Category Archives: Principal Concepts

(1938 – )

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1930– )

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

The Relief of Suffering: Virtues and Duties 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Self-empowerment Socially Neutral? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suffering and Subjectivity 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Logic of the Arguments 

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

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

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

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

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

Physician Integrity 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reason, Rationality, and Physician-Assisted Suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curing One Evil with Another 

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

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

(1926– )

from Apologia for Suicide


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kamikaze Diaries
Last Letters Home


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Death is immoral and to live is absolutely moral.

(June 2, 1944)

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

(Oct. 12, 1941)

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

(Jan. 3, 1944)

* * *

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *   *   *

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

Dear Father:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fondest regards.

Just before departure,

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

*   *   *

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


28 October 1944

Dear Parents:

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

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

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

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

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

Written at Manila on the eve of our sortie.


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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dearest Parents:

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

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

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

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

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


*   *   *

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

Dear Father:

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

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

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


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

*   *   *

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

Dearest Mother:

I trust that you are in good health.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today we gathered about the organ and sang hymns.

Tomorrow I will plunge against the enemy without fail.

*   *   *

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

22 February 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the duty today?  It is to fight.

What is the duty tomorrow?  It is to win.

What is the daily duty?  It is to die.

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

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

*   *   *

Like cherry blossoms

    In the spring,

       Let us fall

          Clean and radiant.

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


from The Myth of Sisyphus
from Notebooks 1935–1951


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

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

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

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

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




Absurdity and Suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

* * *


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

* * *

Novel (Part II―consequences)

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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




The Right to Bodily Life

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


from The Moral Problem of Suicide


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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Suicide of Miss Zhao


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Miss Zhao’s Suicide (November 16, 1919)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readers, what are your views?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just being caught wouldn’t have been so bad.

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

This still wasn’t much.

[Third Brother Zhang]

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

[Fourth Brother Zhang]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Against Suicide (November 23, 1919)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My response to these two points is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smash the Matchmaker System (November 27, 1919)

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

The Chinese matchmaker has the following strange features:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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from Notebooks 1914-1916
from Letters


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

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

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

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

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

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


from NOTEBOOKS, 1914-1916

January 10, 1917

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




May 30, 1920

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

Write soon.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

 June 21, 1920

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

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

Ludwig Wittgenstein


July  7, 1920

Dear [Bertrand] Russell:

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

Warmest regards from your devoted friend,

Ludwig Wittgenstein


Nov/Dec 7, 1931

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

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from The Courage to Be


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

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

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

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




The Meaning of Despair

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

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

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

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Filed under Americas, Europe, Existentialism, Protestantism, Selections, The Modern Era, Tillich, Paul