Category Archives: Sin


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


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

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

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

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

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




The Right to Bodily Life

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


from The Moral Problem of Suicide


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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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from Notebooks 1914-1916
from Letters


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

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

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

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

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

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


from NOTEBOOKS, 1914-1916

January 10, 1917

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




May 30, 1920

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

Write soon.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

 June 21, 1920

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

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

Ludwig Wittgenstein


July  7, 1920

Dear [Bertrand] Russell:

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

Warmest regards from your devoted friend,

Ludwig Wittgenstein


Nov/Dec 7, 1931

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

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Filed under Europe, Selections, Sin, The Modern Era, Wittgenstein, Ludwig


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


On Suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

4 Eth. Nichom.,  v. 15.

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

6 Tradhuit par St. Julien, 1834.

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

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

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from Bet Efrayim


Ephraim Zalman Margolioth, a Galician rabbi, was the author of many commentaries esteemed as authoritative within the Jewish tradition. He was born in Brody, Poland, Dec. 19, 1762, and began to distinguish himself as a Talmudic scholar at a young age. Before the age of 20, Margolioth was corresponding with the foremost scholars of Talmudic thought; in 1785, he was a appointed a rabbi of Brody. He eventually became head of his own yeshivah, or Talmudic academy, and mentored many pupils to their appointment as rabbis.

Among Margolioth’s many works is his collected responsa, Bet Efrayim (2 vols., 1809–10), including a commentary on the Yoreh De’ah. In its short passage concerning suicide, Margolioth makes several important points. First, in a discussion of the rites associated with suicides, he maintains that self-killing may constitute an act of repentance, in which case suicide is permitted. Second, he argues that Saul’s suicide [q.v., under Hebrew Bible] was licit because Saul, by killing himself, avoided a mocking death by torture at the hands of the Philistines and because it was prophesied that Saul would soon die. Margolioth also cites other sources that excuse suicides which result from indigence or grief and do not subject them to the law of suicides described in the Talmud [q.v. under Babylonian Talmud]. He appears to second the view that he cites from the Besamim Rosh that a “suicide is [only] someone who despises God’s good like the philosophers” and not someone with a good reason to despair.

Ephraim Zalman Margolioth, Bet Efrayim YD, 76, tr. Baruch Brody.


Since he did not say first, how do we know that he did it from spite. Perhaps he did it as an act of repentance, and all who commit suicide as an act of repentance have done a permissible act… We also find in Besamim Rosh, that was recently printed, that a suicide is someone who despises God’s good like the philosophers, but someone who says that my life is a burden on me because of my poverty is not a suicide. It is true that his proof from Saul is no proof, as Nachmanides and the other commentators explain. Saul knew that he was going to die because of the prophecy of Samuel, who told him that he and his sons would die. For a short period of time alone, it [killing oneself] is permitted, so that he would not be mocked. Nevertheless, he may be right… We certainly find in the Talmud many who committed suicide out of anguish. As in the case of the woman with her seven sons… It is implausible to say about her that she was afraid that she would be forced to sin, as Tosafot says about the children who jumped into the sea.

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from Of Suicide
Letter to John Home of Ninewells


David Hume, the philosopher, economist, and historian whose ideas and arguments continue to profoundly influence the course of philosophical thought, was born in Scotland. With his older brother, he began at the University of Edinburgh before the age of 12. Despite his family’s suggestion that he read for the law, he chose to study philosophy (initially in secret, he later reported) because, as he said, he had an “insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuit of philosophy and general learning.” His intense studies made him for a time concerned for his health.

Recovered, Hume lived in France from 1734 to 1737 and wrote what is often considered his most important philosophical work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740). Other notable works by Hume include Essays, Moral and Political (1741–42), An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), Political Discourses (1752), and History of England (1754–1762). His Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which critiques the argument from order and adaptation in nature to an intelligent designer of the universe, was published posthumously to forestall religious controversy. In 1763, Hume returned to France to take up a post at the British embassy, where his writings had made him popular among intellectuals, including those of the salon of Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach [q.v.].

Hume’s philosophy is notable for its empiricism, naturalism, and skepticism. As an empiricist, he traces knowledge, belief, and the contents of thought itself to origins in experience. As a naturalist, he seeks to explain phenomena—even morality, thought, and other operations of the mind—in terms of ordinary laws of nature, without appeal to miracles, causally undetermined acts of “free will,” eternal moral relations in the fabric of the universe, or a supernatural creator or legislator. As a skeptic, he emphasizes the weaknesses and limited scope of human cognitive faculties.

Hume’s famous essay Of Suicide, offered here in the authentic 1757 text (which differs considerably from the frequently reprinted posthumous 1777 and 1783 versions), provides a series of detailed and adroit objections to the principal points of Thomas Aquinas’s [q.v.] arguments against suicide, including those that claim that suicide is “unnatural.” Hume asserts that “suicide . . . may be free from every imputation of guilt or blame.” Hume had written the suicide essay prior to June 1755 when he wrote to his bookseller about possible publication in a volume of longer dissertations (eventually published in 1757), but suppressed this and another essay, On the Immortality of the Soul—as he said in his letters, out of his “abundant Prudence”. However, a few copies were circulated, one of which came into the hands of a French bookseller, who in 1770, brought out a French translation possibly made by Holbach; it was not published in English until a year after Hume’s death, and then only in an edition without Hume’s name or the publisher’s identity.

Hume’s letter to John Home, his brother (both variants of the spelling were pronounced “hyum”), written at the age of 35 while Hume was serving as secretary to General James St. Clair, describes what some have called a “farcical” invasion of the coast of France. Hume’s letter gives a compelling account of Hume’s attempt, against the background of these circumstances, to prevent the death of a friend and military companion who had slit his veins. “Alas!” Hume says in explaining why he refused to assist the suicide as requested in the name of friendship, “we live not in Greek or Roman times.”

Hume returned to Edinburgh in 1769, where he died in 1776 after a year-long illness. His friends reported that he faced death with composure and good humor.


David Hume, Of Suicide (1757), manuscript in the National Library of Scotland with corrections in Hume’s own hand, text provided by Tom L. Beauchamp; “To John Home of Ninewells,” from J. Y. T. Grieg, ed., The Letters of David Hume. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932, vol. 1, letter 53, pp. 94-95, 97-98, spelling modernized.


One considerable advantage, that arises from philosophy, consists in the sovereign antidote, which it affords to superstition and false religion. All other remedies against that pestilent distemper are vain, or, at least, uncertain. Plain good-sense, and the practice of the world, which alone serve most purposes of life, are here found ineffectual: history, as well as daily experience, affords instances of men, endowed with the strongest capacity for business and affairs, who have all their lives crouched under slavery to the grossest superstition. Even gaiety and sweetness of temper, which infuse a balm into every other wound, afford no remedy to so virulent a poison; as we may particularly observe of the fair sex, who, though commonly possessed of these rich presents of nature, feel many of their joys blasted by this importunate intruder. But when sound philosophy has once gained possession of the mind, superstition is effectually excluded; and one may safely affirm, that her triumph over this enemy is more complete than over most of the vices and imperfections, incident to human nature. Love or anger, ambition or avarice, have their root in the temper and affections, which the soundest reason is scarce ever able fully to correct. But superstition, being founded on false opinion, must immediately vanish, when true philosophy has inspired juster sentiments of superior powers. The contest is here more equal between the distemper and the medicine: and nothing can hinder the latter from proving effectual, but its being false and sophisticated.

It will here be superfluous to magnify the merits of philosophy, by displaying the pernicious tendency of that vice, of which it cures the human mind. The superstitious man, says Tully, is miserable in every scene, in every incident in life. Even sleep itself, which banishes all other cares of unhappy mortals, affords to him matter of new terror; while he examines his dreams, and finds in those visions of the night, prognostications of future calamities. I may add, that, though death alone can put a full period to his misery, he dares not fly to this refuge, but still prolongs a miserable existence, from a vain fear, lest he offend his maker, by using the power, with which that beneficent being has endowed him. The presents of God and Nature are ravished from us by this cruel enemy; and notwithstanding that one step would remove us from the regions of pain and sorrow, her menaces still chain us down to a hated being, which she herself chiefly contributes to render miserable.

It is observed of such as have been reduced by the calamities of life to the necessity of employing this fatal remedy, that, if the unseasonable care of their friends deprive them of that species of death, which they proposed to themselves, they seldom venture upon any other, or can summon up so much resolution, a second time, as to execute their purpose. So great is our horror of death, that when it presents itself under any form, besides that to which a man has endeavored to reconcile his imagination, it acquires new terrors, and overcomes his feeble courage. But when the menaces of superstition are joined to this natural timidity, no wonder it quite deprives men of all power over their lives; since even many pleasures and enjoyments, to which we are carried by a strong propensity, are torn from us by this inhuman tyrant. Let us here endeavor to restore men to their native liberty, by examining all the common arguments against suicide, and showing, that that action may be free from every imputation of guilt or blame; according to the sentiments of all the antient philosophers.

If suicide be criminal, it must be a transgression of our duty either to God, our neighbor, or ourselves.

To prove, that suicide is no transgression of our duty to God, the following considerations may perhaps suffice. In order to govern the material world, the almighty creator has established general and immutable laws, by which all bodies, from the greatest planet to the smallest particle of matter, are maintained in their proper sphere and function. To govern the animal world, he has endowed all living creatures with bodily and mental powers; with senses, passions, appetites, memory, and judgment; by which they are impelled or regulated in that course of life, to which they are destined. These two distinct principles of the material and animal world continually encroach upon each other, and mutually retard or forward each other’s operation. The powers of men and of all other animals are restrained and directed by the nature and qualities of the surrounding bodies; and the modifications and actions of these bodies are incessantly altered by the operation of all animals. Man is stopped by rivers in his passage over the surface of the earth; and rivers, when properly directed, lend their force to the motion of machines, which serve to the use of man. But though the provinces of the material and animal powers are not help entirely separate, there result from thence no discord or disorder in the creation: on the contrary, from the mixture, union, and contrast of all the various powers of inanimate bodies and living creatures, arises that surprising harmony and proportion, which affords the surest argument of supreme wisdom.

The providence of the deity appears not immediately in any operation, but governs every thing by those general and immutable laws, which have been established from the beginning of time. All events, in one sense, may be pronounced the action of the almighty: they all proceed from those powers, with which he has endowed his creatures. A house, which falls by its own weight, is not brought to ruin by his providence more than one destroyed by the hands of men; nor are the human faculties less his workmanship than the laws of motion and gravitation. When the passions play, when the judgment dictates, when the limbs obey; this is all the operation of God; and upon these animate principles, as well as upon the inanimate, has he established the government of the universe.

Every event is alike important in the eyes of that infinite being, who takes in, at one glance, the most distant regions of space and remotest periods of time. There is no one event, however important to us, which he has exempted from the general laws that govern the universe, or which he has peculiarly reserved for his own immediate action and operation. The revolutions of states and empires depend upon the smallest caprice or passion of single men; and the lives of men are shortened or extended by the smallest accident of air or diet, sunshine or tempest. Nature still continues her progress and operation; and if general laws be ever broke by particular volitions of the deity, it is after a manner which entirely escapes human observation. As on the one hand, the elements and other inanimate parts of the creation carry on their action without regard to the particular interest and situation of men; so men are entrusted to their own judgment and discretion in the various shocks of matter, and may employ every faculty, with which they are endowed, in order to provide for their ease, happiness, or preservation.

What is the meaning, then, of that principle, that a man, who, tired of life, and hunted by pain and misery, bravely overcomes all the natural terrors of death, and makes his escape from this cruel scene; that such a man, I say, has incurred the indignation of his creator, by encroaching on the office of divine providence, and disturbing the order of the universe? Shall we assert, that the Almighty has reserved to himself, in any peculiar manner, the disposal of the lives of men, and has not submitted that event, in common with others, to the general laws, by which the universe is governed? This is plainly false. The lives of men depend upon the same laws as the lives of all other animals; and these are subjected to the general laws of matter and motion. The fall of a tower or the infusion of a poison will destroy a man equally with the meanest creature: An inundation sweeps away every thing, without distinction, that comes within the reach of its fury. Since therefore the lives of men are for ever dependent on the general laws of matter and motion; is a man’s disposing of his life criminal, because, in every case it is criminal to encroach upon these laws, or disturb their operation? But this seems absurd. All animals are entrusted to their own prudence and skill for their conduct in the world, and have full authority, as far as their power extends, to alter all the operations of nature. Without the exercise of this authority, they could not subsist a moment. Every action, every motion of a man innovates in the order of some parts of matter, and diverts, from their ordinary course, the general laws of motion. Putting together, therefore, these conclusions, we find, that human life depends upon the general laws of matter and motion, and that ‘tis no encroachment on the office of providence to disturb or alter these general laws. Has not every one, of consequence, the free disposal of his own life? And may he not lawfully employ that power with which nature has endowed him?

In order to destroy the evidence of this conclusion, we must show a reason, why this particular case is excepted. Is it because human life is of such great importance, that it is a presumption for human prudence to dispose of it? But the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster. And were it of ever so great importance, the order of nature has actually submitted it to human prudence, and reduced us to a necessity, in every incident, of determining concerning it.

Were the disposal of human life so much reserved as the peculiar province of the almighty, that it were an encroachment on his right for men to dispose of their own lives; it would be equally criminal to act for the preservation of life as for its destruction. If I turn aside a stone, which is falling upon my head, I disturb the course of nature, and I invade the peculiar province of the almighty, by lengthening out my life, beyond the period, which, by the general laws of matter and motion, he had assigned to it.

A hair, a fly, an insect is able to destroy this mighty being, whose life is of such importance. Is it an absurdity to suppose, that human prudence may lawfully dispose of what depends on such insignificant causes?

It would be no crime in me to divert the Nile or Danube from its course, were I able to effect such purposes. Where then is the crime of turning a few ounces of blood from their natural channels!

Do you imagine that I repine at providence or curse my creation, because I go out of life, and put a period to a being, which, were it to continue, would render me miserable? Far be such sentiments from me. I am only convinced of a matter of fact, which you yourself acknowledge possible, that human life may be unhappy, and that my existence, if farther prolonged, would become uneligible. But I thank providence, both for the good, which I have already enjoyed, and for the power, with which I am endowed, of escaping the ill that threatens me. To you it belongs to repine at providence, who foolishly imagine that you have no such power, and who must still prolong a hated being, though loaded with pain and sickness, with shame and poverty.

Do you not teach, that when any ill befalls me, though by the malice of my enemies, I ought to be resigned to providence; and that the actions of men are the operations of the almighty as much as the actions of inanimate beings? When I fall upon my sword, therefore, I receive my death equally from the hands of the deity, and if it had proceeded from a lion, a precipice, or a fever.

The submission, which you require to providence, in every calamity, that befalls me, excludes not human skill and industry; if possibly, by their means, I can avoid or escape the calamity. And why may I not employ one remedy as well as another?

If my life be not my own, it were criminal for me to put it in danger, as well as to dispose of it: nor could one man deserve the appellation of hero, whom glory or friendship transports into the greatest dangers, and another merit the reproach of wretch or miscreant, who puts a period to his life, from the same or like motives.

There in no being, which possesses any power or faculty, that it receives not from its creator; nor is there any one, which, by ever so irregular an action, can encroach upon the plan of his providence, or disorder the universe. Its operations are his work equally with that chain of events, which it invades; and which ever principle prevails, we may, for that very reason, conclude it to be most favored by him. Be it animate, or inanimate, rational or irrational, it is all a case: its power is still derived from the supreme creator, and is alike comprehended in the order of his providence. When the horror of pain prevails over the love of life: when a voluntary action anticipates the effect of blind causes; it is only in consequence of those powers and principles, which he has implanted in his creatures. Divine providence is still inviolate, and placed far beyond the reach of human injuries.

It is impious, says the old Roman superstition, to divert rivers from their course, or invade the prerogatives of nature. It is impious, says the French superstition, to inoculate for the small-pox, or usurp the business of providence, by voluntarily producing distempers and maladies. It is impious, says the modern European superstition, to put a period to our own life, and thereby rebel against our creator. And why not impious, say I, to build houses, cultivate the ground, or sail upon the ocean? In all these actions, we employ our powers of mind and body to produce some innovation in the course of nature; and in none of them do we any more. They are all of them, therefore, equally innocent or equally criminal.

But you are placed by providence, like a sentinel, in a particular station; and when you desert it, without being recalled, you are guilty of rebellion against your almighty sovereign, and have incurred his displeasure. I ask, why do you conclude, that providence has placed me in this station? For my part, I find, that I owe my birth to a long chain of causes, of which many and even the principal, depended upon voluntary actions of men. But providence guided all these causes, and nothing happens in the universe without its consent and cooperation. If so, then neither does my death, however voluntary, happen without its consent; and whenever pain and sorrow so far overcome my patience as to make me tired of life, I may conclude, that I am recalled from my station, in the clearest and most express terms.

It is providence, surely, that has placed me at present in this chamber: but may I not leave it, when I think proper, without being liable to the imputation of having deserted my post or station? When I shall be dead, the principles, of which I am composed, will still perform their part in the universe, and will be equally useful in the grand fabric, as when they composed this individual creature. The difference to the whole will be no greater than between my being in a chamber and in the open air. The one change is of more importance to me than the other; but not more so to the universe.

It is a kind of blasphemy to imagine, that any created being can disturb the order of the world, or invade the business of providence. It supposes, that that being possesses powers and faculties, which it received not from its creator, and which are not subordinate to his government and authority. A man may disturb society, no doubt; and thereby incur the displeasure of the almighty: but the government of the world is placed far beyond his reach and violence. And how does it appear, that the almighty is displeased with those actions, that disturb society? By the principles which he has implanted in human nature, and which inspire us with a sentiment of remorse, if we ourselves have been guilty of such actions, and with that of blame and disapprobation, if we ever observe them in others. Let us now examine, according to the method proposed, whether suicide be of this kind of actions, and be a breach of our duty to our neighbor and to society.

A man, who retires from life, does no harm to society. He only ceases to do good; which, if it be an injury, is of the lowest kind.

All our obligations to do good to society seem to imply something reciprocal. I receive the benefits of society, and therefore ought to promote its interest. But when I withdraw myself altogether from society, can I be bound any longer?

But allowing, that our obligations to do good were perpetual, they have certainly some bounds. I am not obliged to do a small good to society, at the expense of a great harm to myself. Why then should I prolong a miserable existence, because of some frivolous advantage, which the public may, perhaps, receive from me? If upon account of age and infirmities, I may lawfully resign any office, and employ my time altogether in fencing against these calamities, and alleviating, as much as possible, the miseries of my future life: why may I not cut short these miseries at once by an action, which is no more prejudicial to society?

But suppose, that it is no longer in my power to promote the interest of the public: suppose, that I am a burden to it: suppose, that my life hinders some person from being much more useful to the public. In such cases my resignation of life must not only be innocent but laudable. And most people, who lie under any temptation to abandon existence, are in some such situation. Those, who have health, or power, or authority, have commonly better reason to be in humor with the world.

A man is engaged in a conspiracy for the public interest; is seized upon suspicion; is threatened with the rack; and knows, from his own weakness, that the secret will be extorted from him: could such a one consult the public interest better than by putting a quick period to a miserable life? This was the case of the famous and brave Strozzi of Florence.

Again, suppose a malefactor justly condemned to a shameful death; can any reason be imagined, why he may not anticipate his punishment, and save himself all the anguish of thinking on its dreadful approaches? He invades the business of providence no more than the magistrate did, who ordered his execution; and his voluntary death is equally advantageous to society, by ridding it of a pernicious member.

That suicide may often be consistent with interest and with our duty to ourselves, no one can question, who allows, that age, sickness, or misfortune may render life a burden, and make it worse even than annihilation. I believe that no man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping. For such is our natural horror of death, that small motives will never be able to reconcile us to it. And though perhaps the situation of a man’s health or fortune did not seem to require this remedy, we may at least be assured, that any one, who, without apparent reason, has had recourse to it, was cursed with such an incurable depravity or gloominess of temper, as must poison all enjoyment, and render him equally miserable as if he had been loaded with the most grievous misfortunes.

If suicide be supposed a crime, it is only cowardice can impel us to it. If it be no crime, both prudence and courage should engage us to rid ourselves at once of existence, when it becomes a burden. It is the only way, that we can then be useful to society, by setting as example, which, if imitated, would preserve to every one his chance for happiness in life, and would effectually free him from all danger of misery[1].


1 It would be easy to prove, that suicide is as lawful under the Christian dispensation as it was to the heathens. There is not a single text of scripture, which prohibits it. That great infallible rule of faith and practice, which must control all philosophy and human reasoning, has left us, in this particular, to our natural liberty. Resignation to providence is, indeed, recommended in scripture; but that implies only submission to ills, which are unavoidable, not to such as may be remedied by prudence or courage. Thou shalt not kill is evidently meant to exclude only the killing of others, over whose life we have no authority. That this precept like most of the scripture precepts, must be modified by reason and common sense, is plain from the practice of magistrates, who punish criminals capitally, notwithstanding the letter of this law. But were this commandment ever so express against suicide, it could now have no authority. For all the law of Moses is abolished, except so far as it is established by the law of nature; and we have already endeavored to prove, that suicide is not prohibited by that law. In all cases, Christians and heathens are precisely upon the same footing; and if Cato and Brutus, Arria and Portia acted heroically, those who now imitate their example ought to receive the same praises from posterity. The power of committing suicide is regarded by Pliny as an advantage which men possess even above the deity himself. Deus non sibi potest mortem consciscere, si velit, quod homini dedit optimum in tantis vitae paenis. [Although God cannot inflict death upon himself, even if he would, he has given this to man as the best course in life’s great pains.] Lib. ii. Cap. 7.


Oct. 4, 1746

Our first warlike attempt has been unsuccessful, though without any loss or dishonour. The public rumor must certainly have informed you, that being detained in the channel, till it was too late to go to America, the Ministry, who were willing to make some advantage of so considerable a sea and land armament, sent us to seek adventures on the coast of France.  Though both the general and admiral were totally unacquainted with every part of the coast, without pilots, guides or intelligence of any kind, and even without the common maps of the country; yet being assured there were no regular troops near this whole coast, they hoped it was not impossible but something might be successfully undertaken.  They bent their course to Port l’Orient, a fine town on the coast of Brittany, the seat of the French East India Trade, and which about 20 years ago, was but a mean contemptible village…

While we lay at Ploemeur, a village about a league from L’Orient, there happened in our family one of the most tragical stories I ever heard of, than which nothing ever gave me more concern.  I know not if ever you heard of Major [Alexander] Forbes [of the 42nd Foot, the Black Watch; gazetted Captain, May 1745], a brother of Sir Arthur’s.  He was, and was esteemed a man of greatest sense, honour, modesty, mildness, and equality of temper in the world.  His learning was very great for a man of any profession, be a prodigy for a soldier.  His bravery had been tried and was unquestioned.  He had exhausted himself with fatigue and hunger for two days, so that he was obliged to leave the camp, and come to our quarters, where I took the utmost care of him, as there was a great friendship betwixt us.  He expressed vast anxiety that he should be obliged to leave his duty, and fear, least his honour should suffer by it.  I endeavored to quiet his mind as much as possible, and thought I had left him tolerably composed at night; but returning to his room early next morning, I found him with small remains of life, wallowing in his own blood, with the arteries of his arm cut asunder.  I immediately sent for a surgeon, got a bandage tied to his arm and recovered him entirely to his senses and understanding.  He lived above four and twenty hours after, and I had several conversations with him.  Never a man expressed a more steady contempt of life nor more determined philosophical principles, suitable to his exit.  He begged of me to unloosen his bandage and hasten his death, as the last act of friendship I could show him: but alas! we live not in Greek or Roman times.  He told me, that he knew, he could not live a few days: but if he did, as soon as he became his own master, he would take a more expeditious method, which none of his friends could prevent.  I die, says he, from a jealousy of honor, perhaps too delicate; and do you think, if it were possible for me to live, I would now consent to it, to be a gazing-stock to the foolish world.  I am too far advanced to return.  And if life was odious to me before, it must be doubly so at present.  He became delirious a few hours before he died.  He had wrote a short letter to his brother above ten hours before he cut his arteries.  This we found on the table.

Quiberon Bay in Brittany

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from A Dissertation Upon the Unnatural Crime of Self-Murder


Caleb Fleming was born in Nottingham and brought up in a Calvinist home. Fleming’s early desire was to enter the ministry; as a boy he learned shorthand in order to write down sermons. However, when Presbyterian minister John Hardy opened a nonconformist academy in 1714, Fleming, while a student there, rejected his parents’ religion and decided to pursue a life in business. Fleming married and moved to London in 1727; apparently, he lived by writing but was often in financial straits. Under the entreaties of friends, Fleming entered the dissenting ministry. Through a series of sermons, he eventually secured the post of pastor (though he classed himself as an independent) for the Presbyterian congregation at Bartholomew Close where he ministered for 15 years before the congregation shrank to nonexistence and the meeting-house lease expired. When he died, he left the epigraph of a “dissenting teacher” on his gravestone.

Fleming was a prolific pamphleteer: he died with over a hundred combative theological and political works to his credit, although most were published anonymously. His principal work, “A Survey of the Search After Souls” (1758), contends that the soul possesses a “capacity of immortality” rather than an inherent immortality. His unique, anti-trinitarian confession of faith is seen in “True Deism, the Basis of Christianity” (1749). In one sermon, he classified Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Cicero, and Seneca among vehicles of divine revelation. Many of his writings and exhortations addressed the topic of moral corruption.

In the lengthy A Dissertation Upon the Unnatural Crime of Self-Murder (1773), excerpted here, Fleming uses a variety of theological and moral arguments to show the “unnaturalness” and “great depravity” of suicide. Among them, he argues that earthly life is a probationary period and so ought not to be interrupted, and that suicide is “so deformed” that the prohibition of it need not be explicitly mentioned in the Bible. There are no exceptions and no excuses, and the fact that a suicide victim was of unbalanced mind carries no weight. Unlike many other Christian apologists (including Augustine [q.v.]), Fleming does not find grounds for excusing the various Biblical suicides, and insists, for example, that Saul, Saul’s armor-bearer, and Ahitophel were all “extremely wicked.”


Caleb Fleming, A Dissertation Upon the Unnatural Crime of Self-Murder. London: Printed for Edward and Charles Dilly, 1773, excerpted from pp. 2-21, 24.


. . . I shall . . . presume first to lay down, and afterwards prove, the truth of this proposition, viz. “That not any thing can be more unnatural, and argue a greater depravity of mind, than self-murder.” Yet here I would be understood to except such, who, by the hand of God, are deprived of the use of their reason and understanding. …

To those who do believe there is a God, and that man is accountable, this will be one powerful reason against the act of suicism, viz. that the present mode of man’s existence is, and must be probationary. It should appear to be a self-evident truth, that during the term of human life, wherein man has the use of his intellectual faculties and powers continued to him, he is a probationer, and as such is appointed to conflict with temptation. Now every man is well informed, that the breath which is in his nostrils, is not under his own volition or command; and that what propriety he has in it, is only that of a loan, which affords him no manner of right to give it a dismission at his own pleasure. The life-principle, he knows, is not his own; because it operates wholly under another’s direction. In other words, he has no hand at all in that wonderful principle or power, which animates his bodily machine.

It certainly is a communicated bestowment for all the purposes of man’s present perceptions, pursuits, and also sensitive fruitions. Or, it is that measure of his probationary duration, which is subject only to the decisions of infinite unerring wisdom. It is therefore the unalienable prerogative of the universal Sovereign, and is thus represented by the oracle; I KILL, AND I MAKE ALIVE! I WOUND, AND I HEAL! This character the Almighty claims and appropriates. A truth to which the Son of God bears witness, when he makes this appeal, “Which of you can, by taking thought, add one cubit to his stature, shadow; or age?”

Since, therefore, life is a divine communication, it behoves us to reverence and hold sacred the important gift, nor ever once resign, or consent to sacrifice it, but upon the altar of truth and God. Of so great importance is life, that an incessant care to preserve it from any apprehended peril, is a first law of our make. And although in the book of Job, it was that figurative character, called Satan, who said, “Skin after skin, yea, all that a man hath, will he give for his life:” it is nevertheless an indisputable truth. Witness the many painful and desperate operations, to which great numbers of mankind submit, in order to preserve life. But then, even this principle, though universal, has its boundaries and exceptions: for at the same time, that, in its efficacy, it should extend to all afflictive or painful visitations, with which heaven is pleased to try the patience, submission and resignation of man; it nevertheless should, by no means, ever admit of a man’s hurting his virtue, or the morality of his own mind, in order to preserve his natural life. —I am persuaded, there truly is not one supposable circumstance, which can possibly enter into the compass of human trial, where man could be justified in taking away his own life. There cannot for this very reason, viz. his present mode of existence, is most certainly probationary: and the God, whose gift it is, has reserved to himself the sole right of disposal of human life.

Again, as this mode of man’s existence is probationary, so it is, that he is instructed both by reason and revelation, to conduct himself as becomes a candidate, who has in view a state of recompence. If, therefore, he is found to behave reasonably, or according to the truth, propriety, and fitness of things, he cannot but see it to be requisite, that he leave the matter wholly to the giver and Lord of life, to determine both when and how he shall finish his probation: forasmuch as it would be an expression of the most provoking insolence and arrogance, in any one creature, to assume the sole prerogative of heaven. Thus, at first view, it appears unpardonably criminal in the probationer for a world of recompence, to give himself a discharge from his duty, upon any disgust petulantly taken by him, at the circumstances of his trial. The guilty wretch instantly and impiously plunges himself into remediless misery…why the rankling chagrine in any professing Christian? Why so much fretfulness? Why such a furious agitation of mind, as to offer an open insult to the divinely animating spirit, merely because fallen under some calamities? – But, alas! among the horrible number of self-murderers, scarce any have been so presumptuous and daring, except minds conscious of some perpetrated villanies, that would not bear the canvassing eye of their fellow-men. More usually, they have been such who have brought on their distresses, either from luxury, gaming, or other extravagance, else from debauchery.

As to others of mankind who have fallen under very heavy afflictions, immediately and apparently from the hand of heaven, and are conscious that they have not brought on those their distresses by their own follies and vices; these seeing the visitation to be no other than a fatherly chastisement, are never so presumptuous or daring. In truth, all men who live as probationers, or who act in character, learn to say with Job, whenever evils fall heavily upon them, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? –The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord,” — On the contrary, peevish, fretful minds, full of discontent, are ready to arraign not only the goodness, but even the equity and justice of the adorable sovereign; and are deplorably inattentive to their own appointments; for they will not be persuaded to consider themselves as candidates for a world of recompence. But on the contrary, if heaven does not indulge them with all the present sensitive good they wish, or shall throw into their lot more evil than their pride and vanity can admit, they scruple not presently to spit in his face, and impudently quit the station he had assigned them.

We may further consider suicism, not only as a crime unbecoming a probationary state, and no way pardonable in a candidate for a world of recompence, but also as in itself so very shockingly deformed, as not to have been discriminately noticed in any of the divine prohibitions; just as if it was not supposable, that an intelligent rational creature, accountable to its Creator, could ever once admit the shocking idea, the unnatural, abhorrent image.… And, in fact, there does not appear to have been a record made of any suicides in the sacred history, but those of the most abandoned characters. Saul and his armour-bearer, we may conclude to have been extremely wicked. So was Ahitophel, who first set his house in order, and then hanged himself. A very deliberate self-murderer. So was that miscreant, Judas, the traitor. And may we not say of all such, “better they had never been born.” — For in the very last act they perform, they willfully and impiously withdraw themselves from the animating spirit of God, and leave themselves no space for repentance…But though it has not more effectually done this, yet the extreme deformity and malignity of suicism, is what should be inferred, from its not having had any distinct, discriminating idea given of it, in any of the written laws of God. Its diametrical opposition to the most powerful instinctive principles of self-preservation in the breast of every man, seems to have rendered needless any express prohibition.

Self-murder may be yet further considered, as an act of high-treason, not only against the sovereignty of the universal Lord, but against the laws of human society. It destroys the very foundation of social virtue, and of all moral obligation. For this is one of the two principles or axioms, on which all moral virtue and piety does support, viz. “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”…Now, if we can thus capitally abuse ourselves, as to become persuaded we may take away life at our pleasure, and so quit our appointed stations, then that fundamental principle or axiom is of little meaning, and has in it nothing useful. …

Assuredly, the man who is persuaded he may dismiss his own life, whenever he is out of humour with his circumstances, can furnish us with no good ground of dependance, either on his social virtue, or even on his humanity.

Nay, the argument against suicism has a yet larger scope and extent; since if one man may be justified in taking away his own life, then another may. — Now, do but let the idea once spread and become infectious, a depopulation or waste would anon render our villages, aye our very towns and cities desolate…

Should it now be asked, what are the apologies which have been made for self-murder? They have been such as follow.

There are some who have pleaded in excuse for the suicide, “that the act is in itself a proof of insanity; and that no man ever had the use of his reason when he destroyed himself.”

To such I would reply, that the same apology might be made for every wicked action which men commit; because it had place from reason being dethroned, and from appetite and passion having usurped the reins of government. But who will say, that the highway-robber and murderer, from having taken the qualifying draught of strong liquors which he found necessary for the daring enterprise, did thereby acquire less degree of demerit and guilt? Or, is it a greater apology for the self-murderer, that by a series of extravagance, or some previous act of great wickedness he qualified himself? Or even because he suffered his avarice, pride or ambition, to become outrageous? Suicism, on the contrary, has more aggravations in it, than many capital crimes for which men are cut off by the punishing hand of justice.

There are many instances of the suicide having given full proof that he was in the possession of his reason and understanding, when he perpetrated the unnatural crime, and that it was done with deliberation, and direct purpose to destroy himself: and that he was neither lunatic, nor distracted by distemper or disease. For our law makes this allowance, “ that if a person during the time that he is not compos mentis, gives himself a mortal wound though he dies thereof when he recovers his memory; he is not felo de se, because at the time of the stroke he was not compos mentis.” i.e. As I understand the law, the man himself then knew he was not. — But if man was not capable of perpetrating the suicism, except in a state of insanity, it would be no crime; and the law would be extremely iniquitous, that supposed it criminal.

Should it in the next place be asked. “What is most usually the exciting MOTIVE to an act of suicism?”

It might be answered, that in the female it is more commonly a dread of shame, from having suffered herself to be dishonored; also from the love-passion having been ungovernable; or from the infidelity and ill-usage of a husband. – Whereas in the males, it is ordinarily some cross event, which has deeply affected the man’s worldly circumstances: or, perhaps, he has had a bad run of chances in his gaming: else, by some other criminal indulgences, he has reduced his finances to a very low condition: else he has suffered the chagrin to rise so fatally high, because of very sudden provocation. I own, I am apprehensive, there is some conscious guilt ever attends the loss or disappointment, or whatever the external evil is, that excites to suicism.

But let imagination have full play, and vary, as much as you possibly can, the motives to self-murder, their total amount can have no proportional weight; even though the rack of the stone or gout should have all its excruciating tortures: since the measure is full of guilt and crime; and has nothing in it that can promise to relieve, but must greatly aggravate the wretchedness! — Whereas the language of approved piety and exalted virtue, is recorded to have run thus, in the deepest distress, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” And the supplicatory address, this — “Shew me wherefore thou contendest with me.” Even the highest, the most amiable, and perfect of all human characters, said, “NOT MY WILL; BUT THINE BE DONE.”

Far otherwise the exciting motive in the suicide, which is a rankling, unreasonable dissatisfaction with his present situation; proceeding either from a disbelief of a wife, powerful, and good superintending mind, that intuitively and incessantly surveys the whole system of beings! Else from an impious disgust at his own allotments. And it may be safely presumed, that the operating motive is always worldly. The heart had nothing better than an earthly treasure, else it would never have committed the unnatural action of a felo de se.

If the above reasoning be good, there is nothing more clear and convincing than the proposition at first laid down, namely, “That there can be nothing more unnatural and cruel; or that argues a greater depravity of mind than self-murder.”…

There may now be sundry instructive corollaries, or conclusions drawn from the above reasoning upon the suicide; which may well deserve the notice of my fellow-citizens. Such as follow.

Corol. I. The increased number of self- murders about this great city, and in other parts, is an irrefragable proof of the deep depravity of the morals of our country. The insidious and restless enemies of Britain’s welfare, have at last so far succeeded in disseminating skepticism and infidelity; i.e. a disbelief of a providence, of a revelation, and a future state; which is what qualifies men for these enormities. And they have compassed their end in thus depraving the people, by inventing every measure that could lead to dissipation, and dissoluteness of manners. It was never known since the reformation, that Britain wore so detestable a complexion as that she now does, in whatever department you make the survey: for when you put to the account, the great advantages she has had above the former times of palpable darkness, under a popish system of government both in church and state, you must fall under conviction; and be constrained to own, her condition appears to be incurable and desperate. In fact, her impieties, immoralities, and vices, are matchless. — I question whether there be a nation upon the face of this globe, which in its annals could produce so great a run of suicides, since Christianity made its spread in the world. — It has been already observed, that when pagan Rome was in the decline of her glory, having lost all public virtue, suicism then became common: and those of that depraved people were reckoned brave, who had rather chosen to destroy themselves, than become the slaves of tyrants. But our self-murderers pretend to no such specious motive. They have lived viciously, and they will die impiously. The life which God only lent them, they presume to sacrifice to their own pride and passion. And although our laws would set a brand of infamy upon them, yet the horrid impiety is concealed or covered, either through a mistaken tenderness, else by a shameful venality and bribery.

I have said, a mistaken tenderness — Yet would observe, that the inequity of our laws does seem to apologize much for that tenderness; since it appears to be a very severe “forfeiture in felo de se, of all his goods and chattels, real and personal, which he hath in his own right; and all such chattels, real and personal, which he hath jointly with his wife, or in her right, when found upon the oath of twelve men before the coroner, super visum corporis, that he felo de se hath. He forfeits also bonds, or things in action, belonging solely to himself, and all entire chattels in possession; except in the case of merchants, where a moiety only of such joint- chattels, as may be saved, is forfeited.”

This forfeiture has a manifest severity in it; and which makes the heart of humanity to revolt at the punishment falling so heavily upon the criminal’s wife and children, who are innocent; and have already by the act of suicism suffered the loss of an husband and father, and are deprived of all further assistance and comfort from and in him.

To pretend, in justification of this forfeiture, that “God himself is said to visit the iniquity of fathers upon their children unto the third and fourth generation of them who hate him;” must be impertinent; for in such visitation, man is not of competent ability to copy his unerring measures of inflicting punishment. And if I have not mistaken the divine visitation, it intends only such children as copy their fathers iniquity; such as continue to resemble him in wickedness. And so I am persuaded it must be understood, when I read the 18th chapter of Ezekiel’s prophecy.

Other measures should be taken to deter men from the unnatural, shocking crime of self murder, — And I am humbly apprehensive, that a stop might be put to the spread of suicism, by having the naked body exposed in some public place: over which the coroner should deliver an oration on the foul impiety; and then the body, like that of the homicide, be given to the surgeons.

Corol. II. If this be the only probationary state of man, in which he can be a candidate for a world of recompence, then life must be his most inestimable property, as an improveable talent… “As though it were never to have a beginning.”…

The idea of our being probationers for a world of recompence, has had the assent of the most wise and judicious of mankind; that it is manifestly a document of reason and nature; and what will bear the most accurate and critical examination. The reasoning and argument, which has been built upon this foundation, is therefore irrefragable and conclusive. And since this is the truth of the case, suicide is capitally criminal.

Corol. III. Every man who gratifies an appetite or passion, which has a manifest tendency to hurt his health, or shorten his life, is [though by a less sudden assault upon the life-principle] a real self-murderer. I mean, the man who luxuriates at his table, is too free with his bottle, and thereby brings on disease or distemper; or whether his lusts leads him into an illicit and empoisoned bodily commerce. This last species of debauchery is, among us, risen shamefully high, and disgracefully become as epidemical as the plaque….

Corol. IV. The shameful crime of DUELLING is another prevailing vicious practice; which reflects disgrace on the understanding of the man, and proves him deplorably unacquainted with self-government. The duellist is an atrocious violator of the law of his make. He tramples upon and subdues the first instinctive principle, with which his Maker has endowed him, viz. that of self-preservation. The proud, passionate man, will rather risk his own life, in his attempt to take away the life of another, than pass by an affront. And this he most stupidly fancies to be, and is not ashamed to call it, A PATH OF HONOUR! For, contrary to a fundamental law of civil society, he presumes upon being his own avenger. And though the matter of offence may have been nothing more than a breach of politeness, some little sally of the passion, or some mark of contempt; yet the blood-thirsty wretch will not be reconciled till he has fired his pistol, or with his sword lunged at the life of his fellow-man. Not any crime evinces more absurdity and stupidity than dueling does: for whoever he is that hazards his own life with a man who gave him offence, is a fool; and the very challenge he sent, proves that he is…

These several corollaries seem to have a free and unforced derivation from the fundamental proposition, namely, “That not any thing can be more unnatural, and argue a greater depravity of the human mind, than self-murder.”

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from A Defense Against the Temptation to Self-Murder


Isaac Watts, regarded as the father of English hymnody, was born in Southampton, England, and studied at the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington, now inside London, until 1694. He then became a family tutor to Sir John Hartopp; Watts’ rise to prominence as a preacher began with his sermons at Hartopp’s family chapel in Freeby, Leicestershire, and cumulated in his appointment as a full pastor at the Mark Lane Independent (i.e., Congregational) Chapel, London, in 1702. Here he wrote many now-famous Protestant hymns, including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” and “There is a Land of Pure Delight.” His hymns and psalms are published in the collections Horae Lyricae (1706), Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707) and Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719). Due to a breakdown in health, in 1712 he went to spend a week in Hertfordshire with Sir Thomas Abney, with whose family he would live for the rest of his life. Toward the end of his life Watts dedicated more time to writing, eventually publishing his influential work Logic, or the Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth (1724).

In A Defense Against the Temptation to Self-Murther (1726), Watts discusses the “folly and danger” of suicide. The piece is a vehement exhortation in the form of a direct address to anyone who might be tempted to suicide, and it attempts to dissuade the suicidal person with both religious and social arguments. It would mean permanent damnation, Watts insists, from which there could be no repentance; it would mean shame, as evidenced by the disgrace of burial at the crossroads; and it would mean shame for one’s family as well. Among the “dissuasions” Watts employs is an appeal to concern for others: “If it be so hard to you to bear a little poverty, shame, sorrow, reproach, etc. that you will die rather than bear it, why will you entail these on your kindred and on those who love you best?”


Isaac Watts, A Defense Against the Temptation to Self-Murther, London: Printed for J. Clark, R. Hett, E. Matthews, and R. Ford, 1726.


Some General Dissuasions from Self-Murther, by shewing the Folly and Danger of it.

WHEN this bloody practice has been proved to be highly criminal in the sight of God, we can hardly suppose that any other considerations should be more effectual to deter a man who professes Christianity from the guilt of so aggravated a sin: yet it may be possible to set the dangerous and dreadful consequences of this practice in a fuller view, a more diffusive and affecting light: for if you turn it on all sides it has still some new appearances of terror, and furnishes out new dissuasives from the execution of it.

I.  Consider that ‘tis too dangerous an attempt to venture upon it unless you had a full assurance of its lawfulness. Now suppose the power of your own iniquities, the artifices of the Tempter, and the prevailing ill humours of animal nature should join together so fatally as to blind your eyes against the full conviction of its sinfulness, yet you can never prove that self-murther is certainly a lawful thing. The furthest you can go is to suppose that possibly it may be lawful; but on the other hand, if you should be under a mistake, ‘tis a dreadful, ‘tis a fatal, ‘tis an eternal one. You put your self beyond all possibility of rectifying this error through all the long ages of futurity.

Whatsoever vain fancies some of the heathens have indulg’d who knew not God, and had very little and dark apprehensions of a future state, yet in the Christian world the utmost that the most sanguine or most melancholy among this tribe can well pretend is, that perhaps it may be Lawful, or at least that it is a little and a very pardonable crime, (and they have been forced to wink their eyes against the light to arrive at this perhaps). But if it be not pardonable, then nothing remains for the criminal but everlasting punishment. That terrible word eternal, eternal, eternal misery, carries such a long doleful accent with it, and includes such an immense train of agonies without hope, that it is infinitely better to bear the sorrows, the trials and uneasiness of this life for a few short and uncertain years, than rashly to venture upon such a practice, whose pretended and doubtful advantages bear no proportion at all to the infinite and extreme hazard of an endless state of torment.

II.  Suppose you could by any false reasonings persuade your consciences that the act of self-destruction was no sin, yet are you so sure of the present goodness of your state towards God, and that all your other sins are pardoned, that you could plunge your self this moment into eternity?  ‘Tis generally under a fit of impatience that persons are tempted to destroy themselves; now is the present frame and temper of your soul such as is fit to appear in before the great tribunal of heaven?  You well know that as the tree falls so it must lie, to the north or to the south, Eccl. xi. 3.  After death judgment immediately succeeds, Heb. ix. 27.  There is no faith and repentance in the grave, nor pardoning grace to be implored when the state of trial is past, Eccl. ix. 10.  Isa. xxxviii. 18.  They that go down to the pit cannot hope for thy truth.  Are you now so sure of your creator’s love, and of your perfect conformity to his laws of judgment?  Are you so holy, so innocent, so righteous in your self, or so certain of your interest in the merits of a mediator, that you dare rush this moment before the bar of a great and terrible God, and tell him that you are come to have your state determined for all everlasting? If not, be wise and bethink yourself a little: use and improve the delay and opportunity which his grace and providence offer you in this life, for a more effectual securing a better life hereafter.

But if we go a little farther and suppose the action in it self to be criminal, then remember that you send your self out of this world with the guilt of a wilful criminal action on your conscience; you preclude your own repentance of this sin in this world, and the other world knows no repentance that is available to any good purpose. You shoot your self headlong into an eternal state; and are you sure that you shall never repent of it in the long future ages of your existence? But, alas! all that repentance comes too late to relieve you from the dismal effects of your rashness. All the repentance of that invisible world is but the sting of conscience which will add exquisite pain to your appointed punishment. Surely you should have the most evident and undeniable proofs of the goodness of that action which can never be revers’d, and which puts you for ever beyond the possibility of useful repentance.

Give me leave to add in this place what is the constant doctrine of the Bible and the sense of Christians, (viz.) that a wilful sinner dying impenitent cannot be sav’d.  Now if there be no space given for serious reflection and penitence in the case of a self-murtherer, what room is there for hope hereafter? except only where the persons really distracted, and the Great God our Judge knows how to distinguish exactly how far every action is influenced by bodily distempers.  This is the only hope of surviving friends.

III.  Think yet again, what an odium, what scandal and everlasting shame you bring upon your name and character by such a fact.  ‘Tis a reproach that spreads wide among the kindred of the self-murtherer; it descends to his posterity and follows him thro’ many generations.

It may be observed also that in the Rubrick of the Church of England before the burial service, self-murtherers are ranked with excommunicated persons: The church has no hope of them as true Christians: And as the church denies them Christian burial, so the civil government did heretofore appoint that they should be put into the earth with the utmost contempt; and this was generally done in some publick cross-way, that the shame and infamy might be made known to every passenger; and that this infamy might be lasting, they were ordained to have a stake driven through their dead bodies which was not to be removed. ‘Tis pity this practice has been omitted of late years by the too favourable sentence of their neighbors on the jury, who generally pronounce them distracted: And thus they are excused from this publick mark of abhorrence. Perhaps ‘twere much better if this practice were revived again; for since the laws of men cannot punish their persons, therefore their dead bodies should be expos’d to just and deserved shame, that so this iniquity might be laid under all the odium that human power and law can cast upon it, to testify a just abhorrence of the fact, and to deter survivors from the like practice.

IV.  Can any man of a generous or kind disposition think of all the mischief done to his friends and kindred by the destruction of himself, and yet practice it? Think of the publick scandal and disgrace that it spreads over the whole family; think of the shame and inward anguish of spirit that it necessarily gives to surviving friends and relatives; what sorrow of heart for the loss of a father, or mother or brother, a sister, a daughter, or a son in such a sudden, such a dreadful, and such a shameful manner of death? What terrible perplexity of spirit what inconsolable vexation of mind, what fears of eternal misery for the soul of the deceas’d? This gives them a wound beyond what they are able to bear, and sometimes wears out their life in sorrow, and brings them down to the grave. One would think that the injury done to friends and dear relations would be a sufficient bar against it, to souls who have any sense of justice, or any pretence to goodness and love. If it be so hard for you to bear a little poverty, shame, sorrow, reproach, &c. that you will die rather than bear it, why will you entail these on your kindred and on those who love you best?

In order to work upon persons that have any compassion for their surviving kindred, ‘tis fit they should know also that the English Law calls a Self-Murtherer, felo de se, or a felon to himself, and upon this account the estate and effects of the deceased are forfeited by law and cannot descend to the relatives, unless it appear that the person who laid violent hand upon himself was distracted. Now in this case Bishop Fleetwood finds fault severely with juries who now a days bring in almost all self-murtherers distracted, and he desires them to consider “Whether the constant mitigation of the rigours of the law against self-murtherers mayn’t give some encouragement to that practice and whether the favourable verdict they bring in, be always so righteous and so seasonable as they imagine? And since the wisdom of the law intends that the confiscation of estates, the undoing a family, and the shameful burial shall deter them from these horrible attempts, whether the mercy that defeats all these intentions be not more likely to continue than to repress these cruel violences? Were a person sure that his estate would be forfeited, and his effects carried away from his wife, children and family, were he sure that his dead body should be publickly expos’d, bury’d in the high-way, and with a stake driven through it as a mark of huge infamy, perhaps he would give way to calmer counsels, and be content to bear a little shame, or pain, or loss, till God saw fit to put an end to all his sufferings by natural means: And therefore an instance or two of such severity as is legal, well and wisely chosen, might prove a greater preservative against these violences, than such a constant and expected mercy, as we always find on these occasions: For men have now no fear of laws; and when they have laid aside the fear of God, they go about this business with great readiness, they are sure of favour in this world, and they will venture the other.”

V.  Think in the last place how fatal an influence your example may have to bring death and ruin on others, and that on their immortal souls as well as their mortal life. Remember what an effect the self-murther of Saul had, when his armour bearer followed him, and dy’d also by his own sword. And oftentimes where self-murther is practiced, it fills the heads of other melancholy and uneasy persons with the same bloody thoughts, and teaches them to enter into the same temptation. Think then with yourself, “What if I should not only destroy my own soul forever, but become the dreadful occasion of others destroying their souls, and flinging themselves into the same place of torture? What sharp accents will this add to my anguish of conscience, in hell, that I have led others into the same wretchedness without remedy, without hope, and without end?” Think and enquire whether every self-murtherer who may be influenced hereafter by your example to this impious fact, may not be sent particularly to visit your ghost in those invisible regions, and become a new tormentor. Whether all such future events may not be turn’d by the just judgment of God to encrease your agonies and horrors of soul in that world of despair and misery.

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A Call to the Tempted: A Sermon on the Horrid Crime of Self-Murder


Increase Mather, commonly considered the most gifted member of the prominent Mather family and the first to be born in America, was a religious, educational, and political leader of early Puritan New England. A graduate of Harvard and Trinity College, Dublin, Mather was a skilled writer and orator who delivered sermons to congregations throughout England and New England. He was elected acting president of Harvard in 1685, later rector and president, but was forced to resign by political rivals in 1701 on a technicality. Mather wrote many religious treatises, political pamphlets, and sermons, as well as A Brief History of the Warr with the Indians (1676). A conflicted critic of the Salem witch trials like his son Cotton Mather [q.v.], Increase Mather’s Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits (1693) and its critique of spectral evidence is credited with stemming the tide of witchcraft executions.

Increase Mather’s sermon, A Call to the Tempted: A Sermon on the Horrid Crime of Self-Murder (1682, published 1723), is a passionate and reasoned attack on suicide, addressed directly to those who might be tempted—as Mather believed, by the devil—to commit it. The text was put into pamphlet form from his notes 40 years after its oral delivery, and its cover advertises the sermon’s objective: “for a Charitable Stop to Suicides.”

Although Mather had often thought of preaching on the subject, the final motivation for the sermon came as he walked alone in his garden: “This day my former thought about preaching on the evil of self-murder, returning upon me again. I looked up to GOD, and as I was lifting up my heart to Him . . . I was strangely moved and melted. Tears gushed from my eyes. And it seemed as if it were said unto me, ‘Preach on that subject, and thou shalt save bodies and souls from death.’ ” The following Sunday, Mather preached a sermon based on Acts 16:27–28 in which he outlined the reasons why such an act is unacceptable.

For Mather, suicide is often the act of trying to escape suffering through sin. The sin lies in hating one’s own flesh—the flesh that was created in God’s image—and in forfeiting the grace of life, as well as in murdering the one person to whom we are closest, that is, ourselves (murder perpetrated on one’s mother or brother, for Mather, is worse than one committed on a stranger). Mather’s view presupposes the doctrine of election, but even though a person might be tempted to suicide by despair over the belief that he or she is already damned—the sermon is particularly addressed to those who see themselves as sinners—Mather holds out some hope: “Thou are not sure that thou shalt not be saved.” Even though Mather hints that God is merciful and will not necessarily condemn all who commit suicide, on a practical level, one should never pardon any self-murderer, since a charitable view of suicide will only serve to encourage the practice: “Lest by being over-charitable to the dead, we become cruel to the living.”

Increase Mather, A Call to the Tempted: A Sermon on the Horrid Crime of Self-Murder [dated Boston, May 23, 1682], printed by B. Green, sold by Samuel Gerrish, 1723–24 (spelling and grammar modernized).


The Occasion of the Publication

Among the remarkables in the life of the memorable Dr. Increase Mather, there is this passage. “The doctor felt once upon his mind a strong impression to preach a sermon about the crime of self-murder, but he resisted, he declined, he laid it aside. He then wrote in his diary: This day my former thoughts about preaching on the evil of self-murder, returning upon me again; I looked up to God, and as I was lifting up my heart to Him, then walking in my garden, I was most strangely moved and melted. I could not speak a word for some time. Tears gushed from my eyes. And it seemed as if it were said unto me, Preach on that subject, and thou shalt save bodies and souls from death. The lion is among thy flock, refute him with the Sword of the Spirit, and the sheep committed unto thy charge shall be rescued out of his bloody hands! What the meaning of this is I know not; but wonder at it. There may be something of Heaven in it, more than I am aware of. The next Lords-day, he preached the sermon [on Acts 16: 27, 28.] And behold, soon after it, there came such to him, as informed him, that at that very time, the temptations to self-murder were impelling of them with an horrible violence, but God had blessed that happy sermon for their deliverance! They afterwards joined to his church.

A religious and honorable person, upon the reading of this passage, hoping that the sermon might be again blessed [more than forty years after the first preaching of it,] made enquiry, whether the Notes of the Sermon could be recovered: And here is all that could be recovered. The venerable author, who in the sixty-six years of his ministry did not use his notes in the public, did not so write his notes, as to have all the lively, instructing, affecting amplifications of the pulpit in them. The reader will perceive something of this, in the minutes of the sermon here exhibited. And the transcriber durst not make any unjustifiable interpolations. But his inserting sometimes the words of the texts that are quoted may be allowed him.

The design of the worthy gentleman who demanded this publication, is the same now that has been in many others to which he has generously contributed, that is, to do good. And if any one poor tempted soul, be rescued from the hands of the Destroyer, by what is here offered, I am sure he will count his expenses richly reimbursed. It may also comfort him to have such a token for good, that as Dr. Mather has his friend united with him in the services of the kingdom now, so they will be hereafter united in the glorious enjoyments of it.

Do Thyself No Harm

Acts 16: 27, 28

“He would have killed himself; — but Paul cried with a loud voice, Do thyself no harm.”

In the context, the Evangelist gives an account concerning the imprisonment of Paul and Silas for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and a most remarkable occurrence happening thereupon which proved the conversion of the jailer who had dealt very cruelly with them. We have, here withal, a relation of what proved the occasion of that strange conversion. It was brought to pass by means of a miraculous earthquake which happened at midnight. The jailer being, by this earthquake, frightfully waked out of sleep, was full of distress and consternation. While he was thus distressed in his mind, the devil took advantage to fall upon him with horrid temptations.

Two things are noted in the words before us. First, there is noted the evil which the jailer was tempted unto, to wit, self-murder. He drew his sword, and was just ready to heath it in his own wretched bowels. Secondly, there is noted that which was the happy means of diverting him from the evil; to wit, the apostles speaking to him. He cried with a loud voice, very earnestly. And it was time to be in earnest. It was a matter of life and death!

Indeed, he used the most effectual argument that could be, to dissuade him from persisting in his attempt of self-murder. He convinced him, that the temptation which hurried him on to the barbarous and bloody fact, by him defined, was a mere needless fear. He was afraid, the prisoners were gone, and therefore the magistrates who committed them to prison would put him to death for letting them escape. Therefore Paul says, We are all here. How the Apostle knew that this was his temptation, this is not expressly declared. Probably, the jailer might utter some words to that purpose. However, he was distressed with a causeless fear. And yet this distress did, through the instigation of Satan, prevail so far that he was just upon the point of making himself away. Such is the subtlety of Satan and his great power over the minds of men. When God shall see meet to let him loose, so that he can, from mere imaginary fears, put them upon no less an evil than self-destruction. It was with the jailer so, and the temptation had prevailed, if Paul had not earnestly cautioned him from hearkening to it.


People distressed with temptation had sometimes need to be earnestly cautioned against the sin of self-murder.

There are two things to be now spoken to: First, what the distresses and temptations are that put men upon the sin of self-murder. And then, the reasons why they that are so tempted should be earnestly cautioned against this evil.

Question 1. The distresses and temptations that often put men upon the sin of self-murder: What are they?

I. Sometimes men are tempted unto this evil, so that they may not fall into the hands of those that they think will put them to a miserable death. This was the temptation of the jailer now before us. According to the law among the Romans, if the jailer let his prisoner go he was to suffer the same punishment which the prisoner should have undergone. Hence, Acts 12: 18, 19. When Peter escaped, the soldiers that were set for his keepers, Herod ordered them to be put to death. Sinful creatures think with themselves that if they live a while longer, they shall be put to a more miserable death, and therefore it may be said of them, sin hast thou chose rather than affliction! They will destroy themselves, rather than stay for other men to do it. We have several instances of this in the sacred scriptures. Saul, bloody Saul, was one of them. He will die by his own hands rather than the Philistines. Achitophel was another of them. He might well conclude, when his counsel was not hearkened to, that David would prevail, and then he must needs die for his treasons. What is it that we read of Zimri? I King 16: 18. When he saw the city was taken, and he must fall into the hands of his enemies, he burnt the king’s house over him and he died. Human history gives us many other instances. Among the rest, Hannibal poisoned himself, that he might not fall into the hands of his enemies. Demosthenes did the like. The wicked Jews blasphemously imagined that the Holy Son of God, the blessed Jesus, would have killed himself for fear of falling into their hands. John 8: 22. Then said the Jews, ‘Will he kill himself?’

II. The fear of disgrace in the world puts men upon it. There was this also in the temptation of the jailer. He thought it a disgraceful thing to be put to death in a way of judicial proceeding and with a public execution. And therefore! —– Sometimes a proud Spirit had rather commit the greatest sin against God than undergo a little disgrace from men. This was the temptation of Abimeleck to murder himself, or (which is the same) to desire another to kill him. Judges 9:54. Slay me that men may say not of me, ‘a woman slew him. There have been some that, when they have committed foul and shameful sins, have, through fear of punishment and disgrace among men, destroyed themselves. To a proud spirit there is nothing so bitter as disgrace and infamy. When this temptation overcomes them, they will choose death rather than such a misery. And thus also it is when men, for fear of want, shall desperately destroy themselves. They think it will be a disgraceful thing to be beholden unto others for their subsistence, and it may be, to be brought unto a morsel of bread and live like a beggar! Such a temptation is too hard for them, and therefore they think to be eased of it by a self-destruction.

III. Distress of conscience is that from which the devil does many times, take occasion to tempt men unto the sin of self-murder. Saul was in distress of conscience as well as otherwise distressed, and therein he would have starved himself to death. See I Sam. 28: 15,22,23. ——— Judas is in distress of conscience, and then! —— He flies to the halter that he may let out his wretched soul. The burden of a guilty and a wounded conscience is intolerable. It is said, Prov. 18: 14. Who can bear it? Poor creatures having such a wounded spirit, and being under the strong delusions of Satan, often think to obtain some ease by ruining of themselves. Especially when inward & outward troubles meet together, (as oftentimes they do). Miserable creatures are in danger of becoming guilty of this crime. Satan takes this advantage to tempt them unto it. It seems as if Job were thus tempted, though he had the grace to resist and conquer the temptation. He was in affliction upon temporal accounts. At the same time he thought God was his enemy. He felt the terrors of God in his soul. God suffered Satan to terrify him with frightful dreams. He was tempted hereupon to choose the most ignominious death, rather than be in such misery. He says, John 7: 15 My soul chooseth strangling and death rather than life. But the mercy of God preserved him from laying violent hands upon himself! —-

Question 2. For what reasons are they that are so tempted, earnestly cautioned against complying with the temptation?

I. Temptations to self-murder, Satan is in them! Such temptations are not from the holy and blessed God. Let no man say, when he is thus tempted, I am tempted of God! —- Job’s wife tempted him to commit such a sin as would bring a quick death upon himself. Curse God and die! She was an instrument of Satan. It was the devil that put her upon giving that cursed and bloody counsel to her husband. The devil would persuade men to think of getting out of affliction by sin. Yea, and to die sinning, that the last act which they do before they go out of the world should be to commit some great sin against the glorious God. He knows this will render them unfit to die! Thus the devil says, murder and die!— Stab thyself,— shoot thyself,— choke thyself— and die! The devil is therefore said to be–John 8: 44. A murderer. Yea, Satan has a most peculiar hand in the perpetration of this crime. As is evident from the strange manner how sometimes it is accomplished:— by drowning, in a small puddle of water, — hanging upon a small twig, not enough to bear the weight of a man, —or with knees resting on the ground. Satan must needs have a great hand — the invisible world is most sensibly at work in such things as these!

II. Self-murder is a very great sin. Murder is the greatest sin against the second table of the Law. Tis a great provocation in the sight of God. Hence is that expression in the scripture, concerning a most abominable thing.—Isa. 66: 3. It is as if he killed a man. Tis a sin that cries to Heaven for vengeance! –See Acts 28: 4.— But self-murder is the worst kind of murder. — Tis the most unnatural! — For a man to murder a near relative tis worse than for him to murder another. And the nearer the relation is, the greater the sin.— Therefore, ——- tis a most complicated sin?

The self-murderer sins against the glorious God in defacing of his image, and in dishonoring of His name. —Especially, if he be a person that has made any pretences to religion. ———

He sins against himself, — against his own body, as if hating his own flesh. — And it may be said unto him, Thou hast sinned against thy own soul. His reputation also, is forever destroyed.

He sins against his relatives to whom he causes the greatest grief, and the greatest dishonor, that can be. ——

III. A willful and impenitent self-murderer cannot be saved! We are taught, 1 John 3: 15. Ye know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. Then, most certainly, no self-murderer — without repentance — which, in many cases, how can it be supposed!

Its true, the elect of God may be grievously tempted unto this sin. The jailer was one of those. — Yea, many of the elect have been so, in the pangs of the new-birth, at their first conversion unto God, and some have been so after their conversion. The best of saints upon earth may be so. Of Job I have told you. I may tell you of Luther, and of many more, when the devil has no hope of prevailing, yet he will tempt unto this crime. He will do it only to vex and molest the faithful servants of God! He therefore tempted our blessed Jesus Himself unto it. See Matt. 4: 6. —

But, except it be in case of destraction, it is a rare thing for Satan thus to prevail over any that belong unto God. If he do, yet the execution cannot be so dispatched as to leave no space of repentance. Therefore, it is very observable that though we read of some of the elect of God in the scripture that have been tempted unto this crime, yet none were left actually to commit it. But such as we have cause to look upon as reprobates; were a Saul, an Achitophel, a Zimri, & a Judas, any other?

As for secret things and extraordinary cases, we must leave them to God. Nevertheless, it is a clear scriptural principle, that an impenitent murderer cannot be saved. There are some sins, that an elect person shall be preserved from. Such particularly is the unpardonable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. And such is final impenitency. Therefore, it concerns them that have the use of reason and know what they do, to beware of this sin as they bear any respect unto the salvation of their precious and immortal souls.

IV. Life is a great mercy. Men should be cautioned against despising and willfully casting away the mercies of God. Life in this world, is an invaluable mercy: because whilst there is life there is hope: Eccl 9: 4. To him who is joined unto all the living there is hope. As long as persons are alive, there is an hopeful possibility that they may repent and turn and live unto God: — that they may obtain an assurance of an interest in Jesus Christ, — that the pardon of their sins may be secured. But when life is at an end, there is no hope of repentance or of getting a part of Christ, or of getting sin to be forgiven. We are told, Heb. 9: 27. After death the judgment. If those things are not made sure of before the soul of a man is out of his body, and his probation-time is over, it will be too late forever. So we read, Isa. 38: 18. —They that go down to the pit cannot hope for thy truth.

Use I. We may here take notice of the folly & unreasonableness of those temptations, whereby sinful creatures are sometimes put upon self-destruction. — As particularly, — that fear of disgrace in the world. — For any man to do himself harm for fear of that, is marvelous folly! A man cannot more disgrace himself than by committing such a sin. He leaves an everlasting blot upon his name, as long as he shall be spoken of in the world. And there is besides, an everlasting contempt which such persons, dying impenitently, must at the last day be exposed unto. When besides all their other sins, there shall be this alleged against them, that they were guilty of the most unnatural wickedness in the world. Is it not folly for men to bring upon themselves an eternal shame and confusion world without end, that they may escape a temporal!

Thus, when men shall do harm unto themselves for the fear of want, it is unspeakable folly and madness in the children of men to do so, because they do that act,[without repentance] throw themselves into that place where they shall want every good thing; and, Psal. 49: 19. They shall never see light. In hell there is the want of everything. No spiritual blessings are there, no Sabbaths, nor any means of Grace are there. No, nor any earthly comforts neither. Not so much as a drop of water, to relieve a tongue in torments there!

There is another poor creature thus tempted of the devil. I am a reprobate, and I am sure I shall not be saved and therefore, if I destroy myself, I shall have less punishment in Hell than if I lived longer in the world. I answer; thou canst not know thy reprobation. It is not God, but Satan, who tells thee, that thou art a reprobate. Thou art not sure that thou shalt not be saved. The Lord says no such thing unto thee, but says, Isa. 45: 22. Look unto me, all the ends of the earth and be ye saved. Be it how it will with thee, do thyself no harm: Thoumay for ought any one can say, yet be saved forever. Nor is this true, that thy damnation will be the less if thou destroy thyself. For damnation and punishment in hell will be the greater and the deeper according to the aggravations of the sins which have brought the sinner thither. Now self-murder is a sin so heinous and aggravated, that if thou die impenitently under the guilt of it, thy damnation will doubtless be the greater for it.

It may be said, I will repent and pray for the pardon of my sin before I do it. I answer, what a delusion of Satan! I have read indeed of a philosopher who called upon his Gods, and so threw himself into the fire to his own destruction. But canst thou think, that God will hear such prayers’? No, — Psal. 66: 18. If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me. If thou comest before God, with bloody resolutions in thy heart, God will not accept of thy prayers. He says, Isa. 1: 15. When you make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Nor can this be called repentance: For a man to confess a sin and be resolved still upon the commission of it! No, tis he who confesseth and forsaketh that shall find mercy.

Use 2. Hence it is an evil thing to speak favorably either of self-murder or of self-murderers. There have been those who have undertaken to justify self-murder in some cases. [See Voet. fol. 4, Desp. de lesione Jui-ipsius.] Pagan Philosophers taught, that it was lawful for persons to murder themselves, that they might save their reputation or prevent falling into the hands of their enemies — Famous the Story of Lucretia.——-

In what we call, the Second Book of the Maccabees, we find celebrated, an action of one Rasis, for which the Jews cry him up as a martyr, but Austin censures him for a criminal self-murderer with reasons that cannot be answered.

Yea, some Christians have cried up those, who to save their chastity, and so themselves, from disgrace, have destroyed their own lives. And the crying up of such a fact has given occasion unto many others to become guilty of that horrible thing, that unnatural sin. But must Saul’s self-murder be lawful too?

To extol the persons of self-murderers to Heaven is an evil and a dangerous practice. We should rather leave secret things unto God, and unto the discoveries of the Great Day! Indeed, if a mans life and conversation were as becomes the gospel, we are not positively and absolutely to say, that he is damned, though he killed himself. Because we know not but that he might be at that time under some distraction and it is not impossible but that God may suffer Satan to possess, and torment, and kill the bodies of some whose souls may yet be saved in the Day of the Lord. Yet on the other hand, if there were no sign of distraction appearing before they went to destroy themselves, nor any evidence of repentance after such attempts, we should not say such persons are gone to Heaven. Left by being over-charitable to the dead, we become cruel to the living. The saying, such persons are saved, may occasion and encourage others to do the like, and the everlasting destruction of bodies and souls follow upon it.

Use 3. Beware of this iniquity.

One would think there should be no great need of such an exhortation; To call upon men, to do themselves no harm! Since there is in every man, a principle of selfpreservation. Yet there is too much occasion for it. One self-murder makes way for another. Saul did for that of his amour bearer. ———–

It is a lamentable thing that in a place of so much light and profession as this, it should be said unto a self-murdering devil; —Thou shalt persuade and prevail also! —- That in such a place, there should be any need of insisting on such a subject! — Yet there has been so and there is! Above four years ago, I saw occasion to insist on a subject of this importance because within the space of but five weeks, there had been five self-murders! The Lord knows how many others may be tempted at this time, unto the like. I am not without apprehensions, that the bloody lion, who goes about seeking whom he may devour, may be let loose among the flock. And, therefore I thought it my duty to withstand him with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Not knowing, but that I may, by such means, rescue poor creatures out of his hands!

My Advice on the Occasion is this:

First, be humbled in the sight of god. Be humbled for all thy sins. — And be humbled under temptations to this sin. — Be humbled as long as thou hast a day to live. Because they have not been humbled, Satan has been let loose upon some with greater violence. When a sin has been repented of, there will not now be so much danger of that sin as there was before.

Secondly, Beware of such sins as may provoke the holy and righteous God, to leave thee unto this most horrid evil.

Beware of pride. When men will rather not be at all, than be what God would have them to be. What cursed pride is that!

This produces murmuring at the providence of God; and causes people to say, 2 kings 6: 33. What should I wait for the Lord any longer?

Beware of selfconfidence. Be sensible of thy weakness, let him that stands take heed lest he fall. Be not confident of thy own strength to encounter the adversary. If God should let Satan loose upon thee, he’ll be too hard for thee.

Beware of an heart glued unto the world. When the world is a mans idol he will rather part with his very life, [with his own hands give it away!] than part with the world.

Beware of unbelief.— Distrust not the fatherly care of the heavenly Father.

Beware of despair. I Thes. 5: 8. Putting on for an helmet, the hope of salvation. Say not, The day of grace is over with me. — Say not, I have sinned unpardonably! — Vain Imaginations!

Beware of the more heinous crimes; which are in a special manner God-provoking evils. The sins against nature are so. Some that have been guilty of such sins, in secret, and have not repented of them. God has for such things left them to this, which is a sin against nature too! [Se Voetii Disp.. ubi supra.]

There are other atrocious crimes; Whereof this has been the consequence—Judas and Pilate, are two fearful examples of it! ——

Finally, beware of backsliding from God, and from good beginnings in religion. Remember that word, Hos. 8: 3. He hath cast off the thing that is good, the enemy shall pursue him. Some have left off prayer in their families; Left off their attendance on lectures; left off Godly exercises which they have been used unto. Therefore the enemy of their souls is let loose upon them and he pursues them even to self-destruction.

Thirdly, resist the tempter. Tis the counsel, Jam. 4: 7. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

—How, resist him? Do it by crying to God. —- If the avenger pursue thee, fly to a Christ, as the City of Refuge. Resist the devil! —- The next words are: Draw nigh to God.

But then, employ the word of God for the resisting of the temptation — It was Luthers method. — Yea, our Jesus has given us a pattern of it, — It is written!

Do one thing more, discover the temptations of the devil. Make a discovery, not unadvisedly unto all the world; but unto some faithful minister, or unto some other able Christian. One that cut his own throat a while ago, said before his expiration; O! That I had told, how I was tempted! If I had, I believe I should never have come to this!

Fourthly, above all a true faith is to be labored for. By faith embrace an offered Savior; this will keep thee from the destroyer. Being by faith, safe in the hands of thy Savior. The devil shall not pluck thee out of those hands. Tis directed, Eph. 6: 16. Above all, take the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. As by faith we obtain a victory over the world; [1 John 5: 4.] So we obtain a victory over Satan too. He has not such power over a true believer, as he has over others.

Act faith on the victory of thy Savior over Satan; Hoping and looking for a share in that!

And by faith, look up unto thy Savior, as unto one who knows how to succor the tempted. ——–

Boston, 23 May 1682



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Filed under Americas, Christianity, Devil, Honor and Disgrace, Mather, Increase, Selections, Sin, The Early Modern Period


from Of the Law of Nature and Nations


Samuel von Pufendorf was born into a long line of Lutheran clergy in Saxony. He studied at the universities of Leipzig and Jena, shifting from early studies in theology to philosophy, philology, history, and law. While he was working as a tutor for the Swedish ambassador in Copenhagen, Denmark, war broke out between the two countries; Pufendorf was subsequently arrested and spent eight months in prison. During this time, he began his first book on the principles of law.

Seven years later, at the request of the king of Sweden, Pufendorf took up a full professorship at the University of Lund. It was here that Pufendorf published his major work, Of the Law of Nature and Nations (1672). By examining national and international law, Pufendorf argued that every individual, by virtue of his or her innate human dignity, had a right to freedom and equality. In believing that self-interest is the source of action in society, he viewed slavery as unnatural and unreasonable. Pufendorf was influenced by Thomas Hobbes, who also placed emphasis on “nature” as a basis for ethical relationships. Unlike Hobbes, however, Pufendorf assumed that the state of nature is peaceful, not hostile. Pufendorf held the secular view that natural law and ethical principles stem from human reason, and that law and ethics should concern man in his social context.

In the section entitled “On the Duties of Man Towards Himself in the Cultivation of His Mind as Well as in the Care of His Body and of His Life,” Pufendorf addresses the specific matters of “whether there be any obligation to preserve one’s life” and “whether suicide be lawful” by analyzing the works of previous philosophers, many of whose views he rejects. In this discussion, which provides evidence of his voluminous scholarship, he appears to answer secular arguments with religious ones, arguing that suicide is an injury to God and to the human race, and insists that the law of nature requires self-preservation. He considers situations in which one person takes risks to save the life of another, or where a disgraceful death may be avoided, or where a person lets himself be killed by another, but denies “the absolute power of a man over his own life.”

In 1677, Pufendorf abandoned his writings on law and went to Stockholm where he became the royal historiographer, writing a 33-volume history of Sweden. In 1688, he moved to Berlin where he continued to write histories. Pufendorf’s works were standards for students of history and law, but fell into obscurity after the 18th century.


Samuel von Pufendorf [Puffendorf], Of the Law of Nature and Nations, tr. Basil Kennett, 3rd ed. Printed for R. Sare, R. Bonwicke, T. Goodwyn, J. Walthoe, M. Wotton, S. Manschip, R. Wilkin, B. Tooke, R. Smith, T. Ward, and W. Churchill, London 1717. Book II, Ch. 4, sections 16-19: “The Duties of Man with Regard to Himself,” pp. 177-182. Spelling modernized; internal citations, footnotes and Greek passages deleted.



On the Duties of Man Towards Himself in the Cultivation of his Mind as well as in the Care of his Body and of his Life

How passionately every man loves his own life, and how heartily he studies the security and preservation of it, is evident beyond dispute. But it will admit of a debate whether the bare natural instinct which he enjoys in common with beasts, inclines him to these desires; or whether he is not engaged in them by some superior command of the law of nature. For, in as much as no one can, in a legal sense, stand obliged to himself, such a law seems to be of no force or significance which is terminated in my self, which I can dispense with when I please, and by the breach of which I do no one an injury. Besides, it looks like a needless thing to establish a law about this point, since the anxious tenderness of self-love would beforehand drive us so forcibly on the care of our own safety, as to render it almost impossible for us to act otherwise. If then a man were born only for himself, we confess it would be convenient that he should be left entirely to his own disposal, and be allowed to do whatever he pleased with himself. But since by the universal consent of all wise men it is acknowledged, that the Almighty Creator made man to serve him, and to set forth his glory in a more illustrious manner, by improving the good things committed to his trust; and since Society, for which a man is sent into the world, cannot be well exercised and maintained, unless every one, as much as in him lies, takes care of his own preservation; (the safety of the whole society of mankind, being a thing unintelligible, if the safety of each particular member were an indifferent point), it manifestly appears, that a man by throwing aside all care of his own life, though he cannot properly be said to injure himself, yet is highly injurious both to Almighty God, and to the general body of mankind.

It was not rightly inferred in the argument that we just now mentioned, that the law of nature did not concern itself with this matter, because instinct did before drive us on the like good resolution. We should rather imagine, that the force of instinct was superadded (as an able second) to the dictate of reason; as if this help alone could scarce make a tie strong enough to keep mankind together. For indeed, if we reflect on the troubles and miseries that constantly wait on human life, and do so far outweigh that little and mean portion of pleasure, which through a perpetual repetition, grows every day more flat and languid, so that we must needs loath it in every enjoyment; and if we consider farther, how many men have their days prolonged only to make them capable of more misfortunes and evils; who is there, almost, who would not rid himself of the burden of life, as soon as possible, if instinct did not render it so light and so sweet; or unless so much bitterness or so much terror were joined to our notion of death? And yet who is there almost who would not break through the bare opposition of instinct, had not the command of our Creator secured us with a much stronger bar and restraint? ‘Nature,’ says Quintillian, ‘hath invented this chief device for the preservation of mankind, to make us die unwillingly, thus enabling us to bear so vast a load of misfortunes as falls to our share, with some patience and quiet.’ And Socrates in Xenophon declares it to be … the artifice of a wise workman, or builder, ‘to have implanted in men a Desire of producing offspring; in women a desire of nursing and bringing them up; and in all, when brought up, a vast desire of living, and as a great a fear of death.’ And this last motive is the main security of every man from the violence of others. For how easy were it to kill, were it not so hard to die? Hence he presently becomes master of other men’s lives, who hath once arrived at the contempt of his own. And the regard that others have to their own safety, is the best defence of mine.

‘Tis a question of more difficulty, whether at all, or how far a man hath power over his own life, either to expose it to extreme danger, or to consume it by slow means and degrees or lastly, to end it in sudden and violent manner. Many of the Ancients allowed a man an absolute right in these points, and thought he might either voluntarily offer his life as a pledge for another’s, or devote it freely, without any such design of preserving the life of his friend; or whenever he grew weary of living, might prevent the tardiness of nature and fate. Pliny calls the ability to kill one’s self, the most excellent convenience, in the midst of so many torments of life. Whom we can by no means excuse from flat impiety, for daring to think so abjectly of the greatest gift of Heaven. It is our business to examine what seems most agreeable in this case, to the law of nature. And here we may take it first of all to be true beyond dispute, that since men both can and ought to apply their pains to the help and service of another; and since some certain kinds of labour, and an overstraining earnestness in any, may so affect the strength and vigour of a man, as to make old age and death come on much sooner, than if he had passed his days in softness, and in easy pursuits; any one may, without fault, voluntarily contract his life in some degree, upon account of obliging mankind more signally, by some extraordinary services and benefits. For since we do not only live to our selves, but to God, and to human society; if either the glory of our Creator, or the safety and good of the general community require the spending of our lives, we ought willingly to lay them out on such excellent uses. Pompey the Great, in a time of famine at Rome, when the officer who had the care of transporting the corn, as well as all his other friends, entreated him not to venture to sea in so stormy a season, nobly answered them, That I should go ‘tis necessary, but not that I should live. And Achilles in Homer, when his fate was put to his choice, preferred a hasty death in the glorious adventures of war, to the longest period of age, to be passed idly and ingloriously at home.

Farther, in as much as it frequently happens, that the lives of many men cannot be preserved, unless others expose themselves, on their behalf, to a probable danger of losing their own; this makes it evident, that the lawful governour may lay an injunction on any man in such cases, not to decline the danger upon pain of the severest punishment. And on this principle is founded the obligation of soldiers, which we shall enlarge upon in its proper place. ‘Tis a noble saying of Socrates in Plato’s Apology, In whatever station a man is fixed, either by his own choice, as judging it the best, or by the command of his superior; in that he ought resolutely to continue, and to undergo any danger that may assault him there; reckoning neither death nor any other evil so grievous, as cowardice and infamy.

Nor doth it seem at all repugnant either to natural reason, or to the Holy Scriptures, (which command us to lay down our lives for our brethren) that, without any such rigid injunction of a superior, a man should voluntarily expose himself to a probability of losing his life for others; provided he hath good hopes of thus procuring their safety, and that they are worthy of so dear a ransom: For it would be silly and senseless, that a man should venture his own life for another whom ‘tis impossible to preserve; and that a person of worth and excellence should sacrifice himself for the security of an insignificant paltry fellow. We conceive it then to be lawful, that a man may either give himself as a surety for another, especially for an innocent and worthy person, or as a hostage for the safety of many, in the case of treaties; upon pain of suffering death, if either the accused person does not appear, or the treaty be not observed. Though the other party to whom he stands bound on either of these accounts, cannot fairly put him to death upon such failure; as we shall elsewhere make out. But that those vain customs of men’s devoting themselves out of foolhardiness and ostentation (such as we observed to be in use amongst the Japanese), are contrary to the law of nature, we do not in the least doubt. For there can be no virtue in an action where there’s no reason. Nor do we pretend to maintain, that the law of nature obliges a man to prefer the lives of others to his own; especially supposing the cases and circumstances to be equal. For besides that the common inclination of mankind is an argument to the contrary, we might allege the testimony of witnesses beyond all exception, allowing a man to be always dearest to himself, and charity still to begin at home.

It remains that we examine, whether or no a man, at his own free pleasure, either when he grows weary of life, or on the account of avoiding some terrible impending evil, or some ignominious and certain death, may hasten his own fate, as a remedy to his present or to his future misfortunes. On this point we have a famous saying of Plato, in Phaedo, frequently mentioned with honour and commendation by Christian writers: … We are placed, as it were, upon the guard, in life; and a man must not rid himself of this charge or basely desert his post. Which Lactantius hath expressed more fully in his Divine Institutions; As, says he, we did not come into the world upon our own pleasure or choice, so neither must we quit our station otherwise than by the command of him who gave it us; who put us into this tenement of the body, with orders to dwell here, ‘til he should please to remove us. It is worth while to hear how Plato describes the self-murderer, whom he hath condemned to a disgraceful burial. He that kills himself, preventing by violence the stroke of fate, being forced to his end neither by the sentence of the judges, nor by any inevitable chance, nor on the account of defending his modesty in extreme danger; but thus unjustly condemning and executing himself, out of cowardice and unmanliness of spirit. Aristotle hath well seconded his master. To die, says he, either to get rid of poverty or of love or of any other trouble or hardship, is so far from being an act of courage, that it rather argues the meanest degree of fear. For ‘tis weakness to fly and to avoid those things which are hard and painful to be undergone. Grotius hath observed, that persons guilty of self-murder were excluded from decent honours of burial, both amongst the Gentiles and the Jews. But amongst the latter, one case is commonly excepted, and allowed as a just reason for killing one’s self; and that is when a man finds he shall otherwise be made a reproach to God, and to religion. For acknowledging the power over our lives not to be in our own hands, but in God’s, they took it for granted, that nothing but the will of God either manifest or presumptive, could excuse the design of anticipating our fate. As instances of this excepted case, they allege the examples of Sampson, who chose to die by his own strength, when he found the True Religion exposed to scorn in his person and misfortunes: and of Saul, who fell on his own sword, lest he should have been derided and insulted over by God’s and his enemies; and lest, if he should have yielded himself prisoner, the slavery of his country and kingdom should inevitably follow. For the Jews are of opinion, that Saul recovered his wisdom and honour, as to the last act of his life; in as much as after the ghost of Samuel had foretold his death in the battle, yet he refused not to engage for his country and for the law of his God; whence he merited eternal praise, even by the testimony ofDavid; who likewise commended so highly the piety of those men, who honoured their prince’s relics with a decent burial.

Some extend this exception and allowance to many other cases which bear a resemblance to the former. And the foundation they build upon is this, that as no man can be properly bound or obliged to himself, so no man can do an injury to himself, when he takes away his own life. As for a man’s being engaged by the Law of Nature to preserve himself, they say the reason of this is, because he is constituted and appointed by God for the maintenance of human society, which he must not by any means forsake, like an idle soldier, who runs away from the post assigned him in battle: And that therefore my obligation to save my own life, is not a debt to myself, but to God, and to the community of mankind. So that if that respect to God and to mankind be taken off and be removed, the care of my life is recommended to me only by sensitive instinct, which not rising to the force of a law, an action repugnant to it cannot be accounted sinful. On these considerations, they think the case of those persons deserves a favourable judgment, and at least a kind pity, rather than a rigorous censure, who lay violent hands upon themselves, when they see that they shall otherwise infallibly suffer a death of torture and ignominy from their enemies; since it cannot be for the interest of the public, that they must needs die in so infamous a manner: Or else, when they see such an injury likely to be offered to them, as if they undergo, they shall be ever after scorned and derided by the rest of mankind. Of the former sort are those who seeing themselves condemned to death, either by cruel enemies abroad, or bloody tyrants at home, have willfully prevented the stroke; either to avoid the tortures and the shame of a public execution, or to procure some benefit to their friends or families by this expedient. Thus Tacitus, giving an account of some of the accused persons under Tiberius, who made themselves away, observe, that the fear of the executioner rendered these acts very frequent. And that whereas such as suffered death in public, were denied the privilege of burial, and had their goods confiscated; those who died by their own hands were decently interred, and their last wills stood good with full effect; these indulgences serving as a reward for their haste. And here, by the way, we may remark, that Martial’s censure doth not always hold good,

‘Tis mad to die for fear of death;

For, as Aeschines hath well distinguished, To die is not so terrible, as to bear the infamy that attends some kinds of deaths.

The other sort of persons whose death we observed to be so favourably interpreted by some Casuists are those women and beautiful boys, who have killed themselves to avoid the violation of their chastity. And in their behalf, they urge this plausible excuse, that being assaulted with such a danger as they could not otherwise, unless by a miracle, escape, they might well conclude, that their Almighty Sovereign and General now gave them a dismission, and that they might well presume on the consent and leave of mankind, to whom they were already lost: it being no one’s interest that they should not anticipate their death for so little a time, to avoid the feeling of such tortures and abuses as might, perhaps, tempt them to yield to a more grievous sin: and in as much as it seemed unreasonable to condemn generous souls to such a necessity, as that they must wait for the sword of villains, who would enhance the bitterness of death, by their foul and ignominious usage.

But to leave this particular point without venturing at a determination; thus much we take to be evident, that those who voluntarily put an end to their own lives, either as tired out with the many troubles which commonly attend our mortal condition; or from an abhorrence of indignities and evils, which yet would not render them disgraceful members of human society; or through fear of such pains and torments as by resolutely enduring, they might have become useful examples to others; cannot be well cleared of the charge of sinning against the law of nature. Sir Thomas Moreseems to be of another opinion in his Utopia, but his reasons do not prevail with us to alter our judgment.

But those are, on all accounts, to be exempted from the crime of self-murder, who lay violent hands on themselves, under any disease robbing them of the use of reason. Many persons likewise who have run into voluntary destruction, upon an exceeding fright and consternation, have on that account been excused by moderate and candid judges.

It ought to be observed farther on this head, that it makes no difference whether a man kill himself, or force others to dispatch him. For he who at such a time, or on such occasion, ought not to die, is by no means excused, if he makes use of another man’s hands to procure his death; since what a man doth by another, he is supposed in law to have done himself, and must therefore bear the guilt or imputation of the fact. David was guilty of the death of Uriah, though he got it effected by the hands of the Ammonites. So were Pilate and Pharisees guilty of that of our Saviour, though they did not themselves fasten him to the cross, but ordered the soldiers to do it. Although the person who lends his hands to such a service, may likewise bring himself in for a share in the fault. For this reason we don’t admire the reflection which Florus makes on the deaths of Brutus and Cassius; Who, says he, doth not wonder, that these wise and great persons did not employ their own hands in their concluding strokes? Perhaps it was part of their persuasion, that they ought not to defile themselves by such attempts, but that in delivering their most holy and most pious souls from the confinement of their bodies, they should make use of their own judgment, in the intention, and of other men’s wickedness in execution. For if it were unlawful for them at that time to end their lives, it was indifferent whether they fell by their own, or by others’ violence. But if it were lawful, how can any wickedness or guilt be imputed to the servants who afflicted them? Though the historian might, in some measure, be excused, if the same custom were practised in his country, which Aeschines mentions amongst the Grecians, that if a person murdered himself, the hand that performed the deed was buried apart from the rest of the body.

To conclude, since we deny that a man hath absolute power over his own life, it is plain that we cannot approve of those laws, which in some countries either command or permit people to make themselves away. Such a law Diodorus Siculus reports to have been in force amongst the inhabitants of the island Ceylon, ordaining, “That the people should live only to such a number of years, which being run out, they eat a certain herb that put them into their long sleep, and dispatched them without the least sense of pain.” And thus too amongst the C[r]eans, all persons above sixty years old, were obliged by the laws to poison themselves, to supply food for the rest. Though Aelian gives this better reason for the practice; “that having arrived at such an age they were conscious to themselves, that they were no longer able to promote their country’s interest by their service; growing now towards stupidity and dotage.” Procopius relates a custom of the Heruli, by which those who were weakened and disabled, either by disease or age, voluntarily sent themselves out of the world: the wives hanging themselves at the tombs of their husbands, if they lost them in this manner…

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