more complex. . . .

About a month ago there appeared in all Petersburg newspapers a few short lines, in small type, about a Petersburg suicide: a poor young girl, a seamstress, jumped out of a window on the fourth floor “because she was utterly unable to find work for her livelihood.” It was added that she jumped and fell to the ground, holding a holy image in her hands. This holy image in the hands is a strange, as yet unheard-of, trait in a suicide! This was a timid and humble suicide. Here, apparently, there was no grumbling or reproach: simply it became impossible to live, “God does not wish it”—and she died, having said her prayers.

There are certain things—much as they may seem simple—over which one does not cease to ponder for a long time; they come back in one’s dreams, and one even thinks that he is to be blamed for them. This meek soul which destroyed itself involuntarily keeps vexing ones mind. It was precisely this death that reminded me of the suicide of the emigrant’s daughter, which was communicated to me last summer. But how different are these two creatures; they seem to have come from two different planets! How different these two deaths! and which of these two souls had suffered more on earth—if such an idle question is becoming and permissible?

The Verdict

Apropos, here is the deliberation of a suicide out of tedium—of course, a materialist.

“. . . Indeed, what right did this nature have to bring me into this world pursuant to some of her eternal laws? I am created with consciousness and I did conceive nature: what right had she, therefore, to beget me without my will, without my will as a conscious creature?—Conscious implies suffering, but I do not wish to suffer, since why should I consent to suffering? Nature, through the medium of my consciousness, proclaims to me some sort of harmony of the whole. Human consciousness has produced religions out of this message. Nature tells me—even though I know well that I neither can nor ever shall participate in this ‘harmony of the whole,’ and besides, that I shall never even comprehend what it means—that nevertheless I must submit to this message, abase myself, accept suffering because of the harmony of the whole, and consent to live. However, if I were to make a conscious choice, of course I should rather wish to be happy only that moment when I exist, whereas I have no interest whatever in the whole and its harmony after I perish, and it does not concern me in the least whether this whole with its harmony remains in the world after me or whether it perishes simultaneously with me. And why should I bother about its preservation after I no longer exist?—that’s the question. It would have been better to be created like all animals—i.e., living but not conceiving myself rationally. But my consciousness is not harmony, but, on the contrary, precisely disharmony, because with it I am unhappy. Look: who is happy in this world and what kind of people consent to live?—Precisely those who are akin to animals and come nearest to their species by reason of their limited development and consciousness. These readily consent to live but on the specific condition that they live as animals, i.e., eat, drink, sleep, build their nest and bring up children. To eat, drink and sleep, in the human tongue, means to grow rich to and plunder, while to build one’s nest pre-eminently signifies-to plunder. Perhaps I may be told that one may arrange one’s life and build one’s nest on a rational basis, on scientifically sound social principles, and not by means of plunder, as heretofore.—All right, but I ask: What for? What is the purpose of arranging one’s existence and of exerting so much effort to organize life in society soundly, rationally and righteously in a moral sense? Certainly no one will ever be able to give me an answer to this question. All that could be said in answer would be: ‘To derive delight.’ Yes, were I a flower or a cow, I should derive delight. But, incessantly putting questions to myself, as now, I cannot be happy even in face of the most lofty and immediate happiness of love of neighbor and of mankind, since I know that tomorrow all this will perish: I and all the happiness, and all the love, and all mankind will be converted into naught, into former chaos. And on such a condition, under no consideration, can I accept any happiness—and not because of my refusal to accept it, not because I am stubbornly adhering to some principle, but for the simple reason that I will not and cannot be happy on the condition of being threatened with tomorrow’s zero. This is a feeling—a direct and immediate feeling—and I cannot conquer it. All right: if I were to die but mankind, instead me, were to persist forever, then, perhaps I might be consoled. However, our planet is not eternal, while mankind’s duration is just as brief a moment as mine. And no matter how rationally, happily, righteously and holily mankind might organize its life on earth—tomorrow all this will be made equal to that same zero. And even though all this be necessary, pursuant to some almighty, eternal and fixed law of nature, yet, believe me, in this idea there is some kind of most profound disrespect for mankind which, to me, is profoundly insulting and all the more unbearable as here there is no one who is guilty.

“And, finally, even were one to presume the possibility of that tale about man’s ultimate attainment of a rational and scientific organization of life on earth—were one to believe this tale and the future happiness of man, the thought itself that, because of some inert laws, nature found it necessary to torture them thousands and thousands of years before granting them that happiness—this thought itself is unbearably repulsive. And if you add to this that this very nature which, finally, had admitted man to happiness will, for some reason, tomorrow find it necessary to convert all this into zero despite all the suffering with which mankind has paid for this happiness and—what is most important—without even bothering to conceal this from my consciousness, as it did conceal it from the cow-willy-nilly, there arises a most amusing, but also unbearably sad, thought: “What if man has been placed on earth for some impudent experiment—just for the purpose of ascertaining whether or not this creature is going to survive on earth?” The principal sadness of this thought is in the fact that here, again, there is no guilty one; no one conducted the experiment; there is no one to damn, since everything simply came to pass as a result of the inert laws of nature, which I do not understand at all, and with which my consciousness is altogether unable to reconcile itself. Ergo:

“Inasmuch as to my questions on happiness I am receiving from nature, through my own consciousness, only the answer that I can be happy not otherwise than the within harmony of the whole, which I do not comprehend, and which, it is obvious to me, I shall never be able to understand­­—

“Inasmuch as nature not only does not admit my right to demand an account from her, but even gives me no answer whatsoever—and not because she does not want to answer, but because she is unable to give me an answer—

“Inasmuch as I have convinced myself that nature, in order to answer my queries, designates (unconsciously) my own self and answers them with my own consciousness (since it is I who say all this to myself)—

“Finally, since, under these circumstances, I am assuming both the roles of a plaintiff and of a defendant, that of an accused and of a judge; and inasmuch as I consider this comedy, on the part of nature, altogether stupid, and to be enduring this comedy on my own part—even humiliating—

“Now, therefore, in my unmistakable role of a plaintiff and of a defendant, of a judge and of an accused, I sentence this nature, which has so unceremoniously and impudently brought me into existence for suffering, to annihilation, together with myself.

…And because I am unable to destroy nature, I am destroying only myself, weary of enduring a tyranny in which there is no guilty one.

N. N.”

Arbitrary Assertions 

My article—The Verdict—refers to the basic and loftiest idea of human existence—the necessity and inevitability of a belief in the immortality of the human soul. The underlying idea of this confession of a man perishing as a result of “a logical suicide” is the necessity of the immediate inference that without faith in one’s soul and its immortality, man’s existence is unnatural, unthinkable, impossible. Now, it seemed to me that I have dearly expressed the formula of a logical suicide, that I have discovered it. In him there is no faith in immortality; this he explains in the very beginning. Little by little, the thought of his aimlessness and his hatred of the muteness of the surrounding inertia lead him to the inevitable conviction of the utter absurdity of man’s existence on earth. It becomes clear as daylight to him that only those men can consent to live who resemble the lower animals and who come nearest to the latter by reason of the limited development of their minds and their purely carnal wants. They agree to live specifically as animals, i.e., in order “to eat, drink, sleep, build their nests and raise children.” Indeed, eating, sleeping, polluting and sitting on soft cushions will long attract men to earth, but not the higher types. Meanwhile, it is the higher types that are and always have been, sovereign on earth, and invariably it so happened that, when the time was ripe, millions of people followed them.

I even assert and venture to say that love of mankind in general, as an idea, is one of the most incomprehensible ideas for the human mind. Precisely as an idea. Sentiment alone can vindicate it. However, sentiment is possible precisely only in the presence of the accompanying conviction of the immortality of man’s soul. (Another arbitrary assertion.)

It is clear, then, that suicide—when the idea of immortality has been lost—becomes an utter and inevitable necessity for any man who, by his mental development, has even slightly lifted himself above the level of cattle. On the contrary, immortality—promising eternal life—ties man all the more strongly to earth. Here there is a seeming contradiction: if there is so much life—that is, if in addition to earthly existence there is an immortal one—why should one be treasuring so highly his earthly life? And yet, the contrary is true, since only with faith in his immortality does man comprehend the full meaning of his rational destination on earth. However, without the faith in his immortality, man’s ties with earth are severed, they grow thinner and more putrescent while the loss of the sublime meaning of life (felt at least in the form of unconscious anguish) inevitably leads to suicide.

Hence, the reverse moral of my October article: “If faith in immortality is so essential to man’s existence, it is, therefore, a normal condition of the human race and, this being so, the immortality itself of the human soul exists undeniably.” In a word, the idea of immortality is life itself—“live life,” its ultimate formula, the mainspring of truth and just consciousness for humankind. Such was the object of my article, and I supposed that, willy-nilly, everyone who had read it would so comprehend it.

A Few Words About Youth 

Well, by the way. Perhaps it may be pointed out to me that in our age suicide is being committed by men who have never dwelt upon any abstract problems; nevertheless, they kill themselves mysteriously, without any apparent reason. In truth, we do perceive a great number of suicides (their abundance is also a mystery sui generis), strange and mysterious, committed not by reason of poverty or some affront, without any apparent reasons and not at all because of material need, unrequited love, jealousy, ill-health, hypochondria or insanity—but God only knows why. In our day, such cases constitute a great temptation, and since it is impossible to deny that they have assumed the proportions of an epidemic, they arise in the minds of many people as a most disturbing question. Of course, I am not venturing to explain all these suicides,—this I cannot do—but I am firmly convinced that the majority of the suicides, in toto, directly or indirectly, were committed as a result of one and the same spiritual illness—the absence in the souls of these men of the sublime idea of existence. In this sense our indifference, as a contemporary Russian illness, is gnawing all souls. Verily, in Russia there are people who pray God and go to church but who do not believe in the immortality of their souls—i.e.,not that they do not believe in it, but they simply never think of it. Even so, at times they are by no means people of the cast-iron, the bestial, pattern. However, as stated above, the whole sublime purpose and meaning of life, the desire and the urge to live, emanate only from this faith. I repeat, there are many people desirous to live without any ideas, without any sublime meaning of life—simply to pursue an animal existence as some lower species. And yet there are many individuals—what is most curious apparently extremely coarse and vicious ones—whose nature, however, perhaps without their knowledge, has long been craving for sublime aims and the lofty meaning of life. These will not be appeased by love of eating, by the love of fish-pies, beautiful trotters, debauch, ranks, bureaucratic power, the adoration of their subordinates and the hall porters at the doors of their mansions. Men of this caliber will precisely shoot themselves apparently for no reason, and yet it will be necessarily because of anguish, unconscious perhaps, for the sublime significance of life which they have found nowhere. On top of that, some of them will shoot themselves after having preliminarily perpetrated some scandalous villainy, abomination or monstrosity. Of course, looking at many of these cases it is difficult to believe that they committed suicide because of the longing for the sublime aims of life:“Why, they never thought about any aims; they never spoke about any such things and they merely committed villainies!”—such is the common opinion. But let us admit that they were not concerned about these things and that they did perpetrate villainies: do you positively know how, by what devious ways, in the life of society this sublime anguish is being conveyed to one’s soul and contaminates it?—Ideas soar through the air but necessarily in accordance with some laws; ideas live and spread in accordance with laws which are too difficult for us to record; ideas are contagious. And do you know that in the general mood of life a certain idea or concern or anguish, accessible only to a highly educated and developed intellect may suddenly be imparted to an almost illiterate, coarse creature who was never concerned about anything, and may contaminate his soul with its influence? Again, I may be told that in our age even children are committing suicide, or such raw youths as have had no life experience. Even so, I am secretly convinced that it is our youth that suffers and agonizes because of the absence of sublime aims of life. In our families practically no mention is made about the sublime aims of life, while not only do they not give the slightest thought to the idea of immortality but much too frequently a satirical attitude is adopted toward it—and this in the presence of children from their early childhood, and perhaps with an express didactic purpose.

On Suicide and Haughtiness

 But it is time to finish up with Mr. N. P. To him happened the thing which happens to many people of his “type”: what is clear to them and what they can most readily comprehend they conceive to be stupid. They are much more inclined to despise lucidity than to praise it. It is different if a flourish or a fog accompanies something: “This we don’t understand—therefore, it is deep.”

He says that the “deliberation” of my suicide is merely “the delirium of a half-crazy man” and that that is “well known.” I am very much inclined to believe that the “deliberation” became “known” to him only after he had read my article. As to the “delirium of a half-crazy man” (is this known to Mr. N. P. and the whole collection of the N. P.’s?), it—i.e., the inference of the necessity of suicide—is too much to many people in Europe, as it were, the last word of science. I have expressed this “last word of science” in brief terms, clearly and popularly with the sole purpose of refuting it—not by reasoning or logic, since it cannot be refuted by logic (I challenge not only Mr. N. P. but anyone to refute logically this “delirium of the insane”), but by faith, by the deduction of the necessity of faith in the immortality of man’s soul; by the inference of the conviction that this faith is the only source of “live life” on earth—of life, health, sane ideas and sound deductions and inferences. . . . And, in conclusion—something altogether comic. In the same October issue I reported the suicide of an emigrant’s daughter: she soaked a piece of cotton wool in chloroform, tied it around her face and lay down on the bed. And thus she died. Before death she wrote a note: “I am undertaking a long journey, If I should not succeed, let people gather to celebrate my resurrection with a bottle of Cliquot. If I should succeed, I ask that I be interred only after I am altogether dead, since it is very disagreeable to awake in a coffin in the earth. This is not chic!”

Mr. N. P, haughtily grew angry with this “vain little” suicide, and came to the conclusion that her act “deserves no attention whatsoever.” He also grew angry with me for my “exceedingly naive” question as to which one of the two suicides had suffered more on earth. At this juncture there ensued something comical. Unexpectedly he added: “ I daresay that a man who desires to greet his return to life with a champagne glass in his hand—[of course, in his hand]—did not suffer much in this life if, with such triumph, once more he enters it without changing in the least its conditions, and even without thinking about them. . . .”

What a funny thought and what a ludicrous consideration! Here he was mostly tempted by champagne: “He who drinks champagne cannot suffer.” But were she so fond of champagne, she would have continued to live so as to drink it, whereas she wrote about champagne before her death—i.e., real death—knowing well that she would die without fail. She could not have believed much in the chance of her recovery to life; nor did this chance present anything attractive to her, because recovery, of course, would have meant to her recovery to a new suicide. Thus, here champagne was of no consequence, i.e., not at all for the purpose of consuming it—and is it possible that this has to be explained? And she wrote about champagne from the desire, when dying, to perpetrate some cynicism as abominable and filthy as possible. And she selected champagne precisely because she could not conceive a filthier, more abominable picture than this drinking bout at the time of her “resurrection from the dead.” She had to write this in order to insult, with this filth, everything she was forsaking on earth, to damn earth and her whole earthly life, to spit on it and to declare that spittle to her relatives whom she was leaving behind.

Whence such a spite in a seventeen-year-old girl? (N. B. She was seventeen, and not twenty, as I erroneously put it in my article. Subsequently I was corrected by those who know this incident better.) And against whom was that spite directed? No one had offended her; she was in need of nothing, and she died apparently also for no reason whatever. But precisely this note; precisely the fact that at such a moment she was eager to perpetrate such a filthy and spiteful cynicism—and this is obvious—this precisely leads one to think that her life was immeasurably more chaste than this filthy twist; and that spite, the boundless exasperation of that twist, on the contrary, bears witness to the suffering and painful mood of her spirit, to her despair in the last moment of her life. If she had died of some apathetic weariness, without knowing why, she would not have perpetrated this cynicism. One has to take a more humane attitude toward such a spiritual condition. Here, suffering was obvious and certainly she died of spiritual anguish having greatly suffered.

What could have tormented her so much at the age of seventeen?—But herein is the dreadful question of our age. I have set forth the hypothesis that she died of anguish (too premature an anguish) and of aimlessness of life, only because of the upbringing, perverted by theory, at her parents’ home—an upbringing involving an erroneous conception of the sublime significance and aims of life, a deliberate extermination in her soul of all faith in its immortality. Let this be only my supposition. Yet certainly she did not die merely for the purpose of leaving after her that abject note—to cause surprise, as Mr. N. P. seems to think. “No man shall hate his flesh.” Self-extermination is a serious thing despite any chic or display, while epidemic self-extermination, assuming ever-increasing proportions among the educated classes, is all too momentous a phenomenon which deserves relentless observation and study.

Some eighteen months ago a highly talented and competent member of our judiciary showed me a batch of letters and notes of suicides in their own handwriting, collected by him—notes which had been written by them immediately before, i.e., five minutes before, death. I remember two lines written by a fifteen-year-old girl. Likewise, I recall pencil scrawls written in a carriage in which the suicide shot himself before he had reached his destination. I believe that even if Mr. N. P. could have perused this intensely interesting batch, perhaps even in his soul there would have come a change, and consternation would have penetrated his tranquil heart. But this I do not know. In any event one should be dealing with these facts more humanely and not so haughtily. Perhaps we ourselves are guilty of these facts, and in the future no cast iron is going to save us from the calamitous consequences of our placidity and haughtiness—that is when time comes for these consequences.

The Boy Celebrating His Saint’s Day 

I have recalled this essay in detail intentionally. I received a letter from K—v in which the death of a child—also a twelve-year-old boy—is depicted. And … possibly there is something similar here. However, I shall quote parts of the letter without changing a single word in the quotations. The topic is curious.

“On November 8, after dinner, the news spread in town that a suicide had taken place: a twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy, a high school pupil, had hanged himself. Here are the circumstances of the case. A school-master teaching a subject, the lesson of which, that morning, the deceased boy failed to learn, punished the boy by retaining him at school till five o’clock in the evening. The pupil walked around for a while; then he untied a rope from a pulley which he happened to notice; he tied the rope to a nail on which usually the so-called golden or red plate hangs which for some reason, had been removed that day, and hanged himself. The watchman who had been washing the floor in the adjacent rooms, upon discovering the unfortunate boy, hastened to the inspector. The inspector came running; the suicide was extricated from the noose, but they failed to revive him. . . . What was the cause of the suicide? The boy was not inclined toward violence and bestiality; generally speaking, he studied well, and only of late he had received several unsatisfactory marks from his school-master, and for this he was punished. . . . It is rumored that both the boy’s father, a very severe man, and the boy himself, that day celebrated their saint’s day. Perhaps the youngster, with childish delight, was meditating how he would be greeted at home—by his mother, father, little brothers and sisters. . . . And now he has to sit all alone, hungry, in an empty building and ponder over the father’s dreadful wrath which he will have to face, over the humiliation, shame and, perhaps, punishment which he will have to endure. He knew about the possibility of committing suicide (and who among children of our epoch do not know this?). One feels terribly sorry for the deceased boy, for the inspector, an excellent man and pedagogue, whom the pupils adore; one also feels afraid for the school within whose walls such phenomena take place. What did the classmates of the deceased and other children studying there, among whom in the preparatory classes there are perfect little darlings, feel when they learned about the incident? Isn’t this too harsh a training? Isn’t too much significance attached to marks—to twos and ones, to golden and red plates, on the nails of which pupils hang themselves? Isn’t there too much formalism and dry heartlessness in the matter of our education?”

Of course, one feels awfully sorry for the little boy celebrating his saint’s day, but I will not enlarge upon the probable causes of this sad incident, and particularly upon “marks, twos, and excessive severity,” etc. All these also existed before, and there were no suicides, so that the cause is not to be sought here. I took the episode from Count Tolstoy’s Youth because of the similarity of the two cases; yet there is also an enormous difference. No doubt Misha, who celebrated his saint’s day, killed himself not from anger and not merely from fear. Both these feelings—anger and pathological fear—are too simple, and these would more probably find an outcome in themselves. However, fear of punishment could have exercised some influence, especially in the presence of pathological suspiciousness. Nevertheless, even in this case the feeling could have been much more complex, and again it is very possible that there transpired something similar to what was depicted by Count Tolstoy, i.e., suppressed, not yet conscious, childish queries, a strong feeling of some oppressive injustice, an early suspicious and painful perception of personal nullity, a pathologically developed query: “Why does everybody so dislike me?” a passionate desire to compel people to pity one, i.e., a passionate thirst for love on the part of them all, and a multitude, a multitude of other complications and nuances.

The point is that these or other such nuances, unfailingly, were there, but there were also traits of some new reality, altogether different from that which prevailed in the pacified and firmly, long ago structuralized landowner’s family of the middle-upper stratum of which Count Tolstoy was our historian, and apparently at that very epoch when the former order of nobility established upon the earlier landowners’ foundations, was affected by some new, still unknown but radical change,—at least by some enormous regeneration into novel, still latent, almost utterly unknown forms. There is here in this incident of the boy celebrating his saint’s day one particular trait distinctly belonging to our epoch. Count Tolstoy’s boy could meditate with valetudinary tears of effete emotionalism in his soul that they would enter the closet and would find him dead, and that they would begin to love and pity him, and blame themselves. He could even have meditated about suicide, but only meditated: the rigorous order of the historically formed noble family would have had its effect, even upon a twelve-year-old child, and would have prevented the dream from being converted into reality, whereas here—the boy meditated and acted accordingly.

The Dream of A Strange Man: A Fantastic Story

You see: even though it made no difference to me, nevertheless I did feel pain. Should anyone have struck me, I should have felt a pain. The same—in the moral sense: should anything pitiful have occurred, I should have felt pity exactly as in the days when I had not yet felt that “it made no difference.” Just now I also felt pity: most certainly I would have helped a child. Why, then did I not help that little girl?—Because of a thought which occurred to me: as she was pulling and calling me, suddenly a question arose before me and I couldn’t solve it. It was an idle question but I grew angry. I grew angry because of the belief that, once I had decided that l would commit suicide that night, everything in the world, more than ever, should have made no difference to me. Why, then, all of a sudden, did I feel that not everything was a matter of indifference to me and that I was pitying the little girl?

I recall that I felt great pity for her—to the point of some strange pain which was quite incredible in my situation. Truly, I am unable to describe better that fleeting feeling but it also persisted at home, while I was already sitting by the table, and I was much irritated,—as I haven’t been for so long. Deliberations followed one another. It seemed clear that if I were a man, and not yet a zero, and while I was not yet reduced to a zero, I was living and, therefore, I could suffer, be angry and feel ashamed of my actions. All right. But if I should kill myself, say, in two hours, what would the little girl be to me, what would shame and everything in the world matter to me?—I am being reduced to a zero—an absolute zero. And it is possible that the realization of the fact that in an instant I shall be completely nonexistent, and that, therefore, nothing will exist, could have exercised no influence upon the feeling of pity for the little girl and the feeling of shame for the villainy which I have committed?—for I stamped at the unfortunate child and shouted at her in a brutal voice because I said to myself: “Not only do I feel no pity, but even should I commit an inhuman villainy,—now I can commit it because in two hours everything will be extinct.” Would you believe that this was the reason why I began to shout? At present I am almost sure of that.

It seemed clear that now life and the world were, so to speak, dependent on me. It may even have been said that the world has been created for me alone: I will shoot myself, and the world will not exist, at least for me. Not to speak of the fact that, perhaps, after me in reality nothing will exist for anyone, and that the moment my consciousness is extinguished the whole world, too, will vanish as a phantom, as an adjunct of my consciousness, and will become nonexistent, since, perhaps, this whole world and all these men are nothing but I myself.

I recall that while I was sitting and deliberating, I turned all these new questions, which crowded in my mind, one after another, in an altogether different direction and conceived something radically new. For example, suddenly, a strange thought occurred to me: What if formerly I had lived on the moon or on Mars, and if there I should have perpetrated the most shameful and dishonest act that could possibly be conceived; and, further, that if over there I should have been abused and dishonored in a manner that may be conceived and felt only in a dream,in a nightmare; and if subsequently, finding myself on the earth, I should continue to be conscious or the act I had committed on the other planet, and, besides, that I should know that never, under any circumstance, should I return thither,—then, looking from the earth at the moon, would it, or would it not, make a difference? Should I, or should I not, feel ashamed of my act?

These were idle and superfluous questions since the revolver lay already before me, and with all my being I knew that this would unfailingly occur, yet they excited me and made me mad. Now—it seemed—I should be unable to die without having first solved something.

In a word, that little girl saved me since, because of the questions, I had postponed the shot. Meanwhile, in the captain’s room things began to quiet down: they finished their card game and now they were settling down for the night, and in the meantime they kept grumbling and were idly continuing to abuse one another. At this juncture, suddenly, I fell asleep in the armchair by the table, which has never happened to me before. I fell asleep quite imperceptibly to myself. Dreams, as is known, are very strange phenomena: one thing appears with awful lucidity, with jewelled finish of detail; but other things are skipped, as it were, quite unnoticed—for instance, space and time.

It would seem that dreams are generated not by the intellect but by desires, not by the brain but by the heart. And yet, at times, what extremely complicated things did my mind perform in sleep! For instance, my brother died five years ago. Sometimes I see him in my dreams: he participates in my affairs; we take a great interest in them; even so, through the whole dream, I distinctly know and remember that he died and was buried. Why am I not surprised that, though dead, he is still right here, at my side and busies himself together with me? Why does my reason admit all this?

But enough. I am turning to my dream. Yes, I saw this dream, my dream, on the third of November! They are teasing me by insisting that this was only a dream. But is it not all the same whether or not this was a dream, if it has enunciated to me the Truth? For once you have learned the Truth, you have beheld it, you know that it is the Truth, that there is and can be no other Truth whether you be sleeping or waking. All right: let it be a dream; let it; but that life which you are so extolling, I sought to extinguish with suicide, and my dream, my dream—oh, it has enunciated to me a new, great, regenerated, vigorous life!


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