Category Archives: The Modern Era

(documented 1820-1984)



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

Solomon Islands

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

Papua New Guinea: Kiriwina/The Trobriand Islands:

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



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


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



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


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

Niue Island

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

Pukapuka, Cook Islands

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


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

Mangareva, Gambier Islands

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

The Selections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Indigenous Cultures, Oceania, Oceania Indigenous Cultures, Oceanic Cultures, The Early Modern Period, The Modern Era


from Note, Christmas Eve, 1850
from Nightingale’s draft novel
from Draft for Suggestions for Thought    to Searchers After Religious Truth    (1860)
from Notes on Nursing for the    Labouring Classes (1861)
from Note to Benjamin Jowett (c. 1866)
Reflections on
George MacDonald’s    Novel, Robert Falconer (1868)
Truth and Feeling (1871 or later)

from Notes on Egypt: Mysticism and    Eastern Religions


Florence Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy (hence her name), but raised by her wealthy family in England, educated primarily by her father. As a member of the upper class, she was expected to marry, to visit, and to entertain. She detested the prospect of this enforced, purposeless idleness, and throughout her 20s, she suffered frustration and depression. At age 16, she experienced a “call to service,” but her family refused to allow her to become a nurse, an unthinkable life for a lady, involving as it would exposure to disease, dirt, and violations of Victorian modesty concerning the human body; nurses were notorious for drinking on the job, demanding bribes, and being sexually available, if not actually prostitutes. It was not until she was 33 that she was finally able to practice nursing, as superintendent of an institution for gentlewomen.

In November 1854, during the Crimean War 4, Nightingale led 38 British women, the first to nurse in war, to Scutari (now known as Üsküdar, Turkey). The Barrack Hospital to which they were sent was merely a converted Turkish barrack, lacking in running water, functioning toilets, beds, bedding and laundry facilities. She worked assiduously to improve conditions. Its high death rates were brought down, but not until the arrival of the Sanitary Commission, which made the necessary structural repairs. Nightingale learned the lessons of infectious disease in the process. She returned to England a heroine, although seriously ill. She used a fund of about £50,000 fund raised in her honor at the end of the war to found the first secular training school for nurses. After the war, her chief collaborator was the head of the Sanitary Commission, with whom she had worked to bring down death rates at the Barrack Hospital. For most of her long life, she did research and wrote from her London home, meeting with officials and experts there. An expert methodologist, she was the first woman fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. She did substantial research for two royal commissions, on the Crimean War and on India, both situations with high rates of preventable mortality. She gave some 40 years of work to improving health care and preventing famine in India. At home, she did much to bring professional nursing into the dreaded workhouses. She was the first woman to receive the Order of Merit (1907).

For Nightingale, nursing was part of a broader approach to public health care, emphasizing prevention, health promotion, and hospital reform. Her work was grounded in a strong Christian faith, rather heterodox and liberal, drawing on sources well beyond her own Church of England. Reforms could be achieved by learning God’s laws, she believed, which required rigorous research and careful ongoing monitoring; in this way, people could become God’s “coworkers” in the betterment of the world.

Nightingale’s concern with suicide was both personal and professional. The early selections here, including a diary note dated Christmas Eve, 1850, exhibit her anguish over the choices she faced: whether to marry a man she loved, her long-time suitor Richard Monckton Milnes (knowing that marriage at that time would mean a life of domestic seclusion), or to reject the proposal in favor of a meaningful career (a barely tenable choice for someone of her societal position). Nightingale desperately wanted to work; to marry and thus foreclose this possibility, she said, “would seem like suicide.”

Nightingale made use of the Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet’s (1796–1874) work on suicide in Sur l’Homme et le developpement de ses facultés, ou Essai de Physique Sociale (1835) (Treatise on Man and the Development of his Faculties), which, much like the work of Durkheim [q.v.] over half a century later, used statistical methods in regarding suicide as something to be studied like other demographic phenomena. As Nightingale notes in Suggestions for Thought, this is not to assume that suicide is predetermined or “caused” by statistical laws.

While Nightingale generally regarded suicide as wrong, she regarded as an even greater wrong the administrative slackness and incompetence of many institutions, including hospitals and war agencies, which cost so many lives. Nightingale’s overall response to suicide or suicide attempts was to encourage compassionate rather than punitive treatment as a felony offense, in both her notes on George MacDonald’s serial novel Robert Falconer (3 vols., 1868) and in her insistence on the importance of care to prevent suicide and reform in hospital conditions, especially the understaffing of nurses. She also recommended that a column for “suicide” be added in the Army medical returns.

Selections from The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Diary entries, 1850, from Vol. 2, Florence Nightingale’s Spiritual Journey: Biblical Annotations, Sermons and Journal Notes, ed. Lynn McDonald, 2001, pp. 383-384; passage from a draft novel and a fictional dialogue for Suggestions for Thought from vol. 8, “Notes on Nursing for the Labouring Classes (1861),” in Florence Nightingale on Public Health Care 6:67. Note to Benjamin Jowett, add. ms. 45783 f86; “Reflections on George MacDonald’s novel Robert Falconer,” from vol. 3, Florence Nightingale’s Theology: Essays, Letters and Journal Notes, ed. Lynn McDonald, 2002, pp. 631-632; “Truth and Feeling,” Theology 3:169; “Notes on Egypt,” Florence Nightingale on Mysticism and Eastern Religions 4:285, n. 298. Material in introduction contributed by Lynn McDonald.


In my thirty-first year, I can see nothing desirable but death.  Entire change of air. Lord, Thou knowest my heart; I cannot understand it. I am ashamed to understand it. I know that if I were to see him [her suitor Richard Monckton Milnes] again, the very thought of doing so quite overcomes me. I know that, since I refused him, not one day has passed without my thinking of him, that life is desolate to me to the last degree without his sympathy. Yet, do I wish to marry him? I know that I could not bear his life, that to be nailed to a continuation and exaggeration of my present life without hope of another would be intolerable to me, that voluntarily to put it out of my power, ever to be able to seize the chance of forming for myself a true and rich life would seem to me like suicide. And yet my present life is suicide….


Many are only deterred from suicide because it is more than anything else to say to God  I will not–I will not do as Thou wouldst have me,  and because it is  no use.


But between God and man there is no such agreement. Man did not ask to be born. God never asked man whether he would undertake the charge of himself or not. Many a one, if so asked, would certainly say, No, I cannot undertake this anxious existence, not even in view of the ultimate happiness secured to me. But He is too good a Father to put it into His children’s power to refuse it. If He were to do this, timid spirits would all resign at once. According to the theory of responsibility, suicide would be justified. For a man may put an end to his service, if dissatisfied with it….

…So Quetelet makes his computations that so many people will commit suicide, that so many widowers will marry three times; and we call it, and justly (supposing the computation correct), a law, and then, with our vague ideas that a law is a coercive force, we cry, “Oh! how horrid–then there is a law which compels so many people to commit suicide in a twelvemonth.” But the law, which is merely a statistical table, has no power to make people commit suicide. So you might as well say that Newton’s law has the power to make the stone fall as Quetelet’s table to make the people commit suicide. Newton’s law is nothing but the statistics of gravitation, it has no power whatever.


The simple precaution of removing cords by which a patient can hang himself, razors by which he can cut his throat, out of his way, when inclined to do such things, is much neglected especially in private nursing. Many inquests upon suicides show this, and the friends are invariably absolved by the verdict!!

If you look into the reports of trials or accidents, and especially of suicides, or into the medical history of fatal cases, it is almost incredible how often the whole thing turns upon something which has happened because “he,” or still oftener “she,” “was not there.” But it is still more incredible how often, how almost always, this is accepted as a sufficient reason, a justification; why, the very fact of the thing having happened is the proof of its not being a justification.


Now certainly the poor man who embezzles his employers’ money, knowing it to be wrong, and goes and commits suicide, is much better, in a much more hopeful state than these most respectable people, who are wilfully stupid, who cannot be saved, who commit the sin against the Holy Ghost every day, who commit and permit all kinds of atrocities (and report and write and write and report) not knowing them to be so….

…But I don’t see that people have in the least gone on to discover and apply the laws by which there shall be no more, e.g., suicides, idiots, lunatics, tho’ we have discovered (but not applied) the laws by which there shall be no more cholera. (We do not say now, what a mystery it is that God should permit that dreadful plague, cholera.)

from REFLECTIONS ON GEORGE MacDONALD’S NOVEL, Robert Falconer (1868)

Those who talk sententiously (to the suicide) of the wrong done to a society which has done next to nothing for him…. I should say to him: “God liveth: thou art not thine own but his. Bear thy hunger, thy horror in His name. I in His name will help thee out of them, as I may. To go before He calleth thee is to say  ‘Thou forgettest’ unto Him who numbereth the hairs of thy head, such a loving and tender one who, for the sake of a good with which thou wilt be all content, and without which thou never couldst be content, permits thee there to stand–for a time–long to His sympathizing as well as to thy suffering heart.”…

(unpublished essay, 1871 or later)

 Free will and necessity, regarded as they usually are, namely, as mutually exclusive theories, are doubtless little or no better than mere words. Is there not a higher point of view from which they may be seen to be partial or relative truths, false when separated, true when combined, like the two pictures in a stereoscope?  Look at ourselves from our own side alone, as beings having no reference to God (and this is I am afraid what the respondent’s “matter of experience” comes to) we are free at all events to will. Look at ourselves from the side of an omniscient, omnipotent Being, as an opposite class of people do, (this really means think of God as omniscient, omnipotent and omni-one or two other things only, but devoid of all sense of that relationship between Himself and us, which when viewed from our side we call duty) and we can see no more room for man’s will now than for God’s will before.  Rise above all this alternation and strife.  It is a fancied freedom which the will exercises in opposition to God’s laws, for God’s laws are our laws, they are the laws of our own nature, essence and condition. It is a fancied necessity which constrains men to act, except in self-deterioration and destruction, according to God’s will. We are all free (as it is called) to commit suicide or murder, but our free will wills that we should not commit it.


That Ergamenes, a king of Ethiopia, was a funny fellow. He was the first to abolish suicide: according to Wilkinson [Manners and Customs 1:307], it had hitherto been the custom for the Ethiopian kings to receive word from the priests when the gods desired their presence, to which summons the kings immediately attended. But Wilkinson confines this custom to the Ethiopians, whereas the great Ramesses himself committed suicide, not, as it seems, from any disgust of life as “in the high Roman fashion”  nor from vanity which the oftenest prompts it now, nor was it considered any extraordinary event, but simply from impatience to enjoy the society of the gods and the rewards held out to men who love them. I confess, to me it seems more extraordinary it does not happen oftener than that it happens so often. It seems so natural to me that, if we really believed what we say, that the child should hasten into the presence of the Father whom it really loves, and by whom it believes itself to be loved, in a childish impatience, not waiting for the bell to ring or for the Father to want it.  It seems to me a later and more perfect development of the human understanding than we usually see, to perceive that the Father is everywhere, that we shall not be really nearer Him in another state than in this, that nearness is not in place but in the state of spirit and that the submissive mind, which seeks only to be one with the Father’s will and sees that will in its circumstances, is really nearest to the Father’s presence.

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Filed under Christianity, Europe, Illness and Old Age, Nightingale, Florence, Selections, The Modern Era


from Peuchet on Suicide


Born in Trier, Prussia, the third of seven children, Karl Heinrich Marx was educated at home until the age of 13. His father, descended from a long line of rabbis, was prohibited by the Prussian authorities from practicing law as a Jew; he converted to Lutheranism despite his liberal, deistic beliefs. Karl attended the universities of Bonn and Berlin, where his involvement with political thought and activism began early. In 1842, he became the editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, published in Cologne, but it was suppressed by the government a year later. He spent the next years in exile in Paris, where he wrote for the radical newspaper, Vorwärts, and in Brussels. When revolutionary activity broke out in 1848, he returned to Cologne to found the Neue Rheinische Zeitung; a year later, it too was suppressed, and he was expelled from Prussia. Marx then moved to London, devoting himself to developing his theory of socialism and to political activity in on behalf of revolution and social reform.

Marx collaborated with Friedrich Engels in the writing of the short and politically incendiary Communist Manifesto (1847) and in the extended theoretical work on political economy critiquing capitalism and developing communist economic theory, Das Kapital (3 vols., 1867, 1885, 1895), which Engels completed after Marx’s death. These works are particularly sensitive to issues of exploitation, which were central in Marx’s understanding of not only industrial capitalism and the labor theory of value, but also of suicide, as the selection here makes clear.

The excerpt is Marx’s only published discussion of suicide. It is his translation from the French of a text from Jacques Peuchet (1758–1830; Marx misidentifies Peuchet’s birth date as 1760), with interpolations added by Marx to augment the argument Peuchet was making. In the text here, Marx’s interpolations appear in boldface in the text; omissions from Peuchet’s text are provided in the footnotes. Peuchet, a prolific researcher and writer, and the editor of Dictionnaire Universel de la Géographie Commerçante, was the archivist of the Paris Police Prefecture, who, Marx tells us in his introduction to Peuchet’s text, drafted his memoirs as an old man, using materials from the Paris Police Archives and relying on his lengthy practical experience in police work and administration. With the interpolation of a few deft sentences, Marx transforms Peuchet’s already unsettling case histories—like the wedding of the daughter of a tailor that ends instead in suicide, or the case of the Creole from Martinique, whose sister-in-law is understood as property—into serious social critique. Marx’s translation/essay was published in 1846 in Gesellschaftsspiegel (Mirror of Society), a small German socialist journal in which Engels was involved, but it was not mentioned in any of the surviving letters with his colleagues at the time, nor was it reprinted during Marx’s lifetime. The original on which it is based, Peuchet’s Memoires tirés des archives de la police (1838), is available in a facsimile edition.

Eric A. Plaut and Kevin Anderson, eds., Marx on Suicide, trs. Eric A. Plaut, Gabrielle Edgcomb, and Kevin Anderson. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1999, pp. 45-70. Material in introduction from Kevin Anderson, “Marx on Suicide in the Context of His Other Writings on Alienation and Gender,” ibid., pp. 3-40. Footnotes deleted.


French critique of society has, at least partly, the great advantage of demonstrating the contradictions and the unnatural state of modern life, not only in the relationship between particular classes, but also in all spheres and forms of current intercourse. Indeed, their descriptions have a direct warmth of feeling, a richness of intuition, a worldly sensitivity and insightful originally for which one searches in vain in all other nations. One need only compare, for example, the critical descriptions of Owen and Fourier, insofar as they deal with actual intercourse to get a picture of the superiority of the French. It is by no means only the “socialist” French writers among whom one should look for these critical descriptions of social conditions. Included are writers of every type of literature, particularly those of fiction and biography. I shall use an excerpt about suicide from the Memoirs drawn from the Police Archives by Jacques Peuchet as an example of French critique. At the same time, it may show the extent to which it is the conceit of the benevolent bourgeoisie that the only issues are providing some bread and some education to the proletariat, as if only the workers suffer from present social conditions, but that, in general, this is the best of all possible worlds.

With Jacques Peuchet, as with many older French practitioners (now mostly deceased) who lived through the numerous upheavals since 1789—the numerous deceptions, enthusiasms, constitutions, rulers, defeats, and victories—there appeared a critique of the existing property, family, and other private relationships (in a word, of private life) as the necessary consequence of their political experiences.

Jacques Peuchet (born 1760) went from the fine arts to medicine, from medicine to law, from law to administration and police work.

Before the outbreak of the French revolution he worked, with the Abbé Morellet, on a Dictionnaire du Commerce of which only a prospectus appeared, and he preferred dealing with political economy and administration. He was a supporter of the French Revolution but only briefly. He soon turned to the royalist party, was for a time the director of the Gazette de France and later even took over, from Mallet-du-Pan, the infamous, royalist Mercure. Cleverly wending his way through the French Revolution, some times persecuted, then occupied in the Department of Administration and the Police, his five-volume Géographie commerçante (published in 1800) drew the attention of  Bonaparte, the First Consul, and he was appointed a member of the Council of Commerce and the Arts. Later, during the ministry of François von Neufchâteau, he assumed a higher administrative position. In 1814 the Restoration appointed him censor. During the 100 days he withdrew. With the reinstatement of the Bourbons, he attained the position of archivist of the Paris Prefecture of Police, a position he held until 1827. Peuchet was directly involved, and, as a writer, not without influence on the spokesmen for the Constituent Assembly, the Convention, the Tribunate, and, under the Restoration, the Chamber of Deputies. Among his many, mostly economic works, in addition to the aforementioned commercial-geography, his Statistique de la France (1807) is best known.

As an old man, Peuchet drafted his memoirs, partly from materials from the Paris Police Archives, partly from his long practical experience in police work and administration, but insisted they be published only posthumously.  Thus, under no circumstances can he be included among those “premature” socialists and communists who, as is well known, lack so totally the wonderful thoroughness and the all-encompassing knowledge of the vast majority of our writers, officials, and practical citizens.

Listen then to our archivist of the Paris Police Prefecture on the subject of suicide:

The yearly toll of suicides, which is to some extent normal and periodic, has to be viewed as a symptom of the deficient organization of our society. For, in times of industrial stagnation and its crises, in times of high food prices and hard winters, this symptom always becomes more prominent and takes on an epidemic character. At these times, prostitution and theft increase proportionately. Although penury is the greatest source of suicide, we find it in all classes, among the idle rich, as well as among artists and politicians. The varieties of reasons motivating suicide make a mockery of the moralists’ single-minded and uncharitable blaming.

Consumptive illnesses, against which present-day science is inadequate and ineffective, abused friendship, betrayed love, discouraged ambition, family troubles, repressed rivalry, the surfeit of a monotonous life, enthusiasm turned against itself.  These are all surely causes of suicide for natures of greater breadth.  The love of life itself, the energetic force of personality, often leads to releasing oneself from a contemptible existence.

Madame de Stael, whose greatest service was to beautifully stylize commonplace fictions, was eager to demonstrate that suicide is contrary to nature and that it cannot be understood as an act of courage.  Above all, she argued that it is more worthy to fight despair than to give in to it.  Such reasoning has little effect upon those souls who are overwhelmed be misfortune.  If they are religious, they may be thinking about a better world: if they believe in nothing they may be seeking the peace of nothingness.  Philosophical tirades have little value in their eyes and are a poor refuge from suffering.  Above all, it is absurd to claim that an act, which occurs so often, is an unnatural act.  Suicide is in no way unnatural, as we witness it daily.  What is contrary to nature does not occur.  It lies, on the contrary, in the nature of our society to cause so many suicides, while the Tartars do not commit suicide.  Not all societies bring forth the same results.  We must keep this in mind in working to reform our society to allow it to reach a higher level. What characterizes courage, when one, designated as courageous, confronts death in the light of day on the battlefield, under the sway of mass excitement, is not necessarily lost, when one kills oneself in dark solitude.  One does not resolve such a difficult issue by insulting the dead.

All that has been said against suicide stems from the same circle of ideas.  One condemns suicide with foregone conclusions. But, the very existence of suicide is an open protest against these unsophisticated conclusions. They speak of our duty to this society, but not of our right to expect explanations and actions by our society.  They endlessly exalt, as the infinitely higher virtue, overcoming suffering, rather than giving in to it.  Such a virtue is every bit as sad as the perspective it opens up.  In brief, one has made suicide an act of cowardice, a crime against law, society, and honor.

How is it that people commit suicide, despite such great anathema against it?  The blood of the despairing does not flow through the same arteries as that of those cold beings who have the leisure to debate such fruitless questions.  Man is a mystery to man; one knows only how to blame him, but does not know him. Has one noticed how mindless the institutions are under whose rule Europe lives?  How they dispose of the life and blood of the people?  How civilized justice surrounds itself with large numbers of prisons, physical punishments, and instruments of death to enforce its doubtful arrests?  How one observes the shocking number of classes left in misery by all concerned?  How social pariahs are dealt brutal, preventive, contemptuous blows, perhaps so one does not have to take the trouble to pull them out of their dirt?  When one has noted all these things, one cannot comprehend how, in the name of what authority, an individual can be ordered to care an existence that our customs, our prejudices, our laws, and our mores trample under foot.

It has been believed that suicide could be prevented by abusive punishments and by branding with infamy the memory of the guilty one.  What can one say about the indignity of such branding, hurled at people who are no longer there to plead their case? The unfortunate rarely bother themselves with all this.  And, if the act of suicide accuses someone, it is usually those remaining behind, because in this crowd there was not one person for whom it was worth staying alive.  Have the childish and cruel means, that have been devised, successfully fought against the whisperings of despair?  To one who wishes to flee this world, how do the insults that the world promises to heap on his corpse matter?  He sees therein only another act of cowardice on the part of the living.  In fact, what kind of society is it wherein one finds the most profound loneliness in the midst of many millions of people, a society where one can be overwhelmed by an uncontrollable urge to kill oneself without anyone of us suspecting it?  This society is no society, but, as Rousseau said, a desert populated by wild animals.  In the positions in police administration that I have held, suicides were part of my responsibilities.  I wanted to find out if, among the determining causes, one might find some whose consequences could prove to be prevented.  I undertook a comprehensive study of this subject. I found that, short of a total reform of the organization of our current society, all other attempts would be in vain. Among the sources for the despair that leads easily excitable people, passionate beings with deep feelings, to seek death, I found the primary cause was the bad treatment, the injustices, the secret punishments that these people received at the hands of harsh parents and superiors, upon whom they were dependent. The revolution did not topple all tyrannies. The evil which one blames on arbitrary forces exists in families, where it causes crises, analogous to those of revolutions.

We must first create, from the ground up, the connections between the interests and dispositions, the true relations among individuals.  Suicide is only one of the thousand and one symptoms of the general social struggle ever fought out on new ground.  Many warriors withdraw from this battle, because they are tired of being counted among the victims or to take a place of honor among the hangmen.  If you want some examples, I will draw them from authentic police proceedings.

In the month of July 1816 the daughter of a tailor became engaged to a butcher.  He was a young man of good morals, frugal and hardworking.  He was very taken with his beautiful fiancée.  She in turn was much drawn to him.  She was a seamstress and was held in high esteem by all who knew her, and the parents of her bridegroom loved her dearly.  These good people missed no opportunity to anticipate the arrival of their daughter-in-law.  They threw many parties wherein she was queen and idol.

The time for the wedding approached. All arrangements between the families had been completed and the contracts signed. The night before the day set for the trip to city hall, the young daughter and her parents were to have dinner with the bridegroom’s family. An unimportant event unexpectedly interfered.  The tailor and his wife had to stay home—customers from a rich house had to be taken care of.  They excused themselves; but the butcher’s mother came herself to pick up her daughter-in-law, who had received permission to follow her.

Despite the absence of two to the guests of honor, the dinner turned out to be one of the jolliest.  The anticipation of the wedding occasioned the telling of many family anecdotes. People drank; people sang. The future was discussed.  The joys of a good marriage were the subject of lively discussion.  Very late at night, all were still around the dining table. The parents of the young people, in an easily understandable indulgence, closed their eyes to the still secret understanding of the engaged couple. Hands sought each other. Love and intimacy were on their minds.

Besides, the marriage was a foregone conclusion and these young people had been visiting each other for a long time, without giving the slightest reason for reproach. The sympathy of the lovers’ parents, the advanced hour, the mutual longing (set free by the compassion of their mentors), the unabashed joyousness that reigns at such repasts, the wine spinning around in their heads, the opportunity that smilingly beckoned, all these combined to end in an easily anticipated result.  After the lights were dimmed, the lovers found themselves in the dark. One pretended to notice nothing; they had no inkling.  Here their happiness had only friends, no envious witnesses.

It was the next morning before the daughter returned to her parents.  That she returned alone is evidence that she had no sense of wrongdoing. She slipped into her room and performed her ablutions.  No sooner had her parents noticed her, than they furiously poured scandalous names and curse-words on her.  The neighborhood witnessed all this: there were no limits to the scandal.  The child was shattered by these judgments; her modesty and her privacy were outrageously assaulted.  The dismayed girl pointed out to her parents that they themselves brought blame upon her, that she admitted her wrong, her foolishness, her disobedience, but that all would be set to rights.  Her reasons and her pain did not disarm their fury. Those who are most cowardly, who are least capable of resistance themselves, become unyielding as soon as they can exert absolute parental authority. The abuse of that authority also serves as a cruel substitute for all the submissiveness and dependency people in bourgeois society acquiesce in, willingly or unwillingly. Neighborhood men and women, drawn to the uproar, supplied a chorus. This awful scene aroused such feelings of shame, that the child decided to take her own life.  In the midst of the crowd’s cursing and scolding, she rushed down to the Seine and, with a crazed look in her eyes, threw herself into the river.  The boat people pulled out her dead body still adorned with wedding jewelry.  Not surprisingly, those who had been screaming at the daughter, now turned against the parents.  The catastrophe scared these empty souls.  A few days later the parents came to the Police Bureau’s depository to reclaim that which had clearly belonged to their child—a gold necklace that had been a present from her future father-in-law, as well as a silver watch, earrings, and a ring with a small emerald, all objects deposited with the police, as would have been expected.  I did not fail forcefully to throw up to them their foolishness and barbarity.  Telling these infuriated ones that they would be accountable to God would have made little impression, given their hard-hearted prejudices and their particular kind of religiosity, so common among the lower mercantile classes.

It was greed that drew them to my office, not the claim to ownership of a few relics.  And, it was through their greed that I thought I could punish them.  They claimed their daughter’s jewelry; I refused to give it to them.  In order to get the jewelry which, according to the regulations, had been placed in the depository they needed a certificate that was in my possession.  So long as I held my position their claims were in vain.  I enjoyed defying their attacks on me.

That same year there appeared in my office a very attractive young Creole from one of Martinique’s richest families.He was absolutely opposed to our releasing the corpse of a young woman, his sister-in-law, to its claimant, the lady’s husband and his own brother.  She had drowned herself.  This is the most common form of suicide.  The officers assigned to fishing the corpse out of the river found the body near the Argenteuil shore.  Through one of their conscious instincts—namely shame—which governs women even when they are in darkest despair, the sad victim had carefully wrapped the seam of her dress around her feet.  This modest precaution was evidence that she had committed suicide.  She was hardly disfigured when the sailors brought her to the morgue.  Her beauty, her youth, her rich attire, her despair, occasioned a thousand speculations about the cause of this catastrophe.  The despair of her husband, the first to identify her, was boundless.  He did not understand this disaster, at least so I was told: I had not yet seen the man.  I told the Creole that the claims of the husband had priority.  He had ordered a magnificent marble tomb to hold the remains of his wife.

“After he killed her, the monster,” screamed the Creole, as he ran off enraged.

After the excitement, the despair of this young man, after his fervent supplications to grant his wishes, after his tears, I believed I could assume that he loved her and I told him so.  He confessed his love, but with the most vivid protestations that his sister-in-law never knew of this.  He swore to it.  Only to save his sister-in-law’s reputation, whose suicide public opinion would, as usual, ascribe to some intrigue, did he want to shed light upon the barbarity of his brother, even if thereby he were to place himself on the accuser’s bench.  He begged me for my support.

What I could ascertain from his disconnected, passionate description is as follows: M. de M., his brother, was rich and a connoisseur of the arts, a lover of high living and high society. He had married this young woman about one year before.  It seemed to have been mutual attraction; they were the loveliest pair imaginable. After the wedding, the bridegroom suddenly and strikingly began showing unmistakable signs of a possibly hereditary blood defect. This man, formerly so proud of his handsome appearance, his elegant figure in matchless perfection of form, suddenly fell victim to an unknown evil against whose devastation science was powerless. He was terribly transformed from head to toe. He had lost all his hair: his spine had become bent. Most noticeable were the day-to-day changes in his appearance as he became thinner and more wrinkled. At least this was so to others; his vanity sought to deny the obvious to himself. None of this made him bedridden. An iron will seemed to overcome the attacks of this evil.  Forcefully, he overcame the wreckage. His body fell in ruins, but his spirit soared. He continued organizing celebrations, overseeing hunting parties, continuing to live the life of wealth and splendor. It seemed to be built into his character and his nature. Yet, when he exercised his horse on the bridle paths, there were insults and innuendos, jokes by schoolboys and street children. There were rude and scornful smiles. The well-intentioned warnings by his friends about the frequent ridicule he was subjecting himself to by his fixation on gallant manners with the ladies, finally dissolved his illusions and caused him to be on his guard toward himself. As soon as he acknowledged his ugliness and deformity, as soon as he became conscious thereof, his character turned embittered and cowardice descended upon him.

He seemed less eager to take his wife to soirées, balls, and concerts.  He fled to his country home, ceased issuing any invitations, avoided people with a thousand excuses. So long as his pride gave him assurance of his superiority, he indulged his wife the attention she got from his friends. Now they made him jealous, suspicious, and violent. He saw in all those who persisted in visiting him the determination of making his wife’s heart surrender, she who was his last source of pride and his last consolation. At this time the Creole arrived from Martinique on business, the success of which seemed to benefit from the reinstatement of the Bourbons to the French throne. His sister-in-law welcomed him superbly.  In the course of the many connections that she arranged for him, the new arrival had the advantages to which his status as M. de M’s brother naturally entitled him. Our Creole foresaw the isolation of the household that was developing, stemming not only from the direct quarrels his brother had provoked with numerous friends, but also from the thousand occurrences by which visitors were driven away and discouraged. Without very much taking into account the amorous motives which made him also jealous, the Creole supported these ideas of isolation and furthered them himself through his advice.  M. de M. concluded the process by completely withdrawing to a lovely house in Passy that, in sort order, became a desert. The slightest thing will stir jealously. When it does not know where to turn, it feeds on itself and becomes inventive—everything nourishes it. Perhaps the young woman yearned for the pleasures suited to her age. Walls cut off the view of the neighbors’ houses, and the shutters were closed from dawn to dusk.

The unfortunate woman was condemned to unbearable slavery and M. de M. exercised his slaveholding rights, supported by the civil code and the right of property. These were based on social conditions which deem love to be unrelated to the spontaneous feelings of the lovers, but which permit the jealous husband to fetter his wife in chains, like a miser with his hoard of gold, for she is but a part of his inventory. M. de M., weapon in hand, strode around the house at night, and made his rounds with dogs. He imagined finding tracks in the sand.  He lost himself in strange assumptions about the placement of a ladder, which a gardener had moved.  The gardener himself, an almost 60 year-old drunkard, was placed as a guard at the door.  The spirit of exclusion knows no limits to its excesses, it extends to absurdity.  The brother, an innocent accomplice in all this, finally understood that he was collaborating in the young woman’s misfortune.

Day after day she was watched and insulted.  It robbed her of all that might have helped distract her through her rich and happy imagination. She became gloomy and melancholy, where before she had been free and cheerful.  She cried and hid her tears, but their traces were there to read. The Creole became remorseful. He decided to declare himself openly to his sister-in-law and to rectify his error, which surely stemmed from his secret feelings of love. One morning he crept into a little grove where the prisoner occasionally came to get some air and look after her flowers. Even in this circumscribed freedom, one has to believe, she knew she would be under the watchful eye of her jealous husband.

For at the sight of her brother-in-law, who at first appeared before her unexpectedly, she became greatly agitated and wrung her hands. “For God’s sake, leave!” she cried in a panic. “Leave.” And indeed, he had hardly hidden himself in a greenhouse, when M. de M. suddenly appeared. The Creole heard screams. He wanted to eavesdrop, but the pounding of his heart prevented his recourse to even the smallest word of explanation of this escapade, which, if discovered by the husband could result in a lamentable outcome.

This event spurred on the brother-in-law; from this day on he saw the necessity of becoming the victim’s protector.  He forced himself to give up hidden thoughts of love. Love can sacrifice anything except its right to protect, for this last sacrifice would be cowardice. He continued to visit his brother, prepared to talk openly with him, to tell him all, to expose himself. M. de M. had no suspicion of this aspect, but his brother’s persistence let it arise. Without clearly reading the cause of his bother’s interest, M. de M. mistrusted him, sensing in advance where it might lead.

The Creole soon realized that when he came to ring the bell at the gate to the house in Passy and received no answer, his brother was by no means always absent, as he subsequently claimed. A journeyman locksmith made him keys, copied from the models his master had used for M. de M. After ten days absence, the Creole, embittered by fear, and tortured by wild fantasies, climbed over the walls one night, broke the gate to the main courtyard, and, with a ladder, climbed up to the roof.  Sliding down a drainpipe, he reached a garret window. Loud cries induced him to sneak, unnoticed, to a glass door.  What he saw broke his heart.

A lamp brightly lit the alcove.  Beneath the draperies, his hair in disarray, his face purple with rage, a half-naked M. de M., on his knees near his wife on the same bed, showered biting reproaches on his wife who cowered, not daring to move, yet trying half-heartedly to extricate herself.  He was like a tiger, ready to tear her to pieces.

“Yes,” he said to her, “I am ugly.  I am a monster as I know only too well.  I scare you.  You wish to be freed from me, never again to be burdened with the sight of me.  You long for the moment that will make you free of me.  And, do not tell me the opposite.  I can read your thoughts in your fear and your repugnance. You blush at the undignified laughter that I arouse.  Deep down, I revolt you.  Surely you are counting every minute that has yet to pass until I shall no longer burden you with my infirmities and my presence.  Stop!  I am filled with horrible desires, a rage to disfigure you, to make you resemble me. Then you would no longer have the hope of solace from lovers for having the misfortune to have known me. I will shatter every mirror in this house, so that they will no longer reprove me with the contrast, will no longer serve to nourish you pride.  Must I take or let you go out into the world so all can encourage you to hate me?  No, no, you shall not leave this house until you have killed me.  Kill me; do it, that which I have been daily tempted to do.”

With loud cries, with gnashing of teeth, with spittle on his lips, with a thousand symptoms of madness, with enraged self-inflicted blows, the wild man threw himself on the bed near his unhappy wife. She wasted tender caresses as well as pathetic entreaties on him. Finally she tamed him. Pity had, undoubtedly, replaced love, but that was not enough for this now revolting man, whose passions still retained so much energy. A prolonged feeling of dejection followed this scene, which turned the Creole cold as stone.  He shuddered and knew not whom to turn to, to free the unfortunate woman from this deadly torment.

Apparently this scene was being repeatedly daily.  To allay the spasms that followed these scenes, Mme. de M. took refuge in the medicine bottles, prepared for the purpose of affording her tormentor some peace.

At this time the Creole was the sole representative of the family in Paris.  Perhaps he foresaw that starting legal proceedings would be risky.  It is above all in these cases that one wants to curse the law’s delays and its indifference. It cannot budge from its narrow, humdrum way, particularly when it is a question regarding a mere woman, the creature to whom the legislator provides the least protection.  Only an arrest warrant of an arbitrator’s act might have forestalled the tragedy that the witness to this madness forsaw.  Nevertheless, he decided to risk all, to accept the costs of his decisions as his fortune enabled him and to make enormous sacrifices, not fearing for the accountability for his bold undertaking.  Some physician friends of his, similarly determined, planned to break into M. de M.’s house to confirm the episodes of insanity and to separate the couple forcefully, when the occurrence of the suicide justified the too-long-delayed preparations and ended the problem.

Surely, for anyone who does not reduce to its literal meaning the whole spirit of a word, this suicide was an assassination perpetrated by the husband, but it was also the result of an intoxication of jealousy.  The jealous man requires a slave he can love, but that love is only a handmaiden for his jealousy.  Above all, the jealous man is a private property owner.

I prevented the Creole from creating a useless and dangerous scandal, primarily endangering the memory of his beloved, as the idle public would have accused the victim of an adulterous relationship with the husband’s brother. I witnessed the funeral. None but the brother and I knew the truth. Around me I heard unworthy mumblings about the suicide, and I regarded them with contempt. One blushes at public opinion when one observes it close at hand, with its cowardly malice and its salacious inferences. Opinion is too divided through the isolation of the people, too ignorant, too corrupt, for all are strangers to themselves and to one another.

Few weeks passed, by the way, without bringing me similar revelations. That same year I recorded love matches that ended in two pistol shots, occasioned by the refusal of parents to grant their consent.

I also recorded suicides by men of the world, reduced to impotence in the bloom of their youth, having been plunged into uncontrollable melancholy by the abuse of pleasures.

Many people end their days subject to this obsession. Medicine, after long, unnecessary torment through ruinous prescriptions, could not free them from their miseries.

One could compile a strange collection of quotations from famous authors and poets which the despairing have written, preparing for their death with a certain splendor. During the moment of wonderful cold-bloodedness that comes with the decision to die, breathes a kind of contagious inspiration that flows from these souls onto these pages, even among those classes who were deprived of education. As they gather themselves together before the sacrifice, whose depths they have plumbed, they summon up all their powers and, with characteristic, warm expression, bleed to death.

Some of these poems, now buried in the archives, are masterpieces. A dull bourgeois, who places his soul in his business and his God in commerce, can find all this to be very romantic and refute the pain that he cannot understand with derisive laughter.  We are not surprised by his derision. What else to expect from three-percenters, who have no inkling that daily, hourly, bit by bit, they kill themselves, their human nature.  But, what is one to say of those good people who play the devout, the educated, and still repeat this nastiness?

Undoubtedly, it is of great importance that the poor devils endure life, if only in the interest of the privileged classes of this world who would be ruined by the large scale suicide of this rabble. But, is there no other way to make the existence of this class bearable besides insult, derisive laughter, and beautiful words? Above all, there must exist a kind of greatness of soul in these beggars who, fixed on death as they are, destroy themselves rather than choosing the detour of the scaffold on the way to suicide.  It is true that the more progress our economy makes, the more rarely do these noble suicides occur, and conscious hostility takes its place and the unfortunate recklessly chance robbery and murder.  It is easier to get the death penalty than to get work.

In rummaging through the police archives, I found only a single obvious symptom of cowardice among the list of suicides.  It was the case of a young American, Wilfred Ramsay, who killed himself in order not to have to duel.

The classification of the different causes of suicide would be the classification of the failures of our society itself. One has killed oneself because some schemer stole one’s invention, on which occasion the inventor plunged into the most awful misery due to the long, learned investigation to which he had to submit, without even being able to buy a legal brief.  One has killed oneself to avoid the enormous cost and the demeaning persecution in financial difficulties, which have become so common, by the way, that those men mandated to administer the public weal pay no attention whatsoever.  One has killed oneself because one cannot find work, after having groaned for a long time under the insults and the stinginess of those among us who are the arbitrary distributors of work.

A physician consulted me one day regarding a death for which he accused himself of being responsible. One evening, on his return to Belleville, where he lived on a small street, he was stopped by a darkly veiled woman.  In a trembling voice she begged him to listen to her.  At some distance a person, whose features could not be discerned, was pacing up and down.  She was being watched over by a man.

“Sir,” she said to him, “I am pregnant and if this is discovered I will be dishonored.  My family, the opinion of the world, the people of honor would not forgive me.  The woman whose trust I have betrayed would go mad and would certainly divorce her husband.  I do not defend my actions.  I stand in the midst of a scandal whose eruption only my death can prevent.  I wish to kill myself; others want me to live.  I have been told that you are a compassionate man and this convinced me that you will not be an accomplice to the murder of a child, even an unborn one.  You see, it is a question of an abortion.  I will not lower myself to pleading or to the glossing over of that which I consider the most despicable of crimes.  I’m giving in to the request of strangers, as I present myself to you, as I shall know how to die.  I invoke death and for that I need nobody.  One gives the appearance of finding pleasure in watering a garden; one puts on wooden shoes; one chooses a watery place, where one draws water every day; one arranges to disappear in the pool of the spring; and people will say it was a ‘misfortune.’ I have foreseen everything.  Sir.  I wish it were the next morning, for I would go with all my heart.  All is prepared, so that it will be so.  But I was told to tell you and so I tell you.  You must decide whether there are to be two murders or one.  Out of my cowardice I have sworn an oath that I will abide by your decision without hesitation.  Decide!”

“This alternative appalled me,” the doctor continued, “the woman’s voice rang pure and harmonious.  Her hand which I held in mine was fine and delicate.  Her free and unequivocal despair bespoke a fine sensibility.  But, an issue that really made me shudder was at hand.  Although in a thousand cases, for example in difficult deliveries when the surgical choice hovers between saving the mother and saving the child, politics or humanity decide the issue accordingly without scruple.”

“Escape abroad,” I said.
“Impossible,” she responded.  “It is unthinkable.”
“Take clever precautions.”
“I can’t; I sleep in the same alcove with the woman whose friendship I betrayed.”
“Is she a relative?”
“I may tell you no more.”

“I would have given my life’s blood,” the doctor continued, “in order to save this woman from suicide or crime, or so that she could be freed from this conflict, without needing me.  I accused myself of barbarity, for I shrank in dread from being an accessory to murder.  It was a frightful struggle.  Then a demon whispered to me that one doesn’t necessarily kill oneself just because one really wants to die; that, by taking away their power to do harm, one forces these compromised people to renounce their vices.”

I inferred luxury from the embroideries moving beneath her fingers and the resources of wealth in the elegant turn of her speech.  One believes one owes the wealthy less sympathy; self-esteem aroused indignation against the thought of being seduced by the compensation of gold, although this matter had not been touched upon up to now.  That was a matter of tact and evidence of respect for my character.  I gave a negative response; the lady removed herself quickly.  The sound of a carriage convinced me that I could never undo the harm I had done.

A fortnight later the newspapers brought the solution to the mystery. The young niece of a Parisian banker, at most eighteen years old, the beloved ward of her aunt who had not let her out of her sight since the death of the girl’s mother, had slipped and drowned in a stream on her guardian’s estate near Villemomble. Her guardian was inconsolable; in his role as uncle, he, the cowardly seducer, let himself be overcome by his sorrow before the world.

One sees that, for want of anything better, suicide becomes the most extreme refuge from the evils of private life.

Among the causes of suicide I very frequently found dismissal from office, refusal of work, and a sudden drop in income, in consequence of which these families could no longer obtain the necessities of life, all the more so since most of them lived from hand to mouth.

At the time when one reduced the royal guards, a good man was fired, without ceremony, like all the rest. His age and his lack of patronage precluded his transfer back to the army; his ignorance closed industry to him.  He sought to enter the civil service but competitors, numerous here as everywhere, blocked his way.  He fell into heavy sorrow and killed himself.  In his pocket one found a letter and disclosures of his circumstances.  His wife was a poor seamstress; their two daughters, ages 16 and 18, worked with her.  Tarnau, our suicide, wrote in the papers he left behind “that, since he could no longer be useful to his family and was forced to live as a burden to his wife and children, he saw it as his duty to take his life and free them from this added burden.  He recommended his children to the Duchess of Angoulême.15  He hoped that the goodness of this princess would take pity on so much misery.”  I drafted a report for the police prefect Angles and, after the necessary formalities, the Duchess provided 600 francs for the unfortunate family. Sad help, without doubt, after such a loss!  But, how should one family aid all the unfortunates since, when all is said and done, all France as it currently is, could not nourish them.  The charity of the rich would not suffice even if our whole nation were religious, which it is far from being. Suicide reduces the most violent share of the difficulty, the scaffold the rest. Only by completely recasting our entire system of agriculture and industry can sources of income and true wealth be anticipated.  It is easy to proclaim constitutions on parchment guaranteeing every citizen’s right to education, to work, and, above all, to a minimum subsistence-level existence.  But it is not enough to put these magnanimous wishes on paper; there remains the essential task of bringing these liberal ideas to fruition through material and intelligent social institutions.

The ancient world of paganism brought splendid creations to this earth; will modern freedom be left behind by her rivals?  Who will join together these grandiose elements of power?

Thus far Peuchet.

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from The Anatomy of Suicide: Can Suicide be Prevented by Legislative Enactments?


The ninth son in a family that had lost its American property in the War of Independence and returned to England, the physician Forbes Winslow was born in Pentonville, London. He was educated at University College, London and the Middlesex Hospital. In 1835, he joined the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and subsequently received his M.D. from Aberdeen in 1849. He supported his own education through writing: he was a reporter for the Times and also wrote medical manuals for students. His work Physic and Physicians (1842) was a two-volume collection of anecdotes about doctors. Winslow’s rise to prominence as an expert on cases of insanity was furthered by his writings, The Anatomy of Suicide (1840), The Plea of Insanity in Criminal Cases (1843), and The Incubation of Insanity (1845).

In 1847, Winslow founded two private insane asylums in Hammersmith, where he experimented with humane treatment of mental illnesses. Winslow continued to write about insanity; he founded the Quarterly Journal of Psychological Medicine in 1848 and wrote many papers for legal and medical instruction. He was instrumental in gaining acceptance for the plea of insanity in criminal cases, including cases of suicide (felo de se). He died in Brighton in 1874.

In these excerpts from The Anatomy of Suicide, Winslow, though he sees suicide as a crime against God and man, insists that laws punishing suicide (which were still in effect in England at the time) were both unjust, since they punished the family rather than the alleged offender, and ineffective, since they did not serve as a deterrent to suicide. He is particularly interested in the way in which a kind of reasoning about suicide, a sort of obsessive perseveration with thoughts of suicide, can invite the act, particularly if it is believed to be justifiable. The remedy, for Winslow, is Christian moral education.

Forbes Winslow, The Anatomy of Suicide, Ch. 16, “Can Suicide Be Prevented by Legislative Enactments?—Influence of Moral Instruction.” London: Henry Renshaw, 1840, pp. 36-44, 334-339.



The only legitimate object for which punishment can be inflicted is the prevention of crime.  “Am I to be hanged for stealing a sheep?” said a criminal at the Old Bailey, addressing the bench.  “No,” replied the judge; “you are not to be hanged for stealing a sheep, but that sheep may not be stolen.”  Every punishment, argues Beccaria, which does not arise from absolute necessity is unjust.  There should be a fixed proportion between crimes and punishments.  Crimes are only to be estimated by the injury done to society; and the end of punishment is, to prevent the criminal from doing further injury, as well as to induce others from committing similar offenses.

The act of suicide ought not to be considered as a crime in the legal definition of the term.  It is not an offense that can be deemed cognizable by the civil magistrate.  It is to be considered a sinful and vicious action.  To punish suicide as a crime is to commit a solecism in legislation.  The unfortunate individual, by the very act of suicide, places himself beyond the vengeance of the law; he has anticipated its operation; he has rendered himself amenable to the highest tribunal—viz., that of his Creator; no penal enactments, however stringent, can affect him.  What is the operation of the law under these circumstances?  A verdict of felo-de-se is returned, and the innocent relations of the suicide are disgraced and branded with infamy, and that too on evidence of an ex-parte nature.  It is unjust, inhuman, unnatural, and unchristian, that the law should punish the innocent family of the man who, in a moment of frenzy, terminates his own miserable existence.  It was clearly established, that before the alteration in the law respecting suicide, the fear of being buried in a cross-road, and having a stake driven through the body, had no beneficial effect in decreasing the number of suicides; and the verdict of felo-de-se, now occasionally returned, is productive of no advantage whatever, and only injures the surviving relatives.

When a man contemplates an outrage of the law, the fear of the punishment awarded for the offence may deter him from its commission; but the unhappy person whose desperate circumstances impel him to sacrifice his own life can be influenced by no such fear.  His whole mind is absorbed in the consideration of his own miseries, and he even cuts asunder those ties that ought to bind him closely and tenderly to the world he is about to leave.  If an affectionate wife and endearing family have not influence in deterring a man from suicide, is it reasonable to suppose that he will be influenced by penal laws?

If the view which has been taken in this work of the cause of suicide be a correct one, no stronger argument can be urged for the impropriety of bringing the strong arm of the law to bear upon those who court a voluntary death.  In the majority of cases, it will be found that some heavy calamity has fastened itself upon the mind, and the spirits have been extremely depressed.  The individual loses all pleasure in society; hope vanishes, and despair renders life intolerable, and death an apparent relief.  The evidence which is generally submitted to a coroner’s jury is of necessity imperfect; and although the suicide may, to all appearance, be in possession of his right reason, and have exhibited at the moment of killing himself the greatest calmness, coolness, and self-possession, this would not justify the coroner or jury in concluding that derangement of mind was not present.

If the mind be overpowered by “grief, sickness, infirmity, or other accident,” as Sir Mathew Hale expresses it, the law presumes the existence of lunacy.  Any passion that powerfully exercises the mind, and prevents the reasoning faculty from performing its duty, causes temporary derangement.  It is not necessary in order to establish the presence of insanity to prove the person to be labouring under a delusion of intellect—a false creation of the mind.  A man may allow his imagination to dwell upon an idea until it acquires an unhealthy ascendancy over the intellect, and in this way a person may commit suicide from an habitual belief in the justifiableness of the act.  If a man, by a distorted process of reasoning, argues himself into a conviction of the propriety of adopting a particular course of conduct, without any reference to the necessary result of that train of thought, it is certainly no evidence of his being in possession of a sound mind.  A person may reason himself into a belief that murder, under certain circumstances not authorized by the law, is perfectly just and proper.  The circumstance of his allowing his mind to reason on the subject is a prima facie case against his sanity; at least it demonstrates a great weakness of the moral constitution.  A man’s morale must be in an imperfect state of development who reasons himself into the conviction that self-murder is under any circumstances justifiable.

We dwell at some length on this subject, because we feel assured that juries do not pay sufficient attention to the influence of passion in overclouding the understanding.  If the notion that in every case of suicide the intellectual or moral faculties are perverted, be generally received, it will at once do away with the verdict of felo-de-se.  Should the jury entertain a doubt as to the presence of derangement, (and such cases may present themselves,) it is their duty, in accordance with the well-known principle of British jurisprudence, to give the person the benefit of that doubt; and thus a verdict of lunacy may be conscientiously returned in every case of this description.

Having, we think, clearly established that no penal law can act beneficially in preventing self-destruction,—first, because it would punish the innocent for the crimes of the guilty; and, secondly, that, owing to insanity being present in every instance, the person determined on suicide is indifferent as to the consequences of his action, —it becomes our province to consider what are the legitimate means of staying the progress of an offence that undermines the foundation of society and social happiness.

In the prevention of suicide, too much stress cannot be laid on the importance of adopting a well-regulated, enlarged, and philosophic system of education, by which all the moral as well as the intellectual faculties will be expanded and disciplined.  The education of the intellect without any reference to the moral feelings is a species of instruction calculated to do an immense amount of injury.  The tuition that addresses itself exclusively to the perceptive and reflective faculties is not the kind of education that will elevate the moral character of a people.  Religion must be made the basis of all secular knowledge.  We must be led to believe that the education which fits the possessor for another world is vastly superior to that which has relation only to the concerns of this life.  We are no opponents to the diffusion of knowledge; but we are to that description of information which has only reference “to the life that is, and not to that which is to be.”  Such a system of instruction is of necessity defective, because it is partial in its operation.  Teach a man his duty to God, as well as his obligations to his fellow-men; lead him to believe that his life is not his own; that disappointment and misery is the penalty of Adam’s transgression, and one from which there is no hope of escaping; and, above all, inculcate a resignation to the decrees of Divine Providence.  When life becomes a burden, when the mind is sinking under the weight of accumulated misfortunes, and no gleam of hope penetrates through the vista of futurity to gladden the heart, the intellect says, “Commit suicide, and escape from a world of wretchedness and woe;” the moral principle says, “Live; it is your duty to bear with resignation the afflictions that overwhelm you; let the moral influence of your example be reflected in the characters of those by whom you are surrounded.”

If we are justified in maintaining that the majority of the cases of suicide result from a vitiated condition of the moral principle, then it is certainly a legitimate mode of preventing the commission of the offence to elevate the character of man as a moral being.  It is no legitimate argument against this position to maintain that insanity in all its phases marches side by side with civilization and refinement; but it must not be forgotten that a people may be refined and civilized, using these terms in their ordinary signification, who have not a just conception of their duties as members of a Christian community.  Let the education of the heart go side by side with the education of the head; inculcate the ennobling thought, that we live not for ourselves, but for others; that it is an evidence of true Christian courage to face bravely the ills of life, to bear with impunity “the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, and the proud man’s contumely;” and we disseminate principles which will give expansion to those faculties that alone can fortify the mind against the commission of a crime alike repugnant to all human and Divine laws.

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Filed under Europe, Psychiatry, Selections, The Modern Era, Winslow, Forbes


from Autobiography
from Deaths of Casimir Perier and    Georges Cuvier
from Penal Code for India
from Diary, March 8, 1854
from On Liberty


The British economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill was born in Pentonville, London. His father, James Mill, was a philosopher who had strong ties to Jeremy Bentham and David Ricardo, and was himself a strict proponent of the utilitarian philosophy. According to his belief that the mind is a blank sheet at birth, upon which anything may be recorded, James Mill brought up his son with a strict, rigorous, and intricate education beginning with Greek at the age of three. The son was a brilliant student with extensive interests in French literature, social conditions, and economic and political theory, but he abandoned his early intention to enter law and instead took a series of positions with his father at the East India Company. By the age of 20, he was known as a foremost proponent of Utilitarianism. After his father’s death, he served from 1836–1856 in charge of relations with native states in India, and retired with a pension when the East India Company was dissolved in 1858. He was a campaigner for women’s suffrage. A member of Parliament from 1865–1868, he was, famously, the first person in its history to call for women to be given the right to vote. His longtime companion and literary collaborator, Mrs. Harriet Taylor, became his wife in 1851; Mill credits her with extensive influence, indeed virtual co-authorship, in much of his writing, especially their “joint production” On Liberty (1859). Mill’s works also include Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform (1859), Utilitarianism (appeared 1861 in Fraser’s Magazine, and as a book in 1863), The Subjection of Women (1869), and Autobiography, composed in the 1850’s, revised in the 1860’s, and published in the year of his death, 1873.

It is remarkable that Mill’s work contains no discussion of the ethical issues in suicide. Of all philosophers concerned with moral issues, Mill might seem to be the one for whom this issue would prove the greatest challenge. On the one hand, Mill’s famous argument in On Liberty suggests he might take a permissive position, perhaps even stronger than that of Hume [q.v.]: Mill argues that persons whose choices are made in informed, uncoerced, and unimpaired ways ought not to be interfered with; this is Mill’s view against the form of paternalism that seeks to impose one party’s values upon another. At the same time, however, there are other elements in On Liberty that suggest he might not think choices of suicide permissible after all—particularly his argument that, even if the choice is a freely made one, one ought not sell oneself into slavery, since one thus loses the liberty that is to be protected; “The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free.” Mill does not say whether he would apply this principle to ending one’s own life—and in particular, whether suicide would be wrong because it limits freedom, or permissible because it initiates death, in which one is nonexistent, neither free nor unfree. It is implausible then to suppose that Mill was unfamiliar with the issue; a vigorous debate had raged in England from Donne [q.v.] to Hume [q.v.] and later, and Mill would have been familiar with the Stoic authors [q.v., esp. under Chrysippus, Seneca] as well. He was personally acquainted with the issue of suicide, given the suicides of his close friend Eyton Tooke in 1830 and his brother George Grote Mill, who was in the late stages of tuberculosis, in 1853.

Mill makes a passing reference to suicide in Utilitarianism. When considering objections to the theory he is defending, he remarks “. . . even in that case, something might still be said for the utilitarian theory; since utility includes not solely the pursuit of happiness, but the prevention or mitigation of unhappiness; and if the former aim be chimerical, there will be all the greater scope and more imperative need for the latter, so long at least as mankind think fit to live, and do not take refuge in the simultaneous act of suicide recommended under certain conditions by Novalis [q.v.].” However, he does not discuss the ethics of suicide directly in any text.

The selections provided here are thus negative cases permitting only indirect inferences about Mill’s views. The first is an account of Mill’s experience with severe depression during the years 1826–27. He remarks that he seemed to have nothing left to live for, that pleasures are insufficient to make life desirable, and that he frequently asked himself if he could, or if he was bound to go on living; such depression is often associated with suicide. In the second selection, Mill is writing of the death of Casimir Perier, the 11th prime minister of France, who had restored civic order and reestablished France’s credit in Europe; Perier died in 1832 at the age of 54 from a fever contracted when he visited hospitals during an outbreak of cholera in Paris. The third selection is from Mill’s writings on India. He was interested in the development and defense of the proposed penal code for India, which in effect would establish British law for Indian citizens when it was enacted in 1860. Mill reproduces some of this text in his essay Penal Code for India (1838). The selection provided here distinguishes between the more severe penalties to be imposed on persons who aid or abet suicide in incompetent individuals (e.g., children, the insane, the intoxicated) and the less severe penalties for those who aid the suicide of a competent person. This passage may seem to correspond with his views about paternalism. Mill’s brief diary entry for March 8, 1854, hints obliquely at the issue of rationality in suicide.

Finally, the excerpts from On Liberty exhibit vividly the tension in his thought that would come to the fore if he had addressed the topic of suicide directly. It is extraordinary that Mill did not do so, given the centrality of the challenge this issue would constitute for his thinking about autonomy and paternalism. One might expect him to endorse a “right to die” under conditions such as maturity, rational capacity, and attention to one’s obligations to others; but at the same time, the depth of his personal experiences and his sensitivity to the many impairments of rationality might suggest he would hold that choices of suicide could not be rational or ought not to be respected. Nor does he address the permissibility of suicide prevention in a person who is competent and uncoerced. In ­chapter 5, “Applications,” he does hold it permissible for the state to restrict the sale of poisons by means of antecedent precautions that will ward off crimes, including murder, but does not address whether it would be permissible for the state to try to prevent what was then, legally, the crime of self-murder. Elijah Millgram suggests an explanation: given the ferocity of the debate over this issue at the time, Mill was well aware that he would only alienate listeners by taking one side or the other and thus would detract from the potential audience for his other, more central views.

John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, chapter 5, “A Crisis in My Mental History,” London: Oxford University Press, 1949, pp. 112-127, 142-44, available online at “Deaths of Casimir Perier and Georges Cuvier,” from Examiner, May 20, 1832, in “Newspaper Writings,”in Collected Works of John Stuart Milled. J. M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963–91), vol. 23, pp. 329-330. “Penal Code for India,” Calcutta: Bengal Military Orphan Press, 1837; London and Westminster Review, vol. VII, XXIX (August 1838), pp. 393-409 (not enacted until 1860), also in “Writings on India,” in Collected Works, vol. 30, p. 23-27. “Diary,” March 8, 1854, from “Journals and Debating Speeches,” Part II, in Collected Works, vol. 27, p. 660. On Liberty (1859), Introduction and chapter 5, Applications, in Collected Works and online at

Quotation from Mill in introductory notes from Mill’s Utilitarianism, eds. James M. Smith and Ernest Sosa. California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, p. 41. Comment on Mill in introductory notes, Elijah Millgram, personal communication.



For some years after this I wrote very little, and nothing regularly, for publication: and great were the advantages which I derived from the intermission. It was of no common importance to me, at this period, to be able to digest and mature my thoughts for my own mind only, without any immediate call for giving them out in print. Had I gone on writing, it would have much disturbed the important transformation in my opinions and character, which took place during those years. The origin of this transformation, or at least the process by which I was prepared for it, can only be explained by turning some distance back.

From the winter of 1821, when I first read Bentham, and especially from the commencement of the Westminster Review, I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object. The personal sympathies I wished for were those of fellow labourers in this enterprise. I endeavoured to pick up as many flowers as I could by the way; but as a serious and permanent personal satisfaction to rest upon, my whole reliance was placed on this; and I was accustomed to felicitate myself on the certainty of a happy life which I enjoyed, through placing my happiness in something durable and distant, in which some progress might be always making, while it could never be exhausted by complete attainment. This did very well for several years, during which the general improvement going on in the world and the idea of myself as engaged with others in struggling to promote it, seemed enough to fill up an interesting and animated existence. But the time came when I awakened from this as from a dream. It was in the autumn of 1826. I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent; the state, I should think, in which converts to Methodism usually are, when smitten by their first “conviction of sin.” In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

At first I hoped that the cloud would pass away of itself; but it did not. A night’s sleep, the sovereign remedy for the smaller vexations of life, had no effect on it. I awoke to a renewed consciousness of the woful fact. I carried it with me into all companies, into all occupations. Hardly anything had power to cause me even a few minutes oblivion of it. For some months the cloud seemed to grow thicker and thicker. The lines in Coleridge’s “Dejection”—I was not then acquainted with them—exactly describe my case:

           “A grief without a pang, void, dark and drear,

            A drowsy, stifled, unimpassioned grief,

            Which finds no natural outlet or relief

            In word, or sigh, or tear.”

In vain I sought relief from my favourite books; those memorials of past nobleness and greatness from which I had always hitherto drawn strength and animation. I read them now without feeling, or with the accustomed feeling minus all its charm; and I became persuaded, that my love of mankind, and of excellence for its own sake, had worn itself out. I sought no comfort by speaking to others of what I felt. If I had loved any one sufficiently to make confiding my griefs a necessity, I should not have been in the condition I was. I felt, too, that mine was not an interesting, or in any way respectable distress. There was nothing in it to attract sympathy. Advice, if I had known where to seek it, would have been most precious. The words of Macbeth to the physician often occurred to my thoughts. But there was no one on whom I could build the faintest hope of such assistance. My father, to whom it would have been natural to me to have recourse in any practical difficulties, was the last person to whom, in such a case as this, I looked for help. Everything convinced me that he had no knowledge of any such mental state as I was suffering from, and that even if he could be made to understand it, he was not the physician who could heal it. My education, which was wholly his work, had been conducted without any regard to the possibility of its ending in this result; and I saw no use in giving him the pain of thinking that his plans had failed, when the failure was probably irremediable, and, at all events, beyond the power of his remedies. Of other friends, I had at that time none to whom I had any hope of making my condition intelligible. It was however abundantly intelligible to myself; and the more I dwelt upon it, the more hopeless it appeared.

My course of study had led me to believe, that all mental and moral feelings and qualities, whether of a good or of a bad kind, were the results of association; that we love one thing, and hate another, take pleasure in one sort of action or contemplation, and pain in another sort, through the clinging of pleasurable or painful ideas to those things, from the effect of education or of experience. As a corollary from this, I had always heard it maintained by my father, and was myself convinced, that the object of education should be to form the strongest possible associations of the salutary class; associations of pleasure with all things beneficial to the great whole, and of pain with all things hurtful to it. This doctrine appeared inexpugnable; but it now seemed to me, on retrospect, that my teachers had occupied themselves but superficially with the means of forming and keeping up these salutary associations. They seemed to have trusted altogether to the old familiar instruments, praise and blame, reward and punishment. Now, I did not doubt that by these means, begun early, and applied unremittingly, intense associations of pain and pleasure, especially of pain, might be created, and might produce desires and aversions capable of lasting undiminished to the end of life. But there must always be something artificial and casual in associations thus produced. The pains and pleasures thus forcibly associated with things, are not connected with them by any natural tie; and it is therefore, I thought, essential to the durability of these associations, that they should have become so intense and inveterate as to be practically indissoluble, before the habitual exercise of the power of analysis had commenced. For I now saw, or thought I saw, what I had always before received with incredulity—that the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings: as indeed it has, when no other mental habit is cultivated, and the analysing spirit remains without its natural complements and correctives. The very excellence of analysis (I argued) is that it tends to weaken and undermine whatever is the result of prejudice; that it enables us mentally to separate ideas which have only casually clung together: and no associations whatever could ultimately resist this dissolving force, were it not that we owe to analysis our clearest knowledge of the permanent sequences in nature; the real connexions between Things, not dependent on our will and feelings; natural laws, by virtue of which, in many cases, one thing is inseparable from another in fact; which laws, in proportion as they are clearly perceived and imaginatively realized, cause our ideas of things which are always joined together in Nature, to cohere more and more closely in our thoughts. Analytic habits may thus even strengthen the associations between causes and effects, means and ends, but tend altogether to weaken those which are, to speak familiarly, a mere matter of feeling. They are therefore (I thought) favourable to prudence and clear-sightedness, but a perpetual worm at the root both of the passions and of the virtues; and, above all, fearfully undermine all desires, and all pleasures, which are the effects of association, that is, according to the theory I held, all except the purely physical and organic; of the entire insufficiency of which to make life desirable, no one had a stronger conviction than I had. These were the laws of human nature, by which, as it seemed to me, I had been brought to my present state. All those to whom I looked up, were of opinion that the pleasure of sympathy with human beings, and the feelings which made the good of others, and especially of mankind on a large scale, the object of existence, were the greatest and surest sources of happiness. Of the truth of this I was convinced, but to know that a feeling would make me happy if I had it, did not give me the feeling. My education, I thought, had failed to create these feelings in sufficient strength to resist the dissolving influence of analysis, while the whole course of my intellectual cultivation had made precocious and premature analysis the inveterate habit of my mind. I was thus, as I said to myself, left stranded at the commencement of my voyage, with a well-equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail; without any real desire for the ends which I had been so carefully fitted out to work for: no delight in virtue, or the general good, but also just as little in anything else. The fountains of vanity and ambition seemed to have dried up within me, as completely as those of benevolence. I had had (as I reflected) some gratification of vanity at too early an age: I had obtained some distinction, and felt myself of some importance, before the desire of distinction and of importance had grown into a passion: and little as it was which I had attained, yet having been attained too early, like all pleasures enjoyed too soon, it had made me blasé and indifferent to the pursuit. Thus neither selfish nor unselfish pleasures were pleasures to me. And there seemed no power in nature sufficient to begin the formation of my character anew, and create in a mind now irretrievably analytic, fresh associations of pleasure with any of the objects of human desire.

These were the thoughts which mingled with the dry heavy dejection of the melancholy winter of 1826–7. During this time I was not incapable of my usual occupations. I went on with them mechanically, by the mere force of habit. I had been so drilled in a certain sort of mental exercise, that I could still carry it on when all the spirit had gone out of it. I even composed and spoke several speeches at the debating society, how, or with what degree of success, I know not. Of four years continual speaking at that society, this is the only year of which I remember next to nothing. Two lines of Coleridge, in whom alone of all writers I have found a true description of what I felt, were often in my thoughts, not at this time (for I had never read them), but in a later period of the same mental malady:

           “Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,

            And hope without an object cannot live.”

In all probability my case was by no means so peculiar as I fancied it, and I doubt not that many others have passed through a similar state; but the idiosyncrasies of my education had given to the general phenomenon a special character, which made it seem the natural effect of causes that it was hardly possible for time to remove. I frequently asked myself, if I could, or if I was bound to go on living, when life must be passed in this manner. I generally answered to myself, that I did not think I could possibly bear it beyond a year. When, however, not more than half that duration of time had elapsed, a small ray of light broke in upon my gloom. I was reading, accidentally, Marmontel’s “Memoires,” and came to the passage which relates his father’s death, the distressed position of the family, and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt and made them feel that he would be everything to them—would supply the place of all that they had lost. A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears. From this moment my been grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone. I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stock or a stone. I had still, it seemed, some of the material out of which all worth of character, and all capacity for happiness, are made. Relieved from my ever present sense of irremediable wretchedness, I gradually found that the ordinary incidents of life could again give me some pleasure; that I could again find enjoyment, not intense, but sufficient for cheerfulness, in sunshine and sky, in books, in conversation, in public affairs; and that there was, once more, excitement, though of a moderate kind, in exerting myself for my opinions, and for the public good. Thus the cloud gradually drew off, and I again enjoyed life: and though I had several relapses, some of which lasted many months, I never again was as miserable as I had been.

The experiences of this period had two very marked effects on my opinions and character. In the first place, they led me to adopt a theory of life, very unlike that on which I had before acted, and having much in common with what at that time I certainly had never heard of, the anti-self-consciousness theory of Carlyle. I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning. This theory now became the basis of my philosophy of life. And I still hold to it as the best theory for all those who have but a moderate degree of sensibility and of capacity for enjoyment, that is, for the great majority of mankind.

The other important change which my opinions at this time underwent, was that I, for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual. I ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances, and the training of the human being for speculation and for action.

I had now learnt by experience that the passive susceptibilities needed to be cultivated as well as the active capacities, and required to be nourished and enriched as well as guided. I did not, for an instant, lose sight of, or under-value, that part of the truth which I had seen before; I never turned recreant to intellectual culture, or ceased to consider the power and practice of analysis as an essential condition both of individual and of social improvement. But I thought that it had consequences which required to be corrected, by joining other kinds of cultivation with it. The maintenance of a due balance among the faculties, now seemed to me of primary importance. The cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed. And my thoughts and inclinations turned in an increasing degree towards whatever seemed capable of being instrumental to that object.

I now began to find meaning in the things which I had read or heard about the importance of poetry and art as instruments of human culture. But it was some time longer before I began to know this by personal experience. The only one of the imaginative arts in which I had from childhood taken great pleasure, was music; the best effect of which (and in this it surpasses perhaps every other art) consists in exciting enthusiasm; in winding up to a high pitch those feelings of an elevated kind which are already in the character, but to which this excitement gives a glow and a fervour, which, though transitory at its utmost height, is precious for sustaining them at other times. This effect of music I had often experienced; but like all my pleasurable susceptibilities it was suspended during the gloomy period. I had sought relief again and again from this quarter, but found none. After the tide had turned, and I was in process of recovery, I had been helped forward by music, but in a much less elevated manner. I at this time first became acquainted with Weber’s Oberon, and the extreme pleasure which I drew from its delicious melodies did me good, by showing me a source of pleasure to which I was as susceptible as ever. The good, however, was much impaired by the thought, that the pleasure of music (as is quite true of such pleasure as this was, that of mere tune) fades with familiarity, and requires either to be revived by intermittence, or fed by continual novelty. And it is very characteristic both of my then state, and of the general tone of my mind at this period of my life, that I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations. The octave consists only of five tones and two semi-tones, which can be put together in only a limited number of ways, of which but a small proportion are beautiful: most of these, it seemed to me, must have been already discovered, and there could not be room for a long succession of Mozarts and Webers, to strike out, as these had done, entirely new and surpassingly rich veins of musical beauty. This source of anxiety may, perhaps, be thought to resemble that of the philosophers of Laputa, who feared lest the sun should be burnt out. It was, however, connected with the best feature in my character, and the only good point to be found in my very unromantic and in no way honourable distress. For though my dejection, honestly looked at, could not be called other than egotistical, produced by the ruin, as I thought, of my fabric of happiness, yet the destiny of mankind in general was ever in my thoughts, and could not be separated from my own. I felt that the flaw in my life, must be a flaw in life itself; that the question was, whether, if the reformers of society and government could succeed in their objects, and every person in the community were free and in a state of physical comfort, the pleasures of life, being no longer kept up by struggle and privation, would cease to be pleasures. And I felt that unless I could see my way to some better hope than this for human happiness in general, my dejection must continue; but that if I could see such an outlet, I should then look on the world with pleasure; content as far as I was myself concerned, with any fair share of the general lot.

This state of my thoughts and feelings made the fact of my reading Wordsworth for the first time (in the autumn of 1828), an important event in my life. I took up the collection of his poems from curiosity, with no expectation of mental relief from it, though I had before resorted to poetry with that hope. In the worst period of my depression, I had read through the whole of Byron (then new to me), to try whether a poet, whose peculiar department was supposed to be that of the intenser feelings, could rouse any feeling in me. As might be expected, I got no good from this reading, but the reverse. The poet’s state of mind was too like my own. His was the lament of a man who had worn out all pleasures, and who seemed to think that life, to all who possess the good things of it, must necessarily be the vapid, uninteresting thing which I found it. His Harold and Manfred had the same burthen on them which I had; and I was not in a frame of mind to derive any comfort from the vehement sensual passion of his Giaours, or the sullenness of his Laras. But while Byron was exactly what did not suit my condition, Wordsworth was exactly what did. I had looked into the Excursion two or three years before, and found little in it; and I should probably have found as little, had I read it at this time. But the miscellaneous poems, in the two-volume edition of 1815 (to which little of value was added in the latter part of the author’s life), proved to be the precise thing for my mental wants at that particular juncture.

In the first place, these poems addressed themselves powerfully to one of the strongest of my pleasurable susceptibilities, the love of rural objects and natural scenery; to which I had been indebted not only for much of the pleasure of my life, but quite recently for relief from one of my longest relapses into depression. In this power of rural beauty over me, there was a foundation laid for taking pleasure in Wordsworth’s, poetry. the more so, as his scenery lies mostly among mountains, which, owing to my early Pyrenean excursion, were my ideal of natural beauty. But Wordsworth would never have had any great effect on me, if he had merely placed before me beautiful pictures of natural scenery. Scott does this still better than Wordsworth, and a very second-rate landscape does it more effectually than any poet. What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a Source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connexion with struggle of imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence. There have certainly been, even in our own age, greater poets than Wordsworth; but poetry of deeper and loftier feeling could not have done for me at that time what his did. I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in the common feelings and common destiny of human beings. And the delight which these poems gave me, proved that with culture of this sort, there was nothing to dread from the most confirmed habit of analysis. At the conclusion of the Poems came the famous Ode, falsely called Platonic, “Intimations of Immortality:” in which, along with more than his usual sweetness of melody and rhythm, and along with the two passages of grand imagery but bad philosophy so often quoted, I found that he too had had similar experience to mine; that he also had felt that the first freshness of youthful enjoyment of life was not lasting; but that he had sought for compensation, and found it, in the way in which he was now teaching me to find it. The result was that I gradually, but completely, emerged from my habitual depression, and was never again subject to it. I long continued to value Wordsworth less according to his intrinsic merits, than by the measure of what he had done for me. Compared with the greatest poets, he may be said to be the poet of unpoetical natures, possessed of quiet and contemplative tastes. But unpoetical natures are precisely those which require poetic cultivation. This cultivation Wordsworth is much more fitted to give, than poets who are intrinsically far more poets than he.

It so fell out that the merits of Wordsworth were the occasion of my first public declaration of my new way of thinking, and separation from those of my habitual companions who had not undergone a similar change…

…In giving an account of this period of my life, I have only specified such of my new impressions as appeared to me, both at the time and since, to be a kind of turning points, marking a definite progress in my mode of thought. But these few selected points give a very insufficient idea of the quantity of thinking which I carried on respecting a host of subjects during these years of transition. Much of this, it is true, consisted in rediscovering things known to all the world, which I had previously disbelieved, or disregarded. But the rediscovery was to me a discovery, giving me plenary possession of the truths, not as traditional platitudes, but fresh from their source; and it seldom failed to place them in some new light, by which they were reconciled with, and seemed to confirm while they modified, the truths less generally known which lay in my early opinions, and in no essential part of which I at any time wavered. All my new thinking only laid the foundation of these more deeply and strongly while it often removed misapprehension and confusion of ideas which had perverted their effect. For example, during the later returns of my dejection, the doctrine of what is called Philosophical Necessity weighed on my existence like an incubus. I felt as if I was scientifically proved to be the helpless slave of antecedent circumstances; as if my character and that of all others had been formed for us by agencies beyond our control, and was wholly out of our own power. I often said to myself, what a relief it would be if I could disbelieve the doctrine of the formation of character by circumstances; and remembering the wish of Fox respecting the doctrine of resistance to governments, that it might never be forgotten by kings, nor remembered by subjects, I said that it would be a blessing if the doctrine of necessity could be believed by all quoad the characters of others, and disbelieved in regard to their own. I pondered painfully on the subject, till gradually I saw light through it. I perceived, that the word Necessity, as a name for the doctrine of Cause and Effect applied to human action, carried with it a misleading association; and that this association was the operative force in the depressing and paralysing influence which I had experienced: I saw that though our character is formed by circumstances, our own desires can do much to shape those circumstances; and that what is really inspiriting and ennobling in the doctrine of free-will, is the conviction that we have real power over the formation of our own character; that our will, by influencing some of our circumstances, can modify our future habits or capabilities of willing. All this was entirely consistent with the doctrine of circumstances, or rather, was that doctrine itself, properly understood. From that time I drew in my own mind, a clear distinction between the doctrine of circumstances, and Fatalism; discarding altogether the misleading word Necessity. The theory, which I now for the first time rightly apprehended, ceased altogether to be discouraging, and besides the relief to my spirits, I no longer suffered under the burthen, so heavy to one who aims at being a reformer in opinions, of thinking one doctrine true, and the contrary doctrine morally beneficial. The train of thought which had extricated me from this dilemma, seemed to me, in after years, fitted to render a similar service to others; and it now forms the chapter on Liberty and Necessity in the concluding Book of my System of Logic…


 …For it is ill dying a martyr to a falling cause, when that cause is also one which ought to fall. Cranmer and Latimer and Ridley will live for ever; but is it for his martyrdom that we remember Sir Thomas More? Devotion to a long line of kings, or to a constitution which has stood the shock of ages, though now rotten, and worm-eaten, and harbouring unclean vermin, we can understand. But to die for a temporary compromise, a patch-work of yesterday, a thing constructed on no principle, to which no human being ever carried hypocrisy so far as to pretend to have any attachment, to which nobody affects to look for any guidance, but only for keeping him from being robbed or murdered;—to be martyred for worshiping at an empty shrine—without an oracle, without a God, without even an idol; no Gothic cathedral or Grecian temple, but a wooden shed, run up in a hurry, because any shelter was better than the open sky, and which men resort to, not because it is good, but because they know not whither to seek for any other—is a death little worthy of an apotheosis; no dying for one’s country, but a common suicide….



294. Whoever does any act, or omits what he is legally bound to do, with the intention of thereby causing, or with the knowledge that he is likely thereby to cause, the death of any person, and does by such act or omission cause the death of any person, is said to commit the offence of “Voluntary culpable homicide.”

(a). A lays sticks and turf over a pit, with the intention of thereby causing death, or with the knowledge that death is likely to be thereby caused. Z, believing the ground to be firm, treads on it, falls in, and is killed. A has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.

(b). A, with the intention or knowledge aforesaid, relates agitating tidings to Z, who is in a critical stage of a dangerous illness. Z dies in consequence. A has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.

(c). A, with the intention or knowledge aforesaid, gives Z his choice whether Z will kill himself, or suffer lingering torture. Z kills himself in consequence. A has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.

(d). A, with the intention or knowledge aforesaid, falsely deposes before a court of justice that he saw Z commit a capital crime. Z is convicted and executed in consequence. A has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.

(e). A is hired to guide Z through a jungle. In the midst of the jungle, A, no circumstance having occurred to release him from his legal obligation to guide Z through the jungle, with such intention or knowledge as aforesaid, leaves Z. Z dies in consequence. A has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.

(f). A being legally bound to furnish food to Z, who is the mother of a sucking child, omits to furnish her with food, intending or knowing it to be likely that Z’s death may be the consequence of the omission. Z survives, but the child is starved to death in consequence of the failure of milk, which is caused by A’s omission. Here, even if A did not know of the existence of the child, he has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.

(g). A keeps Z in wrongful confinement, and is, therefore, legally bound (see clause 338) to furnish Z with what he knows to be necessary to prevent Z from being in danger of death. A knowing that Z is likely to die if medical advice be not procured, illegally omits to procure such advice. Z dies in consequence. A has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.

(h). A knows Z to be behind a bush. B does not know it. A, intending to cause, or knowing himself to be likely to cause, Z’s death, induces B to fire at the bush. B fires and kills Z. Here, B may be guilty of no offence, or if his firing was, under the circumstances, a rash act, he may be guilty of the offence defined in clause 304. But A has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.*

295. Voluntary culpable homicide is “murder,” unless it be of one of the three mitigated descriptions hereinafter enumerated; that is to say,

First, Manslaughter;

Secondly, Voluntary culpable homicide by consent;

Thirdly, Voluntary culpable homicide in defence.

296. If a person, by doing anything which he intends or knows to be likely to cause death, commits voluntary culpable homicide on a person whose death he neither intends nor knows himself to be likely to cause, the voluntary culpable homicide committed by the offender is of the same description of which it would have been if he had caused the death which he intended or knew himself to be likely to cause.

297. Voluntary culpable homicide is “manslaughter,” when it is committed on grave and sudden provocation, by causing the death of the person who gave that provocation.

Explanation.—Provocation is designated as “grave” when it is such as would be likely to move a person of ordinary temper to violent passion, and is not given by anything done in obedience to the law, or by anything authorised by the law of civil or criminal procedure, or by anything done by a public servant* in the exercise of the lawful powers of such public servant, or by anything done by any person in the exercise of the right of private defence, against the offender.

(a). A, under the influence of passion excited by a provocation given by Z, intentionally kills Y, Z’s child. This is not manslaughter, but murder.

(b). A is lawfully arrested by Z, a bailiff. A is excited to sudden and violent passion by the arrest, and voluntarily kills Z. This is not manslaughter, but murder.

(c). A appears as a witness before Z, a magistrate. Z says that he does not believe a word of A’s deposition, and that A has perjured himself. A is moved to sudden passion by these words, and kills Z. This is not manslaughter, but murder.

(d). A attempts to pull Z’s nose. Z, in the exercise of the right of private defence, strikes A. A is moved to sudden and violent passion by the blow, and kills Z. This is not manslaughter, but murder.

(e). Z strikes B. B is by this provocation excited to violent rage. A, a bystander, intending to take advantage of B’s rage in order to cause Z’s death, puts a knife into B’s hand. B kills Z with the knife. Here, B may have committed only manslaughter, but A has committed murder.

(f). Y gives grave and sudden provocation to A. A, on this provocation, fires a pistol at Y, neither intending nor knowing himself to be likely to kill Z, who is near him but out of sight. A kills Z. Here, A has committed manslaughter.

298. Voluntary culpable homicide is “voluntary culpable homicide by consent,” when the person whose death is caused, being above twelve years of age, suffers death, or takes the risk of death, by his own choice:


First, That the offender does not induce the person whose death is caused to make that choice, by directly or indirectly putting that person in fear of any injury;*

Secondly, That the person whose death has been caused is not, from youth, mental imbecility, derangement, intoxication, or passion, unable to understand the nature and consequences of his choice;

Thirdly, That the offender does not know that the person whose death is caused was induced to make the choice by any deception, or concealment;

Fourthly, That the offender does not conceal from the person whose death is caused anything which the offender knew to be likely to cause that person to change his mind.

Explanation.—Voluntary culpable homicide committed by inducing a person voluntarily to put himself to death is voluntary culpable homicide by consent, except when it is murder.

(a). Z, a Hindoo widow, consents to be burned with the corpse of her husband. A kindles the pile. Here A has committed voluntary culpable homicide by consent.

(b). A, by instigation, voluntarily causes Z, a child under twelve years of age, to commit suicide. Here, on account of Z’s youth, the offence cannot be voluntary culpable homicide by consent. A has therefore committed murder.

(c). A, by deceiving Z into a belief that Z’s family have perished at sea, voluntarily causes Z to commit suicide. Here, on account of the deception practised by A, the offence cannot be voluntary culpable homicide by consent. A has therefore committed murder.

299. Voluntary culpable homicide is “voluntary culpable homicide in defence,” when it is committed by causing death under such circumstances that such causing of death would be no offence if the right of private defence extended to the voluntary causing of death in cases of assault not falling under any of the descriptions enumerated in clause 76, or in cases of theft, mischief, or criminal trespass, not falling under any of the descriptions enumerated in clause 79.

(a). Z attempts to horsewhip A, not in such a manner as to cause grievous hurt to A. A draws out a pistol. Z persists in the assault. A, believing in good faith that he can by no other means prevent himself from being horsewhipped, shoots Z dead. A has committed voluntary culpable homicide in defence.

(b). Z commits simple theft on A’s horse, and rides away with it. Here A has a right of private defence which lasts till either Z can effect his retreat with the property, or till A can recover his horse, but which does not extend to the infliction of death, inasmuch as A is in no danger of death or hurt. A pursues Z, and, not being able to overtake him, shoots him dead. A has committed voluntary culpable homicide in defence.

(c). Z commits an assault, not of a dangerous description, on A. A, knowing that he can defend himself from the assault without killing Z, kills Z. Here, as A’s act would be an offence even if the right of private defence in cases of assault of the descriptions not enumerated in clause 76 extended to the voluntary infliction of death, A has committed voluntary culpable homicide, which is not voluntary culpable homicide in defence, but which, according to the circumstances, will be manslaughter or murder.

300. Whoever commits murder shall be punished with death, or transportation for life, or rigorous imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.*

301. Whoever commits manslaughter shall be punished with imprisonment of either description, for a term which may extend to fourteen years, or fine, or both.

302. Whoever commits voluntary culpable homicide by consent shall be punished with imprisonment of either description, for a term which may extend to fourteen years and must not be less than two years, and shall also be liable to fine.

303. Whoever commits voluntary culpable homicide in defence shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to fourteen years, or fine, or both.

304. Whoever causes the death of any person by any act or any illegal omission, which act or omission was so rash or negligent as to indicate a want of due regard for human life, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or fine, or both.

305. If the act or illegal omission whereby death is caused in the manner described in the last preceding clause, be, apart from the circumstance of its having caused death, an offence other than the offence defined in clause 327, or an attempt to commit an offence, the offender shall be liable to the punishment of the offence so committed or attempted, in addition to the punishment provided by the last preceding clause.

Explanation.—In cases in which the doing of a certain thing and the attempting to do that thing are distinct offences, if the offence defined in the last preceding clause be committed in the attempting to do that thing, the additional punishment to which the offender is liable is the punishment not of attempting to do that thing, but of doing that thing.

A uses force to Z, a woman, intending to ravish her. He does not ravish her, but commits the offence defined in clause 304. Here the term of imprisonment to which A has made himself liable is to be regulated not by the term of imprisonment assigned to the offence of attempting to ravish, but by the term of imprisonment assigned to actual rape, that is to say, A is liable to rigorous imprisonment for a term of not more than sixteen nor less than two years.

306. If any child under twelve years of age, any insane person, any delirious person, any idiot, or any person in a state of intoxication, commits suicide, whoever previously abets by aid* the commission of such suicide shall be punished with death or transportation for life, or rigorous imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

307. If any person commits suicide, whoever previously abets by aid the commission of such suicide shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to fourteen years, and must not be less than two years, and shall also be liable to fine.

308. Whoever does any act, or omits what he is legally bound to do, with such intention or knowledge and under such circumstances that if he by that act or omission caused death, he would be guilty of murder, and carries that act or omission to such a length as at the time of carrying it to that length he contemplates as sufficient to cause death, shall be punished with transportation for life, or with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to life, and must not be less than seven years, and shall also be liable to fine.

(a). A, intending to murder Z by means of a spring gun, purchases such a gun. A has not yet committed the offence defined in this clause. A sets the gun loaded in Z’s path, and leaves it there. A has committed the offence defined in this clause.

(b). A, intending to murder Z by poison, purchases poison, and mixes the same with food which remains in A’s keeping. A has not yet committed the offence defined in this clause. A places the food on Z’s table, or delivers it to Z’s servants to place it on Z’s table. A has committed the offence defined in this clause.

309. Whoever does any act, or omits what he is legally bound to do, with such intention or knowledge and under such circumstances that if he, by that act or omission, caused death, he would be guilty of voluntary culpable homicide, and carries that act or omission to such a length as at the time of carrying it to that length he contemplates as sufficient to cause death, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description, for a term which may extend to three years, or fine, or both.

(a). A, on grave and sudden provocation, fires a pistol at Z, under such circumstances that if he thereby caused death he would be guilty of manslaughter. A has committed the offence defined in this clause.

(b). A lights a pile prepared for a Suttee, under such circumstances that if he thereby caused death he would be guilty of voluntary culpable homicide by consent. A has committed the offence defined in this clause.

(c). A pursues a thief, and fires at him, under such circumstances that if he killed the thief he would commit voluntary culpable homicide in defence. A has committed the offence defined in this clause.

310. Whoever belongs or has at any time belonged to any gang of persons associated for the purpose of gaining a livelihood by inveigling and murdering travellers in order to take the property of such travellers, is designated as a “Thug.”

311. Whoever is a Thug shall be punished with transportation for life, or imprisonment of either description for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

DIARY, MARCH 8, 1854

People who lead regular lives are often unable to conceive how it is that men with their eyes open do things which are obviously likely to bring them to ruin, ignominy, and perhaps suicide or the gallows. They account for it by supposing delusion, madness, the blinding influence of passion, etc., etc. They do not consider that the men who do the acts involving this ultimate extreme of failure in life are mostly men who are already in some position only one or two removes short of it.



The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him withany evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end, perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimatemode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one. But as soon as mankind have attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion (a period long since reached in all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves), compulsion, either in the direct form or in that of pains and penalties for non-compliance, is no longer admissible as a means to their own good, and justifiable only for the security of others.

It is proper to state that I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorise the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other people. If any one does an act hurtful to others, there is a primâ facie case for punishing him, by law, or, where legal penalties are not safely applicable, by general disapprobation. There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others, which he may rightfully be compelled to perform; such as, to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in the common defence, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection; and to perform certain acts of individual beneficence, such as saving a fellow-creature’s life, or interposing to protect the defenceless against ill-usage, things which whenever it is obviously a man’s duty to do, he may rightfully be made responsible to society for not doing. A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury. The latter case, it is true, requires a much more cautious exercise of compulsion than the former. To make any one answerable for doing evil to others, is the rule; to make him answerable for not preventing evil, is, comparatively speaking, the exception. Yet there are many cases clear enough and grave enough to justify that exception. In all things which regardthe external relations of the individual, he is de jure amenable to those whose interests are concerned, and if need be, to society as their protector. There are often good reasons for not holding him to the responsibility; but these reasons must arise from the special expediencies of the case: either because it is a kind of case in which he is on the whole likely to act better, when left to his own discretion, than when controlled in any way in which society have it in their power to control him; or because the attempt to exercise control would produce other evils, greater than those which it would prevent. When such reasons as these preclude the enforcement of responsibility, the conscience of the agent himself should step into the vacant judgment seat, and protect those interests of others which have no external protection; judging himself all the more rigidly, because the case does not admit of his being made accountable to the judgment of his fellow-creatures.

But there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person’s life and conduct which affects only himself, or if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation. When I say only himself, I mean directly, and in the first instance: for whatever affects himself, may affect others through himself; and the objection which may be grounded on this contingency, will receive consideration in the sequel. This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

Though this doctrine is anything but new, and, to some persons, may have the air of a truism, there is no doctrine which stands more directly opposed to the general tendency of existing opinion and practice. Society has expended fully as much effort in the attempt (according to its lights) to compel people to conform to its notions of personal, as of social excellence. The ancient commonwealths thought themselves entitled to practise, and the ancient philosophers countenanced, the regulation of every part of private conduct by public authority, on the ground that the State had a deep interest in the whole bodily and mental discipline of every one of its citizens; a mode of thinking which may have been admissible in small republics surrounded by powerful enemies, in constant peril of being subverted by foreign attack or internal commotion, and to which even a short interval of relaxed energy and self-command might so easily be fatal, that they could not afford to wait for the salutary permanent effects of freedom. In the modern world, the greater size of political communities, and above all, the separation between spiritual and temporal authority (which placed the direction of men’s consciences in other hands than those which controlled their worldly affairs), prevented so great an interference by law in the details of private life; but the engines of moral repression have been wielded more strenuously against divergence from the reigning opinion in self-regarding, than even in social matters; religion, the most powerful of the elements which have entered into the formation of moral feeling, having almost always been governed either by the ambition of a hierarchy, seeking control over every department of human conduct, or by the spirit of Puritanism. And some of those modern reformers who have placed themselves in strongest opposition to the religions of the past, have been noway behind either churches or sects in their assertion of the right of spiritual domination: M. Comte, in particular, whose social system, as unfolded in his Traité de Politique Positive, aims at establishing (though by moral more than by legal appliances) a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers.

Apart from the peculiar tenets of individual thinkers, there is also in the world at large an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation: and as the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society, and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable. The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow-citizens to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power; and as the power is not declining, but growing, unless a strong barrier of moral conviction can be raised against the mischief, we must expect, in the present circumstances of the world, to see it increase.

It will be convenient for the argument, if, instead of at once entering upon the general thesis, we confine ourselves in the first instance to a single branch of it, on which the principle here stated is, if not fully, yet to a certain point, recognised by the current opinions. This one branch is the Liberty of Thought: from which it is impossible to separate the cognate liberty of speaking and of writing. Although these liberties, to some considerable amount, form part of the political morality of all countries which profess religious toleration and free institutions, the grounds, both philosophical and practical, on which they rest, are perhaps not so familiar to the general mind, nor so thoroughly appreciated by many even of the leaders of opinion, as might have been expected. Those grounds, when rightly understood, are of much wider application than to only one division of the subject, and a thorough consideration of this part of the question will be found the best introduction to the remainder. Those to whom nothing which I am about to say will be new, may therefore, I hope, excuse me, if on a subject which for now three centuries has been so often discussed, I venture on one discussion more….


Again, trade is a social act. Whoever undertakes to sell any description of goods to the public, does what affects the interest of other persons, and of society in general; and thus his conduct, in principle, comes within the jurisdiction of society: accordingly, it was once held to be the duty of governments, in all cases which were considered of importance, to fix prices, and regulate the processes of manufacture. But it is now recognised, though not till after a long struggle, that both the cheapness and the good quality of commodities are most effectually provided for by leaving the producers and sellers perfectly free, under the sole check of equalfreedom to the buyers for supplying themselves elsewhere. This is the so-called doctrine of Free Trade, which rests on grounds different from, though equally solid with, the principle of individual liberty asserted in this Essay. Restrictions on trade, or on production for purposes of trade, are indeed restraints; and all restraint, quâ restraint, is an evil: but the restraints in question affect only that part of conduct which society is competent to restrain, and are wrong solely because they do not really produce the results which it is desired to produce by them. As the principle of individual liberty is not involved in the doctrine of Free Trade, so neither is it in most of the questions which arise respecting the limits of that doctrine: as for example, what amount of public control is admissible for the prevention of fraud by adulteration; how far sanitary precautions, or arrangements to protect work-people employed in dangerous occupations, should be enforced on employers. Such questions involve considerations of liberty, only in so far as leaving people to themselves is always better, cæteris paribus, than controlling them: but that they may be legitimately controlled for these ends, is in principle undeniable. On the other hand, there are questions relating to interference with trade, which are essentially questions of liberty; such as the Maine Law, already touched upon; the prohibition of the importation of opium into China; the restriction of the sale of poisons; all cases, in short, where the object of the interference is to make it impossible or difficult to obtain a particular commodity. These interferences are objectionable, not as infringements on the liberty of the producer or seller, but on that of the buyer.

One of these examples, that of the sale of poisons, opens a new question; the proper limits of what may be called the functions of police; how far liberty may legitimately be invaded for the prevention of crime, or of accident. It is one of the undisputed functions of government to take precautions against crime before it has been committed, as well as to detect and punish it afterwards. The preventive function of government, however, is far more liable to be abused, to the prejudice of liberty, than the punitory function; for there is hardly any part of the legitimate freedom of action of a human being which would not admit of being represented, and fairly too, as increasing the facilities for some form or other of delinquency. Nevertheless, if a public authority, or even a private person, sees any one evidently preparing to commit a crime, they are not bound to look on inactive until the crime is committed, but may interfere to prevent it. If poisons were never bought or used for any purpose except the commission of murder, it would be right to prohibit their manufacture and sale. They may, however, be wanted not only for innocent but for useful purposes, and restrictions cannot be imposed in the one case without operating in the other. Again, it is a proper office of public authority to guard against accidents. If either a public officer or any one else saw a person attempting to cross a bridge which had been ascertained to be unsafe, and there were no time to warn him of his danger, they might seize him and turn him back, without any real infringement of his liberty; for liberty consists in doing what one desires, and he does not desire to fall into the river. Nevertheless, when there is not a certainty, but only a danger of mischief, no one but the person himself can judge of the sufficiency of the motive which may prompt him to incur the risk: in this case, therefore (unless he is a child, or delirious, or in some state of excitement or absorption incompatible with the full use of the reflecting faculty), he ought, I conceive, to be only warned of the danger; not forcibly prevented from exposing himself to it. Similar considerations, applied to such a question as the sale of poisons, may enable us to decide which among the possible modes of regulation are or are not contrary to principle. Such a precaution, for example, as that of labelling the drug with some word expressive of its dangerous character, may be enforced without violation of liberty: the buyer cannot wish not to know that the thing he possesses has poisonous qualities. But to require in all cases the certificate of a medical practitioner, would make it sometimes impossible, always expensive, to obtain the article for legitimate uses. The only mode apparent to me, in which difficulties may be thrown in the way of crime committed through this means, without any infringement, worth taking into account, upon the liberty of those who desire the poisonous substance for other purposes, consists in providing what, in the apt language of Bentham, is called “preappointed evidence.” This provision is familiar to every one in the case of contracts. It is usual and right that the law, when a contract is entered into, should require as the condition of its enforcing performance, that certain formalities should be observed, such as signatures, attestation of witnesses, and the like, in order that in case of subsequent dispute, there may be evidence to prove that the contract was really entered into, and that there was nothing in the circumstances to render it legally invalid: the effect being, to throw great obstacles in the way of fictitious contracts, or contracts made in circumstances which, if known, would destroy their validity. Precautions of a similar nature might be enforced in the sale of articles adapted to be instruments of crime. The seller, for example, might be required to enter into a register the exact time of the transaction, the name and address of the buyer, the precise quality and quantity sold; to ask the purpose for which it was wanted, and record the answer he received. When there was no medical prescription, the presence of some third person might be required, to bring home the fact to the purchaser, in case there should afterwards be reason to believe that the article had been applied to criminal purposes. Such regulations would in general be no material impediment to obtaining the article, but a very considerable one to making an improper use of it without detection.

The right inherent in society, to ward off crimes against itself by antecedent precautions, suggests the obvious limitations to the maxim, that purely self-regarding misconduct cannot properly be meddled with in the way of prevention or punishment. Drunkenness, for example, in ordinary cases, is not a fit subject for legislative interference; but I should deem it perfectly legitimate that a person, who had once been convicted of any act of violence to others under the influence of drink, should be placed under a special legal restriction, personal to himself; that if he were afterwards found drunk, he should be liable to a penalty, and that if when in that state he committed another offence, the punishment to which he would be liable for that other offence should be increased in severity. The making himself drunk, in a person whom drunkenness excites to do harm to others, is a crime against others. So, again, idleness, except in a person receiving support from the public, or except when it constitutes a breach of contract, cannot without tyranny be made a subject of legal punishment; but if either from idleness or from any other avoidable cause, a man fails to perform his legal duties to others, as for instance to support his children, it is no tyranny to force him to fulfil that obligation, by compulsory labour, if no other means are available.

Again, there are many acts which, being directly injurious only to the agents themselves, ought not to be legally interdicted, but which, if done publicly, are a violation of good manners and coming thus within the category of offences against others may rightfully be prohibited. Of this kind are offences against decency; on which it is unnecessary to dwell, the rather as they are only connected indirectly with our subject, the objection to publicity being equally strong in the case of many actions not in themselves condemnable, nor supposed to be so.

There is another question to which an answer must be found, consistent with the principles which have been laid down. In cases of personal conduct supposed to be blamable, but which respect for liberty precludes society from preventing or punishing, because the evil directly resulting falls wholly on the agent; what the agent is free to do, ought other persons to be equally free to counsel or instigate? This question is not free from difficulty. The case of a person who solicits another to do an act, is not strictly a case of self-regarding conduct. To give advice or offer inducements to any one, is a social act, and may therefore, like actions in general which affect others, be supposed amenable to social control. But a little reflection corrects the first impression, by showing that if the case is not strictly within the definition of individual liberty, yet the reasons on which the principle of individual liberty is grounded, are applicable to it. If people must be allowed, in whatever concerns only themselves, to act as seems best to themselves at their own peril, they must equally be free to consult with one another about what is fit to be so done; to exchange opinions, and give and receive suggestions. Whatever it is permitted to do, it must be permitted to advise to do. The question is doubtful, only when the instigator derives a personal benefit from his advice; when he makes it his occupation, for subsistence or pecuniary gain, to promote what society and the state consider to be an evil. Then, indeed, a new element of complication is introduced; namely, the existence of classes of persons with an interest opposed to what is considered as the public weal, and whose mode of living is grounded on the counteraction of it. Ought this to be interfered with, or not? Fornication, for example, must be tolerated, and so must gambling; but should a person be free to be a pimp, or to keep a gambling-house? The case is one of those which lie on the exact boundary line between two principles, and it is not at once apparent to which of the two it properly belongs. There are arguments on both sides. On the side of toleration it may be said, that the fact of following anything as an occupation, and living or profiting by the practice of it, cannot make that criminal which would otherwise be admissible; that the act should either be consistently permitted or consistently prohibited; that if the principles which we have hitherto defended are true, society has no business, as society, to decide anything to be wrong which concerns only the individual; that it cannot go beyond dissuasion, and that one person should be as free to persuade, as another to dissuade. In opposition to this it may be contended, that although the public, or the State, are not warranted in authoritatively deciding, for purposes of repression or punishment, that such or such conduct affecting only the interests of the individual is good or bad, they are fully justified in assuming, if they regard it as bad, that its being so or not is at least a disputable question: That, this being supposed, they cannot be acting wrongly in endeavouring to exclude the influence of solicitations which are not disinterested, of instigators who cannot possibly be impartial—who have a direct personal interest on one side, and that side the one which the State believes to be wrong, and who confessedly promote it for personal objects only. There can surely, it may be urged, be nothing lost, no sacrifice of good, by so ordering matters that persons shall make their election, either wisely or foolishly, on their own prompting, as free as possible from the arts of persons who stimulate their inclinations for interested purposes of their own. Thus (it may be said) though the statutes respecting unlawful games are utterly indefensible—though all persons should be free to gamble in their own or each other’s houses, or in any place of meeting established by their own subscriptions, and open only to the members and their visitors—yet public gambling-houses should not be permitted. It is true that the prohibition is never effectual, and that whatever amount of tyrannical power is given to the police, gambling-houses can always be maintained under other pretences; but they may be compelled to conduct their operations with a certain degree of secrecy and mystery, so that nobody knows anything about them but those who seek them; and more than this, society ought not to aim at. There is considerable force in these arguments; I will not venture to decide whether they are sufficient to justify the moral anomaly of punishing the accessary, when the principal is (and must be) allowed to go free; or fining or imprisoning the procurer, but not the fornicator, the gambling-house keeper, but not the gambler. Still less ought the common operations of buying and selling to be interfered with on analogous grounds. Almost every article which is bought and sold may be used in excess, and the sellers have a pecuniary interest in encouraging that excess; but no argument can be founded on this, in favour, for instance, of the Maine Law; because the class of dealers in strong drinks, though interested in their abuse, are indispensably required for the sake of their legitimate use. The interest, however, of these dealers in promoting intemperance is a real evil, and justifies the State in imposing restrictions and requiring guarantees, which but for that justification would be infringements of legitimate liberty.

A further question is, whether the State, while it permits, should nevertheless indirectly discourage conduct which it deems contrary to the best interests of the agent; whether, for example, it should take measures to render the means of drunkenness more costly, or add to the difficulty of procuring them, by limiting the number of the places of sale. On this as on most other practical questions, many distinctions require to be made. To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained, is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition; and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable. Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price; and to those who do, it is a penalty laid on them for gratifying a particular taste. Their choice of pleasures, and their mode of expending their income, after satisfying their legal and moral obligations to the State and to individuals, are their own concern, and must rest with their own judgment. These considerations may seem at first sight to condemn the selection of stimulants as special subjects of taxation for purposes of revenue. But it must be remembered that taxation for fiscal purposes is absolutely inevitable; that in most countries it is necessary that a considerable part of that taxation should be indirect; that the State, therefore, cannot help imposing penalties, which to some persons may be prohibitory, on the use of some articles of consumption. It is hence the duty of the State to consider, in the imposition of taxes, what commodities the consumers can best spare; and à fortiori, to select in preference those of which it deems the use, beyond a very moderate quantity, to be positively injurious. Taxation, therefore, of stimulants, up to the point which produces the largest amount of revenue (supposing that the State needs all the revenue which it yields) is not only admissible, but to be approved of.

The question of making the sale of these commodities a more or less exclusive privilege, must be answered differently, according to the purposes to which the restriction is intended to be subservient. All places of public resort require the restraint of a police, and places of this kind peculiarly, because offences against society are especially apt to originate there. It is, therefore, fit to confine the power of selling these commodities (at least for consumption on the spot) to persons of known or vouched-for respectability of conduct; to make such regulations respecting hours of opening and closing as may be requisite for public surveillance, and to withdraw the licence if breaches of the peace repeatedly take place through the connivance or incapacity of the keeper of the house, or if it becomes a rendezvous for concocting and preparing offences against the law. Any further restriction I do not conceive to be, in principle, justifiable. The limitation in number, for instance, of beer and spirit-houses, for the express purpose of rendering them more difficult of access, and diminishing the occasions of temptation, not only exposes all to an inconvenience because there are some by whom the facility would be abused, but is suited only to a state of society in which the labouring classes are avowedly treated as children or savages, and placed under an education of restraint, to fit them for future admission to the privileges of freedom. This is not the principle on which the labouring classes are professedly governed in any free country; and no person who sets due value on freedom will give his adhesion to their being so governed, unless after all efforts have been exhausted to educate them for freedom and govern them as freemen, and it has been definitively proved that they can only be governed as children. The bare statement of the alternative shows the absurdity of supposing that such efforts have been made in any case which needs be considered here. It is only because the institutions of this country are a mass of inconsistencies, that things find admittance into our practice which belong to the system of despotic, or what is called paternal, government, while the general freedom of our institutions precludes the exercise of the amount of control necessary to render the restraint of any real efficacy as a moral education.

It was pointed out in an early part of this Essay, that the liberty of the individual, in things wherein the individual is alone concerned, implies a corresponding liberty in any number of individuals to regulate by mutual agreement such things as regard them jointly, and regard no persons but themselves. This question presents no difficulty, so long as the will of all the persons implicated remains unaltered; but since that will may change, it is often necessary, even in things in which they alone are concerned, that they should enter into engagements with one another; and when they do, it is fit, as a general rule, that those engagements should be kept. Yet in the laws, probably, of every country, this general rule has some exceptions. Not only persons are not held to engagements which violate the rights of third parties, but it is sometimes considered a sufficient reason for releasing them from an engagement, that it is injurious to themselves. In this and most other civilised countries, for example, an engagement by which a person should sell himself, or allow himself to be sold, as a slave, would be null and void; neither enforced by law nor by opinion. The ground for thus limiting his power of voluntarily disposing of his own lot in life, is apparent, and is very clearly seen in this extreme case. The reason for not interfering, unless for the sake of others, with a person’s voluntary acts, is consideration for his liberty. His voluntary choice is evidence that what he so chooses is desirable, or at the least endurable, to him, and his good is on the whole best provided for by allowing him to take his own means of pursuing it. But by selling himself for a slave, he abdicates his liberty; he foregoes any future use of it, beyond that single act. He therefore defeats, in his own case, the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself. He is no longer free; but is thenceforth in a position which has no longer the presumption in its favour, that would be afforded by his voluntarily remaining in it. The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom, to be allowed to alienate his freedom. These reasons, the force of which is so conspicuous in this peculiar case, are evidently of far wider application; yet a limit is everywhere set to them by the necessities of life, which continually require, not indeed that we should resign our freedom, but that we should consent to this and the other limitation of it. The principle, however, which demands uncontrolled freedom of action in all that concerns only the agents themselves, requires that those who have become bound to one another, in things which concern no third party, should be able to release one another from the engagement: and even without such voluntary release, there are perhaps no contracts or engagements, except those that relate to money or money’s worth, of which one can venture to say that there ought to be no liberty whatever of retractation. Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, in the excellent essay from which I have already quoted, states it as his conviction, that engagements which involve personal relations or services, should never be legally binding beyond a limited duration of time; and that the most important of these engagements, marriage, having the peculiarity that its objects are frustrated unless the feelings of both the parties are in harmony with it, should require nothing more than the declared will of either party to dissolve it. This subject is too important, and too complicated, to be discussed in a parenthesis, and I touch on it only so far as is necessary for purposes of illustration. If the conciseness and generality of Baron Humboldt’s dissertation had not obliged him in this instance to content himself with enunciating his conclusion without discussing the premises, he would doubtless have recognised that the question cannot be decided on grounds so simple as those to which he confines himself. When a person, either by express promise or by conduct, has encouraged another to rely upon his continuing to act in a certain way—to build expectations and calculations, and stake any part of his plan of life upon that supposition, a new series of moral obligations arises on his part towards that person, which may possibly be overruled, but cannot be ignored. And again, if the relation between two contracting parties has been followed by consequences to others; if it has placed third parties in any peculiar position, or, as in the case of marriage, has even called third parties into existence, obligations arise on the part of both the contracting parties towards those third persons, the fulfilment of which, or at all events the mode of fulfilment, must be greatly affected by the continuance or disruption of the relation between the original parties to the contract. It does not follow, nor can I admit, that these obligations extend to requiring the fulfilment of the contract at all costs to the happiness of the reluctant party; but they are a necessary element in the question; and even if, as Von Humboldt maintains, they ought to make no difference in the legal freedom of the parties to release themselves from the engagement (and I also hold that they ought not to make much difference), they necessarily make a great difference in the moral freedom. A person is bound to take all these circumstances into account, before resolving on a step which may affect such important interests of others; and if he does not allow proper weight to those interests, he is morally responsible for the wrong. I have made these obvious remarks for the better illustration of the general principle of liberty, and not because they are at all needed on the particular question, which, on the contrary, is usually discussed as if the interest of children was everything, and that of grown persons nothing.

I have already observed that, owing to the absence of any recognised general principles, liberty is often granted where it should be withheld, as well as withheld where it should be granted; and one of the cases in which, in the modern European world, the sentiment of liberty is the strongest, is a case where, in my view, it is altogether misplaced. A person should be free to do as he likes in his own concerns; but he ought not to be free to do as he likes in acting for another, under the pretext that the affairs of another are his own affairs. The State, while it respects the liberty of each in what specially regards himself, is bound to maintain a vigilant control over his exercise of any power which it allows him to possess over others. This obligation is almost entirely disregarded in the case of the family relations, a case, in its direct influence on human happiness, more important than all others taken together. The almost despotic power of husbands over wives need not be enlarged upon here because nothing more is needed for the complete removal of the evil, than that wives should have the same rights, and should receive the protection of law in the same manner, as all other persons; and because, on this subject, the defenders of established injustice do not avail themselves of the plea of liberty, but stand forth openly as the champions of power. It is in the case of children, that misapplied notions of liberty are a real obstacle to the fulfilment by the State of its duties. One would almost think that a man’s children were supposed to be literally, and not metaphorically, a part of himself, so jealous is opinion of the smallest interference of law with his absolute and exclusive control over them; more jealous than of almost any interference with his own freedom of action: so much less do the generality of mankind value liberty than power. Consider, for example, the case of education. Is it not almost a self-evident axiom, that the State should require and compel the education, up to a certain standard, of every human being who is born its citizen? Yet who is there that is not afraid to recognise and assert this truth? Hardly any one indeed will deny that it is one of the most sacred duties of the parents (or, as law and usage now stand, the father), after summoning a human being into the world, to give to that being an education fitting him to perform his part well in life towards others and towards himself. But while this is unanimously declared to be the father’s duty, scarcely anybody, in this country, will bear to hear of obliging him to perform it. Instead of his being required to make any exertion or sacrifice for securing education to the child, it is left to his choice to accept it or not when it is provided gratis! It still remains unrecognised, that to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society; and that if the parent does not fulfil this obligation, the State ought to see it fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent.

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Filed under Europe, Mental Illness: depression, despair, insanity, delusion, Mill, John Stuart, Selections, The Modern Era


from Dialogue Between Plotinus and Porphyry


The Italian writer Count Giacomo Leopardi was born in the provincial town of Recanati, in Marche, Italy. His home environment was oppressive. Leopardi was also plagued by continual physical maladies from an early age, including a spinal condition that made him a hunchback. Precocious from childhood, by the age of 16 Leopardi had read all the Latin and Greek classics, could write in several languages, and had written essays on classics, astronomy, and history. In 1816, partly under the influence of his friend Pietro Giordani, Leopardi turned his attention to literature: he began work on the 61-poem collection I canti (1831, 1835, 1845), containing poems written from 1819 to 1837. In these poems, Leopardi espoused a pessimistic philosophy, revealing a belief in a meaningless and alienating universe that offers no hope. He presents a philosophy of despair, exhibiting the triumph of evil, the insignificance of existence, and the allurement of death.

In 1822, Leopardi left Recanati for a three-month stay in Rome, which he found to be a corrupt society hostile to novel ideas. Disillusioned and unable to find work, he reluctantly returned to his oppressive hometown. In 1825, he went to Bologna and Milan to continue his writing, but physical and financial problems forced a return; trips to Florence and Pisa in 1827–28 also ended in a return. Two years later, he received a loan from friends and was finally able to leave “that horrible nightmare of Recanati.” Leopardi’s other writings from this time are united in their search for beauty and truth in an antagonistic world. Leopardi retired to Naples in 1833, where he lived with continuous physical suffering and hopeless despondency until his death in 1837.

Leopardi asserts that suicide, unlike death, is not a grand negation of existence but an act directed against the share of unhappiness that pervades human life, and therefore solves nothing. In the “Dialogue between Plotinus and Porphyrius,” published in Opperette Morali (1827, 1834, and 1835), Leopardi simulates a debate between two neo-Platonist Roman philosophers about whether suicide violates the rules of nature. Plotinus (204/205–270) [q.v.], ascetic and otherworldly, was the teacher of Porphyrius (known in English as Porphyry, c. 234–305), who became disillusioned with life and suicidal after studying his teacher’s philosophy. Porphyry’s arguments for suicide include the claim that all perception is false except for “ennui” (described by Leopardi as a sublime sentiment experienced only by the intelligent), that Plato’s [q.v.] restrictions on self-destruction and his idea of heaven are ruinous, and that the unnatural effects of civilization upon human life justify an unnatural means to end the suffering they inflict. Plotinus counters him with assertions that suicide is selfish, against strict natural laws, and overemphasizes the gravity of suffering in the brief span of a human life.

Giacomo Leopardi, “Dialogue between Plotinus and Porphyrius,” in Essays and Dialogues of Giacomo Leopardi, tr. Charles Edwards. London: Trübner and Co., 1882, pp. 182-196.


“One day when I, Porphyrius, was meditating about taking my own life, Plotinus guessed my intention. He interrupted me, and said that such a design could not proceed from a healthy mind, but was due to some melancholy indisposition, and that I must have change of air.”

The same incident is recounted in the life of Plotinus by Eunapius, who adds that Plotinus recorded in a book the conversation he then held with Porphyrius on the subject.    Plotinus. You know, Porphyrius, how sincerely I am your friend. You will not wonder therefore that I am unquiet about you. For some time I have noticed how sad and thoughtful you are; your expression of countenance is unusual, and you have let fall certain words which make me anxious. In short, I fear that you contemplate some evil design.

Porphyrius. How! What do you mean?

Plotinus. I think you intend to do yourself some injury; it were a bad omen to give the deed its name. Listen to me, dear Porphyrius, and do not conceal the truth. Do not wrong the friendship that has so long existed between us. I know my words will cause you displeasure, and I can easily understand that you would rather have kept your design hid. But I could not be silent in such a matter, and you ought not to refuse to confide in one who loves you as much as himself. Let us then talk calmly, weighing our words. Open your heart to me. Tell me your troubles, and let me be auditor of your lamentations. I have deserved your confidence. I promise, on my part, not to oppose the carrying out of your resolution, if we agree that it is useful and reasonable.

Porphyrius. I have never denied a request of yours, dear Plotinus. I will therefore confess to you what I would rather keep to myself; nothing in the world would induce me to tell it to anyone else. You are right in your interpretation of my thoughts. If you wish to discuss the subject, I will not refuse, in spite of my dislike to do so; for on such occasions the mind prefers to encompass itself with a lofty silence, and to meditate in solitude, giving itself up for the time to a state of complete self-absorption. Nevertheless, I am willing to do as you please.

In the first place, I may say that my design is not the consequence of any special misfortune. It is simply the result of an utter weariness of life, and a continuous ennui which has long possessed me like a pain. To this may be added a feeling of the vanity and nothingness of all things, which pervades me in body and soul. Do not say that this disposition of mind is unreasonable, though I will allow that it may in part from physical causes. It is in itself perfectly reasonable, and therein differs from all our other dispositions; for everything which makes us attach some value to life and human things, proves on analysis to be contrary to reason, and to proceed from some illusion or falsity. Nothing is more rational than ennui. Pleasures are all unreal. Pain itself, at least mental pain, is equally false, because on examination it is seen to have scarcely any foundation, or none at all. The same may be said of fear and hope. Ennui alone, which is born from the vanity of things, is genuine, and never deceives. If, then, all else be vain, the reality of life is summed up in ennui.

Plotinus. It may be so. I will not contradict you as to that. But we must now consider the nature of your project. You know Plato refused to allow that man is at liberty to escape, like a fugitive slave, from the captivity in which he is placed by the will of the gods, in depriving himself of life.

Porphyrius. I beg you, dear Plotinus, to leavePlato alone now, with his doctrines and dreams. It is one thing to praise, explain, and champion certain theories in the schools and in books, but quite another to practically exemplify them. School-teaching and books constrain us to admire Plato, and conform to him, because such is the custom in the present day. But in real life, far from being admired, he is even detested. It is true Plato is said to have spread abroad by his writings the notion of a future life, thus leaving men in doubt as to their fate after death, and serving a good purpose in deterring men from evil in this life, through fear of punishment in the next. If I imagined Plato to have been the inventor of these ideas and beliefs, I would speak thus to him:—

“You observe, O Plato, how inimical to our race the power which governs the world has always been, weather known as Nature, Destiny, or Fate. Many reasons contradict the supposition that man has that high rank in the order of creation which we are pleased to imagine; but by no reason can he be deprived of the characteristic attributed to him by Homer—that of suffering. Nature, however, has given us a remedy for all evils. It is death, little feared by those who are not fully intelligent, and by all others desired.

“But you have deprived us of this dearest consolation of our life, full of suffering that it is. The doubts raised by you have torn this comfort from our minds, and made the thought of death the bitterest of all thoughts. Thanks to you, unhappy mortals now fear the storm less than the port. Driven from their one place of repose, and robbed of the only remedy they could look for, they resign themselves to the sufferings and troubles of life. Thus, you have been more cruel towards us than Destiny, Nature, or Fate. And since this doubt, once conceived, can never be got rid of, to you is it due that your fellow-men regard death as something more terrible than life. You are to blame that rest and peace are for ever banished from the last moments of man, whereas all other animals die in perfect fearlessness. This one thing, O Plato, was wanting to complete the sum of human misery.

“True, your intention was good. But it has failed in its purpose. Violence and injustice are not arrested, for evil-doers only realise the terrors of death in their last moments, when quite powerless to do more harm. Your doubts trouble only the good, who are more disposed to benefit than injure their fellow-men, and the weak and timid, who are neither inclined by nature nor disposition to oppress anyone. Bold and strong men, who have scarcely any power of imagination, and those who require some other restraint than mere law, regard these fears as chimerical, and are undeterred from evil doing. We see daily instances of this, and the experience of all the centuries, from your time down to the present, confirms it. Good laws, still more, good education, and mental and social culture,—these are the things that preserve justice and mildness amongst men. Civilization, and the use of reflection and reason, make men almost always hate to war with each other and shed one another’s blood, and render them disinclined to quarrel, and endanger their lives by lawlessness. But such good results are never due to threatening fancies, and bitter expectation of terrible chastisement; these, like the multitude and cruelty of the punishments used in certain states, only serve to increase the baseness and ferocity of men, and are therefore opposed to the well-being of human society.

“Perhaps, however, you will reply that you have promised a reward in the future for the good. What then is this reward? A state of life which seems full of ennui, even less tolerable than our present existence! The bitterness of your punishments is unmistakable; but the sweetness of your rewards is hidden and secret, incomprehensible to our minds. How then can order and virtue be said to be encouraged by your doctrine? I will venture to say that if but few men have been deterred from evil by the fear of your terrible Tartarus, no good man has been led to perform a single praiseworthy action by desire of your Elysium. Such a paradise does not attract us in the least. But, apart from the fact that your heaven is scarcely an inviting place, who among the best of us can hope to merit it? What man can satisfy you inexorable judges, Minos, Eacus, and Rhadamanthus, who will not overlook one single fault, however trivial? Besides, who can say that he has reached your standard of purity? In short, we cannot look for happiness in the world to come; and however clear a mans conscience may be, or however upright his life, in his last hour he will dread the future with its terrible incertitude. It is due to your teaching that fear is a much stronger influence than hope, and may be said to dominate mankind.

“This then is the result of your doctrines. Man, whose life on earth is wretched in the extreme; anticipates death, not as an end to all his miseries, but as the beginning of a condition more wretched still. Thus, you surpass in cruelty, not only Nature and Destiny, but the most merciless tyrant and bloodthirsty executioner the world has ever known. “But what cruelty can exceed that of your law, forbidding man to put an end to his sufferings and troubles by voluntarily depriving himself of life, thereby triumphing over the horrors of death? Other animals do not desire to put an end to their life, because their unhappiness is less than ours; nor would they even have sufficient courage to face a voluntary death. But if they did wish to die, what should deter them from fulfilling their desire? They are affected by no prohibition, nor fear of the future. Here again you make us inferior to brute beasts. The liberty they possess, they do not use; the liberty granted also to us by Nature, so miserly in her gifts, you take away. Thus, the only creatures capable of desiring death, have the right to die refused them. Nature, Destiny, and Fortune overwhelm us with cruel blows, that cause us to suffer fearfully; you add to our sufferings by tying our arms and enchaining our feet, so that we can neither defend ourselves, nor escape from our persecutors.

“Truly, when I think over the great wretchedness of humanity, it seems to me that your doctrines, above all things, O Plato, are guilty of it, and that men may well complain of you more than of Nature. For the latter, in decreeing for us an existence full of unhappiness, has left us the means of escaping from it when we please. Indeed, unhappiness cannot be called extreme, when we have in our hands the power to shorten it at will. Besides, the mere thought of being able to quit life at pleasure, and withdraw from the miseries of the world, is so great an alleviation of our lot, that in itself it suffices to render existence supportable. Consequently, there can be no doubt that our chief unhappiness proceeds from the fear, that in abbreviating our life we might be plunged into a state of greater misery than the present. And not only will our misery be greater in the future, but it will be so full of the refinement of cruelty, that a comparison of these unexperienced tortures with the known sufferings of this life, reduces the latter almost to insignificance.

“You have easily, O Plato, raised this question of immortality; but the human species will become extinct before it is settled. Your genius is the most fatal thing that has ever afflicted humanity, and nothing can ever exist more disastrous in its effects.”

That is what I would say to Plato had he invented the doctrine we are discussing; but I am well aware he did not originate it. However, enough has been said. Let us drop the subject, if you please.

Plotinus. Porphyrius, you know how I revere Plato; yet in talking to you on such an occasion as this, I will give you my own opinion, and will disregard his authority. The few words of his that I spoke were rather as an introduction, than anything else. Returning to my first argument, I affirm that not only Plato and every other philosopher, but Nature herself, teaches us that it is improper to take away our own life. I will not say much on this point, because if you reflect a little, I am sure you will agree with me that suicide is unnatural. It is indeed an action the most contrary possible to nature. The whole order of things would be subverted if the beings of the world destroyed themselves. And it is repugnant and absurd to suppose that life is given only to be taken away by its possessor, and that beings should exist only to become non-existent. The law of self-preservation is enjoined in every possible way on man and all creatures of the universe. And, apart from anything else, do we not instinctively fear, hate, and shun death, even in spite of ourselves? Therefore, since suicide is so utterly contrary to our nature, I cannot think that it is permissible.

Porphyrius.  I have already meditated on the subject from all points of view; for the mind could not design such a step without due consideration. It seems to me that all your reasoning is answerable with just as much counter reasoning. But I will be brief.

You doubt whether it be permissible to die without necessity. I ask you if it be permissible to be unhappy? Nature, you say, forbids suicide. It is a strange thing that since she is either unable or unwilling to make me happy, or free me from unhappiness, she should have the power to force me to live. If Nature has given us a love of life, and a hatred of death, she has also given us a love of happiness, and a hatred of suffering; and the latter instincts are much more powerful than the former, because happiness is the supreme aim of all our actions and sentiments of love or hatred. For to what end do we shun death, or desire life, save to promote our well-being, and for fear of the contrary?

How then can it be unnatural to escape from suffering in the only way open to man, that is, by dying; since in life it can never be avoided? How, too, can it be true, that Nature forbids me to devote myself to death, which is undoubtedly a good thing, and to reject life, which is undoubtedly an evil and injurious thing, since it is a source of nothing but suffering to me?

Plotinus. These things do not persuade me that suicide is not unnatural. Have we not a strong instinctive horror of death? Besides, we never see brute beasts, which invariably follow the instincts of their nature (when not contrarily trained by man), either commit suicide, or regard death as anything but a condition to be struggled against, even in their moments of greatest suffering. In short, all men who commit this desperate act, will be found to have lived out of conformity to nature. They, on the contrary, who live naturally, would without exception reject suicide, if even the thought proposed itself to them.

  1. Well, if you like, I will admit that the action is contrary to nature. But what has that to do with it, if we ourselves do not conform to nature; that is, are no longer savages? Compare ourselves, for instance, with the inhabitants of India or Ethiopia, who are said to have retained their primitive manner and wild habits. You would scarcely think that these people were even of the same species as ourselves. This transformation of life, and change of manners and customs by civilization, has been accompanied, in my opinion, by an immeasurable increase of suffering. Savages never wish to commit suicide, nor does there imagination induce them to regard death as a desirable thing; whereas we who are civilised wish for it, and sometimes voluntarily seek it.

Now, if man be permitted to live unnaturally, and be consequently unhappy, why may he not also die unnaturally? For death is indeed the only way by which he can deliver himself from the unhappiness that results from civilization. Or, why not return to our primitive condition, and state of nature? Ah, we should find it almost impossible as far as mere external circumstances are concerned, and in the more important matters of the mind quite impossible. What is less natural than medicine? By this I mean surgery, and the use drugs. They are both ordinary used expressly to combat nature, and are quite unknown to brute beasts and savages. Yet, since the diseases they remedy are unnatural, and only occur in civilised countries, where people have fallen from their natural condition, these arts, being also unnatural, are highly esteemed and even indispensable. Similarly, suicide, which is a radical cure for the disease of despair, one of the outcomes of civilisation, must not be blamed because it is unnatural; for unnatural evils require unnatural remedies. It would indeed be hard and unjust that reason, which increases our misery by forcing us to go contrary to nature, should in this matter join hands with nature, and take from us our only remaining hope and refuge, and the only resource consistent with itself, and should force us to continue in our wretchedness.

The truth is this, Plotinus. Our primitive nature has departed from us for ever. Habit and reason have given us a new nature in place of the old one, to which we shall never return. Formerly, it was unnatural for men to commit suicide, or desire death. In the present day, both are natural. They conform to our new nature, which however, like the old one, still impels us to seek our happiness. And since death is our greatest good, is it remarkable that men should voluntarily seek it? For our reason tells us that death is not an evil, but, as the remedy for all evils, is the most desirable of things.

Now tell me: are all other actions of civilised men regulated by the standard of their primitive nature? If so, give me a single instance. No, it is our present and not our primitive nature, that interprets our action; in other words, it is our reason. Why then should suicide alone be judged unreasonably, and from the aspect of our primitive nature? Why should this latter, which has no influence over our life, control our death which rules our life? It is a fact, whether due to reason or our unhappiness, that in many people, especially those who are unfortunate and afflicted, the primitive hatred of death is extinguished, and even changed into desire and love, as I have said. Such love, though incompatible with our early nature, is a reality in the present day. We are also necessarily unhappy because we live unnaturally. It were therefore manifestly unreasonable to assert that the prohibition which forbade suicide in the primitive state should hold good. This seems to me sufficient justification of the deed. It remains to be proved whether or not it be useful.

Plotinus. Never mind that side of the question, my dear Porphyrius, because if the deed be permissible, I have no doubt of its extreme utility. But I will never admit that a forbidden and improper action can be useful. The matter really resolves itself into this: which is the better, to suffer or not to suffer? It is certain that most men would prefer suffering mixed with enjoyment, so ardently do we desire and thirst after joy. But this is beside the question, because enjoyment and pleasure, properly speaking, are as impossible as suffering is inevitable. I mean a suffering as continuous as our never satisfied desire for pleasure and happiness, and quite apart from the peculiar and accidental suffering which must infallibly be experienced by even the happiest of men. In truth, were we certain that in continuing to live, we should continue thus to suffer, we should have sufficient reason to prefer death to life; because existence does not contain a single genuine pleasure to compensate for such suffering, even if that were possible.

Porphyrius. It seems to me that ennui alone, and the fact that we cannot hope for an improved existence, are sufficiently cogent reasons to induce a desire for death, even though our condition be one of prosperity. And it is often a matter of surprise to me that we have no record of princes having committed suicide through ennui and weariness of their grandeur, like other men in lower stations of life. We read how Hegesias, the Cyrenaic, used to reason so eloquently about the miseries of life, that his auditors straightway went and committed suicide; for which reason he was called the “death persuader,” and was at length forbidden by Ptolemy to hold further discourse on the subject. Certain princes, it is true, have been suicides, amongst others Mithridates, Cleopatra, and Otho. But these all put an end to themselves to escape some peculiar evils, or from dread of an increase of misfortune. Princes are, I imagine, more liable than other men to feel a hatred of their condition, and to think favourably of suicide. For have they not reached the summit of what is called human happiness? They have nothing to hope for, because they have everything that forms a part of the so-called good things of this life. They cannot anticipate greater pleasure to-morrow than they have enjoyed to-day. Thus they are more unfortunately situated than all less exalted people. For the present is always sad and unsatisfactory; the future alone is a source of pleasure.

But be that as it may. We see that there is nothing to prevent men voluntarily quitting life, and preferring death, save the fear of another world. All other reasons are probably ill-founded. They are due to a wrong estimate, in comparing the advantages and evils of existence; and whoever at any time feels a strong attachment to life, or lives in a state of contentment, does so under a mistake, either of judgment, will, or even fact.

Plotinus. That is true, dear Porphyrius. But nevertheless, let me advise, nay implore, you to listen to the counsels of Nature rather than Reason. Follow the instincts of that primitive Nature, mother of us all, who, though she has manifested no affection for us in creating us for unhappiness, is a less bitter and cruel foe than our own reason, with its boundless curiosity, speculation, chattering, dream, ideas, and miserable learning. Besides, Nature has sought to diminish our unhappiness by concealing or disguising it from us as much as possible. And although we are greatly changed, and the power of nature within us is much lessened, we are not so altered but that much of our former manhood remains, and our primitive nature is not quite stifled within us. In spite of all our folly, it will never be otherwise. So, too, the mistaken view of life that you mention, although I admit that it is in reality palpably erroneous, will continue to prevail. It is held not only by idiots and the half-witted, but by clever, wise, and learned men, and always will be, unless the Nature that made us—and not man nor his reason—herself put an end to it. And I assure you that neither disgust of life, nor despair, nor the sense of the nullity of things, the vanity of all anxiety, and the insignificance of man, nor hatred of the world and oneself, are of long duration; although such dispositions of mind are perfectly reasonable, and the contrary unreasonable. For our physical condition changes momentarily in more or less degree; and often without any especial cause life endears itself to us again, and new hopes give brightness to human things, which once more seem worthy of some attention, not indeed from our understanding, but from what may be termed the higher senses of the intellect. This is why each of us, though perfectly aware of the truth, continues to live in spite of Reason, and conforms to the behavior of others; for our life is controlled by these senses, and not by the understanding.

Whether suicide be reasonable, or our compromise with life unreasonable, the former is certainly a horrible and inhuman action. It were better to follow Nature, and remain man, than act like a monster in following Reason. Besides, ought we not to give some thought to the friends, relatives, acquaintances, and people with whom we have been accustomed to live, and from whom we should thus separate for ever? And if the thought of such separation be nothing to us, ought we not to consider their feeling? They lose one whom they loved and respected; and the atrocity of his death enhances their grief. I know that the wise man is not easily moved, nor yields to pity and lamentation to a disquieting extent; he does not abase himself to the ground, shed tears immoderately, nor do other similar things unworthy of one who clearly understands the condition of humanity. But such fortitude of soul should be reserved for grievous circumstances that arise from nature, or are unavoidable; it is an abuse of fortitude to deprive ourselves for ever of the society and conversation of those who are dear to us. He is a barbarian, and not a wise man, who takes no account of the grief experienced by his friends, relations, and acquaintances. He who scarcely troubles himself about the grief his death would cause to his friends and family is selfish; he cares little for others, and all for himself. And truly, the suicide thinks only of himself. He desires nought but his personal welfare, and throws away all thought of the rest of the world. In short, suicide is an action of the most unqualified and sordid egotism, and is certainly the least attractive form of self-love that exists in the world.

Finally, my dear Porphyrius, the troubles and evils of life, although many and inevitable, when, as in your case, unaccompanied by grievous calamity or bodily infirmity, are after all easy to be borne, especially by a wise and strong man like yourself. And indeed, life itself is of so little importance, that man ought not to trouble himself much either to retain or abandon it; and, without thinking greatly about it, we ought to give the former instinct precedence over the latter.

If a friend begged you to do this why should you not gratify him?

Now I earnestly entreat you, dear Porphyrius, by the memory of our long friendship, put away this idea. Do not grieve your friends, who love you with such warm affection, and your Plotinus, who has no dearer nor better friend in the world. Help us to bear the burden of life, instead of leaving us without thought. Let us live, dear Porphyrius, and console each other. Let us not refuse our share of the suffering of humanity, apportioned to us by destiny. Let us cling to each other with mutual encouragement, and hand in hand strengthen one another better to bear the troubles of life. Our time after all will be short; and when death comes, we will not complain. In the last hour, our friends and companions will comfort us, and we shall be gladdened by the thought that after death we shall still live in their memory, and be loved by them.                                                                                                                     

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Filed under Europe, Leopardi, Giacomo, Selections, The Modern Era


from The World as Will and Idea
from Studies in Pessimism: On Suicide


Born in Danzig of a wealthy merchant and a mother who was to become a famous romantic novelist, the young Schopenhauer studied modern languages in order to prepare for the mercantile career that his father desired for him. The family travelled through Europe extensively, and Schopenhauer lived in France and England. When his father died in 1805, a presumed suicide by drowning, the family moved to Weimar where his mother hosted literary celebrities, including the writers Goethe [q.v.] and Wieland. When he was 21, Schopenhauer entered the University of Göttingen as a medical student, but quickly switched to philosophy. His studies were first concentrated on Plato [q.v.] and Kant [q.v.], both of whom, along with the Hindu Upanishads [q.v., under Vedas, Puranas, and Upanishads] and other Eastern mystical thinkers, served as important foundations for his thinking.

In his major philosophical work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1818; published in English as The World as Will and Idea, 1883–86), Schopenhauer posits a pessimistic idealism in which everything is a mental construction of the subjective mind. One can come to understand, through reflection, perception, and reasoning, how the world works; however, the true nature of reality remains hidden. The will exists in all things and is only conscious in man, yet the will is not completely free from predetermined, irrational, and unconscious motives. The will leads to individuation, but also to turmoil and trials: the amount of happiness is therefore always less than the amount of unhappiness. Relief and pleasure can be found in beauty, but only temporarily; only denial of the demands of the will, in the manner of the saints, can ultimately lead to internal peace. Schopenhauer’s publication was initially ignored, and his attempt to establish himself as a professor at the University of Berlin failed, in part because he chose to lecture at the same time as the immensely popular Hegel. Schopenhauer was severe, distrustful, suspicious, and profoundly misogynist; and his life was lonely, violent, and unbefriended, except for his poodle “Atma,” a name borrowed from Hinduism/Buddhism, reinterpreted in Schopenhauer’s thought as the “universal soul,” “the impersonal, eternally renewed primordial force of nature.” It was only in the last decade of his life, after the publication of Parerga and Paralipomena (1851), a collection of aphorisms and essays, that he achieved fame and an admiring public. Schopenhauer died of heart failure in 1860.

The following selections from The World as Will and Idea and Studies in Pessimism from Parerga and Paralipomena outline Schopenhauer’s conception of suicide. He completely rejects the view of suicide as sin and as crime that, he says, is characteristic of the monotheistic religions; in his view, suicide is not wrong. However, although Schopenhauer advocates denial of the will, he rejects most suicide as a means to achieve it. This condemnation is not moral or legal; rather it is a cognitive mistake, at least when suicide is the result of personal despair. In some situations, however, such as voluntary self-starvation or religious sacrifice, suicide may be the assertion of an asceticism lacking a will; the difference between the suicide of the genuine ascetic and suicide resulting from despair is that the ascetic denies life’s pleasures and wills nothing, while the suicide of despair rejects life’s sorrows and desires a better world. The ascetic realizes that life is a state of suffering, while the suicide of despair erroneously believes that his own life embodies the problem.

Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Idea; Vol. 1, Book IV, “The Assertion and Denial of the Will,” Sec. 69. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1883, pp. 514-520, excerpted; “On Suicide,” in Studies in Pessimism: A Series of Essays, tr. T. Bailey Saunders. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1893, pp. 43-50, footnotes deleted or interpolated; also available online from Project Gutenberg Release #10732; quote in biographical note from Bhikkhu Nanajivako, “Schopenhauer and Buddhism,” Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1970, 1988, p. 7.


§ 69. Suicide, the actual doing away with the individual manifestation of will, differs most widely from the denial of the will to live, which is the single outstanding act of free-will in the manifestation, and is therefore, as Asmus calls it, the transcendental change. This last has been fully considered in the course of our work. Far from being denial of the will, suicide is a phenomenon of strong assertion of will; for the essence of negation lies in this, that the joys of life are shunned, not its sorrows. The suicide wills life, and is only dissatisfied with the conditions under which it has presented itself to him. He therefore by no means surrenders the will to live, but only life, in that he destroys the individual manifestation. He wills life—wills the unrestricted existence and assertion of the body; but the complication of circumstances does not allow this, and there results for him great suffering. The very will to live finds itself so much hampered in this particular manifestation that it cannot put forth its energies. It therefore comes to such a determination as is in conformity with its own nature, which lies outside the conditions of the principle of sufficient reason, and to which, therefore, all particular manifestations are alike indifferent, inasmuch as it itself remains unaffected by all appearing and passing away, and is the inner life of all things; for that firm inward assurance by reason of which we all live free from the constant dread of death, the assurance that a phenomenal existence can never be wanting to the will, supports our action even in the case of suicide. Thus the will to live appears just as much in suicide (Siva) as in the satisfaction of self-preservation (Vishnu) and in the sensual pleasure of procreation (Brahma). This is the inner meaning of the unity of the Trimurtis, which is embodied in its entirety in every human being, though in time it raises now one, now another, of its three heads. Suicide stands in the same relation to the denial of the will as the individual thing does to the Idea. The suicide denies only the individual, not the species. We have already seen that as life is always assured to the will to live, and as sorrow is inseparable from life, suicide, the wilful destruction of the single phenomenal existence, is a vain and foolish act; for the thing-in-itself remains unaffected by it, even as the rainbow endures however fast the drops which support it for the moment may change. But, more than this, it is also the masterpiece of Maya, as the most flagrant example of the contradiction of the will to live with itself. As we found this contradiction in the case of the lowest manifestations of will, in the permanent struggle of all the forces of nature, and of all organic individuals for matter and time and space; and as we saw this antagonism come ever more to the front with terrible distinctness in the ascending grades of the objectification of the will, so at last in the highest grade, the Idea of man, it reaches the point at which, not only the individuals which express the same Idea extirpate each other, but even the same individual declares war against itself. The vehemence with which it wills life, and revolts against what hinders it, namely, suffering, brings it to the point of destroying itself; so that the individual will, by its own act, puts an end to that body which is merely its particular visible expression, rather than permit suffering to break the will. Just because the suicide cannot give up willing, he gives up living. The will asserts itself here even in putting an end to its own manifestation, because it can no longer assert itself otherwise. As, however, it was just the suffering which it so shuns that was able, as mortification of the will, to bring it to the denial of itself, and hence to freedom, so in this respect the suicide is like a sick man, who, after a painful operation which would entirely cure him has been begun, will not allow it to be completed, but prefers to retain his disease. Suffering approaches and reveals itself as the possibility of the denial of will; but the will rejects it, in that it destroys the body, the manifestation of itself, in order that it may remain unbroken. This is the reason why almost all ethical teachers, whether philosophical or religious, condemn suicide, although they themselves can only give far-fetched sophistical reasons for their opinion. But if a human being was ever restrained from committing suicide by purely moral motives, the inmost meaning of this self-conquest (in whatever ideas his reason may have clothed it) was this: “I will not shun suffering, in order that it may help to put an end to the will to live, whose manifestation is so wretched, by so strengthening the knowledge of the real nature of the world which is already beginning to dawn upon me, that it may become the final quieter of my will, and may free me for ever.”

It is well known that from time to time cases occur in which the act of suicide extends to the children. The father first kills the children he loves, and then himself. Now, if we consider that conscience, religion, and all influencing ideas teach him to look upon murder as the greatest of crimes, and that, in spite of this, he yet commits it, in the hour of his own death, and when he is altogether uninfluenced by any egotistical motive, such a deed can only be explained in the following manner: in this case, the will of the individual, the father, recognizes itself immediately in the children, though involved in the delusion of mistaking the appearance for the true nature; and as he is at the same time deeply impressed with the knowledge of the misery of all life, he now thinks to put an end to the inner nature itself, along with the appearance, and thus seeks to deliver from existence and its misery both himself and his children, in whom he discerns himself as living again. It would be an error precisely analogous to this to suppose that one may reach the same end as is attained through voluntary chastity by frustrating the aim of nature in fecundation; or indeed if, in consideration of the unendurable suffering of life, parents were to use means for the destruction of their new-born children, instead of doing everything possible to ensure life to that which is struggling into it. For if the will to live is there, as it is the only metaphysical reality, or the thing-in-itself, no physical force can break it, but can only destroy its manifestation at this place and time. It itself can never be transcended except through knowledge. Thus the only way of salvation is, that the will shall manifest itself unrestrictedly, in order that in this individual manifestation it may come to apprehend its own nature. Only as the result of this knowledge can the will transcend itself, and thereby end the suffering which is inseparable from its manifestation. It is quite impossible to accomplish this end by physical force, as by destroying the germ, or by killing the newborn child, or by committing suicide. Nature guides the will to the light, just because it is only in the light that it can work out its salvation. Therefore the aims of Nature are to be promoted in every way as soon as the will to live, which is its inner being, has determined itself.

There is a species of suicide which seems to be quite distinct from the common kind, though its occurrence has perhaps not yet been fully established. It is starvation, voluntarily chosen on the ground of extreme asceticism. All instances of it, however, have been accompanied and obscured by much religious fanaticism, and even superstition. Yet it seems that the absolute denial of will may reach the point at which the will shall be wanting to take the necessary nourishment for the support of the natural life. This kind of suicide is so far from being the result of the will to live, that such a completely resigned ascetic only ceases to live because he has already altogether ceased to will. No other death than that by starvation is in this case conceivable (unless it were the result of some special superstition); for the intention to cut short the torment would itself be a stage in the assertion of will. The dogmas which satisfy the reason of such a penitent delude him with the idea that a being of a higher nature has inculcated the fasting to which his own inner tendency drives him. Old examples of this may be found in the ” Breslauer Sammlung von Natur- und Medicin-Geschichten,” September 1799, p. 363; in Bayle’s “Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres,” February 1685, p. 189; in Zimmerman, “Ueber die Einsamkeit,” vol. i. p. 182 ; in the “Histoire de l’Academie des Sciences” for 1764, an account by Houttuyn, which is quoted in the ” Sammlung fiir praktische Aerzte,” vol. i. p. 69. More recent accounts may be found in Hufeland’s “Journal für praktische Heilkunde,” vol. x. p. 181, and vol . xlviii. p. 95; also in Nasse’s ” Zeitschrift für psychische Aerzte,” 1819, part iii, p. 460; and in the “Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal,” 1809, vol. v. p. 319. In the year 1833 all the papers announced that the English historian, Dr. Lingard, had died in January at Dover of voluntary starvation; according to later accounts, it was not he himself, but a relation of his who died. Still in these accounts the persons were generally described as insane, and it is no longer possible to find out how far this was the case. But I will give here a more recent case of this kind, if it were only to ensure the preservation of one of the rare instances of this striking and extraordinary phenomenon of human nature, which, to all appearance at any rate, belongs to the category to which I wish to assign it and could hardly be explained in any other way. This case is reported in the “Niimberger Correspondenten” of the 29th July 1813, in these words :— “We hear from Bern that in a thick wood near Thurnen a hut has been discovered in which was lying the body of a man who had been dead about a month. His clothes gave little or no clue to his social position. Two very fine shirts lay beside him. The most important article, however, was a Bible interleaved with white paper, part of which had been written upon by the deceased. In this writing he gives the date of his departure from home (but does not mention where his home was). He then says that he was driven by the Spirit of God into the wilderness to pray and fast. During his journey he had fasted seven days and then he had again taken food. After this he had begun again to fast, and continued to do so for the same number of days as before. From this point we find each day marked with a stroke, and of these there are five, at the expiration of which the pilgrim presumably died. There was further found a letter to a clergyman about a sermon which the deceased heard him preach, but the letter was not addressed.” Between this voluntary death arising from extreme asceticism and the common suicide resulting from despair there may be various intermediate species and combinations, though this is hard to find out. But human nature has depths, obscurities, and perplexities, the analysis and elucidation of which is a matter of the very greatest difficulty.


On Suicide

As far as I know, none but the votaries of monotheistic, that is to say, Jewish religions, look upon suicide as a crime. This is all the more striking, inasmuch as neither in the Old nor in the New Testament is there to be found any prohibition or positive disapproval of it; so that religious teachers are forced to base their condemnation of suicide on philosophical grounds of their own invention. These are so very bad that writers of this kind endeavor to make up for the weakness of their arguments by the strong terms in which they express their abhorrence of the practice; in other words, they declaim against it. They tell us that suicide is the greatest piece of cowardice; that only a madman could be guilty of it; and other insipidities of the same kind; or else they make the nonsensical remark that suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person.

Suicide, as I have said, is actually accounted a crime; and a crime which, especially under the vulgar bigotry that prevails in England, is followed by an ignominious burial and the seizure of the man’s property; and for that reason, in a case of suicide, the jury almost always bring in a verdict of insanity. Now let the reader’s own moral feelings decide as to whether or not suicide is a criminal act. Think of the impression that would be made upon you by the news that someone you know had committed the crime, say, of murder or theft, or been guilty of some act of cruelty or deception; and compare it with your feelings when you hear that he has met a voluntary death. While in the one case a lively sense of indignation and extreme resentment will be aroused, and you will call loudly for punishment or revenge, in the other you will be moved to grief and sympathy; and mingled with your thoughts will be admiration for his courage, rather than the moral disapproval which follows upon a wicked action. Who has not had acquaintances, friends, relations, who of their own free will have left this world; and are these to be thought of with horror as criminals? Most emphatically No! I am rather of  opinion that the clergy should be challenged to explain what right they have to go into the pulpit, or take up their pens, and stamp as a crime an action which many men whom we hold in affection and honor have committed; and to refuse an honorable burial to those who relinquish this world voluntarily. They have no Biblical authority to boast of, as justifying their condemnation of suicide; nay, not even any philosophical arguments that will hold water; and it must be understood that it is arguments we want, and that we will not be put off with mere phrases or words of abuse. If the criminal law forbids suicide, that is not an argument valid in the Church; and besides, the prohibition is ridiculous; for what penalty can frighten a man who is not afraid of death itself? If the law punishes people for trying to commit suicide, it is punishing the want of skill that makes the attempt a failure.

The ancients, moreover, were very far from regarding the matter in that light. Pliny says: Life is not so desirable a thing as to be protracted at any cost. Whoever you are, you are sure to die, even though your life has been full of abomination and crime. The chief of all remedies for a troubled mind is the feeling that among the blessings which Nature gives to man there is none greater than an opportune death; and the best of it is that every one can avail himself of it 1. And elsewhere the same writer declares: Not even to God are all things possible; for he could not compass his own death, if he willed to die, and yet in all the miseries of our earthly life, this is the best of his gifts to man 2. Nay, in Massilia and on the isle of Ceos, the man who could give valid reasons for relinquishing his life, was handed the cup of hemlock by the magistrate; and that, too, in public 3. And in ancient times, how many heroes and wise men died a voluntary death. Aristotle 4 , it is true, declared suicide to be an offense against the State, although not against the person; but in Stobaeus’ exposition of the Peripatetic philosophy there is the following remark: The good man should flee life when his misfortunes become too great; the bad man, also, when he is too prosperous. And similarly: So he will marry and beget children and take part in the affairs of the State, and, generally, practice virtue and continue to live; and then, again, if need be, and at any time necessity compels him, he will depart to his place of refuge in the tomb 5. And we find that the Stoics actually praised suicide as a noble and heroic action, as hundreds of passages show; above all in the works of Seneca, who expresses the strongest approval of it. As is well known, the Hindoos look upon suicide as a religious act, especially when it takes the form of self-immolation by widows; but also when it consists in casting oneself under the wheels of the chariot of the god at  Juggernaut, or being eaten by crocodiles in the Ganges, or being drowned in the holy tanks in the temples, and so on. The same thing occurs on the stage – that mirror of life. For example, in L’Orphelinde la Chine 6, a celebrated Chinese play, almost all the noble characters end by suicide; without the slightest hint anywhere, or any impression being produced on the spectator, that they are committing a crime. And in our own theater it is much the same – Palmira, for example, in Mahomet, or Mortimer in Maria Stuart, Othello, Countess Terzky. Is Hamlet’s monologue the meditation of a criminal? He merely declares that if we had any certainty of being annihilated by it, death would be infinitely preferable to the world as it is. But there lies the rub!

The reasons advanced against suicide by the clergy of monotheistic, that is to say, Jewish religions, and by those philosophers who adapt themselves thereto, are weak sophisms which can easily be refuted 7 . The most thorough-going refutation of them is given by Hume in his Essay on Suicide. This did not appear until after his death, when it was immediately suppressed, owing to the scandalous bigotry and outrageous ecclesiastical tyranny that prevailed in England; and hence only a very few copies of it were sold under cover of secrecy and at high price. This and another treatise by that great man have come to us from Basle, and we may be thankful for the reprint 8. It is a great disgrace to the English nation that a purely philosophical treatise, which, proceeding from one of the first thinkers and writers in England, aimed at refuting the current arguments against suicide by the light of cold reason, should be forced to sneak about in that country, as though it were some rascally production, until at last it found refuge on the Continent. At the same time it shows what a good conscience the Church has in such matters.

In my chief work I have explained the only valid reason existing against suicide on the score of morality. It is this: that suicide thwarts the attainment of the highest moral aim by the fact that, for a real release from this world of misery, it substitutes one that is merely apparent. But from a mistake to a crime is a far cry; and it is as a crime that the clergy of Christendom wish us to regard suicide.

The inmost kernel of Christianity is the truth that suffering – the Cross – is the real end and object of life. Hence Christianity condemns suicide as thwarting this end; whilst the ancient world, taking a lower point of view, held it in approval, nay, in honor. But if that is to be accounted a valid reason against suicide, it  involves the recognition of asceticism; that is to say, it is valid only from a much higher ethical standpoint than has ever been adopted by moral philosophers in Europe. If we abandon that high standpoint, there is no tenable reason left, on the score of morality, for condemning suicide. The extraordinary energy and zeal with which the clergy of monotheistic religions attack suicide is not supported either by any passages in the Bible or by any considerations of weight; so that it looks as though they must have some secret reason for their contention. May it not be this – that the voluntary surrender of life is a bad compliment for him who said that all things were very good? If this is so, it offers another instance of the crass optimism of these religions, – denouncing suicide to escape being denounced by it.

It will generally be found that, as soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life. But the terrors of death offer considerable resistance; they stand like a sentinel at the gate leading out of this world. Perhaps there is no man alive who would not have already put an end to his life, if this end had been of a purely negative character, a sudden stoppage of existence. There is something positive about it; it is the destruction of the body; and a man shrinks from that, because his body is the manifestation of the will to live.

However, the struggle with that sentinel is, as a rule, not so hard as it may seem from a long way off, mainly in consequence of the antagonism between the ills of the body and the ills of the mind. If we are in great bodily pain, or the pain lasts a long time, we become indifferent to other troubles; all we think about is to get well. In the same way great mental suffering makes us insensible to bodily pain; we despise it; nay, if it should outweigh the other, it distracts our thoughts, and we welcome it as a pause in mental suffering. It is this feeling that makes suicide easy; for the bodily pain that accompanies it loses all significance in the eyes of one who is tortured by an excess of mental suffering. This is especially evident in the case of those who are driven to suicide by some purely morbid and exaggerated ill-humor. No special effort to overcome their feelings is necessary, nor do such people require to be worked up in order to take the step; but as soon as the keeper into whose charge they are given leaves them for a couple of minutes, they quickly bring their life  to an end.

When, in some dreadful and ghastly dream, we reach the moment of greatest horror, it awakes us; thereby banishing all the hideous shapes that were born of the night. And life is a dream: when the moment of greatest horror compels us to break it off, the same thing happens.

Suicide may also be regarded as an experiment – a question which man puts to Nature, trying to force her to an answer. The question is this: What change will death produce in a man’s existence and in his insight into the nature of things? It is a clumsy experiment to make; for it involves the destruction of the very consciousness which puts the question and awaits the answer.


1 Hist. Nat. Lib. xxviii., 1.

2 Loc. cit. Lib. ii. C. 7

3 Valerius Maximus; hist. Lib. ii., c. 6, §7 et 8. Heraclides Ponticus; fragmenta de rebus publicis, ix. Aeliani variae historiae, iii , 37. Strabo; Lib. x., c. 5, 6.

4 Eth. Nichom.,  v. 15.

5 Stobaeus. Ecl. Eth. ii., c. 7, pp. 286, 312.

6 Tradhuit par St. Julien, 1834.

7 See my treatise on the Foundation of Morals,  § 5.

8 Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul, by the late David Hume, Basle, 1799, sold by James Decker.

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Filed under Europe, Schopenhauer, Arthur, Selections, Sin, Stoicism, The Modern Era

(documented 1635-1970)



  1. Mrs. Cochran Becoming a Windigo
    (documented by Ruth Landes 1932-1935)


  1. The Gaspesians: Suicide, Shame, and Despair
    (documented by Le Clercq 1675-1686)


  1. Le Jeune’s Relation
    (documented by Brébeuf, Le Jeune 1635-36)
  2. (and Iroquois) The Suicide of Children
    (reported by Wallace, citing LeMercier, 1600’s)


  1. Suicide
    (documented by Lafitau 1712-17)
  2. Suicide of the Widowed
    (documented by de Lahontan, 1703)
  3. The Song of Death
    (documented by de Lahontan, 1703)
  4. Murder and Suicide
    (account by  Mrs. Mary Jemison, 1817)


  1. The Code of Handsome Lake
    (recited by Edward Cornplanter to Arthur C. Parker, 1850, 1913)
  2. The Suicide as Earthbound
    (account by Cornplanter, Jr.)



  1. Varieties of Shame: Time of Death, Pollution, and the Disfigurement of Smallpox
    (documented by James Adair, 1775)


  1. The Favorite Wife of the Chief Sun
    (documented by Jean-Bernard Bossu, 1751-1762)



  1. Elderly Persons are “Thrown Away”
    (documented by Ernest Wallace & Edward Adamson Hoebel, 1933, 1945)
  2. Suicide from Overwhelming Shame
    (documented by Hoebel, 1940)


  1. The Rarity of Suicide; When the Camp Moved
    (documented by Hilger, 1935-1942)


  1. Suicide among Sioux Women
    (documented by John Bradbury 1809-11)


  1. Two Twists in Battle
    (documented by Llewellyn and Hoebel, 1941)


  1. Smallpox and the End of a Household
    (documented by Bowers 1930-1931)


  1. Crazy-Dog Wishing to Die
    (documented by Lowie, 1913)
  2. The Lowest of the Low
    (documented by Wildschut, 1918-1927; 1960)

Gros Ventre:

  1. Singing the ‘Brave-Song’
    documented  by Flannery 1940-48


  1. Suicide to Avoid Marriage
    (documented by G. B. Grinnell, c. 1888)
  2. The Sandhills
    (account by Adolf Hungry Wolf, 1977)
    20b Kit-sta-ka Rejoins her Husband After the Sun Dance
    (documented by McClintock, 1910)
  3. When Wakes-Up-Last Murdered All of his Children
    (documented by McClintock, 1968)



  1. Notes on Navajo Suicide
    (documented by Wyman and Thorne)
  2. The Destination of Witches and Suicides
    (documented by Wyman, Hill, and Osanai, 1942)
  3. Reasons for Suicide
    (documented by Leighton and Kluckhohn,  1947)
  4. Ending One’s Life by Wishing to Die
    (documented by Newcomb, 1915-1940)
  5. Crazy Violence
    (documented by Kaplan and Johnson, 1964)
  6. Navajo Suicide
    (Jerrold Levy, 1965)


  1. Making Arrangements for Suicide
    (account by Nequatewa, 1936)
  2. How the Hopi Marked the Boundary Line
    (account by Nequatewa, 1936)
  3. Girls Going Qövisti
    (documented  by Titiev,  1932-1940)


  1. Postmenopausal Women
    (documented by Powell, 1867-1880)


  1. Suicides as Cloudbeings
    (documented by Parsons, 1939)
  2. Ritual Revenge
    (documented by Ruth Benedict, 1934)

Jicarilla Apache:

  1. Apache War Customs
    (documented by Opler,  1936)


  1. The First Death: Matavilye, and Suicide in Childbirth, Weaning, and Twins
    (documented by Devereux,  1961)



  1. Psychological Suicide
    (documented by Aginsky, 1934-35)

Wintu and others:

  1. Suicide in Northeastern California
    (documented by Voegelin, 1937)


  1. The Stigma of Suicide
    (documented by Thompson, 1916)


  1. Strained Sex Relations
    (documented by Ray, 1928-1930)
  2. Suicide by Hanging
    (documented by Cline, 1930)


  1. Shame
    (documented by Ruth Benedict, 1934)


  1. Barbarities Practised  on Widows
    (documented by Ross Cox, attributed to M’Gillivray)


  1. Holding Others Responsible for Suicide
    (documented by Krause 1881-1882; 1956)
  2. Slaves: An Honor to Die at the Master’s Funeral
    (documented by Niblack, 1887)
  3. Paying Damages for Suicide
    (documented by  Jones 1893-1914; 1914)


  1. Suicide and Intoxication
    (documented by Honigmann, 1943-1945)

In the 15th and 16th centuries—prior to contact with Europeans—it is estimated that there were perhaps 70 million people inhabiting the western hemisphere, perhaps one-fifth of the global population at the time. Native Americans are understood to have crossed a land-bridge connecting North America with Asia beginning roughly 13,000 years ago, probably in at least three migrations involving land travel or small boats hugging the coastline. Some evidence from gene-frequency distributions and DNA clocks in contemporary indigenous populations suggests that the earliest migrations may have occurred even earlier. There are archaeological claims of finds as early as 33,000 b.c.; evidence remains speculative. As North America was populated, the new inhabitants adapted to local environments and developed a large variety of cultural patterns; some groups remained in the Arctic and northern regions; others continued southward through Central America and on into South America. Only about a tenth of the population of the western hemisphere at its height, just before contact with Europeans, lived in North America; greater population density occurred closer to the equator.

As with indigenous peoples in other areas of the world, nomenclature for the original settlers of a region varies. North American native peoples are usually categorized by similar geographic location and related sociocultural practices. Europeans originally called the inhabitants of North America “Indians,” reflecting Columbus’s error in thinking he had reached the Far East. North American indigenous peoples are also referred to as First Nations, First Peoples, Amerindians, and Native Americans. Distinct groups traditionally called “tribes” (as they are in many of the selections provided here) are now often referred to as “nations,” reflecting both their traditional culture and current legal status. Regional groupings of Native Americans, associated (though in somewhat varied ways) by language groups, cultural patterns, and DNA linkages, include the peoples of the Eastern Woodlands (both North and South), the Plains, the Southwest and the Great Basin, and California and the Northwest Coast, to name the areas from which selections are included here. Although this is not customary in some scholarly fields, the selections in this volume follow an east-to-west pattern because of the rough chronology of widespread European contact. The selections preserve the nomenclature for groups and locations used in the originals in each case. Arctic, Mesoamerican, and Caribbean peoples are treated in other sections of this volume.

Although Native American groups did not keep written records, access to many oral traditions and ceremonies has been preserved by two principal means. First, ethnographic accounts, primarily of the groups of eastern North America and, to a lesser degree, the Plains, come from early explorers and missionaries sent to convert the Indians; however, as Lyle Campbell puts it, these reports were often “armchair nonsense.” There were some good accounts of many of the Iroquoian groups, particularly by Lewis Henry Morgan, from the 1870s onward, but the rise of scientific ethnography is usually attributed to the influential work of Franz Boas (1858–1942) and his many students. After that time, ethnographers attempted to document the beliefs and customs of the more removed tribes by getting an insider’s view of social norms and rules; they tried to shun descriptions in terms of outside comparisons, judgments, or assumptions, though one may question to what degree they, as outsiders, succeeded. Second, in recent decades work by various by 20th-century Native Americans recounts the “old ways,” usually by interviewing the eldest members of their tribes; here, information about traditional views and practices comes from an insider’s point of view, but it is of substantially later date.

For both kinds of source, the problem of cultural overlay subsequent to European contact is considerable. The early explorers, missionaries, and ethnographers came into contact with peoples uninfluenced by European thought, but their reports were often heavily biased by their own religious and political convictions—as is particularly evident, for example, in patronizing remarks like Lafitau’s comment that “[t]‌he Indians are enlightened enough to distinguish good from evil” (see selection #5), where he is reporting a response he believes coincides with Western views of suicide from Virgil on. Informants were also often selective in what they were willing to tell outsiders. On the other hand, contemporary Native American insiders’ reports of the “old-ways” may be more sensitive to the nuances of traditional thinking, but the groups themselves have been in contact with European and other thought for as many as three or four hundred years, and these societies have in any case been fully disrupted from the time of contact on by disease and severe population reduction, wars, slaving (in diverse areas), the acquisition of the horse, and other factors. Insiders gave accounts of the “old ways” that were also sometimes tailored to fit agendas—sometimes to claim rights to land by modifying historical traditions, sometimes to make missionaries think their beliefs were more similar to Christianity than they in fact were, sometimes to gain whites’ technology to give them an advantage in disputes with hostile tribes, and so on. Then, too, accounts from either sort of source may draw on interpretations or misinterpretations of individual behavior, as in Landes’s account of an Ojibwa woman who felt she was becoming a windigo (selection #1)—whether explained as a psychosis brought on by chronic food shortage or the product of hostile accusations—that nevertheless reveal something about traditional Native American beliefs about suicide: in this case, that she had “an undisputed right to dispose of herself as she chose.”

A survey of the full range of Native American beliefs about suicide, as closely as they can be approximated, reveals a number of contrasts and connections. For example, many groups drew a moral distinction between voluntary, self-initiated death in battle and voluntary, self-initiated death in other contexts. Charging wildly into the ranks of the enemy with the intent to die, for example, was seen as an act of honor and courage, while hanging oneself from a tree was condemned. Yet even when suicide was condemned, the degree of disapproval was often comparatively light. In contrast with European religion, which at the time of contact almost uniformly saw suicide as gravely sinful and punished by an afterlife in hell, several Native American traditions held that the “punishment” comes from the ghosts of other deceased people who themselves banish the suicide out of fear. Several tribes, including the Natchez, seem to have engaged in a practice analogous to the East Indian sati, and in some groups “widow-burning” was expected of both females and males; in other groups, attempts at self-immolation appear to have been socially expected but also routinely thwarted by other members of the tribe. On the other hand, various ethnologists, anthropologists, and other observers explicitly report few or no cases of suicide in many groups, including the Maricopa, the Tubatulabal, the Bella Coola, the Ojibwa, the Hare, the Montagnais, the Lee Islanders, the Arapaho, the Dhegiha, some of the Pomo, the Plateau Yumans, the Southern Paiute, and the Zuni (selections from some of these groups are presented here). For the most part, contemporary outsiders’ stereotypes of suicide-related practices among Native Americans have been confined to that custom in which migratory groups abandon elderly or infirm members by the side of the trail (not actually evident in most groups), but in fact the full range of Native American beliefs and practices about suicide is far more complex. After all, there were as many as 500 tribes in continental North and Central America, about the same number in Mesoamerica and lower Central America, and some 1,500 in South America at the time of contact, each with differences from the others.

The accounts presented here span some 300 years and are arranged in geographic rather than chronological order. Some date from the immediate post-contact period; some are quite recent, drawn from the comparatively insulated environment of the reservations set up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which isolated Native American peoples in the United States. As with all oral cultures evolving in part in response to outside contact, it is not possible to determine with certainty the exact nature of pre-contact, historical views of suicide as yet uninfluenced by outside forces, and the reliability of later observers is always in question; yet even given these difficulties, the overall picture they present of the ethics of suicide as seen by these cultures is compellingly different from those of Western observers.

The Selections


The indigenous groups of what is now eastern Canada and the United States inhabited woodland territory, and the groups are thus often referred to as Eastern Woodlands Indians. Although central New York State is often considered the home of the Iroquoian groups, some 12 Iroquoian languages were spoken from the St. Lawrence River to the South Carolina-Georgia border. This language family (which included the Huron and the Cherokee) also refers to the Five (and eventually Six) Nations—the Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca, and Onondaga, followed later by the Tuscarora—that formed a loose confederacy known as the League of the Iroquois. Selections #1 and #2 provide comparatively recent accounts of suicidal behavior in this region.

Jesuit missionaries began visiting the Hurons around 1610; their correspondence gives us the earliest account of Native American beliefs concerning suicide. The letters of the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf to his superior Father Paul le Jeune (1635, 1636), compiled together with reports from other missionaries in a form now known as Le Jeune’s Relation [selection #3], depict the afterlife as is it understood by the Hurons, noting that suicides (like those who have died in war, but unlike thieves) are relegated to different villages in the afterlife than other souls, and are feared and ostracized, but also that death might be sought in certain circumstances. (Brébeuf himself, a French Catholic captured by the enemy Iroquois, went fearlessly to his death, martyred at the stake.) Wallace’s early account (selection #4, quoting LeMercier, a Huron of the 1600s) describing Seneca life and the matter of suicide in children, suggests that either it is the product of great impulsivity or that it is a trivial action. Lafitau’s account (selection #5, 1712–17; 1724) observes that although those who committed suicide are denied communication with other souls of the dead, the Iroquois committed suicide for even the smallest reproach. Concerning widows, Lahontan observes (selection #6, 1692–1703) that they were often driven to suicide by lack of an appropriate partner, and (in selection #7) that widows who dreamt of their departed loved ones twice in the six months following the death were permitted to commit suicide in order to be reunited with the deceased spouse. Although the Iroquois were said to often commit suicide to avoid suffering and captivity, Lahontan also narrates with evident astonishment a case in which a prisoner tortured severely under the auspices of the French nevertheless “ran to his death with a greater unconcernedness, than Socrates would have done” (selection #7). In selection #8, also describing attitudes that may have been similarly inconsistent, Mary Jemison, who lived with the Iroquois around the time of Handsome Lake, reports that Jack and Doctor, two Squawky Hill Indians who had killed her son, contemplated the terrors in the afterlife for those who commit suicide, yet one of them decided to poison himself regardless of the consequences.

The Seneca prophet Ganioda’yo, or Handsome Lake, who revitalized the Iroquois after their defeat in the American Revolution, reinforces traditional beliefs with Christian theological ideas. Selection #9, from Handsome Lake’s Code or “Great Message” (the Gaiwiiye), was recited from memory by Handsome Lake’s half-brother Gaiant’wake (Edward Cornplanter, one of six authorized “holders” of teachings of Handsome Lake’s religion) after an original version from about 1850 was lost; it was translated in 1913 for Arthur C. Parker by William Bluesky. The passage explores the notion of the afterlife, alluding to a belief found in other Native American groups, especially the Mojave, that infants before, at, and just after birth are capable of making choices about whether to enter into or continue in life. Some choose not to do so: deaths among infants are deliberate. This passage also alludes to the concept of allotted life; for “the number of our days is known in the spirit world.” In selection #10, Edward Cornplanter’s son Jesse Cornplanter explores this concept in relation to suicide: going against the fate of one’s allotment of life displeases the Great Spirit and dooms one to wander the unpleasant reaches of the afterlife; the notion of “sin” employed in this text is an example of Handsome Lake’s importation of Christian theological ideas.


Native Americans, who had no immunity to diseases brought by Europeans, succumbed in enormous numbers to measles, typhus, plague, influenza, malaria, yellow fever, and especially smallpox, a disease of extremely high mortality that also produced scarring and blindness in those it did not kill outright. Selection #11 describes shame-associated suicides among the Cherokee, including those that occurred during the smallpox epidemic of 1738–39. James Adair’s account focuses not only on the forms of shame associated with ritual pollution and disfigured personal appearance, but the perceived failures of divine powers among the religious leaders, who were unable to stop the epidemic. An account from the Plains Mandan (see selection #18) also describes the social consequences of smallpox.

According to an early observer, the Natchez, a people inhabiting the resource-abundant  area surrounding the lower Mississippi River who had a very complex, stratified social structure and an advanced civilization with state-level organization, appear to have practiced a form of sati: after an individual who belonged to the ruling clan passed away, the widow or widower and other chosen family members and retainers would allow themselves to be strangled in a public ritual. The custom applied to both females and males. Jean-Bernard Bossu’s Travels (selection #12, 1751–62, 1771) tells of several potential suicides associated with this custom. First there is the youth Etteacteal, who had married into the blood of the ruling Suns but, now that he is expected to submit to strangulation upon the death of his wife, attempts to avoid it. Then there is the favorite wife of Bitten Snake, the great war chief of the Natchez, who faces death with equanimity. And finally, there is the Chief Sun, who is restrained from suicide by the French. Nevertheless, institutionally expected consent to being killed, cooperation in being killed, or undertaking of suicide upon the death of one’s spouse is far less frequent in North American native cultures than in those of South America, Africa, India, or Pacific Island cultures, perhaps in part explained by the fact that small-scale hunter-gatherer groups with precarious survival situations, as many indigenous American groups were (though not the Natchez), could less well afford the loss of tribe members.

The Plains

Moving roughly east to west and south to north among the Native American cultures of the Plains, several divergent concepts of suicide emerge. Self-senicide, or self-killing by the elderly, is reported among the Comanche (selection #13). Among the Arapaho, suicide is said to be rare, although traditional accounts are reported here of elderly people asking to be left behind when the camp of this migratory group moves on. John Bradbury, an early American traveler, reports (in selection #16, 1809–11) that the Sioux saw killing oneself as an affront to the “Father of Life,” and those who took their own lives were destined to carry around the lethal instrument in the afterlife as punishment. For this reason, it was said that women who hanged themselves to evade maltreatment hanged themselves on the smallest tree that would support their weight, and in general those who committed suicide chose means of doing so that would involve the least burdensome load to carry into the next life.

Furthermore, while taking one’s own life was frowned upon and discouraged by certain beliefs about the afterlife, in some Plains Indian groups like the Cheyenne and Crow, giving oneself up to die in battle was seen as an act of courage and self-sacrifice, both honorable and socially approved, quite different from the self-inflicted type of suicide that was strongly denounced.

To increase honor, a Plains brave might seek a glorious death in battle. Unlike the negative aura surrounding grievance suicides, death-in-battle suicides were held up as examples of courage and sacrifice. Hoebel’s account of the Cheyenne warrior Two Twists (selection #17) suggests that the act of seeking death in battle could be sufficient to secure honor, and did not require the actual death of the individual. Two Twists’ wild charge into battle was enough to earn him great respect; it also compensated for Red Robe’s grief in losing his sons at the hands of the enemy. However, if the person proclaiming a wish to die did not act with suicidal intensity in battle—and hence at a real risk of death—prestige was lost and ridicule followed.

This ideal of a glorious death in battle was even more fully developed among the Crow (selection #19) and also occurred among the Gros Ventre (selection #21). Lowie reports in 1913 that among the Crow, an individual who became weary of life would announce that he was to become a “Crazy Dog.” From that point forward, the “Crazy-Dog-Wishing-To-Die” would say the opposite of whatever he meant (i.e., “talk crosswise”) and would seek death at the first opportunity. One possible connection between the phenomenon of “talking crosswise,” announcing the death wish, and suicidal behavior is the conjecture that, under normal circumstances, human beings do not seek or wish for death; in similar fashion, our communications do not normally signify the opposite of what is transmitted. In cross talk, communication is reversed and, analogously, death is sought instead of life. If a Crow who announced himself as committed to the life of a Crazy-Dog-Wishing-To-Die did not seek death, he became a laughing stock; he did not serve the tribe instrumentally by being courageous in battle and remained untrue to his word. Comanche informant reports collected by Hoebel (1940) (selection #13), reporting similar practices, also suggest that the threat of suicide was a means of social control. A suicide threat was used to call attention to a perceived wrong; the threat also served to call down societal rebuke upon those who had wronged the individual making the suicidal threat. Indeed, social responsibility for suicide was often assigned to a second party, and causing a suicide was essentially seen as homicide. The “cleansing of the arrows” ceremony was performed after either suicide or homicide to alleviate the bad luck brought on by such actions. Suicide was a way of recovering lost prestige or increasing it.

Wildschut’s 1918–27 fieldwork among the Crow (selection #20), in contrast, presents quite a different picture, in which suicides (and murderers) were regarded as the lowest of the low.

Among the Blackfeet, according to Grinnell (selection #22), suicide was quite common among girls facing marriage, for whom no choice was permitted. The same was true for individuals unlucky enough to be showing the early signs of fatal disease. Suicide also had a strong familial element. Adolf Hungry Wolf, recounting the “old-ways” of the Blackfoot Nation (selection #23), intimates that a dead person’s spirit might try to convince the living to accompany them into the sand hills, the place of the dead. In a related selection (#24), Kit-sta-ka jumps to her death after the Sun Dance in order to join her husband in the spirit world. Selection #25 records a problem in contact between Native Americans and whites: suicide following murder, associated with alcohol, based on an incident in October 1903.


Some Navajo researchers have posited a strong relationship between certain religious customs and conceptions of suicide. Father Berard Haile’s account (1942) of the Navajo “Upward Reaching Way” ceremony describes the myth on which it is based. The First Woman, who had originally led people out of the underworld, had died from a hemorrhage. First Woman’s husband decides to follow her spirit into death, that is, he chooses to forgo life and join his wife in the Emergence place, where spirits of the dead congregate. The journey to the Emergence place is voluntary, and Haile reports that at least one informant saw this as accounting for later suicides.

Among the Navajo, suicide was frowned upon, but not strongly condemned. Anthropologists Wyman and Thorne (selection #26) argue that the reason it was deemed undesirable was because of the negative effect it had upon family members and others who depended on the deceased. As with the Sioux, those who have committed suicide must carry the lethal instrument with them in the afterlife. Although suicides arrive at the same destination in the afterlife as everyone else, they are excluded from the sociality that exists there; other spirits fear and ostracize them. This echoes the earlier accounts from the Iroquois: It is not so much a judgmental deity who imposes eternal punishment on the suicide; rather, it is an isolation imposed by a fearful post-mortem society. Jerrold Levy adds (in selection #31) that suicide was not strongly condemned because of a deterministic element in the Navajo worldview: The Navajo is not wholly acting through individual will; rather, suicide is something that happens to a person and is not freely chosen.

As with all the indigenous cultures described here and in other parts of this volume, the identification of practices as “suicide” is itself subject to bias. Like most languages, Navajo has no true term for “suicide”; the closest term is a verb meaning to kill oneself, but there is no nominal expression to describe this behavior as a type or category of act. (Indeed, English had no such term until Walter Charleton pioneered the Latinate construction, sui- “self” \+ –cide, “kill,” in 1651.)

There is great importance attached to harmony with the natural and supernatural worlds in Navajo beliefs. Illness and other problems in life were thought to be due to a corruption in this harmony. Traditional ceremonies, sometimes lasting days, were thought to rebuild this harmony and restore order to the world and the individual. Coming into contact with a corpse and its attending spirit would serve as one type of disruption; for this reason, the Navajo feared the dead and often were loath to touch a corpse. Thus, the common notion of “suicide as revenge” can be intensified under Navajo religious belief: a well-placed suicide can be an instrument—a weapon—that harms others. Since the Navajo fear contact with a corpse, an individual with a vendetta against another will commit suicide in a place where the hated person will encounter the corpse, and this action will bring bad luck upon the targeted individual.

In 1967, the Hopi storyteller Nequatewa—an insider in the tradition handing down accounts of the “old-ways” and carrying on the tradition of passing down tribal culture by word of mouth from adult males to boys at early maturity—recounted a traditional tale of the Hopi variant of a warrior seeking death in battle. According to this tale, the Hopi arranged battles in which they knew they would die; as part of this custom, the warrior seeking death would wear jewelry that was to be collected as payment by the slayers. The Hopi legend describing the creation of the boundary with the Navajo portrays an arranged death of this sort (selection #33; see also #32). As in the reports of other deaths of this type, it is unclear whether the claim is accurate—Elsie Parsons, for instance, derides this account as an idea of a suicide pact that Nequatewa “worked into a true story” and quotes Ruth Bunzel as claiming that the very idea of suicide is “so remote from [Hopi] habits of thought that it arouses only laughter” (see note in selection #36). It is also unclear whether, even if the practice were true, the Hopi would equate it with other more direct forms of suicide.

While suicide as a revenge strategy was not unknown among the Pueblo, Ruth Benedict observes that not only was suicide outlawed among the Pueblo, but the very concept evoked incredulity and laughter (selection #37). If these were genuinely indigenous attitudes rather than specimens of overlay from European contact, it is somewhat surprising when Parsons observes (in selection #36) that some Pueblo did not believe in any afterlife punishment of suicides; instead, after death, suicides were thought to join believers, good men, and those who “perish in the mountains” (possibly meaning warriors), and would become Lightnings or Cloud Beings.

The explorer John Wesley Powell also reports a variant of self-senicide among the Utes, which he said “made a deep impression upon my mind.” (selection #35) The Utes, he says, believe that a woman who lives much beyond menopause will turn into a witch, and that it is better to die than meet such a fate. Many such women commit suicide by voluntary starvation, and he describes three old women in the process of doing so. Notes by the editor of his text indicate that Powell may not have actually seen these women but was recording a tale or myth about them; nevertheless, his portrayal of them and their final, shuffling dancing is extremely vivid.

Seemingly voluntary death in battle, much as in the Cheyenne, Crow, and Hopi, was also reported among the Jicarilla Apache (selection #38), now residents of northern New Mexico. Here too the warrior is said to divest himself of all ordinary conventions and enter battle with the intent of receiving a fatal wound. Among the Apache, the reversal of the normal order of things, analogous to the Crows’ “talking crosswise,” is demonstrated by stripping completely naked.

While some Native American groups would constrict their conceptions of suicide (if indeed they had such a concept at all) to exclude voluntary death in battle, the Mojave expanded their conception to include that and more. Devereux, in a long essay in ethnopsychiatry shaped by his own commitment to Freudianism, reports (in selection #39) that the Mojave, urged on by certain religious practices, expanded the rubric of suicide to include stillborn births, the deaths of suckling infants, the deaths of one or both twins, the symbolic death of one who sacrifices an animal upon commencing an incestuous marriage, funeral suicide, certain deaths surrounding witches, and finally, “real suicides”—those suicides that are akin to our modern notions. Drawing on the views of Freud [q.v.], Devereux sees many of these notions as connected to the mythic first death of Matavilye—a death that was willed and actualized by the deity himself.

The Mojave believed that infants were rational, sentient beings. In the continuation of selection #39, Devereux reports the view that some infants decided not to be born and assumed a transverse position at delivery—the buttocks-first exit that often killed both baby and mother. The infant who did this was assumed to be a shaman. Shamans, as a whole, did not wish to have life, and often decided to kill themselves and their mothers at birth. Those infants who survived a transverse birth were expected, and commonly grew up to be, the shamans of their tribes. Many shamans practiced obstetrics, and were often called on to help coax a dangerously positioned baby to accept life and avoid suicide. The Mojave disapproved of those babies who committed suicide in this way; it was viewed as a selfish act. Ordinary infants who died early in life were said to proceed to a “rathole” in the next life. Furthermore, since infants were seen as capable of making choices, the Mojave believed that the death of a recently weaned child was also a voluntary death. Young children who were replaced at the breast by younger siblings were often thought to kill themselves from jealousy. Jealousy was particularly acute among twins, who were commonly thought to be gods. When these infant gods grew to dislike their families, became tired of life, or became jealous of each other or younger siblings, they were thought to kill themselves in order to return to their heavenly abode. This type of suicide was more strongly condemned than the first.

Devereux also claims that the Mojave practiced symbolic suicide at the occurrence of an incestuous marriage. A horse, symbolizing the bridegroom, was killed; this dissolved the extant family connections and created a new person. This new individual, freed from troublesome family backgrounds, was able to marry a member of his former family. Such a suicide was frowned upon not because it was a suicide, but because of the Mojave religious belief that families in which incest had occurred would die out.

Suicide and witchcraft often intersected in Mojave culture. Dying people who rejected the helping favors of the shaman called in to treat them were said to be bewitched. By rejecting treatment, the “bewitched person” who died was said to have committed suicide and was condemned for cooperating with evil forces. Additionally, if a witch was murdered, he was said to have everlasting power over those he had bewitched on earth; thus, every witch who is murdered is said to commit a vicarious suicide in order to gain this power. Such a “suicide” is not mourned by the tribe or even by his family; it is rather the natural destiny of witches. Furthermore, in Mojave culture, the suicide of braves seeking death in battle (another example of the “Crazy-Dog-Wishing-To-Die” phenomenon) is seen as the natural pathway of the warrior; braves are not meant to grow old. While the Plains Indians may heap honor upon a warrior who died voluntarily in battle, the Mojave are resigned to a sad fatalism.

Informant reports collected by Devereux observe that a minor custom existed among the Mojave in which the survivors of a person who had died attempted to throw themselves onto the funeral pyre. Apparently, this custom was somewhat encouraged and was thought to demonstrate affection. It was restricted to females, however, and males who attempted to jump on the funeral pyre were ridiculed. Since the Mojave came to expect this gesture, other members of the tribe were also called upon to prevent the burning of the individual, thus making actual suicide a rarity; individuals in mourning knew they would be stopped.

Finally, there are what Devereux calls “real” suicides: a competent individual killing him- or herself by direct, self-inflicted injury. For the Mojave, a major motivation for “real suicide” was the belief that it was the best way to honor and be reunited with deceased loved ones. Another major motivation also included distress at having one’s feelings hurt. Devereux reports that the act of suicide was generally condemned, and people who committed real suicide (especially for reasons of emotional distress) were often viewed as crazy, weak, or stubborn. However, suicides suffered no special punishment in the afterlife: Those who committed suicide, like all others who died, proceeded to relive their earthly life and even their death before they metamorphosed into something else.

West and Northwest Coast

The Native American nations living in the northern California and Canadian coastal areas are listed here from south to north; the last of these areas adjoin groups included elsewhere in this volume under Arctic Cultures [q.v.]. As with other outsiders’ reports of behaviors and practices in orally transmitted cultures, the available accounts are often influenced by a variety of factors, including disciplinary bias, theoretical commitments, and various sorts of ideology. Aginsky’s account of a Pomo group (selection #40), for example, is shaped by an emphasis on psychological analysis of native behavior. Accounts of the Wintu and other northeastern California groups collected by Erminie W. Voegelin in 1936 (selection #41) appear eager to demonstrate the existence of suicide practices that other observers do not substantiate, although it is not clear which accounts are accurate. Voegelin insists that suicide has been practiced at least since the coming of Europeans and probably existed among the Wintu before that; suicide due to familial tensions is often brought about by drowning oneself at a sacred spot on the river, and attempted sati, or funeral suicide, is tolerated or expected, but (as is also reported in the Mojave) routinely interrupted by bystanders, so that the resulting number of actual suicides by widows was therefore minimal.

Brief accounts from the Klamath (selection #42) and a Salish group (selection #43) depict suicide as shameful and as more common among females than males. Among the Kwakiutl, Ruth Benedict reports (1934) (in selection #45) that suicide was common, and that the most common motive was shame; suicide was seen as a way of overcoming this shame and restoring honor.

The report attributed to the fur trader Duncan M’Gillivray (selection #46) may be even more distorted than other somewhat excessive accounts: M’Gillivray is said to have claimed that among the Talkotin, widows and widowers were forced to endure societally imposed torment by the crematory fire and wash themselves in the melted fat of their deceased spouse, as well as other hardships lasting over a period of years; these barbarities, he claimed, were understood as a payment for the sins the living spouse had committed against the dead. Many widows subjected to this treatment, he claimed, chose suicide instead.

Some reports also identify cultural assumptions in which the social assignment for responsibility in a suicide is placed on another individual. The accounts of the Tlingit presented here, including that by Jones (selection #49), point to cultural customs in which other individuals are assumed to have caused a suicide and are held responsible for it, in some cases by having the tribe pay damages, or even by giving a life. Of the Tlingit, Niblack (1887) (selection #48) reports of slaves killed at the funerals of their masters, and adds that they considered such a death a great honor, since slaves who were killed in this manner were buried with their masters and would serve them in the next life; any alternative burial would constitute the disrespectful disposal that slaves were usually given.

Lest reports of practices related to suicide seem more unusual the further north their source, this section closes with a contemporary account of a widespread post-contact problem among the Kaska in 1943–45 (selection #50): suicide and suicidal behavior associated with alcohol use introduced by whites.

Many of these reports are drawn from the Human Relations Area Files at Yale University.


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