Category Archives: Stoicism


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 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 Commentaries on the Laws of England

Sir William Blackstone was born in London to a wealthy family of the middle class and received a broad education in logic, mathematics, and the classics. A member and fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, he became a barrister in 1746 after studying at the Middle Temple. His practice went badly, and he subsequently devoted himself to teaching at Oxford in 1753, three years after receiving the Doctor in Civil Law degree. His lectures on English law were the first ever presented in a university setting. Blackstone later abandoned academic life in favor of a political one. From 1761 until 1770, he served in the House of Commons as a member of Parliament while continuing to practice law, and in 1763, was made solicitor general to the queen. In 1770, Blackstone became judge of the Court of Common Pleas, a position he held until his death.

While Blackstone’s work was criticized for frequently being inaccurate, uncritical, and simplistic, his historical importance resides in the ability he had to explain and describe to the layman, in simple and elegant terms, the complexities of English law. He was often criticized, especially by the reformist Jeremy Bentham [q.v.], for his view that dissent in law was a crime, since civil laws are valid due to their harmony with the laws of nature and God.

Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769) were the first attempt, since Henri de Bracton [q.v.] in the 13th century, to describe the doctrines of English law in a comprehensive and systematic manner. The enormously influential Commentaries, published in four volumes, became the basis of the university system of legal education in both England and the United States. In the section “Homicide,” Blackstone characterizes suicide as “among the highest crimes” and an act of cowardice, and outlines possible punishments of suicides by the law.


Sir William Blackstone, “Homicide,” Book IV, chapter XIV, section III, of Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4 volumes, 18th edition, ed. Archer Ryland. London: Sweet, Pheney, Maxwell, Stevens & Sons, 1829, pp. 188-190. Also from the Avalon Project at Yale Law School.


Felonious homicide is … the killing of a human creature, of any age or sex, without justification or excuse. This may be done, either by killing one’s self, or another man.

Self-murder, the pretended heroism, but real cowardice, of the Stoic philosophers, who destroyed themselves to avoid those ills which they had not the fortitude to endure, though the attempting it seems to be countenanced by the civil law, yet was punished by the Athenian law with cutting off the hand, which committed the desperate deed. And also the law of England wisely and religiously considers, that no man hath a power to destroy life, but by commission from God, the author of it: and, as the suicide is guilty of a double offence; one spiritual, in invading the prerogative of the Almighty, and rushing into his immediate presence uncalled for; the other temporal, against the king, who hath an interest in the preservation of all his subjects; the law has therefore ranked this among the highest, crimes, making it a peculiar species of felony, a felony committed on oneself. a felo de se therefore is he that deliberately puts an end to his own existence, or commits any unlawful malicious act, the consequence of which is his own death: as if, attempting to kill another, he runs upon his antagonist’s sword; or, shooting at another, the gun bursts and kills himself. The party must be of years of discretion, and in his senses, else it is no crime. But this excuse ought not to be strained to that length, to which our coroners’ juries are apt to carry it, viz. that the very act of suicide is an evidence of insanity; as if every man who acts contrary to reason, had no reason at all: for the fame argument would prove every other criminal non compos, as well as the self-murderer. The law very rationally judges, that every melancholy or hypochondriac fit does not deprive a man of the capacity of discerning right from wrong; which is necessary, as was observed in a former chapter, to form a legal excuse. And therefore, if a real lunatic kills himself in a lucid interval, he is a felo de se as much as another man.

But now the question follows, what punishment can human laws inflict on one who has withdrawn himself from their reach? They can only act upon what he has left behind him, his reputation and fortune: on the former, by an ignominious burial in the highway, with a stake driven through his body; on the latter, by a forfeiture of all his goods and chattels to the king: hoping that his care for either his own reputation, or the welfare of his family, would be some motive to restrain him from so desperate and wicked an act. And it is observable, that this forfeiture has relation to the time of the act done in the felon’s lifetime, which was the cause of his death. As if husband and wife be possessed jointly of a term of years in land, and the husband drowns himself; the land shall be forfeited to the king, and the wife shall not have it by survivorship. For by the act of casting himself into the water he forfeits the term; which gives a title to the king, prior to the wife’s title by survivorship, which could not accrue till the instant of her husband’s death. And, though it must be owned that the letter of the law herein borders a little upon severity, yet it is some alleviation that the power of mitigation is left in the breast of the sovereign, who upon this (as on all other occasions) is reminded by the oath of his office to execute judgment in mercy.

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from Julie, or the New Heloise


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher, novelist, and political essayist, profoundly influenced the Enlightenment period during which he lived and the Romantic movement and French Revolution to come. He was born in Geneva in 1712; his mother died within days of his birth. He had almost no formal education. He was apprenticed unsuccessfully to both a notary public and an engraver, and committed a series of petty thefts and other breaches of discipline that earned him beatings but did not change his behavior; they served largely to reinforce his hatred of authority. Rousseau finally found a patron in the wealthy baroness Mme. de Warens, with whom he lived at Annecy and at Chambéry. In about 1743, he took as his mistress an illiterate inn servant, Thérèse le Vasseur, with whom he fathered five children, all placed in a foundling hospital. Rousseau wrote an opera and papers on musical notation, for which he received some recognition. He published two influential essays in response to a competition established by the Academy of Dijon, the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750) and the Discourse upon the Origin and Foundations of Inequality (1755). Other important works by Rousseau include Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), from which the selection here is taken, A Treatise on the Social Contract (1762), Emile, or On Education (1762), banned in Geneva and Paris, and burned publicly when it was first published; and his remarkably intimate and ultimately influential Confessions, published posthumously.

Rousseau’s life and work were filled with controversy. Some of his works were banned in parts of Europe and burned in others; he was forced to flee arrest in Paris; and he experienced growing persecution during his travels in Europe. He eventually returned to Paris where he lived as a music copyist. Of a suspicious and paranoid temperament, he quarreled with his close friend David Hume [q.v.] and died at least partly insane in a cottage in Ermenonville in 1778.

Julie, or the New Heloise is an epistolary novel, one among the many works expressing Rousseau’s conviction that the Enlightenment’s confidence in rational, scientific progress was misguided and that human culture and law were artificial, man-made constructs that created inequality and took humankind away from its natural, happier state. In the novel, two characters debate the issues in suicide: a young man, potentially suicidal, defending a secular argument in favor of suicide much influenced by classical literature and Stoicism, and the more senior Lord Edward Bomston, who uses religious and friendship-based covenantal considerations to argue against it. “Listen to me, mad youth,” Bomston says in his reply to the young man’s letter, in a much-repeated bit of advice, “let me teach you to love life. Every time you are tempted to exit it, say to yourself: ‘Let me do one more good deed before I die’ ”—advice that Bomston believes will deter any morally decent human being.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie, or the New Heloise: Letters of Two Lovers Who Live in a Small Town at the Foot of the Alps, in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 6, trs. Philip Steward and Jean Vaché. Hanover and London: Dartmouth College; University Press of New England, 1997, letters 21 and 22, pp. 310-323.



To Milord Edward

Yes, Milord, it is true; my soul is oppressed with the weight of life.  For a long time it has been a burden to me; I have lost everything that could have endeared it to me, only the sorrows remain to me.  But they say I have no right to dispose of it without an order from the one who gave it me.  I also know that it belongs to you in more than one way.  Your ministrations have saved it twice and your kindnesses constantly preserve it.  I will never dispose of it without being sure of my right to do so without crime, nor so long as the slightest hope remains of employing it for you.

You used to say I was necessary to you; why did you deceive me?  Since we have been in London, far from thinking of ways to make me useful to you, all you do is look after me.  What superfluous precautions you take!  Milord, as you know, I hate crime even more than life; I worship the eternal Being; I owe you everything, I love you, I hold to you alone on earth; friendship, duty can chain a miserable man to earth: pretexts and sophisms will never do so.  Enlighten my reason, speak to my heart; I am ready to hear you: but remember that despair cannot easily be fooled.

You want reasoning: well then let us reason.  You want the deliberation scaled to the importance of the question under discussion, I agree to that.  Let us seek truth peaceably, tranquilly.  Let us discuss the general proposition as if it concerned someone else.  Robeck wrote an apology for willful death before he killed himself.  I do not mean to write a book as he did and I do not find his very satisfactory, but I hope to imitate his detachment in this discussion.

I have long meditated on this grave subject.  That you must know, for you are aware of what has happened and I am still alive.  The more I reflect on it, the more I find that the question comes down to this fundamental proposition: to seek what is good and flee what is ill for oneself insofar as it offends no one else is the right of nature.  When our life is an ill for us and a good for no one it is therefore permissible to deliver oneself of it.  If there is one evident and certain maxim in the world, I think that is it, and if someone managed to overturn it, there is no human deed that could not be made into a crime.

What do our Sophists say about this?  First of all they regard life as something that is not ours, because it has been given to us; but it is precisely because it has been given to us that it is ours.  Did God not give them two arms?  Yet when they fear gangrene they have one cut off, and both, if need be.  Precisely the same holds for anyone who believes in the immortality of the soul; for if I sacrifice my body to preserve something more precious which is my body, I sacrifice my body to preserve something more precious which is my well-being.  Although all the gifts that Heaven has given us are naturally good things for us, they are only too subject to changing in nature, and to them it added reason to teach us to discern among them.  If this rule did not entitle us to choose some and reject others, what use would it be among men?

They turn this insubstantial objection over in a thousand ways.  They consider man living on earth as a soldier on sentry duty.  God, they say, has placed you in this world, why do you quit it without his leave?  But how about you, whom he has placed in your own city, why so you quit it without his leave?  Is leave not implicit in ill-being?  Wherever he places me, whether in the body, or on the earth, it is to remain there so long as I am well off, and to quit it as soon as I am badly off.  Such is the voice of nature and of God.  We are to await the order, I grant; but when I die naturally God does not order me to give up this life, he takes it from me: it is by making life unbearable to me that he orders me to give it up.  In the first case, I hold out with all my strength, in the second I have the merit of obeying.

Can you imagine how there can be people unjust enough to stigmatize willful death as rebellion against providence, as if one meant to escape its laws?  It is not to escape them that one ceases to live, but to carry them out.  What!  Does God have power only over my body?  Is there some place in the universe where some extant being is not under his hand, and will he act less immediately on me, when my purified substance is more of a piece, and more like his own?  No, his justice and goodness are my hope, and if I believed the death could remove me from his power, I would no longer wish to die.

That is one of the Phaedo’s Sophisms, full as it otherwise is of sublime truths.  If your slave killed himself, says Socrates to Cebes, would you not punish him, if you could, for having unjustly deprived you of your property?  Good Socrates, what are you telling us?  Does one no longer belong to God after death?  That is not it at all, but you should have said: if you burden your slave with a garment that impedes him in the service he owes you, will you punish him for having cast off the garment the better to carry out his service?  The great error is to attribute too much importance to life; as if our being depended on it, and after death we were nothing at all.  Our life is nothing in God’s eyes; it is nothing in the eyes of reason, it should be nothing in ours, and when we leave our body, we merely lay aside an inconvenient garment.  Is that worth such ado?  Milord, these declaimers are not in good faith.  Absurd and cruel in their reasonings, they make the alleged crime worse as if one were ending one’s existence, and punish it, as if one still existed.

As for the Phaedo, which furnished them the only imposing argument they ever invoked, this question there is treated only very lightly and as it were in passing.  Socrates, condemned by an unjust sentence to lose his life within a few hours, had no need to examine very closely whether he had the right to dispose of it.  Even if we grant that he actually spoke the words Plato puts in his mouth, believe me, Milord, he would have pondered them more carefully at the point of putting them into practice; and the proof that no good objection to the right to dispose of one’s own life can be drawn from that immortal work is that Cato read it all the way through twice, the very night he departed this world.

These same Sophists ask whether life can ever be an evil?  Considering the throng of errors, torments, and vices with which it is filled, one would be much more inclined to ask whether it was ever good?  Crime continually besieges the most virtuous man, every moment of his life, he is on the verge of becoming the wicked man’s prey or becoming wicked himself.  To struggle and suffer, such is his fate in this world: to do evil and suffer, is that of the dishonest man.  In everything else they differ, they have nothing in common but life’s miseries.  If you required authorities and facts, I could cite you oracles, wise men’s replies, acts of virtue rewarded by death.  Let us leave all that aside, Milord; it is to you I am speaking, and I ask you, what is the principle occupation of the wise man here below, if not to distill himself, so to speak, into the recesses of his soul, and attempt to be dead while he lives?  The only means reason has found to spare us humanity’s woes, is it not to detach us from worldly objects and all that is mortal in us, to meditate within ourselves, raise ourselves to sublime contemplations; and if our passions and errors cause our misfortunes, with what zeal ought we not yearn for a condition that delivers us from both?  What do these sensual men do by so indiscreetly multiplying their sufferings by their voluptuous delights?  They obliterate so to speak their existence by dint of expanding it on earth; they compound the weight of their chains by the number of their attachments; they have no ecstasies but that lay in store for them a thousand bitter deprivations: the more they feel, the more they suffer: the more they plunge into life, the more unhappy they are.

But I am ready to concede that in general, it is if one so wishes a good thing for man to crawl sadly over the surface of the earth: I do not pretend that all of humankind should immolate itself by common consent, nor turn the earth into a vast graveyard.  There are, there are indeed some wretched creatures too privileged to follow the common road, and for whom despair and bitter sufferings are nature’s passport.  In their case it would be as foolish to believe their life a good as it was for the Sophist Possidonius, tormented with gout, to deny it was an evil.  As long as it is good for us to live we desire it strongly, and nothing but the experience of extreme suffering can overcome in us this desire: for we have all received from nature an enormous horror of death, and this horror conceals from our eyes the miseries of human condition.  One long endures a painful and doleful life before resigning oneself to relinquishing it; but once the weariness of living overcomes the horror of dying, then life is obviously a great evil, and one cannot too soon be freed from it.  Thus, although one cannot identify the precise point where it ceases being a good, at least one knows with certainty that it is an evil long before it so appears to us, and in every rational man the right to relinquish it comes well ahead of the temptation to do so.

This is not all: after denying that life can be an evil, in order to deprive us of our right to do away with it, they then say it is an evil, in order to reproach us for our inability to endure it.  According to them it is craven to elude its suffering and pains, and none but cowards precipitate their own death.  O Rome, conqueror of the world, what a host of cowards gave thee empire over it!  If Arria, Empona, Lucretia are among them, that is because they were women.  But Brutus, but Cassius, and thou who shared with the Gods the respect of a dumbfounded world, great and divine Cato, thou whose august and sacred image used to inspire the Romans with a holy zeal and make Tyrants quake, thy proud admirers never thought that one day in the dusty corner of a college, vile Rhetors would prove thou wert a mere coward, for having denied to triumphant crime the tribute of virtue in fetters.  Power and greatness of modern writers, how sublime you are; and how intrepid they are with pen in hand!  But tell me, brave and valiant hero who so courageously flee the battlefield so you can endure life’s burden longer: when a burning ember happens to fall on this eloquent hand, why do you retract it so suddenly?  What!  You have the cravenness not to dare bearing the heat of the fire!  Nothing, say you, obliges me to bear the ember; and I, who obliges me to bear life?  Did it cost providence more effort to engender a man than a straw, and are not the two equally its handiwork?

There is courage, no doubt, in suffering with constancy ills one cannot avoid; but only a fool would willingly suffer those he can elude without doing wrong, and it is often a very great wrong to endure a wrong needlessly.  He who is unable to deliver himself from a painful life through a prompt death is like the man who prefers to let a wound fester rather than entrust it to the salutary knife of a surgeon.  Come, worthy Parisot, cut off this leg of mine which is going to kill me.  I will watch you do it without raising an eyebrow, and let myself be called a coward by the braggart who watches his own leg rot for fear of facing the same operation.

I admit there are duties towards others, which do not allow every man to dispose of himself, but on the other hand how many are there that command it?  Let a Magistrate on whom the fatherland’s welfare depends, let a paterfamilias who owes subsistence to his children, let an insolvent debtor who would ruin his creditors, devote themselves to their duty come what may; let a thousand other civil and domestic ties force an honorable unfortunate to bear the misfortune of living, so as to avoid the greater misfortune of being unjust, can one, for that, in completely different circumstances, preserve at the expense of a multitude of wretches a life that is useful solely to the man who dares not die?  Kill me, my child, says the decrepit savage to his son who carries him bending under the weight; the enemy is upon us; go fight with your brothers, go save your children, and do not expose your father to falling alive into the hands of those whose relatives he ate.  Even if hunger, pains, misery, these domestic enemies worse than savages, allowed a wretched cripple to consume in his bed the bread of a family that can scarcely earn enough for itself; why should the man who has no ties, the man Heaven has reduced to living alone on earth, the man whose wretched existence can yield nothing good, not have at least the right to quit an abode where his moans are bothersome and his sufferings fruitless?

Weight these considerations, Milord; combine all these reasons and you will find that they come down to the simplest of natural rights which a reasonable man never questioned.  Indeed, why should it be permissible to be cured of the gout and not of life? Are not the one and the other sent to us by the same hand?  If dying is painful, what does that matter?  Is it pleasant to take drugs?  How many people prefer death to medicine?  Proof that nature abhors both.  Let them show me why it is more permissible to deliver oneself from a passing illness by using remedies, than from an incurable illness by taking one’s life, or why one is less blameworthy for taking quinine for fever than opium for stones.  If we consider the objective, each serves to deliver us from ill-being; if we consider the means, each is equally natural; if we consider their abhorrence, it is equal on both sides; if we consider the master’s will, what illness could one combat that he has not sent upon us?  What suffering could one elude that comes not from his hand?  What is the point where his power ends, and where one can legitimately resist?  Is it then not permissible for us to change the state of anything, because all that is, is as he has willed it?  Must one do nothing in this world for fear of violating his laws, and whatever we do can we ever violate them?  No Milord, man’s vocation is greater and nobler.  God has not breathed life into him in order for him to remain immobile in a perpetual quietism.  But he has given him freedom to do good, conscience to will it, and reason to choose it.  He has constituted him sole judge of his own acts.  He has written in his heart: do what is good for you and harmful to no one.  If I feel it is right for me to die, I resist his command by clinging obstinately to life; for by making my death desirable, he instructs me to seek it.

Bomston, I appeal to your wisdom and your candor; what more certain maxims can reason deduce from Religion concerning willful death?  If the Christians have established others contrary to them, they have drawn them neither from the principles of their Religion, nor from its unique rule, which is Scripture, but solely from pagan philosophers.  Lactantius and Augustine, who first put forward this new doctrine on which neither Jesus Christ nor the Apostles had said a single word, founded themselves solely on the reasoning is the Phaedo which I have already contested; and so it is that the faithful who believe they are following in this the authority of the Gospel, are merely following Plato’s.  Indeed, where will one find in the entire Bible a law against suicide, or even a simple disapproval; and is it not quite strange that in the examples of people who have taken their own lives, not a word of blame is found against any of these examples?  Furthermore, Samson’s is sanctioned by a wonder that avenges him of his enemies.  Would this miracle have been performed to justify a crime; and would this man who lost his strength for having allowed a woman to seduce him have recovered it to commit an authentic crime, as if God himself had wished to deceive mankind?

Thou shalt not kill, says the Decalogue. What follows from this? If this commandment is to be taken literally, one must kill neither evildoers nor enemies; and Moses who brought about the death of so many people had a very poor understanding of his own precept. If there are a few exceptions, the first of them is certainly in favor of willful death, because it is free of violence and injustice, the only two criteria that can make homicide criminal, and because nature has, besides, created sufficient obstacle to it.

But, they further say, suffer patiently the ills that God sends your way; count your pains as a merit.  How poorly it is to grasp the spirit of Christianity, to apply its maxims thus!  Man is subject to a thousand ills, his life is a web of miseries, and he seems born only to suffering.  Of these ills, reason counter to reason, approves.  But how small is their sum compared to those he is forced to suffer despite himself!  These are the ones a merciful God allows men to count for merit; he accepts as homage freely given the mandatory tribute he imposes on us, and imputes to the benefit of the next life our resignation in this one.  Man’s true penitence is imposed on him by nature; if he patiently endures everything he is constrained to endure, he has done in this respect everything that God requires of him, and if anyone is arrogant enough to pretend he can go beyond that, he is a madman who ought to be locked up, or an imposter who ought to be punished.  Let us then flee without qualm all the ills we can flee, there will always be only too many left for us to suffer.  Let us deliver ourselves without remorse from life itself, once it has become an ill for us; since it is within our power to do so, and since in doing so we offend neither God nor men.  If something must be sacrificed to the Supreme Being, is dying nothing?  Let us offer to God the death he imposes on us through the voice of reason, and commit peacefully to his bosom our soul which he reclaims from us.

Such are the general precepts that good sense dictates to all men and Religion sanctions.*  Let us return to us.  You have been willing to open your heart to me; I know your sufferings; you suffer no less than I; your ills like mine are without remedy, and all the more since the laws of honor are more immutable than those of fortune.  You endure them, I concede, steadfastly.  Virtue sustains you; one step farther; it releases you.  You urge me to suffer: Milord, I dare urge you to put an end to your sufferings, and I let you be the judge which of us cherishes the other more.

Why postpone taking a step that must in any case be taken?  Shall we wait until old age and years attach us basely to life after taking away its charms, and until we trail about with effort, ignominy, and pain a body crippled and bent over?  We are at the age when the soul’s vigor easily releases itself from its fetters, and when man still knows how to die; later on he wailingly lets life be wrested from him.  Let us take advantage of a time when the weariness of life makes death desirable; let us beware lest it come with its horrors at the moment when we no longer want it.  I remember, there was a moment when I asked Heaven for but an hour, and would have died of despair had I not obtained it.  Ah how painful it is to break the ties that bind our hearts to earth, and how it is to give it up as soon as they are broken!  I can feel, Milford, that we are both worthy of a dwelling more pure; virtue points us the way, and fate beckons us to seek it.  May the friendship that joins us unite us once more in our last hour. O what ecstasy for two true friends to end their days willingly in each other’s arms, to mingle their last sighs, breathe forth at once the two halves of their soul!  What pain, what regret can poison their last instants? What do they leave behind in departing the world?  They go off together; they leave nothing behind.


Young man, you are being carried away by a blind transport; restrain yourself; do not give counsel while you are seeking it.  I have known other ills than yours.  My soul is staunch; I am an Englishman, I know how to die, for I know how to live, to suffer like a man.  I have seen death at close range, and consider it with too much detachment to go seeking it out.  Let us talk about you.

It is true, you were necessary to me; my soul needed yours; your assistance could prove useful to me; your reason could possibly enlighten me in the most importance concern of my life; if I make no use of it, whose fault do you think that is?  Where is it?  What has become of it?  What can you do?  What good are you in your present condition? What services can I expect from you?  Unreasonable sorrows render you dumb and merciless.  You are not a man; you are nothing; and if I did not take into account what you are capable of being, such as you are I see nothing in this world beneath you.

The only proof I need is your Letter itself.  Formerly I found sense, truth in you.  Your sentiments were straightforward, your reasoning was clear, and I loved you not only by affinity but by choice as another means for me to cultivate wisdom.  What have I now found in the reasoning’s of this Letter you seem so smug about?  A miserable and perpetual sophism which by the distractions of you reason indicates those of your heart, and which I would not even bother pointing out had I not taken pity on your ranting.

To overthrow all that in a word, I need ask you only one thing.  You who believe in God’s existence, the soul’s immortality, and man’s freedom, do not think, no doubt, that an intelligent being receives a body and is placed on earth at random, merely to live, suffer, and die?  There is indeed, perhaps, in human life a goal, an end, a moral objective? I beg you to answer me clearly on this point; after which we will take up your letter step by step, and you will blush for having written it.

But let us leave aside general maxims, of which often much ado is made without any of them ever being followed; for there is always in the application some particular circumstances that so changes the state of things that everyone believes himself dispensed from obeying the rule he prescribes to others, and we know full well that any man who posits general maxims expect them to oblige everyone, except himself.  Once more let us talk about you.

So you are entitled, in your opinion, to cease living?  The proof is a strange one; it is that you want to die.  That is to be sure a convenient argument for scoundrels:  They must be most obliged to you for the weapons you furnish them; there will no longer be any crimes they will not justify by the temptation to commit them, and once the violence of passion has won out over the horror of crime, in the desire of doing evil they will also see the right to do so.

So you are entitled to cease to live?  What I would like to know is whether you have even begun?  What!  Were you placed on earth to do nothing here?  Did Heaven not assign to you along with life a task to fill it?  If you have done your day’s work before evening, rest for what remains of the day, that you can do; but let us have a look at how much you have accomplished.  What answer do you have ready for the Supreme Judge who will ask for an account of your time?  Speak up, what will you tell him?  I have seduced an honest maiden.  I abandon a friend amidst his troubles.  Poor fool!  Find me that righteous man who boasts he has lived enough; let me learn from him how one must have borne life so as to have the right to relinquished it.

You enumerate humanity’s ills.  You do not blush at exhausting commonplaces rehashed a hundred times, and you say: life is an evil. But, look about, search in the order of things, whether you can find in it any good things that are not admixed with evil.  Is this then to say that there is no good in creation, and you confuse what is evil by nature with what suffers evil only by accident?  As you yourself have said, man’s passive life is nothing, and concerns only a body from which he will soon be delivered; but his active and moral life, which must influence his whole being, consists in the exercise of his will.  Life is an evil for the wicked man who prospers, and a good for the honorable man who is unfortunate: for it is not a passing modification, but its relationship to its objective that makes it good or bad.  What are after all these painful sorrows that force you to relinquish it?  Do you think that I have not detected beneath your feigned impartiality in counting up the evils of this life the shame of speaking of your own?  Heed my advice, do not abandon all your virtues at once.  Keep at least your former frankness, and tell your friend openly:  I have lost the hope of corrupting an honest woman, so here I am forced to be a man of honor; I would rather die.

You tire of living, and you say: life is an evil.  Sooner or later you will be consoled, and you will say: life is good.  You will be closer to the truth without reasoning any better: for nothing will have changed but you.  That being so, change right away, and since all the evil is in the disposition of your soul, amend you disorderly affections, and do not burn your house down to avoid the bother of putting it in order.

I suffer, you tell me?  Is it in my power not to suffer?  First, this changes the status of the question; for the problem in not whether you suffer, but whether it is an ill for you to live.  Let us go on.  You suffer, you must seek to put an end to your suffering.  Let us examine whether that calls for dying.

Consider a moment the natural progress of the soul’s ills directly opposite the progress of the body’s, as the two substances are opposite nature.  The latter become chronic, worsen with age, and finally destroy this mortal machine.  The former, on the contrary, external and temporary alterations of an immortal and simple being, fade away little by little and leave it in its original form which nothing could ever change.  Sorrow, woe, regrets, despair are short-lived pains that never take root in the soul, and experience ever belies that sentiment of bitterness that makes us regard our sufferings as eternal.  I will say more; I cannot believe that the vices that corrupt us are more ingrained in us than our troubles; not only do I think they disappear with the body that occasions them; but I do not doubt that a longer life could allow men to be reformed, and that several centuries of youth would teach us that there is nothing better than virtue.

However that may be, since most of our physical ills only increase endlessly, excruciating bodily pain, when it is incurable, may justify a man’s disposing of himself: for all his faculties being estranged by pain, and the evil being without remedy, he no longer has use of either his will or his reason; he ceases to be a man before he dies, and by taking his own life merely completes the separation from a body that bogs him down and where already his soul no longer is.

But such is not the case with pains of the soul, which, however acute, always bring the remedy with them.  Indeed, what makes any ill intolerable?  It is its duration.  The operations of surgery are commonly much more cruel than the sufferings they heal; but the ill’s pain is permanent, the operation’s temporary, and we prefer the latter.  What need is there then for an operation for pains that are assuaged by their own duration, which alone would make them unbearable?  Is it reasonable to apply such violent remedies to ills that fade away by themselves?  To anyone who prizes constancy and avoids valuing years more than they are worth, which of two means of delivering himself from the same sufferings is to be preferred, death or time?  Wait and you will be healed.  What more do you ask?

Ah! It only compounds my suffering to think it will end! The vain sophism of grief!  The clever phrase devoid of reason, of accuracy, and perhaps of good faith.  What an absurd excuse for despair is the hope of ending one’s misery!*  Even supposing this bizarre sentiment, who would not rather sharpen the present pain for a moment with the assurance of seeing it end, as one scrapes a wound to make it scab?  And if the pain had a charm that made us love suffering, would not depriving ourselves of it by taking our life be to accomplish at that very instant everything we fear from the future?

Think about that, young man; what are ten, twenty, thirty years to an immortal being?  Pain and pleasure pass like a shadow; life is gone in an instant; it is nothing in itself, its worth depends on its use.  The good one has done alone remains, and it is through it that life amounts to something.

Therefore say no more that for you it is an evil to live, since it is in your power alone to make it a good, and if it is an evil to have lived, that is another reason to live on.  Do not say, either, that you are entitled to die; for it would be as good to say that you are entitled not to be a man, entitled to rebel against the author of your being, and betray your purpose.  But when you add that your death does no one harm, are you forgetting that it is to your friend you dare to say this?

Your death does no one harm? I see! To die at our expense hardly matters to you, you count our mourning for nothing.  I am not talking now about the rights of friendship,  which you dismiss; are there not yet dearer ones* that oblige you to preserve yourself?  If there is one person on earth who has loved you enough not to wish to survive you, and whose happiness is incomplete without yours, do you think you owe her nothing?  Will your lethal designs once carried out not trouble the peace of soul restored with such difficulty to its original innocence?  Do you not fear reopening in this too tender heart wounds that are poorly healed?  Do you not fear that your loss will bring about another yet more cruel, by depriving the world and virtue of their worthiest ornament?  And if she survives you, do you not fear provoking remorse in her breast, heavier to bear than life?  Ungrateful friend, indelicate lover, will you always be preoccupied with yourself?  Will you never be mindful of anything but your pains?  Are you not at all sensible to the happiness of that which you cherished?  And could you not manage to live for her who intended to die with you?

You mention the duties of the magistrate and paterfamilias, and because they are not imposed on you, you think you are completely uncommitted.  How about society to which you owe your preservation, your talents, your lights; the fatherland to which you belong, the wretched who need you, do you owe them nothing?  Oh what an impeccable enumeration you make!  Among the duties you count, you forget only those of man and Citizen.  Where is that virtuous patriot who refuses to sell his blood to a foreign prince because he must shed it only for his country, and who now, a desperate man, means to shed it against the express injunction of the laws?  The laws, the laws. Young man!  Does the wise man scorn them?  Guiltless Socrates, out of respect for them was unwilling to leave prison.  You do not hesitate to violate them in order to leave life unjustly, and you ask: what harm am I doing?

You try to justify yourself with examples.  You dare to cite me Romans! You, Romans!  Some right you have to dare pronounce those illustrious names!  Tell me, did Brutus die a desperate lover, and did Cato rip out his entrails for his mistress?  Petty, feeble man, what is shared between Cato and you?  Show me the common measure between that sublime soul and yours.  Brash fellow, hush!  I fear profaning his name by eulogizing him.  Before that holy and august name, every friend of virtue ought to bury his forehead in the dust, and honor in silence the memory of the greatest of men.

How ill chosen your examples are, and what low esteem you hold Romans in, if you think they believed they were entitled to take their lives as soon as they seemed onerous.  Look at the prime of the Republic, and see whether you will find there a single virtuous citizen delivering himself thus from the weight of his duties, even after the cruelest of misfortunes.  Did Regulus returning to Carthage avert by his death the torments that awaited him?  What would Posthumius not have given to enjoy that resource at the Caudine Forks?  What effort of courage did the Senate itself not admire in the Consul Varro for having managed to survive his defeat?  For what reason did so many Generals willingly allow themselves to be delivered to their enemies, they to whom ignominy was so cruel, and to whom dying was of so little price?  It is because they owed their blood, their lives, and their last breath to the fatherland, and because neither shame nor setbacks could turn them aside from that sacred duty.  But when the Laws were abolished and the State was a prey to Tyrants, the Citizens reclaimed their natural liberty and their rights over themselves.  When Rome was no longer, it was permissible for Romans to cease to exist; they had fulfilled their function on earth, they had lost their fatherland, they were entitled to dispose of themselves, and restore to themselves the liberty they could no longer restore to their country.  After using their life in the service of expiring Rome and fighting for law, they died virtuous and great as they had lived, and their death was yet another tribute to the glory of the Roman name, that in none of them should be held up the unworthy spectacle of true Citizens serving a usurper.

But you, who are you?  What have you done?  Do you think your obscurity is an excuse?  Does your weakness exempt you from you duties, and does having neither name nor rank in your Fatherland make you less subject to its laws?  Some right you have to dare speak of dying while you owe the use of your life to your fellow men!  Know that a death such as you contemplate is dishonorable and devious.  It is a larceny committed against mankind.  Before you take your leave of it, give it back what it has done for you.  But I have no attachments?  I am of no use to the world? Philosopher for a day!  Have you not learned that you could not take a step on earth without finding some duty to fulfill, and that every man is useful to humanity, by the very fact that he exist?

Listen to me, mad youth; you are dear to me; I pity your errors.  If you still have deep in your heart the least sentiment of virtue, come, let me teach you to love life.  Every time you are tempted to exit it, say to yourself: “Let me do one more good deed before I die.”  Then go find someone needy to assist, someone unfortunate to console, someone oppressed to defend.  Reconcile me with the wretched who are too intimidated to approach me; do not fear to squander either my purse or my influence: help yourself; exhaust my fortune, make me rich.  If this consideration hold you back today, it will hold you back again tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, your whole life long.  If it does not; die, you are nothing but an evil man.

 *  The strange letter for the deliberation in question!  Does one reason so peacefully over such a question, when one examines it for oneself?  Is the letter a fabrication, or does the Author want nothing more than to be refuted?  What could be grounds for doubt is the example of Robeck he cites, and which seems to furnish him a precedent. Robeck deliberated so soberly that he had the patience to write a book, a big book, a good long, ponderous, cold book, and once he had established, as he saw it, that is was permissible to take one’s own life, he did so with the same tranquillity. Let us be wary of prejudices of period and nation. When killing oneself is not in fashion, one imagines that only crazy people kill themselves; all acts of courage are so many fancies to feeble souls; every man judges the others only by himself. Yet have we not many attested examples of men wise on every other count, who, without remorse, without fury, without despair, relinquish life solely because it is a burden to them, and die more tranquilly than they have lived.

*  No, Milord, this is not the way to put an end to one’s misery, but to consummate it; one breaks the last ties linking us to happiness.  While mourning the person we cherished, we are still attached to the object of our suffering through the suffering itself, and this condition is less awful than being attached to nothing at all.

*  Rights dearer than those of the friendship?  And it is a sage who says this!  But this putative sage was himself in love.

  1. The strange letter for the deliberation in question!  Does one reason so peacefully over such a question, when one examines it for oneself?  Is the letter a fabrication, or does the Author want nothing more than to be refuted?  What could be grounds for doubt is the example
  2. No, Milord, this is not the way to put an end to one’s misery, but to consummate it; one breaks the last ties linking us to happiness.  While mourning the person we cherished, we are still attached to the object of our suffering through the suffering itself, and this condition is less awful than being attached to nothing at all.
  3. Rights dearer than those of the friendship?  And it is a sage who says this!  But this putative sage was himself in love.

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Filed under Europe, Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Selections, Stoicism, The Early Modern Period


from The Persian Letters
from Consideration of the Causes of the    Greatness of the Romans and Their    Decline
from The Spirit of Laws


Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Bréde et de la Montesquieu, was a French political and social philosopher, jurist, satirist, and the first of the great French men of letters of the Enlightenment. Born at La Bréde near Bordeaux, Montesquieu was reared until the age of three by a peasant family, like Montaigne [q.v.], in order that he might acquire an understanding of the lower classes. In 1696, his mother died, leaving him the barony of La Bréde at age seven. He left for school in 1700, attending the Collège de Juilly and later the University of Bordeaux, where he studied law to become an advocate in 1708. In 1716, his uncle Jean-Baptiste died, leaving him the barony of Montesquieu and the deputy presidency of the Bordeaux Parliament, a position of some honor. In 1721, he published The Persian Letters, a satire of European (French) customs and society that made him famous.

After 10 years of service, Montesquieu sold his political office and, in 1728, left for a three-year tour of Europe and England that had a great effect on his political and aesthetic sensibilities. By 1734, he finished his Consideration of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline. In this work, which exhibits his uniquely secular approach to history, Montesquieu argued that Rome’s greatness was due to its adaptable institutions and martial values. In 1748, he published anonymously his best-known work, The Spirit of the Laws, a major and influential work of political theory. This work, among other things, outlined a classification of the different types of government—its notion of a separation of governmental powers, which Montesquieu derived from his observations of English government, influenced the Constitution of the United States—and examined the fundamental relationships that underlie the laws of a civilized society. Montesquieu declared history as the basis for human activity and viewed religion as a social phenomenon rather than an underlying force. In this respect, Montesquieu sought to establish a social science of man comparable to the natural sciences. He was committed to liberty as the key ingredient in a well-functioning civil society.

In The Persian Letters, Montesquieu employs a character drawn from a different society to criticize the usual arguments used against suicide in the Christian European west. In Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, he addresses self-love and altruism, in effect lamenting the suicide of Cato; and in the brief passage provided here from The Spirit of the Laws, he differentiates between the “educated” socially conditioned, principled suicides of the Roman Stoics and the “unaccountable” suicides of the English, attributable primarily to mental illness.

Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Bréde et de la Montesquieu: The Persian Letters, Letter 76, tr. C. J. Betts. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1973. Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, Ch. XII, pp. 113-118, tr. David Lowenthal. New York: Free Press, 1965. Available from the Constitution Society. The Spirit of the Laws, Book XIV, Ch. 12, p. 107, Great Books of the Western World, vol. 38, tr. Thomas Nugent and revised by J. V. Prichard. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952. Available from the Constitution Society.


Letter 76: Usbek to his friend Ibben, at Smyrna

In Europe the law treats suicides with the utmost ferocity.  They are put to death for a second time, so to speak; their bodies are dragged in disgrace through the streets and branded, to denote infamy, and their goods are confiscated.

It seems to me, Ibben, that these laws are very unjust.  When I am overcome by anguish, poverty, or humiliation, why must I be prevented from putting an end to my troubles, and harshly deprived of the remedy which lies in my power?

Why am I required to work for a society from which I consent to be excluded, and to submit against my will to a convention which was made without my participation?  Society is based on mutual advantage, but when I find it onerous what is to prevent me renouncing it?  Life was given to me as favour, so I may abandon it when it is one no longer; when the cause disappears, the effect should disappear also.

Would the king want me to be subject to him when I derive no advantages from being a subject?  Can my fellow-citizens be so unfair as to drive me to despair for their conveniences?  Is God to be different from every other benefactor, and is it his will that I should be condemned to accept favours which make me wretched?

I am obliged to obey the law so long as I continue to live under its authority, but when I no longer do so does it still apply to me?

But, it will be said, you are disturbing the providential order.  God united your soul to your body, and you are separating them; you are therefore going against his intentions, and resisting him.

What does that imply?  Am I disturbing the order of Providence when I modify the arrangement of matter and turn a sphere into a cube, when it had been given its spherical shape by the first laws of motion, that is to say the laws of creation and conservation?  Of courts not: I am merely exercising a right which I have been given; and in this sense I could disrupt the whole of nature at will, and it would be impossible to say that I am opposing Providence.

When my soul is separated from my body, will the universe be less orderly or less well arranged?  Do you believe that the new synthesis will be less perfect, or less dependent on general laws, or that the world will have lost anything by it?  The works of God will be any the less great, or rather less immense?  When my body has been turned into a grain of wheat, or a worm, or a piece of turf, do you think that these products of nature are less worthy of her?  Or that when my soul has been purged of every terrestrial ingredient it will be less exalted?

All such ideas, my dear Ibben, originate in our pride alone.  We do not realize our littleness, and in spite of everything we want to count for something in the universe, play a part, be a person of importance.  We imagine that the annihilation of a being as perfect as ourselves would detract from nature as a whole, and we cannot conceive that one man more or less in the world, and indeed the whole of mankind a hundred million heads like ours, are only a minute, intangible speck, which God perceives simply because of the immensity of his knowledge.

From Paris, the 15th of the moon of Saphar, 1715


. . .Almost all ventures are spoiled by the fact that those who undertake them usually seek—in addition to the main objective—certain small, personal successes which flatter their self-love and give them self-satisfaction.

I believe that if Cato had preserved himself for the republic, he would have given a completely different turn to events. Cicero’s talents admirably suited him for a secondary role, but he was not fit for the main one. His genius was superb, but his soul was often common. With Cicero, virtue was the accessory, with Cato, glory. Cicero always thought of himself first, Cato always forgot about himself. The latter wanted to save the republic for its own sake, the former in order to boast of it. . . .

Brutus and Cassius killed themselves with inexcusable precipitation, and we cannot read this chapter in their lives without pitying the republic which was thus abandoned. Cato had killed himself at the end of the tragedy; these began it, in a sense, by their death.

Several reasons can be given for this practice of committing suicide that was so common among the Romans: the advances of the Stoic sect, which encouraged it; the establishment of triumphs and slavery, which made many great men think they must not survive a defeat; the advantage those accused of some crime gained by bringing death upon themselves, rather than submitting to a judgment whereby their memory would be tarnished and their property confiscated; a kind of point of honor, more reasonable, perhaps, than that which today leads us to slaughter our friend for a gesture or word; finally, a great opportunity for heroism, each man putting an end to the part he played in the world wherever he wished.

We could add to these a great facility in executing the deed. When the soul is completely occupied with the action it is about to perform, with the motive determining it, with the peril it is going to avoid, it does not really see death, for passion makes us feel but never see.

Self-love, the love of our own preservation, is transformed in so many ways, and acts by such contrary principles, that it leads us to sacrifice our being for the love of our being. And such is the value we set on ourselves that we consent to cease living because of a natural and obscure instinct that makes us love ourselves more than our very life.  It is certain that men have become less free, less courageous, less disposed to great enterprises than they were when, by means of this power which one assumed, one could at any moment escape from every other power.


Of the Laws against Suicides. We do not find in history that the Romans ever killed themselves without a cause; but the English are apt to commit suicide most unaccountably; they destroy themselves even in the bosom of happiness. This action among the Romans was the effect of education, being connected with their principles and customs; among the English it is the consequence of a distemper, being connected with the physical state of the machine, and independent of every other cause.

In all probability it is a defect of the filtration of the nervous juice: the machine, whose motive faculties are often unexerted, is weary of itself; the soul feels no pain, but a certain uneasiness in existing. Pain is a local sensation, which leads us to the desire of seeing an end of it; the burden of life, which prompts us to the desire of ceasing to exist, is an evil confined to no particular part.

It is evident that the civil laws of some countries may have reasons for branding suicide with infamy: but in England it cannot be punished without punishing the effects of madness.

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Filed under Europe, Montesquieu, Selections, Stoicism, The Early Modern Period


from Of Cannibals
from A Custom of the Isle of Cea


Lord Michel Eyquem Montaigne was born near Bordeaux, the son of the mayor of Bordeaux, a man of unusual tolerance in an age of religious intolerance. Raised speaking only Latin until the age of six, Montaigne received the very best education; he completed a 12-year course of study at the College de Guyenne in only seven years and continued his education in the study of law at the University of Toulouse.

Montaigne served as counselor in the Bordeaux Parliament from 1557 to 1570. During this time, he was a courtier at the court of Charles the IX, from 1561 to 1563, and made the closest friendship of his life with Étienne de La Boétie, a poet who shared Montaigne’s interest in classical antiquity. Montaigne was deeply affected by the way in which La Boétie stoically accepted his death from dysentery in 1563. Montaigne and his wife, Françoise de la Chassaigne, whom he married in 1565, had six daughters, but only one of them survived childhood. Montaigne’s father died in 1568 leaving him the Chateau de Montaigne, the family estate, to which Montaigne retired in 1570 to begin work on his Essays. In 1580, Montaigne came out of seclusion to travel to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy, returning reluctantly to serve as mayor of Bordeaux for four years. Running from war and the plague, in 1586, Montaigne was forced to flee his estate; he returned shortly to the pillaged castle.

Montaigne’s lasting influence rests in his Essays, which exercised considerable influence on French and English literature; Montaigne is regarded as the inventor of the modern essay. In an unabashed, intimately personal manner previously unknown in the literature of his day, he displayed the humanism of the time, arguing that the only suitable subjects for study were mankind and the human condition, subjects that he approached by describing his own thoughts, habits, and experiences in great detail. He espoused a philosophy of toleration, stoicism in the face of suffering, and skepticism, and although he remained a professing Catholic, he challenged almost all received views of theology, philosophy, religion, science, and morality. He played a major role in the development of Christian sceptical fideism.

In the excerpt “Of Cannibals” from his Essays, Montaigne portrays the death of a Brazilian native, an enemy about to be eaten, in terms of absolute Stoic virtue. While he uses the classical Stoic sources, Montaigne implies that the attitude toward death among the Brazilian cannibals is more philosophically Stoic than that of the Europeans. This essay is supposed to be the original source of the “noble savage” idea later associated with Rousseau.

In the essay “A Custom of the Isle of Cea” (1573–74), Montaigne explores positive justifications for suicide, especially for “unendurable pain” and “fear of a worse death.” Here he juxtaposes, as he often did, many conflicting views on an issue. He mentions Pliny’s [q.v., under Pliny the Elder] belief that only three sorts of diseases license suicide, the most painful of which is bladder stone; Montaigne himself suffered considerably from stone and repeatedly sought a cure. It is noteworthy that Montaigne uses almost exclusively classical material, ignoring the enormous body of Christian theological commentary of the time. He is the first significant modern figure, together with his friend and disciple Pierre Charron (1541–1603), a sceptical Catholic priest, to question the Christian position on suicide, opening the door to a shift in thinking that would occur in the following century even as writers like John Sym [q.v.] were emphasizing the heinousness of suicide. As one contemporary scholar puts it, in arguing for a naturalistic and merely personal basis for suicide, Montaigne and Charron “opened a Pandora’s box.”

Essays of Michel de Montaigne, ed. William Carew Hazlitt, tr. Charles Cotton (1686), Kensington 1877, “Of Cannibals,” Book the First, Chapter XXX; “A Custom of the Isle of Cea,” Book the Second, Chapter Three (Latin quotations removed).  Both available online from Project Gutenberg text #3600. Quotation and paraphrase in introductory material from Gary B. Ferngren, “The Ethics of Suicide in the Renaissance and Reformation,” in Baruch A. Brody, ed., Suicide and Euthanasia: Historical and Contemporary Themes, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989, pp. 161-162.



…I long had a man in my house that lived ten or twelve years in the New World, discovered in these latter days, and in that part of it where Villegaignon landed [Brazil, 1557], which he called Antarctic France. This discovery of so vast a country seems to be of very great consideration. I cannot be sure, that hereafter there may not be another, so many wiser men than we having been deceived in this. I am afraid our eyes are bigger than our bellies, and that we have more curiosity than capacity; for we grasp at all, but catch nothing but wind.

…This man that I had was a plain ignorant fellow, and therefore the more likely to tell truth: for your better bred sort of men are much more curious in their observation, ’tis true, and discover a great deal more, but then they gloss upon it, and to give the greater weight to what they deliver and allure your belief, they cannot forbear a little to alter the story; they never represent things to you simply as they are, but rather as they appeared to them, or as they would have them appear to you, and to gain the reputation of men of judgment, and the better to induce your faith, are willing to help out the business with something more than is really true, of their own invention. Now, in this case, we should either have a man of irreproachable veracity, or so simple that he has not wherewithal to contrive, and to give a color of truth to false relations, and who can have no ends in forging an untruth. Such a one was mine; and besides, he has at divers times brought to me several seamen and merchants who at the same time went the same voyage. I shall therefore content myself with his information, without inquiring what the cosmographers say to the business. …

Now, to return to my subject, I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation [Brazil], by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason, than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things. They are savages at the same rate that we say fruit are wild, which nature produces of herself and by her own ordinary progress; whereas in truth, we ought rather to call those wild, whose natures we have changed by our artifice, and diverted from the common order. In those, the genuine, most useful and natural virtues and properties are vigorous and sprightly, which we have helped to degenerate in these, by accommodating them to the pleasure of our own corrupted palate. And yet for all this our taste confesses a flavor and delicacy, excellent even to emulation of the best of ours, in several fruits wherein those countries abound without art or culture.


…These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity. The laws of nature, however, govern them still, not as yet much vitiated with any mixture of ours: but ’tis in such purity, that I am sometimes troubled we were not sooner acquainted with these people, and that they were not discovered in those better times, when there were men much more able to judge of them than we are. I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them: for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but, moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork. I should tell Plato, that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of…

…They believe in the immortality of the soul, and that those who have merited well of the gods, are lodged in that part of heaven where the sun rises, and the accursed in the west.

They have I know not what kind of priests and prophets, who very rarely present themselves to the people, having their abode in the mountains. At their arrival, there is a great feast, and solemn assembly of many villages: each house, as I have described, makes a village, and they are about a French league distant from one another. This prophet declaims to them in public, exhorting them to virtue and their duty: but all their ethics are comprised in these two articles, resolution in war, and affection to their wives. He also prophesies to them events to come, and the issues they are to expect from their enterprises, and prompts them to or diverts them from war: but let him look to’t; for if he fail in his divination, and anything happen otherwise than he has foretold, he is cut into a thousand pieces, if he be caught, and condemned for a false prophet: for that reason, if any of them has been mistaken, he is no more heard of.…

They have continual war with the nations that live further within the mainland, beyond their mountains, to which they go naked, and without other arms than their bows and wooden swords, fashioned at one end like the heads of our javelins. The obstinacy of their battles is wonderful, and they never end without great effusion of blood: for as to running away, they know not what it is. Every one for a trophy brings home the head of an enemy he has killed, which he fixes over the door of his house. After having a long time treated their prisoners very well, and given them all the regales they can think of, he to whom the prisoner belongs, invites a great assembly of his friends. They being come, he ties a rope to one of the arms of the prisoner, of which, at a distance, out of his reach, he holds the one end himself, and gives to the friend he loves best the other arm to hold after the same manner; which being done, they two, in the presence of all the assembly, despatch him with their swords. After that they roast him, eat him among them, and send some chops to their absent friends. They do not do this, as some think, for nourishment, as the Scythians anciently did, but as a representation of an extreme revenge; as will appear by this: that having observed the Portuguese, who were in league with their enemies, to inflict another sort of death upon any of them they took prisoners, which was to set them up to the girdle in the earth, to shoot at the remaining part till it was stuck full of arrows, and then to hang them, they thought those people of the other world (as being men who had sown the knowledge of a great many vices among their neighbors, and who were much greater masters in all sorts of mischief than they) did not exercise this sort of revenge without a meaning, and that it must needs be more painful than theirs, they began to leave their old way, and to follow this. I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own. …

…We may then call these people barbarous, in respect to the rules of reason: but not in respect to ourselves, who in all sorts of barbarity exceed them. Their wars are throughout noble and generous, and carry as much excuse and fair pretense, as that human malady is capable of; having with them no other foundation than the sole jealousy of valor. Their disputes are not for the conquest of new lands, for these they already possess are so fruitful by nature, as to supply them without labor or concern, with all things necessary, in such abundance that they have no need to enlarge their borders. And they are moreover, happy in this, that they only covet so much as their natural necessities require: all beyond that, is superfluous to them: men of the same age call one another generally brothers, those who are younger, children; and the old men are fathers to all. These leave to their heirs in common the full possession of goods, without any manner of division, or other title than what nature bestows upon her creatures, in bringing them into the world. If their neighbors pass over the mountains to assault them, and obtain a victory, all the victors gain by it is glory only, and the advantage of having proved themselves the better in valor and virtue: for they never meddle with the goods of the conquered, but presently return into their own country, where they have no want of anything necessary, nor of this greatest of all goods, to know happily how to enjoy their condition and to be content. And those in turn do the same; they demand of their prisoners no other ransom, than acknowledgment that they are overcome: but there is not one found in an age, who will not rather choose to die than make such a confession, or either by word or look, recede from the entire grandeur of an invincible courage. There is not a man among them who had not rather be killed and eaten, than so much as to open his mouth to entreat he may not. They use them with all liberality and freedom, to the end their lives may be so much the dearer to them; but frequently entertain them with menaces of their approaching death, of the torments they are to suffer, of the preparations making in order to it, of the mangling their limbs, and of the feast that is to be made, where their carcass is to be the only dish. All which they do, to no other end, but only to extort some gentle or submissive word from them, or to frighten them so as to make them run away, to obtain this advantage that they were terrified, and that their constancy was shaken; and indeed, if rightly taken, it is in this point only that a true victory consists.

“No victory is complete, which the conquered do not admit to be so.–”                                            [Claudius, De Sexto Consulatu Honorii]

…The estimate and value of a man consist in the heart and in the will: there his true honor lies. Valor is stability, not of legs and arms, but of the courage and the soul; it does not lie in the goodness of our horse or our arms: but in our own. He that falls obstinate in his courage–

            “If his legs fail him, he fights on his knees.”                                                                                      [Seneca, De Providentia]

–he who, for any danger of imminent death, abates nothing of his assurance; who, dying, yet darts at his enemy a fierce and disdainful look, is overcome not by us, but by fortune; he is killed, not conquered; the most valiant are sometimes the most unfortunate. …

But to return to my story: these prisoners are so far from discovering the least weakness, for all the terrors that can be represented to them that, on the contrary, during the two or three months they are kept, they always appear with a cheerful countenance; importune their masters to make haste to bring them to the test, defy, rail at them, and reproach them with cowardice, and the number of battles they have lost against those of their country. I have a song made by one of these prisoners, wherein he bids them “come all, and dine upon him, and welcome, for they shall withal eat their own fathers and grandfathers, whose flesh has served to feed and nourish him. These muscles,” says he, “this flesh and these veins, are your own: poor silly souls as you are, you little think that the substance of your ancestors’ limbs is here yet; notice what you eat, and you will find in it the taste of your own flesh:” in which song there is to be observed an invention that nothing relishes of the barbarian. Those that paint these people dying after this manner, represent the prisoner spitting in the faces of his executioners and making wry mouths at them. And ’tis most certain, that to the very last gasp, they never cease to brave and defy them both in word and gesture. In plain truth, these men are very savage in comparison of us; of necessity, they must either be absolutely so or else we are savages; for there is a vast difference between their manners and ours. …




If to philosophise be, as ’tis defined, to doubt, much more to write at random and play the fool, as I do, ought to be reputed doubting, for it is for novices and freshmen to inquire and to dispute, and for the chairman to moderate and determine.

My moderator is the authority of the divine will, that governs us without contradiction, and that is seated above these human and vain contestations.

Philip having forcibly entered into Peloponnesus, and some one saying to Damidas that the Lacedaemonians were likely very much to suffer if they did not in time reconcile themselves to his favour: “Why, you pitiful fellow,” replied he, “what can they suffer who do not fear to die?” It being also asked of Agis, which way a man might live free? “Why,” said he, “by despising death.” These, and a thousand other sayings to the same purpose, distinctly sound of something more than the patient attending the stroke of death when it shall come; for there are several accidents in life far worse to suffer than death itself. Witness the Lacedaemonian boy taken by Antigonus, and sold for a slave, who being by his master commanded to some base employment: “Thou shalt see,” says the boy, “whom thou hast bought; it would be a shame for me to serve, being so near the reach of liberty,” and having so said, threw himself from the top of the house. Antipater severely threatening the Lacedaemonians, that he might the better incline them to acquiesce in a certain demand of his: “If thou threatenest us with more than death,” replied they, “we shall the more willingly die”; and to Philip, having written them word that he would frustrate all their enterprises: “What, wilt thou also hinder us from dying?” This is the meaning of the sentence, “That the wise man lives as long as he ought, not so long as he can; and that the most obliging present Nature has made us, and which takes from us all colour of complaint of our condition, is to have delivered into our own custody the keys of life; she has only ordered, one door into life, but a hundred thousand ways out. We may be straitened for earth to live upon, but earth sufficient to die upon can never be wanting, as Boiocalus answered the Romans.”—[Tacitus, Annal., xiii. 56.]—Why dost thou complain of this world? it detains thee not; thy own cowardice is the cause, if thou livest in pain. There needs no more to die but to will to die:

“Death is everywhere: heaven has well provided for that. Any one
may deprive us of life; no one can deprive us of death. To death
there are a thousand avenues.”                                 [Seneca, Theb.]

 Neither is it a recipe for one disease only; death is the infallible cure of all; ’tis a most assured port that is never to be feared, and very often to be sought. It comes all to one, whether a man give himself his end, or stays to receive it by some other means; whether he pays before his day, or stay till his day of payment come; from whencesoever it comes, it is still his; in what part soever the thread breaks, there’s the end of the clue. The most voluntary death is the finest. Life depends upon the pleasure of others; death upon our own. We ought not to accommodate ourselves to our own humour in anything so much as in this. Reputation is not concerned in such an enterprise; ’tis folly to be concerned by any such apprehension. Living is slavery if the liberty of dying be wanting. The ordinary method of cure is carried on at the expense of life; they torment us with caustics, incisions, and amputations of limbs; they interdict aliment and exhaust our blood; one step farther and we are cured indeed and effectually. Why is not the jugular vein as much at our disposal as the median vein? For a desperate disease a desperate cure. Servius the grammarian, being tormented with the gout, could think of no better remedy than to apply poison to his legs, to deprive them of their sense; let them be gouty at their will, so they were insensible of pain. God gives us leave enough to go when He is pleased to reduce us to such a condition that to live is far worse than to die. ‘Tis weakness to truckle under infirmities, but it’s madness to nourish them. The Stoics say, that it is living according to nature in a wise man to, take his leave of life, even in the height of prosperity, if he do it opportunely; and in a fool to prolong it, though he be miserable, provided he be not indigent of those things which they repute to be according to nature. As I do not offend the law against thieves when I embezzle my own money and cut my own purse; nor that against incendiaries when I burn my own wood; so am I not under the lash of those made against murderers for having deprived myself of my own life. Hegesias said, that as the condition of life did, so the condition of death ought to depend upon our own choice. And Diogenes meeting the philosopher Speusippus, so blown up with an inveterate dropsy that he was fain to be carried in a litter, and by him saluted with the compliment, “I wish you good health.” “No health to thee,” replied the other, “who art content to live in such a condition.”

And in fact, not long after, Speusippus, weary of so languishing a state of life, found a means to die.

But this does not pass without admitting a dispute: for many are of opinion that we cannot quit this garrison of the world without the express command of Him who has placed us in it; and that it appertains to God who has placed us here, not for ourselves only but for His Glory and the service of others, to dismiss us when it shall best please Him, and not for us to depart without His licence: that we are not born for ourselves only, but for our country also, the laws of which require an account from us upon the score of their own interest, and have an action of manslaughter good against us; and if these fail to take cognisance of the fact, we are punished in the other world as deserters of our duty:

Thence the sad ones occupy the next abodes, who, though free
from guilt, were by their own hands slain, and, hating light,
sought death.                                               [Virgil, Aeneid]

There is more constancy in suffering the chain we are tied to than in breaking it, and more pregnant evidence of fortitude in Regulus than in Cato; ’tis indiscretion and impatience that push us on to these precipices: no accidents can make true virtue turn her back; she seeks and requires evils, pains, and grief, as the things by which she is nourished and supported; the menaces of tyrants, racks, and tortures serve only to animate and rouse her:

As in Mount Algidus, the sturdy oak even from the axe itself
derives new vigour and life.                                [Horace, Odes]

And as another says:

Father, ’tis no virtue to fear life, but to withstand great
misfortunes, nor turn back from them.                     [Seneca, Theb.]

 Or as this:

It is easy in adversity to despise death; but he acts more
bravely, who can live wretched.”                               [Martial]

‘Tis cowardice, not virtue, to lie squat in a furrow, under a tomb, to evade the blows of fortune; virtue never stops nor goes out of her path, for the greatest storm that blows:

Should the world’s axis crack, the ruins will but crush
a fearless head.                                                          [Horace, Odes]

For the most part, the flying from other inconveniences brings us to this; nay, endeavouring to evade death, we often run into its very mouth:

Tell me, is it not madness, that one should die for fear
of dying?”                                                              [Martial]

Like those who, from fear of a precipice, throw themselves headlong into it;

The fear of future ills often makes men run into extreme danger;
he is truly brave who boldly dares withstand the mischiefs he
apprehends, when they confront him and can be deferred.


Death to that degree so frightens some men, that causing them to
hate both life and light, they kill themselves, miserably forgetting
that this same fear is the fountain of their cares.”


Plato, in his Laws, assigns an ignominious sepulture to him who has deprived his nearest and best friend, namely himself, of life and his destined course, being neither compelled so to do by public judgment, by any sad and inevitable accident of fortune, nor by any insupportable disgrace, but merely pushed on by cowardice and the imbecility of a timorous soul. And the opinion that makes so little of life, is ridiculous; for it is our being, ’tis all we have. Things of a nobler and more elevated being may, indeed, reproach ours; but it is against nature for us to contemn and make little account of ourselves; ’tis a disease particular to man, and not discerned in any other creatures, to hate and despise itself. And it is a vanity of the same stamp to desire to be something else than what we are; the effect of such a desire does not at all touch us, forasmuch as it is contradicted and hindered in itself. He that desires of a man to be made an angel, does nothing for himself; he would be never the better for it; for, being no more, who shall rejoice or be sensible of this benefit for him.

For he to whom misery and pain are to be in the future, must
himself then exist, when these ills befall him.”

                                                                                                           [Plato, Laws]

Security, indolence, impassability, the privation of the evils of this life, which we pretend to purchase at the price of dying, are of no manner of advantage to us: that man evades war to very little purpose who can have no fruition of peace; and as little to the purpose does he avoid trouble who cannot enjoy repose.

Amongst those of the first of these two opinions, there has been great debate, what occasions are sufficient to justify the meditation of self-murder, which they call “A reasonable exit.”—[ Diogenes Laertius, Life of Zeno.]—For though they say that men must often die for trivial causes, seeing those that detain us in life are of no very great weight, yet there is to be some limit. There are fantastic and senseless humours that have prompted not only individual men, but whole nations to destroy themselves, of which I have elsewhere given some examples; and we further read of the Milesian virgins, that by a frantic compact they hanged themselves one after another till the magistrate took order in it, enacting that the bodies of such as should be found so hanged should be drawn by the same halter stark naked through the city. When Therykion tried to persuade Cleomenes to despatch himself, by reason of the ill posture of his affairs, and, having missed a death of more honour in the battle he had lost, to accept of this the second in honour to it, and not to give the conquerors leisure to make him undergo either an ignominious death or an infamous life; Cleomenes, with a courage truly Stoic and Lacedaemonian, rejected his counsel as unmanly and mean; “that,” said he, “is a remedy that can never be wanting, but which a man is never to make use of, whilst there is an inch of hope remaining”: telling him, “that it was sometimes constancy and valour to live; that he would that even his death should be of use to his country, and would make of it an act of honour and virtue.” Therykion, notwithstanding, thought himself in the right, and did his own business; and Cleomenes afterwards did the same, but not till he had first tried the utmost malevolence of fortune. All the inconveniences in the world are not considerable enough that a man should die to evade them; and, besides, there being so many, so sudden and unexpected changes in human things, it is hard rightly to judge when we are at the end of our hope:

The gladiator conquered in the lists hopes on, though the
menacing spectators, turning their thumb, order him to die.

                                                                                               [Pentadius, De Spe]

All things, says an old adage, are to be hoped for by a man whilst he lives; ay, but, replies Seneca, why should this rather be always running in a man’s head that fortune can do all things for the living man, than this, that fortune has no power over him that knows how to die? Josephus, when engaged in so near and apparent danger, a whole people being violently bent against him, that there was no visible means of escape, nevertheless, being, as he himself says, in this extremity counselled by one of his friends to despatch himself, it was well for him that he yet maintained himself in hope, for fortune diverted the accident beyond all human expectation, so that he saw himself delivered without any manner of inconvenience. Whereas Brutus and Cassius, on the contrary, threw away the remains of the Roman liberty, of which they were the sole protectors, by the precipitation and temerity wherewith they killed themselves before the due time and a just occasion. Monsieur d’Anguien, at the battle of Serisolles, twice attempted to run himself through, despairing of the fortune of the day, which went indeed very untowardly on that side of the field where he was engaged, and by that precipitation was very near depriving himself of the enjoyment of so brave a victory. I have seen a hundred hares escape out of the very teeth of the greyhounds:

Some have survived their executioners.              [Seneca, Epistles]

Length of days, and the various labour of changeful time, have
brought things to a better state; fortune turning, shews a reverse
face, and again restores men to prosperity. [Aeneid, xi. 425.]

Pliny says there are but three sorts of diseases, to escape which a man has good title to destroy himself; the worst of which is the stone in the bladder, when the urine is suppressed.

Seneca says those only which for a long time are discomposing the functions of the soul. And some there have been who, to avoid a worse death, have chosen one to their own liking. Democritus, general of the Aetolians, being brought prisoner to Rome, found means to make his escape by night: but close pursued by his keepers, rather than suffer himself to be retaken, he fell upon his own sword and died. Antinous and Theodotus, their city of Epirus being reduced by the Romans to the last extremity, gave the people counsel universally to kill themselves; but, these preferring to give themselves up to the enemy, the two chiefs went to seek the death they desired, rushing furiously upon the enemy, with intention to strike home but not to ward a blow. The Island of Gozzo being taken some years ago by the Turks, a Sicilian, who had two beautiful daughters marriageable, killed them both with his own hand, and their mother, running in to save them, to boot, which having done, sallying out of the house with a cross-bow and harquebus, with two shots he killed two of the Turks nearest to his door, and drawing his sword, charged furiously in amongst the rest, where he was suddenly enclosed and cut to pieces, by that means delivering his family and himself from slavery and dishonour. The Jewish women, after having circumcised their children, threw them and themselves down a precipice to avoid the cruelty of Antigonus. I have been told of a person of condition in one of our prisons, that his friends, being informed that he would certainly be condemned, to avoid the ignominy of such a death suborned a priest to tell him that the only means of his deliverance was to recommend himself to such a saint, under such and such vows, and to fast eight days together without taking any manner of nourishment, what weakness or faintness soever he might find in himself during the time; he followed their advice, and by that means destroyed himself before he was aware, not dreaming of death or any danger in the experiment. Scribonia advising her nephew Libo to kill himself rather than await the stroke of justice, told him that it was to do other people’s business to preserve his life to put it after into the hands of those who within three or four days would fetch him to execution, and that it was to serve his enemies to keep his blood to gratify their malice.

We read in the Bible that Nicanor, the persecutor of the law of God, having sent his soldiers to seize upon the good old man Razis, surnamed in honour of his virtue the father of the Jews: the good man, seeing no other remedy, his gates burned down, and the enemies ready to seize him, choosing rather to die nobly than to fall into the hands of his wicked adversaries and suffer himself to be cruelly butchered by them, contrary to the honour of his rank and quality, stabbed himself with his own sword, but the blow, for haste, not having been given home, he ran and threw himself from the top of a wall headlong among them, who separating themselves and making room, he pitched directly upon his head; notwithstanding which, feeling yet in himself some remains of life, he renewed his courage, and starting up upon his feet all bloody and wounded as he was, and making his way through the crowd to a precipitous rock, there, through one of his wounds, drew out his bowels, which, tearing and pulling to pieces with both his hands, he threw amongst his pursuers, all the while attesting and invoking the Divine vengeance upon them for their cruelty and injustice.

Of violences offered to the conscience, that against the chastity of woman is, in my opinion, most to be avoided, forasmuch as there is a certain pleasure naturally mixed with it, and for that reason the dissent therein cannot be sufficiently perfect and entire, so that the violence seems to be mixed with a little consent of the forced party. The ecclesiastical history has several examples of devout persons who have embraced death to secure them from the outrages prepared by tyrants against their religion and honour. Pelagia and Sophronia, both canonised, the first of these precipitated herself with her mother and sisters into the river to avoid being forced by some soldiers, and the last also killed herself to avoid being ravished by the Emperor Maxentius.

It may, peradventure, be an honour to us in future ages, that a learned
author of this present time, and a Parisian, takes a great deal of pains
to persuade the ladies of our age rather to take any other course than to
enter into the horrid meditation of such a despair. I am sorry he had
never heard, that he might have inserted it amongst his other stories,
the saying of a woman, which was told me at Toulouse, who had passed
through the handling of some soldiers: “God be praised,” said she, “that
once at least in my life I have had my fill without sin.” In truth,
these cruelties are very unworthy the French good nature, and also, God
be thanked, our air is very well purged of them since this good advice:
’tis enough that they say “no” in doing it, according to the rule of the
good Marot.

 Un doulx nenny, avec un doulx sourire
Est tant honneste.”—Marot.

History is everywhere full of those who by a thousand ways have exchanged a painful and irksome life for death. Lucius Aruntius killed himself, to fly, he said, both the future and the past. Granius Silvanus and Statius Proximus, after having been pardoned by Nero, killed themselves; either disdaining to live by the favour of so wicked a man, or that they might not be troubled, at some other time, to obtain a second pardon, considering the proclivity of his nature to suspect and credit accusations against worthy men. Spargapises, son of Queen Tomyris, being a prisoner of war to Cyrus, made use of the first favour Cyrus shewed him, in commanding him to be unbound, to kill himself, having pretended to no other benefit of liberty, but only to be revenged of himself for the disgrace of being taken. Boges, governor in Eion for King Xerxes, being besieged by the Athenian army under the conduct of Cimon, refused the conditions offered, that he might safe return into Asia with all his wealth, impatient to survive the loss of a place his master had given him to keep; wherefore, having defended the city to the last extremity, nothing being left to eat, he first threw all the gold and whatever else the enemy could make booty of into the river Strymon, and then causing a great pile to be set on fire, and the throats of all the women, children, concubines, and servants to be cut, he threw their bodies into the fire, and at last leaped into it himself.

Ninachetuen, an Indian lord, so soon as he heard the first whisper of the Portuguese Viceroy’s determination to dispossess him, without any apparent cause, of his command in Malacca, to transfer it to the King of Campar, he took this resolution with himself: he caused a scaffold, more long than broad, to be erected, supported by columns royally adorned with tapestry and strewed with flowers and abundance of perfumes; all which being prepared, in a robe of cloth of gold, set full of jewels of great value, he came out into the street, and mounted the steps to the scaffold, at one corner of which he had a pile lighted of aromatic wood. Everybody ran to see to what end these unusual preparations were made; when Ninachetuen, with a manly but displeased countenance, set forth how much he had obliged the Portuguese nation, and with how unspotted fidelity he had carried himself in his charge; that having so often, sword in hand, manifested in the behalf of others, that honour was much more dear to him than life, he was not to abandon the concern of it for himself: that fortune denying him all means of opposing the affront designed to be put upon him, his courage at least enjoined him to free himself from the sense of it, and not to serve for a fable to the people, nor for a triumph to men less deserving than himself; which having said he leaped into the fire.

Sextilia, wife of Scaurus, and Paxaea, wife of Labeo, to encourage their husbands to avoid the dangers that pressed upon them, wherein they had no other share than conjugal affection, voluntarily sacrificed their own lives to serve them in this extreme necessity for company and example. What they did for their husbands, Cocceius Nerva did for his country, with less utility though with equal affection: this great lawyer, flourishing in health, riches, reputation, and favour with the Emperor, had no other cause to kill himself but the sole compassion of the miserable state of the Roman Republic. Nothing can be added to the beauty of the death of the wife of Fulvius, a familiar favourite of Augustus: Augustus having discovered that he had vented an important secret he had entrusted him withal, one morning that he came to make his court, received him very coldly and looked frowningly upon him. He returned home, full of, despair, where he sorrowfully told his wife that, having fallen into this misfortune, he was resolved to kill himself: to which she roundly replied, “’tis but reason you should, seeing that having so often experienced the incontinence of my tongue, you could not take warning: but let me kill myself first,” and without any more saying ran herself through the body with a sword. Vibius Virrius, despairing of the safety of his city besieged by the Romans and of their mercy, in the last deliberation of his city’s senate, after many arguments conducing to that end, concluded that the most noble means to escape fortune was by their own hands: telling them that the enemy would have them in honour, and Hannibal would be sensible how many faithful friends he had abandoned; inviting those who approved of his advice to come to a good supper he had ready at home, where after they had eaten well, they would drink together of what he had prepared; a beverage, said he, that will deliver our bodies from torments, our souls from insult, and our eyes and ears from the sense of so many hateful mischiefs, as the conquered suffer from cruel and implacable conquerors. I have, said he, taken order for fit persons to throw our bodies into a funeral pile before my door so soon as we are dead. Many enough approved this high resolution, but few imitated it; seven-and-twenty senators followed him, who, after having tried to drown the thought of this fatal determination in wine, ended the feast with the mortal mess; and embracing one another, after they had jointly deplored the misfortune of their country, some retired home to their own houses, others stayed to be burned with Vibius in his funeral pyre; and were all of them so long in dying, the vapour of the wine having prepossessed the veins, and by that means deferred the effect of poison, that some of them were within an hour of seeing the enemy inside the walls of Capua, which was taken the next morning, and of undergoing the miseries they had at so dear a rate endeavoured to avoid. Jubellius Taurea, another citizen of the same country, the Consul Fulvius returning from the shameful butchery he had made of two hundred and twenty-five senators, called him back fiercely by name, and having made him stop: “Give the word,” said he, “that somebody may dispatch me after the massacre of so many others, that thou mayest boast to have killed a much more valiant man than thyself.” Fulvius, disdaining him as a man out of his wits, and also having received letters from Rome censuring the inhumanity of his execution which tied his hands, Jubellius proceeded: “Since my country has been taken, my friends dead, and having with my own hands slain my wife and children to rescue them from the desolation of this ruin, I am denied to die the death of my fellow-citizens, let me borrow from virtue vengeance on this hated life,” and therewithal drawing a short sword he carried concealed about him, he ran it through his own bosom, falling down backward, and expiring at the consul’s feet.

Alexander, laying siege to a city of the Indies, those within, finding themselves very hardly set, put on a vigorous resolution to deprive him of the pleasure of his victory, and accordingly burned themselves in general, together with their city, in despite of his humanity: a new kind of war, where the enemies sought to save them, and they to destroy themselves, doing to make themselves sure of death, all that men do to secure life.

Astapa, a city of Spain, finding itself weak in walls and defence to withstand the Romans, the inhabitants made a heap of all their riches and furniture in the public place; and, having ranged upon this heap all the women and children, and piled them round with wood and other combustible matter to take sudden fire, and left fifty of their young men for the execution of that whereon they had resolved, they made a desperate sally, where for want of power to overcome, they caused themselves to be every man slain. The fifty, after having massacred every living soul throughout the whole city, and put fire to this pile, threw themselves lastly into it, finishing their generous liberty, rather after an insensible, than after a sorrowful and disgraceful manner, giving the enemy to understand, that if fortune had been so pleased, they had as well the courage to snatch from them victory as they had to frustrate and render it dreadful, and even mortal to those who, allured by the splendour of the gold melting in this flame, having approached it, a great number were there suffocated and burned, being kept from retiring by the crowd that followed after.

The Abydeans, being pressed by King Philip, put on the same resolution; but, not having time, they could not put it ‘in effect. The king, who was struck with horror at the rash precipitation of this execution (the treasure and movables that they had condemned to the flames being first seized), drawing off his soldiers, granted them three days’ time to kill themselves in, that they might do it with more order and at greater ease: which time they filled with blood and slaughter beyond the utmost excess of all hostile cruelty, so that not so much as any one soul was left alive that had power to destroy itself. There are infinite examples of like popular resolutions which seem the more fierce and cruel in proportion as the effect is more universal, and yet are really less so than when singly executed; what arguments and persuasion cannot do with individual men, they can do with all, the ardour of society ravishing particular judgments.

The condemned who would live to be executed in the reign of Tiberius, forfeited their goods and were denied the rites of sepulture; those who, by killing themselves, anticipated it, were interred, and had liberty to dispose of their estates by will.

But men sometimes covet death out of hope of a greater good. “I desire,” says St. Paul, “to be with Christ,” and “who shall rid me of these bands?” Cleombrotus of Ambracia, having read Plato’s Pheedo, entered into so great a desire of the life to come that, without any other occasion, he threw himself into the sea. By which it appears how improperly we call this voluntary dissolution, despair, to which the eagerness of hope often inclines us, and, often, a calm and temperate desire proceeding from a mature and deliberate judgment. Jacques du Chastel, bishop of Soissons, in St. Louis’s foreign expedition, seeing the king and whole army upon the point of returning into France, leaving the affairs of religion imperfect, took a resolution rather to go into Paradise; wherefore, having taken solemn leave of his friends, he charged alone, in the sight of every one, into the enemy’s army, where he was presently cut to pieces. In a certain kingdom of the new discovered world, upon a day of solemn procession, when the idol they adore is drawn about in public upon a chariot of marvellous greatness; besides that many are then seen cutting off pieces of their flesh to offer to him, there are a number of others who prostrate themselves upon the place, causing themselves to be crushed and broken to pieces under the weighty wheels, to obtain the veneration of sanctity after death, which is accordingly paid them. The death of the bishop, sword in hand, has more of magnanimity in it, and less of sentiment, the ardour of combat taking away part of the latter.

There are some governments who have taken upon them to regulate the justice and opportunity of voluntary death. In former times there was kept in our city of Marseilles a poison prepared out of hemlock, at the public charge, for those who had a mind to hasten their end, having first, before the six hundred, who were their senate, given account of the reasons and motives of their design, and it was not otherwise lawful, than by leave from the magistrate and upon just occasion to do violence to themselves.—[Valerius Maximus, ii. 6, 7.]—The same law was also in use in other places.

Sextus Pompeius, in his expedition into Asia, touched at the isle of Cea in Negropont: it happened whilst he was there, as we have it from one that was with him, that a woman of great quality, having given an account to her citizens why she was resolved to put an end to her life, invited Pompeius to her death, to render it the more honourable, an invitation that he accepted; and having long tried in vain by the power of his eloquence, which was very great, and persuasion, to divert her from that design, he acquiesced in the end in her own will. She had passed the age of four score and ten in a very happy state, both of body and mind; being then laid upon her bed, better dressed than ordinary and leaning upon her elbow, “The gods,” said she, “O Sextus Pompeius, and rather those I leave than those I go to seek, reward thee, for that thou hast not disdained to be both the counsellor of my life and the witness of my death. For my part, having always experienced the smiles of fortune, for fear lest the desire of living too long may make me see a contrary face, I am going, by a happy end, to dismiss the remains of my soul, leaving behind two daughters of my body and a legion of nephews”; which having said, with some exhortations to her family to live in peace, she divided amongst them her goods, and recommending her domestic gods to her eldest daughter, she boldly took the bowl that contained the poison, and having made her vows and prayers to Mercury to conduct her to some happy abode in the other world, she roundly swallowed the mortal poison. This being done, she entertained the company with the progress of its operation, and how the cold by degrees seized the several parts of her body one after another, till having in the end told them it began to seize upon her heart and bowels, she called her daughters to do the last office and close her eyes.

Pliny tells us of a certain Hyperborean nation where, by reason of the sweet temperature of the air, lives rarely ended but by the voluntary surrender of the inhabitants, who, being weary of and satiated with living, had the custom, at a very old age, after having made good cheer, to precipitate themselves into the sea from the top of a certain rock, assigned for that service. Pain and the fear of a worse death seem to me the most excusable incitements.

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Filed under Cowardice, Courage, Bravery, Fear, Europe, Honor and Disgrace, Mental Illness: depression, despair, insanity, delusion, Montaigne, Michel de, Selections, Slavery, Stoicism, The Early Modern Period


from The City of God
from On Free Choice of the Will


Born to a small landholder, Patricius, and a pious Christian, Monica, in the small town of Thagaste in the Roman province of Numidia (modern Souk-Ahras, Algeria), Augustine of Hippo was of profound influence on the history of Western thought. Augustine studied rhetoric and classical philosophy at Carthage and was initially attracted to the dualistic religious philosophy of Manichaeanism. By the time he was 19, in 373, his mistress had borne him a son, Adeodatus. In 383, Augustine traveled to Rome where he was unsuccessful in establishing a school. He then moved to teach rhetoric in Milan for two years, where he met the bishop Ambrose and the community around him of Christian Neoplatonists. Augustine found within Christianity’s teachings satisfactory answers to questions about the being of God and the nature of evil, but—torn by his desires and the demands of chastity as a Christian sexual virtue—he did not undergo full conversion until 386. Ambrose baptized him, together with his son Adeodatus, on the night of Holy Saturday, before Easter of 387. After Adeodatus’s death, Augustine was ordained a presbyter of Hippo in 391; five years later, he became bishop of Hippo, and continued in that position until his death in 430, during the third month of the Vandals’ siege of Hippo.

Augustine’s principal works include the Confessions (397–400), an autobiographical account of his spiritual struggles and conversion to Christianity, and The City of God (413–426), a Christian vision of history. He also wrote many tracts against the Manichaeans, the Donatists, and the Pelagians. In his writings, Augustine addresses many issues, including original sin, grace, revelation, creation ex nihilo, the nature of time, divine foreknowledge, and predestination, and develops the idea of the church as a community of believers, just and predestined for immortality.

In The City of God, Augustine addresses the issue of suicide more directly and comprehensively than any previous writer in the Christian tradition. The full title of the work is Twenty-Four Books of the City of God Against the Pagans; within the framework of its more general effort to counter the accusation that it was Christianity that had led to the fall of Rome to the Ostrogoths in 410, the work also attacks the Roman—especially Stoic—conception of suicide as a matter of heroism and virtue, whether committed for political reasons, to protect chastity, or to avoid personal difficulties. Though antecedents of some of his views may be detected in earlier writers, Augustine’s overall treatment of the issues in suicide is strikingly original. With respect to the issue of whether a virgin threatened with sexual violation may kill herself to avoid it—the dispute already addressed by Eusebius [q.v.], Ambrose [q.v.], and other earlier writers—Augustine defuses the issue by asserting that sexual violation affects the body only, not the soul, and is a matter of the purity or impurity of the victim’s intentions rather than material, physical fact; this position remains definitive for the Christian tradition thereafter. Augustine’s treatment of Biblical suicides like Samson and Saul [q.v., under Hebrew Bible] is also novel; it relies on a divine-command theory in assessing the ethics of suicide and holds that only those suicides directly commanded by God are permissible. Not all later writers accept Augustine’s argument that in the cases of Samson and Saul, there must have been a “special commission” from God, but  Augustine’s treatment of them has been widely influential. Also significant in Augustine’s treatment of suicide is his “two-person” model, evoked by many later writers and associated with what contemporary writers now identify as the ambivalence of suicide: one part of a person or of a person’s psyche—in Augustine’s view, the guilty, murderous part—kills the other part of that same person, the (as he says of Lucretia [q.v., under Livy]) “guiltless, chaste, coerced part.” Finally, in the last portion of the selection provided here, Augustine addresses what some later thinkers have argued is the deepest issue about suicide for the Christian tradition as a whole, the tension between the promise of a personal afterlife and the wrongness of seeking death to achieve it. If Christian belief promises a heavenly afterlife for those without sin, but one is always at risk of sin while in the body in this life, why wouldn’t the believer commit suicide to reach that afterlife, just after confessing, repenting, and receiving absolution for all previous sins? Augustine’s reply to this question becomes definitive for virtually the entire remainder of the Christian tradition: suicide is a worse sin than any that can be avoided by it. It cannot be, so to speak, as later thinkers might call it, a shortcut to heaven.

In On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine considers a number of skeptical objections to the notion that life is a good: for example, that someone might wish not to exist because he is unhappy or because he fears the afterlife. Augustine interprets suicidal thinking as the desire for respite or peace, and asserts that the suicide thinks of himself as not existing after death—and so is clearly in error. The desire for respite is quite natural, but it leads to a conceptual mistake. To be at peace, whatever one’s sufferings have been, one must exist.


Augustine, The City of God, Book I, ch. 17–27, tr. Rev. Marcus Dods.From A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, Vol. II: St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, Edinburg: T & T Clark, Edinburgh, n.d. Available online from the Christian Classics Ethereal LibraryOn Free Choice of the Will, tr. Thomas Williams, Book III, sections 6–8, Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1993, pp. 83–87.



Of Suicide Committed Through Fear of Punishment or Dishonor

And consequently, even if some of these virgins killed themselves to avoid such disgrace, who that has any human feeling would refuse to forgive them? And as for those who would not put an end to their lives, lest they might seem to escape the crime of another by a sin of their own, he who lays this to their charge as a great wickedness is himself not guiltless of the fault of folly. For if it is not lawful to take the law into our own hands, and slay even a guilty person, whose death no public sentence has warranted, then certainly he who kills himself is a homicide, and so much the guiltier of his own death, as he was more innocent of that offense for which he doomed himself to die. Do we justly execrate the deed of Judas, and does truth itself pronounce that by hanging himself he rather aggravated than expiated the guilt of that most iniquitous betrayal, since, by despairing of God’s mercy in his sorrow that wrought death, he left to himself no place for a healing penitence? How much more ought he to abstain from laying violent hands on himself who has done nothing worthy of such a punishment! For Judas, when he killed himself, killed a wicked man; but he passed from this life chargeable not only with the death of Christ, but with his own: for though he killed himself on account of his crime, his killing himself was another crime. Why, then, should a man who has done no ill do ill to himself, and by killing himself kill the innocent to escape another’s guilty act, and perpetrate upon himself a sin of his own, that the sin of another may not be perpetrated on him?

Of the Violence Which May Be Done to the Body by Another’s Lust, While the Mind Remains Inviolate

But is there a fear that even another’s lust may pollute the violated? It will not pollute, if it be another’s: if it pollute, it is not another’s, but is shared also by the polluted. But since purity is a virtue of the soul, and has for its companion virtue, the fortitude which will rather endure all ills than consent to evil; and since no one, however magnanimous and pure, has always the disposal of his own body, but can control only the consent and refusal of his will, what sane man can suppose that, if his body be seized and forcibly made use of to satisfy the lust of another, he thereby loses his purity? For if purity can be thus destroyed, then assuredly purity is no virtue of the soul; nor can it be numbered among those good things by which the life is made good, but among the good things of the body, in the same category as strength, beauty, sound and unbroken health, and, in short, all such good things as may be diminished without at all diminishing the goodness and rectitude of our life. But if purity be nothing better than these, why should the body be periled that it may be preserved? If, on the other hand, it belongs to the soul, then not even when the body is violated is it lost. Nay more, the virtue of holy continence, when it resists the uncleanness of carnal lust, sanctifies even the body, and therefore when this continence remains unsubdued, even the sanctity of the body is preserved, because the will to use it holily remains, and, so far as lies in the body itself, the power also.

For the sanctity of the body does not consist in the integrity of its members, nor in their exemption from all touch; for they are exposed to various accidents which do violence to and wound them, and the surgeons who administer relief often perform operations that sicken the spectator. A midwife, suppose, has (whether maliciously or accidentally, or through unskillfulness) destroyed the virginity of some girl, while endeavoring to ascertain it: I suppose no one is so foolish as to believe that, by this destruction of the integrity of one organ, the virgin has lost anything even of her bodily sanctity. And thus, so long as the soul keeps this firmness of purpose which sanctifies even the body, the violence done by another’s lust makes no impression on this bodily sanctity, which is preserved intact by one’s own persistent continence. Suppose a virgin violates the oath she has sworn to God, and goes to meet her seducer with the intention of yielding to him, shall we say that as she goes she is possessed even of bodily sanctity, when already she has lost and destroyed that sanctity of soul which sanctifies the body? Far be it from us to so misapply words. Let us rather draw this conclusion, that while the sanctity of the soul remains even when the body is violated, the sanctity of the body is not lost; and that, in like manner, the sanctity of the body is lost when the sanctity of the soul is violated, though the body itself remains intact. And therefore a woman who has been violated by the sin of another, and without any consent of her own, has no cause to put herself to death; much less has she cause to commit suicide in order to avoid such violation, for in that case she commits certain homicide to prevent a crime which is uncertain as yet, and not her own.

Of Lucretia, Who Put an End to Her Life Because of the Outrage Done Her

This, then, is our position, and it seems sufficiently lucid. We maintain that when a woman is violated while her soul admits no consent to the iniquity, but remains inviolably chaste, the sin is not hers, but his who violates her. But do they against whom we have to defend not only the souls, but the sacred bodies too of these outraged Christian captives,—do they, perhaps, dare to dispute our position? But all know how loudly they extol the purity of Lucretia, that noble matron of ancient Rome. When King Tarquin’s son had violated her body, she made known the wickedness of this young profligate to her husband Collatinus, and to Brutus her kinsman, men of high rank and full of courage, and bound them by an oath to avenge it. Then, heart-sick, and unable to bear the shame, she put an end to her life. What shall we call her? An adulteress, or chaste? There is no question which she was. Not more happily than truly did a declaimer say of this sad occurrence: “Here was a marvel: there were two, and only one committed adultery.” Most forcibly and truly spoken. For this declaimer, seeing in the union of the two bodies the foul lust of the one, and the chaste will of the other, and giving heed not to the contact of the bodily members, but to the wide diversity of their souls, says: “There were two, but the adultery was committed only by one.”

But how is it, that she who was no partner to the crime bears the heavier punishment of the two? For the adulterer was only banished along with his father; she suffered the extreme penalty. If that was not impurity by which she was unwillingly ravished, then this is not justice by which she, being chaste, is punished. To you I appeal, ye laws and judges of Rome. Even after the perpetration of great enormities, you do not suffer the criminal to be slain untried. If, then, one were to bring to your bar this case, and were to prove to you that a woman not only untried, but chaste and innocent, had been killed, would you not visit the murderer with punishment proportionably severe? This crime was committed by Lucretia; that Lucretia so celebrated and lauded slew the innocent, chaste, outraged Lucretia. Pronounce sentence. But if you cannot, because there does not appear any one whom you can punish, why do you extol with such unmeasured laudation her who slew an innocent and chaste woman? Assuredly you will find it impossible to defend her before the judges of the realms below, if they be such as your poets are fond of representing them; for she is among those

“Who guiltless sent themselves to doom,
And all for loathing of the day,
In madness threw their lives away.”
And if she with the others wishes to return,
“Fate bars the way: around their keep
The slow unlovely waters creep,
And bind with ninefold chain.”(Virgil, Æneid, vi. 434)

Or perhaps she is not there, because she slew herself conscious of guilt, not of innocence? She herself alone knows her reason; but what if she was betrayed by the pleasure of the act, and gave some consent to Sextus, though so violently abusing her, and then was so affected with remorse, that she thought death alone could expiate her sin? Even though this were the case, she ought still to have held her hand from suicide, if she could with her false gods have accomplished a fruitful repentance. However, if such were the state of the case, and if it were false that there were two, but one only committed adultery; if the truth were that both were involved in it, one by open assault, the other by secret consent, then she did not kill an innocent woman; and therefore her erudite defenders may maintain that she is not among that class of the dwellers below “who guiltless sent themselves to doom.” But this case of Lucretia is in such a dilemma, that if you extenuate the homicide, you confirm the adultery: if you acquit her of adultery, you make the charge of homicide heavier; and there is no way out of the dilemma, when one asks, If she was adulterous, why praise her? if chaste, why slay her?

Nevertheless, for our purpose of refuting those who are unable to comprehend what true sanctity is, and who therefore insult over our outraged Christian women, it is enough that in the instance of this noble Roman matron it was said in her praise, “There were two, but the adultery was the crime of only one.” For Lucretia was confidently believed to be superior to the contamination of any consenting thought to the adultery. And accordingly, since she killed herself for being subjected to an outrage in which she had no guilty part, it is obvious that this act of hers was prompted not by the love of purity, but by the overwhelming burden of her shame. She was ashamed that so foul a crime had been perpetrated upon her, though without her abetting; and this matron, with the Roman love of glory in her veins, was seized with a proud dread that, if she continued to live, it would be supposed she willingly did not resent the wrong that had been done her. She could not exhibit to men her conscience but she judged that her self-inflicted punishment would testify her state of mind; and she burned with shame at the thought that her patient endurance of the foul affront that another had done her, should be construed into complicity with him. Not such was the decision of the Christian women who suffered as she did, and yet survive. They declined to avenge upon themselves the guilt of others, and so add crimes of their own to those crimes in which they had no share. For this they would have done had their shame driven them to homicide, as the lust of their enemies had driven them to adultery. Within their own souls, in the witness of their own conscience, they enjoy the glory of chastity. In the sight of God, too, they are esteemed pure, and this contents them; they ask no more: it suffices them to have opportunity of doing good, and they decline to evade the distress of human suspicion, lest they thereby deviate from the divine law.

That Christians Have No Authority for Committing Suicide in Any Circumstances Whatever

It is not without significance, that in no passage of the holy canonical books there can be found either divine precept or permission to take away our own life, whether for the sake of entering on the enjoyment of immortality, or of shunning, or ridding ourselves of anything whatever. Nay, the law, rightly interpreted, even prohibits suicide, where it says, “Thou shalt not kill.” This is proved especially by the omission of the words “thy neighbor,” which are inserted when false witness is forbidden: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Nor yet should any one on this account suppose he has not broken this commandment if he has borne false witness only against himself. For the love of our neighbor is regulated by the love of ourselves, as it is written, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” If, then, he who makes false statements about himself is not less guilty of bearing false witness than if he had made them to the injury of his neighbor; although in the commandment prohibiting false witness only his neighbor is mentioned, and persons taking no pains to understand it might suppose that a man was allowed to be a false witness to his own hurt; how much greater reason have we to understand that a man may not kill himself, since in the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” there is no limitation added nor any exception made in favor of any one, and least of all in favor of him on whom the command is laid! And so some attempt to extend this command even to beasts and cattle, as if it forbade us to take life from any creature. But if so, why not extend it also to the plants, and all that is rooted in and nourished by the earth? For though this class of creatures have no sensation, yet they also are said to live, and consequently they can die; and therefore, if violence be done them, can be killed. So, too, the apostle, when speaking of the seeds of such things as these, says, “That which thou sowest is not quickened except it die;” and in the Psalm it is said, “He killed their vines with hail.” Must we therefore reckon it a breaking of this commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” to pull a flower? Are we thus insanely to countenance the foolish error of the Manichæans? Putting aside, then, these ravings, if, when we say, Thou shalt not kill, we do not understand this of the plants, since they have no sensation, nor of the irrational animals that fly, swim, walk, or creep, since they are dissociated from us by their want of reason, and are therefore by the just appointment of the Creator subjected to us to kill or keep alive for our own uses; if so, then it remains that we understand that commandment simply of man. The commandment is, “Thou shall not kill man;” therefore neither another nor yourself, for he who kills himself still kills nothing else than man.

Of the Cases in Which We May Put Men to Death Without Incurring the Guilt of Murder

However, there are some exceptions made by the divine authority to its own law, that men may not be put to death. These exceptions are of two kinds, being justified either by a general law, or by a special commission granted for a time to some individual. And in this latter case, he to whom authority is delegated, and who is but the sword in the hand of him who uses it, is not himself responsible for the death he deals. And, accordingly, they who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Abraham indeed was not merely deemed guiltless of cruelty, but was even applauded for his piety, because he was ready to slay his son in obedience to God, not to his own passion. And it is reasonably enough made a question, whether we are to esteem it to have been in compliance with a command of God that Jephthah killed his daughter, because she met him when he had vowed that he would sacrifice to God whatever first met him as he returned victorious from battle. Samson, too, who drew down the house on himself and his foes together, is justified only on this ground, that the Spirit who wrought wonders by him had given him secret instructions to do this. With the exception, then, of these two classes of cases, which are justified either by a just law that applies generally, or by a special intimation from God Himself, the fountain of all justice, whoever kills a man, either himself or another, is implicated in the guilt of murder.

That Suicide Can Never Be Prompted by Magnanimity

But they who have laid violent hands on themselves are perhaps to be admired for their greatness of soul, though they cannot be applauded for the soundness of their judgment. However, if you look at the matter more closely, you will scarcely call it greatness of soul, which prompts a man to kill himself rather than bear up against some hardships of fortune, or sins in which he is not implicated. Is it not rather proof of a feeble mind, to be unable to bear either the pains of bodily servitude or the foolish opinion of the vulgar? And is not that to be pronounced the greater mind, which rather faces than flees the ills of life, and which, in comparison of the light and purity of conscience, holds in small esteem the judgment of men, and specially of the vulgar, which is frequently involved in a mist of error? And, therefore, if suicide is to be esteemed a magnanimous act, none can take higher rank for magnanimity than that Cleombrotus, who (as the story goes), when he had read Plato’s book in which he treats of the immortality of the soul, threw himself from a wall, and so passed from this life to that which he believed to be better. For he was not hard pressed by calamity, nor by any accusation, false or true, which he could not very well have lived down; there was, in short, no motive but only magnanimity urging him to seek death, and break away from the sweet detention of this life. And yet that this was a magnanimous rather than a justifiable action, Plato himself, whom he had read, would have told him; for he would certainly have been forward to commit, or at least to recommend suicide, had not the same bright intellect which saw that the soul was immortal, discerned also that to seek immortality by suicide was to be prohibited rather than encouraged.

Again, it is said many have killed themselves to prevent an enemy doing so. But we are not inquiring whether it has been done, but whether it ought to have been done. Sound judgment is to be preferred even to examples, and indeed examples harmonize with the voice of reason; but not all examples, but those only which are distinguished by their piety, and are proportionately worthy of imitation. For suicide we cannot cite the example of patriarchs, prophets, or apostles; though our Lord Jesus Christ, when He admonished them to flee from city to city if they were persecuted, might very well have taken that occasion to advise them to lay violent hands on themselves, and so escape their persecutors. But seeing He did not do this, nor proposed this mode of departing this life, though He were addressing His own friends for whom He had promised to prepare everlasting mansions, it is obvious that such examples as are produced from the “nations that forget God,” give no warrant of imitation to the worshippers of the one true God.

What We are to Think of the Example of Cato, Who Slew Himself Because Unable to Endure Cæsar’s Victory

Besides Lucretia, of whom enough has already been said, our advocates of suicide have some difficulty in finding any other prescriptive example, unless it be that of Cato, who killed himself at Utica. His example is appealed to, not because he was the only man who did so, but because he was so esteemed as a learned and excellent man, that it could plausibly be maintained that what he did was and is a good thing to do. But of this action of his, what can I say but that his own friends, enlightened men as he, prudently dissuaded him, and therefore judged his act to be that of a feeble rather than a strong spirit, and dictated not by honorable feeling forestalling shame, but by weakness shrinking from hardships? Indeed, Cato condemns himself by the advice he gave to his dearly loved son. For if it was a disgrace to live under Cæsar’s rule, why did the father urge the son to this disgrace, by encouraging him to trust absolutely to Cæsar’s generosity? Why did he not persuade him to die along with himself? If Torquatus was applauded for putting his son to death, when contrary to orders he had engaged, and engaged successfully, with the enemy, why did conquered Cato spare his conquered son, though he did not spare himself? Was it more disgraceful to be a victor contrary to orders, than to submit to a victor contrary to the received ideas of honor? Cato, then, cannot have deemed it to be shameful to live under Cæsar’s rule; for had he done so, the father’s sword would have delivered his son from this disgrace. The truth is, that his son, whom he both hoped and desired would be spared by Cæsar, was not more loved by him than Cæsar was envied the glory of pardoning him (as indeed Cæsar himself is reported to have said); or if envy is too strong a word, let us say he was ashamed that this glory should be his.

That in that Virtue in Which Regulus Excels Cato, Christians are Pre-Eminently Distinguished

Our opponents are offended at our preferring to Cato the saintly Job, who endured dreadful evils in his body rather than deliver himself from all torment by self-inflicted death; or other saints, of whom it is recorded in our authoritative and trustworthy books that they bore captivity and the oppression of their enemies rather than commit suicide. But their own books authorize us to prefer to Marcus Cato, Marcus Regulus. For Cato had never conquered Cæsar; and when conquered by him, disdained to submit himself to him, and that he might escape this submission put himself to death. Regulus, on the contrary, had formerly conquered the Carthaginians, and in command of the army of Rome had won for the Roman republic a victory which no citizen could bewail, and which the enemy himself was constrained to admire; yet afterwards, when he in his turn was defeated by them, he preferred to be their captive rather than to put himself beyond their reach by suicide. Patient under the domination of the Carthaginians, and constant in his love of the Romans, he neither deprived the one of his conquered body, nor the other of his unconquered spirit. Neither was it love of life that prevented him from killing himself. This was plainly enough indicated by his unhesitatingly returning, on account of his promise and oath, to the same enemies whom he had more grievously provoked by his words in the senate than even by his arms in battle. Having such a contempt of life, and preferring to end it by whatever torments excited enemies might contrive, rather than terminate it by his own hand, he could not more distinctly have declared how great a crime he judged suicide to be. Among all their famous and remarkable citizens, the Romans have no better man to boast of than this, who was neither corrupted by prosperity, for he remained a very poor man after winning such victories; nor broken by adversity, for he returned intrepidly to the most miserable end. But if the bravest and most renowned heroes, who had but an earthly country to defend, and who, though they had but false gods, yet rendered them a true worship, and carefully kept their oath to them; if these men, who by the custom and right of war put conquered enemies to the sword, yet shrank from putting an end to their own lives even when conquered by their enemies; if, though they had no fear at all of death, they would yet rather suffer slavery than commit suicide, how much rather must Christians, the worshippers of the true God, the aspirants to a heavenly citizenship, shrink from this act, if in God’s providence they have been for a season delivered into the hands of their enemies to prove or to correct them! And certainly, Christians subjected to this humiliating condition will not be deserted by the Most High, who for their sakes humbled Himself. Neither should they forget that they are bound by no laws of war, nor military orders, to put even a conquered enemy to the sword; and if a man may not put to death the enemy who has sinned, or may yet sin against him, who is so infatuated as to maintain that he may kill himself because an enemy has sinned, or is going to sin, against him?

That We Should Not Endeavor By Sin to Obviate Sin

But, we are told, there is ground to fear that, when the body is subjected to the enemy’s lust, the insidious pleasure of sense may entice the soul to consent to the sin, and steps must be taken to prevent so disastrous a result. And is not suicide the proper mode of preventing not only the enemy’s sin, but the sin of the Christian so allured? Now, in the first place, the soul which is led by God and His wisdom, rather than by bodily concupiscence, will certainly never consent to the desire aroused in its own flesh by another’s lust. And, at all events, if it be true, as the truth plainly declares, that suicide is a detestable and damnable wickedness, who is such a fool as to say, Let us sin now, that we may obviate a possible future sin; let us now commit murder, lest we perhaps afterwards should commit adultery? If we are so controlled by iniquity that innocence is out of the question, and we can at best but make a choice of sins, is not a future and uncertain adultery preferable to a present and certain murder? Is it not better to commit a wickedness which penitence may heal, than a crime which leaves no place for healing contrition? I say this for the sake of those men or women who fear they may be enticed into consenting to their violator’s lust, and think they should lay violent hands on themselves, and so prevent, not another’s sin, but their own. But far be it from the mind of a Christian confiding in God, and resting in the hope of His aid; far be it, I say, from such a mind to yield a shameful consent to pleasures of the flesh, howsoever presented. And if that lustful disobedience, which still dwells in our mortal members, follows its own law irrespective of our will, surely its motions in the body of one who rebels against them are as blameless as its motions in the body of one who sleeps.

That in Certain Peculiar Cases the Examples of the Saints are Not to Be Followed

But, they say, in the time of persecution some holy women escaped those who menaced them with outrage, by casting themselves into rivers which they knew would drown them; and having died in this manner, they are venerated in the church catholic as martyrs. Of such persons I do not presume to speak rashly. I cannot tell whether there may not have been vouchsafed to the church some divine authority, proved by trustworthy evidences, for so honoring their memory: it may be that it is so. It may be they were not deceived by human judgment, but prompted by divine wisdom, to their act of self-destruction. We know that this was the case with Samson. And when God enjoins any act, and intimates by plain evidence that He has enjoined it, who will call obedience criminal? Who will accuse so religious a submission? But then every man is not justified in sacrificing his son to God, because Abraham was commendable in so doing. The soldier who has slain a man in obedience to the authority under which he is lawfully commissioned, is not accused of murder by any law of his state; nay, if he has not slain him, it is then he is accused of treason to the state, and of despising the law. But if he has been acting on his own authority, and at his own impulse, he has in this case incurred the crime of shedding human blood. And thus he is punished for doing without orders the very thing he is punished for neglecting to do when he has been ordered. If the commands of a general make so great a difference, shall the commands of God make none? He, then, who knows it is unlawful to kill himself, may nevertheless do so if he is ordered by Him whose commands we may not neglect. Only let him be very sure that the divine command has been signified. As for us, we can become privy to the secrets of conscience only in so far as these are disclosed to us, and so far only do we judge: “No one knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him.”

But this we affirm, this we maintain, this we every way pronounce to be right, that no man ought to inflict on himself voluntary death, for this is to escape the ills of time by plunging into those of eternity; that no man ought to do so on account of another man’s sins, for this were to escape a guilt which could not pollute him, by incurring great guilt of his own; that no man ought to do so on account of his own past sins, for he has all the more need of this life that these sins may be healed by repentance; that no man should put an end to this life to obtain that better life we look for after death, for those who die by their own hand have no better life after death.

Whether Voluntary Death Should Be Sought in Order to Avoid Sin

There remains one reason for suicide which I mentioned before, and which is thought a sound one,—namely, to prevent one’s falling into sin either through the blandishments of pleasure or the violence of pain. If this reason were a good one, then we should be impelled to exhort men at once to destroy themselves, as soon as they have been washed in the laver of regeneration, and have received the forgiveness of all sin. Then is the time to escape all future sin, when all past sin is blotted out. And if this escape be lawfully secured by suicide, why not then specially? Why does any baptized person hold his hand from taking his own life? Why does any person who is freed from the hazards of this life again expose himself to them, when he has power so easily to rid himself of them all, and when it is written, “He who loveth danger shall fall into it?” Why does he love, or at least face, so many serious dangers, by remaining in this life from which he may legitimately depart? But is any one so blinded and twisted in his moral nature, and so far astray from the truth, as to think that, though a man ought to make away with himself for fear of being led into sin by the oppression of one man, his master, he ought yet to live, and so expose himself to the hourly temptations of this world, both to all those evils which the oppression of one master involves, and to numberless other miseries in which this life inevitably implicates us? What reason, then, is there for our consuming time in those exhortations by which we seek to animate the baptized, either to virginal chastity, or vidual [widowed] continence, or matrimonial fidelity, when we have so much more simple and compendious a method of deliverance from sin, by persuading those who are fresh from baptism to put an end to their lives, and so pass to their Lord pure and well-conditioned? If any one thinks that such persuasion should be attempted, I say not he is foolish, but mad. With what face, then, can he say to any man, “Kill yourself, lest to your small sins you add a heinous sin, while you live under an unchaste master, whose conduct is that of a barbarian?” How can he say this, if he cannot without wickedness say, “Kill yourself, now that you are washed from all your sins, lest you fall again into similar or even aggravated sins, while you live in a world which has such power to allure by its unclean pleasures, to torment by its horrible cruelties, to overcome by its errors and terrors?” It is wicked to say this; it is therefore wicked to kill oneself. For if there could be any just cause of suicide, this were so. And since not even this is so, there is none.


…Someone might say, “I would rather not exist at all than be unhappy.” I would reply, “You’re lying. You’re unhappy now, and the only reason you don’t want to die is to go on existing. You don’t want to be unhappy, but you do want to exist. Give thanks, therefore, for what you are willingly, so that what you are against your will might be taken away; for you willingly exist, but you are unhappy against your will. If you are ungrateful for what you will to be, you are justly compelled to be what you do not will. So I praise the goodness of your Creator, for even though you are ungrateful you have what you will; and I praise the justice of your Lawgiver, for because you are ungrateful you suffer what you do not will.”

But then he might say, “It is not because I would rather be unhappy than not exist at all that I am unwilling to die; it’s because I’m afraid that I might be even more unhappy after death.” I would reply, “If it is unjust for you to be even more unhappy, you won’t be so; but if it is just, let us praise him by whose laws you will be so.”

Next he might ask, “Why should I assume that if it is unjust I won’t be more unhappy?” I would reply, “If at that time you are in your own power, either you will not be unhappy, or you will be governing yourself unjustly, in which case you will deserve your unhappiness. But suppose instead that you wish to govern yourself justly but cannot. That means that you are not in your own power, so either someone else has power over you, or no one has. If no one has power over you, you will act either willingly or unwillingly. It cannot be unwillingly, because nothing happens to you unwillingly unless you are overcome by some force, and you cannot be overcome by any force if no one has power over you. And if it is willingly, you are in fact in your own power, and the earlier argument applies: either you deserve your unhappiness for governing yourself unjustly, or, since you have whatever you will, you have reason to give thanks for the goodness of your Creator.

“Therefore, if you are not in your own power, some other thing must have control over you. This thing is either stronger or weaker than you. If it is weaker than you, your servitude is your own fault and your unhappiness is just, since you could overpower this thing if you willed to do so. And if a stronger thing has control over you, its control is in accordance with proper order, and you cannot rightly think that so right an order is unjust. I was therefore quite correct to say, ‘If it is unjust for you to be even more unhappy, you won’t be so; but if it is just, let us praise him by whose laws you will be so’.”

Then he might say, “The only reason that I will to be unhappy rather than not to exist at all is that I already exist; if somehow I could have been consulted on this matter before I existed, I would have chosen not to exist rather than to be unhappy. The fact that I am now afraid not to exist, even though I am unhappy, is itself part of that very unhappiness because of which I do not will what I ought to will. For I ought to will not to exist rather than to be unhappy. And yet I admit that in fact I would rather be unhappy than be nothing. But the more unhappy I am, the more foolish I am to will this; and the more truly I see that I ought not will this, the more unhappy I am.”

I would reply, “Be careful that you are not mistaken when you think you see the truth. For if you were happy, you would certainly prefer existence to nonexistence. Even as it is, although you are unhappy and do not will to be unhappy, you would rather exist and be unhappy than not exist at all. Consider, then, as well as you can, how great is the good of existence, which the happy and the unhappy alike will. If you consider it well, you will realize three things. First, you are unhappy to the extent that you are far from him who exists in the highest degree. Second, the more you think that it is better for someone not to exist than to be unhappy, the less you will see him who exists in the highest degree. Finally, you nonetheless will to exist because you are from him who exists in the highest degree.”

So if you will to escape from unhappiness, cherish your will to exist. For if you will more and more to exist, you will approach him who exists in the highest degree. And give thanks that you exist now, for even though you are inferior to those who are happy, you are superior to things that do not have even the will to be happy―and many such things are praised even by those who are unhappy. Nonetheless, all things that exist deserve praise simply in virtue of the fact that they exist, for they are good simply in virtue of the fact that they exist.

The more you love existence, the more you will desire eternal life, and so the more you will long to be refashioned so that your affections are no longer temporal, branded upon you by the love of temporal things that are nothing before they exist, and then, once they do exist, flee from existence until they exist no more. And so when their existence is still to come, they do not yet exist; and when their existence is past, they exist no more. How can you expect such things to endure, when for them to begin to exist is to set out on the road to nonexistence?

Someone who loves existence approves of such things insofar as they exist and loves that which always exists. If once he used to waver in the love of temporal things, he now grows firm in the love of the eternal. Once he wallowed in the love of fleeting things, but he will stand steadfast in the love of what is permanent. Then he will obtain the very existence that he willed when he was afraid not to exist but could not stand upright because he was entangled in the love of fleeting things.

Therefore, do not grieve that you would rather exist and be unhappy than not exist and be nothing at all. Instead, rejoice greatly, for your will to exist is like a first step. If you go on from there to set your sights more and more on existence, you will rise to him who exists in the highest degree. Thus you will keep yourself from the kind of fall in which that which exists in the lowest degree ceases to exist and thereby devastates the one who loves it. Hence, someone who prefers not to exist rather than to be unhappy has no choice but to be unhappy, since he cannot fail to exist; but someone who loves existence more than he hates being unhappy can banish what he hates by cleaving more and more to what he loves. For someone who has come to enjoy an existence that is perfect for a thing of his kind cannot be unhappy.

Notice how absurd and illogical it would be to say “I would prefer not to exist rather than to be unhappy.” For someone who says “I would prefer this rather than that” is choosing something. But not to exist is not something, but nothing. Therefore, you can’t properly choose it, since what you are choosing does not exist.

Perhaps you will say that you do in fact will to exist, even though you are unhappy, but that you shouldn’t will to exist. Then what should you will? “Not to exist,” you say. Well, if that is what you ought to will, it must be better; but that which does not exist cannot be better. Therefore, you should not will not to exist, and the frame of mind that keeps you from willing it is closer to the truth than your belief that you ought to will it.

Furthermore, if someone is right in choosing to pursue something, it must be the case that he becomes better when he attains it. But whoever does not exist cannot be better, and so no one can be right in choosing not to exist. We should not be swayed by the judgment of those whose unhappiness has driven them to suicide. Either they thought that they would be better off after death, in which case they were doing nothing contrary to our argument (whether they were right in thinking so or not); or else they thought that they would be nothing after death, in which case there is even less reason for us to bother with them, since they falsely chose nothing. For how am I supposed to concur in the choice of someone who, if I asked him what he was choosing, would say “Nothing”? And someone who chooses not to exist is clearly choosing nothing, even if he won’t admit it.

To tell you quite frankly what I think about this whole issue, it seems to me that someone who kills himself or in some way wants to die has the feeling that he will not exist after death, whatever his conscious opinion may be. Opinion, whether true or false, has to do with reason or faith; but feeling derives its power from either habit or nature. It can happen that opinion leads in one direction and feeling in another. This is easy to see in cases where we believe that we ought to do one thing but enjoy doing just the opposite. And sometimes feeling is closer to the truth than opinion is, as when the opinion is in error and the feeling is from nature. For example, a sick man will often enjoy drinking cold water, which is good for him, even if he believes that it will kill him. But sometimes opinion is closer to the truth than feeling is, as when someone’s knowledge of medicine tells him that cold water would be harmful when in fact it would be harmful, even though it would be pleasant to drink. Sometimes both are right, as when one rightly believes that something is beneficial and also finds it pleasing. Sometimes both are wrong, as when one believes that something is beneficial when it is actually harmful and one is also happy not to give it up.

It often happens that right opinion corrects perverted habits and that perverted opinion distorts an upright nature, so great is the power of the dominion and rule of reason. Therefore, someone who believes that after death he will not exist is driven by his unbearable troubles to desire death with all his heart; he chooses death and takes hold of it. His opinion is completely false, but his feeling is simply a natural desire for peace. And something that has peace is not nothing; indeed, it is greater than something that is restless. For restlessness generates one conflicting passion after another, whereas peace has the constancy that is the most conspicuous characteristic of Being.

So the will’s desire for death is not a desire for nonexistence but a desire for peace. When someone wrongly believes that he will not exist, he desires by nature to be at peace; that is, he desires to exist in a higher degree. Therefore, just as no one can desire not to exist, no one ought to be ungrateful to the goodness of the Creator for the fact that he exists…

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Filed under Africa, Ancient History, Augustine, Christianity, Europe, Selections, Stoicism


from Of Virgins: Letter to Marcellina


Born in the city of Trier (modern Germany), Ambrose of Milan became a noted theologian, biblical critic, and hymnist, later canonized as a saint and considered the father of liturgical music. He is also known as the spiritual teacher who converted and baptized Augustine of Hippo [q.v.]. Ambrose’s father, the praetorian prefect of Gaul, died soon after Ambrose’s birth, and he was taken by his mother to Rome, where he was educated in rhetoric, classical literature, and in Stoic thought. Ambrose entered politics and in about 370, he became governor of Aemilia-Liguria, a province in northern Italy. Four years later, Ambrose was unexpectedly acclaimed bishop of Milan by the people—he received baptism and was consecrated bishop one week later. He served as bishop for 23 years until his death in 397. As bishop, Ambrose was committed to establishing orthodox Christian doctrine, defining Church authority, and disestablishing pagan state religion. When in 388 a local bishop instigated a mob that burned and looted a synagogue at Callinicum in Syria, Ambrose held, against the emperor Theodosius’s order that the bishop rebuild it, that it would be apostasy for the bishop to rebuild a place of worship for the enemies of Christ and that religious interests should prevail over the maintenance of civil law; after a stadium massacre in Thessalonica engineered by Theodosius, Ambrose threatened to excommunicate the emperor, though he later became Theodosius’ ally in the Church.

Ambrose was extremely influential in forming Christian discussion of church-state relations. As a Christian intellectual, he was also influential in integrating faith and reason within church theology, and was an important figure in the Arian controversy. His principal works include “On Faith” (380), a defense of orthodoxy against Arianism; “On the Duties of the Clergy” (386), a treatment of Christian ethical obligations; numerous Biblical commentaries, including Hexaemaeron (“On the Six Days of Creation”); “On the Goodness of Death”; and sermons and hymns, including Aeterne rerum Conditor (“Framer of the earth and sky”) and Deus Creator omnium (“Maker of all things, God most high”).

The following selection from Ambrose’s Of Virgins is a letter to his elder sister Marcellina. In 353, on the feast of the Epiphany, in the presence of the Pope, Marcellina had dedicated her virginity to God and vowed to live an ascetic life; she and her mother formed the core of one of the first groups of patrician women in Rome who renounced the world for their Christian beliefs. As virginity became increasingly celebrated, the issue of whether a virgin might kill herself to escape sexual violation had become an increasingly controversial matter. The view that rape was the worst thing that could befall a Christian woman had become widespread; for Christians, as Tertullian [q.v.] had put it, “. . . a stain upon chastity is reckoned among us as more dreadful than any punishment and any death.” Eusebius [q.v.] had narrated the story of the woman of Antioch and her two daughters who had drowned themselves in the river to avoid rape; his implicit evaluation of the incident is equivocal. Here, Ambrose relates with similar imagery the story of the 15-year-old Pelagia, later venerated as a saint, who together with her mother and sisters also seek death by drowning rather than be raped. Ambrose, clearly regarding them as virtuous rather than sinful, interprets these suicides as a form of martyrdom to be revered.


St. Ambrose, “Concerning Virgins,” Book III, ch. 7:32-39. From A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, Vol. 10, pp. 386-387.  Available online from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library



As I am drawing near the close of my address, you [Marcellina] make a good suggestion, holy sister, that I should touch upon what we ought to think of the merits of those who have cast themselves down from a height, or have drowned themselves in a river, lest they should fall into the hands of persecutors, seeing that holy Scripture forbids a Christian to lay hands on himself. And indeed as regard; virgins placed in the necessity of preserving their purity, we have a plain answer, seeing that there exists an instance of martyrdom.

Saint Pelagia lived formerly at Antioch, being about fifteen years old, a sister of virgins, and a virgin herself. She shut herself up at home at the first sound of persecution, seeing herself surrounded by those who would rob her of her faith and purity, in the absence of her mother and sisters, without any defence, but all the more filled with God. “What are we to do, unless,” says she to herself, “thou, a captive of virginity, takest thought? I both wish and fear to die, for I meet not death but seek it. Let us die if we are allowed, or if they will not allow it, still let us die. God is not offended by a remedy against evil, and faith permits the act. In truth, if we think of the real meaning of the word, how can what is voluntary be violence? It is rather violence to wish to die and not to be able. And we do not fear any difficulty. For who is there who wishes to die and is not able to do so, when there are so many easy ways to death? For I can now rush upon the sacrilegious altars and overthrow them, and quench with my blood the kindled fires. I am not afraid that my right hand may fail to deliver the blow, or that my breast may shrink from the pain. I shall leave no sin to my flesh. I fear not that a sword will be wanting. I can die by my own weapons, I can die without the help of an executioner, in my mother’s bosom.”

She is said to have adorned her head, and to have put on a bridal dress, so that one would say that she was going to a bridegroom, not to death. But when the hateful persecutors saw that they had lost the prey of her chastity, they began to seek her mother and sisters. But they, by a spiritual flight, already held the field of chastity, when, as on the one side, persecutors suddenly threatened them, and on the other, escape was shut off by an impetuous river, they said, what do we fear? See the water, what hinders us from being baptized? And this is the baptism whereby sins are forgiven, and kingdoms are sought. This is a baptism after which no one sins. Let the water receive us, which is wont to regenerate. Let the water receive us, which makes virgins. Let the water receive us, which opens heaven, protects the weak, hides death, makes martyrs. We pray Thee, God, Creator of all things, let not the water scatter our bodies, deprived of the breath of life; let not death separate our obsequies, whose lives affection has always conjoined; but let our constancy be one, our death one, and our burial also be one.

Having said these words, and having slightly girded up the bosom of their dress, to veil their modesty without impeding their steps, joining hands as though to lead a dance, they went forward to the middle of the river bed, directing their steps to where the stream was more violent, and the depth more abrupt. No one drew back, no one ceased to go on, no one tried where to place her steps, they were anxious only when they felt the ground, grieved when the water was shallow, and glad when it was deep. One could see the pious mother tightening her grasp, rejoicing in her pledges, afraid of a fall test even the stream should carry off her daughters from her. “These victims, O Christ,” said she, “do I offer as leaders of chastity, guides on my journey, and companions of my sufferings.”

But who would have cause to wonder that they had such constancy whilst alive, seeing that even when dead they preserved the position of their bodies unmoved? The water did not lay bare their corpses, nor did the rapid course of the river roll them along. Moreover, the holy mother, though without sensation, still maintained her loving grasp, and held the sacred knot which she had tied, and loosed not her hold in death, that she who had paid her debt to religion might die leaving her piety as her heir. For those whom she had joined together with herself for martyrdom, she claimed even to the tomb.

But why use instances of people of another race to you, my sister, whom the inspiration of hereditary chastity has taught by descent from a martyred ancestor? For whence have you learnt who had no one from whom to learn, living in the country, with no virgin companion, instructed by no teacher? You have played the part then not of a disciple, for this cannot be done without teaching, but of an heir of virtue.

For how could it come to pass that holy Sotheris should not have been the originator of your purpose, who is an ancestor of your race? Who, in an age of persecution, borne to the heights of suffering by the insults of slaves, gave to the executioner even her face, which is usually free from injury when the whole body is tortured, and rather beholds than suffers torments; so brave and patient that when she offered her tender cheeks to punishment, the executioner failed in striking before the martyr yielded under the injuries. She moved not her face, she turned not away her countenance, she uttered not a groan or a tear. Lastly, when she had overcome other kinds of punishment, she found the sword which she desired.

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(c. 100-165)

from The Second Apology: Why Christians Do Not Kill Themselves


Saint Justin (the) Martyr, theologian and philosopher, was one of the first Christian apologists, sainted and numbered among the Fathers of the Church. He was born in the city of Flavia Neapolis (now Nabulus, West Bank), a Roman city built on the site of the ancient Shechem, in Samaria. His parents practiced the Roman religion. Justin studied Greek philosophy, especially that of Plato and the Stoics, before converting to Christianity; he also knew Judaism and Greco-Roman religion well. After his conversion to Christianity, he traveled about on foot defending its truths, often entering into violent controversies, and later opened a Christian school in Rome. He developed the conception of a divine plan in history and laid the foundation for a theology of history drawing from both philosophy and Christian revelation.

In Rome, Justin wrote the Dialogue with Trypho, emphasizing the continuity of the Old and the New Testaments, and two Apologies for the Christians, collections of reasoned defenses against Roman allegations of Christian insurrection, directed to the emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. Justin’s work in general addressed a philosophically sophisticated Greek and Roman audience. After debating with the Cynic Crescens, however, Justin was denounced to the Roman prefect as subversive and condemned to death; he was scourged and martyred by beheading in Rome during the rule of Marcus Aurelius.

In this very short selection from “The Second Apology,” Justin provides an earnest answer to the sort of flippant remark that might be made by a non-Christian detractor, perhaps a Roman who is influenced by Stoicism and thus views suicide as a potentially rational and prudent act, and who mocks the Christian belief in a personal afterlife. If Christians believe in a personal  afterlife in which one will be received into the presence of God, the detractor seems to imply,  why do they suffer martyrdom rather than commit suicide? Why not kill oneself and go directly to God? Justin’s brief answer alludes to the central Christian values of the educative, formative purpose of human life, the pursuit of moral good and the rejection of evil, and the importance of continuing the Christian faith (i.e., instruction in the divine doctrines), as well as preserving God’s creation, the human race itself; his reasons display the basis of the Christian belief that suicide is wrong.


Justin Martyr,  “The Second Apology of Justin for the Christians Addressed to the Roman Senate,” ch. 4. In Ante-Nicene Fathers,  ed. Philip Schaff,  vol I: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts and  James Donaldson, Edinburgh, 1867.



Lest any one should say to us, ‘All of you, go, kill yourselves and thus go immediately to God, and save us the trouble,’ I will explain why we do not do that, and why, when interrogated, we boldly acknowledge our faith.  We have been taught that God did not create the world without a purpose, but that He did so for the sake of mankind; for we have stated before that God is pleased with those who imitate His perfections, but is displeased with those who choose evil, either in word or in deed.  If, then, we should all kill ourselves we would be the cause, as far as it is up to us, why no one would be born and be instructed in the divine doctrines, or even why the human race might cease to exist; if we do act thus, we ourselves will be opposing the will of God.

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Filed under Ancient History, Christianity, Europe, Justin Martyr, Middle East, Selections, Stoicism

(c. 55-c. 135)

from Discourses:
   How from the Doctrine of Our       Relationship to God We Are to       Deduce Its Consequences
   How We Should Bear Illness
   Of Freedom


Born in Hierapolis, Phrygia (modern Turkey) to a slave woman, Epictetus was himself a slave during his childhood and adolescence. He was lame, according to Origen’s account, from injuries caused by his master Epaphroditus’s twisting his leg until he broke it, although others accounts describe Epaphroditus as a good master. Epaphroditus, himself a freedman of Nero, sent Epictetus to study with the most influential Stoic teacher and theoretician of the time, Gaius Musonius Rufus, and Epictetus was freed by his master, or on the death of his master, sometime after Nero’s death in 68. Epictetus traveled to Rome and began instructing students in Stoicism. In the year 90, he was expelled, along with other Stoic philosophers, by the Roman emperor Domitian, and then moved to Epirus, where he led a large, thriving school of Stoic physics, logic, and ethics. He did not marry, but in his old age, with the help of a nurse, he took in an orphaned child who would otherwise have been exposed. Epictetus’ teachings were collected in two volumes by his pupil Lucius Flavius Arrian: the Discourses, written about 108, of which four of eight books survive, and the Encheiridion (also called the Manual or Handbook), made up of fragments from the Discourses. Arrian explains their informal expression by saying he did not intend to write a book, but to keep notes of what he used to hear Epictetus say “word for word in the very language he used, as far as possible, to capture the directness of his speech.”

Epictetus espoused the Stoic view of the ideal condition for a human being—to be aware of, yet immune to, the bruisings of fortune—to lack all dissatisfaction with anything about the world, to be disappointed by nothing, and to achieve an impersonal point of view. Yet Epictetus also held that if you can help people adjust their desires and attitudes to more realistic levels, you can help them improve their lives. To live in accordance with virtue is to live in accordance with nature, but in giving practical advice, Epictetus clearly realized that lowered expectations were less likely to be disappointed.

A number of Stoic thinkers, especially Seneca, celebrated suicide as the act of the wise man: it was the guarantee of freedom. Epictetus stressed a component of the Stoic view that suicide ought not to be undertaken too quickly to avoid suffering, since people can live best by accepting their powerlessness over circumstances through their capacity for control of the will and by refusing to allow the vicissitudes of life, even illness, to affect them. One need not in general kill oneself to avoid the sufferings of life, and to do so without good reason would be inappropriate. Epictetus used the Platonic (and originally Pythagorean) argument that traded on the metaphor of the person as guard or sentinel, stationed by God at a post, to discourage suicide in response to painful circumstances: “Friends, wait for God, till he give the signal and dismiss you from this service; then depart to him. For the present, endure to remain at this post where he has placed you.” Strategies like analysis, delay, detachment, and so on may minimize fortune’s blows. Yet suicide is the most drastic method of escaping pain, and it can certainly be used when all else has failed: The door, to use the frequent Stoic metaphor, is always open.


Epictetus, Discourses,  Book 1, ch.  9; Book III, ch. 10; Book IV, ch. 1, tr. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1865), Roslyn, New York: Walter J. Black, Inc., 1944, pp. 27-28, 198-199, 281-282.


How From the Doctrine of Our Relationship to God We Are to Deduce Its Consequences

I think that your old teacher ought not to have to be working to keep you from thinking or speaking too meanly or ignobly of yourselves, but should rather be working to keep young men of spirit who, knowing their affinity to the gods and how we are, as it were, fettered by the body and its possessions, and by the many other things that thus are needful for the daily pursuits of life, from resolving to throw them all off, as troublesome and vexatious and useless, and depart to their divine kindred.

This is the work that ought to employ your master and teacher, if you had one.   You would come to him and say: “Epictetus, we can no longer bear being tied down to this poor body-feeding, and resting, and cleaning it, and vexed with so many low cares on its account. Are not these things indifferent and nothing to us and death no evil?  Are we not kindred to God; and did we not come from him?  Suffer us to go back whence we came.  Suffer us to be released at last from these fetters that bind and weigh us down. Here thieves and robbers, courts and tyrants, claim power over us, through the body and its possessions. Suffer us to show them that they have no power.”

In which case it would be my part to answer: “Friends, wait for God, till he give the signal and dismiss you from this service; then depart to him.  For the present, endure to remain at this post where he has placed you.  The time of your abode here is short and easy for men like you; for what tyrant, what thief, or what court can be formidable to those who count as nothing the body and its possessions?  Wait, do not foolishly depart.”


How We Should Bear Illness

Now is your time for a fever. Bear it well. For thirst; bear it well. For hunger; bear it well. Is it not in your power? Who shall restrain you? A physician may restrain you from drinking, but he cannot restrain you from bearing your thirst well. He may restrain you from eating, but he cannot restrain you from bearing hunger well. “But I cannot follow my studies.” And for what end do you follow them, slave? Is it not that you may think and act in conformity with nature? What restrains you, but that, in a fever, you may keep your reason in harmony with nature?

Here is the test of the matter.  Here is the trial of the philosopher; for a fever is a part of life, as is a walk, a voyage, or a journey.  Do you read when you are walking?  No, nor in a fever.  But when you walk well, you attend to what belongs to a walker; so, if you bear a fever well, you have everything belonging to one in a fever.  What is it to bear a fever well?  Not to blame either God or man, not to be afflicted at what happens, to await death bravely, and to do what is to be done.  When the physician enters, not to dread what he may say; nor, if he should tell you that you are doing well to be too much rejoiced; for what good has he told you?  When you were in health, what good did it do you?  Not to be dejected when he tells you that you are very ill; for what is it to be very ill?  To be near the separation of soul and body.  What harm is there in this, then?  If you are not near it now, will you not be near it hereafter?  What, will the world be quite overturned when you die?  Why, then, do you flatter your physician?  Why do you say, “If you please, sir, I shall do well”?  Why do you give him occasion to put on airs?  Why not give him what is his due (with regard to an insignificant body—which is not yours, but by nature mortal) as you do a shoemaker about your foot, or a carpenter about a house?  It is the season for these things, to one in a fever.  If he fulfills these, he has what belongs to him.  For it is not the business of a philosopher to take care of these mere externals—of his wine, his oil, or his body—but of his reason.  And how with regard to externals?  Not to behave inconsiderately about them.

What occasion is there, then for fear; what occasion for anger, for desire, about things that belong to others, or are of no value?  For two rules we should always have ready—that there is nothing good or evil save in the will; and that we are not to lead events, but to follow them.


Of Freedom

[Socrates] did not even deliberate about it; though he knew that, perhaps, he might die for it.  But what did that signify to him?  For it was something else that he wanted to preserve, not his flesh; but his fidelity, his honor, free from attack or subjection.  And afterwards, when he was to make a defense for his life, does he behave like one having children, or a wife?  No, but like a man alone in the world.  And how does he behave, when required to drink the poison?  When he might escape, and Crito would have him escape from prison for the sake of his children, what did he say?  Does he think it a fortune opportunity?  How should he?  But he considers what is becoming, and neither sees nor regards anything else.  “For I am not desirous,” he says, “to preserve this pitiful body; but that part which is improved and preserved by justice, and impaired and destroyed by injustice.”  Socrates is not to be basely preserved.  He who refused to vote for what the Athenians commanded; he who despised the thirty tyrants; he who held such discourses on virtue and mortal beauty—such a man is not to be preserved by a base action, but is preserved by dying, instead of running away.  For a good actor is saved when he stops when he should stop, rather than acting beyond his time.

“What then will become of your children?”  “If I had gone away into Thessaly, you would have taken care of them; and will there be no one to take care of them when I am departed to Hades?”1  You see how he ridicules and plays with death.  But if it had been you or I, we should presently have proved by philosophical arguments that those who act unjustly are to be repaid in their own way; and should have added, “If I escape I shall be of use to many; if I die, to none.”  Nay, if it had been necessary, we should have crept through a mouse hole to get away.  But how should we have been of use to anybody?  Where could we be of use?  If we were useful alive, should we not be of still more use to mankind by dying when we ought and as we ought?  And now the remembrance of the death of Socrates is not less, but even more useful to the world than that of the things which he did and said when alive.

Study these points, these principles, these discourses; contemplate these examples if you would be free, if you desire the thing in proportion to its value.  And where is the wonder that you should purchase so good a thing at the price of other things, be they never so many and so great?  Some hang themselves, others break their necks, and sometimes even whole cities have been destroyed for that which is reputed freedom; and will not you for the sake of the true and secure and inviolable freedom, repay God what he has given when he demands it?  Will you study not only, as Plato says, how to die, but how to be tortured and banished and scourged; and, in short, how to give up all that belongs to others?

If not, you will be a slave among slaves, though you were ten thousand times a consul; and even though you should rise to the palace, you will be a slave none the less.

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Filed under Afterlife, Ancient History, Epictetus, Europe, Illness and Old Age, Selections, Stoicism