Category Archives: Martyrdom

(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 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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from Is Suicide Justifiable?


John Haynes Holmes, an American clergyman and author, was one of the leaders of the Social Gospel movement in Protestantism. Holmes was born in Philadelphia to a family of meager circumstances; he planned to enter the family music publication business, but his success in school prompted his teachers to prepare him for higher education. After extensive study in history and the classics, Holmes attended both Harvard College and Divinity School on scholarships, graduating in 1904. After serving as a minister, he was elected president of the Free Religious Association and the General Unitarian Conference. Holmes, a lifelong pacifist, resigned from the American Unitarian Organization over differences of opinion on World War I in 1918 along with his loyal congregation, renaming his church the Community Church of New York, which was known for its social service and civic instruction programs.

In 1906, Holmes helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After discovering the work of Gandhi, Holmes helped to popularize his views in the United States. Often involved in major civil liberties controversies, including, in 1928, the Sacco-Vanzetti case, he helped found the American Civil Liberties Union. He advocated reformation of conventional religious organizations and ideas and was heavily involved in social and political causes. As a pacifist and an advocate of socialism, Holmes refused to support the government in either world war. He argued that war and violence, once started, only perpetuate themselves. He was also a cofounder and member of the New York City Affairs Committee, which investigated political corruption, and he traveled widely in supporting the causes of labor unions and the American Zionists. Holmes retired from religious leadership in 1949, but he continued to pursue his interests until his death at age 85.

In addition to his public lectures and writings, Holmes wrote stories, poems, hymns, and a play. In his book, Is Suicide Justifiable, Holmes attempts to distinguish martyrdom, heroism, and self-sacrifice, which are praiseworthy, from suicide, which is not. To do so, he examines several sets of parallel cases, including the deaths in battle of, on the one hand, Brutus, and on the other, the Swiss hero Arnold von Winkelried. Holmes’s attempt to define suicide takes the form of identifying what he takes to be its central, reprehensible feature: it is an act of both irresponsible if not blasphemous egoism and cowardly desertion from one’s problems in life.

John Haynes Holmes, Is Suicide Justifiable? (New York: The John Day Company, 1934),  pp. 19-30.




What is suicide?  The dictionary tells us, simply and plainly, that suicide is the act of voluntarily destroying one’s life, or of deliberately placing this life in fatal, or merely serious jeopardy. But is this all? Is there not more involved?  Is not the phenomenon more complicated? Surely there are persons who have hazarded their lives, thrown them deliberately, even gaily away, and yet not committed suicide at all. A man may forfeit his life, in other words, by a direct decision of the will, and yet not for a moment come under the “canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” Familiar examples of voluntary death can be matched point by point, and immediately instances which are suicide be clearly distinguished from instances which are not suicide.

Thus, in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Julius Cesar, there is a closing scene in which Brutus is presented by the dramatist as fleeing from his foes. Beaten on the field of Philippi, he is hotly pursued, and at last surrounded. Unwilling to surrender or to be captured, and thus to suffer the humiliation of falling into the hands of Antony, he decides to kill himself. So he orders his friend, Strato, to hold his sword, and, with one last despairing cry, rushes upon the poisoned blade, and perishes. The character of the deed is obvious. “The noblest Roman of them all” has committed suicide.

Now, compare this death of Brutus with the death of the famous Arnold von Winkelried at the battle of Sempach! The Swiss people were fighting for the freedom of their country from the rule of Austria. Their soldiers had again and again attacked the Austrian line, but had found it impossible to break through the solid clump of spears which were raised against them. At the critical moment a single soldier was seen to rush from the Swiss ranks and deliberately impale himself upon the lifted spears. This was Arnold von Winkelried. As he fell, he stretched out his arms, and embracing as many of the spear-heads as he could reach, fiercely thrust them into his bosom. In so doing, he broke down a portion of the Austrian line, and thus opened the way through which his comrades poured their forces, and thus turned the tide of battle. Von Winkelried’s act, in its outward aspects, was almost identical with that of Brutus. As the Roman ran upon the sword, so the Switzer ran upon the spears. But what was plainly suicide in the one case was as plainly not suicide in the other. The two deeds, similar in appearance, were fundamentally different in character.

A few weeks ago I read in the morning newspaper of the death of a woman in the New York subway.  She had thrown herself in front of a train. Standing quietly on the edge of the platform until the train appeared, she had jumped to the track just the right moment and been ground to pieces beneath the turning wheels. This was obviously suicide.

A few years ago a similar event occurred in England. A woman, standing quietly on the edge of a racetrack, suddenly leaped in front of the horses as they galloped around the turn, and was killed upon the instant by their pounding hoofs. When the victim was picked up, she was found to be a suffragette, in the ranks of Mrs. Pankhurst’s followers, who had deliberately chosen this method of protesting against the disfranchisement of women in Great Britain. She had killed herself voluntarily, in almost exactly the same way the American woman had killed herself voluntarily. But was she a suicide? The thousands of men and women who marched in her funeral procession through the streets of London did not think so. On the contrary, they regarded and reverenced her as a martyr to a great cause.

One more parallel example! Some years ago a man, a friend and parishioner of mine, came to consult me about his will. After several meetings, we reached a definite agreement upon the disposal of his property under my direction. The next day I received the shocking news that he had gone from my study to his home, and, after making every last preparation, had turned on the gas, laid down quietly on his bed and awaited the end. The authorities pronounced this act suicide.

Some months ago the Mahatma of India, after a series of negotiations with officials and friends, solemnly announced that he was about to “fast unto death.” Unless certain agreements could be reached between Hindus and English, he said, he would refuse all food until he died. At the appointed hour, Gandhi laid himself down upon his cot and began his fast. Day after day he refused food and steadily grew weaker. In a few more days he would undoubtedly have perished, by his own hand, so to speak, had not the agreements, upon which he had insisted for the redemption of the Untouchables of India, been happily reached and thus released him from his vow. If the Mahatma had died, would this have been suicide? Not at all! The millions in India and around the world who watched with bated breath the progress of the famous fast, knew they were looking not upon an act of suicide, but upon one of the most sublime instances of sacrifice in history.

These three parallels are illuminating. In every outward aspect the members of each pair of examples are the same. Brutus and Winkelried both impaled themselves on deadly weapons; the woman in the subway and the woman on the racetrack both threw themselves in the way of forces certain to destroy them; my friend in New York and the Mahatma in India both laid themselves down to await death which they had themselves decreed. But while these respective deeds are outwardly identical, they are inwardly distinct. On the one had is suicide; on the other, sacrifice. Where is the difference? When is suicide not suicide? When are the voluntary dead not unhappy victims but glorious martyrs?

The answer to these questions is not far to seek. The distinction between the instances, as compared and contrasted, is at least three-fold:

First, in the case of the martyrs, so-called, it is to be noticed that the occasions of death lie altogether outside themselves. These occasions exist apart from their own problems and interests as persons. The martyrs do what they do for the reasons which are utterly unselfish. In the case of the suicides, on the other hand, the occasions of death lie inside the lives of the dead. These occasions belong to themselves as a part of their own intimate experiences and desires. The suicides do what they do primarily in their own interest, or in the interest of others only in relation to themselves.

Secondly, in order to meet these occasions of death, the martyrs have to plunge into the thick of life, face the fearful impact of some national or world crisis, and thus live, for the moment, at least, more fiercely and terribly than they have ever lived before. But the suicides, in killing themselves, withdraw from life and desert the world. The martyrs turn outward, so to speak, and challenge the injustices and cruelties of society. The suicides, per contra, turn inward, and thus away from society, and destroy their lives that they may be delivered from the problem of living at all.

Thirdly, there is the impressive fact that the martyrs and heroes are giving their lives as precious offerings for some great cause of humankind. Thus, Arnold von Winkelried gave his life for the freedom of his country, the English suffragette for the emancipation of women, the Indian Mahatma for the redemption of the Untouchables. But with the suicides there is no question of the giving of life for anything. On the contrary, these victims of self-violence are engaged not in giving their lives, but in taking them. The act of suicide, in other words, is invariably an act not of sacrifice but of self-assertion. The victim is affirming fundamentally that his life is his own, not the world’s and that he will take it and throw it away at any time for purposes satisfactory to himself.

It is this final distinction between giving and taking one’s life which marks what is basically different, morally speaking, between suicide and martyrdom. Such distinction, of course, is not always perfectly clear. There are border-line cases which confuse opinion and suspend judgment. The man who kills himself, for example, to relieve his family of the burden of his disability from fatal disease, or to give his family the financial help of his insurance policies! He is undoubtedly sacrificing himself for others, though not by their desire nor in their ultimate and higher interest; but he is also undoubtedly escaping from the pain and worry of his own tragic plight.  t is in this sense—clearly in most cases, confusedly in a few cases—that suicide is to be described as fundamentally and escape-mania. Suicide may be defined as the act of running away from life. The man who commits suicide, for any motive, is essentially abandoning his task and his duty. He is surrendering his sword before the battle is either lost or won. Consciously or unconsciously, nobly or ignobly, he is attempting to shift burdens, evade responsibilities, avoid consequences. The definite thing he does is to step out of the picture. The martyr, in his act of dying, plays a decisive, though tragic role in the drama of life—the whole play may turn upon what he has done. But the suicide leaves the stage, and lets the play go on as best it can without him.

The interpretation of suicide, in terms of escape, is nothing new. Great thinkers in every age have seen it, and accepted it as the basis of their condemnation of death by one’s own hand. Plato is the perfect example of the reaction of the philosophical mind upon this question. One of the two passages on suicide that can be found in the Dialogues is the famous passage in the Phaedo, in which Socrates answers the inquiry of Cebes as to why “a man might not take his own life.”

Socrates begins his answer by describing man as “a prisoner who has no right to open the door and run away”—a precept of conduct, by the way, which he himself nobly exemplified, when, after his condemnation by the citizens of Athens, he refused to escape from his prison cell when the door was opened for his release. Socrates then raises the discussion quickly to the higher spiritual level, and speaks of the “gods” as the “guardians” of men, who are “a possession of theirs.” If our lives thus ultimately belong to the gods, is Socrates’ argument, what right have we to take them for our own and run away with them as if these lives really belonged to ourselves?

“If we look at the matter thus,” concludes Socrates, “there may be reason for saying that a man should wait, and not take his own life until God summons him.”

This argument, presented in the typical Socratic form, penetrates to the heart of all spiritual idealism, and uncovers the mystic law of duty implicit therein. We are a part of the whole of things, and under its law for good or ill. Therefore, though “willing to die,” as Plato carefully points out, the good man will not choose to die. Tolstoi discovered the same truth and formulated the same principle, as a result of his agonizing search for the meaning of life.  The great Russian, it will be recalled, felt some “irresistible force” impelling him to kill himself. He resisted, as we have seen, primarily because he realized the possibility that he might be mistaken in his processes of thought. But he was held back also by his realization that suicide was not a solution of any problem, but only, as he himself put it, an “escape from life.”

This interpretation of suicide as fundamentally an act of escape, or desertion, clarifies our discussion. The ethical implications of our question are made at once apparent. When we ask if it is justifiable to destroy one’s life, what we are really asking is if it is justifiable for one to run away from life. Do we think it is? Do we find it so, as a matter of fact, when a person runs away not by killing himself, but by disappearing, or taking flight? This inquiry may be tested by examining certain examples of escape which do not involve the actual destruction of physical existence, and seeing what we think of them.

There is no more common form of escape than wife-desertion. A husband who is tired of life, or discouraged by his failure to support his family, suddenly disappears. So far as his domestic world is concerned, he has, to all intents and purposes, committed suicide. As a matter of fact, it may be quite uncertain as to whether he has killed himself or run away, and it is significant that, in either case, the theoretical and practical aspects of the problem alike remain the same. Alive or dead, he is no longer present with them. For action of this kind there may be a dozen explanations and a score of excuses. The man may have felt that, in her acute economic distress, his deserted wife could get more help for her children than if he were in the home, and thus have acted on precisely the same motive as the suicide who acts to release his insurance policies for the benefit of his family. But this does not alter the character of his deed. In such reason there is no justification. For the husband and father who runs away and deserts his dependents we refuse to accept any plea in extenuation.

A conspicuous instance of escape is that of the flight of the German Kaiser into Hollandat the time of the collapse of the Empire in November, 1918. Wilhelm II, in my judgment, has been most unfairly condemned for this notorious action. We know that it was his own desire and determination, expressed as late as November 6th, that “the King of Prussia and German Emperor” should resist his enemies “to the last drop of his blood.” But he was advised by those who had a right to command even the Emperor that he should depart into Holland, and thus serve his nation by relieving it of the embarrassment of the royal presence in the hour of defeat. It is the testimony of Von Hindenburg that it was in obedience to his specific recommendation that the Kaiser fled. But whatever we may say about the man, there can be no doubt about the deed. The Kaiser’s advisers may have been wise politically, but they were mistaken morally. For the world must ever regret that the defeated sovereign did not stand his ground and meet his fall. Prince Von Bulow, though unfriendly to the Kaiser, rightly laments in his Memoirs that Wilhelm II should have ended his days as “a fugitive from his country.” “Not all the perfumes of Araby,” he says, quoting Lady Macbeth, “can sweeten” such and act.

The sensational episode of Samuel Insull, which so recently held international attention, is another example of escape. This man was not so long ago the most distinguished citizen of Chicago, and one of the richest half-dozen men in the country. His power was as great as his fame was wide and his reputation high. Then came the crash of his fortune, the ruin of thousands of his investors and his flight to Athens. Can Mr. Insull be justified in running away from the disaster which his own carelessness and perhaps illegal actions had precipitated? Did he present a seemly spectacle as he fled betimes across the ocean, and then, as the law got hot upon his trail, sped in an aeroplane to a land which he believed and has since found to be safe for the hiding of himself and the remnant of his fortune? There is no one so low these days as to speak a word of defense, or even of apology, for Samuel Insull. His action is on the face of it morally reprehensible. He is branded forever in men’s minds as a renegade and coward. Yet he has only run away as any suicide runs away from the failure and fault of his own life.  Indeed, the parallel of suicide is here exact. For what Samuel Insull did in escaping to Greece, his contemporary, Ivar Kreuger, did under exactly the same circumstances in escaping, through his pistol-shot, to whatever land may be lying beyond the grave.


The answer to our question must now be clear. If to run away, by deserting or disappearing, is unjustifiable, then must it be equally unjustifiable to run away by taking one’s own life. In both cases the ethical judgment must be the same, not to be confused in the latter case by the drama of destruction and the horror of violent death.

What confronts us, in the last analysis, is a moral syllogism. First proposition—it is always wrong to run away; second proposition—suicide is running away; conclusion—suicide is always wrong. It is our duty, in other words, as an elementary law of conduct, to meet life’s challenges and dare its dangers. “Having done all,” as St. Paul put it, “to stand!”

Sickness may afflict us, loss of property weaken us, disgrace and ruin smite us. Still must we not flinch or fail. For while we may not be able to overcome these ills, may even be overborne by them, yet, by this very fact, may we prove the strength and valor of our spirits and therewith vindicate the experience of living. For life is not failure so long as man endures. On the contrary, it had eternal worth if he meet defeat undaunted and unafraid. And who knows, even under the most dire conditions, when the battle is lost, or may not be turned to victory? For endurance in ourselves is ever the food of courage in other men, and though we fall and perish in the dust, these others, uplifted by our example, may carry on to triumph.

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Filed under Americas, Holmes, John Haynes, Martyrdom, Selections, The Modern Era


from Essays in Philosophy: On Suicide


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

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


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



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


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

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Filed under De Quincey, Thomas, Europe, Martyrdom, Selections, The Early Modern Period


from On the Influence of the Passions
from Reflections on Suicide


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



To His Highness The Prince Royal of Sweden. 

Stockholm, December, 1812.

My Lord,

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am with respect, my lord,

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

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

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

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

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

What Is the Influence of Suffering on the Mind?                                                                                           

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of the Moral Dignity of Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s do it after the high Roman fashion,

And make death proud to take us.’

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

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

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

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

Notice of Lady Jane Gray

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

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

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

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

Lady Jane Gray to Doctor Alymer.

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

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

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

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

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

He could not proceed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The morning of the execution.

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

An hour after.

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

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

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Filed under Christianity, Dignity, Europe, Love, Martyrdom, Selections, Stael-Holstein, Anne-Louise-Germain, The Early Modern Period


from Enquiry Concerning Political    Justice
from Memoirs of the Author of ‘A    Vindication of the Rights of Woman’


William Godwin, as both novelist and as radical political philosopher, advocated the abolition of legal and social restrictions imposed by government or controlling members of society. Born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, he served as a minister of a dissenting religious sect, Sandemanianism, in his youth, but by 1788, he had rejected these beliefs and embraced atheism. In his writings on political philosophy, he developed a form of theoretical anarchism, defended in his best-known work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). His novel Things as They Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) continued his opposition to restrictions imposed on the freedom of individuals.

Godwin’s Utilitarian account of justice in Enquiry Concerning Political Justice leads him to address a dilemma about the issue of obligatory death. According to Utilitarian theory, each person counts for one, and justice is impartial among individuals; however, it is also the case that the existence of one individual may have better consequences for society as a whole than that of another. Godwin’s example here is Fénelon, François de Salignac de la Motte (1651–1715), archbishop of Cambray, whose bitter satire on the rule of Louis XIV, Telemachus (1699), was held by Godwin to be of immense social importance. The Utilitarian obligation to act so as to produce “the greatest good for the greatest number,” Godwin implies, could entail that you ought to choose to die to save another person of greater worth, like Fénelon, or to benefit the society as a whole. In the appendix, “Of Suicide,” Godwin dismisses most motives for suicide as trivial, including those intended to avoid disgrace, “an imaginary evil,” and considers the consequences of suicide for the person most directly affected, the suicide him or herself. Godwin’s Utilitarian outlook is reflected in his account of how prospective suicides—whether martyrs dying for the faith or Roman Stoics dying for the welfare of the country—might balance the good and bad outcomes of their deaths.

In 1797, Godwin married Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist thinker who had gained considerable recognition for her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). They had each been committed to independence and had scorned conventional domestic roles, maintaining separate studies and residences, but when she found herself pregnant, they married. Just five months later, however, Wollstonecraft died giving birth to a daughter, also named Mary, who eventually married the poet Percy Bysse Shelley and achieved fame as the writer of Frankenstein and other works. Struggling with his grief, within a few short months of Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin wrote the Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), an account of his wife’s life largely based on what she had related to him firsthand. As Godwin himself explained, they had regarded each other as equals, and he had led her to discuss many issues and incidents in her life. Godwin’s narrative includes a description of Wollstonecraft’s suicide attempt at Putney Bridge in London following a rejection from an earlier lover, Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had a child, Fanny. This posthumous biography was unprecedented in its disclosure of intimate detail, but fully understanding of Mary and passionately committed to her genius. It also conveys Godwin’s unconventional view of suicide: he argues that many persons choosing suicide, as in Wollstonecraft’s case, may later discover happiness if the attempt at death fails, and his Utilitarian outlook leads him to favor this greater happiness rather than succumb to current despair. But it is his view that the motives for suicide are almost often mistaken, not that suicide is in itself wrong.

William Godwin, “Of Justice” and “Of Suicide,” from Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on Modern Morals and Happiness (1793), Book II, Chapter II, and Appendix I. Online at the McMaster University Archive for the History of Economic Thought; Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, London: Printed for J. Johnson and G. G. and J. Robinson, 1798. Online at Project Gutenberg Release #16199.


Of Suicide

From what has been said it appears, that the subject of our present enquiry is strictly speaking a department of the science of morals. Morality is the source from which its fundamental axioms must be drawn, and they will be made somewhat clearer in the present instance, if we assume the term justice as a general appellation for all moral duty.

That this appellation is sufficiently expressive of the subject will appear, if we examine mercy, gratitude, temperance, or any of those duties which, in looser speaking, are contradistinguished from justice. Why should I pardon this criminal, remunerate this favour, or abstain from this indulgence? If it partake of the nature of morality, it must be either right or wrong, just or unjust. It must tend to the benefit of the individual, either without trenching upon, or with actual advantage to the mass of individuals. Either way it benefits the whole, because individuals are parts of the whole. Therefore to do it is just, and to forbear it is unjust. — By justice I understand that impartial treatment of every man in matters that relate to his happiness, which is measured solely by a consideration of the properties of the receiver, and the capacity of him that bestows. Its principle therefore is, according to a well known phrase, to be “no respecter of persons.”

Considerable light will probably be thrown upon our investigation, if, quitting for the present the political view, we examine justice merely as it exists among individuals. Justice is a rule of conduct originating in the connection of one percipient being with another. A comprehensive maxim which has been laid down upon the subject is “that we should love our neighbour as ourselves.” But this maxim, though possessing considerable merit as a popular principle, is not modeled with the strictness of philosophical accuracy.

In a loose and general view I and my neighbour are both of us men; and of consequence entitled to equal attention. But, in reality, it is probable that one of us is a being of more worth and importance than the other. A man is of more worth than a beast; because, being possessed of higher faculties, he is capable of a more refined and genuine happiness. In the same manner the illustrious archbishop of Cambray was of more worth than his valet, and there are few of us that would hesitate to pronounce, if his palace were in flames, and the life of only one of them could be preserved, which of the two ought to be preferred.

But there is another ground of preference, beside the private consideration of one of them being further removed from the state of a mere animal. We are not connected with one or two percipient beings, but with a society, a nation, and in some sense with the whole family of mankind. Of consequence that life ought to be preferred which will be most conducive to the general good. In saving the life of Fenelon, suppose at the moment he conceived the project of his immortal Telemachus, should have been promoting the benefit of thousands, who have been cured by the perusal of that work of some error, vice and consequent unhappiness. Nay, my benefit would extend further than this; for every individual, thus cured, has become a better member of society, and has contributed in his turn to the happiness, information, and improvement of others.

Suppose I had been myself the valet; I ought to have chosen to die, rather than Fenelon should have died. The life of Fenelon was really preferable to that of the valet. But understanding is the faculty that perceives the truth of this and similar propositions; and justice is the principle that regulates my conduct accordingly. It would have been just in the valet to have preferred the archbishop to himself. To have done otherwise would have been a breach of justice.

Suppose the valet had been my brother, my father, or my benefactor. This would not alter the truth of the proposition. The life of Fenelon would still be more valuable than that of the valet; and justice, pure, unadulterated justice, would still have preferred that which was most valuable. Justice would have taught me to save the life of Fenelon at the expense of the other. What magic is there in the pronoun “my,” that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth? My brother, or my father may be a fool or a profligate, malicious, lying or dishonest. If they be, of what consequence is it that they are mine?

“But to my father I am indebted for existence; he supported me in the helplessness of infancy.” When he first subjected himself to the necessity of these cares, he was probably influenced by no particular motives of benevolence to his future offspring. Every voluntary benefit however entitles the bestower to some kindness and retribution. Why? Because a voluntary benefit is an evidence of benevolent intention, that is, in a certain degree, of virtue. It is the disposition of the mind, not the external action separately taken, that entitles to respect. But the merit of this disposition is equal, whether the benefit were conferred upon me or upon another. I and another man cannot both be right in preferring our respective benefactors, for my benefactor cannot be at the same time both better and worse than his neighbour. My benefactor ought to be esteemed, not because he bestowed a benefit upon me, but because he bestowed it upon a human being. His desert will be in exact proportion to the degree in which that human being was worthy of the distinction conferred.

Thus every view of the subject brings us back to the consideration of my neighbour’s moral worth, and his importance to the general weal, as the only standard to determine the treatment to which he is entitled. Gratitude therefore, if by gratitude we understand a sentiment of preference which I entertain towards another, upon the ground of my having been the subject of his benefits, is no part either of justice or virtue.

It may be objected, “that my relation, my companion, or my benefactor, will of course in many instances obtain an uncommon portion of my regard: for, not being universally capable of discriminating the comparative worth of different men, I shall inevitably judge most favourably of him of whose virtues I have received the most unquestionable proofs; and thus shall be compelled to prefer the man of moral worth whom I know, to another who may possess, unknown to me, an essential superiority.”

This compulsion however is founded only in the imperfection of human nature. It may serve as an apology for my error, but can never change error into truth. It will always remain contrary to the strict and universal decisions of justice. The difficulty of conceiving this, is owing merely to our confounding the disposition from which an action is chosen, with the action itself. The disposition that would prefer virtue to vice, and a greater degree of virtue to a less, is undoubtedly a subject of approbation; the erroneous exercise of this disposition, by which a wrong object is selected, if unavoidable, is to be deplored, but can by no colouring and under no denomination be converted into right.

It may in the second place be objected, “that a mutual commerce of benefits tends to increase the mass of benevolent action, and that to increase the mass of benevolent action is to contribute to the general good.” Indeed! Is the general good promoted by falsehood, by treating a man of one degree of worth as if he had ten times that worth? or as if he were in any degree different from what he really is? Would not the most beneficial consequences result from a different plan; from my constantly and carefully enquiring into the deserts of all those with whom I am connected, and from their being sure, after a certain allowance for the fallibility of human judgement, of being treated by me exactly as they deserved? Who can describe the benefits that would result from such a plan of conduct, if universally adopted?

It would perhaps tend to make the truth in this respect more accurately understood to consider that, whereas the received morality teaches me to be grateful, whether in affection or in act, for benefits conferred on myself, the reasonings here delivered, without removing the tie upon me from personal benefits (except where benefit is conferred from an unworthy motive), multiply the obligation, and enjoin me to be also grateful for benefits conferred upon others. My obligation towards my benefactor, supposing his benefit to be justly conferred, is in no sort dissolved; nor can anything authorize me to supersede it but the requisition of a superior duty. That which ties me to my benefactor, upon these principles, is the moral worth he has displayed; and it will frequently happen that I shall be obliged to yield him the preference, because, while other competitors may be of greater worth, the evidence I have of the worth of my benefactor is more complete.

There seems to be more truth in the argument, derived chiefly from the prevailing modes of social existence, in favour of my providing, in ordinary cases, for my wife and children, my brothers and relations, before I provide for strangers, than in those which have just been examined. As long as the providing for individuals is conducted with its present irregularity and caprice, it seems as if there must be a certain distribution of the class needing superintendence and supply, among the class affording it; that each man may have his claim and resource. But this argument is to be admitted with great caution. It belongs only to ordinary cases; and cases of a higher order, or a more urgent necessity, will perpetually occur in competition with which these will be altogether impotent. We must be severely scrupulous in measuring the quantity of supply; and, with respect to money in particular, should remember how little is yet understood of the true mode of employing it for the public benefit.

Nothing can be less exposed to reasonable exception than these principles. If there be such a thing as virtue, it must be placed in a conformity to truth, and not to error. It cannot be virtuous that I should esteem a man, that is, consider him as possessed of estimable qualities, when in reality he is destitute of them. It surely cannot conduce to the benefit of mankind that each man should have a different standard of moral Judgement, and preference, and that the standard of all should vary from that of reality. Those who teach this impose the deepest disgrace upon virtue. They assert in other words that, when men cease to be deceived, when the film is removed from their eyes, and they see things as they are, they will cease to be either good or happy. Upon the system opposite to theirs, the soundest criterion of virtue is to put ourselves in the place of an impartial spectator, of an angelic nature, suppose, beholding us from an elevated station, and uninfluenced by are prejudices, conceiving what would be his estimate of the intrinsic circumstances of our neighbour, and acting accordingly.

Having considered the persons with whom justice is conversant, let us next enquire into the degree in which we are obliged to consult the good of others. And here, upon the very same reasons, it will follow that it is just I should do all the good in my power. Does a person in distress apply to me for relief? It is my duty to grant it, and I commit a breach of duty in refusing. If this principle be not of universal application, it is because, in conferring a benefit upon an individual, I may in some instances inflict an injury of superior magnitude upon myself or society. Now the same justice that binds me to any individual of my fellow men binds me to the whole. If, while I confer a benefit upon one man, it appear, in striking an equitable balance, that I am injuring the whole, my action ceases to be right, and becomes absolutely wrong. But how much am I bound to do for the general weal, that is, for the benefit of the individuals of whom the whole is composed? Everything in my power. To the neglect of the means of my own existence? No; for I am myself a part of the whole. Beside, it will rarely happen that the project of doing for others everything in my power will not demand for its execution the preservation of my own existence; or in other words, it will rarely happen that I cannot do more good in twenty years than in one. If the extraordinary case should occur in which I can promote the general good by my death more than by my life, justice requires that I should be content to die. In other cases, it will usually be incumbent on me to maintain my body and mind in the utmost vigour, and in the best condition for service.

Suppose, for example, that it is right for one man to possess a greater portion of property than another, whether as the fruit of his industry, or the inheritance of his ancestors. Justice obliges him to regard this property as a trust, and calls upon him maturely to consider in what manner it may be employed for the increase of liberty, knowledge and virtue. He has no right to dispose of a shilling of it at the suggestion of his caprice. So far from being entitled to well earned applause, for having employed some scanty pittance in the service of philanthropy, he is in the eye of justice a delinquent if he withhold any portion from that service. Could that portion have been better or more worthily employed? That it could is implied in the very terms of the proposition. Then it was just it should have been so employed. — In the same manner as my property, I hold my person as a trust in behalf of mankind. I am bound to employ my talents, my understanding, my strength and my time, for the production of the greatest quantity of general good. Such are the declarations of justice, so great is the extent of my duty.

But justice is reciprocal. If it be just that I should confer a benefit, it is just that another man should receive it, and, if I withhold from him that to which he is entitled, he may justly complain. My neighbour is in want of ten pounds that I can spare There is no law of political institution to reach this case, and transfer the property from me to him. But in a passive sense, unless it can be shown that the money can be more beneficently employed, his right is as complete (though actively he have not the same right, or rather duty, to possess himself of it) as if he had my bond in his possession, or had supplied me with goods to the amount.

To this it has sometimes been answered “that there is more than one person who stands in need of the money I have to spare, and of consequence I must be at liberty to bestow it as I please.” By no means. If only one person offer himself to my knowledge of search, to me there is but one. Those others that I cannot find belong to other rich men to assist (every man is in reality rich who has more than his just occasions demand), and not to me. If more than one person offer, I am obliged to balance their claims, and conduct myself accordingly. It is scarcely possible that two men should have an exactly equal claim, or that I should be equally certain respecting the claim of the one as of the other.

It is therefore impossible for me to confer upon any man a favour; I can only do him right. Whatever deviates from the law of justice, though it should be done in the favour of some individual or some part of the general whole, is so much subtracted from the general stock, so much of absolute injustice.

The reasonings here alleged, are sufficient clearly to establish the competence of justice as a principle of deduction in all cases of moral enquiry. They are themselves rather of the nature of illustration and example, and, if error be imputable to them in particulars, this will not invalidate the general conclusion, the propriety of applying moral justice as a criterion in the investigation of political truth.

Society is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals. Its claims and duties must be the aggregate of their claims and duties, the one no more precarious and arbitrary than the other. What has the society a right to require from me? The question is already answered: everything that it is my duty to do. Anything more? Certainly not. Can it change eternal truth, or subvert the nature of men and their actions? Can it make my duty consist in committing intemperance, in maltreating or assassinating my neighbour? — Again, what is it that the society is bound to do for its members? Everything that is requisite for their welfare. But the nature of their welfare is defined by the nature of mind. That will most contribute to it which expands the understanding, supplies incitements to virtue, fills us with a generous consciousness of our independence, and carefully removes whatever can impede our exertions.

Should it be affirmed, “that it is not in the power of political system to secure to us these advantages,” the conclusion will not be less incontrovertible. It is bound to contribute everything it is able to these purposes. Suppose its influence in the utmost degree limited; there must be one method approaching nearer than any other to the desired object, and that method ought to be universally adopted. There is one thing that political institutions can assuredly do, they can avoid positively counteracting the true interests of their subjects. But all capricious rules and arbitrary distinctions do positively counteract them. There is scarcely any modification of society but has in it some degree of moral tendency. So far as it produces neither mischief nor benefit, it is good for nothing. So far as it tends to the improvement of the community, it ought to be universally adopted.

This reasoning will throw some light upon the long disputed case of suicide. “Have I a right to destroy myself in order to escape from pain or distress?” Circumstances that should justify such an action, can rarely occur. There are few situations that can exclude the possibility of future life, vigour, and usefulness. It will frequently happen that the man, who once saw nothing before him but despair, shall afterwards enjoy a long period of happiness and honour. In the meantime the power of terminating our own lives, is one of the faculties with which we are endowed; and therefore, like every other faculty, is a subject of moral discipline. In common with every branch of morality, it is a topic of calculation, as to the balance of good and evil to result from its employment in any individual instance. We should however be scrupulously upon our guard against the deceptions that melancholy and impatience are so well calculated to impose. We should consider that, though the pain to be suffered by ourselves is by no means to be overlooked, we are but one, and the persons nearly or remotely interested in our possible usefulness innumerable. Each man is but the part of a great system, and all that he has is so much wealth to be put to the account of the general stock.

There is another case of suicide of more difficult estimation. What shall we think of the reasoning of Lycurgus, who, when he determined upon a voluntary death, remarked “that all the faculties a rational being possessed were capable of being benevolently employed, and that, after having spent his life in the service of his country, a man ought, if possible, to render his death a source of additional benefit?” This was the motive of the suicide of Codrus, Leonidas and Decius. If the same motive prevailed in the much admired suicide of Cato, and he were instigated by reasons purely benevolent, it is impossible not to applaud his intention, even if he were mistaken in the application. The difficulty is to decide whether in any instance the recourse to a voluntary death can overbalance the usefulness to be displayed, in twenty years of additional life.

Additional importance will be reflected upon this disquisition if we remember that martyrs (martures) are suicides by the very signification of the term. They die for a testimony (martution). But that would be impossible if their death were not to a certain degree a voluntary action. We must assume that it was possible for them to avoid this fate, before we can draw any conclusion from it in favour of the cause they espoused. They were determined to die, rather than reflect dishonour on that cause.


In April 1795, Mary [Wollstonecraft] returned once more to London, being requested to do so by Mr. Imlay, who even sent a servant to Paris to wait upon her in the journey, before she could complete the necessary arrangements for her departure. But, notwithstanding these favourable appearances, she came to England with a heavy heart, not daring, after all the uncertainties and anguish she had endured, to trust to the suggestions of hope.

The gloomy forebodings of her mind, were but too faithfully verified. Mr. Imlay had already formed another connexion; as it is said, with a young actress from a strolling company of players. His attentions therefore to Mary were formal and constrained, and she probably had but little of his society. This alteration could not escape her penetrating glance. He ascribed it to pressure of business, and some pecuniary embarrassments which, at that time, occurred to him; it was of little consequence to Mary what was the cause. She saw, but too well, though she strove not to see, that his affections were lost to her for ever.

It is impossible to imagine a period of greater pain and mortification than Mary passed, for about seven weeks, from the sixteenth of April to the sixth of June, in a furnished house that Mr. Imlay had provided for her. She had come over to England, a country for which she, at this time, expressed “a repugnance, that almost amounted to horror,” in search of happiness. She feared that that happiness had altogether escaped her; but she was encouraged by the eagerness and impatience which Mr. Imlay at length seemed to manifest for her arrival. When she saw him, all her fears were confirmed. What a picture was she capable of forming to herself, of the overflowing kindness of a meeting, after an interval of so much anguish and apprehension! A thousand images of this sort were present to her burning imagination. It is in vain, on such occasions, for reserve and reproach to endeavour to curb in the emotions of an affectionate heart. But the hopes she nourished were speedily blasted. Her reception by Mr. Imlay, was cold and embarrassed. Discussions (“explanations” they were called) followed; cruel explanations, that only added to the anguish of a heart already overwhelmed in grief! They had small pretensions indeed to explicitness; but they sufficiently told, that the case admitted not of remedy.

Mary was incapable of sustaining her equanimity in this pressing emergency. “Love, dear, delusive love!” as she expressed herself to a friend some time afterwards, “rigorous reason had forced her to resign; and now her rational prospects were blasted, just as she had learned to be contented with rational enjoyments”. Thus situated, life became an intolerable burthen. While she was absent from Mr. Imlay, she could talk of purposes of reparation and independence. But, now that they were in the same house, she could not withhold herself from endeavours to revive their mutual cordiality; and unsuccessful endeavours continually added fuel to the fire that destroyed her. She formed a desperate purpose to die.

This part of the story of Mary is involved in considerable obscurity. I only know, that Mr. Imlay became acquainted with her purpose, at a moment when he was uncertain whether or no it were already executed, and that his feelings were roused by the intelligence. It was perhaps owing to his activity and representations, that her life was, at this time, saved. She determined to continue to exist. Actuated by this purpose, she took a resolution, worthy both of the strength and affectionateness of her mind. Mr. Imlay was involved in a question of considerable difficulty, respecting a mercantile adventure in Norway. It seemed to require the presence of some very judicious agent, to conduct the business to its desired termination. Mary determined to make the voyage, and take the business into her own hands. Such a voyage seemed the most desireable thing to recruit her health, and, if possible, her spirits, in the present crisis. It was also gratifying to her feelings, to be employed in promoting the interest of a man, from whom she had experienced such severe unkindness, but to whom she ardently desired to be reconciled. The moment of desperation I have mentioned, occurred in the close of May, and in about a week after, she set out upon this new expedition.

The narrative of this voyage is before the world, and perhaps a book of travels that so irresistibly seizes on the heart, never, in any other instance, found its way from the press. The occasional harshness and ruggedness of character, that diversify her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, here totally disappear. If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration. Affliction had tempered her heart to a softness almost more than human; and the gentleness of her spirit seems precisely to accord with all the romance of unbounded attachment.

Thus softened and improved, thus fraught with imagination and sensibility, with all, and more than all, “that youthful poets fancy, when they love,” she returned to England, and, if he had so pleased, to the arms of her former lover. Her return was hastened by the ambiguity, to her apprehension, of Mr. Imlay’s conduct. He had promised to meet her upon her return from Norway, probably at Hamburgh; and they were then to pass some time in Switzerland. The style however of his letters to her during her tour, was not such as to inspire confidence; and she wrote to him very urgently, to explain himself, relative to the footing upon which they were hereafter to stand to each other. In his answer, which reached her at Hamburgh, he treated her questions as “extraordinary and unnecessary,” and desired her to be at the pains to decide for herself. Feeling herself unable to accept this as an explanation, she instantly determined to sail for London by the very first opportunity, that she might thus bring to a termination the suspence that preyed upon her soul.

It was not long after her arrival in London in the commencement of October, that she attained the certainty she sought. Mr. Imlay procured her a lodging. But the neglect she experienced from him after she entered it, flashed conviction upon her, in spite of his asseverations. She made further enquiries, and at length was informed by a servant, of the real state of the case. Under the immediate shock which the painful certainty gave her, her first impulse was to repair to him at the ready-furnished house he had provided for his new mistress. What was the particular nature of their conference I am unable to relate. It is sufficient to say that the wretchedness of the night which succeeded this fatal discovery, impressed her with the feeling, that she would sooner suffer a thousand deaths, than pass another of equal misery.

The agony of her mind determined her; and that determination gave her a sort of desperate serenity. She resolved to plunge herself in the Thames; and, not being satisfied with any spot nearer to London, she took a boat, and rowed to Putney. Her first thought had led her to Battersea-bridge, but she found it too public. It was night when she arrived at Putney, and by that time had begun to rain with great violence. The rain suggested to her the idea of walking up and down the bridge, till her clothes were thoroughly drenched and heavy with the wet, which she did for half an hour without meeting a human being. She then leaped from the top of the bridge, but still seemed to find a difficulty in sinking, which she endeavoured to counteract by pressing her clothes closely round her. After some time she became insensible; but she always spoke of the pain she underwent as such, that, though she could afterwards have determined upon almost any other species of voluntary death, it would have been impossible for her to resolve upon encountering the same sensations again. I am doubtful, whether this is to be ascribed to the mere nature of suffocation, or was not rather owing to the preternatural action of a desperate spirit.

After having been for a considerable time insensible, she was recovered by the exertions of those by whom the body was found. She had sought, with cool and deliberate firmness, to put a period to her existence, and yet she lived to have every prospect of a long possession of enjoyment and happiness. It is perhaps not an unfrequent case with suicides, that we find reason to suppose, if they had survived their gloomy purpose, that they would, at a subsequent period, have been considerably happy. It arises indeed, in some measure, out of the very nature of a spirit of self-destruction; which implies a degree of anguish, that the constitution of the human mind will not suffer to remain long undiminished. This is a serious reflection, probably no man would destroy himself from an impatience of present pain, if he felt a moral certainty that there were years of enjoyment still in reserve for him. It is perhaps a futile attempt, to think of reasoning with a man in that state of mind which precedes suicide. Moral reasoning is nothing but the awakening of certain feelings: and the feeling by which he is actuated, is too strong to leave us much chance of impressing him with other feelings, that should have force enough to counterbalance it. But, if the prospect of future tranquillity and pleasure cannot be expected to have much weight with a man under an immediate purpose of suicide, it is so much the more to be wished, that men would impress their minds, in their sober moments, with a conception, which, being rendered habitual, seems to promise to act as a successful antidote in a paroxysm of desperation.

The present situation of Mary, of necessity produced some further intercourse between her and Mr. Imlay. He sent a physician to her; and Mrs. Christie, at his desire, prevailed on her to remove to her house in Finsbury-square. In the mean time Mr. Imlay assured her that his present was merely a casual, sensual connection; and, of course, fostered in her mind the idea that it would be once more in her choice to live with him. With whatever intention the idea was suggested, it was certainly calculated to increase the agitation of her mind. In one respect however it produced an effect unlike that which might most obviously have been looked for. It roused within her the characteristic energy of mind, which she seemed partially to have forgotten. She saw the necessity of bringing the affair to a point, and not suffering months and years to roll on in uncertainty and suspence. This idea inspired her with an extraordinary resolution. The language she employed, was, in effect, as follows: “If we are ever to live together again, it must be now. We meet now, or we part for ever. You say, You cannot abruptly break off the connection you have formed. It is unworthy of my courage and character, to wait the uncertain issue of that connexion. I am determined to come to a decision. I consent then, for the present, to live with you, and the woman to whom you have associated yourself. I think it important that you should learn habitually to feel for your child the affection of a father. But, if you reject this proposal, here we end. You are now free. We will correspond no more. We will have no intercourse of any kind. I will be to you as a person that is dead.”

The proposal she made, extraordinary and injudicious as it was, was at first accepted; and Mr. Imlay took her accordingly, to look at a house he was upon the point of hiring, that she might judge whether it was calculated to please her. Upon second thoughts however he retracted his concession.

In the following month, Mr. Imlay, and the woman with whom he was at present connected, went to Paris, where they remained three months. Mary had, previously to this, fixed herself in a lodging in Finsbury-place, where, for some time, she saw scarcely any one but Mrs. Christie, for the sake of whose neighbourhood she had chosen this situation; “existing,” as she expressed it, “in a living tomb, and her life but an exercise of fortitude, continually on the stretch.”

Thus circumstanced, it was unavoidable for her thoughts to brood upon a passion, which all that she had suffered had not yet been able to extinguish. Accordingly, as soon as Mr. Imlay returned to England, she could not restrain herself from making another effort, and desiring to see him once more. “During his absence, affection had led her to make numberless excuses for his conduct,” and she probably wished to believe that his present connection was, as he represented it, purely of a casual nature. To this application, she observes, that “he returned no other answer, except declaring, with unjustifiable passion, that he would not see her.”

This answer, though, at the moment, highly irritating to Mary, was not the ultimate close of the affair. Mr. Christie was connected in business with Mr. Imlay, at the same time that the house of Mr. Christie was the only one at which Mary habitually visited. The consequence of this was, that, when Mr. Imlay had been already more than a fortnight in town, Mary called at Mr. Christie’s one evening, at a time when Mr. Imlay was in the parlour. The room was full of company. Mrs. Christie heard Mary’s voice in the passage, and hastened to her, to intreat her not to make her appearance. Mary however was not to be controlled. She thought, as she afterwards told me, that it was not consistent with conscious rectitude, that she should shrink, as if abashed, from the presence of one by whom she deemed herself injured. Her child was with her. She entered; and, in a firm manner, immediately led up the child, now near two years of age, to the knees of its father. He retired with Mary into another apartment, and promised to dine with her at her lodging, I believe, the next day.

In the interview which took place in consequence of this appointment, he expressed himself to her in friendly terms, and in a manner calculated to sooth her despair. Though he could conduct himself, when absent from her, in a way which she censured as unfeeling; this species of sternness constantly expired when he came into her presence. Mary was prepared at this moment to catch at every phantom of happiness; and the gentleness of his carriage, was to her as a sun-beam, awakening the hope of returning day. For an instant she gave herself up to delusive visions; and, even after the period of delirium expired, she still dwelt, with an aching eye, upon the air-built and unsubstantial prospect of a reconciliation.

At this particular request, she retained the name of Imlay, which, a short time before, he had seemed to dispute with her. “It was not,” as she expresses herself in a letter to a friend, “for the world that she did so—not in the least—but she was unwilling to cut the Gordian knot, or tear herself away in appearance, when she could not in reality”.

The day after this interview, she set out upon a visit to the country, where she spent nearly the whole of the month of March. It was, I believe, while she was upon this visit, that some epistolary communication with Mr. Imlay, induced her resolutely to expel from her mind, all remaining doubt as to the issue of the affair.

Mary was now aware that every demand of forbearance towards him, of duty to her child, and even of indulgence to her own deep-rooted predilection, was discharged. She determined to rouse herself, and cast off for ever an attachment, which to her had been a spring of inexhaustible bitterness. Her present residence among the scenes of nature, was favourable to this purpose. She was at the house of an old and intimate friend, a lady of the name of Cotton, whose partiality for her was strong and sincere. Mrs. Cotton’s nearest neighbour was Sir William East, baronet; and, from the joint effect of the kindness of her friend, and the hospitable and distinguishing attentions of this respectable family, she derived considerable benefit. She had been amused and interested in her journey to Norway; but with this difference, that, at that time, her mind perpetually returned with trembling anxiety to conjectures respecting Mr. Imlay’s future conduct, whereas now, with a lofty and undaunted spirit, she threw aside every thought that recurred to him, while she felt herself called upon to make one more effort for life and happiness.

Once after this, to my knowledge, she saw Mr. Imlay; probably, not long after her return to town. They met by accident upon the New Road; he alighted from his horse, and walked with her for some time; and the rencounter passed, as she assured me, without producing in her any oppressive emotion.

Be it observed, by the way, and I may be supposed best to have known the real state of the case, she never spoke of Mr. Imlay with acrimony, and was displeased when any person, in her hearing, expressed contempt of him. She was characterised by a strong sense of indignation; but her emotions of this sort were short-lived, and in no long time subsided into a dignified sereneness and equanimity.

The question of her connection with Mr. Imlay, as we have seen, was not completely dismissed, till March 1796. But it is worthy to be observed, that she did not, like ordinary persons under extreme anguish of mind, suffer her understanding, in the mean time, to sink into listlessness and debility. The most inapprehensive reader may conceive what was the mental torture she endured, when he considers, that she was twice, with an interval of four months, from the end of May to the beginning of October, prompted by it to purposes of suicide. Yet in this period she wrote her Letters from Norway. Shortly after its expiration she prepared them for the press, and they were published in the close of that year. In January 1796, she finished the sketch of a comedy, which turns, in the serious scenes, upon the incidents of her own story, It was offered to both the winter-managers, and remained among her papers at the period of her decease; but it appeared to me to be in so crude and imperfect a state, that I judged it most respectful to her memory to commit it to the flames. To understand this extraordinary degree of activity, we must recollect however the entire solitude, in which most of her hours were at that time consumed.

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Filed under Europe, Godwin, William, Love, Martyrdom, Selections, The Early Modern Period


from Grounding for the Metaphysics of    Morals
from The Metaphysical Principles of    Virtue: Man’s Duty to Himself    Insofar as He Is an Animal Being
from Lectures on Ethics: Duties    Towards the Body in Regard to Life


Immanuel Kant was born in Königsberg, East Prussia (today Kaliningrad, Russia), to a devoutly religious Lutheran Pietist family. At the age of 16, he entered the University of Königsberg, initially to study theology, and later to read natural science and philosophy. During this period of his life, Kant was influenced by the thought of the German rationalist Christian Wolff, as well as by Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton. He left the university after the death of his father to work as a private tutor. He returned, however, in 1755, and within the next year, completed his degree and was made a lecturer. For the next 15 years, he published primarily scientific works, many critical of Leibniz and Wolff; between 1770 and 1780, he published very little. He had come to be influenced by Hume and Rousseau as well. Kant was 57 when he published his famous Critique of Pure Reason (1781), which attempted to resolve the conflict between rationalism and empiricism—between the view that knowledge is a priori or innate and the view that it is attained solely by sense perception. This first Critique sought to ascertain the limits of human reason. Kant also held that practical reason, unlike speculative reason, could be used to understand moral problems: in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and in the second Critique—the Critique of Practical Reason (1788)—he attempted to work out a rational principle of morality. The Critique of Judgment (1790), the third Critique, addressed teleological and aesthetic judgment. Subsequently, he published Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), Towards Perpetual Peace (1795), and the Metaphysics of Morals (1797).

In his works on ethics, Kant argues that an act can be held to be good if it is done in accord with duty, at the dictate of the good will, and that the “Categorical Imperative” can be employed by the rational agent to determine what is in accord with duty; an action is moral only if one could will without contradiction that it be universal law.

Three selections from Kant’s ethical writings are included here. In the first selection, from the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (also called the Prolegomena or Groundwork), Kant demonstrates how it is possible to show that suicide is inherently wrong. He uses suicide as an illustration of the kind of action that cannot satisfy the Categorical Imperative, since one could not, without contradiction, will that committing suicide be universal law. To put it another way, under an alternative formulation of the Categorical Imperative, it is not possible to commit suicide and yet still treat oneself as an end in oneself (as morality requires that one treat all humanity), not just as a means only. In The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, Kant raises a number of “casuistical questions”—moral dilemmas that explore and challenge the theoretical account he has given. One of them concerns “a great, recently deceased monarch” (Frederick the Great), who in fact always carried poison with him in war. Frederick actually did contemplate suicide with poison on several occasions and came closest to using it on August 12, 1759, at Kunnersdorf, when he led 43,000 troops into battle against the Russians and Austrians but lost 19,000 men; just 3,000 were left as an organized force by nightfall. In a related situation two years earlier, Frederick had said, “. . . nothing is left for me but trying the last extremity . . . and if we cannot conquer, we must all of us have ourselves killed.”

In the Lectures on Ethics, Kant discusses several of the suicides celebrated by the Roman Stoics—Cato, Lucretia, and briefly, Atticus. Although acknowledging that Cato’s suicide is a virtue and that appearances are in its favor, Kant insists that it is the only such example. Kant continues on to argue that while one must not kill oneself, nevertheless in some circumstances, one must be prepared to give life up in order to have lived honorably and “not disgrace the dignity of humanity.”

Kant died in Königsberg at the age of nearly 80. He never traveled more than a few dozen miles from the city.

Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Second Section; and The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue (Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals), I. The Elements of Ethics, First Part, First Book, First Chapter: “Man’s Duty to Himself Insofar as He Is an Animal Being,” both in Immanuel Kant, Ethical Philosophy, Tr. James W. Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1983, pp. 23-24, 26, 30-31, 35-36; 82-85; Lectures on Ethics, Tr. Louis Infield. New York: Harper & Row, 1978, pp. 147-157. Passages on Frederick the Great in biographical note are from Frederick the Great on the Art of War, ed. and tr. Jay Luvaas (New York: The Free Press, 1966), pp. 9, 224, 242.


Everything in nature works according to laws. Only a rational being has the power to act according to his conception of laws, i.e., according to principles, and thereby has he a will.. . The representation of an objective principle insofar as it necessitates the will is called a command (of reason), and the formula of the command is called an imperative.  There is one imperative which immediately commands a certain conduct without having as its condition any other purpose to be attained by it.  This imperative is categorical.  It is not concerned with the matter of the action and its intended result, but rather with the form of the action and the principle from which it follows; what is essentially good in the action consists in the mental disposition, let the consequences be what they may.  This imperative may be called that of morality. . . .

Hence there is only one categorical imperative and it is this: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. . . .

The universality of law according to which effects are produced constitutes what is properly called nature in the most general sense (as to form), i.e., the existence of things as far as determined by universal laws.  Accordingly, the universal imperative of duty may be expressed thus: Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.

We shall now enumerate some duties, following the usual division of them into duties to ourselves and to others and into perfect and imperfect duties:

1. A man reduced to despair by a series of misfortunes feels sick of life but is still so far in possession of his reason that he can ask himself whether taking his own life would not be contrary to his duty to himself.  Now he asks whether the maxim of his action could become a universal law of nature.  But his maxim is this: from self-love I make as my principle to shorten my life when its continued duration threatens more evil than it promises satisfaction.  There only remains the question as to whether this principle of self-love can become a universal law of nature.  One sees at once a contradiction in a system of nature whose law would destroy life by means of the very same feeling that acts so as to stimulate the furtherance of life, and hence there could be no existence as a system of nature.  Therefore, such a maxim cannot possibly hold as a universal law of nature and is, consequently, wholly opposed to the supreme principle of all duty.

Now I say that man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will.  He must in all his actions whether directed to himself or to other rational beings, always be regarded at the same time as an end. …Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things.  On the other hand, rational beings are called persons inasmuch as their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves, i.e., as something which is not to be used merely as means and hence there is imposed thereby a limit on all arbitrary use of such beings, which are thus objects of respect.  Persons are, therefore, not merely subjective ends, whose existence as an effect of our actions has a value for us; but such beings are objective ends, i.e., exist as ends in themselves. . . .

If then there is to be a supreme practical principle and, as far as the human will is concerned, a categorical imperative, then it must be such that from the conception of what is necessarily an end for everyone because this end is an end in itself it constitutes an objective principle of the will and can hence serve as a practical law.  The ground of such a principle is this: rational nature exists as an end in itself.  In this way man necessarily thinks of his own existence; thus far is it a subjective principle of human actions.  But in this way also does every other rational being think of his existence on the same rational ground that holds also for me; hence it is at the same time an objective principle, from which, as a supreme practical ground, all laws of the will must be able to be derived.  The practical imperative will therefore be the following: Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.  We now want to see whether this can be carried out in practice.

Let us keep to our previous examples.

First, as regards the concept of necessary duty to oneself, the man who contemplates suicide will ask himself whether his action can be consistent with the idea of humanity as an end in itself.  If he destroys himself in order to escape from a difficult situation, then he is making use of his person merely as a means so as to maintain a tolerable condition till the end of his life.  Man, however, is not a thing and hence is not something to be used merely as a means; he must in all his actions always be regarded as an end in himself.  Therefore, I cannot dispose of man in my own person by mutilating, damaging, or killing him.



The first, though not the principal, duty of man to himself as an animal being is the preservation of himself in his animal nature.

The opposite of such self-preservation is the deliberate or intentional destruction of one’s animal nature, and this destruction can be thought of as either total or partial. Total destruction is called suicide (autochiria; suicidium); partial can be subdivided into material, as when one deprives himself of certain integral parts (organs) by dismembering or by mutilating, and into formal, as when he deprives himself (forever or for a while) of the physical (and hence indirectly also the moral) use of his powers, i.e., self-stupefaction.

Since this chapter is concerned only with negative duties, i.e., duties of omission, the articles of duty must be directed against the vices which oppose duties one has to himself.

Concerning Suicide
The deliberate killing of oneself can be called self-murder (homocidiumdolosum [“deceptive murder”]) only when it can be shown that the killing is really a crime committed either against one’s own person, or against another person through one’s own suicide (e.g., when a pregnant person kills herself).

Suicide is a crime (murder).  To be sure, suicide can also be held to be a transgression of one’s duty to other men, as, for instance, the transgression of the duty of one of a married couple to the other, of parents to children, of a subject to his government or to his fellow citizens, and, finally, of man to God by forsaking the station entrusted to him in this world without being recalled from it.  However, we are here concerned with nothing but the violation of a duty to oneself, with whether, if I set aside all the aforementioned considerations concerning one’s duty to other men, a man is still obligated to preserve his life simply because he is a person and must therefore recognize a duty to himself (and a strict one at that).

It seems absurd that a man can injure himself (volentinon fit injuria).  The Stoic therefore considered it a prerogative of his personality as a wise man to walk out of this life with an undisturbed mind whenever he liked (as out of a smoke-filled room), not because he was afflicted by actual or anticipated ills, but simply because he could make use of nothing more in this life.  And yet this very courage, this strength of mind—of not fearing death and of knowing of something which man can prize more highly than his life—ought to have been an ever so much greater motive for him not to destroy himself, a being having such authoritative superiority over the strongest sensible incentives; consequently, it ought to have been a motive for him not to deprive himself of life.

Man cannot deprive himself of his personality so long as one speaks of duties, thus so long as he lives.  That man ought to have the authorization to withdraw himself from all obligation, i.e., to be free to act as if no authorization at all were required for this withdrawal, involves a contradiction.  To destroy the subject of morality in his own person is tantamount to obliterating from the world, as far as he can, the very existence of morality itself; but morality is, nevertheless, an end in itself.  Accordingly, to dispose of oneself as a mere means to some end of one’s own liking is  to degrade the humanity in one’s person (homonoumenon), which, after all, was entrusted to man (homophaenomenon) to preserve.

To deprive oneself of an integral part or organ (to mutilate oneself), e.g., to give away or to sell a tooth so that it can be planted in the jawbone of another person, or to submit oneself to castration in order to gain an easier livelihood as a singer, and so on, belongs to partial self-murder.  But this is not the case with the amputation of a dead organ, or one on the verge of mortification and thus harmful to life.  Also, it cannot be reckoned a crime against one’s own person to cut off something which is, to be sure, a part, but not an organ of the body, e.g., the hair, although selling one’s hair for gain is not entirely free from blame.

Casuistical Questions

Is it self-murder to plunge oneself into certain death (like Curtius) in order to save one’s country?  Or is martyrdom—the deliberate sacrifice of oneself for the good of mankind—also to be regarded, like the former case, as a heroic deed?

Is committing suicide permitted in anticipation of an unjust death sentence from one’s superior?  Even if the sovereign permitted such a suicide (as Nero permitted of Seneca)?

Can one attribute a criminal intention to a great, recently deceased monarch [Frederick the Great] because he carried a fast-acting poison with him, presumably so that if he was captured in war (which he always conducted personally), he might not be forced to submit to conditions of ransom which might be harmful to his country?  (For he can be credited with such a purpose without one’s being required to presume that he carried the poison out of mere arrogance.)

Bitten by a mad dog, a man already felt hydrophobia coming upon him.  He declared that since he had never known anybody cured of it, he would destroy himself in order that, as he said in his testament, he might not in his madness (which he already felt gripping him) bring misfortune to other men too.  The question is whether or not he did wrong.

Whoever decides to let himself be inoculated against smallpox risks his life on an uncertainty, although he does it to preserve his life.  Accordingly, he is in a much more doubtful position with regard to the law of duty than is the mariner, who does not in the least create the storm to which he entrusts himself.  Rather, the former invites an illness which puts him in the danger of death.  Consequently, is smallpox inoculation allowed?



What are our powers of disposal over our life? Have we any authority of disposal over it in any shape or form? How far is it incumbent upon us to take care of it? These are questions which fall to be considered in connexion with our duties towards the body in regard to life. We must, however, by way of introduction, make the following observations. If the body were related to life not as a condition but as an accident or circumstance so that we could at will divest ourselves of it; if we could slip out of it and slip into another just as we leave one country for another, then the body would be subject to our free will and we could rightly have the disposal of it. This, however, would not imply that we could similarly dispose of our life, but only of our circumstances, of the movable goods, the furniture of life. Infact, however, our life is entirely conditioned by our body, so that we cannot conceive of a life not mediated by the body and we cannot make use of our freedom except through the body. It is, therefore, obvious that the body constitutes a part of ourselves. If a man destroys his body, and so his life, he does it by the use of his will, which is itself destroyed in the process. But to use the power of a free willfor its own destruction is self-contradictory. If freedom is the condition of life it cannot be employed to abolish life and so to destroy and abolish itself.   To use life for its own destruction, to use life for producing lifelessness, is self-contradictory. These preliminary remarks are sufficient to show that man cannot rightly have any power of disposal in regard to himself and his life, but only in regard to his circumstances. His body gives man power over his life; were he a spirit he could not destroy his life; life in the absolute has been invested by nature with indestructibility and is an end in itself; hence it follows that man cannot have the power to dispose of his life.


Suicide can be regarded in various lights; it might be held to be reprehensible, or permissible, or even heroic. In the first place we have the specious view that suicide can be allowed and tolerated. Its advocates argue thus. So long as he does not violate the proprietary rights of others, man is a free agent. With regard to his body there are various things he can properly do; he can have a boil lanced or a limb amputated, and disregard a scar; he is, in fact, free to do whatever he may consider useful and advisable. If then he comes to the conclusion that the most useful and advisable thing that he can do is to put an end to his life, why should he not be entitled to do so? Why not, if he sees that he can no longer go on living and that he will be ridding himself of misfortune, torment and disgrace? To be sure he robs himself of a full life, but he escapes once and for all from calamity and misfortune. The argument sounds most plausible. But let us, leaving aside religious considerations, examine the act itself. We may treat our body as we please, provided our motives are those of self-preservation. If, for instance, his foot is a hindrance to life, a man might have it amputated. To preserve his person he has the right of disposal over his body. But in taking his life he does not preserve his person; he disposes of his person and not of its attendant circumstances; he robs himself of his person. This is contrary to the highest duty we have towards ourselves, for it annuls the condition of all other duties; it goes beyond the limits of the use of free will, for this use is possible only through the existence of the Subject.

There is another set of considerations which make suicide seem plausible. A man might find himself so placed that he can continue living only under circumstances which deprive life of all value; in which he can no longer live conformably to virtue and prudence, so that he must from noble motives put an end to his life. The advocates of this view quote in support of it the example of Cato. Cato knew that the entire Roman nation relied upon him in their resistance to Caesar, but he found that he could not prevent himself from falling into Caesar’s hands. What was he to do? If he, the champion of freedom, submitted, every one would say, “If Cato himself submits, what else can we do?” If, on the other hand, he killed himself, his death might spur on the Romans to fight to the bitter end in defence of their freedom. So he killed himself. He thought that it was necessary for him to die. He thought that if he could not go on living as Cato, he could not go on living at all. It must certainly be admitted that in a case such as this, where suicide is a virtue, appearances are in its favour. But this is the only example which has given the world the opportunity of defending suicide. It is the only example of its kind and there has been no similar case since. Lucretia also killed herself, but on grounds of modesty and in a fury of vengeance. It is obviously our duty to preserve our honour, particularly in relation to the opposite sex, for whom it is a merit; but we must endeavour to save our honour only to this extent, that we ought not to surrender it for selfish and lustful purposes. To do what Lucretia did is to adopt a remedy which is not at our disposal; itwould have been better had she defended her honour unto death; that would not have been suicide and would have been right; for it is no suicide to risk one’s life against one’s enemies, and even to sacrifice it, in order to observe one’s duties towards oneself.

No one under the sun can bind me to commit suicide; no sovereign can do so. The sovereign can call upon his subjects to fight to the death for their country, and those who fall on the field of battle are not suicides, but the victims of fate. Not only is this not suicide; but the opposite, a faint heart and fear of the death which threatens by the necessity of fate, is no true self-preservation; for he who runs away to save his own life, and leaves his comrades in the lurch, is a coward; but he who defends himself and his fellows even unto death is no suicide, but noble and high-minded; for life is not to be highly regarded for its own sake. I should endeavour to preserve my own life only so far as I am worthy to live. We must draw a distinction between the suicide and the victim of fate. A man who shortens his life by intemperance is guilty of imprudence and indirectly of his own death; but his guilt is not direct; he did not intend to kill himself; his death was not premeditated.For all our offences are either culpa or dolus. There is certainly no dolus here, but there is culpa; and we can say of such a man that he was guilty of his own death, but we cannot say of him that he is a suicide. What constitutes suicide is the intention to destroy oneself. Intemperance and excess which shorten life ought not, therefore, to be called suicide; for if we raise intemperance to the level of suicide, we lower suicide to the level of intemperance. Imprudence, which does not imply a desire to cease to live, must, therefore, be distinguished from the intention to murder oneself. Serious violations of our duty towards ourselves produce an aversion accompanied either by horror or by disgust; suicide is ofthe horrible kind, crimina carnis of the disgusting. We shrink in horror from suicide because all nature seeks its own preservation; an injured tree, a living body, an animal does so; how then could man make of his freedom, which is the acme of life and constitutes its worth, a principle for his own destruction? Nothing more terrible can be imagined; for if man were on every occasion master of his own life, he would be master of the lives of others; and being ready to sacrifice his life at any and every time rather than be captured, he could perpetrate every conceivable crime and vice. We are, therefore, horrified at the very thought of suicide; by it man sinks lower than the beasts; we look upon a suicide as carrion, whilst our sympathy goes forth to the victim of fate.

Those who advocate suicide seek to give the widest interpretation to freedom. There is something flattering in the thought that we can take our own life if we are so minded; and so we find even right-thinking persons defending suicide in this respect. There are many circumstances under which life ought to be sacrificed. If I cannot preserve my life except by violating my duties towards myself, I am bound to sacrifice my life rather than violate these duties. But suicide is in no circumstances permissible. Humanity in one’s own person is something inviolable; it is a holy trust; man is master of all else, but he must not lay hands upon himself. A being who existed of his own necessity could not possibly destroy himself; a being whose existence is not necessary must regard life as the condition of everything else, and in the consciousness that life is a trust reposed in him, such a being recoils at the thought of committing a breach of his holy trust by turning his life against himself. Man can only dispose over things; beasts are things in this sense; but man is not a thing, not a beast. If he disposes over himself, he treats his value as that of a beast. He who so behaves, who has no respect for human nature and makes a thing of himself, becomes for everyone an Object of freewill.We are free to treat him as a beast, as a thing, and to use him for our sport as we do a horse or a dog, for he is no longer a human being; he has made a thing of himself, and, having himself discarded his humanity, he cannot expect that others should respect humanity in him. Yet humanity is worthy of esteem. Even when a man is a bad man, humanity in his person is worthy of esteem. Suicide is not abominable andinadmissible because life should be highly prized; were it so, we could each have our own opinion of how highly we should prize it, and the rule of prudence would often indicate suicide as the best means. But the rule of morality does not admit of it under any condition because it degrades human nature below the level of animal nature and so destroys it. Yet there is much in the world far more important than life. To observe morality is far more important. It is better to sacrifice one’s life than one’s morality. To live is not a necessity; but to live honourably while life lasts is a necessity. We can at all times go on living and doing our duty towards ourselves without having to do violence to ourselves. But he who is prepared to take his own life is no longer worthy to live at all. The pragmatic ground of impulse to live is happiness. Can I then take my own life because I cannot live happily? No! It is not necessary that whilst I live I should live happily; but it is necessary that so long as I live I should live honourably. Misery gives no right to any man to take his own life, for then we should all be entitled to take our lives for lack of pleasure. All our duties towards ourselves would then be directed towards pleasure; but the fulfillment of those duties may demand that we should even sacrifice our life.

Is suicide heroic or cowardly? Sophistication, even though well meant, is not a good thing. It is not good to defend either virtue or vice by splitting hairs. Even right-thinking people declaim against suicide on wrong lines. They say that it is arrant cowardice. But instances of suicide of great heroism exist. We cannot, for example, regard the suicides of Cato and of Atticus as cowardly. Rage, passion and insanity are the most frequent causes of suicide, and that is why persons who attempt suicide and are saved from it are so terrified at their own act that they do not dare to repeat the attempt. There was a timein Roman and in Greek history when suicide was regarded as honourable, so much so that the Romans forbade their slaves to commitsuicide because they did not belong to themselves but to their masters and so were regarded as things, like all other animals. The Stoics said that suicide is the sage’s peaceful death; he leaves the world as he might leave a smoky room for another, because it no longer pleases him; he leaves the world, not because he is no longer happy in it, but because he disdains it. It has already been mentioned that man is greatly flattered by the idea that he is free to remove himself from this world, if he so wishes. He may not make use of this freedom, but the thought of possessing it pleases him. It seems even to have a moral aspect, for if man is capable of removing himself from the world at his own will, he need not submit to any one; he can retain his independence and tell the rudest truths to the cruellest of tyrants. Torture cannot bring him to heel, because he can leave the world at a moment’s notice as a free man can leave the country, if and when he wills it. But this semblance of morality vanishes as soon as we seethat man’s freedom cannot subsist except on a condition which is immutable. This condition is that man may not use his freedom against himself to his own destruction, but that, on the contrary, he should allow nothing external to limit it. Freedom thus conditioned is noble. No chance or misfortune ought to make us afraid to live; we ought to go on living as long as we can do so as human beings and honourably. To bewail one’s fate and misfortune is in itself dishonourable. Had Cato faced any torments which Caesar might have inflicted upon him with a resolute mind and remained steadfast, it would have been noble of him; to violate himself was not so. Those who advocate suicide and teach that there is authority for it necessarily do much harm in a republic of free men. Let us imagine a state in which men held as a general opinion that they were entitled to commit suicide, and that there was even merit and honour in so doing. How dreadful everyone would find them. For he who does not respect his life even in principle cannot be restrained from the most dreadful vices; he recks neither king nor torments.

But as soon as we examine suicide from the standpoint of religion we immediately see it in its true light. We have been placed in this world under certain conditions and for specific purposes. But a suicide opposes the purpose of his Creator; he arrives in the other worldas one who has deserted his post; he must be looked upon as a rebel against God. So long as we remember the truth that it is God’s intention to preserve life, we are bound to regulate our activities in conformity with it. We have no right to offer violence to our nature’s powers of self-preservation and to upset the wisdom of her arrangements. This duty is upon us until the time comes when God expressly commands us to leave this life. Human beings are sentinels on earth and may not leave their posts until relieved by another beneficent hand. God is our owner; we are His property; His providence works for our good. A bondman in the care of a beneficent master deserves punishment if he opposes his master’s wishes. But suicide is not inadmissible and abominable because God has forbidden it; God has forbidden it because it is abdominal in that it degrades man’s inner worth below that of the animal creation. Moral philosophers must, therefore, first and foremost show that suicide is abominable. We find, as a rule, that those who labour for their happiness are more liable to suicide; having tasted the refinements of pleasure, and being deprived of them, they give way to grief, sorrow, and melancholy.

Care for One’s Life 

We are in duty bound to take care of our life; but in this connexion it must be remarked that life, in and for itself, is not the greatest of the gifts entrusted to our keeping and of which we must take care. There are duties which are far greater than life and which can often be fulfilled only by sacrificing life. . . . It is cowardly to place a high value upon physical life. The man who on every trifling occasion fears for his life makes a laughing-stock of himself. We must await death with resolution. That must be of little importance which it is of great importance to despise.

On the other hand we ought not to risk our life and hazard losing it for interested and private purposes. To do so is not only imprudent but base. . . .How far we should value our life, and how far we may risk it, is a very subtle question. It turns on the following considerations. Humanity in our own person is an object of the highest esteem and is inviolable in us; rather than dishonour it, or allow it to be dishonoured, man ought to sacrifice his life; for can he himself hold his manhood in honour if it is to be dishonoured by others. If a man cannot preserve his life except by dishonouring his humanity, he ought rather to sacrifice it. . . Thus it is far better to die honoured and respected than to prolong one’s life for a few years by a disgraceful act and go on living a rogue. If, for instance, a woman cannot preserve her life any longer except by surrendering her person to the will of another, she is bound to give up her life rather than dishonour humanity in her own person, which is what she would be doing in giving herself up as a thing to the will of another.

. . .Necessity cannot cancel morality. If, then, I cannot preserve my life except by disgraceful conduct, virtue relieves me of this duty because a higher duty here comes into play and commands me to sacrifice my life.

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Filed under Europe, Kant, Immanuel, Martyrdom, Mental Illness: depression, despair, insanity, delusion, Rights, Selections, Slavery, The Early Modern Period, Value of Life


from Anatomy of Melancholy


Born in Lindley, Leicestershire, Robert Burton was an English clergyman and author. He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford, where he received bachelor of arts, master of arts, and bachelor of divinity degrees. Working as a tutor and librarian, he was elected a fellow in 1599. From 1616 until his death, he served as vicar nearby at St. Thomas’s Church, living a self-described “silent, sedentary, solitary” lifestyle. His first published work was the Latin comedy Philosophaster (1605).

Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy was originally published in 1621 under the pseudonym Democritus Junior. Burton apparently saw himself as completing the project of Democritus to discover the biological seat of melancholy, including what would now be called depression and related mental illnesses. It is reported that Burton also tried to recreate Democritus’s practice of walking down to the haven at Abdera and laughing heartily at the ridiculous objects that presented themselves to his view, by repairing to the bridge-foot at Oxford and listening to the bargemen swearing at one another, “at which he would set his hands to his sides and laugh most profusely.”

Anatomy of Melancholy is a treatise on the symptoms, causes, and cures of the melancholic or depressive personality. The result of most of his life’s work, Anatomy is encyclopedic in its references to nearly every aspect of 17th-century culture and thought, causing Lord Byron to remark that studying it was the surest way of obtaining “a reputation of being well read.” Focusing particularly on previous theories of cognition but sprinkling the book with classical allusions in a style influenced by Montaigne and the satire of Erasmus, Burton treated the subject of depression in a manner ahead of his time and with a modification of the then-conventional mind/body dualism. The Anatomy was widely read and influenced several later writers, notably John Milton, Samuel Johnson, Laurence Sterne, and Charles Lamb.

In the section “Prognostics of Melancholy,” Burton treats suicide as the outcome of melancholy, though he also reviews classical and medieval arguments concerning the ethics of suicide. He thus appears to adopt potentially conflicting views: on the one hand, that suicide is the causal consequence of mental illness (and so not under voluntary control), and, on the other, that suicide is a matter of moral choice (which one can make badly). Similar ambivalence about suicide in mental illness persists into contemporary times. In any case, Burton argues that one ought not to be rash in censuring those who commit suicide. Only God alone can tell the reasons for their act and what shall become of their souls, he insists, since they may have repented and been forgiven at the very moment of death, as he famously puts it, “betwixt the bridge and the brook, the knife and the throat.”


Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, Part 1, Section 4, Member 1, available from Project Gutenberg.  Originally published 1638.  This edition, by Karl Hagen, is based on a nineteenth-century edition that modernized Burton’s spelling and typographic conventions, and has been further corrected. Quotation in biographical sketch from  A. H. Bullen, introduction to Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Rev. A. R. Shilleto, vol. 1, London, George Bell and Sons, 1893, p. xii.




Prognostics, or signs of things to come, are either good or bad. If this malady be not hereditary, and taken at the beginning, there is good hope of cure, recens curationem non habet difficilem, saith Avicenna, l. 3, Fen. 1, Tract. 4, c. 18. That which is with laughter, of all others is most secure, gentle, and remiss, Hercules de Saxonia. “If that evacuation of haemorrhoids, or varices, which they call the water between the skin, shall happen to a melancholy man, his misery is ended,” Hippocrates Aphor. 6, 11. Galen l. 6, de morbis vulgar. com. 8, confirms the same; and to this aphorism of Hippocrates, all the Arabians, new and old Latins subscribe; Montaltus c. 25, Hercules de Saxonia, Mercurialis, Vittorius Faventinus, &c. Skenkius, l. 1, observat. med. c. de Mania, illustrates this aphorism, with an example of one Daniel Federer a coppersmith that was long melancholy, and in the end mad about the 27th year of his age, these varices or water began to arise in his thighs, and he was freed from his madness. Marius the Roman was so cured, some, say, though with great pain. Skenkius hath some other instances of women that have been helped by flowing of their mouths, which before were stopped. That the opening of the haemorrhoids will do as much for men, all physicians jointly signify, so they be voluntary, some say, and not by compulsion. All melancholy are better after a quartan; Jobertus saith, scarce any man hath that ague twice; but whether it free him from this malady, ’tis a question; for many physicians ascribe all long agues for especial causes, and a quartan ague amongst the rest. Rhasis cont. lib. 1, tract. 9. “When melancholy gets out at the superficies of the skin, or settles breaking out in scabs, leprosy, morphew, or is purged by stools, or by the urine, or that the spleen is enlarged, and those varices appear, the disease is dissolved.” Guianerius, cap. 5, tract. 15, adds dropsy, jaundice, dysentery, leprosy, as good signs, to these scabs, morphews, and breaking out, and proves it out of the 6th of Hippocrates’ Aphorisms.


Evil prognostics on the other part. Inveterata melancholia incurabilis, if it be inveterate, it is incurable, a common axiom, aut difficulter curabilis as they say that make the best, hardly cured. This Galen witnesseth, l. 3, de loc. affect. cap. 6, “be it in whom it will, or from what cause soever, it is ever long, wayward, tedious, and hard to be cured, if once it be habituated.” As Lucian said of the gout, she was “the queen of diseases, and inexorable,” may we say of melancholy. Yet Paracelsus will have all diseases whatsoever curable, and laughs at them which think otherwise, as T. Erastus par. 3, objects to him; although in another place, hereditary diseases he accounts incurable, and by no art to be removed. Hildesheim spicel. 2, de mel. holds it less dangerous if only “imagination be hurt, and not reason,” “the gentlest is from blood. Worse from choler adust, but the worst of all from melancholy putrefied.” Bruel esteems hypochondriacal least dangerous, and the other two species (opposite to Galen) hardest to be cured. The cure is hard in man, but much more difficult in women. And both men and women must take notice of that saying of Montanus consil. 230, pro Abate Italo, “This malady doth commonly accompany them to their grave; physicians may ease, and it may lie hid for a time, but they cannot quite cure it, but it will return again more violent and sharp than at first, and that upon every small occasion or error:” as in Mercury’s weather-beaten statue, that was once all over gilt, the open parts were clean, yet there was in fimbriis aurum, in the chinks a remnant of gold: there will be some relics of melancholy left in the purest bodies (if once tainted) not so easily to be rooted out. Oftentimes it degenerates into epilepsy, apoplexy, convulsions, and blindness: by the authority of Hippocrates and Galen, all aver, if once it possess the ventricles of the brain, Frambesarius, and Salust. Salvianus adds, if it get into the optic nerves, blindness. Mercurialis, consil. 20, had a woman to his patient, that from melancholy became epileptic and blind. If it come from a cold cause, or so continue cold, or increase, epilepsy; convulsions follow, and blindness, or else in the end they are moped, sottish, and in all their actions, speeches, and gestures, ridiculous. If it come from a hot cause, they are more furious, and boisterous, and in conclusion mad. Calescentem melancholiam saepius sequitur mania. If it heat and increase, that is the common event, per circuitus, aut semper insanit, he is mad by fits, or altogether. For as Sennertus contends out of Crato, there is seminarius ignis in this humour, the very seeds of fire. If it come from melancholy natural adust, and in excess, they are often demoniacal, Montanus.

Seldom this malady procures death, except (which is the greatest, most grievous calamity, and the misery of all miseries,) they make away themselves, which is a frequent thing, and familiar amongst them. ‘Tis Hippocrates’ observation, Galen’s sentence, Etsi mortem timent, tamen plerumque sibi ipsis mortem consciscunt, l. 3. de locis affec. cap. 7. The doom of all physicians. ‘Tis Rabbi Moses’ Aphorism, the prognosticon of Avicenna, Rhasis, Aetius, Gordonius, Valescus, Altomarus, Salust. Salvianus, Capivaccius, Mercatus, Hercules de Saxonia, Piso, Bruel, Fuchsius, all, &c.

Et saepe usque adeo mortis formidine vitae
Percipit infelix odium lucisque videndae,
Ut sibi consciscat maerenti pectore lethum.

And so far forth death’s terror doth affright,
He makes away himself, and hates the light
To make an end of fear and grief of heart,
He voluntary dies to ease his smart.

In such sort doth the torture and extremity of his misery torment him, that he can take no pleasure in his life, but is in a manner enforced to offer violence unto himself, to be freed from his present insufferable pains. So some (saith Fracastorius) “in fury, but most in despair, sorrow, fear, and out of the anguish and vexation of their souls, offer violence to themselves: for their life is unhappy and miserable. They can take no rest in the night, nor sleep, or if they do slumber, fearful dreams astonish them.” In the daytime they are affrighted still by some terrible object, and torn in pieces with suspicion, fear, sorrow, discontents, cares, shame, anguish, &c. as so many wild horses, that they cannot be quiet an hour, a minute of time, but even against their wills they are intent, and still thinking of it, they cannot forget it, it grinds their souls day and night, they are perpetually tormented, a burden to themselves, as Job was, they can neither eat, drink or sleep. Psal. cvii. 18. “Their soul abhorreth all meat, and they are brought to death’s door, being bound in misery and iron:” they curse their stars with Job, “and day of their birth, and wish for death:” for as Pineda and most interpreters hold, Job was even melancholy to despair, and almost madness itself; they murmur many times against the world, friends, allies, all mankind, even against God himself in the bitterness of their passion, vivere nolunt, mori nesciunt, live they will not, die they cannot. And in the midst of these squalid, ugly, and such irksome days, they seek at last, finding no comfort, no remedy in this wretched life, to be eased of all by death. Omnia appetunt bonum, all creatures seek the best, and for their good as they hope, sub specie, in show at least, vel quia mori pulchrum putant (saith Hippocrates) vel quia putant inde se majoribus malis liberari, to be freed as they wish. Though many times, as Aesop’s fishes, they leap from the frying-pan into the fire itself, yet they hope to be eased by this means: and therefore (saith Felix Platerus) “after many tedious days at last, either by drowning, hanging, or some such fearful end,” they precipitate or make away themselves: “many lamentable examples are daily seen amongst us:” alius ante, fores se laqueo suspendit (as Seneca notes), alius se praecipitavit a tecto, ne dominum stomachantem audiret, alius ne reduceretur a fuga ferrum redegit in viscera, “one hangs himself before his own door,—another throws himself from the house-top, to avoid his master’s anger,—a third, to escape expulsion, plunges a dagger into his heart,”—so many causes there are—His amor exitio est, furor his—love, grief, anger, madness, and shame, &c. ‘Tis a common calamity, a fatal end to this disease, they are condemned to a violent death, by a jury of physicians, furiously disposed, carried headlong by their tyrannising wills, enforced by miseries, and there remains no more to such persons, if that heavenly Physician, by his assisting grace and mercy alone do not prevent, (for no human persuasion or art can help) but to be their own butchers, and execute themselves. Socrates his cicuta, Lucretia’s dagger, Timon’s halter, are yet to be had; Cato’s knife, and Nero’s sword are left behind them, as so many fatal engines, bequeathed to posterity, and will be used to the world’s end, by such distressed souls: so intolerable, insufferable, grievous, and violent is their pain, so unspeakable and continuate. One day of grief is an hundred years, as Cardan observes: ‘Tis carnificina hominum, angor animi, as well saith Areteus, a plague of the soul, the cramp and convulsion of the soul, an epitome of hell; and if there be a hell upon earth, it is to be found in a melancholy man’s heart.

For that deep torture may be call’d an hell,
When more is felt, than one hath power to tell.
Yea, that which scoffing Lucian said of the gout in jest, I may truly affirm of melancholy in earnest.

O triste nomen! o diis odibile
Melancholia lacrymosa, Cocyti filia,
Tu Tartari specubus opacis edita
Erinnys, utero quam Megara suo tulit,
Et ab uberibus aluit, cuique parvidae
Amarulentum in os lac Alecto dedit,
Omnes abominabilem te daemones
Produxere in lucem, exitio mortalium.
Et paulo post
Non Jupiter ferit tale telum fulminis,
Non ulla sic procella saevit aequoris,
Non impetuosi tanta vis est turbinis.
An asperos sustineo morsus Cerberi?
Num virus Echidnae membra mea depascitur?
Aut tunica sanie tincta Nessi sanguinis?
Illacrymabile et immedicabile malum hoc.

O sad and odious name! a name so fell,
Is this of melancholy, brat of hell.
There born in hellish darkness doth it dwell,
The Furies brought it up, Megara’s teat,
Alecto gave it bitter milk to eat.
And all conspir’d a bane to mortal men,
To bring this devil out of that black den.
Jupiter’s thunderbolt, not storm at sea,
Nor whirlwind doth our hearts so much dismay.
What? am I bit by that fierce Cerberus?
Or stung by serpent so pestiferous?
Or put on shirt that’s dipt in Nessus’ blood?
My pain’s past cure; physic can do no good.
No torture of body like unto it,
Siculi non invenere tyranni majus tormentum, no strappadoes, hot irons, Phalaris’ bulls,
Nec ira deum tantum, nec tela, nec hostis,
Quantum sola noces animis illapsa.
Jove’s wrath, nor devils can
Do so much harm to th’ soul of man.

All fears, griefs, suspicions, discontents, imbonites, insuavities are swallowed up, and drowned in this Euripus, this Irish sea, this ocean of misery, as so many small brooks; ’tis coagulum omnium aerumnarum: which Ammianus applied to his distressed Palladins. I say of our melancholy man, he is the cream of human adversity, the quintessence, and upshot; all other diseases whatsoever, are but flea-bitings to melancholy in extent:

‘Tis the pith of them all,

Hospitium est calamitatis; quid verbis opus est?
Quamcunque malam rem quaeris, illic reperies:

What need more words? ’tis calamities inn,
Where seek for any mischief, ’tis within;

and a melancholy man is that true Prometheus, which is bound to Caucasus; the true Titius, whose bowels are still by a vulture devoured (as poets feign) for so doth Lilius Geraldus interpret it, of anxieties, and those griping cares, and so ought it to be understood. In all other maladies, we seek for help, if a leg or an arm ache, through any distemperature or wound, or that we have an ordinary disease, above all things whatsoever, we desire help and health, a present recovery, if by any means possible it may be procured; we will freely part with all our other fortunes, substance, endure any misery, drink bitter potions, swallow those distasteful pills, suffer our joints to be seared, to be cut off, anything for future health: so sweet, so dear, so precious above all other things in this world is life: ’tis that we chiefly desire, long life and happy days, multos da Jupiter annos, increase of years all men wish; but to a melancholy man, nothing so tedious, nothing so odious; that which they so carefully seek to preserve he abhors, he alone; so intolerable are his pains; some make a question, graviores morbi corporis an animi, whether the diseases of the body or mind be more grievous, but there is no comparison, no doubt to be made of it, multo enim saevior longeque est atrocior animi, quam corporis cruciatus (Lem. l. 1. c. 12.) the diseases of the mind are far more grievous.—Totum hic pro vulnere corpus, body and soul is misaffected here, but the soul especially. So Cardan testifies de rerum var. lib. 8. 40.Maximus Tyrius a Platonist, and Plutarch, have made just volumes to prove it. Dies adimit aegritudinem hominibus, in other diseases there is some hope likely, but these unhappy men are born to misery, past all hope of recovery, incurably sick, the longer they live the worse they are, and death alone must ease them.

Another doubt is made by some philosophers, whether it be lawful for a man in such extremity of pain and grief, to make away himself: and how these men that so do are to be censured. The Platonists approve of it, that it is lawful in such cases, and upon a necessity; Plotinus l. de beatitud. c. 7. and Socrates himself defends it, in Plato’s Phaedon, “if any man labour of an incurable disease, he may despatch himself, if it be to his good.” Epicurus and his followers, the cynics and stoics in general affirm it, Epictetus and Seneca amongst the rest, quamcunque veram esse viam ad libertatem, any way is allowable that leads to liberty, “let us give God thanks, that no man is compelled to live against his will;” quid ad hominem claustra, career, custodia? liberum ostium habet, death is always ready and at hand. Vides illum praecipitem locum, illud flumen, dost thou see that steep place, that river, that pit, that tree, there’s liberty at hand, effugia servitutis et doloris sunt, as that Laconian lad cast himself headlong (non serviam aiebat puer) to be freed of his misery: every vein in thy body, if these be nimis operosi exitus, will set thee free, quid tua refert finem facias an accipias? there’s no necessity for a man to live in misery. Malum est necessitati vivere; sed in necessitate vivere, necessitas nulla est. Ignavus qui sine causa moritur, et stultus qui cum dolore vivit. Idem epi. 58. Wherefore hath our mother the earth brought out poisons, saith Pliny, in so great a quantity, but that men in distress might make away themselves? which kings of old had ever in a readiness, ad incerta fortunae venenum sub custode promptum, Livy writes, and executioners always at hand. Speusippes being sick was met by Diogenes, and carried on his slaves’ shoulders, he made his moan to the philosopher; but I pity thee not, quoth Diogenes, qui cum talis vivere sustines, thou mayst be freed when thou wilt, meaning by death. Seneca therefore commends Cato, Dido, and Lucretia, for their generous courage in so doing, and others that voluntarily die, to avoid a greater mischief, to free themselves from misery, to save their honour, or vindicate their good name, as Cleopatra did, as Sophonisba, Syphax’s wife did, Hannibal did, as Junius Brutus, as Vibius Virus, and those Campanian senators in Livy (Dec. 3. lib. 6.) to escape the Roman tyranny, that poisoned themselves. Themistocles drank bull’s blood, rather than he would fight against his country, and Demosthenes chose rather to drink poison, Publius Crassi filius, Censorius and Plancus, those heroical Romans to make away themselves, than to fall into their enemies’ hands. How many myriads besides in all ages might I remember, qui sibi lethum Insontes pepperere manu, &c. Rhasis in the Maccabees is magnified for it, Samson’s death approved. So did Saul and Jonas sin, and many worthy men and women, quorum memoria celebratur in Ecclesia, saith Leminchus, for killing themselves to save their chastity and honour, when Rome was taken, as Austin instances, l. 1. de Civit. Dei, cap. 16. Jerome vindicateth the same in Ionam and Ambrose, l. 3. de virginitate commendeth Pelagia for so doing. Eusebius, lib. 8. cap. 15. admires a Roman matron for the same fact to save herself from the lust of Maxentius the Tyrant. Adelhelmus, abbot of Malmesbury, calls them Beatas virgines quae sic, &c. Titus Pomponius Atticus, that wise, discreet, renowned Roman senator, Tully’s dear friend, when he had been long sick, as he supposed, of an incurable disease, vitamque produceret ad augendos dolores, sine spe salutis, was resolved voluntarily by famine to despatch himself to be rid of his pain; and when as Agrippa, and the rest of his weeping friends earnestly besought him, osculantes obsecrarent ne id quod natura cogeret, ipse acceleraret, not to offer violence to himself, “with a settled resolution he desired again they would approve of his good intent, and not seek to dehort him from it:” and so constantly died, precesque eorum taciturna sua obstinatione depressit. Even so did Corellius Rufus, another grave senator, by the relation of Plinius Secundus, epist. lib. 1. epist. 12. famish himself to death; pedibus correptus cum incredibiles cruciatus et indignissima tormenta pateretur, a cibis omnino abstinuit; neither he nor Hispilla his wife could divert him, but destinatus mori obstinate magis, &c. die he would, and die he did. So did Lycurgus, Aristotle, Zeno, Chrysippus, Empedocles, with myriads, &c. In wars for a man to run rashly upon imminent danger, and present death, is accounted valour and magnanimity, to be the cause of his own, and many a thousand’s ruin besides, to commit wilful murder in a manner, of himself and others, is a glorious thing, and he shall be crowned for it. The Massegatae in former times, Barbiccians, and I know not what nations besides, did stifle their old men, after seventy years, to free them from those grievances incident to that age. So did the inhabitants of the island of Choa, because their air was pure and good, and the people generally long lived, antevertebant fatum suum, priusquam manci forent, aut imbecillitas accederet, papavere vel cicuta, with poppy or hemlock they prevented death. Sir Thomas More in his Utopia commends voluntary death, if he be sibi aut aliis molestus, troublesome to himself or others, ( “especially if to live be a torment to him,) let him free himself with his own hands from this tedious life, as from a prison, or suffer himself to be freed by others.” And ’tis the same tenet which Laertius relates of Zeno, of old, Juste sapiens sibi mortem consciscit, si in acerbis doloribus versetur, membrorum mutilatione aut morbis aegre curandis, and which Plato 9. de legibus approves, if old age, poverty, ignominy, &c. oppress, and which Fabius expresseth in effect. (Praefat. 7. Institut.) Nemo nisi sua culpa diu dolet. It is an ordinary thing in China, (saith Mat. Riccius the Jesuit,) “if they be in despair of better fortunes, or tired and tortured with misery, to bereave themselves of life, and many times, to spite their enemies the more, to hang at their door.” Tacitus the historian, Plutarch the philosopher, much approve a voluntary departure, and Aust. de civ. Dei, l. 1. c. 29. defends a violent death, so that it be undertaken in a good cause, nemo sic mortuus, qui non fuerat aliquando moriturus; quid autem interest, quo mortis genere vita ista finiatur, quando ille cui finitur, iterum mori non cogitur? &c. no man so voluntarily dies, but volens nolens, he must die at last, and our life is subject to innumerable casualties, who knows when they may happen, utrum satius est unam perpeti moriendo, an omnes timere vivendo, rather suffer one, than fear all. “Death is better than a bitter life,” Eccl. xxx. 17. and a harder choice to live in fear, than by once dying, to be freed from all. Theombrotus Ambraciotes persuaded I know not how many hundreds of his auditors, by a luculent oration he made of the miseries of this, and happiness of that other life, to precipitate themselves. And having read Plato’s divine tract de anima, for example’s sake led the way first. That neat epigram of Callimachus will tell you as much,

Jamque vale Soli cum diceret Ambrociotes,
In Stygios fertur desiluisse lacus,
Morte nihil dignum passus: sed forte Platonis
Divini eximum de nece legit opus.

Calenus and his Indians hated of old to die a natural death: the Circumcellians and Donatists, loathing life, compelled others to make them away, with many such: but these are false and pagan positions, profane stoical paradoxes, wicked examples, it boots not what heathen philosophers determine in this kind, they are impious, abominable, and upon a wrong ground. “No evil is to be done that good may come of it;” reclamat Christus, reclamat Scriptura, God, and all good men are against it: He that stabs another, can kill his body; but he that stabs himself, kills his own soul. Male meretur, qui dat mendico, quod edat; nam et illud quod dat, perit; et illi producit vitam ad miseriam: he that gives a beggar an alms (as that comical poet said) doth ill, because he doth but prolong his miseries. But Lactantius l. 6. c. 7. de vero cultu, calls it a detestable opinion, and fully confutes it, lib. 3. de sap. cap. 18. and S. Austin, epist. 52. ad Macedonium, cap. 61. ad Dulcitium Tribunum: so doth Hierom to Marcella of Blesilla’s death, Non recipio tales animas, &c., he calls such men martyres stultae Philosophiae: so doth Cyprian de duplici martyrio; Si qui sic moriantur, aut infirmitas, aut ambitio, aut dementia cogit eos; ’tis mere madness so to do, furore est ne moriare mori. To this effect writes Arist. 3. Ethic. Lipsius Manuduc. ad Stoicam Philosophiaem lib. 3. dissertat. 23. but it needs no confutation. This only let me add, that in some cases, those hard censures of such as offer violence to their own persons, or in some desperate fit to others, which sometimes they do, by stabbing, slashing, &c. are to be mitigated, as in such as are mad, beside themselves for the time, or found to have been long melancholy, and that in extremity, they know not what they do, deprived of reason, judgment, all, as a ship that is void of a pilot, must needs impinge upon the next rock or sands, and suffer shipwreck. P. Forestus hath a story of two melancholy brethren, that made away themselves, and for so foul a fact, were accordingly censured to be infamously buried, as in such cases they use: to terrify others, as it did the Milesian virgins of old; but upon farther examination of their misery and madness, the censure was revoked, and they were solemnly interred, as Saul was by David, 2 Sam. ii. 4. and Seneca well adviseth, Irascere interfectori, sed miserere interfecti; be justly offended with him as he was a murderer, but pity him now as a dead man. Thus of their goods and bodies we can dispose; but what shall become of their souls, God alone can tell; his mercy may come inter pontem et fontem, inter gladium et jugulum, betwixt the bridge and the brook, the knife and the throat. Quod cuiquam contigit, quivis potest: Who knows how he may be tempted? It is his case, it may be thine: Quae sua sors hodie est, eras fore vestra potest. We ought not to be so rash and rigorous in our censures, as some are; charity will judge and hope the best: God be merciful unto us all.

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from Biathanatos


John Donne, the English metaphysical poet and, after 1621, Dean of St. Paul’s, was a writer of sonnets, songs, elegies, satires, and sermons. It is for his poetic works, many with religious themes, that he is principally known today. Raised as a Roman Catholic in times of pervasive anti-Catholic sentiment, Donne was educated at home before attending Oxford and Cambridge; however, he did not take degrees there, probably because of the requirement of the Oath of Supremacy. In 1592, he pursued an education in law, but in 1596, joined a military expedition to Cádiz and later a treasure-hunting expedition in the Azores. It is not known precisely when he abandoned Catholicism, but by 1597, he had conformed sufficiently with the Church of England to hold a government position, becoming secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper and a member of Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council. Donne served in Parliament and made friends and acquaintances in influential circles, but his excellent prospects collapsed early in 1602 when Donne—then 30 years old—revealed that he had secretly married Anne More, the 17-year-old niece and protegée of Egerton’s wife. Donne was briefly imprisoned, though the legal validity of the marriage was upheld, and he endured a long period of unemployment following his release.

Donne wrote Biathanatos, an extended essay on suicide, in 1608. A letter to his friend Henry Goodyer in the same year is often cited as evidence of his troubled mood during this period:

Every Tuesday I make account that I turn a great hourglass, and consider what a week’s life is run out since I writ. But if I ask myself what I have done in the last watch, or would do in the next, I can say nothing. If I say that I have passed it without hurting any, so may the spider in my window. . . . I have often suspected myself to be overtaken . . . with a desire of the next life, which, though I know it is not merely out of a weariness of this . . . [I suspect] worldly encumbrances have increased. . . .

One school of interpretation sees Biathanatos as an epiphenomenon of Donne’s morbid condition, though Donne’s argument in the work would not excuse a suicide from personal distress. Other commentators see in it an attempt by Donne to overcome temptation. But it is also a public work, though not actually published during Donne’s lifetime, one that shares with his Pseudo-Martyr (written no more than a year later) partisan and controversial aims addressed to a broad audience.

Biathanatos is a long and extremely difficult work with a challenging and, Donne says, “paradoxical” thesis. It undertakes an exhaustive analysis of both secular and religious argumentation against suicide, and argues that suicide is “not so naturally sin, that it may never be otherwise.” Most cases of suicide, including those committed from despair, self-protection, self-aggrandizement, fear of suffering, impatience to reach the afterlife, or other self-interested motives are indeed sinful. But, Donne argues, suicide is justified when, like submission to martyrdom, it is done with charity, done for the glory of God. Indeed, in Donne’s highly unconventional view, Christ himself, in not merely allowing himself to be crucified but in voluntarily emitting his last breath on the cross, was in fact a suicide. This is the model by which men ought to be willing to lay down their lives for their brethren. However, Donne argues elsewhere in Biathanatos, because suicide is so likely to be committed for self-interested reasons rather than wholly for the glory of God, it is appropriate for both civil and canon law to prohibit it.

Donne recognized that his unconventional thesis was “misinterpretable,” and it is probably for this reason that he did not allow Biathanatos to be published. He directed his friend Robert Ker, to whom he gave a copy, to “keep it . . . with . . . jealousy. . . . Publish it not, but yet burn it not.” While Donne’s Biathanatos was the first full-length book devoted to the topic of suicide written in the Western tradition, John Sym’s Lifes Preservative Against Self-Killing (1637) [q.v.] was the first to be published; Donne’s work was not published until a decade later, in 1647, after his death and against his wishes, by his son.


John Donne, Biathanatos, A Modern-Spelling Edition, Part III, Distinction iv, sections 1-11, lines 4692-4992, eds. Michael Rudick and M. Pabst Battin. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1982, pp. 166-176. Quotation in introduction, pp. xi-xii.



To Prepare us, therefore, to a right understanding and application of these places of Scripture, we must arrest awhile upon the nature, and degrees, and effects of charity, the mother and form of all virtue, which shall not only lead us to heaven, for faith opens us the door, but shall continue with us when we are there, when both faith and hope are spent and useless.

We shall nowhere find a better portrait of charity than that which St. Augustine hath drawn: “She loves not that which should not be loved, she neglects not that which should be loved, she bestows not more love upon that which deserves less, nor doth she equally love more and less worthiness, nor upon equal worthiness bestow more and less love.” To this charity, the same blessed and happy father proportions this growth: Inchoated, increased, grown great, and perfected, and this last is, saith he, when in respect of it we contemn this life. And yet he acknowledgeth a higher charity than this; for, Peter Lombard allowing charity this growth, beginning, proficient, perfect, more and most perfect, he cites St. Augustine, who calls that perfect charity to be ready to die for one another. But when he comes to that than which none can be greater, he says then, the Apostle came to cupio dissolvi. For as one may love God with all his heart, and yet he may grow in that love, and love God more with all his heart, for the first was commanded in the Law, and yet counsel of perfection was given to him who said that he had fulfilled the first commandment, so, as St. Augustine found a degree above that charity which made a man paratum ponere, which is cupere, so there is a degree above that, which is to do it.

This is that virtue by which martyrdom, which is not such of itself, becomes an act of highest perfection. And this is that virtue which assureth any suffering which proceeds from it to be infallibly accompanied with the grace of God. Upon assuredness, therefore, and testimony of a rectified conscience that wehave a charitable purpose, let us consider how far we may adventure upon authority of Scripture in this matter which we have in hand.

First, therefore, by the frame and working of St. Paul’s argument to the Corinthians, “though I give my body that I be burned, and have not love, it profiteth nothing,” these two things appear evidently; first, that in a general notion and common reputation, it was esteemed a high degree of perfection to die so, and therefore not against the law of nature; and secondly, by this exception, without charity, it appears that with charily it might well and profitably be done.

For the first, if any think that the Apostle here takes example of an impossible thing, as when itis said, “if an angel from heaven teach other doctrine,” he will, I think, correct himself if he consider the former verses and the Apostle’s progress in his argument, wherein, to dignify charity the most that he can, he undervalues all other gifts which were there ambitiously affected. For eloquence, he says it is nothing to have all languages, no, not of angels, which is not put literally, for they havenone, but to express a high degree of eloquence, as Calvin says here; or, as Lyra says, by language of angels is meant the desire of communicating our conceptions to one another. And then headdsthat knowledge of mysteries and prophecies is also nothing which was also much affected. And for miraculous faith, it is also nothing. For the first of these gifts doth not make a man better, for Balaam’s ass could speak and was still an ass; and the second Judas had, and the Pharisees; and the third is so small a matter that as much as a grain of mustard seed is enough to removemountains. All these, therefore, were feasible things, and were sometimes done. So also, after he had passed through the gifts of knowledge and gifts of utterance, he presents the gifts of working in the same manner; and therefore, as he says, “if I feed the poor with all my goods,” which he presents as a harder thing than either of the other (for in the other, God gives me, but here I give other), yet possible to be done, so he presents the last, “if I give my body,” as the hardest of all, and yet, as all the rest, sometimes to be done.

That which I observedsecondly to arise from this argument was that, with charity, such a death might be acceptable. . . . And though I know the Donatists are said to have made this use of these words, yet, because the intent and end conditions every action and infuses the poison or the nourishment which they which follow suck from thence, and we know that the Donatists rigorously and tyrannously racked and detorted thus much from this place that they might present themselves to others promiscuously to be killed, and if that weredenied to them, they might kill themselves and them who refused it, yet, I say, I doubt not but thus much may naturally be collected from hence, that by this word “if I give my body” is insinuated somewhat more than a prompt and willing yielding of it when I am enforced to it by the persecuting magistrate; and that these words will justify the fact of the martyr Nicephorus’ being then in perfect charity, whose case was that, having had some enmity with Sapritius, who was brought to the place where he was to receive the bloody crown of martyrdom, he fell down to Sapritius and begged from him then a pardon of all former bitternesses; but Sapritius, elated with the glory of martyrdom, refused him, but was presently punished, for his faith cooled, and he recanted, and lived. And Nicephorus, standing by, stepped in to his room and cried, “I am also a Christian!” and so provoked the magistrate to execute him, lest from the faintness of Sapritius the cause might have received a wound or a scorn. And this I take to be “giving of his body.”

Of which, as there may be such necessity, for confirming of weaker Christians, that a man may be bound to do it, as in this case is very probable, so there may be cases, in men very exemplary, and in the cunning and subtle carriage of the persecutor, as one can no other way give his body for testimony of God’s truth, to which he may then be bound, but by doing it himself.

As, therefore, naturally and customarily, men thought it good to die so, and that such a death, with charity, was acceptable, so is it generally said by Christ that “the good shepherd doth give his life for his sheep,” which is a justifying and approbation of our inclination thereunto, for to say “the good do it” is to say “they which do it are good.” And as we are all sheep of one fold, so in many cases we are all shepherds of one another, and owe one another this duty of giving our temporal lives for another’s spiritual advantage, yea, for his temporal. For that I may abstain from purging myself when another’s crime is imputed to me is grounded upon such another text as this, where it is said the greatest love is to bestow his life for his friends; in which, and all of this kind, we must remember that we are commanded to do it so as Christ did it, and how Christ gave His body we shall have another place to consider.

Hereupon, because St. Peter’s zeal was so forward, and carried him so high that he would die for the Shepherd, for so he says, “I will lay down my life for Thy sake,” and this, as all expositors say, was merely and purely out of natural affection, without examination of his own strength to perform it, but presently and roundly, nature carried him to that promise. And, upon a more deliberate and orderly resolution, St. Paul witnesseth of himself such a willingness to die for his brethren: “I will be gladly bestowed for your souls.”

A Christian nature rests not in knowing thus much, that we may do it, that charity makes it good, that the good do it, and that we must always promise, that is, incline, to do it and do something towards it, but will have the perfect fullness of doing it in the resolution and doctrine and example of our blessed Savior, who says de facto, “I lay down my life for my sheep.” . . .And, saith Musculus, He useth the present word because He was ready to do it, and as Paul and Barnabas, men yet alive, are said to have laid down their lives for Christ. But I rather think, because exposing to danger is not properly called a dying, that Christ said this now because His passion was begun, for all His conversations here were degrees of examination.

To express the abundant and overflowing charity of our Savior all words are defective, for if we could express all which He did, that came not near to that which He would do if need were. It is observed by one . . .(I confess, too credulous an author,but yet one that administers good and wholesome incitements to devotion) that Christ, going to Emmaus, spake of His passion so slightly, as though He had in three days forgot all that He had suffered for us, and that Christ, in an apparition to St. Charles, says that He would be content to die again, if need were; yea, to St. Bridget He said that for any one soul He would suffer as much in every limb as He had suffered for all the world in His whole body. And this is noted for an extreme high degree of charity, out of Anselm, that His blessed Mother said, rather than He should not have been crucified, she would have done it with her own hands, and certainly His charity was not inferior to hers: He did as much as any could be willing to do.

And therefore, as Himself said, “No man can take away my soul,” and “I have power to lay it down.” So without doubt, no man did take it away, nor was there any other than His own will the cause of His dying at that time . . , many martyrs having hanged upon crosses many days alive; and the thieves were yet alive, and therefore Pilate wondered to hear that Christ was dead. His soul, saith St. Augustine, did not leave His body constrained, but “ because He would, and when He would, and how He would”; of which St. Thomas produces this symptom, that He had yet His body’s nature in her full strength, because at the last moment He was able to cry with a loud voice; and Marlorate gathers it upon this, that whereas our heads decline after our death by the slackness of the sinews and muscles, Christ did first, of Himself, bow down His head, and then give up the ghost. So, though it be truly said, after they have scourged Him, they will put Him to death, yet it is said so because maliciously and purposely to kill Him they inflicted those pains upon Him, which would in time have killed Him, but yet nothing which they had done occasioned His death so soon.

And therefore St. Thomas, a man neither of unholy thoughts nor of bold or irreligious or scandalous phrase or elocution (yet I adventure not so far in his behalf as Sylvester doth, that it is impossible that he should have spoken anything against faith or good manners ), forbears not to say that “Christ was so much the cause of His death as he is of his wetting, which might and would not shut the window when the rain beats in.”

This actual emission of His soul, which is death, and which was His own act, and before His natural time (which His best beloved apostle could imitate, who also died when he would and went into his grave, and there gave up the ghost and buried himself, which is reported but of very few others, and by no very credible authors), we find thus celebrated: that thatis a brave death which isaccepted unconstrained, and that it is an heroic act of fortitude if a man, when an urgent occasion is presented, expose himself to a certain and assured death, as He did; and it is there said that Christ did so as Saul did, who thought it foul and dishonorable to die by the hand of an enemy; and that Apollonia, and others who prevented the fury of executioners and cast themselves into the fire, did therein imitate this act of our Savior, of giving up His soul before he was constrained to do it. So that, if the act of our blessed Savior, in whom there was no more required for death but that He should will that His soul should go out, were the same as Saul’s and these martyrs’ actual furtherance, which could not die without that, then we are taught that all those places of giving up our bodies to death, and of laying down the soul, signify more than a yielding to death when it comes.

And to my understanding there is a further degree of alacrity and propenseness to such a death, expressed in that phrase of John, “he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal,” and in that of Luke, “except he hate his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Such a loathness to live is that which is spoken of in the Hebrews: “some were racked and would not be delivered, that they might receive a better resurrection.” This place Calvin interprets of a readiness to die, and expresses it elegantly: to carry our life in our hands, offering it to God for a sacrifice. And this the Jesuits in their rule extend thus far, let everyone think that this was said directly to him: Hate thy life. And they who in the other placeaccept this phrase “No man hateth his own f1esh” to yield an argument against self-homicide in any case, must also allow that the same hate being commanded here authorizes that act in some case. And St. Augustine, apprehending the strength of this place, denies that by the authority of it the Donatists can justify their self-homicide when they list to die; but yet in those cases which are exempt from his rules, this place may encourage a man not to neglect the honor of God only upon this reason, that nobody else will take his life.

And therefore, the Holy Ghost proceeds more directly in the first Epistle of St. John, and shows us a necessary duty: Because He laid down His life for us, therefore we ought to lay down our lives for our brethren. All these places work us to a true understanding of charity, and to a contempt of this life in respect of it. And, as these inform us how ready we must be, so all those places which direct us by the example of Christ to do it as He did, show that in cases when our lives must be given, we need not ever attend extrinsic force of others. Bbut, as He did in perfect charity, so we, in such degrees of it as this life and our nature are capable of, must die by our own will, rather than His glory be neglected, whensoever, as Paul saith, Christ may be magnified in our bodies, or the spiritual good of such another as we are bound to advance doth importune it.

To which readiness of dying for his brethren St. Paul had so accustomed himself, and made it his nature, that, but for his general resolution of doing that ever which should promote their happiness, he could scarce have obtained of himself leave to live. For at first, he says, he knew not which to wish, lifeor death (and therefore, generally, without some circumstance incline or avert us, they are equal to our nature); then, after much perplexity, he was resolved, and desired to be loose, and to be with Christ (therefore, a holy man may wish it); but yet, he corrected that again, because, saith he, “to abide in the flesh ismore needful for you.” And therefore charity must be the rule of our wishes and actions in this point.

There is another place to the Galatians which, though it reach not to death, yet it proves that holy men may be ready to express their loves to one another by violence to themselves, for he saith, “if it had been possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given me”; and Calvin saith this was more than vitam profundere. And this readiness St. Paul reprehends not in them.

But of the highest degree of compassionate charity for others is that of the Apostle in contemplation of the Jews’ dereliction: I would wish myself to be separated from Christ for my brethren. The bitterness of which anathema himself teaches us to understand when, in another place, he wishes the same to those which love not Jesus Christ. And this fearful wish, which charity excused in him, was utter damnation, as all expositors say. And though I believe with Calvin that at this time, in a zealous fury, he remembered not deliberately his own election, and therefore cannot in that respect be said to have resisted the will of God, yet it remains as an argument to us that charity will recompense and justify many excesses which seem unnatural and irregular and enormous transportations.

As in this Apostle of the gentiles, so in the lawgiver of the Jews the like compassion wrought the like effect, and more; for Moses rested not in wishing, but face to face argued with God: “If thou pardon them, thy mercy shall appear, but if thou wilt not, I pray thee, blot my name out of the book which thou hast written. I know that many, out of a reasonable collection that it became Moses to be reposed and dispassioned and of ordinate affections in his conversation with God, are of opinion that he strayed no further in this wish and imprecation than to be content that his name should be blotted out of the Scriptures, and so to lose the honor of being known to posterity for a remarkable instrument of God’s power and mercy. But, since a natural infirmity could work so much upon Christ, in whom there may be suspected no inordinateness of affections, as to divert Him a little and make Him slip a faint wish of escaping the cup, why might not a brave and noble zeal exalt Moses so much as to desire to restore such a nation to the love of God by his own destruction?

For, as certainly the first of these was without sin, so the other might be, out of an habitual assuredness of his salvation. As PauIinus says to Amandus, thou mayst be bold in thy prayers to God for me to say, “Forgive him or blot out me,” for thou canst not be blotted out; iuslum delere non potest iustilia. And thus, retaining ever in our minds that our example is Christ, and that He died not constrained, it shall suffice to have learned by these places that, in charity, men may die so, and have done, and ought to do.

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from Lecture on Homicide
Commentary on [Thomas Aquinas]    Summa Theologiae 2A 2AE, Q64, A.5


Francisco de Vitoria, a Dominican theologian and writer on a wide range of topics, was one of the most influential thinkers in 16th-century Catholic Europe. Born to a Basque family in Burgos, he became a member of the Dominican convent of San Pablo in about 1504. From 1509 to 1523, he studied and lectured at the University of Paris, returning to Spain to teach at the College of Saint Gregorio at Valladolid. In 1526, he secured the most honored academic position in Spain, the prima chair of Theology at Salamanca University. Despite his considerable originality, Vitoria published none of his own works, and most of his original lectures have been lost, surviving only in notes taken by students.

To Vitoria, theology included the study of all things under divine, as well as natural, law; he strove to create a moral philosophy compatible with natural law theory by interpreting the works of Aristotle [q.v.] and Thomas Aquinas [q.v.]. Vitoria has been variously called “the father of international law” and “the founder of global political philosophy,” thanks to his conception of a “commonwealth of the whole world” (res publica totius orbis), though his position may be closer to the traditional jus gentium, the law of nations, than to modern international law. Vitoria’s most influential writings deal with papal, civil, and monarchical power and the ethics of Spanish colonization in the Americas, especially with respect to the rights of the native population. Vitoria is also credited with restoring theological studies in Renaissance Spain through his writing and teaching. He inspired the next generation of Spanish jurists and theologians, including Soto, Molina, and Suárez. He died in 1546 after a long period of suffering.

Vitoria’s two principal types of works are his lectures to students (preserved through their notations) and a series of relectiones, formal lectures annually delivered to the entire university and preserved in manuscript form. Vitoria’s work in both categories formed the most extensive commentaries on suicide up to that time. This collection includes his Commentary on Summa Theologiae, 2a 2ae, q.64, a.5 of Thomas Aquinas and his subsequent relectio “On Homicide” (lecture delivered 1530, published 1557), which explores many of the same arguments at much more substantial length. Vitoria employs the same argumentative format that had been used by Aquinas–beginning by stating the conclusion, then adducing arguments against the conclusion, and only then rebutting them to confirm the conclusion. Vitoria’s argument, which begins with a sustained exploration of natural human inclination, analyzes a variety of cases that may seem to challenge Aquinas’s position against taking one’s own life (among them, failure to defend oneself against lethal attack, sacrificing one’s own share of bread to save another, leaping from a lifeboat to save the others in it, submitting to capital punishment when one might escape, killing oneself to avoid sexual violation, and the like), and then asserts Vitoria’s answers to these objections. Particularly important are specific cases, like that of Samson, which pose challenges to the accepted theological view that suicide is always wrong. Vitoria’s central concern is with the intention under which an act is done: Suicide is never licit if the intention is to kill oneself. However, one may lawfully kill oneself as a foreseen, though unintended, consequence of another intended act: Samson pulled the temple down on the Philistines, whom he intended to kill, but also on himself, whom he did not intend to kill, although he foresaw that his death would occur. In an argument that would become ubiquitous among Christian theologians in the context of suicide, Vitoria appeals to Aquinas’s principle of “double effect,” a principle used in medical ethics to distinguish between palliation and physician-assisted suicide: The physician gives a dying patient opiates to relieve pain, foreseeing—but not intending—that the drug may also hinder respiration and cause the patient’s death. Vitoria uses double-effect reasoning in examining whether one has an obligation to try to prolong one’s own life, to avoid all but the healthiest foods, to drink wine instead of water if one would live ten years longer, or to use expensive medicines in terminal illness.

Francisco de Vitoria, “Relectio De homicidio,” in Relecciones Theológicas del Maesro Fray Francisco de Vitoria, ed. P. Mtro. Fr. Luis G. Alonso Getino, vol. III, pp. 97-152 [Latin text], pp. 203-228 [Spanish text]. Madrid: Imprenta La Rafa, 1935. Tr. Michael Rudick.
Francisco de Vitoria, Relection On Homicide & Commentary on Summa Theologiae IIa IIae Q. 64 (Thomas Aquinas). Tr. John P. Doyle. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1997, pp. 169-185.



 . . .The first proposition: Just as it is always sinful to commit suicide, so is it often a counsel, and sometimes a commandment, not only to suffer death patiently, but also to submit to it freely . . .

The first proposition is that suicide is sinful because contrary to natural human inclination, and to act against natural human inclination is a sin; therefore, suicide is a sin. The major premise is evident. Not only human beings and other animate creatures, but even objects resist their dissolution, employing the powers they have to preserve themselves in their natures, as is shown in Aristotle, De generatione 2. . . . That it is sinful to oppose natural human inclination has been well affirmed and is admitted by all. For if this inclination tends always to the good and the virtuous, and never to evil, then it must be sin to oppose it . . . But some respectable authors, especially commentators on Aristotle, think it wrong to claim that natural inclination leads always to the good and virtuous; they argue rather that nature and natural inclination, on the one hand, and grace and law, on the other, are opposed to one another.

In the first place, they argue that human desire naturally tends toward the good, but that this good is pleasure, and what is pleasurable is not always virtuous.

Second, they argue, on the authority of Aristotle, Ethics 2, that true virtue is achieved through strenuous effort, and if virtue is achieved naturally, then no strenuousness is required, since nature does not incline us to effort. In that sense, nature may incline to the opposite of virtue, that is, to evil, since good deeds are difficult. They find that virtue is not necessary for men to seek happiness and avoid misery.

In the third place, there are theologians who hold that sudden impulses in both the human will and the human appetite tend toward ill, hence nature inclines toward evil.

Fourth, it is argued that the only, or at least the main reason our first parents were endowed with the sense of rectitude was in order that their carnal appetites be bound within the limits of duty and be obedient to the rational will and divine law, for if there were no human capacity to oppose nature either by reason or obedience to divine law, then reward and punishment would make no sense.

Fifth, according to both virtue and divine law, human beings are obliged to love God more than they love themselves, and to prefer the common good to their personal good. Charity is not to seek one’s own good, according to St. Paul, yet human beings naturally love their own goods. Moreover, it is hard to love God more than oneself, because, as was pointed out earlier, human beings seek to preserve what is their own. Hence nature tends against charity and God’s law.

Sixth, desire is a natural inclination. If this is innate, then natural inclination is desire, and desire does not obey reason, but rather tends in the opposite direction. Hence natural desire leads to evil, which is proven by recognizing that the object of carnal desire is pleasure, which is for the most part contrary to virtue and God’s law. Therefore, natural desire leads to evil.

Seventh, bodily urges tend to sin, as the theologians claim, following Peter Lombard, Sentences 2. Urges of this kind are nothing if not natural, and the natural human faculties are destitute of primal rectitude, according to those who cite the same passage in this theologian. Therefore, innate human faculties lead to sin. Consider a man who acts purely according to nature, that is, without a sense of right and wrong; he will by that very condition incline to evil, as he is moved by a bodily urge.

Those who favor these arguments add the testimony of scripture. First they cite the words of God in Genesis 8:21, “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth,” which shows the proclivity of human nature for evil. Next is the Lord’s statement in Matthew 26:41, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” which the Apostle, Galatians 5:17, explains: “the desires of the flesh are against the spirit, and the desires of the spirit are against the flesh.” Again, in Romans 7:23: “I see in my members another law.” . . . It is clear from all of these that the desires of the flesh are evil, opposed to the spirit and to the law of God. Desires of the flesh, if all experience them, are natural, and so natural human inclination leads to sin and evil. Aristotle in Ethics 2 observes that human beings are naturally desirous, and must work to save themselves from what their nature most inclines them to. This is cited by St. Thomas, ST II-II, q.166, art.2.

Such are the arguments used by these authors to support their case, whence derive their quarrels with nature. Some call her a cruel stepmother, others an enemy, others a wicked provider, still others the parent of evils . . . And from this comes the opinion that human beings in their nature can do nothing but evil. There is no error more odious and harmful to mortals than to hold that all human acts are sins and deserving of eternal punishment unless the mercy of God turns them into venial sins, which is one of the dogmas of those who admit no human worth. . . . Now I will argue in favor of natural human inclination . . .

In the first place: Natural human inclination originates immediately from God; therefore, it cannot be an inclination toward evil. Initially we note that since God is the author of nature, he is also responsible for what follows from nature, including natural inclination. To use the words of Aristotle, whatever gives form gives the consequence of form. God alone, then, is the author and cause of human inclination. We can prove the consequent. A natural motion or a motion from nature is attributed to its generator, that is, its author, which is the explanation that satisfied Aristotle in Physics 8, followed by many reputable philosophers. For heavy and light have their qualities from their generator, they do not move by themselves, but necessarily derive their motions upwards or downwards from their generator. Thus if man is by nature inclined to evil, then that inclination and the consequent motion toward sin must be imputed to God, which, in a word, is an impious thought. Surely, if the downward motion of a rock or the upward motion of fire were sinful, then there is no doubt that the sin would be attributed to God rather than to the qualities of weight or lightness which have their inclinations from God. Similarly, if it is sin to desire happiness, the sin would be not attributable to man but to God, who constituted man’s nature such to desire happiness naturally. It can be proven validly that an act is not sinful if it proceeds from the natural inclination provided to human beings by God . . .

The second proposition: To kill oneself violates the commandment in the Decalogue, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20, Deut. 5), and is therefore a mortal sin. So argues St. Augustine in De Trinitate 1, to prove that suicide is unlawful. But to show more clearly the force of this argument, it is necessary to examine what precisely is forbidden by the commandment, for it does not explicitly say it is wrong to kill oneself . . . How absolute is the commandment? In many cases it is lawful to kill, hence we properly ask what sorts of killing the commandment forbids. Some interpret the commandment as absolute, a prohibition of killing any person, whether a criminal or an innocent, whether by public authority or private. But in divine and general law, exceptions are recognized, as when a murderer is justly condemned by a magistrate. But it has been claimed that the power must be granted by God according to scripture. It is commanded that one who kills is to be killed (Levit. 19), hence the judge who condemns a thief to death violates the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” A king would not be empowered to kill criminals, had God not made homicide and certain other crimes the exceptions. According to this argument, in no case may public authority take life except in those cases where divine law expressly allows it, whence the opinion that the death penalty for an adulterous woman or a simple thief is impermissible. The former case is allowed in the Old Testament, but the Lord revoked this in John 8, when he said, “Woman, they have not condemned you. Neither do I condemn you.”

Against this it is argued that that which is lawful and in itself a good is not condemned by divine commandment, and there are cases in which to kill another is in itself good, as to kill in self-defense, which is not forbidden by the commandment not to kill. Nor is it necessary to make exceptions from a rule if these were not meant to fall under the rule. Killing a thief who comes in the night does not fall under the commandment and so is not an exception to it. In the law of Moses it was sometimes lawful to kill and sometimes not. . . . And I may ask, before the law of Moses, was it not legitimate to kill a blasphemer or a homicide? If not, it would be against the principle that what is not permitted by natural law is never permitted. For neither the law of Moses nor the law of Grace dispenses with natural law. Much is allowed under natural law that is forbidden by the law of Moses. If natural law allows the condemnation of an adulterous woman, it does so not as an exception to divine law. Therefore some claim that the commandment forbids only the killing of the innocent, and the words in Exodus 20:13 are explained by the passage in Exodus 23:6, “Do not slay the innocent and the righteous.” But against this is the fact that a private person who kills either a criminal or a just person violates the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” . . .

The commandment no more forbids killing by public authority than it does killing by a private person. Another question is whom it is lawful to kill and under what circumstances, and further, to whom is permission given to kill, since on occasion it may be a wrong on the part of public authority.

A person may be killed in two ways. One way is by deliberate intention, as when a judge condemns a malefactor to death. The other way is unintentional. I do not mean by this only an accidental killing, but also a voluntary one in which the killer seeks some end that might be achieved without the killing, as in self-defense or the killing of a night thief whom one would not kill if he could defend himself otherwise. . . . Only homicide in conformity with natural and divine law is lawful for a polity, through its magistrates and rulers responsible to the polity. This is stated by Paul in Romans 13, “he who is in authority . . . does not bear the sword in vain . . . he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer.”

I do say that private persons are always forbidden to kill another intentionally, because they are not authorized to protect the public welfare. Finally, I conclude that all other intentional homicide is forbidden by the commandment, whether for a public or private person, except in the permitted situation where the life OF? a criminal is harmful to the polity. About unintentional homicide, whether in defense of self or of the polity, there is dispute . . .

From the above discussion, it appears plain that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” makes suicide unlawful. Because no one is allowed to be judge of himself, neither does anyone have public authority over himself, taking one’s own life is never permissible, even if one deserves death as one harmful to the polity.

Third proposition: To kill oneself injures the polity, and is therefore sinful. . . . A person, because human, is to the community as a part is to the whole. The suicide, then steals from the community what properly belongs to it.

Fourth and final proposition: killing oneself violates the precept of charity, and so is sinful. As argued above, one is obliged to love oneself no less than one is obliged to love one’s neighbor. To kill a neighbor is contrary to the charity owed him, and so to kill oneself is contrary to the charity owed oneself.

. . . the first objection to these arguments is based on the claim that no one can wish to kill himself, at least not on purpose and willfully; therefore, it is false to claim that some sin or crime is involved. In the first place, as Aristotle maintains and we accept, the human will cannot desire anything other than the good for itself, but non-being or ceasing to be is not a good, but rather an evil, so no one can wish to kill himself. To this, it is not a satisfactory answer to say that since the soul is immortal, at least the best part of him who kills himself does not cease to be. This answer might be valid for one who has no hope of a subsequent life, and so would not take his present life. But history gives us examples to the contrary. And the impossibility of not wishing to be happy is clear, as argued by Augustine, City of God 17. Whoever wishes to exist wishes his happiness, and he cannot be happy without existence. Hence no one can wish not to be, and, consequently, no one can wish to kill himself.

Second objection: It is argued that suicide harms no one, and so is not sinful. The first assertion is true, since the suicide does not will to harm himself, and so no harm is done. That the polity is injured is not a sufficient answer, at least where one may commit suicide with the state’s permission, as is the custom in some nations. And it is clear that one who wills to give up temporal goods harms neither himself nor his community, as, for example, if one kills his horse . . . In any case, temporal goods are more important to the commonwealth than one person’s life. So, suicide harms neither the person nor the community.

Third objection: If one is attacked by a robber and cannot save his own life otherwise than by killing his attacker, he may lawfully let himself be killed. But the same commandment that enjoins us not to kill enjoins us to defend our own lives if we can; thus one who does not defend himself would violate the commandment against suicide.

Fourth objection: Consider the case of two persons in extreme necessity; they have but one piece of bread, enough to sustain the life of only one of them. One may allow the other to have it, and he therefore counts as a suicide.

Fifth objection: A servant and a king are shipwrecked; they have a raft or a board large enough for only one. It is lawful for the servant to throw himself in the sea with no hope of survival, in order to save the king’s life. In this case, it is lawful for him to commit suicide.

Sixth objection: A man condemned to die of starvation may lawfully refuse to eat bread offered to him. This is clearly lawful, in that he merely submits to the sentence passed on him.

Seventh objection: Given an opportunity to escape, a man condemned to death may refuse it and await execution, thereby compassing his own death.

Eighth objection: A man condemned to death by poison may lawfully drink the poison himself.

Ninth objection: During plague times, one is permitted to visit friends despite the danger of death.

Tenth objection: It is permitted to undertake sea voyages despite the obvious danger of death.

Eleventh objection: Military service and participation in bullfights are permitted, although there is danger of death. Therefore, suicide is permitted.

In the last three cases, the principle is the same; the commandment generally forbids killing another and exposing oneself to the peril of death.

Twelfth objection: It is permissible to shorten one’s life through fasting, minimal nourishment, and the rigors of an austere life, which amounts to taking one’s own life. The conclusion is supported by the words of St. Jerome, “It matters little how long or short a the time destruction requires.” It is well known that the life span in monasteries is shorter than in the outside world.

Thirteenth objection: One under the threat of death is not obliged to ransom his life with large sums of money or his entire patrimony; therefore, one is not obliged to save his own life. Likewise, if someone needs a certain medicinal herb, like Pontus root, to save his life, but must give up his kingdom to get it, he is not obliged to do so.

Fourteenth objection: It is always permissible to submit to a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater. Evils like infamy and shame are much worse than death, and so at least to avoid these, it is permissible to choose death by suicide.

Fifteenth objection:   It is hardly evident that suicide is impermissible, since many persons reputed to be wise were unaware of the prohibition and were respected for their choice. At least these might be excused, who thought themselves acting more bravely and more praiseworthily by taking their lives, as did Cato, Brutus, and others.

Sixteenth objection: We read of certain holy women who, condemned by a persecuting tyrant to be burned to death, threw themselves into the fire. So it is permissible to kill oneself.

Seventeenth objection: Samson, Saul, and, in the books of Maccabees, Razis and Eleazar killed themselves. Not only are these acts not condemned in scripture, but Samson is numbered among the saints by the Apostle in Hebrews 11 and Eleazar is praised (1 Maccabees 6). The same argument applies to the virgins who escaped Roman abuse by throwing themselves off the Aquiline Hill into a river.

Much both useful and pleasant to hear can be adduced to answer these arguments, but the shortness of time constrains me to do so in few words.

For the first objection, we must recognize that the object of the will is not always a true good. Since an object does not excite the will except through the perceptions, the will does not concern itself with whether the object is a real good or is merely thought to be a good. To kill oneself may be thought a good, although it most certainly is not. This would not prevent someone from being ignorant and wishing to kill himself, his error being in the belief that it is good for him. But since this escape shows only that it is possible to wish in error not to be and to kill oneself, I say next that one may without error still wish not to continue his existence. We must, however, note that although something may be a good in itself, it may by circumstance become an evil, just as, to the contrary, something evil in itself can in certain circumstances become a good. The determination to end one’s existence may be absolutely bad, but to put an end to wretchedness, as a motive, may not only be believed a good, but in fact may be a good. And as much as existence is in itself a good, it may not only be thought an evil if conjoined with some evil circumstances, but may in fact be an evil. Whence I conclude that those who suffer terribly may wish for nonexistence without being in error. Although their existence is absolutely a good for them, yet if their situation is that of the most extreme wretchedness, this is truly an evil for them and nonexistence might be better for them than to exist in such misery. Speaking of Judas the traitor, the Lord makes this clear by his words, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21). Some take this passage to mean that it were better Judas had not been born, not better that he had not been conceived or been in existence. But I do not think Christ referred to the difference between being born and being conceived in the sense of being in itself, but said specifically it were better for Judas not to have existed at all than so to perish. Thus Sirach 30:17, “Death is better than a wretched life.” Sufferers are not in error, but perfectly sensible in wishing not to be. This will suffice to answer the first argument, but it may be added in confirmation that all human beings necessarily desire happiness, which they cannot have if they do not exist. Hence it follows that they necessarily wish to live, and cannot wish their nonexistence. There are many ways to counter this argument, but for the present I will say that no one can truly desire that which he knows he cannot have, and so will not seek means to pursue what he cannot hope to attain. Whence sufferers firmly believe they will never be happy in the future, and so will wish not to exist, as existence is the only condition in which to achieve happiness. At the same time, sufferers desire to be happy, desire to avoid the miseries they cannot escape, and consequently desire not to be.

For the second objection, we note the difference between human life and material objects. Man is truly a master in that he may at will make use of all of them. The Lord placed everything under his subjection, and so man is not obliged to preserve temporal goods, but may, as he wishes, keep them or not. Hence to kill one’s own horse or burn down one’s own house is an injury to no one. But man is not the master of his own body or his own life; God alone is the Lord of life and death, and inasmuch as man is in a special manner the servant of God, by killing himself he kills the servant of another, thereby injuring God, from whom he accepted the gift of life as something to use and hold, not to throw away. And as one who kills another person is subject to punishment, even if that person asks for his death, for he is not himself master of life or death and has no power to take his life, so he who kills himself is subject to punishment. Cicero cites the words of Pythagoras, that mortals are not entitled to desert their posts in life unless ordered to do so by their ruler or their commander.

For the third objection, nearly all agree that a person is obliged to save his life when he may lawfully do so, but I say that not only in this case, but in many others, one may preserve one’s life by lawful means, but is not obliged to so. I have no doubt that, if a man is attacked by a robber and cannot save his life otherwise than by killing him, it is a counsel of perfection for him to let himself be killed, for the robber in his state would be damned if killed. The following case is proof: If a Christian is attacked by a pagan in solitary place only because he is a Christian, he may defend himself against his assailant lawfully and with no stain on his faith, but no one will doubt that it would be a work of virtue for him to suffer death patiently as testimony of faith. A second proof: Christ could lawfully have defended himself against the tyrannical Jews and gentiles who persecuted him to death; therefore, one is not obliged to preserve one’s life, even lawfully. Likewise, the eleven thousand virgin martyrs who died for Christ; we are not told that they were unable to defend themselves lawfully, and they might have fought against their tyrannical foes, just as today Christians do so when they fight pagans. Whence I do not doubt that in most cases martyrdom is good counsel and many martyrs delivered themselves to death without being obliged to do so. This accords with the Apostle’s words, “Do not defend yourselves, beloved, but leave it to the wrath of God” (Romans 12:19), and to the Lord’s, “I say unto you, resist not evil” (Matthew 5:39). This was the error of Jews whom the Lord condemned for believing it was unworthy to suffer injury with patience. Therefore, it is to be considered that, although man is not the master of his own body or his own life as he is of other things, he nevertheless has some ownership of and right over his life, because bodily harm injures not only God, the supreme lord of life, but also injures the man himself. So, although he has the right of self-defense, he may laudably give up the right he has in his own body and patiently allow himself to be killed. It might be objected that everyone is obliged to defend an innocent life if someone tries to take it by violence, as God requires one do for a neighbor: “Save those who are being taken away to death; cease not to save those being dragged to destruction” (Proverbs 24:11). Whence he who, when he can, fails to save an innocent from the hands of an attacker is guilty of homicide. From this it is concluded that a man is more obliged to save his own life than that of a neighbor: if he must defend his neighbor against a malicious assailant, then he must also defend his own life. To the antecedent I say that it is not certain that one must defend a neighbor’s life in all instances. If a Christian offers himself to a persecutor in order to promote the faith, even when not forced to do so, other Christians may rescue him lawfully and without scandal, but I do not hold that they are obliged to do so. Therefore it is not a categorical truth that everyone must defend an innocent life, even if they may do so. The Lord rebuked St. Peter for wishing to free Him from the Jews (John 18:11). Against the consequent, I say it does not follow. If I am obliged to defend my neighbor’s life, I am obliged to defend my own. But, as said above, I may relinquish my own right, but not the right of my brother. The example is clear. It is certain that I am not held to the defense of my temporal goods. “If anyone would have your coat, give him your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:40). Thus if I can, without peril to myself, save an innocent man’s temporal goods from a robber, it is certain that I am obliged to do it. In the same sense, if I cannot save my own life, I cannot not defend my neighbor’s life.

With respect to the fourth objection, there are many doubts about whether it is permissible to sacrifice one’s life for a private person, and while many prefer to say no to this, for my part, as I have suggested above, I hold it to be most probably praiseworthy, and it is praised in that passage where the Lord says, “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 16:12), not differentiating between private persons and public. Also in 1 John 3:16: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” John is not speaking only of our neighbors’ spiritual good, for he adds, “If anyone has worldly goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart, how does God’s love abide in him?” In the Song of Solomon 8:6, “Love is as strong a death,” because it makes one die for his friend. In Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and sacrificed himself for her.” And further on (5:28), “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies,” and then, “Let each of them love his wife as he does himself” (5:33). In Ethics 9, Aristotle says it is of the highest virtue to suffer death for friends, and even higher for a son to ransom his father rather than himself, and it is virtuous for the son to give his parent the bread he needs for himself. If he may in this case of a father’s extreme necessity give his life for his father, then surely he may give it for a friend. Thus I concede that, in the case proposed in the objection, one may indeed give bread to another even at certain danger to one’s own life. But there is a serious difficulty to this argument. Take the case of a son, his father, and a stranger, all in extreme necessity, but the son has one piece of bread. May the son neglect his father and give it to the stranger? This would be against the rule of charity, but it does not meet the objection. The son has the right to save himself with the bread, but if he relinquishes his right and gives the stranger the bread, he does no injury to his father, because the latter had no right to it. But I deny the consequent. The son may keep the bread for himself, or he may cede his right to it, but if does he gives it up, he may not give it to whom he will, but is obliged by the rule of charity to sustain his father, not the stranger. Because the bread belongs to the son, the father has more right to it than the stranger.

And this applies to the fifth objection. I hold in that case that the servant, though he is sure to die, may relinquish the raft or board, not only because it is praiseworthy to do so for a king, but as well for any friend or neighbor, as Lactantius, On justice 5.18, forcibly comments, “What would a just man do if he found himself in the jaws of a wild horse or on a board in a shipwreck? I think he would be more reluctant to kill than to die, though people will say, it is folly to save another life at the cost of your own, even to do it for friendship’s sake is judged foolish.” He goes on to discuss this most eloquently. To sacrifice your life for a friend is indeed folly for this world, but it is wisdom before God.

To the sixth objection, I say the man is obliged to eat. Thomas (ST II-II, q.69, art. 4) says that if he does not, he kills himself because he is obliged to use all means to preserve his life that are not forbidden by his judge, and the judge did not and could not prohibit him from eating the food offered. He condemned the man to suffer death, not to kill himself. It is clear that eating is not contrary to the sentence; therefore, it is not the punishment specified if the condemned man refuses to eat. And so if he can eat, as in this case he can, he is obliged to do so.

I deal with the seventh objection as I did with the sixth. The man is obliged to escape, since remaining in prison is not the punishment mandated by the judge. At a minimum, I maintain that the conviction applies to him whether he is a prisoner or at liberty; besides, whether the offender sins against the judge or against the imprisonment, he is a sinner in either case, whether he escapes or not.

For the eighth objection, I do not see why it needs to be denied. Other punishments may be decreed for criminals, so why may taking poison not be authorized? If there are other just punishments, but the only one that can be proposed is drinking poison, then it cannot be impermissible to drink the poison. If one is condemned to be hung, it is lawful that he ascend the scaffold, and if he is to die by the sword, he may expose his jugular vein, for he is not more the worker of his own death than another. But if it is claimed that such a punishment may not be applied, then it follows that it is unlawful for the condemned to drink the poison mandated by a tyrant, but neither would it be lawful to climb the scaffold or expose the jugular voluntarily. But this is not entirely certain. No one is obliged to inflict punishment on himself, only to be punished. Thus it seems that punishments may not be imposed if they require the cooperation of the condemned.

The ninth objection may be dealt with through the solutions to the fourth and fifth. If my friend needs my help, or my care in his sickness, or my advice in a case of conscience, I do not doubt that I may assist him, even if there is danger to myself. But if there is no need of my help, it appears I should not, for it would be a temerity to expose myself to grave danger for no purpose, although it is a worthy purpose to keep love and faith with friends. I would not condemn the wife who put herself at peril to care for her sick husband during a plague, even if this duty was of no use to him other than as consolation to him as he died.

For the tenth and the eleventh objections, we observe that, to know what is permissible in this case, we must know not only the circumstances at the specific time, but more importantly, also what generally obtains in such situations, and not emphasize the private good or ill more than the public and communal good or ill. Seafaring, even when dangerous, is good and useful for the community. Great benefits result for the commonwealth when there is intercourse among the peoples and regions, both in peace and war. There would be a loss of public good if the danger of storms deterred men from seafaring, since seldom or never is it possible to sail without danger. The same can be said of military service, for the commonwealth must have soldiers to defend the country; without exercises, they would be useless in war. There are certain military exercises that incur little danger, such as horsemanship and many others necessary to soldiers, but others carry great dangers, to the point of being impermissible. But even if there were no exercises with great and grave danger, we must not omit to mention warfare itself. A smaller temporal ill is to be tolerated in order to avoid a greater, like the loss of one’s country if a tyrant occupies it or if the winning army slays many more of the opponents because they are not as well trained as an army should be.

To the twelfth objection, I say that is never lawful to shorten one’s life, but . . . the difference between shortening a life and simply not prolonging it must be considered. Also to be considered is that, if a person is obliged not to abrupt his life, still, he is not obliged to use all lawful means to prolong it. It is clear that if one learns that the weather in India is milder and healthier such to make him live longer than he would in his own country, he is not obliged to sail to India, neither must he move from one city to another more healthy. Nor does God ask that we have a care for long life. Similarly with foods; some are improper because harmful to a person’s health, and to eat them would be to kill oneself. I speak not only of poisons, but also of other noxious foods like fungi, raw or acerbic herbs, and such like. Some foods may be less healthy than others but do not endanger life, like fish, eggs, and water. We ought, I think, to observe common experience. Many more youths die of luxurious excesses than from penitential fasts; gluttony kills more people than the sword. From all this, I conclude that it is not lawful to shorten one’s life by eating unhealthy foods. But neither is a man obliged to eat the best foods . . . Nor must he drink wine if a physician tells him he would live ten years longer on wine than on water. Drinking water is not lethal, nor does it shorten life; it simply does not prolong it, but one is not obliged to prolong life. This applies to the healthy and strong, since there are foods that are unhealthy and harmful to the ill that would be good for the healthy. Hence it is not lawful for the ill to eat them. . . .

The argument applies to the thirteenth objection. As I said, a person is not obligated to use all means to preserve his life; it is enough if he uses only the moral and appropriate means. Thus in the case proposed, I do not believe that a man must give up his entire patrimony to save his life. If there is a remedy for his sickness, the one who denies him that remedy is a homicide. From this we infer that if someone is terminally ill, and a certain expensive medicine might prolong his life for some hours, or even some days, he is not obliged to take it; it suffices if he takes only the usual medicines, and he is any case moribund.

For the fourteenth objection, I say that life itself is the greatest good, greater than temporal goods like glory, honor, and fame. It is said that a man will give all things he possesses for life, for all these things are arranged to serve the purpose of human life. Whence Solomon says, “Have a care for your good name, for this will remain for you longer than a thousand treasures.” He does not compare a good name with life, but with treasures. And in another passage he says, “A good name is better than great riches.” (Proverbs 22:1)   “There is no wealth better than health of body” (Sirach 30:16). I hold, therefore, that it is not permissible to sacrifice one’s life for fame or glory. Hence it is not only the suicide who sins gravely, but also those who, without good cause, put themselves in serious danger for human glory. Aristotle says that death is the greatest of evils (Ethics 3).

In all these fourteen objections, we must note that the question of whether someone can willfully and actively kill himself is not treated, but only the question of the reason that lies behind the act. Therefore, they can prove nothing against the conclusions I have proposed. I concede only that they do not kill themselves with the intention to kill themselves. None of the deaths in these arguments, whether lawful or not, is suicide in the sense that I accept, that is, the suicide orders himself to die and the order entails the statement, “I wish to die.”

Hence the most crucial issue lies in the fifteenth objection. Could Brutus, Cato, Decius, and numerous others who killed themselves have been innocently ignorant of the fact that such a killing is unlawful, since they all believed it to be the best and most noble death, and were praised for it by men reputed to be wise? I respond by pointing out that there is the same issue with other divine commandments. There are many divine precepts which were by the pagans, and still are today, not unknown but ignored, such as those concerning fornication or the revenge of injuries, in which we do not suffer under an invincible ignorance, but we admit with St. Paul, “God gave them up to the lusts of their hearts,” and they committed all evil deeds, malice, fornication, homicide, etc. (Romans 1:24ff.). And to excuse such things is the wisdom of this world, but folly before God. The natural light of reason can teach that it is unlawful to commit suicide, because the philosophers most zealous of virtue taught this, as is evident from Aristotle (Ethics 3), who said that to kill oneself is not a courageous deed, but a cowardly one, in that the suicide cannot bear the rigors of life, and from Cicero: Why take my own life when I have no cause to do so? Why choose mistreatment? Although this may sometimes be wise, it is true wisdom neither to desire death nor to fear it.”

For the final objection concerning Samson, Razis, Saul, and some others, we cannot say the same of all. It is necessary to excuse Samson, whom Paul lists among the just. Whence Augustine says Samson is excused for the reason that he was moved by the spirit of God, which is not speculative, but is made clear in Judges 17:28, where we are told that he asked God to restore his original strength so he could be revenged on his enemies. There is another solution: He did not kill himself intentionally, but he wished to kill and overthrow his foes, his own death being the necessary consequence of that. He might well have wished to save himself while killing the others, if this had been possible, and we may take this for lawful without needing further revelation. For who would doubt that some man in battle or defending his city can, though certain of death, perform a deed beneficial to his city and detrimental to the enemy. We read of Eleazar, who ran under the belly of the elephant he thought was carrying King Antiochus, stabbed it with his sword, and perished under its weight when it fell (1 Maccabes 6:43ff.). He suffered a noble death, for, as the scripture says, he freely sacrificed himself for his people. The deed is not rebuked; as Ambrose says in the chapter on courage in On duties, it honored Eleazar with wondrous praise. Thus Samson can be excused without recourse to heavenly inspiration. Eleazar killed himself in the same manner as Samson. But the same judgment may not be given on Saul. He was denied the grace of God, and it is not necessary to seek excuses for him. Sabellicus writes that Saul did not kill himself, but only considered taking his life. He knew suicide was sinful, and was suddenly killed by the Amalekite. This is a bad lapse on the part of Christian historians, because we read in 1 Samuel 31 that Saul fell on his own sword and died. Razis, on the other hand, may probably be excused, although St. Thomas (II-II, q.64, art. 5) does not excuse him . . .



Whether it is lawful for anyone to kill himself.

1.—St. Thomas answers that it is not. He proves this, inasmuch as it is against the natural inclination by which everyone is inclined to love himself and to keep himself in existence. He proves it, second, because [a person killing himself] does injury to the republic of which he is a part. He proves it, third, because a man is not the master of his own life in the way in which he is the owner of other things. For God did not give him life for any other reason but to live rightly, because God is the master of life and death. Hence, one who kills himself does injury [to God]. Therefore, he sins. Fourth, he argues, because it is against the charity by which everyone is obliged to love himself. One, therefore, who would kill himself, would commit mortal sin. The only doubt is whether one killing himself would be acting against this commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”   For, as we have said, only one homicide is lawful, viz., the killing of a condemned pernicious man by public and not private authority. Since, therefore, one killing himself, even though he might be pernicious, would be doing so by private authority, it follows that he would be acting against that command, not to kill, and that he would consequently be committing a mortal sin. Therefore, it is not lawful to kill oneself.

2.—Nevertheless, there are some arguments against this conclusion — with respect to which we should first note that this conclusion of St. Thomas can be taken in two ways. First, is it to be so understood that it is not more lawful to kill oneself than to kill another, in such way that we do not extend it further [for one than the other]; but just as in some cases it is lawful to kill another, is it also lawful in some case to kill oneself? But it can be understood in a second way, by extending it most generally, viz., that in no case and in no way is it lawful to kill oneself. In which sense, then, is St. Thomas understanding it—in the first or in the second way? I answer that he understands it in the way that all say it is true, that is generally, so that in no way is it lawful for anyone to kill himself. And understanding the conclusion in this sense, there are against it several arguments to prove that in some cases it is lawful to kill oneself.

The first argument is as follows: It is lawful to prepare for death, and indeed to exhort another to kill oneself. Therefore, it is lawful to kill oneself. The consequence is clear from Paul saying that not only are they deserving of death who do evil, but also those who consent to those doing evil. The antecedent is proven: because we read of Vincent and many other martyrs that they exhorted others to kill them.—Oh, you will say that these others were prepared to do so.—Certainly, it would not be lawful for me to move another to kill me, even though he would be prepared to do so. Again, [the antecedent] is proven also because as a matter of fact [martyrs] did kill themselves. For it is said of St. Apollonia that, escaping from the hands of her oppressors, she hurled herself into the fire that was prepared for her. And this was not only lawful but honorable. Therefore, in some cases it is lawful to kill oneself.

The answer is that it is lawful—indeed, what the martyrs did was not only lawful, but it was also laudable that they exhorted others, etc.—But against this [it seems unlawful], because they consented in the sin of those oppressors.—I deny that. Indeed, they were dissuading others from killing Christians, and when they saw that this was gaining nothing, they admonished those others to kill them. Nor were they on that account consenting in the sin of those people, since the saints themselves were not doing this in order to move those others to evil, but in order to show and prove the truth of faith. For, in any event, they themselves were going to suffer, and that exhortation was only non-resistance.

3.—A second argument is: It is lawful to shorten one’s life; therefore, it is lawful also to kill oneself. The consequence is evident from St. Jerome: it makes no difference whether you kill yourself suddenly or over a long time. The antecedent is proven, since it is lawful to lead an austere and ascetic life by which one may come close to death. Indeed, it is lawful that someone shortens his bodily life through penance and abstinence. For it is lawful to eat and drink only bread and water; and, still, by so doing, one’s life is shortened; therefore. And if you say that such a one is not aware that he may shorten his life, I say that this is nugatory because he knows it well. And I stipulate that he knows that, and still he is acting licitly: therefore. Again, the same antecedent is evident, because Carthusians, even though they have been warned by a physician that they will die unless they eat meat, can both lawfully and knowingly not eat meat: therefore.

I answer, that just intentionally to shorten one’s life is a mortal sin. However, it is very lawful to shorten it in an incidental way by eating fish as a matter of abstinence, since of itself it is good to eat fish. And whatever may follow from that is lawful, even a shortening of life, for the one abstaining does not intend to shorten his life, but rather intends to do penance.—Butagainst this, [he does intend to shorten life] because he will become sick.—I say that I am well disposed toward him, because in eating that fish he is exercising his right, that is to say, it is lawful for him to eat it, since God created fish to be eaten. Thus, with regard to the Carthusians, I say that it is lawful for them not to eat meat, because they are exercising their right, inasmuch as they are eating foods which the Lord gave men to eat. It is not, however, lawful to eat poison or “something corrosive,” for the Lord did not give such to men to eat. But neither is it only by eating meat that death is held at bay, since there are other more healthful medicines and more fitting foods. Therefore, anyone can lawfully shorten life in that way. And I understand this when such a person is not noticeably aware that he is shortening it. Thus, if he were to see that he would be feverish from eating fish, then it would not be lawful for him to eat fish and shorten his life; but otherwise it would be lawful. So also if someone is sick in this country, he would not be obliged to go to another country, because it would be enough that he live in a country that is habitable. However, where someone would be living in a most austere and unusual way, for example, never consuming anything but bread and water, with the result that he would shorten his life, perhaps it would not be lawful. Or, again, eating only once a week would not be lawful. But this should be done in the usual way of good men, in such manner that death would follow unintentionally rather that intentionally.

4.—The third argument is as follows: It is lawful to hasten death, not only in an accidental way, but also by intention. Therefore, the solution of the previous argument is null, and consequently it is lawful to kill oneself. The antecedent is proven from St. Apollonia. For when the fire was prepared before her, although the executioners wanted to persuade her to abandon the Christian faith and to join their sect, she hurled herself into the fire. But this was killing herself intentionally; therefore. The question, then, is whether this was praiseworthy.

Some want to say that she acted rashly in not waiting for death to be inflicted by an oppressor, but that she was excused by her ignorance—so that it was not lawful and laudable to throw herself into the fire, but she should have waited for others to throw her in, and that she was excused by ignorance. But it is better to say that the Divine law is plain and fair and does not employ sophisms. Thus, I say that God is not looking for sophisms and occasions of sin in order to condemn people. Therefore, I say that it was lawful and laudable that she would hurl herself into the fire and not wait for them. The reason is that she was going to die [anyway]. For what matter that she, about to die in an hour’s time, might wish to hasten death before that? Therefore, that she should die now or an hour from now matters nothing with respect to God. Hence, we should be certain that she acted laudably, and that she did not cooperate in her own death, since that was already decreed by her oppressors. We read much the same about blessed Vincent, who did not wait to be thrown into the fire, but threw himself in—which was certainly a laudable deed, done to show both strength of soul and that he was voluntarily suffering for Christ, when he was about to die. Thus, if someone who is about to be hanged puts the rope around his own neck, he is not committing sin.

5.—But from this argument another doubt arises: whether it is lawful for one condemned to death to anticipate his executioners by taking poison, for which kind of death he has been condemned, viz., that he take poison—at least among the Athenians for whom it was the custom that poison be given to felons. It seems that it would not, for it would not be lawful to cut one’s throat, and so neither would it be lawful to drink poison.

I answer that it would first be necessary to see whether those laws about giving poison are just; and if they are, it is certain that it would be lawful to drink it. Since, therefore, that law existed not among barbarians, but within a well ordered republic, we can say it was lawful for him to drink poison when he was condemned to death.—But the opposite seems true: because such a person is actively killing himself.—I answer that, especially in a moral matter, it is necessary to look for equity and not to resort to sophisms. Therefore, I say that it makes no difference whether he is active or passive, for he would be as much a killer whether he is passive or active. This is clear: for if that man were to wait on a falling millstone, he would be working toward his heath just as if he were to take that stone upon himself and kill himself. So, when the law is just, it does not matter whether I, with my own hand, take poison and drink it, or that someone else pour it into my mouth. Thus I say that, if among the Athenians Socrates was justly condemned, he did the right thing in drinking poison. So, if someone were condemned to be thrown into a river, “which would drown dim,” this now can be said: it does not matter whether he waits to be thrown or that he throws himself. If you say the opposite, namely, that in no way is it lawful to be active and drink poison, you ought to say that no one should submit to any punishment until it is inflicted upon him by others. But it is better to speak in the first way.

6.—The fourth argument: Someone in dire necessity can lawfully give bread, which he needs to preserve his own life, to his father, or even to his neighbor, for instance, to a king suffering a similar necessity. But because of this he is killing himself; therefore, it is lawful for someone to kill himself.

I answer by conceding the antecedent, that it is lawful to give to another bread which I need in order to avoid death. But I deny that this is killing oneself, for such a one is not killing himself intentionally, but by accident through helping a neighbor. Hence, whatever may follow is lawful, since he is not intentionally killing himself. Indeed, it pains him greatly to die and be unable so survive.

7.—From this a doubt arises. Let there be, for example, twenty of us in a shipwreck, in such way that a lifeboat which can hold only ten, is sinking. Would it be lawful for ten to throw themselves into the sea so the other ten might be saved? Alternatively, lots may be cast among the whole twenty in the lifeboat with the chance that the lot falls on those ten. Then if they throw themselves in the sea, it is lawful; but this is to kill themselves; therefore.

In answer, some say that if they keep strictly to their own rights, it is not lawful to throw themselves in the sea, but they should wait for others to throw them in. It seems [however] that the others would [thus] certainly do injury to them; therefore, I say that by consent it is lawful for them to throw themselves in. Particularly, if in that situation they are slave and master, it is lawful for the slave to throw himself in to save his master. It would be the same if they are son and father, or a private man and a public person. Therefore, I say that it is lawful for those ten to cast themselves into the sea in order that the other ten be saved. This is clear, for just as it is lawful for me to throw myself into the sea in order that my father not perish but be saved, so therefore in that case it is lawful for the ten to throw themselves into the sea in order that the others be saved, because to destroy life is a temporal, and not a spiritual, evil.

8.—Furthermore it is argued: If someone is condemned to hunger, as for instance if someone is confined “in a cistern, and they feed him very little,” so that in this way his life will be shortened, then, when he has been justly condemned, it is lawful for him, even if he has bread, not to eat it. This is clear: just as it is lawful for him to patiently bear that sentence, so it is lawful for him to do this. And in doing so, he is intentionally killing himself. Therefore.

The answer is that although it is usual to speak to this in different ways, I, however, would prefer to think that he is obliged to eat. For by the sentence he has not been condemned to not eating; because if that were the case, then the sentence would be sinful which would say that though he had food he should not eat. And since in the sentence there is only a condemnation to hunger, it seems that if he has bread, he is obliged to eat, and thus he is acting badly in not eating. Nor is there similarity between this case and the others, for in the other cases, whether they do it or not, that is, whether they throw themselves into the sea or not, they will still without doubt die. But in this case that is not so, because if he does not eat, it is certain that he will die, while, on the other hand, if he eats, he will not die; and therefore, he is obliged to eat.

9.—But there is doubt about someone in prison who is condemned to death—even though he might be acting rightly to flee, still, is he obliged to flee if he can? It seems that he is, for, otherwise, he is cooperating in his upcoming death. About this we will speak below, but for now I say that even though it is lawful to flee, he is not, however, obliged to do so, even if he sees the prison door open. And this is not to kill himself, but rather to patiently bear the sentence imposed upon him for his crime. Moreover, through this it is possible to answer many other arguments, such as the common contention that because it is lawful to navigate with the risk of death, it is therefore lawful also to kill oneself. This is proven, because to place oneself in danger of killing another, and to kill that other, are judged to be the same. To this I reply by distinguishing the antecedent. It would not be lawful to sail, in face of an obvious and imminent risk, on a private enterprise in order to increase one’s family fortune. But it would indeed be lawful to sail for the good of the republic, v.g. that the community be saved, or for the Faith. Moreover, it would be very lawful to sail on private business, in face of reasonable danger—that is to say, it is lawful to sail when that danger is of the ordinary kind without which there can be no sailing—for, otherwise, trade and commerce would perish. [Furthermore, it is lawful] inasmuch as in that case [those sailing] intend a lawful thing, namely to increase their family fortune, and they are not looking for death.

And in reply to the common argument, which is: “It is lawful to engage in military exercises, such as jousts and tournaments,” although there is danger of death in them; therefore …”—I say that those exercises are useful for the republic in order that its soldiers act vigorously in war for the good of the republic. But neither is there in this any obvious danger of death, for only rarely and by accident does death follow. Hence, I say that these exercises are lawful, when they do not entail an imminent danger of death. And the same is true of bull fights, for if they entail danger it is by accident.

And in reply to the argument “If some rich man is a captive, and he is not willing to give anything to be saved from death, it seems that he is cooperating in his death; therefore”—the question is whether he is obliged to give something in order not to be killed? The answer in no, and therefore he is not intentionally killing himself. Certainly, he does not want to die, and it is not he who intends anything unlawful, for the deed will be imputed to another and not to him.

10.—Finally, it is argued: In order to avoid mortal sin, it is lawful to kill oneself. For example, if someone were to solicit a virgin, who knows for certain that she will consent and sin mortally, it is lawful for that virgin to kill herself in order to save herself from mortal sin, since it is less to suffer a corporal loss than a spiritual one. Therefore, it is lawful for her to kill herself.

The answer is that it is not lawful for her to kill herself, because if she consents, it will be of her own free will. Therefore, I say that for this reason it is absolutely unlawful for a man to kill himself, because the fact that he will sin follows from human malice and he could avoid it. Hence, the death of the body is never necessary in order to avoid mortal sin. Therefore, I say first, that it is never lawful for anyone intentionally ([saying] that is, “I will to die”) to kill himself. Second, I say, that accidentally it is indeed lawful—as when someone intends something lawful, if death follows from it, it is not a sin, because he was not intending death. For example, if from the fact that I go to help my father death comes to me, I am acting in a lawful way.

11.—With regard to this, it should also be noted, as St. Thomas in the First Part of the Second Part of his Summa advises, that there are two ways in which something is voluntary: in one way, formally, as when someone wills to eat or to read. In a second way, virtually, such that I do not will, but it is in my power to avoid and I do not avoid, as when I can avoid and impede death and I do not do so. And he says that in order that something be virtually voluntary, not only is it required that someone can impede it, but also that he be obliged to impede it—so that he who can impede and is bound to impede an evil, if he does not impede it, intends that evil. For example, the sinking of a ship in a storm is not voluntary nor is it imputed to one who, although he could have avoided it, was not, however, obliged to do so. But with respect to a sailor, who deserts a ship in a storm, it must be said that its sinking is called virtually voluntary, that is willed. For, although the sailor would not will that sinking, nevertheless, because he both could and was bound to avoid it, it is therefore virtually voluntary. Similarly in the case proposed, if someone is not obliged to impede death, granted he does not impede it and death follows, that death is not voluntary and consequently he does not sin. So also, when I

Again it is argued, because in I Machabees 6, Eleazar is excused, who did exactly the same thing, inasmuch as he put himself under an elephant in order to save his country. “He put himself under,” and he killed himself in order to also kill the enemy. As Augustine says, in killing the elephant, he well and lawfully killed himself. Therefore, Samson also acted lawfully.

I answer that I also think it would have been lawful for him to kill himself, even without a Divine command. But we do not doubt that Samson did that on an impulse of the Holy Spirit, for when he grasped the columns he did not have his natural strength and he prayed the Lord to restore his strength to him. Thus, it is evident that he did this miraculously from the impulse of the Holy Spirit, when by his natural strength he was unable to bring down the columns. I say, second, that even without such impulse of the Holy Spirit, it would have been lawful for him to do so. Just as it was lawful for Scaevola “to go to the camp,” because it was not intentional, so Samson, whatever would result. In this way, it can be said of Eleazar and of anyone else who has so killed himself for the republic: he should be excused.

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